For college football lovers, the weird period between Christmas and the New Year is one of the best times of the year. Teams from different conferences battling it out to win coveted bowl games like the Rose, Orange, or Cotton Bowls.
Others may be trying to win bowl games with popular consumer brands as the sponsor, like Pop-Tarts or Duke’s Mayo (with the latter carrying a tradition of the winning coach being doused in mayonnaise).
But in 2022, the annual game hosted in Tampa, Florida, was in need of a new title sponsor after Outback Steakhouse ended their reign of nearly three decades. Local cybersecurity company ReliaQuest—which was valued at over $1 billion in late 2021—saw the opening as an opportunity to do more than try to get consumers to purchase a product, rather to raise awareness about the importance of cybersecurity.
“There’s a lot of cybersecurity companies that go out and just make Formula One events and put a logo on the back of a car, which is great and really kind of fits their personality and fits their motion—and that’s not really us,” Brian Murphy, founder and CEO of ReliaQuest, tells Fortune.
After the sponsorship idea was floated by board members of the then-temporarily named Tampa Bay Bowl, Murphy says he was intrigued at the prospect of using the opportunity to have a positive impact on the local community.
Cybersecurity: Critical in an increasingly digital world
The January 1, 2024, bowl game between Wisconsin and LSU will mark the second of the four-year ReliaQuest Bowl sponsorship. The game, hosted at Raymond James Stadium, is less than 5 miles away from the company’s global headquarters.
In college football, there are not a lot of examples of cybersecurity or technology companies being involved, Murphy says. He hopes that during the game, viewers will take the time to look into cybersecurity and consider how it impacts their life and understand the importance of cybersecurity ubiquity in keeping the digital world safe.
“You never know where learning is gonna hit a young person and it dawns on them—or an adult that maybe transitioning out of the military or wanting to start a new career—you just never know where that’s gonna hit them. But I do know that we watch a lot of college football in the world and so what better way to test it out in a venue like that?”
During last year’s event, ReliaQuest’s web traffic increased by 100% and remained high afterward, proving at least in part that some viewers had cyber on their mind during and after the game.
Cybersecurity in particular has increasingly become a priority across all industries as the world becomes more digitized. In fact, the White House, in conjunction with the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the National Cybersecurity Alliance (NCA), declared October as Cybersecurity Awareness Month in efforts to highlight the importance of staying safe online.
But with cybersecurity continuing to face a talent gap of roughly 4 million professionals worldwide according to ISC2, using the power of football to bring cybersecurity to the attention of everyday Americans was a no-brainer, Murphy notes. He told Fortune earlier this year that cybersecurity was the “largest technical challenge of our generation.”
Community and global impact
At last year’s game, leaders from three local community organizations—Junior Achievement, 3DE, and Think Big for Kids—were recognized for their work in helping youth have access to education programs, something that they will continue at the 2024 event. Plus, dozens of local students are invited to the game and the company’s headquarters, in part to help them realize the importance of cybersecurity and community engagement.
Awareness is important regardless of what age you are—starting from the time you grab your first iPad, to being in a retirement home on the back half of your engagement technology, Murphy says.
“Everything that we do—the smartphones we carry around, how we access our banking information, how we send money between two people, how we shop, how we consume almost anything anymore—is digital,” Murphy adds. “And when you do that, there is a threat, and there is a knowledge you have to have around security.”
He admits that connecting directly with the participating universities’ students has been a challenge due to winter break and the schools often being located far from Tampa. ReliaQuest does, though, work closely with local partners like the University of South Florida to help students in becoming the next generation of cyber experts.
“I want people to really look at the sector of cybersecurity of—no matter what I do, if I want to go work in a large corporate business, a sector I should look at is cybersecurity because the problem is not going away and the opportunity is only growing,” Murphy says. “So, I think it feeds many more jobs outside of just the technical trades as well.”
Murphy says it is especially important to educate people to be professionally skeptical about digital information and to not trust everything they see.
Since the bowl’s inception (which includes before ReliaQuest’s involvement), the Tampa Bay game has brought over a billion dollars of economic impact to the area and paid over $170 million to universities (including a projected $20 million over the next three years).
And while the impact of ReliaQuest’s specific sponsorship of the bowl game may not necessarily have hard and fast measures year-to-year in terms of cyber awareness, Murphy says it’s still worth it.
“I want it to be a great game,” Murphy says. “I want a lot of people to watch, and I want a lot of people to be curious around not only what ReliaQuest is but to have a conversation around cybersecurity. I think that’s a win.”