It’s Early On A Weekend Morning, And The Peacock Couldn’t Be Prouder…

There is no doubt that the power NBC has in the world of sports broadcasting these days. From the Olympics to Sunday Night Football to golf and the NHL the Peacock has maybe never been prouder for what it stands for in sports and sports business, across both of tis networks and into its digital platforms.

However another area where its niche has grown, and where it continues to push new properties is not in prime time but in the early hours on the weekends. An area once seen as the home of cartoons and talk shows and more than a few infomercials, NBC has looked at the space and seen sports; global sports. Much like they did with the little used time in late, late night, the powers that be have sliced up morning on the east coast to bring you Formula 1 and the Barclays Premier League, and have so far splashed in some tennis like the French Open as well, all live and catering on the network to an audience that is more and more in focus with global sport. In late night, the network found a home for Poker After Dark and several MMA franchises and brought new value to a time that was almost a throwaway. That same formula has been amped up for the weekend mornings, with identifiable global athletes and lots of star power and buzz.

Is it easy to grow a live TV platform early in the morning? Probably not, unless you have the right content, and NBC seems to have found some great critical mass. Soccer, especially the Barclays Premier League, has become a hot property not just with expats and niche club fans, but with some other early risers, kids who because of the digital world they are now in, know as much about Manchester United and Arsenal than they do in some cases about their hometown teams. NBC saw the opportunity and fed the audience, and as a result the audience has grown, and the sponsor value with it. The same with Formula 1, arguably the biggest sport on the planet the US has never fully understood or embraced. Americans love stars, fast cars and big names, and Formula 1, when marketed correctly has all of those. Drop in a race in Texas and potentially another in the States and you have a growth platform that can make its own space on select Sunday mornings.

Now of course none of this happens in a vacuum. There is ample support on NBC Sports Network and marketing across all the Comcast platforms for all of the live programming, assets which didn’t exist years ago if such a thing was tried. There is also more awareness of elite global events than there has ever been before, and all of that awareness builds into seeding a core fan base while also pulling in casual fans for a look-see, many of whom return time and again.

The plan for early morning live sports isn’t fool proof in any way. It still has to stay novel and innovative to keep the casual and compel the die hard to watch. It also has to overcome the wee hours that you get when you venture west on the North American continent. Fans in LA may tune in at eight for live soccer, but at six AM as well? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Still for a way to build a stake in the ground, NBC Sports seems to have found a spot. So what’s next as we head towards the Olympics in 2016 for early morning viewing? Cricket? Rugby (a sport which NBC has invested in)?  NFL overseas? Would some American sports move to a breakfast time occasionally to grab a showcase? College hoops maybe? All to be determined.

However one thing is sure. Like they did in late night, and even with such programming as dog shows, NBC Sports looked  not to the unusual but to the compelling to find ways to grab live content and give it a home on their network. It has worked for soccer and F1, and it may work for others. We get little sleep as it is, so why not watch some sports?

Data Now Has A Price…

What price does data have in sport these days? If the stories on Friday are to be believed, and no reason they are not, the current price for at least some of the data is north of $200 million. That was the expected number that the sale of Chicago-based Stats Inc. fetched from a private equity firm, who has acquired the company from  Fox Sports and the Associated Press. The purchaser was  San Francisco-based private-equity firm Vista Equity Partners.

Stats, best-known for licensing data statistics and providing analysis for over 200 leagues worldwide and networks like ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports and Comcast Inc.,  gained more attention among sports business types  this year when the NBA purchased its SportVU player-tracking technology to install in all of its arenas. The appeal of tracking technology partnered with wearable tech is seen as a major growth industry, an area which Stats is only one player at this point, and a costly one at that. However being first in the marketplace with a brand-name partner has its value, and that value was clearly shown this week.  Whether that pricey spend for tracking technology will drop significantly like we have seen in other areas of technology, from calculators to laptops to cameras to televisions, is a question yet to be answered.

The other major growth industry for data remains in the gaming space, a global billion dollar industry, with a small fraction of that business currently being legal in some countries outside of North America. The ability for consumer to use data for gambling in sport is commonplace in Europe, but still illegal outside of Nevada despite challenges currently going on from numerous states. Every professional sports league in North America continues to publicly deny the interest in gambling, but will still monitor the progress and the lobbying going on back and forth to change the Federal mandate. Should the law change, most feel it is not if but when, the need for accurate and detailed data from companies like Stats will explode, as leagues can then license their information through a data provider and take a cut of every transaction. While many people may think of those transactions as miniscule, the ability for a registered adult consumer to place a wager or engage with every interaction in a game, especially in a mobile environment is massive, and would make a revenue stream for leagues a billion dollar industry.

While the gaming and gambling is still off in the distance, the use of data for detailed player evaluation continues to be more and more powerful. The NBA D-League and the Arena Football League have started to track data related to performance with microchips in uniforms, and the tracking technology being used by the NBA can record much more than just actions going up and down the court. Whether or not professional player associations will allow the wearing of such chips during league games and practices is up for debate, as that data can be extremely personal when it can record things like heart rhythm and breathing capacity, but the interest for using all kinds of data to engage fans and broadcasters for content is now at a premium everywhere from America’s Cup to Formula One, and being able to provide that intimate detail of data now has at least one number affixed to it through the Stats sale this week. Now what dollar value broadcasters will put on that data for their use remains to be seen. If it can be sold to a brand, and if the consumers continue to have a need for more intimate data, the price goes up. If the market says the data is superfluous, the price stays the same or the value goes down. There is certainly an interest in more data, the question will be at what price.

Regardless of the short term outcome, the value of having propriety data and finding ways to use it continues to grow for both the recreational athlete and for the consumer and the teams at the highest level. What was once seen as an outlier in “Moneyball” is now the rule in every aspect of sport, and a venture capital firm has now set at least one price for what value data has.

A Year In, A Year Away, NYCFC Keeps Building…

A year ago this coming week the New York soccer world was all abuzz with the announcement of the latest entry into Major League Soccer, and arguably the last startup sports team New York will ever see in New York City Football Club.  Manchester City, Major League Soccer and the New York Yankees announced a long rumored deal to bring the 20th MLS franchise to New York City. The deal pushed soccer to the front pages of every newspaper and broadcast outlet, created buzz and excitement in the New York City area that hasn’t been seen for soccer really since the original Cosmos…the ones that played games vs. the team out there now in the lower tier NASL later this summer…last took the turf at Giants Stadium.

Part of the excitement was that interesting mix of timing…the announcement fell miraculously at a point on the sports calendar where hoops was finished with the Knicks exit from the playoffs over the weekend, the Jets and Giants in a lull before offseason workouts begin, the Yankees on the road, two of the three NHL teams done and the Rangers coming close to ending the season, and no extraordinary other sports events, to contend with. The Red Bulls were even quiet, having played a marquee matchup with the LA Galaxy over the weekend, and even fans of global soccer were waiting for that weekend’s Champions League matchup. It was a rare spot where crickets could be heard through the usual noise of a spring sports week in Gotham, and fit well with Man City’s exhibition which was to be played that Saturday against rival Chelsea at Yankee Stadium already on the calendar. A better stage could not have been set from a timing perspective.

So a year in and less than a year to go before kickoff, how is NYCFC doing? By most  accounts pretty well. The club has the deep pockets of Barclays Premier League champion Manchester City and the New York Yankees, as well as their two iconic brand names, to bolster support. They built a strong social campaign to find a badge created by their interested fans and have used their time expanding grassroots support with every soccer club that will hear them speak and be part of their launch. They sent clear messages about culture by sending their soccer heads, Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis, to learn the system they will use by embedding themselves in Man City football. They have secured local TV and even radio deals well in advance of their start, and they take every second they can to engage fans on all things football in the digital space. They sell tickets without players, sponsorship without star value. The star right now is the idea of bring in on the ground floor of something special. When talk of a training facility in the City of New York fell apart, they looked to the affluent community just to the north of the Bronx and finally found a willing partner in Manhattanville College, where they can cultivate an additional fan base who is used to having the elite call their county home. When plans for a stadium became (and remain) taxing, they returned to their co-owner and devised a glitzy plan to use the Yankees assets, and their stadium for now, to have a home. The announcement came replete with technological talk of keeping the grass new and vibrant and moving the pitchers mound in and out. Even the shining star of Mariano Rivera signed on symbolically for the first few season tickets. Yankees pinstripes lifted the new blue brand in town.

Best of all NYCFC has sold hype, the hype of an event that everyone will want to be part of. Their ads are about the brand, not the coaches. There is a slight mention of Man City and the Yankees (and a lot of their marketing muscle), bit no real allusions that the players from “over there,” some of the biggest names in soccer, will be the ones here all the time. For a visit now and again sure, but this team, right now faceless, will be one that will be home grown, with an identity born of two brands, created into one. Like a good wedding, NYCFC thus far has something old (the tradition of Man City), something new (expansion in NY), something norrowed (Yankee Stadium), and something blue (its colors).

How long will the Honeymoon go on? Well for now it will be quite a while. Viewing parties in the boroughs will probably go on through World Cup, visits of elite celebrities and big name soccer stars will traverse through, and the constant buzz of interest will continue to build. Somewhere down the road there will even be players and uniforms and new brands on board, and eventually a match or two next spring that will have solid numbers in the house. However that’s not what all this buzz is really about, the opening day. It is to build community, build affinity and build loyalty for the days after the opener, the dreary spring nights when fans will question whether to bring their discretionary dollars for another night of MLS action or stay home to watch “Modern Family.” It will be for those days when the spring sports calendar is cluttered with baseball, postseason hockey and hoops and even the NF Draft a time when media will have to cover because of demand and interest rather than the need. That will be the true test of how strong the foundation being built for NYCFC will be.

We all like new, like hype and like being a part of something special. Is that what NYCFC will be? So far, even with their warts, they seem to be playing the role as well as can be expected with the payoff still a year away

Can Sport Influence Social Change In Nigeria?

We have seen time and again how sport, especially on a global stage; can have an impact for social change. Whether it is caused-based programs like wearing pink for breast cancer awareness or blue for prostate cancer initiatives, or larger scale calls to action like anti-bullying, athletes, the brands they work with, and their massive broadcast partners have found the platform more now than ever to use their influence to drum up awareness and invoke massive change. The passion of sport can help move opinion and get casual fans engaged in causes they might not know about.

So as we reach Mother’s Day, it will be interesting to see with the NBA and NHL Finals, and European soccer reaching its end, if athletes rally to draw awareness for the atrocities going in with the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria by the terrorists of Boko Haram. Politicians, including First Lady Michelle Obama, have now taken up the cause to find the missing girls and have begun to put pressure on the Nigerian government to address this tragedy, and sport now has a window to step up as well.

There are few things that motivate athletes to take a stand than atrocities with children, and the influence Nigerian athletes have had on global sport; in athletics, soccer, basketball, even football and now baseball in the States, is very powerful. However this is not a Nigerian issue; it is again a humanitarian issue that sport can help raise awareness for, and the time to do so is now, especially leading into the World Cup.  In the States, as the U.S. team gets ready to make its way to Brazil, there will be a reality show done by ESPN following the members of the team, so maybe, maybe, there will be a window where an athlete, one who is white, not of color, speaks out or wears a t-shirt talking about the atrocities going on. Over the weekend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a stand to draw awareness, maybe WWE with its massive outreach and its influence on parents, can organize a call to action. Could LeBron James or Paul Pierce or and NBA athlete who is a father, step up and make a statement or subtly say something during a media access period? Could the WTA or the LPGA, or the WNBA be the massive group that starts the process? That type of awareness, as we have seen in the past, is massive and very impactful. It moves politicians and governments to act faster than almost anything the common man can do.

Now this is not to say that any other charity or humanitarian athlete going on today should be given short shrift because of the goings on in Nigeria. This is also not to say that massive dollars needs to be put towards this issue as would happen with an earthquake or flooding. It’s also not to say that this should be a statement of military intervention by the U.S. What it is is a chance for athletes, who have used their massive influence before, to take an immediate stand and help ratchet up the attention meter. Starting today, Mother’s Day, would be a great place.  

New Tool Helps Sport Think Globally, Speak Locally…

One of the biggest challenges for American brands, teams and leagues today is literally getting lost in translation. As sport continues to expand globally, understanding culture, language and tradition becomes more and more important, and with the advent of social media, the ability to make a misstep and be deemed “the ugly American” can happen in seconds, with huge amounts of time and money being spent to help right the faux pas.

We see it constantly in the Latino space, where teams or leagues or even athletes try to reach the “Hispanic” audience and throw “Los” on something and play some mariachi music without really understanding if they are marketing or speaking to the culture in Brazil (where you are better off with Portuguese and even Japanese), Argentina, Puerto Rico, Mexico or even Spain. One team’s “Spanish” is not the same for everyone. The sports that do it best in the Hispanic or Latino world remain in soccer and are growing more in basketball in baseball, where the sport itself is part of the culture. It is a growing embrace, but total understanding and marketing to each part of a cultural base is still costly and years away.

As American sport looks east, to Asia, especially, the challenges become even more daunting, albeit enticing. You have not just spoken language and cultural issues but written language issues, as well as select governments that carefully control the use of social media, often times the prime engagement vehicle when going in-country.  China presents one of the biggest challenges and opportunities.  

Key social media channels like Facebook and Twitter are blocked, so it’s hard for athletes, teams, leagues, and agencies around the world to tap into the this growing market. In turn, the leagues need to find strategic ways to engage in the space that are both seamless and respectful of all going on around them in real time, as one misstep can have devastating results.

One recent launch we have been watching is KAWO, a social media management tool that helps businesses repurpose and automate existing social media content onto Chinese channels like Weibo and WeChat, which launched a sports-specific portal early in the spring.

Founded by Australian entrepreneur Andrew Collins, the Shanghai-based social media agency gives brands digital access to over 600 million people by automatically pulling their existing Facebook and Twitter content onto a central dashboard, where moderators translate and then push it via KAWO directly on a brand’s Chinese social network accounts.

While many large properties like the NBA and MLB have invested large dollars into building up a presence with staff in China, other emerging sports and entertainment properties and leagues will not have the ability to do so because of financial constraints, yet the opportunity for engagement in the market with millions of interested consumers exists. That’s where a platform like KAWO can provide benefit; it clears the social barriers and carefully orchestrates the buzz and the content into a form that is respectful, efficient and monetizable. While we all may understand that English is the international language of business, speaking to an emerging consumer in their language, with the right nuance, is irreplaceable.

Will platforms like KAWO attain scale, or will there be more efficient copy-cat platforms, or ones that large scale media companies and leagues can launch on their own to attain a similar level of service? Possibly. However for the here and now, and we are all about here and now, a service like this to speak proactively and smartly to the growing Asian consumer market could be an interesting investment, and one certainly to watch as we continue to go more global. While staying true locally.  

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. 

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.

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.