FIFA | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup - Part 2

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.

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.

“Geekfest” No More; Thoughts On Why MIT Sloan Is A Winner…

It was once rightfully so called  ”Geekfest,” a small to medium size gathering of young men looking to figure out how to make statistical analysis more relevant. However the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as a brand has now grown into an event that has probably even surpassed the vision of what its founders, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Kraft Sports VP of Consumer Marketing and Strategy Jessica Gelman could have ever imagined; a gathering not just of several thousand general manager  wanna-be’s, but a place where those largely behind the scenes in professional sports come to listen to learn and to discuss the business of how to make sport better.

While some bemoaned the fact that the event has gotten too big, many others felt that this year’s event had listened to its critics and actually become more open in topics, ideas and speakers. ESPN has played a key role in driving topics and speakers in the past few years as the event expanded its footprint to the point where many others doing great work in the space who were not aligned with “The Worldwide Leader” were driven away or excluded from the conversation during the two day event. This year, rightfully so, panel discussions were left to those who know the space best; the popular baseball analytics panel was run by The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and included speakers from MLB Network, Bloomberg Sports and elsewhere, and showed that the conference was not just an ESPN “love fest” as had happened in recent years as the conference expanded its audience.

The vibe of the conference is different from most other “industry” events, because of its academic nature and its audience. Hours before the first Friday session, several hundred industry wanna-be’s buzzed around the lobby of the Westin Hotel, wearing their Sunday best and gleefully discussing which panels and speakers they wanted to see. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross sat among the throngs of young people listening to the discussion of building a culture with a franchise between Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, while later NBA D-league president Dan Reed, Utah Jazz assistant GM Scott Layden, Washington Wizards assistant GM Tommy Sheppard, and others sat in to discuss the making of a champion with Malcolm Gladwell and “Sports Gene” author David Epstein. Former Calgary Flames president Brian Burke hovered with the NBA’s Kiki Vanderweighe as Gladwell and new NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked about potential changes to the draft and the playoff system rarely heard before, while scores of MLB and NFL assistant GM’s and player personnel and development folks mixed with high school and job seekers to hear adidas talk about the future of wearable tech and its impact on developing players and maintaining careers. The Celtics Brad Stevens walked the hall almost unbothered as he entered a session on using data in college and now in the NBA, while Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was asked for nary an autograph while posing for a selfie or two after his panel on player performance.

Discussions about the hair choices of Glad well and fivethirtyeight founder Nate Silver were as prominent as the talks between soccer officials on which panel on leadership they should attend.  

This year there was even breaking news this year when former Toronto Raptors head Bryan Colangelo candidly and openly discussed the fact that he had wanted the team to dump games during part of his run there to better improve their draft position in seasons deemed hopeless. Although Colangelo was quick to say he never discussed the push to lose with coaches and players, it was something that the wide ranging amount of media as well as those engaged in live conversations in social media quickly turned into news well beyond the walls of the Hynes Convention Center.  Tyler Hamilton had his first face to face discussion with USADA’s Travis Tygart on the debilitating and damaging use of steroids and other PED’s in cycling.  Rarely would those types of unfiltered conversations take place at industry events where the audience is more corporate, and the networking and news is done more in hushed tones away from the bright lights of the speakers stage.

 Oh there were the stats, with panels like Baseball Analytics, Coaching Analytics etc etc. But there were also first rate panels on Social Media Marketing, International Expansion and the Future of Sports Media and sales, with industry leaders like Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Fanatics founder Michael Rubin debating the future of the apparel market, while AS Roma head Jim Pallotta, Octagon President Phil de Piciotto, Celtics owner Wync Grosbeck and MLB.com head Bob Bowman all voiced their open opinions about the global nature of sport, the need for innovation and the value of having sound business functions to parallel an entrepreneurial spirit.

