Gaming | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

“Hardball Passport” Scores For Baseball Fans…

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

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

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

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

MLS Kicks Off, Is Their Next Stage of Brand Arrival Here?

For years Major League Soccer screamed and kicked as a brand to get noticed as a growing property. Expansion, grassroots growth, television deals, celebrity owners, recognizable mainstream athletes, integration in broadcast television, brand partnerships with companies engaging in sport for first time, wide-ranging multicultural marketing, unique team names, embracing of social media and aggressive and continued calls to action on every level were part of the mix. Now as their 19th season kicks off, some question whether MLS has arrived, and what is next, no longer as the newer kid on the block, but as a viable sports business property mentioned in the same breath in the American landscape with the four traditional “team” sports; NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB; as well as probably NASCAR and in some cases even the PGA.  Has MLS arrived to be a regular partner in that space, from a business perspective?

In most ways it would be hard to say that at least “brand soccer” has not entered into the mix.  The massive expansion of broadcast and digital coverage of the world’s elite clubs, as well as an increased marketing push into the United States, makes it just as easy to see young kids wearing a Real Madrid jersey in most major cities as it does to see a Yankees or Cubs jersey. Elite clubs continue to target their offseason…the late spring and early summer…for “friendlies” in cities across North America, matches used as much as marketing tools as shows of high level of play. More American sports businessmen than ever are involved in ownership positions in clubs big and small across Europe, giving a duality to the marketing of clubs on both sides of the Atlantic than ever before. A host of clubs, from Chelsea to Bayern Munich to Boca Juniors, have also set up either full scale or satellite offices designed to market their clubs in the U.S., and several are developing “academies” not just to sell apparel, create broadcast product and better ingrain their brands into American sport but to develop youth talent for export overseas when the time comes, with their system of training already intact.   With the Brazil World Cup now in full view for June, the marketing of “soccer” in the United States has never been more prominent.

So where does this leave MLS as the season kicks off this weekend? The issues of a failed effort with Chivas USA and the struggles of some clubs to fill distressed seats is offset by the successful launches of clubs in the Pacific Northwest and the growing excitement of new clubs in Orlando and New York (which will be the interesting experiment to see how two mega-brands, the Yankees and Manchester City FC, combine to build a successful MLS team on and off the pitch). A new stadium in San Jose and the continued innovation by clubs like Sporting Kansas City make more noise than the issue of a referees strike to open the season. David Beckham’s interest in ownership in South Florida creates more casual buzz than DC United’s struggles to find a proper home in the soccer-crazed Capitol District. Chipoltle coming on board with their grandest sports activation platform to date gets more interest than Volkswagen’s exit, and all hopes for “arrival” of MLS can be hinged to World Cup, not just in the success of the U.S. Men’s National team, but in the proper leverage of the excitement of all things soccer back to MLS clubs once the World Cup winner is crowned.  It is a similar challenge/opportunity that the NHL has faced coming off the 2014 Sochi Olympics; how to bring all that casual interest back to the arenas when the regular season starts again. The buzz was about the game as much as the individuals, and that is what MLS needs to grab on to and maximize in the lead up and then through the season that ends in the fall. Pivoting off that success on every level is going to be key, and then maintaining that success with stars not yet known for future growth will be a massive challenge.

In many ways MLS has used its relatively blank canvas as a best case scenario for innovation. Leagues with long legacies and “traditions” have habits good and bad that are hard to break. Creating new ticketing and activation patterns in the NFL is not easy with owners are used to doing things successfully for decades. Getting million dollar players to buy in to challenging marketing programs is not that simple in the NBA or MLB all the time. For MLS, a sport hungry for growth, the barriers for change are much lower, and because of that, more projects can be tested. Some fail and are forgotten, but the triumphs are trumpeted to a large degree, such as jersey sponsorship or marketing to a devout Latino population. Broadcast ratings, a staple for support in almost every sport, are downplayed in favor of grassroots and digital integration and “forward thinking” programs for brands.  Would larger TV numbers for MLS be welcomed in a heartbeat? Sure. However with numbers not really there, the experience of MLS is what is trumpeted, all leading again to world Cup and the global celebration of soccer.

