ESPN | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

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.

“Hardball Passport” Scores For Baseball Fans…

Last fall our colleague Peter Casey launched an ambitious online tool where hoops fans could create a mosaic of all the great places they had seen hoops games, and marry those events to a narrative that matched any fans passion for basketball. It was called “Basketball Passport,” a first of its kind way to catalogue and track all the arenas on both the college and professional  where games have been played. No need for ticket stubs saved, “Basketball Passport” helped you bring back the memories in a virtual world.

This past week, as the MLB season began, Casey and his partners unveiled their latest tracking tool, one which might even be a bigger hit that its hoops counterpart. It is  “Hardball Passport,”  an easy-to-use web tool that lets baseball fans track every major and minor league baseball game they’ve attended over the years.

“Hardball Passport” allows fans to find and log every major and minor league game they’ve attended with simple search functionality. Leveraging a comprehensive games database that goes back to October 21, 1975 – date of Carlton Fisk’s Game Six walk-off homer in the bottom of the twelfth – the tool serves as a repository for game-going memories. Fans can share stories and ticket stubs, and upload photos to complement their game histories. As fans log their games, “Hardball Passport” dishes out personalized stats – number of games attended, stadiums seen, best performances witnessed, and each team’s record for games fans personally attended – to compare year over year or even against other fans. “Hardball Passport” allows future-oriented fans to easily create and track their stadium bucket lists, plan road trips and compete in head-to-head stadium challenges. Fans that complete a stadium challenge or achieve game-specific accomplishments earn unique digital stamps for their Passport. Combined with active leaderboards for “Most Games Logged,” “Hardball Passport” creates a friendly culture of competition among avid game goers.

Will it gain more traction than “Basketball Passport” did in season one? Probably. Baseball is much more a game of tradition and ritual, summer evenings spent with family at probably a more leisurely place than basketball experiences are. For sure the traditions of college basketball run deep in many places, as do the memories, but baseball as a shared experience is probably a lot wider than basketball is. From a business perspective, both platforms have a nice upside. Brands can integrate perks into the platform for fans who engage regularly, and the model remains scalable to any sport. While the baseball data going back to 1975 is probably reflective of the user base, an expanded set of games going at least into the 1960’s would probably create more shared experiences for an older generation vs., first adopting milennials, bit fir a first try “Hardball Passport” seems to score as a new engagement tool, one that can help unite generations and stir interest in the long baseball season for legions of casual fans. Worth a try for sure.

An Opportunity Still To Be Had; Grabbing More “Senior Moments”

As we reach Opening Day of the MLB season the annual lament about baseball needing to attract a younger audience starts again. While there is no doubt that every sport wants to grab younger folks and engage more with every medium possible with its fans, the pact is that we as a society are still getting older, and those older fans do remain as an audience that has disposable income, time on their hands and are becoming more and more engaged in a digital environment. So with that in mind, here is a quick thought again on the value of having more senior moments…you cannot watch a game without ads for Pharma, so they realize that older fans are embracing sport like never before; why don’t teams to more. The older audience is what has held live theater together; it is embraced by movies, yet sports seems to stay away…time for a re-think on how to engage more over 21 in promotions, while in no way slacking off on engaging the younger audience as well.

It is the fastest growing segment of the population in North America…a segment that has vast consumer experience, knows how to activate in groups, has defined spending habits and in many cases a large amount of disposable time and purchases more high ticket items, like cars, more than any other segment of the population. They influence spending habits, young people, voting patterns and public policy. Yet for all the time sports looks to engage the young and the first adopter, the larger group (albeit sometimes with less disposable income) still goes largely ignored. They are the Baby Boomers and the seniors, a group which until recently was put aside as a group sales opportunity and little else, while teams and brands concentrated on developing new fans. New fans used to mean younger, however with an aging and more active population, it is probably time for those engaging in brand building to start courting the audience more.

