The Social Media Game On A Global Scale…

The social landscape in sports across North America is growing exponentially every day. Teams, athletes, events, brands, media companies, are all scrambling to add followers, build alliances, grow traffic and scream louder than anyone else to draw critical mass for whatever reason, from selling tickets and growing brand loyalty to giving consumers the unfettered access they crave. Yet for all the scrambling and the theories of what is brand success…is it millions of followers or the right few thousand for your audience for example…a great piece by Eric Fisher in this week’s Sports Business Journal shows that American teams are still lagging in the social media footprint to the soccer clubs of Europe, and that the recently completed cricket World Cup had more of an impact in the digital space than almost any other North American sporting event, save the Super Bowl…and that impact was not on non-American servers, it was on a well known platform in the States…ESPN digital.

This type of news may create some consternation amongst the sports social media elite in the United States, and may send some “experts” heading for cover as they advise brands. However in reality the news is a great example again of how the sports landscape is far more global than we sometimes care to admit, and taking a look at best practices of some of the world’s largest soccer clubs can continue to give North American brands insight into social media. Often what is also overlooked is the advanced use of the handheld outside of the States and in emerging companies, where landlines are not useful. Telecom companies have been using the digital space for years…the French Open and Formula One were among the first events ever, as early as the 1990’s…to use digital technology to bring fans multiple images and export data to as wide an audience as possible who were following events in their handheld devices.

The list also serves as a reminder to the tribal nature of soccer as a global brand. The largest clubs in the world have truly global followings…loyal groups who consume all things about their home club win or lose…and while American sports are king here, the amount of team-specific fans outside of this country (vs. fans of the league like the NBA or NHL) is far less than the amount of club-specific fans around the world.

This is also certainly not an indictment of the great innovation and brand activation programs American sport has pioneered in the digital space, and those programs are growing exponentially each day. What it is, is a great look and reminder into the potential of the global brand and the appeal of effective social media programs that are based on both content and support. Passion drives interest no matter what the platform.

Racing To Find More Fans…

It has been a few years since Indy Car began its healing process, unifying under what is now the IZOD Indy Car Series. With the Centennial of the Indianapolis 500 coming up next month, the circuit is making a big push to continue to gain back fans, brands, and market share from its NASCAR brethren and all others that are clamoring for the casual fan interest. Can it work? A few reasons as to why it can.

1- Leadership. Randy Bernard came on to lead the circuit last year after great success lifting the PBR to greater recognition. Building consensus, cultivating partnerships, solving problems and unifying all parties was key in the growth of the PBR, and is essential in the success and growth of Indy Car

2- Speed and Size. At first blush some may say there aren’t great similarities between bulls and the fast machines that circle speedways at over 200 miles per hour, but there actually are. Riders and drivers are the personalities that drive the sport, but bulls and the cars are actually as much, and sometimes even more, of the story that is told every event weekend. The personalities of the bulls, the size and power, and unpredictability, make them into a big part of the spectacle. In Indy Car, the speed, technology and risk that the cars pose are just as much a story as a 500 pound bull, and finding ways to help communicate that man vs. machine story is critical not just in maintaining audience but in finding new casual fans.

3- Brands In Unison. There is no doubt IZOD has spent as much, if not more, marketing the Indy Car name than any other titles sponsor in any sport the last two years. The Indy Car lifestyle has become one with the IZOD brand. However along with that growth is the cultivation of multi-level campaigns involving other league sponsors as well. The latest is Honda’s ride-along campaign with the legendary Mario Andretti. The commercial spend for the call to action of the sweepstakes crosses every national sports event, but it is mixed in seamlessly with mentions for other sponsors as well. Not unheard of, but certainly unusual for most sports properties, where brands tend to work in a silo without the support of others. Also a little innovation doesn’t hurt, so the league’s attempt with Mattel to set a Hot Wheels jump world record at Indy will also pull in partners from across the sport. Also factor in Telemundo’s new partnership with driver Oriol Servia and the pass-thru that can give to new brand partners, and there is a great deal of strength in unison for all concerned.

4- Transcendence of cultures. Formula One will give the united States another shot this year, but for the most part racing has maintained its borders geographically. NASCAR Looks north and south but is still an American race property, F1 takes on large parts of the world, but only Indy car races across North America (into Baltimore this year) as well as South and to the Far East. The speed of the cars and the personalities of the drivers cross cultures, which makes it a truly international property at a time when brands are looking for that established link around the world.