Other than the Ivy Sports Symposium (founded at Princeton by grad Chris Chaney and now rotating among several Ivy League schools), which in many ways has become the fall sister to MIT’s late winter event, the MIT Sloan Event is more about those looking to engage and get into the field of sports business and analytics, combined with people actively engaged in the onfield business of sports. While the highly successful events run by the Sports Business Journal deal with those off the field topics (as does the growing annual Bloomberg Business of Sports event, much more of a C Suite gathering with its own unique focus) , MIT and Ivy take a different approach to audience and structure. Many times the value in conferences is less what is said on stage than what is said in the hallways and over lunch. If you missed a session at MIT and were out kibitzing in the hallways, you missed real learning experience and thought that you might not have heard before, and you might not hear again because of the rare collection of leaders from varied places.  

Geekfest? Maybe. As someone who was once accused of being part of the “lunatic fringe of sport” there is something to be said for a bit of Geekiness. However as someone who also attends multiple events, it was still a very entertaining few days that industry leaders others can learn from and build upon. After all, isn’t that what colleges and universities are really supposed to do for all of us? Find ways to inform and inspire and get us out of thinking what we do every day is the best way to do it.

Congrats to all those like-minded dudes. See you next March with an even bigger crowd.

Brazil Takes Small Step, Speaks Loudly With World Cup Teeshirt Ban…

Last year the newly minted Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League created a stir when their wildly popular launch T-Shirts, “Feeling Thorny?”  were deemed too sexist and were pulled from the shelves, but not before creating buzz for the team and quite a black market cottage industry for the suddenly scarce and more in demand than ever shirts. Some groups claimed the shirts sexist, the team, which had vetted the phrase before selling, considered the play good natured. Nonetheless, the Thorns, like their MLS counterparts The Timbers, fully respectful of all fans, removed the controversy by removing the inventory, but not before generating some national buzz and a little edge.

This week the question of objectionable and probably well intentioned soccer t-shirts again rose up in the news, when World Cup partner adidas on Tuesday agreed to a request from Brazil’s tourism board to stop selling two T-Shirts made in the US for US consumers, that were meant to be good natured but were thought to encourage sexual tourism, something which Brazil is fighting and monitoring very closely.

The two shirts, one showing  a bikini-clad woman with open arms on a sunny Rio de Janeiro beach under the word-play “Looking to Score, ” while the other had an “I love Brazil” heart resembling the upside-down butt of a woman wearing a thong bikini bottom.   Neither obviously were directed at the beauty of World Cup, which starts June 12. They played off a global perception that Brazilians are about sensuality and regularly use bikini clad women on their beaches as a way to promote tourism, not inspire sexual trafficking or exploitation. One would be hard pressed to find a Brazilian tourism which didn’t feature beautiful women on the countries beaches as a matter of fact. In talking to several Brazilians  who heard of the shirts, few found them offensive when first discussed.

However we are now in a world where the global awareness of human trafficking especially in BRIC countries is growing very quickly. It was a huge issue that was addressed during the Olympics and even during the Super Bowl, and nations rightfully so have taken a stance of zero tolerance. There is little doubt adidas, as a great global ambassador for soccer and for its brand and the World Cup, created the shorts in a vacuum. They used the marks of World Cup so there had to be an approval process. Whether that approval was in the US, since the shirts were only sold at this point in the US, and it showed insensitivity by an American audience to the problem in Brazil and elsewhere is up for debate. What was clear on adidas’ side is that there was no room for questioning the issue once it was brought to the attention of the media; they reacted quickly and effectively to fix the situation.  

Some may say this is window dressing by the Brazilian government to take what is a relatively minor incident, one which may have gone unnoticed by most of the world given the few shirts that were in circulation, to make a grandstand play against a global sports brand.  However it was an interesting pre-emptive strike that showed two things: officials are doing their best to watch everything, no matter how small, and that they will not tolerate even those spending huge sums of money in Brazil around World Cup trivializing what is a very serious issue. It also gave the government a platform to state their case at a time when the sports business world, especially in the US, is coming off an Olympic hangover and is more focused on other things than large-scale social issues around Brazil and World Cup.

