NCAA sponsorship deal with pizzeria to kick off in Terre Hut

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The NCAA has scored a new sponsor that will champion a wide swath of collegiate athletics—from small schools and those competing in lesser-known sports to the goliaths competing in such marquee events as March Madness.

And Terre Haute is getting a new name in the process.

As part of a multi-year sponsorship deal, Pizza Hut was recently named the “Official Pizza of the NCAA.” The pizzeria chain is kicking off its sponsorship at the NCAA men’s and women’s cross country championships in Terre Haute on Saturday. 

The kickoff, sports marketers said, is a clear sign that Pizza Hut is set to highlight sports like cross country and volleyball in addition to the more ballyhooed (and money-generating) college sports and athletes. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but sports marketers said it was likely in the low to mid seven-figure range over the term of the multiyear contract.

To mark the partnership launch, Terre Haute officials have allowed the city about 50 miles west of Indianapolis to be temporarily re-named Terre Hut, a nod to the NCAA’s new corporate sponsor. It also coincides with the way some Hoosiers actually pronounce the city’s name. 

It’s not the first time a city has renamed itself as part of a corporate publicity stunt. Earlier this year, the Alaskan city of Juno renamed itself Uno for a short time in a tip of the hat to the Mattel Inc. card game by the same name. 

“Terre Haute has a very fun, very cooperative mayor [Duke Bennett],” said Doug Terfehr, Pizza Hut senior director of public relations and sponsorships. “He was a big part of making this happen. We wanted to signal something big was about to begin, and renaming the city certainly does that.”

Bennett will make the official name-change proclamation on Friday when a new Terre Hut sign will be unveiled and displayed in the city.

Pizza Hut officials promise the name change is just the start of its activation of the new NCAA sponsorship.

“Many NCAA sponsors just activate around March Madness and the Final Four. But there’s high-caliber competition and performances at all levels of NCAA sports,” Terfehr said. “We want to shine the light on the full landscape of college athletics. We’re going to be active with Division I, II and III. We want to bring people closer to the action at a wide variety of NCAA sporting events.”

Pizza Hut intends to do that in two ways. 

First, it will roll out celebratory events at all 32 NCAA Division I and non-division (think bowling, etc.) championship events this school year. At Terre Haute on Saturday, Pizza Hut is bringing in Shane Battier, who was a star basketball player at Duke University, and DePauw University graduate and NCAA Division III cross country champion Noah Droddy to help celebrate the event.

Droddy, who has long hair and a push-broom mustache, became an internet sensation after the Olympic trials earlier this year.

Pizza Hut also plans to give out more than 3,000 slices of free pizza to fans and athletes at Saturday’s cross country championship and place a drumline at the race to whip up excitement. 

“We think these athletes, like the athletes at all NCAA championship events, are worthy of all the celebration and fanfare of the better-known sports,” Terfehr said.

There’s another unique component to this deal. Pizza Hut officials are paying a person whom they call a “Pizza Hut All American” $50,000 to attend as many NCAA championship events as is possible over the next year, then share the stories of those events through social media.

Cleveland native Jason Fisher, who formerly hosted a show on the Big Ten Network, was selected from more than 1,000 applicants for the position. Since it began advertising the position in October, Pizza Hut received applications from 42 states and five countries, Pizza Hut officials said.

Candidates were asked to include a video about why they would be the perfect Pizza Hut All-American, along with answering a list of 12 questions such as, “What’s your favorite sports movie?” and “What's your most memorable Pizza Hut moment?"

“In the end, Jason’s enthusiasm for this exceeded even our own, and his unique set of experiences makes him the perfect person to become the first-ever Pizza Hut All-American,” Terfehr said. 

Fisher will go to at least 25 events over the next eight months, Terfehr said. 

Fisher will share stories of the events he witnesses and of the student-athletes who participate through his own social media channel (@PHAllAmerican) on Twitter and Instagram. 

“There are a lot of great traditions with these lesser-known sports and sporting events,” Terfehr said. “We are drawn to those unique stories and want to shine a light on them.”

For instance, in Terre Haute, where the NCAA cross country championship has been held multiple times over the last two decades, there is a tree fondly called the “shoe tree” where many competitors heave their tied-together shoes to signify the end of the season. Fisher plans to participate in that tradition and share the experience via social media.  

“We’re going to be there to be a part of that and to celebrate that tradition,” Terfehr said. “And that will just be the beginning.”

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