Can Sky Blue Find Green?

They have one of the greatest soccer players ever to step on the field, a homegrown Olympian surrounded by lots of other great talent, four of which are from various parts of the state. They now have a consistent home base in a soccer crazy corridor between two major markets. They are perhaps the most competitive, fan friendly, and progressive teams in the region, during a year when casual fans are searching for answers as to what has happened to almost all the male teams in the area, from the Sixers and Eagles to the south and any of the nine teams to the north (eventhough the Nets and Rangers are still going strong in the playoffs). Yet for all their success, fun and goodwill Sky Blue FC continues to make less than a small dent in the consciousness of soccer fans or casual sports fans in the tri-state area. Why?

It would be easy to blame the crowded marketplace. From a financial standpoint, this women’s league looks as if it could have staying power. Each franchise has a budget of about $1 million to $1.5 million, a far cry from the overspending in previous leagues. The teams play in stadiums appropriate for the sizes of their fan bases, not in mega-parks. Each team is anchored by national team players whose salaries are paid by the federation.

 

The teams that have been succeeding in the latest iteration of women’s professional soccer may be in markets where the competition is not as fierce. The Portland Thorns, for example, have a model where they have fed off the Timbers of MLS’ success, and their front office marketing savvy, to create a product that is working on the field and off.  Sky Blue does not have the support of a club like the Red Bulls, who could help bolster marketing and brand awareness, and they are not Philadelphia or New York based.  Can they succeed?

The good news is that the National Women’s Soccer League has committed to finding ways to keep the professional side of the game afloat at least through the next World Cup in 2015, and the thousands of young boys and girls who have grown up in the last 10-15 years with a passion for the sport have now become more and more consumers of all things soccer. That has been the leverage point MLS has used and it has been key in the growth of global clubs and other national teams coming to the States to engage with their own fans and increase the soccer marketplace in the U.S. The base exists.

The result in New Jersey? Fun product still operating in a vacuum. So what to do next. The first step was to maintain a solid home base, instead of being this vagabond club in Montclair one week and New Brunswick the next. Yurcak Field at Rutgers fits the mold. Second become NEW JERSEY’s team. Sky Blue stands for no one. Not New York, not Philly, not even Piscataway. New Jerseyans welcome their name being used, so use it. The Devils have realized this and have taken great strides in being the team for The Garden State. Sky Blue stands for nothing. Second, tell your story. For all that the Red Bulls have done, they have not embraced the grassroots to the South and West at all. You have a star in Christine Rampone who even casual fans may know. Maya Hayes and Meg Morris are from soccer crazy Montclair, Jill Loyden is from southern Vineland by way of Villanova University. Get the team out and when you do, tell people about it. Challenge with unique low cost promotions. Steven Temares is the CEO of mega-chain Bed, Bath and Beyond. Maybe there won’t be a huge cash investment by the chain, but products and coupons? Some of the best minor league baseball clubs reside within miles of Sky Blue, take a cue from their antics and ramp up the fun. Pull a stunt or two that makes it experiential for the fans, and not as much about the purity of soccer.  Third, embrace the Hispanic culture.  The corridor is ripe with a thriving Latino culture that already understands the game. Find those people and bring the games and your players to them. Fourth, media media media. Now there is of course limited spending on broadcast.  Heck, the Red Bulls don’t even have an English language radio partner in the marketplace. So build the audience yourself. Use the digital space for streaming broadcasts and then get your players, who are very socially savvy, to help drive the interest. Even live streams of audio broadcasts are still novel enough to draw interest. Be different in finding media coverage to amplify the negligible marketing budget the club has.

Sky Blue has proven their competitive side on the field time and again. The tragedy is that the reward for being first on the field is somehow being last in attendance in a league which needs a boost to be successful. Maybe the hands have been thrown up and the market has been determined by the powers that be to be not worthy of success. That would be a tragedy for the league for the sport and for the thousands who play and love the game.  If the whole league goes, so be it. However to have a franchise in the largest market fail because of lack of knowledge that it exists is an even bigger shame than if there was no women’s professional soccer at all. You have succeeded on the field, Sky Blue, here’s hoping you can succeed off it as well.