5- Everybody Loves A Comeback. There is no doubt Indy Car was close to, if not, king of the hill at one point. The splitting of the circuit, lost TV exposure, the economy, a smart play by NASCAR, all contributed to drive the sport down. However the signature race, the Indy 500, remained as the jewel, making the sport somewhat known by almost any sports fan. Now with smarter spends, better leadership, and unification the sport stands a chance of returning to its place in the sports lexicon. Won’t be easy, but if it can keep coming back, there is a void to be filled and glory to be returned to.

Now none of this will be easy. Attention spans are shorter, TV relationships need to be improved more, additional brands have to see the sport as a good fit, the schedule needs to become even more clear, and most importantly, the economy needs to keep bouncing back to create the casual dollar spend needed for attending races in far off places. However what Indy Car now has, as much as any other property, is hope. Hope driven by speed, excitement, an international reach, and a growing list of partners who can put some money back into the development till. Whether it is enough to drive the sport back to where it was is TBD…however now, with the 100th anniversary of the 500 on the horizon, there is more than a glimmer of hope for a sport many recently thought was on life support.

We Love Team Sports…But Not Every Sport Is For Teams…

This past week the Sports Business Journal had an extensive report of the financial failure of the World Boxing League, which limped home following its first season. The WBL launched last year with city by city team boxing, hoping to pit young stars trained in cities like Los Angeles and Miami against other global cities in an effort to build new stars for boxing and also build off the concept that fans will find an allegiance not just for individuals but for some civic or ethnic pride. The result, according to the piece, saw ticket sales of less than 50 in some cities like Memphis, and the concept, which was looking for multi-million dollar investments, never really caught on.

Why? A few reasons, little of which actually have to do with any of the larger scale issues that boxing has today. First, boxing first and foremost is an individual sport, and like many other individual sports before it, the “team concept” doesn’t really work. Mixed Martial Arts has tried the team of county by country and city by city with no luck, volleyball tried city by city with no interest, and while World Team Tennis has had staying power, even Davis and Fed Cup in tennis struggle to find an audience. Individual sports are just that…fans want to see individuals rise up and win, mano a mano. They are intrigued by those from their hometown and certainly enjoy rooting for one’s county, but if there aren’t more than two people on the field at the same time the concept of team is usually hard to explain. Also in most individual sports, the athletes are a vagabond lot, often traveling a circuit and rarely compete in a given “season” in one place. The money and often the media coverage (and the fans) are at the bigger events for individual purses, and that’s where the players are best known. Maybe that changes a bit in some sports for the Olympics, where pride of nationality may take precedence, but even at the Olympics a sport like boxing is much more about the individual than the team country.

Another reason. We have more than enough team sports already. This year we have again seen second tier leagues in a challenged economy struggle to find their way, and the fan, at least the casual one, seems happy with the large scale team sports we already have. Soccer, baseball, football, hoops and hockey appear to be enough, maybe with some lacrosse thrown in from time to time. There does not seem to be clamoring for more team sports to fill the landscape. We are also in an economy where lifestyle sports are becoming more important to the consumer struggling with health issues, and action sports have filled a void for many younger enthusiasts who may have been interested in yet another team sport in the past. Chuck Norris’ departed World Combat League even showed that emerging sports like karate and tae kwon do, may be good for one person, but no one cares about teams from Austin and Houston battling it out.

One more. Any new concept takes time, and time is not an ally of large scale sports launches these days. Having to explain who the new fighters were, what the team concept did, and how winners were going to be selected takes away from what fight fans want to see…a good battle of individuals. Those who would tune in went for the fights as a one off, not to see the standings of tams that in a start up had little to no relevance. Even recently launched team sports that made sense to the public like the UFL and WPS have struggled to find their place because it takes time…years…to build alliance and change viewing patterns. Brands, media partners, and unfortunately investors, are not willing to wait that long in a 24/7 world like today.