Did the fervor and attention maybe create a new market for risqué knockoff tees around World Cup now?  Probably. Was it an overreaction by officials? At first blush maybe, especially given the way the country does flaunt its beauty and beaches, but it sent a pretty clear message not just for Word Cup, but for the 2016 Olympics and other events that will occur, that this is a serious topic that won’t be trivialized.  Will the halting of selling two tee shirts in the US mean that human trafficking will not be an issue during World Cup? Of course not, but it gave the government some leverage that it did not have before, and it also sent a message that global brands looking to market around World Cup need to take a string look at what is really acceptable and what is perceived as acceptable when understanding the culture. It is a mistake, especially with American brands, that is made time and again. Slapping “Los” and playing mariachi music does not mean you are marketing to “Latinos,” and serving Chinese food does not mean you are marketing to “Asians.” If you are going to play internationally, you have to understand and integrate unto the culture, something that adidas as a global brand usually does well, but seems to have missed on this time.

From Portland to Rio, small actions can still have global implications, and Brazil took an interesting stance over what some may see as a small, playful marketing ploy which now addressed a bigger issue.

MLS Provides A Well-Timed Visit To Kick Off The Media Season

It certainly isn’t easy to cut through a cluttered February landscape that includes NBA All-Star, the Olympics and USA Hockey’s dramatic weekend, the peak of college basketball season, the coming NFL Combine, pitchers and catchers reporting and the Daytona 500, but Major League Soccer went on a strategic quest to find its preseason niche this past week, bringing their stars to the media at a time of year when even local MLS media are off doing other things as teams train in warmer climates in preparation for the start of the season. Much like what MLB is does in Arizona (bringing the Cactus League managers together in one location to better serve the media upon their arrival in Phoenix), MLS took a diverse group of players to the media in what was a combination immediate media coverage, brand building, awareness seeding exercise which was wide ranging and generated some solid awareness, especially among casual fans, of MLS when their thoughts were probably elsewhere prior.

The players  MLS’ took on the two day junket included Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Michael Bradley and Tim Cahill, a group that has both domestic and international appeal, services many markets and can talk to the big picture about many topics in and around soccer and the coming MLS season and the World Cup.  They were racially and geographically diverse with some local ties (two being New York Red Bulls, one from New Jersey) and understood the reasons and value of leaving training and other commitments to promote the game that has given them so much.

The visit was actually very well timed despite the busy calendar. With a holiday in place many outlets might be looking for a softer side of coverage, and the lack of any other regular season games to cover (perhaps only the second time that a weekend had no regular season NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA games in at least 25 years) combined with a bit of a respite in the Olympics provided a manageable window to engage on platforms that on a busier time might have passed on MLS.

During the two days, the group made stops at the predictable (ESPN, Univision, SI),  and the trendy (GQ), but also dropped in for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Time Magazine, CNN, Bloomberg TV and FS1’s “Crowd Goes Wild.”  The players also found the time in the schedule to do the grassroots as well, hosting a soccer clinic in Harlem at the Children’s Aid Society, before ending up at a photo shoot and at the Empire State Building.

Was the two day two the massive junket that a film would do, replete with Late Show and screaming throngs of fans? No, but that was not the ultimate goal. It was to shake the relevant media outlets, plant seeds for future coverage and continue a conversation that will become more and more relevant as the MLS season starts, and more importantly for soccer and its partners, for when World Cup kicks in to engage casual fans globally in the late spring. The Tour was not done with athletes fresh off Olympic glory or a world championship; it was done in advance of future success, and ironically did not include anyone from last year’s MLS Cup Championship between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. It included relevant, recognizable faces with stories that appealed to the market, and in the end building that ubiquitous appeal was key for MLS to start cutting through the clutter and becoming more top of mind for media outlets hence forth in what will be a key year for on-field growth and awareness, with a year of expansion on the docket for 2015.

Timing Is Everything; Beckham Boosts American Soccer Again…

The past week after the Super Bowl, the Today Show, in the midst of its Olympic buzz, welcomed a global star to its air. It wasn’t Russell Wilson and his freshly minted NFL title; it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin, headed for Sochi and the homestanding Russian team; it wasn’t Lindsay Vonn, readying for her on-air role for Sochi. It was David Beckham and he was talking not Barclays Premier League or World Cup, he wasn’t talking Super Bowl underwear ads. He was talking Major League Soccer, on a dreary morning where most of the Northeast was longing for pitchers and catchers in sports and most MLS teams were off in some warm clients training for a season still to come in most home markets.

The timing was great, and the announcement was simple; the global star was bringing his brand back to help the league jump once again in another warm weather location, this time Miami, as the new “owner” of the latest MLS expansion franchise. They don’t have financing or a stadium, the announcement was  to let the world know Beckham had exercised his expiring option to own a team, and that choice would be Miami, a city where if you aren’t the Heat on a title run you have a tough time filling seats and capturing the attention of sports fans. Regardless of the obstacles, the day was a great one for MLS, which used the Beckham celebrity to inject itself into the global sports and business conversation at a time where they were a distant afterthought even in the soccer world which past midseason across Europe and is starting to ramp up for Brazil World Cup later this year.

The announcement was full of what MLS sells best; future hope combined with lots of buzz as it continues to build the quality of its play and the value of its franchises.  It had all the right trappings; mentions of celebrity owners coming in, a call to action for the Latino audience dominant in South Florida to embrace a professional soccer franchise, a that an elite former player was now focused on creating a new legacy off the field in the game he loves, and a that a market where MLS had died years ago was now mature and ready to grow again, not unlike cities like Washington have done with baseball and Sacramento in some ways is going through with basketball. Miami is now a welcomed and potential great success story for soccer in America.

Now when the sizzle clears there is lots to be done and many questions to be raised; where does the money come from, who builds the stadium, can Beckham, with no managerial experience and lots of business initiatives, spend the time and hire all the right people to make the franchise a success as a business and as a soccer club, and even if he does, will the fickle Miami audience turn out?  While a big announcement for sure, others questioned why the next franchise wouldn’t be in a more mature soccer city like Atlanta, San Antonio or Austin, vs. the risky move back to South Beach. However for today, having Beckham back in the fold was great news for MLS, and helps jump start a series of events for 2014 that can continue to propel the business of soccer in the States forward. It follows the popular partnership between the New York Yankees and Manchester City Football Club to add an expansion franchise to New York, and the string announcement to bring Central Florida, a very solid soccer market already, a club in Orlando all of which sounded good and brought buzz and like Miami, are still off in the distance as to what level of actual success can be achieved with such high expectations.

We all know in sport nothing is easy, and when dealing with real life drama on and off the field even the best plans and biggest dreams can go awry. However for MLS to cut through a cluttered February landscape already filled with Olympics, the Super Bowl business hangover, the coming NBA All-Star game and more than enough exciting college sports (not to mention Daytona for NASCAR and Pebble Beach in golf), was a huge score for soccer, and a move which has set the tone once again for what can be an exciting, and definitely intriguing sports business landscape not just for 2014 but for the next few years to come as these new franchises look to emulate the success of places like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver with lots of sizzle, and hopefully a steak to go with it, the latest one in the hands of one of the world’s most recognizable faces, now settling in in South Florida.  

Devils, Sixers Hedge Their Bets…For The Better and The Bettor

A little over a month ago we noticed the huge amount of exposure new legalized online gambling sites were getting in New Jersey. You could not go a few miles on a major highway without seeing something for Betfair or any of a number of other sites, and given the fact that sports teams in Canada…the Raptors, the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens…were already calling Poker Stars.net a partner with prominent advertising, it seemed like just a matter of time before a franchise like the Devils started to cash in…literally…with one of the online sites now legal in the market. What we didn’t realize at the time was that it didn’t have to be a team that was located in the State, one that televised into the market was also OK to partner with, so the opportunities for the deep pockets of the online sites expanded exponentially across the Hudson and the Delaware at least.

On Thursday at the Prudential Center, the convergence of team ownership on both sides of the border river to the South of the State, Josh Harris’ tandem of the Devils and the Sixers spearheaded by President Scott O’Neil, broke the logjam and announced what was billed, and truly is, a historic partnership between partypoker, run by the UK gambling house Betwin, and the two teams, making  partypoker the Official Online Gaming partner of the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center. This multi-year deal in the online gaming category is the first of its kind for US-based sports organizations and signals a continued commitment by both franchises to create and foster partnerships with the world’s best brands. Welcome to the billion dollar sponsorship world of online gaming and gambling in the US…a world which will grow exponentially in the coming years.

As part of the partnership, co-branded assets will be built for fans of the two teams. Through a new and exclusive promotion called the ‘Dream Seat Series’, fans located in New Jersey who play on nj.partypoker.com will be able to compete for a number of great prizes, including regular, courtside and VIP suite seats to all Devils and Sixers home games, road trips with the teams and coveted tickets to concerts all year round including the upcoming January 22 Jay Z concert at the Prudential Center. Included in the partnership is the integration of partypoker into the Devils and 76ers web sites and social media channels, and mobile applications; tickets and hospitality; in-arena signage, including dasher boards, on-ice and on-court; and rights to broadcast television and radio advertisements during Devils and Sixers games.

For the Devils and the Sixers, two teams that are challenged in the sponsorship space, it is a jackpot that the new ownership group in New Jersey may have seen but could never have anticipated happening so soon. For partypoker it establishes a price and a beachhead for which other sites will now bid against. Strategically the deal makes sense for many reasons other than just the sponsorship. The Sixers, no longer owned by publicly traded Comcast as the rival Flyers are, have probably less investor pushback than their hockey brethren in “The City of Brotherly Love.” They have attendance issues and lots of distressed seats to fill right now, and they have a D-league team across the river in Delaware who also needs help in a state where online gaming may also soon be legal. While some questioned the synergy that could exist between the devils and Sixers when Harris’ team made their purchase in 2013, this deal, and potentially others like it, show the value. They are able to blanket not Philly, but the corridor between Philly and New York through NBA and NHL partnerships with unique deals in two arenas and in a very large geographic area. That for sure appealed to their new sponsor and may set a precedent for other deals in new categories going forward for two franchises that need to carve new roads for dollars. While it is true that franchises with distressed inventory have created “unique” partnerships before…the Islanders signing a tattoos sponsor, and the Nets when in New Jersey creating any number of unique categories, including “official tax service” for a while, this virgin category has huge potential, huge dollars and huge ramifications for sponsorship going forward.

There is no doubt that New York’s prominent franchises in the winter, the Rangers and the Knicks, who already have solid sponsors in the casino space, will find a way to engage with one of the online sites. Their broadcast partners, also looking for new revenue streams, are almost certainly in the hunt for dollars that are now free, clear and very legal as well.

The question will be if the more conservative ranks of MLB, or the deeper and somewhat more selective teams of the NFL…the Jets, Giants, and Eagles…will also find a way to engage. For New Jersey’s minor league baseball teams, as well as for the Red Bulls…the deal and the opportunity will also set a precedent for them to negotiate and engage with. It is hard to believe that the MLS club, a sport with deep relationships abroad in not only gaming but with Betwin itself, won’t find a way to exploit the new coffers. The minor league teams affiliated with MLB clubs may be a bit hesitant because of their promotion of more “family friendly” environs, but the State’s independent teams in Somerset and Montclair should be on board with creative programs before first pitch this spring. Who knows maybe there will even be hope for the recently deceased Newark Bears? And how about Pocono Raceway, tucked in the mountains with several hundred thousand NASCAR and Indy car fans coming every year? The online dollars and fan engagement that is now OK can’t be too far away.

While Thursday’s announcement was all about poker in New Jersey and online non- financial prizes in Philly, this is just the beginning for a wave that will continue to challenge the Federal statue for all sports wagering, something which new jersey has led the fight for. Already a growing number of teams are allowing “pay fantasy” programs, and now the infiltration of the online poker category will put more behind the scenes pressure, and create more sponsorship opportunities for large dollars, for professional teams already challenged with finding new revenue to offset ticket prices. That is to say nothing of the chunk of mobile revenue that can be brought in through established online wagering, as is the case in many places where sports gambling is legal around the world.

What will the leagues say if there is opposition to gambling? As has been the case, there will never be a challenge publicly by any league or team. They will abide by the Federal law and what Congress determines as fair and legal. However when the law changes or evolves, they will follow suit.

Now as we have said before this is not Armageddon or the end of sports as we know it, where the fix is in for every game, and fans are scurrying to betting parlors to bet against their hometown heroes for the sake of a buck. What it is is the evolution of sport in a category that has multi-BILLION dollar potential, and already has a well-documented illegal marketplace going on. The legal side of sports betting is well established abroad and even in Nevada, and the Caribbean, where sports gambling goes on every day without incident. Will there be hiccups and issues and adjustments? Yes. However the tide for legal wagering and gaming in the United States is rising, and Thursday’s announcement by the leadership of the Devils and Flyers is the latest, and certainly not the last, move in that lucrative evolutionary process. It will be a slow and steady test to see what the American fan base will endure, just as it was with fantasy, with cable broadcasts, with the lottery, even in some sports already with jersey advertising. Test, record, respond and see what the market will bear.

So far, all tests for the Devils and Sixers are positive.  Where will it go next? Sports gambling is still a ways away, but the other teams and their broadcast partners will clamor for their own share, and those creative promotions and big dollars will be next. All will be slick, fun, legal and highly effective for all involved.

So with the gambling vice in the mix, is there anything left for challenged sports brands to conquer, especially in and around The Garden State, the home of Big Pharma? How about condoms, an industry also with huge pockets and promotional expertise. Scott ONeil and company found a way with one gamble, maybe they can test another “first” for sport.

In either case, don’t bet against it.

MLS Cup and World Cup Draw Help Float The North American Soccer Boat…

Say what you want about Major League Soccer and where it sits in the lexicon of professional sports in North America or where it sits as an established and viable entity in the global game, but there is no doubt that progress continues to be made as a brand.

The latest step will take place this weekend,  when MLS Cup will be held in Kansas City after a very long season, timed to follow the great global buzz around Friday’s World Cup draw. The weekend will be symbolic in highlighting what MLS has done best in recent years; growing and cultivating the game in the North America from the grassroots up, and then taking advantage of the key moments globally where soccer is premium and using that wave to raise awareness for the sport in their markets.

The past two weeks of lead up to MLS Cup has been a non-stop promotional tour for Commissioner Don Garber and others, using every form of media to engage and tell the story of the league and the sport overall. From Google hangouts to twitter chats to town hall meetings and visits with Regis Philbin, Garber has been everywhere as the face of the game in the U.S. the past few weeks. Using the consistent messages of growth and business health to spur the sport. The announcement of expansion into the Orlando market, the progress of a new stadium in the Bay Area and the continued rumors, albeit loud ones, of a David Beckham group getting a franchise have helped offset some of the warts on the MLS skin, like league sponsor Volkswagen ending its kit deal with DC United, or the ongoing questions of a future schedule format and the increased potential salary levels of players.  All of the negatives are actually positive signs of a maturing property, along with wherever the league TV contract ends up in future years.

The week, and the weekend, are all about spin positive for MLS and “Brand Soccer” in the States. Despite cold weather, something which will be an interesting factor should the league go to the traditional winter soccer schedule in future years, the league gets to show off one of the most technologically advanced facilities to a world which may not have seen how far ahead Sporting Kansas City is in terms of innovation. MLS has tried to replicate the buildup in the local market that other championship events have done; music events, food tasting, community builds and charitable donations for example; to try and expand the casual scope of the sport in the marketplace.   A host of brand activation projects from MLS national sponsors will also help to round out the goings-on around the Cup.

The timing of the Championship tied to the World Cup draw is also well planned and fortuitous for those pushing soccer in the States on the highest level. With the US and Mexico both qualifying for Brazil in  2014, the buzz around all things soccer, no matter who one roots for, will be high during the weekend, and MLS can slide into that conversation on many levels, especially in social media. Maybe all the talk is not about Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, but any talk about the game helps raise the awareness of all involved.

Is the format for MLS Cup perfect? No. While rewarding the high seed with to host seems like the best way to build local interest, it limits the amount of advance planning and event management that can be done around MLS Cup. The cold weather scenario for the current schedule also doesn’t help, although that would change if the schedule does flip. Then there is market size and star power for the casual fan. No doubt that Real Salt Like and Sporting KC are solid businesses and quality franchises. But in the growing world of MLS having a major market and its major stars to draw is a big plus, albeit something no one can control. The plus side of emerging markets is that there is a window to tell new stories, expose new fan bases and continue to build for the future. If that future also happened to be located in New York or LA or Toronto or Seattle that too would be great, but one can only play the cards that are dealt on the pitch.

At the end of the day, the weekend is a celebration of all things soccer in North America, and hopefully a look back on the success of coming franchises, large digital exposure and new brand partners. Dwelling on the short term items like TV numbers and cold weather will probably be overshadowed by the continued growth of soccer in North America, and the looking forward to possibilities of what World Cup and new faces will bring to the league will outshine the lesser news cycle. MLS continues to build and grow, and this weekend is a good reflection of where the sport and the league have come and more importantly where they can go in the future.

Vice Becomes Nice…What’s Next?

For people of a certain age, seeing Marlboro or Virginia Slims or Winston associated with the biggest brands in American sport was commonplace. Big tobacco fueled bug sponsorships, especially when the Federal Government began curtailing cigarettes from their first large-scale media investment…television…in the late 1960’s.  Along with smokes, spirits also fueled the athletic coffers, turning out big time promos in print and TV and radio with stars like Joe Namath hawking their favorite alcoholic libation. No gambling of course, but everyone could drink and smoke.

Then came the FDA and the FTC and the push back and eventual ban on all vice advertising. With the ban went some moral clarity, but millions of dollars in revenue for teams and leagues. Cleaner, healthier but poorer. Now of course other categories arose to fill the void, and then the lottery became more en vogue and their advertising dollars began to fill a huge hole in sport, so the balance of vices kicked in yet again. Still even though legal federated gambling dollars, and then casino monies, were OK, still spirits were off limits. That all began to change in the last few years, as teams looked at the millions being left on the table for team sports and being channeled into boxing, MMA and other alternative options by the global spirit brands, who were more than willing to spend on international sport like soccer, rugby and cricket. There was certainly no issue with the way the brands were being sold at retail or in venues; it was a matter of perception.

Slowly but surely tests were being done to see what would pass the consumer and broadcast sniff test. Teams began adding luxury seating sections branded with spirits, brands like Captain Morgan would find experiential events to push to the sports consumer, and then TV and print advertising became OK again. Teams started to be able to sell to spirits in some very high level ways…lower targeted categories like malt liquor are still pretty much off the market…but high end brands for the high end consumer, bring it on. Most were regional partnerships, but the leagues certainly were aware of the spend, and the opportunity to grow partnerships, especially as sport looked to be more global than national.

So it is into that trend that this week the NBA launched their most comprehensive spirits partnership in history, one involving all forms of media as well as celebrity tied to teams. No active players as of yet, but lots of solid linkage to all things NBA. The deal is with Diageo as exclusive spirits sponsor, with Sean “Diddy” Combs and Diageo’s Ciroc premium vodka becoming “The Toast of the NBA.” Diageo will promote its Ciroc and Crown Royal brands across the NBA and NBA Development League while bringing Baileys Crème to a WNBA audience.  Although Bacardi was the league’s first official spirits sponsor in 2010 the multi-brand partnership with Diageo really ramps up the exposure and the messaging and the dollars for the NBA in spirits.

What does this mean about categories that were one taboo for pro sports in the US? Lots. In the search for more revenue and creative partnerships, the leagues need to go to new places. Lottery, once off-limits, is now a must have, and many teams have slowly started to introduce a form of “paid” fantasy, which certainly flies in the face of but does not yet cross the line with the world of online wagering and gaming.  A world where social issues are becoming more and more in the headlines could also lead to ways to introduce the uber-lucrative world of condoms and STD prevention to sport, which has easily accepted the dollars and significance of every form of ED medication under the sun. E-Cigarettes, although still unregulated and facing a lot of pushback, may also test the waters in sports like MMA and boxing first, but those may still be in the distance.

Then there is the elephant in the room, gambling, especially in the mobile space. While states like Delaware and New Jersey press on to fight the decades old federal law that prohibits sports gambling everywhere except Nevada, clubs and leagues around the world are making huge inroads with controlled and legal gaming and gambling platforms. While no league will publicly address the issue, all must be placing a watchful eye on the States because once a foothold is established, legal gambling could go the way of the other legal “vice” categories, and as a result will help push all forms of sponsorship up. It will not happen tomorrow, but it will come at some point, and those naysayers should easily look back on the history of spirits, and lottery and casinos to mark the process.

For now, the NBA and probably the rest of the leagues, can lift a glass and toast an ever-widening spirits category, one which is lucrative, interactive, well-modulated and certainly worth every dollar invested for all.   

“Movember” Grows

The gold standard by which charities are measured these days remains the pink campaigns of Breast Cancer Awareness month, led by the yeoman work of Susan G. Komen, even with its issues last year. However as we reach mid-November, it is worth a tip of the hat to the growing work for the “Movember” campaign, which supports cancer that strikes men, especially prostate cancer and early detection.

The theme for “Movember” is to get primarily men (although women can help out with a fake one) to grow a mustache or not shave for the 30 days of the month, and then gain dollars through pledges for growing their ‘stache.  Given what we have seen with the Boston Red Sox and their epic beard growth (and subsequent sponsored shaving by Gillette), mustache growth is a natural follow-up as we transition into winter sports.

Major League Soccer has gone on board in a big way with Movember, with clubs throughout the League growing ‘Mo’s (moustaches).  Players, supporters, staff and partners are clean-shaven on November 1st and grow their moustaches throughout the month. Participants document  progress on their ‘MoSpace pages as part of the MLS Movember Network, on the Movember website. Women participated by becoming ‘Mo Sistas’ and created their own ‘MoSpaces to support the men they love.

In 2011, the first year of a League-wide Movember campaign, players, supporters and staff throughout the League joined together to raise approximately $45,000. In 2012, we raised $57,000 to support Movember.

The NHL has also been a long supporter, following on their yearly ritual of not shaving during the playoffs. The Washington Capitals Karl Alzner, the Canucks Roberto Luongo and a wide-ranging group from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment have all signed on for 2013.

Now “Movember” has its shortcomings; guys have to look a little unkempt in a month not known for vacations, and it is not as easy to activate such a program as it is with a “Wear Pink” campaign. Also other sports, especially Major League Baseball, do activate against prostate cancer with blue bats and other events around Father’s Day each year. Still “Movember” continues to have a great upside, with the potential of thousands of fake ‘staches being given out at games during the month, maybe even tied to Coaches vs. Cancer events in college hoops. The fake handouts are low cost and would make for great digital integration and TV. Still it does cost money to engage nationally or internationally, and the campaign is growing now with the NHL assisting. It is a fun and noteworthy push for awareness, one which hopefully can continue to gain steam in the coming years for a very noble cause or series of causes.