 

Five Years In, Beard-A-Thon Still Growing For The NHL

While it may not work at Yankee Stadium, where rules against facial hair are still in place a bit (it did work for the Red Sox last year, and a “growing” legion of MLB clubs again in 2014), but in the NHL, the fifth year of Beard-A-Thon continues to be one of the most unique fan engagement activation events in any sport. The brainchild of East Aurora, New York based Cenergy, Beard-A-Thon encourages fans (mostly male we hope) fans in each NHL playoff city to not shave during their team’s playoff run. Fans who don’t shave are encouraged to find pledge support, with monies going to local charities. The idea started in 2009, with over $350,000 dollars going to local charities. Since then, over $2.5 million has been raised for all participating NHL team foundations. These include the Garden of Dreams for the New York Rangers and the Kings Care Foundation for the Los Angeles Kings. As fans pledge to grow a playoff beard during the duration of their team’s run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Beard?A?Thon® continues to grow.

King of Shaves, a longtime supporter of the St. Baldrick’s charity events where people shave their head for cancer, was a supporting sponsor of the hockey-based tradition early on, where players show support and superstition by not shaving during the playoffs. The program has picked up more social support every year, with the increased viral play adding to the popularity. Of course the best is yet to come, as teams move on and the facial hair grows over the next month. Could there be a locks of love element added to the end of the promotion, where a brand comes on to do the shaving of the losing team’s fans during the final. Maybe throw in a head shaving element for charity as well? And what about the ladies? As hockey grows in popularity amongst women, and even with kids, what additional elements can be added in. There is no doubt that the communal bond amongst hockey fans is really encapsulated in Beard-A-Thon. Like the Winter Classic, it has a cache that can be NHL-specific and can grow (no pun intended) over time, with maybe even adding in virtual beards for more involvement.

As in many cases, it’s the simple ideas that sometimes can have the greatest impact, and Beard-A-Thon is certainly one that can reach that potential.

Coming To A Theater Near You; Hollywood and Sport Mix Continues To Grow…

In recent months we have continued to see the crossover of sport and entertainment, be it Drake playing a bigger role with the Toronto Raptors brand management, or Hollywood movers and shakers like Peter Guber and Thomas Tull taking more active roles in areas on the business side of sport. While certainly not new in many ways; Bob Hope once owned part of the Cleveland Indians, CBS controlled the Yankees for Years, Fox the Dodgers etc., the move of real-life drama to the big screen appears to be happening with more frequency now than ever before. One of the reasons is that sport, perhaps more than any other area of life, has all the great elements that makes movies successful; heroes and villains, agony and ecstasy, real life success and failure, beauty and ugliness, truth and myth. Guber, who now is part of the ownership group of the Dodgers, the Golden State Warriors, and Mandalay Sports, has been a longtime believer in the art of storytelling in business, and has used that narrative to great success in entertainment and sports business, in addition to his teaching. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern has long said that sports was the first and ultimate reality TV show, before the genre really took off, so it shouldn’t come as that great a surprise to see the genre of “sports entertainment” taking off on a new level in Hollywood.

The question is will it work, and will sports as entertainment cross over to bring more sports fans to the box office, and more casual fans to follow sport? We will soon find out.

The latest two experiments open last weekend, with Lionsgate’s “Draft Day” and “50 to 1,” an independently-produced film about 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.  The NFL invested heavily, maybe not in dollars but in authentic brand exposure, to help push “Draft Day” along. Like “42” was for Major League Baseball last summer, “Draft day” became an amazing marketing tool for the league. The coverage of the making of the film was on par with any other Hollywood offering in recent years, with business and entertainment stories running as far as 18 months before the premiere. All that ancillary exposure was something the league could never actually purchase, but is invaluable in growing the brand. I had a first-hand account of that exposure recently when in a meeting, a young woman who was decidedly not a sports fan said she had been following the development of the movie for over a year and actually watched the NFL Combine this year, and was very intrigued by all the testing and skill that these future NFL players were involved with. That type of casual crossover may be extreme, but it the type of halo effect that a big-budget film can bring to sport, and vice versa.  “50 to 1” on the other hand, was small budget but effective in its own way to again expose new audiences to the drama of horse racing at a time of year when the Kentucky Derby is coming into focus. It certainly wasn’t the mega-marketing tool that “Draft Day” was for the NFL, but it was a solid entrée for a sport that is really pushing to get its footing back in the mainstream.

These two releases are not outliers either. There is a full slate of films either in production or on the horizon where sport and entertainment will mix. “Million Dollar Arm,” the Disney-led story of two Indian boys who learn the game of baseball, will be out in May, “When The Game Stands Tall,” the amazing story of deLasalle High School in California follows this summer, “Foxcatcher,” a wrestling themed real life story of murder and intrigued will hit Cannes and be out in the fall, while films about Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (with Will Farrell on board to play the hustling and aging Riggs), and Vince Lombardi all are also slated for 2015 and beyond.

Do these projects actually work? Depends on how you view the end game. There have been crossover hits in the genre, “Moneyball,” “Seabiscuit,” “The Blind Side,” “Talladega Nights,” “Rush,” that have gotten the full buy in and marketing support of the leagues they represent. Those films draw interest from the most talented of writers, directors and stars interested in not just sport but the narrative as well, and as a result, no matter what the box office dollars end up being, they become massive marketing opportunities for the brands involved at really minimal cost to the NFL, NASCAR, MLB etc. The best of worlds has these films translating into the massive box office success outside the States for the company releasing the film, an “Invictus,” for example, which a film about soccer or racing or rugby can do much better than say, “42” which could have limited appeal in places like Asia or the Baltic States where baseball and the Jackie Robinson story are not as interesting or well known. Then you also have the films that can do well because they push the controlled reality of the leagues and can pain a little harsher or edgier angle that the marketing groups may not want to help with, such as Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” A mega-hit at the box office about football, but not an NFL mark or logo anywhere in sight. There is still an argument to be made that any well done, well marketed film about sport raises the buzz level, and that too helps.

So who wins in this new genre? Do these films have to be critical successes to be successful? Again depends on what the overall goal is. If you are Hollywood you want to get ROI at the box office obviously, but you understand the landscape of the sale, and getting the exposure from all the assets a league may have to market a film offsets the dollars you would have to spend in a traditional film marketing budget. If you are the league or the athlete, you can see this as a cost and message controlled vehicle to expand the brand, without having to risk millions on self-producing. You like the partnership, you love the exposure, and you have little risk on the back end so long as the story is somewhat interesting and well marketed. You have tremendous opportunity for exposing not just your league brand, but your brand partners to a larger audience through film or other entertainment venues like Broadway. That woman in the meeting a few weeks ago, you hope, is proof that your plan has worked. Most importantly for both parties is that the story line is well maintained. If you are dealing with sport, and all of these films recently and going forward are based on actual events, you know what the outcome is, and what the response from at least the hardcore follower has been. There is little sell-in to the core audience, they get it and they loved it when it happened, now it’s time to re-tell the tale to the larger audience. It’s not “Bull Durham” or “Field of Dreams,” which had a little more risk as they were not actual events, so there is much less of a risk.

Will this genre continue to grow, and will it expand beyond the borders of great U.S. stories as well? The marketplace will certainly tell us, but for now it looks like it is telling us that the genre is working, and if that’s true there are certainly no shortage of stories that can be told to a larger audience than ever before. That’s good news for entertainment business, and even better news for great crossover storytellers like Guber, Tull, Disney and others, and its great news for sports business.

The Power Of The Special Olympics Can Transform, Enrich Brands, Careers…

The last year has seen its own set of drama good and bad in sport across The Garden State. From the excitement of The Super Bowl to the craziness surrounding the issues of Rutgers basketball, from the new ownership of the Devils to the disappointment of the Jets and Giants, from the return of the post-Sandy New Jersey Marathon to the Shore, to the folding of the Newark Bears, the Garden State fan has been on quite the roller coaster ride from 2013 to 2014. A long cold winter seems to finally be giving way to a slightly warmer spring, and with spring comes renewed hope that better things are on the horizon. The Red Bulls have started a new season, the state’s five remaining minor league baseball teams are ready to draw, and Rutgers is readying itself to make the jump to the Big Ten, all full of endless possibilities.   

However come June, perhaps the biggest event full of possibilities, and one perhaps with the greatest impact for thousands, will finally make its way to the State. From Trenton to Newark, more than 3,500 Special Olympics athletes from throughout the United States will come to compete in 16 sports, before tens of thousands of spectators and volunteers in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games for the first time.  

It is the largest and most diverse of its kind ever, showcasing the athletes competing, but will also serving as a platform to expose to the largest media and brand audience possible all that Special Olympics does for the loves of thousands…programs  in education, health and community building that have had transformative powers not just to those competing but to their families and friends and millions who know of the movement from what they have seen, heard and witnessed over the years.

From the Opening Ceremony at Prudential Center, through the Closing Ceremony at Sun National Bank Center, from a board-walk themed Olympic Town, a Special Olympics Unified Sports® Festival and  competitions at venues throughout Mercer County, New Jersey, including Princeton University, Rider University, The College of New Jersey, Mercer County Park and several area private schools the event will help transform sport in the state, and hopefully make long-time supporters out of all who will be touched by the events.

The games continue to gain steam every week, with a never-ending stream of brands that are not just investing chartable and promotional dollars for the cause, but are also looking to leverage media and good will to grow consumer loyalty and maximize ROI. The latest will take place this Wednesday in Hamilton, when Special Olympics athletes, along with representatives from the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, and partners ShopRite and General Mills to unveil a customized Wheaties box featuring a Special Olympics New Jersey athlete. The box will be sold exclusively at Shop Rite, and will serve as a great reminder to consumers that the games are coming and that these athletes represent much more than the sports they are playing. They represent hope, good will and the power of spirit.

There have been no shortage of partners coming to support the Games and their massive undertaking. Founding Partners like Prudential, Barnabas Health, Hess, PSE&G, Toys“R”Us and the WWE, along with ShopRite, PS E and G and 20th Century Fox have all stepped up to both engage and activate in various ways both locally and nationally. Broadcast and digital support has never been more diverse, and the use of social media will take the moments of these Special Olympics well beyond the playing fields and the stands, with a wide-spread infrastructure in place to serve the families and their legions of supporters around the world.  

However even with all the corporate support, the Games are still in need of volunteers. Hopefully they will continue to come from thousands of young people looking to get involved in the global business of sport, who can gain some first-hand knowledge and do some amazing community service as volunteers in all areas of Games operations. So many young people now taking countless programs in sports management, marketing, journalism and communications from schools in the northern, central and southern parts of the state, as well as those in New York and Philly, can hopefully jump on a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only give of their time, but to be involved in a life changing work experience that can help define a career just starting out 

Most importantly, the Special Olympics USA Games will be an amazing platform for the participants to enjoy and experience a global sporting event the likes of which are rarely seen here in our backyard. It will be a celebration of life whose impact will probably transcend anything that has gone on at Met Life Stadium or the Prudential Center or the RAC this past year, and will hopefully inject some much needed mojo into what has been a long, cold stretch for brand sport in many ways across The Garden State.

As Spring Slowly Arrives, There Is No LAX Of Interest In Lacrosse Again

Every year around this time lacrosse enthusiasts start the drum beat that this is the year lacrosse crosses into the mainstream of acceptance, branding and dollars. Yet by June, a successful NCAA tournament is complete, thousands of young people have enjoyed playing the game, and the sport beats a hasty retreat, save for the outdoor professional league that holds its own but still has not gotten the exposure that all had hoped. However this spring, the cause for hope may be more justified because of the ever-changing political tide of college athletics.

Two years ago the University of Michigan announced that its men’s lacrosse team would move from club to Division I status, a landmark move for the sport and for a BCS-competing University. The club, which had raised millions on its own, would be essentially self funded and go to play not with a scholarship-laden team, but with its elite club players, at least for now. Michigan’s business-like approach to club lacrosse has been followed by other schools that are looking to increase sports but not the bottom line and may signal a way for lacrosse to grow exponentially at the Division I level, especially in the midwest and the west, where the sport currently has only two elite Division I programs, at Air Force and Denver. The addition of Michigan helped the Falcons and the Pioneers (whose move to hire legendary coach Bill Tierney was a strong play in building their program) in scheduling and also set a tone for further potential expansion of the sport in major markets in the region. The more schools can use a self-sustaining model, the easier a move to D-1 it will be, which leads to easier scheduling.

The second shift in the lacrosse landscape came when Syracuse shifted all its sports from the Big East, not a lacrosse powerhouse, to the ACC, the standardbearer for the sport across the southern Atlantic states. The Orange presence strengthens the ACC position and give more of a consistent presence of quality play in upstate New York.

With those moves brings more eyeballs, larger crowds and a more effective geographic footprint to continue to grow the game, without sacrificing the core of the sport in the States from the Carolinas through New England, where it flourishes at all levels. That larger footprint, now expanding west into larger collegiate settings, will naturally expose more casual fans to the sport, helping to build the fanbase. With that growth comes more media opportunities and more chances for new brands to engage with both the core and the casual followers. That translates into more dollars and more media and more potential.

Now the growth of lacrosse will probably continue to be steady, not meteoric. The spring landscape in collegiate athletics is not as cluttered as the spring, so a window of opportunity exists, especially as baseball struggles to keep its hold at the collegiate level. It also does not mean that the sport will take off at the professional level, with game that is still run by different groups for its indoor and outdoor seasons. TV has shown more interest in professional lacrosse, but the jury still remains out on its overall effectiveness as a property. However the shift and expansion with effective and efficient cost programs seems to have given those who love LAX more hope than before, if not for a Super Bowl than for a super spring every year. Whether brands, crowds and TV follow is TBD. Whether a stronger college game and buoy its professional counterpart is still a mystery. But the window of opportunity appears to be wider than before, and that is good news for those who play and follow lacrosse at all levels

As Their NASL Season Two Begins, Can “Brand Cosmos” Keep Growing?