The fact still remains that boxing still can hold its own for splash and interest when there is a big fight. There may not be many heavyweights to capture the attention of the casual fan right now, but especially among a growing Hispanic audience, big names can draw attention and eyeballs as individuals and in certain geographic areas. They fight with pride for their country and for themselves, and to try and fold them into a team isn’t a good way to try and develop an individual sport. Now maybe the WBL was before it’s time, and it is the proper way to develop young boxing talent. Boxers do train as individuals in certain geographic areas and do fill local fight cards on every level. However unfortunately the early returns on the investment appear to show that the public, at least in the U.S., does not want or need another team sport concept yet, no matter how high the level of competition. Americans do love the team sport concept, that is true. They just don’t have to love it for every sport that is out there.

Taking Team Pride One Level Further

Throughout the NHL and NBA Playoffs we have seen how painstakingly teams have looked to drum up fan unity. Banners, new songs, updated songs, towels and now a sea of same colored tee shorts…no matter whether you are eight seeds or one…have adorned the arenas from Vancouver to Miami. Teams or presenting sponsors have written off the thousands of dollars in swag, with more to come as teams progress. The visual of a sea of white in Miami or green on Boston has had an amazing visual effect and unifying feel for the games thus far, and no doubt for the most part the level of play and excitement in both the NHL and the NBA Playoffs has been very, very high, with probably the best to come.

However in that sea of color is an idea to maybe be a little different and push an agenda not just of fandemonium but of cause support. In addition to sporting team colors, maybe a sea of pink for breast cancer support, blue for autism or prostate cancer etc, all amongst the hoopla of the playoffs. The teams in both leagues have a great national platform now, from TNT to Versus to NBC to ESPN to ABC, and using that platform for something a little unusual, cause related marketing and messaging would be very powerful and at no distraction to the players. It would be a bit out of the norm but very noteworthy for a team or teams to sho. cause-related support outside of their PSA’s, with a leave behind that every fan in the building would cherish and have as a keepsake with a very powerful message.. Furthermore there might be brands that are offsetting the playoff sponsorship package who would actually like the double pop…playoff spending and cause marketing…all ties into a giveaway and with no loss of message for anyone. It would be different, and would send a message from team to fan that yes, this is THE most important time of the year for the team, but that time and that commitment t. community is no less than at any other point. A great mix and the best platform to showcase.

Just an idea.

The Great Potential Of Vancouver…

The NHL rocketed into the playoffs with record increases in TV, revenue and digital engagement, and is even poised for a big uptick in TV rights as their deals with the NHL and Versus come to a close. Europe and Canada continue to have thei. love affair with the game, and even the grassroots side is seeing a solid growth pattern. The same holds true in Major League Soccer, which continues to show gains at every level as a property. So as one looks for geographic areas of growth, the eye should venture north of the U.S. into Vancouver. Wh.

First of all the NHL's best story, still largely untold to the casual fan, is the Canucks. In terms of brand engagement, enthusiasm and quality on ice play, Vancouver dominates on a regional level. It is a vibrant cosmopolitan city with a diverse culture combining Asia and Canada and it the Canucks are literally the only show in town. However its isolation…the closest NHL rival is at least a thousand miles away in San Jose, California creates a problem for larger exposure for the league. The unbalanced schedule rarely bring Vancouver into markets like Chicago, New York or event Toronto, making their stars and their brand somewhat of a mystery to the casual observer, eventhough they have the league's best record. The opportunity for the Canucks to become much more regional in scope…even crossing in to the U.S. in markets like Seattle and Portland…presents great opportunity for planting larger hockey seeds in thos. growth areas, and the Canucks business model should be poised to take advantage of that growth in the digital age. Millions were exposed to Vancouver during the Winter Olympics, and it is time to re-engage those fans to an area that is far but not that far, and has a great hockey product.

Like the NHL, MLS has a solid opportunity in the region as well. Their challenge will probably be made easier by the joint expansion of the league into Portland (along with the great success story already in place in Seattle) and the fact that the Whitecaps already had a history of NASL success in the city. Natural rivalries can form pretty easily, and the diversity in the city today should add to a much easier adaptation of soccer as a key pillar of growth in sports fan engagement. It could also help in expanding the MLS footprint east, as Japan becomes more and more engaged in soccer and uses the Whitecaps success as an affinity partner with the large Asian population in the region.