Pharma spends huge amounts on sports, yet most programs for activation are still targeted at the younger audience. Giveaways at games are always geared towards those 21 and younger. Yet seniors buy in blocks, bring those younger to games and can help motivate others to come. There has probably always been a reticence to court seniors as a quiet or graying crowd, one that would be averse to young and hip. Yet many teams and properties regularly run Throwback Nights to try and get the arena going, featuring music and clothes for a bygone era. Those who lived in that era, no thanks…those who like the music and are younger, cmon in. Even tennis and golf, two sports which play to an older demo, constantly fight to get younger, but why? We are getting older, living longer, getting healthier and spending more money as we get there if we have it, so why not actively pursue the group with viable promotions, targeted sponsor activation and even specific digital campaigns more, just like brands are doing?  Seniors are engaged and online and have great word of mouth activation, so the time has come to make them a target as much as the young or the families. They spend, they enjoy events, they get around and they purchase, it makes good business sense.

Verizon and Indy Car; A Long Haul Not A Quick Fix

Vibrant, relevant, different, important to new fans. That’s what people are saying about Indy Car’s new partnership with Verizon, a mega-player in sports business if there ever was one in the U.S. today. Then again that’s what people said about IZOD’s involvement four years ago, and Izod put its money into non-conventional spending and branding as it sought to lift the sport away from its core fans and find more casual interest. Unfortunately the buzz, didn’t offset the in-fighting, confusing television, the departure of several stars and at least one major tragedy, to lift the sport away from anything, and the apparel brand moved on to projects that probably best fit their brand message. Cool and hip didn’t match really with fast and exciting all the time.

So now the 10 year relationship is being heralded as another huge lift for the very exciting, ultra-experiential racing brand as it seeks to find its mainstream footing as well as gain momentum amongst the racing fan in North America, with the continued  battle with NASCAR and the always hovering specter of Formula 1 sitting out there to engage as well. Will it work?

For sure Verizon is a much better fit for the world’s fastest and most technologically savvy racing circuit. Speed and efficiency are what Verizon is supposed to be about, so there is a match there. Telecommunications companies are all about using sport as a testing ground for new products and as a way to engage mass casual audiences, and Indy Car can deliver on both fronts. They can also borrow some pages from what Sprint has done to market NASCAR and vice versa, and can even go one step further since the brand already sponsors the highly successful Team Penske program, as well as being the primary sponsor of the cars of Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, so it is not like an effective partnership has to re-write the book on successful integration.

The question remains how well can Indy Car market itself as well. It appears that maybe the cards are aligning as best they have in years. The Danica Patrick hangover is gone, and the sport has as deep a field of talent and telegenic drivers as it has had in years, with  Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti all potential crossover stars. It has the keystone of the Indy 500 to use as a lynchpin to casual fans, and it has a second year race at Pocono Raceway to draw brand and fan interest from both Philadelphia and New York, a place where Indy Car is missing a consistent presence that the other circuits have sought to drive to help sell its story, in addition to what is now a more consistent series across the country. Its TV package is better, and Verizon can also hopefully bring the weight of cross-promotion across its other sports platforms to lift the profile of the drivers and the races. Their coverage area is heavy in cities where Indy Car is NOT a household name, so that spillover can also be a boon for name awareness as well as brand affinity. So a bigger push married with a mainstream consumer brand which has that name recognition away from retail could just be the trick.

Will it work? Not overnight. The announcement and the series have gotten a late start for 2014, with the announcement coming just prior to this weekend’s opening race in St. Petersburg. The competition on telecom for elite sports not just in North America but across the world is very high, and the race to gain market share can bring many to question the ROI on spends like title sponsorships. However Verizon is one company that seems to have made the title work well beyond just slapping a name on a building or a circuit.  The learning curve for casual consumers with Indy Car is still pretty high, although almost everyone can understand what racing is when they see the cars in any form of media. What they will need to see more of are the drivers and their personalities, which is what NASCAR has done best. What will also have to make this work are other sponsors investing in the sport on the large scale marketing side, as Verizon cannot do this alone. The races are very expensive, the technology is fast and the risk factor for disaster remains high, so it will not be easy. It will have to be a steady build with little wins along the way, and it is not something which can be evaluated by ratings numbers for a weekend broadcast in a single year. Indy car needs to take a page out of the NHL and MLS in terms of selling its partnership; continued digital integration, a cool and wow factor and cutting edge non-traditional promotion while still embracing its core fans. It won’t be easy, but the sport has excitement, power and it is highly experiential, all things which Verizon can help amplify as they get the partnership moving.

Will the partnership breathe new life into Indy Car? There are dollars, marketing, and a series of best practices with a brand that “gets it” in the mix, along with a hope that this is not a fast fix in the world’s fastest sport. Hopefully it pulls in casual fans, catches that speed in a bottle and then gets other brands into the mix to create a successful run for all involved.  It won’t be a quick fix, it will be more of a marathon, but it will be one hopefully worth watching, even at 200 miles per hour.

Can Stick And Ball Sports Stick Together To Grow?

It was a seed that may have taken 100 years to germinate, but last week Major League Baseball made its bigger mark in cricket, Australian Rules Football and rugby crazed Australia. The two game series between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks drew solid crowds and lots of buzz at the Sydney Cricket Grounds,  and helped push along a massive commitment MLB has made to attract more people to baseball in the country, which has had some fits and starts playing the game and has produced a decent amount of professional players over the years.

At the same time the sport of cricket has looked to the U.S. in terms of ways to update the length and marketing of their sport, taking from the best practices of MLB and other American sports to make the game more interactive, more engaging and more fan-friendly, not just in Oz but in India as well. There is also continued talk about cricket trying to test the waters in the United States, given the huge numbers ESPNCricinfo gets showing the sport and the fact that many of the emerging ethnic groups in the United States, and those gaining more of a hold in the middle class with disposable income, have an affinity for the sport.

So the question becomes, can stick and ball sports play together to raise awareness and interest in both games? There does seem to be some interest, and looking at MLB’s approach to growing baseball in Australia would be a good primer for what cricket needs to do in the States.

The first example is very basic; infuse lots of cash strategically. While MLB  used a promoter to stage the regular season games in Sydney, one who knew the marketplace and took some of the risk, they have not been shy about pouring money into equipment, digital platforms and elite player development around the world, especially in Australia. The league helps fund Australia’s professional league and also makes sure that Aussie’s are involved in every aspect of playing the game. The return on the cash investment takes time, but it will bear fruit because of the basic understanding of stick and ball sports and the growing familiarity with the game. Cricket would have to do the same thing in the States. The governing body, or bodies, would have to start at the grassroots and come up with a well-financed strategic plan to expose the game to more and then develop those already interested. With that should come an investment in broadcast and continued efforts in digital to expose the greatest players on the world to a new population or potential engaged fans.

Along with the grassroots efforts comes facilities. Currently there is one perm ant cricket stadium in the United States, far from the core followers of the sport who live in cities in the Northeast. It is in Florida. While the ability to retrofit cricket grounds for baseball is easier than vice versa, a robust cricket facility is needed to give fans a full experience at home, similar to what happens in other parts of the world. It does not have to be permanent, but is should be adequate to give those first attendees a great taste of the game.

Third, take the tour. MLB has been bringing their best players on occasion to Australia for clinics for years and when the game went to the continent this month it was not minor league in any way. They were games that counted in the regular season, so fans were seeing the real deal.   Cricket would need to do the same thing; bring the world’s greatest stars first for an educational tour and them for an important match so that devoted fans feel they are getting a quality product ad new fans feel they are getting the best to see in their owns backyard. It’s why NFL regular season games draw in Europe and why sometimes soccer friendlies struggle to fill seats. People want real and authentic and they can sniff out when they are getting a “lite” version of the game. Educate with the stars, and then give a product worthy of the dollars spent.

Brand engagement. MLB helped infuse both current brands and new engaging brands in their trip to Australia, and cricket could do the same here. Any number of engaged brands with cricket globally would love the entrée into the American sports market, and there are a host of brands in the States who would love a full cricket experience to engage with fans of the sport here who might not follow traditional American sport.  An effective cricket to baseball crossover could spur more sponsor dollars as well, and give brands entrance into a new marketplace. There actually is a great example of that crossover occurring now.

Michael Clarke, international cricket star and captain of Cricket Australia, signed a multi-year endorsement agreement with Rawlings, as traditional a baseball brand as exists.  Clarke joined Rawlings international roster of professional athletes who play integral roles in the development of their on-field equipment and training products. He will travel to the United States this April to collaborate with Rawlings product management team on the development of his signature fielders’ glove line, set to debut worldwide later this year. It was the first-ever endorsement deal for Rawlings in the sport of cricket, while Clarke began using Rawlings fielders’ gloves 12 years ago at the suggestion of Mike Young, Cricket Australia’s current fielding coach and former manager of Australia’s national baseball team.  A great first step and one other brands should take note of.

