Jonathan Zizzo

Sports & Leisure

Meet the Branding Wiz Behind the College Football Playoff

As Clemson and Alabama ready for kickoff, we talk with Gina Lehe, senior director for the Irving-based CFP.

You could call Gina Lehe the Charlotte Jones Anderson of college football.

Since its formation, Lehe has been a driving force in making sure the College Football Playoff is a thing. A marketing guru and seasoned pro who brings deep bowl-game experience to her post, Lehe oversees external relations and branding for the CFP. She must be doing something right; the system has been embraced by fans and attracts an approval rating that consistently tops 80 percent. “It’s well received because you can explain it and people understand it,” Lehe says.

If you’re into college football, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the CFP. If not, here’s a primer: The CFP oversees a postseason tournament that puts a chill on heated debates and bar brawls by declaring an outright national college football champ. It replaced the confusing and complex Bowl Championship Series and, prior to that, the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition. A CFP selection committee decides which four college teams will participate in the playoff each season; the winners of two semifinal games advance to the national championship. Semifinals rotate between what’s known as the New Year’s Six: the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose, and Sugar bowls.

The CFP is largely funded by ESPN, which inked a 12-year deal to broadcast the games through 2026. The cost? $608.3 million per year, or a cool $7.3 billion.

Even the most ardent fans may not know that the CFP has been based in Irving since its inception. It occupies an expansive office on the 10th floor of a high-rise along John Carpenter Freeway in the Urban Center, where Lehe and the CFP team work year-round, when they’re not traveling to game sites, meetings, or related functions. (“It’s the No. 1 question I get,” says Lehe: “Is that a full-time job?”)

She has spent her entire career working in college football. But basketball was her first passion. After a devastating knee injury killed her post-high school volleyball plans, Lehe got a copy of the latest USA Today college basketball rankings and applied to half of the schools on the list. The University of Arizona won out, as it was relatively close to her home in Pacific Grove on California’s Monterey Peninsula. Her first year at U of A, the Wildcats won the men’s NCAA national championship.

On a fluke, Lehe got an internship working for the now-defunct Insight.com Bowl, which was previously played at the school. Four weeks into her post, the PR director quit. Lehe volunteered to step into the role. Still a physical therapy major at the time, she went to the library and got a book on how to write a press release. “It was trial by fire, but we were given an unbelievable opportunity to run a bowl game,” Lehe says. “We did everything—operations, marketing, media. I thrive in chaos. It’s my comfort zone, sadly. If I don’t have chaos, I start to get nervous. That probably says a lot about me.”

“I thrive in chaos. It’s my comfort zone, sadly. If I don’t have chaos, I start to get nervous. That probably says a lot about me.”

After graduating in 1999, Lehe moved with the game, which was reinvented as the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, then later joined the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. She continued to work for the Rose Bowl—and the final BCS championship game—remotely, after moving to North Carolina with her husband. Within just a few months, Bill Hancock, who had been named executive director of the CFP and who had worked with Lehe in the past, offered her the chance to lead marketing and branding for the newly formed group in Texas. She put off telling her husband about the opportunity for a week. When she finally brought it up, he offered immediate support, knowing it was her dream. “It was another huge affirmation that I had the right person by my side,” Lehe says.

She is passionate about encouraging other women to follow their dreams, even if it takes them into male-dominated fields like sports. The CFP has six interns on its staff; all are young women. She wants them and others to know that they don’t have to give up motherhood for a career, or vice versa. Lehe walks the walk with her two young daughters, 4-year-old Adriana and 15-month-old Natalia. “I didn’t want to give up anything; I wanted to integrate,” she says. “By the time Adriana was 2, she had been on 100 flights. I’d bring her into meetings and she’d be in a corner sleeping in her car seat, or I’d put her in a Baby Bjorn and do a site visit. I’d tell people that my baby was going to be with me. I don’t want to sound rude, but I never asked if it was OK.”

What you often have to give up when balancing a career and parenting, says Lehe, is sleep. Fortunately, she doesn’t need a lot. If she can get a collective three hours of sleep a night, she’s good. To help achieve her many goals, Lehe focuses on communication and building and maintaining strong relationships. That doesn’t mean connections on social networks, but real, old-school relationships. It was advice she got early on in her career. “I’ve always been very intentional in my relationship-building, and I would argue that it’s why I’m sitting here today,” Lehe says. “Yes, timing has been good, and I’ve been lucky. I started as an intern and did the grunt work, but I’ve built relationships and have never let them go.”

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