There has been talk of the NBA returning to the city as well, although that team would face some of the challenges the Canucks do in terms of distance from other rivals. The Grizzlies failed there even with Seattle and Portland not that far away, but the time and culture has evolved since those days, and the NBA could make for an interesting fit back into a city where activity and vibrancy is growing with the economy. It is a long distance from the media centers of North America, but in today's ever shrinking global world, finding a way to expose the success of Vancouver to a new breed of fans and business partners would make great sense, especially for the two leagues, the NHL and MLS, who seem to be the most bullish on aggressive growth recently.

So What Happened With The Huffington Post…

A bunch of people have asked why I stopped contributing to the Huffington Post. Answer is simple. I have no idea. I was asked by a colleague two years ago to occasionally do a piece for the site, usually on sports marketing or something a bit unusual, and it was fun to do, especially when it helped colleagues tell some great stories that were having trouble finding a voice for. The posts I assume were popular, as they were regularly included among the “featured columns” on the sports site.

It was fun, it didn’t take much time, it helped out some colleagues, made lots of sense. Heck I even helped recruit some other good voices for the site and featured their request for a new sports editor in the newsletter I do every Sunday, which got them some great candidates. Then as most know, Huff Po was sold for a huge sum of money, and all went quiet. Posts were never answered for weeks. Email addresses bounced back, phones rang and rang with no voice mail. A “citizen journalist” site disappeared for its contributors.

I was not alone in this experience. At least 15 or 20 others have gone through the same thing. Finally two weeks ago I received an email back from “Becky”…n. last name, a generic email, no phone number…saying that a post I had sent in weeks before “didn’t fit the focus of the site.” I asked what the editorial guidelines were, who I could speak to just to get clarification. Nothing. Not a word. One blogger who drove nice numbers for them said he was told through a third party that if you could not produce a post with a good amount of rumor or T and A then they were not interested in working with you any more. Len Berman still has his five top stories of the day, but other than that, in the sports area anyway, the posts are bizarre, old and not really worthy of the voices who used to be there.

Now I’m not losing any sleep about not being on the Huff Post blogger list these days. If they would like me to post again, great. If not, myself and several others who have been snubbed have something else in mind which can work well. The world goes on.

What's not right is the fact that a media outlet has such disregard for those who served them as volunteers with some quality and thoughtful commentary for so long. The courtesy of an email, or a call, would go a long way. Not just for me, but for all the other folks as well. It's just bad business and terrible communication. There is talk of this class action suit to get money for unpaid work. Whatever. The senior management team got their money and congrats. I didn’t do it for the money, I really did it to help tell stories. Now the one sad story is that it looks like Huff Po, at least in sports, treated those who helped them like crap. Too bad. And on we go.

Cricket Getting Louder…

On April 2 it generated 45 percent of all page views on ESPN’s mobile platform, and over a million views in the United States alone. Its final was watched not by millions, but by billions around the world, and its professional league, which started just days after it's international final, saw sellout crowds, waves of blonde haired cheerleaders and loud music. It is also the subject of one of the most talked-about documentaries of the upcoming Tribeca Film festival. No its not football or baseball, or NASCAR or even soccer or the X games. And it's not Charlie Sheen. It is cricket, and while it is still not registering in mainstream America or with the media, it is becoming a bigger player on the global sports landscape than ever before. Should we care in North America? The numbers say yes we should.

There is probably no game that has more firmly tried to integrate western culture into its classic style than Indian cricket has. The matches are shorter, the uniforms brighter. the music louder, the dollars larger in the Indian Premier League than ever before. Cheerleaders don the sidelines. sponsors right big checks for signage, fans buy jerseys by the thousands. The result also had a positive effect on the global game, as India took down Sri Lanka to the delight of billions to win this month's World Cup on home soil. So the changes actually enhanced the game rather than slowed its growth. the changes are also being felt in the other Commonwealth countries where the game is played from youth. England, Australia, even the Carribbean, are looking to streamline the game to match the Indian success and dollars. However in North America baseball is still king, with cricket a way distant cousin. However change is in the air. The growing influence from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan is making cricket fields all the more common in cities on both coasts. The New York City public schools has made cricket an accepted sport, and matches televised late at night in sports bars are drawing larger and larger crowds. This is not lost on brands looking to influence the immigrant community, who now may spend more to activate against local cricket leagues and on TV than against Little League or the big dollars of traditional sports in TV. The digital world has given cricketers a chance to expand their highlight offerings, giving the sport even more exposure in short bursts.