Is MLS, as some critics say, more sizzle than steak or is it ready to take a bold next step in the sports conversation in the U.S.? There is steady growth, innovation and a constant beating of the drum by all involved that the path taken is the right one. These past few weeks, from the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference to South by Southwest, you will not find a group gathering of sports, tech or business leaders in the country where an MLS leader is not present, talking about their brand and what is coming. Winning hearts and minds as well as dollars and eyeballs is really key for this year and beyond for the brand, and the league is leaving no stone unturned when looking for ways to tell its story to influencers, fans and innovators.  In reality, if there was an alternative way to build a professional sports league  in the 21st century in North America, no one has presented it.  Many other sports; spring football, lacrosse, bowling, basketball, rugby, cricket and on and on; have tried or are about to try, to find a secret sauce for brand launch and have struggled to get traction in any way. MLS is the only one that seems to have not just cracked the code, but has redefined it. 

Is there a big enough market in the States for MLS to continue to grow? What about the push of the NASL? Is there some mix of a global city by city franchise of elite clubs that could be in the offing in the future? Would an elite and established  European league try and pout roots down in the States offering a best in class lineup that MLS is still striving to offer to fans? Is the real appetite for soccer one which watches the world’s current elite clubs on TV and in digital and then gets to see them in person during the offseason?  One thing is for sure, soccer, from a talent level, from a grassroots level and from an awareness level, has never been more visible in North America than it is today.  MLS has positioned itself to be the brand of choice for fans wishing to engage in every level year-round, and now has the global excitement of World Cup to leverage off of. Will it be successful in its boldest stage of growth as a brand? The pieces are in place, now we watch and see what the marketplace has to say.  

“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.

D-League Test: If It Can Make It Here It Can Make It Anywhere

The two most populous counties in the United States without any professional sports franchise encircle New York City. They are Westchester County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey. That was until last week when the D-League and the New York Knicks announced they are re-locating their Erie (Pa.)Bayhawks franchise to Westchester’s County Center starting next fall. On first blush, why should anyone care that minor league basketball is coming to the suburbs. The building, once the home of the NBA’s Doral Arrowood Summer League and the home of more than a few legendary high school basketball games, usually draws its biggest crowds with antiques shows or the annual flower show.  If fans want to see the Knicks, they can jump on the train and be in Manhattan in about 20 minutes. There is little minor league about the demands of many in Westchester.

However the move has great potential value to the Knicks brand, and the the awareness factor of the D-League, which continues to serve not just as a proving ground for NBA talent, but for technology, coaching and branding options not yet ready for prime time NBA. For years there have been rumors about moving a D-league team to the New York area, much in the way the L.A. Lakers have their Defenders playing in their practice facility and now the Philadelphia 76ers have their team in nearby Wilmington. Talk of Jersey City, The Bronx, even Harlem circulated for a good amount of time with not much weight or attention, until the move was announced last week.  With the Knicks practice facility only a few miles away, the club can keep a close eye on talent and training with little extra cost, and the NBA gets a place to showcase D-league innovation with media and other partners without venturing too far outside Gotham. While the Knicks have always had string roots north of Manhattan, the location of the D-league team also gives them more assets for community development, a host of new young faces and coaches to engage not just in Westchester but in other affluent and basketball-savvy communities in the surrounding counties. The D-League team can also bring added sponsor value for brands looking to engage with things at MSG, but maybe can’t afford the hefty all-in price tag.  There is also added content for the two MSG-owned networks on nights or days when hockey or NBA hoops are not live as well, along with the ability to potentially train a growing sales and branding force who are not yet ready for work at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Now will the D-League move to a major suburb be easy to sell? No. It will take specific marketing talents and attention outside the norm of what MSG staffers are already offering up, and with those talents will come some extra costs to make sure that all goes well. Some teams looking to bring teams close in have not found a mix in past years, but if done right, a D-league showcase close to MSG can be a nice little extra to give fans an affordable “taste” of the NBA, much like the successful minor league Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten island Yankees are for the Mets and Yankees respectively. For the D-league it is an all win situation if successful, an opportunity to showcase young talent and innovation in a place where many media already call home.  For a league on the come, the timing is right, and it can set another standard for future expansion or development opportunities for markets on the fence in taking on the extra challenge of a D-league franchise.  