The past few weeks the legendary Pele has made the rounds of book stores and media venues hyping his new book, while fans around the world stay glued to TV’s and mobile devices watching Champions League, news of coming World Cup, and final races for all the elite leagues across Europe. In North America, Major League Soccer continues to expand its footing as its franchises ramp up their marketing push and the league itself readies for expansion with new clubs in Orlando and New York and the continued buzz of a potential David Beckham-led franchise in Miami and new announcements in markets like Atlanta and potentially cities like Austin. As a brand, soccer continues to find its place in North America being more solid than ever.

So where does that leave the North America Soccer League and its flagship brand, the New York Cosmos? Tough to say for the long term. The Cosmos, as iconic a name in soccer as there ever was, came roaring back to life last summer on Long Island, amidst the fanfare of a title and several solid crowds at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium. Talk of global tours elite players and a massive stadium in Queens were all the rage.

 Now? With several NASL cities that have done well appearing to get MLS, the league remains a bit of a question mark for its long term stability as the competition for professional soccer visibility rises, while the “brand” Cosmos can only sell so much. Factor in a Red Bulls team in its state of the art facility that has considerably expanded its marketing efforts in recent months…doing viewing parties in Manhattan and Brooklyn now as well as in the Garden State, and the fact that Manchester City and the Yankees are riding into the market with a club in a to-be-determined location, and the Cosmos are going to have their work cut out for them to find an effective and profitable niche.

However the club still has a few things in its favor. Since 1977, many of those New York areas kids have been involved in the Cosmos brand because of the highly successful camps that former team executive Pepe Pinton continued to run at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Thousands of kids continued to know of the Cosmos without ever seeing a match, and those kids, and the camps’ ample data base, provide a very nice marketing push that any expansion club in any sport would die for. The club also has the name, which holds up well in any global soccer conversation, albeit the brand and those playing for the brand now are not on equal par just yet.  They also have the ability to market, and draw in brands, without many of the encumbrances of a well marketed national league. The team grabbed Emirates Airways as a jersey sponsor for example, because NASL has no current airline partner, and many of those categories are left wide open for the sales force to secure without having to share large chunks of revenue. They have also found other partners to come on board and do a good job of marketing the elite stars of their past to keep the brand relevant in a crowded marketplace as they open their title defense. They have also take the brand on the road in the offseason to soccer hotbeds, making sure that the team name, if not the current players, still is resonating. A new TV contract should also help bring more visibility as the battle for brand relevance for both the league and the team keeps moving along.

 Most importantly, while the club looks west to Madison Avenue for recognition, they should also look east for a solid example on how to market and expand a largely independent sports brand amongst the millions of people who live on Long Island. The Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic Baseball League, have done a tremendous job of building, maintaining and expanding a year-round fan base while bringing in media exposure and sponsor dollars not usually seen in independent baseball. They fill their field in Suffolk County and have become a fabric of a community that may never cross a bridge into Manhattan, and those Long Island-savvy fans will embrace a quality product that markets to them more than anyone who looks to just pull from areas in the New York City or even New Jersey or nearby Connecticut.

 The NHL Islanders were beloved on Long Island for years at Nassau Coliseum before the ugly fight over the aging building drove fans and brands away. Many may return as the team improves and they look west to their new Barclays Center home in Brooklyn, but  there remain thousands of fans looking for affordable, fun entertainment who could embrace a Cosmos brand for years if the team puts itself in a position to do so.

 Now maybe Hofstra’s former football field is not the long-term play, but maybe the oft-talked about stadium at Belmont Park isn’t the answer either. Maybe there is a play further east, even towards the open space that Stony Brook University has built a quality athletics complex on, that could make more sense. Most think that the Cosmos ownership is looking globally more than locally, but that global look takes big bucks and certainly won’t happen overnight, and it probably won’t happen in the NASL. Would a European group..The Barclays Premier League or some form of a global champions league…put down roots in two East Coast cities and make the Cosmos one of their tentpoles? That’s a long shot as well, and the MLS inclusion, barring some far-fetched merger with NYCFC, won’t work at all. The Red Bulls advanced push has also shrunk the market a bit, so maybe, at least for now, the major play is to grow its fan friendly…dare we say it…minor league approach of fun events with competitive soccer as the Cosmos become kings of NASL again, and then go from there. It may not fill Met Life Stadium or even Red Bull Arena or in every case 14,000 seats at Hofstra, but it certainly would make sense to grow slowly, manage expectations and take the established name and insert it consistently back into the conversation  not just for buzz, but for sales and quality world class play as well.

 It was a good start for the Cosmos last summer, but the real test is in the offing to see if a world class brand can be a world class business in all aspects on and off the field, with a potential audience of millions right in their eastern backyard. 

“Beach Games” Drift Closer To Reality…

Two things the world has enough of are sand and water, and more than enough resorts and beaches to try and lure tourists. So it was with great interest that this week SportAccord announced that the World Beach Games are inching closer to happening, although maybe not at the robust pace announced last fall.  Just to revisit the idea, especially for those in the Northeast still hoping for a bit more spring;

Sand castle building? Not quite. What the WBG could be is the X Games of the water, with some of the most popular existing Olympic sports like beach volleyball, and one popular Olympic wannabe, beach soccer, thrown in (along with beach tennis and some other hybrids). 

Now the concept is not altogether new, as  Asia has been hosting Beach Games since 2008, the last of which took place in Chinese resort Haiyang in 2012. The initial contests were a great success and incorporated events like wakeboarding and dragon boat racing which have long tried for Olympic inclusion but could never find success. They are not huge on attendance numbers, do not need large stadia, and fit a demo that Olympic sports crave (young and athletic) and are ripe for made for TV and digital, in the same way that the America’s Cup captured the tech space with their innovative broadcasts this past September.

Events like these are also a great draw for off-season resort locations which maybe could never attract world class international events before. The Bahamas, for example has made a big push into college sports with basketball and football, and a Beach games international competition in months where the resorts need to draw attention are a great fit.

Now there are some natural drawbacks. Even temporary stadia and facilities are costly, as organizations like the AVP found out when running their tour. You can’t just use any sand for high level beach competition; it needs to be pristine, and in many instances had to be trucked in from other locales. Building even temporary venues can also be a logistical nightmare, and you are also subject to the unpredictable wind, rain and currents that will crop up, not to mention having to stage many of the events at a time when there is daylight, as night or twilight competitions may look beautiful but can be very challenging. There is also a limitation on venues, but even staging games on massive lakes are an option (Chicago or Lake Victoria anyone?)

The opportunities far outweigh the drawbacks though. The IOC has long wanted to bring in new sports, and the ones on the water pose an opportunity, one that is lower cost than most large scale team events. The water and sand, albeit pricey to set up in some cases, is still a natural existing setting, and the ability for new sponsor dollars to flow in, as well as countries looking to host, are very wide. New faces, in many cases with lots of athletic skin to show, can present a very enticing package for broadcasters and corporations looking to find a breakthrough niche in global sport at a reasonable cost could gravitate to a competition that is sure to draw both core fans and a solid casual audience.

If you had to draw a line in the sand on whether the Beach games will succeed as an emerging, hip, fan friendly property, now with an international backing, it would be fair to give it a fighting chance, much in the way the “Combat Games” have worked for fight sports and the “Urban Games” can work for the innercity.

 Sand and water can bring lots of fun and new stars to global sport, making The Beach Games experiment one to follow.

Set The Ground Rules, Save The Aggravation…

A little over 10 years ago, during a Davis Cup trip to Zimbabwe, the U.S. team passed a street in front of Robert Mugabe’s palace. In big letters there was a warning; “If you take a photo on this street you will be shot.” No one took pictures. Yes that is extreme, but it is a pretty clear way to set ground rules that all understood.

A few weeks ago one of our Columbia classes taught by Neal Pilson had an open invite for staff, alumni, current students and potential students to come in and listen to a q and a with ESPN President John Skipper. The room was filled to listen to Skipper talk about his days in publishing, the challenges of having launched ESPN.com, and a host of anecdotes about life, sports business, broadcasting and the like. Lots of little tidbits that could have made their way out of the room. Nothing overtly controversial, but very insightful from a man who is usually frank and direct but willing to give of his time. As the room filled to capacity, several young socially engaged students prepped their mobile devices for a tweet or two. After all, this is the era of information, and Skipper and Pilson were ready to share. However to the disappointment of some at least, the ground rules were very carefully planned out. No tweeting, posting or recording could take place, in order to keep the session for those invited guests. The result? An open, frank discussion that respected the speakers wishes and a solid time was had by all. The ground rules were set, and the respect was in place.

Juxtapose that discussion, where the rules were set, to a pair of other recent incidents, one involving the Boston Red Sox and President Barack Obama and the other involving Rutgers Athletic Director Julie Hermann. In the first case, POTUS and David Ortiz willingly posed for a selfie that one of Ortiz’s sponsors, Samsung, turned into a marketing push without the consent of the President in any way. Then the Newark Star Ledger broke a story where Hermann was quoted while speaking to a student group at Rutgers as saying she hoped the paper, which had just gone through massive layoffs and is perhaps the media outlet that covers activities on the campus, would essentially go out of business. Whether it was meant sarcastically, or was even taken slightly out of context, it created a firestorm again with the media around the Scarlet Knights. The result? More brand damage and distraction for Rutgers.

What do all four anecdotes show? Pretty simple. We live in an age where media of all kinds is available for consumption willingly or unwillingly, and unless one takes the proper steps to guard against public-facing statements or information, as Skipper did, then anyone is fair game. Was the selfie with Ortiz innocent on the part of the President and Big Papi? Probably. Was there someone on the savvy marketing side waiting or planning to take advantage of the innocent moment? Seems so. In Hermann’s case, was she trying to make news in a frank discussion with students? Probably not. Did she set herself up for an issue by not setting ground rules prior, as happened at Columbia. Looks like that is the case. Now this is not to say setting ground rules can always lead to people acting honorably or responsibly. The thought of embargoes on news stories seem to be more and more a thing of the past, with media outlets scrambling to break news on any platform willing to sometimes ask forgiveness now more than permission, and a tweet, no matter how innocent, just seconds before a story breaks can have career implications for all involved.  Does the Ortiz incident mean that events at White House or other official gatherings will now be like some elite weddings or courtrooms, where any mobile devices need to be confiscated to avoid potential conflict? Could be. We did live in a world not too long ago where images were not captured on phones, they were done by cameras on film and then shared by those who wanted those images distributed and we all seemed fine with it. Taking temptation away can have its benefits in such cases, as can very clear ground rules. The more you think and know your audience, the better off all will be. Image creation and media consumption are great, and by no means should the free flow of ideas be curtailed in most cases. However the higher the image the higher the risk, as we saw again this week, both in DC and New Brunswick. Without setting the rules going in, all bets are off coming out and a news cycle, no matter how innocent or unintentional begins and creates even more distractions for the parties involved.  

The New Sponsored Logo Game: The Battle of Consistency vs. Risky Dollars…

In the last few years sports teams in North America, from college through the pros, have forgone consistency of brand in their look for the sake of selling more diverse, quirky, unique and even outlandish jerseys, kits and other uniform pieces to an audience who want different, at least to have in their closets. With few exceptions…The New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Penn State football, the Montreal Canadiens, the Los Angeles Lakers…teams if every size and shape have taken to Day-Glo, faux flags, selfie encrusted, camo-filled looks as a way to gain attention, sell more merch and sometimes raise funds for charity, especially when apparel companies like Under Armour and Nike are always looking to engage a younger audience not thrilled with consistency and big on expressive and outlandish. Sometimes it works, sometimes it looks silly, but usually it draws attention and many times ancillary revenue.

That revenue challenge on the professional side, and maybe at some point on the college side, will soon be amplified when the four major sports leagues allow brands to advertise on uniforms at some point in the next few years. The logo’ed jerseys have long passed the sniff test in MLS, the CFL and the WNBA and on practice apparel with the NBA and the NFL, and brands on kits are the norm in sports like rugby cricket and soccer in the rest of the world, so it becomes a question of when and who, not if, the brand of choice will appear on many clubs uniforms in North America. Some still may forgo the selling of space on uniforms for the sake of purity and value of their look, but most will surely give it a try and reap the dollars.

However with the logo’ed jersey comes a unique problem, one which has arisen again with MLS as clubs like DC United switch kit sponsors; the availability of old inventory licensed out to commercial partners through television and digital still photography. Sponsors, especially new ones, will pay a high price for the ability to be seen everywhere associated with clubs, but archival footage sold and licensed, especially in transition years, could continue to show up with old and dated uniforms bearing brands that are long gone. A Volkswagen logo on a United kit for example, could continue to show up in a licensed video game or commercial or billboard or photo campaign for several years after a team makes a change, which can create problems both for the club and for the new brand, depending on how wide the usage is. Now in the still photographic world, the digitizing of shots can help alleviate that problem; lift a logo out and drop a new one in to share; but in video and even in many licensed products the logo change may be slow, which can potentially damage the brand for the short term. The problem is not a new one for clubs that have chosen to flip-flop uniforms or do specialized or throwback uniforms several times a season; you run the risk of those unfamiliar or “specialized” day glo or bright orange uniforms ending up in places where you would want your traditional and consistent look to be. Some cherish the thought of the specialized uni’s ending up in campaigns as great exposure, some go to great lengths to limit the accessibility of shots and video from special nights so the brand can stay consistent for the long term. However with a branded uniform work for the long term, that issue of inconsistency rises dramatically. The goal is to overachieve for a brand partner, especially one that is new or one that has plunked down millions for an affiliation, so consistency, and consistent policing of what footage is going where, is going to become even more critical when logos start appearing in prime time for the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB at some point.

Now brands who chose to forgo the branded bucks for their clean look may run the risk of less upfront sponsor dollars than those who chose to bring a sponsor in; but they run much less of a risk in achieving ROI for that sponsor by simply saying no to jersey signage. In many ways, their clean look is exposure for the team unto itself; it is what they are known for in the sports marketplace. However for most, the dollars to earn by dropping a carefully placed and sized logo will be too much to pass up.

So who wins and loses in the new sponsored logo world? The leagues and teams for the most part will see a win, as will many specialty sales spots who can offer up the new looks, much like they do with the “specialized” jerseys being done ad nauseum today in college and the pros. Brick and mortar apparel sales shops, who have to take the risk on dated material with old logos will have the same issue they have when a marquee player gets traded these days, getting stuck with inventory now deemed for the scrap heap, but online e-tailers who have less inventory and can shift quickly to a new look will also benefit.

For sure none of this is being done in a vacuum at the highest level. The risks and rewards and issues are being played out time and again in the elite leagues, each watching as minor league sports and others take the first steps. However once the step is made for logo’ed apparel, consistency and control may have an even bigger premium. It is one thing to have a special jersey from a few years ago showing up in an ad campaign or in printed material by a third party; it is something else when the ad contains a brand whose contract has long since expired. That can do damage not just to the authenticity of the ad, it can hurt the new sponsor relationship with the team and with the league itself.

Consistency of brand is something which seems to be a little less valuable these days, with new and flashy looks taking the place of the safe and simple. For sure there are dollars to be made with the changing times, the question remains is the risk worth the reward for the long term?  That remains to be seen, as sponsors enter the uniform game for most sports sometime soon.

UConn, Chevy Score With Quick and Fun “Final Four” Promo…

In college hoops, especially at this time of year for those schools left playing, timing is everything. Schools like Kentucky and Connecticut, on life support for an NCAA run just a few weeks ago, found a way to regroup and focus and make it to Dallas for this weekend’s Final Four, something that probably would have been unthinkable when Selection Sunday rolled around just a few weeks ago.

However with the improbable run, especially for the Huskies, came opportunity off the court as well in the form of a quick and cool activation with a long-time brand partner. Now it helped that UConn’s run last weekend happened not so far from home, at Madison Square Garden in New York. It also helped that UConn has always had a knack for innovative activation programs involving their loyal legions of supporters, and hence a new, easy and fun digital promotion was born, with the help of their partners at IMG College.

As part of the Huskies’ “Road Warriors” promotion with official partner Chevrolet, (the official vehicle of UConn Basketball for the past two years) a Chevy Sonic quickly painted with the school’s colors will make the trek from Connecticut to North Arlington, site of the Final Four this week. Alternating behind the wheel will be Erik Antico and Brett Greenfield, serving as the Chevy “Road Warriors” as they take Jonathan the Husky Dog and the Sonic cross country, covering a distance of 1,698 miles. They will be making the stops along the way and handing out UConn gear, and posting photos on social media. 

Fans are following on the official UConn Athletics Facebook (facebook.com/UConnHuskies) and Twitter (@UConnHuskies) accounts, and have been encouraged to share their favorite Road Warrior moments with the hashtags #UConn and #BleedBlue.

The promo, created on the fly and with little lead time, was a great extra for the Chevy/UConn partnership. It showed innovation, a smart use of social media and a solid use of available time with little hard costs. It effectively conveys the largesse of the Huskies brands literally beyond its borders and will make for a great rallying point for all the UConn fans enjoying the ride to the Final Four. In an age where augment and virtual reality get a lot of the buzz, UConn, IMG College and Chevy should get points for a quick promo that was a little bit of a throwback but scored on many fronts.