In the end, is the stick and ball pie big enough for baseball/cricket crossover? Probably. While there are dedicated fans of both ho will never make the transition, there is a growing number of fans who are looking for fun, quality, time-efficient entertainment that is worthy of their discretionary income. Baseball will never be the full MLB level in Australia or India, not will cricket surpass baseball overall in the States. However working together to grow the core of stick and ball amongst competition from other team sports makes sense, and can lift the tide of both sports.

It looks like MLB sees that value with their successful jaunt across the Pacific. It will be interesting if cricket takes the cue and returns the ball to the States, a place where they appear to have a solid core but much more education is needed to grow from the bottom.  It looks like the template is there, whether it takes hold remains to be seen, all they have to do is look across the pitch to their American friends.

Can Those “Other” Hoops Tournaments Find Their Niche?

The world of the haves 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 this year, perhaps more than ever, Cinderella seems to have gone home early, as only Dayton from the Atlantic 10 remains in The NCAA Sweet 16 as the lone survivor not tied to major college football. The little guys it seems, have gone home early this year. Still that doesn’t mean that the NCAA Tournament is any less interesting, fun or compelling to watch. It also doesn’t mean that March madness ends with the regionals going on this weekend.

For someone cruising the dial on a Monday night, a hoops fan might have wandered on to the mayhem going on in Moody Coliseum on the campus of SMU. A raucous crowd was there to cheer on Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs against a young SEC team from LSU, playing in the second round of the NIT. The game had all the feel of an NCAA matchup, and for these schools even more at stake perhaps; something to prove as teams that missed the field of 64. Brown’s squad especially is playing for pride, to return the coach to New York perhaps next week for another trip to Madison Square Garden. The NIT after all has value.

Now the second tournament is not without its issues. While it provides those who win regular season conference championships but miss out on their tournament title a guarantee of playing on, like a Robert Morris, it also has its failures. Because of the quick turnaround for arena space and TV time, a first round matchup by the Colonials at St. John’s drew barely 1,000 people, and took some creative camera work to keep the focus on the court and not on the acres of empty seats in Carnessecca Arena. However that issue appears to be less so this year, as a very balanced top 100 in college hoops, combined with some strong local support in places like SMU and Clemson, have turned the NIT into a better consolation trip than perhaps in years past.

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… two to choose from ….The College Basketball Invitational and the CollegeInsider.com.

Unlike the CBI, which has the value of TV (CBS College Network) and a unique but curious best 2 of 3 final and seems to focus on bigger name schools willing to burn a pretty hefty fee to play on (and drew criticism from several schools who chose not to fork up the extra dollars this year, Indiana being one), the CIT is a play for mid-majors only at a much smaller fee with a traditional one and done format, and has actually gained more mainstream traction than originally thought possible by many critics who through post season hoops was already NCAA or nothing.   The 32 schools invited to the CIT bracket seem to be excited to be playing on, with a chance to build toward the NCAA or other success in future years. Schools like Columbia for example, have found a way to draw fans (over 2,500 packed Levein Gym to see a win vs. Eastern Michigan) and get a chance to take on archrival Yale in the semifinals of the CIT, an extra perk for a pair of schools not used to post-season play and looking to build a program to match up with Harvard, which has been not just the kings of Ivy hoops but a national power to be reckoned with as well.

There is probably more room, at least in the short term for the CBI and the CIT than in recent years. The power shift to the larger conferences has made a long advance into March for mid-major schools more difficult, while the issue of players leaving schools early at large schools has created more parity overall than ever before. Good schools with sold seasons, often young programs, still will get squeezed out of NCAA play, and need a place to build brand and legacy. These three tournaments to varying degrees help do that.  

 In the end, the CBI and the CIT have a ways to go to see if that are totally viable for casual fans and brands. Can they build equity, increase their content potential and add sponsors who can’t crash The Big Dance? Maybe. Can they bring in some revenue for the home school in these troubled times through ticket sales and sponsor value? Great. Can they find a way to decrease costs to get away from the pay for play stigma? Perhaps.  If the games save the jobs of some deserving and pressured coaches and gives the athletes one more shot at glory, great. Nether, nor will the NIT ever replace the dollars or bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, but if they can continue to sustain and enhance their reputations maybe they can carve their own necessary and meaningful niche in the complex web of big time college hoops.