For a team that has been a punching bag most of the winter, bringing the D-League team close to home is a win for the Knicks, not for the short term but for the longer haul of brand, and hopefully player, development. If done right, it can score with rising fans, brands and job seekers, all looking for a breakthrough in the world’s biggest media market.

D-League Develops Way Beyond It’s Original Plan…

It started out as an answer to the defunct Continental Basketball Association, a way to help young, and mostly young players, in the U.S. through a minor league system that could mirror what baseball had done.  Although that isn’t really where the NBA Development League is totally today, what has emerged is something perhaps more beneficial to the NBA from a business and technology standpoint than the original idea, and is one which other sports’ developmental properties should continue to watch and expand upon, as evidenced by the latest news coming out of All-Star Weekend in New Orleans .

The NBA announced that the D-League will become the latest and most prominent organization to implement wearable tech as a way to establish new baselines for player performance in live games, with the small devices, which weigh one ounce, to be worn by players under their jersey with either a small disc attached to their chest, or inside an undergarment pouch located between the shoulder blades. At least two teams; the Bakersfield Jam and Fort Wayne Mad Ants have begun outfitting their players with the performance analytic devices. The goal is to have real time data available to evaluate cardiovascular exertion, musculoskeletal intensity, fatigue, rate of acceleration and deceleration, number of jumps, and distance run and direction, among other things.  In a perfect world down the line, the data can be served in real time to trainers and coaches during games to help players make immediate adjustments to their playing style, such as stepping back to calm a bit during a free throw, or take a few extra breaths to stay less fatigued. It can also help in improving the long-term health of athletes by studying what before could only be guessed at during games; how and when a players peak performance actually occurs, with all the factors of crowd noise and competition added in.

In years past the NBA has used the D-League to help in coaching development, referee training, secondary market development, rules experimentation, and sponsorship branding (aka uniform patches), in addition to its main goal of helping create a stay at home cost controlled marketplace for players just a notch below the elite rosters of the NBA. NBA teams have also taken more and more to the MLB minor league model of keeping D-League teams close to home, such as in LA and Philadelphia, to help keep a closer watch on their young players and giving some up and coming front office talent a place to help get on the job training. However what the DLeague has never really been us the glorious and overflowing family fun entertainment that we associate with minor league baseball and to some extent, minor league hockey. The D-League has become much more of a controlled lab for the NBA, which in some ways has forgone the goal of keeping large groups of American players in the States vs. going to Europe and elsewhere to further their careers. With overall league development as a primary focus, the NBA has created a tremendous proving ground for rules and now technology to see what works and what doesn’t in bettering the consumer and the athlete experience at the highest level. There is no crapshoot in testing a new rule in exhibition games or even in the regular season, which had happened in the past. Teams can look at best practices in technology at the D-League level before deciding what to use or not use in evaluating their players, and the league can even test wireless capability in the smaller arenas of the D-League for fan engagement and technology opportunities before moving things to a higher level with larger venues of the NBA.

