March, 2009 | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

Can WPS Succeed In A Challenged Marketplac.

For those who were excited about the WUSA on its best days and all it could do to raise awareness, build brand and launch a legitimate stand-alone women's professional sports entity comes Women's Professional Soccer, which launched this past weekend. The good news is from a brand standpoint WPS has taken the best practices from WUSA and all the lessons learned, mixed in some WNBA smarts and a salesforce that has kept MLS growing and combined them into a neat package under Tonya Antonucci's vision. The bad news is they are launching a national niche product in the worst economy on very limited funds, sponsor support and name recognition to the casual fan, who they intend to go after as much as the millions of young soccer playing kids across the country. Will it wor. From a business standpoint for sports in general needs it work, as the more positive movement even a niche sport like women's soccer has will help shake the tree for bigger established brands. From a casual fan standpoin. Tough to say. WPS is doing some very smart things…they have picked small venues to fill and grow, are marketing multinational players to a diverse audience, and are working with a single entity format which can combine expenses and push the brightest faces and smartest stories forward. They are attempting to use new media to push the product, although without a major brand spend and a big media partner that will be a challenge, and they are also looking to pair with the best and brightest stars from outside of women's soccer to also push the brand off the sports page (and given the limited dollars for sports coverage these days their exposure would be small regardless). Will brand and media partners and the casual fan com. In this economy it will be wait and see for sure, and not wait and see for success, more wait and see for survival. If they can push the personalities of the players to diverse markets and tell those stories to the right media (some nice hits for the launch this past week) they have a chance. MLS continued growth will not hurt WPS success either. The question will be what deems success over tim. If the answer is more young women being heathier, new role models and an exciting diverse product, then the chance is strong. If it is to make a windfall of cash, lure big brands and gain national broadcast TV exposure for the sport, then there will be some challenges, big ones. Regardless, the message that the league has sent to all by getting games started and looking globally for talent is a smart one, and one that, if there are brands ready to spend in the women's soccer marketplace, or the women's sports marketplace, they can take advantage of. Hopefully WPS catches a perfect storm to ride to success with some amazing play, activation and personality. The business could use more success stories.

Some other good reads…Bill Lyon in the Philly Inquirer has a great piece looking back at how Philly sports gave the country's BiCentennial celebration a big boost in 1976… Rick Morrissey in the Chicago Tribune has the comeback story of boxer Mark Allen…the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan has a good look at both side's of Villanova's win over Pitt Saturday.…and George Vecsey has a great look at Sunday's first game at CitiField...

Subway Make Fresh Pitch With Little League…

The Subway chain has done a great job in recent years of finding ways to attack the demo they are trying to reach, whether that is through their team of athlete endorsers, NASCAR or even through their weight loss king, Jared. By going after those groups, Subway spoke right to the adult who chased fast food, and their affordable meals and “Eat Fresh” campaign resulted in some great brand building and awareness, not to mention sales growth. Now Subway will look to step up their pitch to a younger and family audience by expanding their partnership with Little League, this past week kicking off a promo tied to Little League Opening Day and continuing through the summer. The promotion will use some greats of the game, Bucky Dent, Fred Lynn and others, in key markets as part of a tour with celebrity signed and designed baseballs that will be auctioned off for Little League charities. The promotion will coincide with Little League's 70th birthday, and comes at a time when local youth sports are growing in interest (and Little League is expanding internationally) but sponsorship for programs is struggling. By taking the message to the highly visible and well traffic’ed stops, the Subway brand and the connection to local youth is expanded, with a dash of celebrity thrown in. The promo then accomplishes a host of ideals, both raising funds, awareness and buzz for Little League, while giving Subway franchisees a little extra in a challenged economy for customers to choose their brand over the myriad of affordable chains available. Nice pitch for exposure and branding in a summer long program with a charity tie…a good win for all.

Some other good reads…the LA Times Kurt Streeter had a good access piece, seeing an NHL game through a goalie's eyes…si.com's Joe Posnanski has a great piece on the state of sportswriting todayYahoo's Michael Silver has a piece on Jeff George's final comeback attempt as an NFL QB at 41…and ESPN.com's Dana O’Neil had a good background piece on Missouri's Zaire Taylor.

NBA Brings More Brands Across The Pond…

The footprint and hours spent by the NBA growing their brand in China over the last ten years is perhaps the best example of global sports brand expansion to date. Now that that process is in place, the league, which has already established a relationship to brand and grow basketball as a sport through its relationship with the NCAA in North America, will now look to refocus on bringing the impressive lineup of multinational partners to Europe. With FIBA's success in growing hoops in Europe and its partnership with the NBA continuing to gain steam, there is perhaps no better time to introduce those brands which the NBA has cultivated and activated with in North America to the European continent. Media Post had a good look at the new brand activations for the league, and all the data behind the accentuated push into Europe come this fall. The steady growth of the NBA brand through all its platforms abroad set a great stage, and now with a very strong grassroots presence in key countries, the affinity to effectively activate extended programs for emerging brands will have the solid base that earlier efforts may have fallen short with. Often times sports or entertainment brands rush into a new culture and try to homogenize a partnership without establishing or understanding an existing culture, and that rush can provide disappointing results. By building and then introducing brands, the NBA has set the floor for a more successful plan than ever before, and one other sports that want to invest and grow globally can follow.

Some other good reads…PROMO Magazine had an interesting piece on Disney's “green ticket” plan, where those purchasing tickets get an added bonus, with trees planted in the name of the purchaser…in a time where consumers are looking for added value, it is an interesting way to pull in discretionary dollars while giving a very unique perk…and the New York Times has a great profile of Yankees presdient Randy Levine

Mixed Martial Arts Continues To Fight For Brand Development…

It still remains a niche sport, but those who have been able to carve their niche in the niche world of Mixed Martial Arts continue to find new ways to speak directly to the core audience with some traditional sports and entertainment branding opportunities, ranging from memorabilia deals to figurines and collectable cards. The MMA site sherdog.com had a good look at the MMA mainstream adaptations this week, singling out companies like Round Five and others that took the smart business approach, looking at the key traditional revenue sources and attach themselves to stars and make them a part of the brand development process. The results have been very strong for those who have picked the smart ways to grow steadily in a very fluid sport. Now obviously the UFC remains the dominant brand, and their attachments continue to do well. However there is no clear number two in the sport, and companies who can find the niche, invest smartly in their product that they understand and then use the viral and digital world to reach that core consumer, still have a chance to succeed. The lack of major brands in the space continues, but there is a slow and steady rise in targeted spends and activations, so those who could potentially partner brand with activation product in a cost efficient way can still make inroads in a relatively new business environment. Nice hit for the sport.

Some other good reads…the Washington Post had a very encouraging piece on National Public radio's growth, a spot most sports marketers don’t traditionally look to for brand exposure…the New York Post had a good “What's Next” for the World Baseball Classic…and the New York Times spelled out how the MLB Network will be making dollars in a challenged environment.

Another Example of New Age Message Control…Curt Schilling.

It was probably over a year ago that if an athlete or even an entertainer broke major news on his or her blog he or she would have been vilified. Yet the reports that Curt Schilling, an athlete who is actually working in the digital world with a few ventures, including a gaming company, announced his retirement in his words, on his blog 38pitches.com, and with little fanfare, barely made a negative dent in the media. The Boston Globe report was a great look back at Schilling's career and his impact on things bigger than baseball, and ironically the access quotes in the story were much more others talking about the pitcher than him talking about retirement. As mentioned, Schilling does take the digital world very seriously, and his blog often offers up opinion and commentary on things that have little or nothing to do with baseball. The issue with this was not the announcement, but the more universal acceptance of the medium. There will be media interviews with Schilling as the days roll by, and he really hasn’t been in the mainstream sports world for a while, but there is no doubt he was an athlete and personality of influence, and it still remains a marvel at how quickly the “missives” controlled by the speaker and used by the media because there is no other access, is becoming the norm for getting the message out. The additional benefit to the speaker is how sites for top athletes who are now building themselves as brands can use news to drive traffic and partnerships. Schilling's blog and url ran in every major media publication as it was the only source of the statement. Therefore all that traffic and access to his advertisers and “click through's” become his. If he had called a reporter or a radio show that proprietary traffic would have gone elsewhere. Thus by driving the traffic and controlling the message Curt Schilling won on many fronts, and can now do whatever mass interviews he desires as followup. Another example of the changing flow of media information control.

Some other good reads…Media Post has a good piece on the NBA's new partnership with Cartoon Network…the AP story on Japan's WBC win gives great flavor as to the importance of the event as a brand in Asia
the New York Daily News had a nice feature on the Mets David Wright helping an Iraq war vet attend the WBC…Entrepreneur Magazine has a good profile on the owner of New York watering hole Foley's and its baseball fanatic owner, Sean Clancy, and the Salt Lake Tribune has a good piece on the ever-growing rivalry between the Jazz and the Rockets.

Activation and Access…Some Good Examples Of March Madness

Once the shine wears off of the brackets for March Madness, brand partners and media have to begin the search to find out what are the best and what are the most effective ways of telling the fun stories away from the games. Two examples showed up this weekend. First on the access side, Multichannel News’ Mike Reynolds gives the casual fan an inside look at CBS on Day one of the tournament. Traditionally, media come into CBS headquarters to watch the first day of games and get the insiders view on all the elements the network has in store for the event, and those stories are usually told by various media throughout the first weekend and into week two. However CBS gave Reynolds the chance to write about the experience of being around inside for day one, an event which gives the fans and those in the industry on the brand side a good feel for what the network can out together, from broadcasting to messaging, for the complete broadcast of the field of 64. Good all access piece. Then on the fun activation side, Sarah Talalay in the Sun Sentinel goes into detail about the local Dunkin Donuts promotion, which has its own Sweet 16 of 64 different flavored dounuts which will play down by fan vote and sales into an eventual final four. It is a good way for the local sales corps to tie into March Madness and create some fun for its customers, and even do a little field testing of popular flavors. Again nothing too over the top, but a fun, low cost and effective way to grab the casual consumer and tie it to the brand around a major sporting event. Two good moves by two groups looking to keep the flow going with different ideas for media access and promotion.

Some other good reads…Terry Lyons blog has a good piece on Coach K clarifying his disappointment that President Obama pick North Carolina and not Duke..good backpedaling by the Duke coach…Baseball Digest.com has a good read about Netherlands baseball, its history and its future…and si.com's Jeff Pearlman has a great piece on an Orthodox Jewish undefeated boxer looking for a breakthrough bout…

NASCAR Keeps Finding Ways To Keep Brand Relevant And Active In A Down Economy…

With the economy continuing to be in flux, those sports which are really beholden to the corporate entertainment dollar…golf, tennis, NASCAR...continue to try and find ways to court fans and brands to keep themselves moving forward and justifying the high spend that accompanies their mega-events. As Liz Clarke pointed out in Saturday's Washington Post, NASCAR is probably making the biggest strides to adjust, connect with their fans at all levels and do everything they can to achieve high ROI for every level of dollar spent at events. The concierge service at select tracks is the latest move for the brand, which has already looked to incorporate as many fan activities as possible into race weekend and make sure that those who are coming are getting the experience they expect and beyond. Brands are going to great lengths to come up with unique activation programs, with the hope that when the choice for discretionary spend applies, those brands who have delivered for the fan, both practically and experientally, will get the value and loyalty back. Now practicality will lend itself to the fact that for many people the dollars just aren’t there right now, but the hope is when the economy bounces back, or when the casual fan is looking for a diversion, a NASCAR weekend or event will provide the best in class service to make the choice an easy one. It is good planning and execution, and for one of the brands that has really helped grow the sports and entertainment business in recent years, will hopefully pay off in loyalty, attendance and new partnerships as reward for their outreach.

Some other good reads…Bluffton Today editor Tim Wood has a good piece on why he hopes and thinks newspapers can and will surviveESPN.com has a good piece on how Japan is looking to continue to rewrite the baseball hierarchy through their approach to the World Baseball Classic…while the Wall Street Journal had a piece on how the WBC is just a talent grab for Major League Baseball…and the New Yorker had a very entertaining look at stadium architecture since the Orioles built Camden Yards.

Activating With “Lesser Hoops”…Big Fish In A Small Sea…

As March Madness continues on the the necessity of these added Division I tournaments continues to be in question, we noticed two great examples of brand activation on lower level events pointed out by some quality bloggers. First Brian Gainor's Partnership Activation blog had a good piece on how a local BMW dealer used the Division II Peach Belt Conference Tournament to activate, drive traffic and create buzz in the area. With local and regional schools involved, the dealer was able to engage in a sign and drive contest, get all the in-arena activation and local press and reach a core following of potential buyers for new or used cars amongst a solid attendance of around 3-5,000. Factor in the added value of his local advertising and the connections with college students and adminsitrators and you have a well thought out small college success story for all involved. Then on a bigger scale, Eye On Sports Media pointed out the all day hoops extravaganza that the NAIA Tournament is every year in Kansas City. While it is not the full house event it once was at Kemper Arena, the full day of hoops draws a crowd that comes and goes and still gets into the thousands, has the eyeballs of thousands more who still are alumni of the schools, many of whom are in the midwest and is a good local activation in the area. The event is shown live online and as a result even secured a title sponsor, Buffalo Funds, and several secondary sponsors that get activation, access to alumni and sampling amongst other elements. Again it is not the mega event or mega spend for Division I conference tournaments or the NCAA or NIT, but it is a smart, well thought out strategic regional activation that could catch lightning in a bottle if a star or amazing play emerges and seems to make much more sense for someone looking to activate with this audience than working with a one-off lower level Division One event. Smart moves by those brands to know their market and find cost efficient ways to make some moves.

Some other good reads…The Baltimore Sun had a good piece on the Orioles Brian Roberts and the time he is having as a last minute addition to Team USA… Media Post had a great piece on the value that online advertisers are seeing with elite athletes…and Forbes.com has a good piece on how in a down economy some grassroots baseball orgs are seeing a bump in interest.

A Different Kind Of March Madness…NCAA, NIT But Two Other.

The world of the have's and the have nots in college athletics ebbs and flows in any given year, and this time of year the hope for Cinderella trying on the glass slipper in March Madness is what keeps fans up at night. However what keeps many coaches and administrators up at night is what happens when you are a good mid-major or even a rebuilding school in a major conference and the Big Dance, or even the little dance, the NIT, don’t come calling. The answer for some is to go and try another tournament or another…and this year we find not one “alternative” but two….The College Basketball Invitational and the CollegeInsider.com…. The Charleston Post and Courier had a good look at the value to some, and the lack of value to others that these two “alternative” tournaments offer schools. The biggest value is a chance to play, and for a school like The Citadel…a tournament…any tournament…means something. However for VMI and Seton Hall and others, the value…namely a large entrance fee paid to the promoter for the chance to play another game. Didn’t matter. Given the quick turnaround there are a limited number of schools that can even find the way to make the sale and fill an arena for even a higher prestige and payoff like the NIT. Notre Dame looked half filled at best on St. Patty's Day, but the NIT remains a good consolation prize, with an NCAA sanction, ESPN TV and the ability to play on into Madison Square Garden. Now why play in these other two event. TV exposur. There isn’t any, other than HDNet. A chance to play in a major building for some school. All home sites. Sponsor ties for a school looking for revenu. No large sponsors…or media tied to either one. The chance to give the “kids” another gam. Maybe…but after a grueling season…is it worth keeping playing when a school like VMI has the point that their students get back time studying or get necessary down time as opposed to playing another gam. And lastly, event branding and association with the even. With no major sponsors, no TV, limited media and games lost in the morass of not just the NCAA's and the NIT, but the start of baseball and other events, where is the valu. If it helps bring in some revenue for the home school in these troubles times…great. If it saves the jobs of some coaches and gives the athletes one more shot at glory, great. But to expect another two tournament to build a brand just for the sake of playing more games and further water down the value of postseason tournament play and all that goes with it seems like a play that a smart promoter is making to make a quick play for some dollars at the expense of others. Love the NCAA's, really like the NIT…after that, why not find brands willing to invest in Division II or Division III postseason play, which may draw just as many fans, has more of an intensity, and can be gotten at affordable prices for brands connecting with student-athletes.

Some other good reads…Phil Sheridan in the Philly Inquirer had a good look at Temple's run back to the NCAA's…GQ had an extensive piece on the workplace issues working with former MLB’er Lenny Dykstra…and Mike Reynolds in Multichannel News has a good look at CBS’ all-around activation plans for the NCAA's.

Alive and Kicking…MLS Starts Another Season With A Boost Out West…

Maybe it's because they are the least mature of the larger sports in North America, maybe its because they started with the single entity model and knew how to operate and build brand more lean and mean, or maybe its because their grassroots base combined with their breakthrough is still to come, but Major League Soccer, even in this economy, appears ready for more steady growth and even expansion and new brand building. With the season beginning this Thursday, the buzz, at least locally, is already a great sound with the new Seattle franchise, and it could be a breakthrough year for the league. The announcement that VW has reupped their multi-level partnership, including their large presence with the DC United, was broken by Tripp Mickle in this week's Sports Business Journal, which had a number of extensive pieces on the league and its leadership. Now is all roses with ML. No. They are starting at one of the busiest times on the sports calendar, between the WBC, March Madness, NASCAR and now golf and tennis beginning heavy US play, and their preseason really takes place in virtual silence in most markets. Even with those challenges though, the brands they have come back, they are finding more ways to activate with youth in key markets, the soccer-specific stadiums are finding their niches and even the Red Bulls advancing to the finals got some much-needed buzz in New York. They have affordability and youth and a good in arena show for all, even if the TV transition has yet to get there. MLS digital play continues to improve and speak to the core, and with additional brand activation in specific markets, maybe just maybe, if they continue building stars and the off-sports buzz, they could be the first to capture additional marketshare while many other brands are struggling to hold on, or as in the case with many niche brands, just fade away.

Some other good reads…Media Post had the extensive detail on the Seattle Post Intelligencer's move to all digital, a move which is better than folding the brand…the Washington Post's Mike Wise had a great look inside the experience at American University as they earned the trip to the Big Dance…the Miami Herald's Linda Robertson gave her take on why the World Baseball Classic is an international success…and the Chicago Tribune had a great profile of Gift Ngoepe, the first black South African who may make it to the Major League's.