Will cricket ever explode into the mainstream of the U.S. or Canada. Probably not, at least not consistently. The education process for those still used to baseball and football and even challenged by soccer may be too great. However for a growing population used to the nuances of the game. The choice between a traditional cricket match with some new style or watching an elongated and confusing baseball game may not be such a stretch. For that reason alone, American brands should be hip to following the cricket story, and see how they may be able to latch on to a growing and fervent wave of interest by a growing population.

Enter The Fan Cave…The Next Great Social Media and Branding Experiment

With its seemingly endless season, its three plus hour games and its sometimes strange rules and never ending parade of stats, baseball has long been a punching bag for the fast and loose generation. While other sports like cricket and even football have sought to find ways to speed up the game, basebal.s traditions take precedent and the season goes on at its own pace. It is certainly a challenge for the powers that be to find ways to effectively engage a get it done yesterday generation.

Yet for the shots it takes, there is probably no game still more ingrained in Americana than baseball. Its traditions fit the fabric of spring and summer like few other elements of Americana, and no other sport anywhere in the world can find ways to engage the casual and ardent follower or a night, a week or a year. It is perhaps the most ethnically diverse sport in the world, and has pioneered, ironically, many of the platforms for engagement in the gaming world that others use today. The length of the season is sometimes a liability, but it can also be an asset as a way to continually find ways for businesses to drive revenue and for fans to enjoy the pastime, whether it is on the Major or Minor League level. Still with the positives, the game remains challenged to find more inroads into pop culture to capture a young fan who understands and has played the game but may stray to other areas after adolescence and until he or she reaches a slightly older age.

Enter the Fan Cave.

Last week MLB launched a new initiative designed to enter popular culture and social media at another level. The cave, a storefront in lower Manhattan, will be a window to the world of baseball, where two applicants, Mike O’Hara and Ryan Wagner, from over 10,000 were chosen to not just use gadgets and gizmos to watch every baseball game during the season, but to also find ways to interact with a generation into hip and cool but not always into hits and runs. The Fan Cave will also be a great litmus test for technology involving the fan.from new games to the latest statistical see what may have staying power and what will be more ho hum, all through the glass of a former Tower Records store on Broadway. Characters are welcome to come by, celebrities and those in town from the sports world will drop by, visit, expose their latest ideas and hopefully help the Fan cave become a key destination in the social media world. While the Fan Cave is all about baseball, i.s really about engagemen.engagement of the younger generation through any means possible. Shout outs from local or national radi. Sure. Tweet u.s for gea. Why not. A visit by Snookie or Kanye.or The Donal. Probably down the line. If there can be a tie to baseball and a chance to exploit an element of pop culture, the Fan Cave will have a shot.

At first glance purists will grimace, but the Fan Cave is not for them. Sabermatricians understand and are passionate about the nuances of baseball. What is needed and hoped for is for those who know but do.t follow the game to use it as a vehicle to get more involved. Maybe i.s a bridge for some generations to experience an aspect of baseball as popular culture between Little League and parenthood, when the value of the game really takes hold again. Maybe i.s more a test for the sport to see what its staying power is amongst a very hyperactive fanbase. Maybe it can serve as a real time platform to fulfill many needs the sport does.t have in toda.s cultur.edginess, string social mobility and the ability to make light of all its traditions 24/7. What it wo.t be is a disgrace to those who created it. The Fan Cave will be part reality show culture with lots of cross promotion, but it wo.t cross the line too far into exploitation or degradation. That would fly in the face of all the social barriers that baseball has worked to eliminate in its rich history.

So will this idea wor.? Will fans continually log on for a look at what goes on in the window downtow.? Will the hoists be engaging enough and the guests diverse enough to find a place in pop cultur.? I.s a long season, and such experiments usually work best in the digitized world of entertainment rather than the real world of sport. However one thing that baseball has oodles of is content, and to make any digital venture work content is king. So let the Fan Cave get rockin and le.s see what it can bring. Baseball is a great game, maybe this is the new way for the casual fan to reengage and reinvest in sport, even if it is in short stints and not nine innings every day.

Eight sites worth a look…

As some may know we do this newsletter every Sunday and highlight some folk who do good work largely on their own. They are not loud or obnoxious for the most part. They serve a niche and do so passionately. While there are many in the space who do this fulltime and do it amazingly well...professional journalists like Darren Rovell and Richard Deitsch, Peter King an. Bill Simmons, Jonah Keri and Dan Shanoff...or owners with a vested interest like Ted Leonsis or Mark Cuban, there are also many who have found a space that is indeed useful to many and worthy of a gander. Here are a few you may not know about:

A Glam Slam: An always interesting read on fashion and sport and how they intermix at many levels.

Business of Baseball: Maury Brown looks at the business of many sports from many angles, but none more than baseball.

Business of Minor League Baseball: It's a shame minor league hickey doesn’t have a Ben Hill. he does an amazing job canvassing the country to find best practices.

Fang's Bites: No one really knows what Ken Fang does, but one thing he does do is cover the links to all of sports media as well or better than anyone.

First call: Run by David Schwab at Octagon, there is always something there to show the mix of celebrity, brand and media.

MMA Payout: All the business behind a very popular sport these days.

Sports Doing Good: Covers the sports philanthropy business like no one else.

Sports Techie: Bob Roble is a serial tweeter and blogs often about sports, technology and where they play out together.

There are plenty of others who make the blogosphere their world as a primary income source…Jason McIntyre, Chris Botta, Amanda Rykoff, Barry Janoff to name a few…as well as all those folks at Sports Business Journal. The ones above are some great indy's in business who one can always learn something from.

Sports Radio Grows…In Israel

The phenomenon of sports radio is largely a North American one. At last count there were over 300 stations, from college through the massive networks of ESPN, FoxSports, Sports Byline, Westwood One and others, who covered local issues, broadcast national outlets and filled the airwaves with opinion, guests and talk. That doesn’t count the ever growing and very diverse number of podcasts and blogtalk radio along with other shows that include sports or sports as news segments throughout the week.

However outside of the continent, the concept of sports talk 24/7 is relatively unknown. Maybe its because we as Americans and Canadians have too much time on our hands, or maybe because in other parts of the world sport is taken more as tribal ritual with a local spin more than a national debate. Maybe its also because we have such a diverse amount of sport here on a very high level that there is so much to talk about, as opposed to other areas where a national sport is king. The rise of streaming has also given those expats interested in American sport a chance to listen online whenever they want, and get their fix that way. So it is into that mix the past few weeks that i was introduced to a novel venture, right now only online (because of restrictions in over the air broadcasting) called Israel Sports Radio. Broadcasting from the Middle East, the station was the dreamchild of three expats with a passion for sports, not just American but Israeli and international as well, and with an idea on how to reach a diverse community. Andy Gershman, Ari Louis, and Josh “The Sports Rabbi” Halickman take calls, debate the NCAA tournament and the Yankees and cover Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Israel Football League just like the Mets and Giants would be covered in New York. They are totally professional and respectful in nature and have drawn a wide variety of guests in their primetime shows, as well as a growing following of listeners. The audience is a mix of Middle Easterners who have started to warm to American sports, expats living in the area wanting to get the latest on American sports, and others who want to get more information and opinion on all going on in European competition from Premier League to the European Hoops Championships.. The trio and some others run the operation as a side job and on a shoestring budget, but are growing their efforts and catching an audience who is getting more and more used to sports talk, especially with the rise of digital broadcasts, YouTube and Social Media. Is it something which will supplant traditional state-run radio broadcastin. No. But it is an interesting alternative and a great example of seizing an opportunity to have sport be a common ground amongst cultures through broadcast. Halickman's hope is that corporations and others see the venture as a worthy one to access those passing business and pleasure back and forth between the States and Europe, and that sports brands use the station as a vehicle to expand their voice. Will it succee.? Well there were few when Suzyn Waldman became the first voice of WFAN Radio in New York that said sports radio would succeed here, and everyone knows how large the industry has become, and that was before the use of digital technology further expanded the airwaves. It has a chance, a buzz and some creators with a passion. With a growing listenership and some innovative brands, who know. Regardless it is certainly worthy of a look and a listen, just as much as any other digital startup is these days.