On the sponsorship side, the D-League provides a great test environment for new branding, digital and social media and sponsor categories that can be perfected before reaching the bright lights of the NBA. The league’s television relationship also provides for a great platform to test new broadcast angles and other consumer data interaction before it has to go live across the much larger broadcast environment of the NBA teams as well. In other sports the ability to test and grow at the minor league level is not as robust. Baseball’s tight restrictions on players development, as well as the entrepreneurial ownership spirit of minor league clubs, makes rules testing much less of a possibility today, and the experimental pieces of the game largely fall to the independent leagues, which can try things because of their lack of affiliation with MLB clubs. The NFL’s developmental systems have never really come full circle, with rule adaptations and real-time player data programs now going more to the independent Arena league, although whispers of a fall or spring developmental league continue to surface. Much like baseball, hockey’s minor league system is also more stringent on innovation, although a more loosely affiliated league like the Central Hockey League continues to look to ways to better innovate and engage. Soccer, like the NBA probably has the most room for innovation amongst its lower levels these days, and can probably look to the hardwood for the best ways to engage and test before projects get to the MLS level.

So maybe the D-League has not come through as the full-blown minor league structure that was originally talked about. However what has emerged is probably much more valuable for the business of basketball and the future of the NBA as a robust and forward-thinking sports and entertainment property. There is still plenty of talent that is engaged in playing in the D-League, and in addition the test cases that can be built to improve the quality and the experience of the game can go on unabated, a best of both world’s scenario in a cost controlled environment for new commissioner Adam Silver to continue to grow as his term begins in full force this weekend.

A Sport Curls Its Way To Relevance…

The greatest element of the Olympics are the unique stories that are told through elite athletes casual fans don’t get to meet in their everyday sports and business encounters. The Games creates those rare windows to expose to the pubic the passion and drive to success, and failure, of faces and events we rarely think about in our day to day dealings. The beauty of social media does give those athletes a better chance to embrace their fame and connect with fans for a longer period, and some smart brands have looked to the digital space to create a tail for engagement that can continue well beyond the games themselves, but for the most part the rising tide crests for many Olympians during and just after the Olympics and then slides back for several years to come. There are the rare faces that can cross from winter to summer Games, like a Lolo Jones, or professional athletes like those of the NHL or KHL who can use their large window to grow their sport when the Games end, but for the most part the moment is now, and figuring out how to leverage that window for long-term growth is a challenge.

One of those sports, and its athletes, that seem to have found itself into a larger window is of all things, curling. A relatively simple game to understand, its use of stones and sweeping, not to mention some entrepreneurial athletes, has made curling in the Winter Olympics what Beach Volleyball has kind of become for the Summer Games. It is a sport that casual fans can relate to; people have an understanding of shuffleboard or bowling for example; and it has a long list of participants at the Sochi games who seem to understand better than most that they can use the social sphere in real time to get attention, whether it is by some outlandish outfits or by taking advantage of outer beauty to gain attention. Female athletes like Russia’s Anna Sidorova, Austria’s Claudia Toth, Norway’s Linn Githmark and Germany’s Kathy Selwand have even gone one step further, using their athletic builds without much on to draw a casual male audience, and get some precious pre-event coverage as well.

So with the US men’s and women’s teams close to going out in the preliminaries, how can curling, at least in the States, see if they can play a card similar to AVP to close the gap between Olympics and draw fans, participants, and most importantly sponsor dollars, broadcast time and buzz. Is it possible? Some thoughts as to why.

It is a simple game to watch and engage with. The space that is needed is pretty pristine and the idea of curling is an easy one to understand for people of all ages. It does not need a huge surface; there are many rinks which could engage in temporary surfaces for curling (Bryant Park in New York could be one or any series of temporary ice rinks in cities around the US) and there is not a huge outlay for cost to get people to try the game.

At the elite level large skill is needed, but at the grassroots it welcomes all ages. Shuffleboard, knock hockey, bowling; great games that people of all ages…even teens can engage in. Curling fits, and it plays to all sizes and shapes.

It is a relatively simple game to adapt to a mobile gaming audience. It’s not a big money player but playing some virtual curling is really easy and downloadable. It does not need great detailed graphics and it can be played in Angry Birds fashion by people of all ages.

The rules translate globally. There are no boundaries, no complex scoring system, no language issues. The game can be played the same regardless of culture.

It has a great upside for brand engagement. Mount a GoPro on a stone? Drop virtual ads along the sheets? