2016 Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl just what the sponsor ordered
By Troy Phillips
DALLAS – With only next year's game left on a four-year agreement as title sponsor, chicken tender chain Zaxby's couldn't help but like what it saw Tuesday in the seventh Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.
North Texas and Army played to overtime on a clear day at the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium. The venue's natural turf looked its TV-best in the game's short history. North Texas and Army fans (an announced 39,117) also filled much of the 92,100-seat stadium's huge lower bowl to give the event some added electricity.
The Mean Green (5-8) forced OT on a 37-yard field goal with 28 seconds left in regulation, but a touchdown and interception gave Army a dramatic 38-31 victory. The Black Knights (8-5) are contractually set for next season's Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, pending bowl eligibility.
For Zaxby's, Tuesday's game boded well in hopes for an extension later next year when bowl officials and the sponsor sit down to hammer out possibilities. Zaxby's is on board for 2017, but beyond then remains to be seen.
“The bowl game is something we take year to year,” said Dave Esary, Zaxby's associate manager of brand. “With all of our sports, media is a big component of the Zaxby's brand. It always has been. This being an ESPN bowl game, and in a state that we're growing in, it really fits with Zaxby's mission.”
Factors in many bowl games' success are a yearly dice roll. They include getting the right teams, ideal weather and date, or being able to draw from a regional fan base.
Also factoring in is the business end. Zaxby's has 816 locations in the southeast, midwest and Texas, but just 13 in the latter. The chain added 90 restaurants this year and is set to add one each in the Austin and San Antonio areas. Growth in Texas is gradual but happening, Esary said.
“Zaxby's grew with a college-town mentality,” Esary said. “We like college towns. We fit well with those places and seem to grow from there.”
Zaxby's began partnerships with several colleges in 2011, a practice that has grown to advertising deals at 27 schools for football and basketball. Those include Texas, TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12.
During the 2016 season, Zaxby's went on a 12-site tailgate tour that included the Texas-Oklahoma game at the Cotton Bowl.
“That's why a bowl game was interesting to Zaxby's,” Esary said. “It was kind of like the next step.”
In 2014, the Heart of Dallas Bowl presented a charitable aspect that helped entice Zaxby's into the current agreement. The bowl works with the Heart of Dallas Foundation and other charities such as Carry The Load to honor and lend support to first responders and military personnel.
To date, Zaxby's and the bowl have donated $144,000 to Carry The Load, including $50,000 this year.
“That's been a component of Zaxby's from day one,” Esary said. “It's nothing to do with where we are in the company's growth cycle. That's the belief by our founders in giving back to the community. It's central to any business.”
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl executive director Brant Ringler believes he'll be able to make a good case to the game's title sponsor to stick around.
“The overall partnership has been very good for us,” Ringler said. “Hopefully Zaxby's feels the same. We'll probably get into those discussions into the new year and see where we're at. They've gotten big as they've moved into the midwest, and they keep growing.”
Ringler said the game, part of a 12-bowl stable operated by ESPN Events, is a good buy for Zaxby's.
“It's good media for them,” he said. “It's the only game on ESPN [outlets] at this time. It's great exposure for them.”
ESPN Events senior VP Pete Derzis said he's hopeful Zaxby's will extend, especially after Tuesday's overtime thriller mitigated some potential negative factors. North Texas had already faced Army in the regular season in a lopsided win.
Despite being 5-7, the Mean Green team was added to the postseason on the strength of its academic APR score after too few FBS teams won six games.
“For us, it's a question of stale [in any game],” Derzis said. “North Texas looks like a program on an upswing, and their fan base did a great job. Getting Army after they beat Navy was just a positive. The compelling game was a key for us. All-in-all, it was a good day.”
Good enough for Zaxby's to return in 2018?
“I can't predict that, because corporate strategies change,” Derzis said. “We try to build long-term sponsorships, but you're never sure what the future holds. I'm not even sure what I'm doing tomorrow, much less a year from now. But I'm hopeful.”
Troy Phillips is a Fort Worth-based freelance writer and former reporter and copy editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has covered the past four Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowls.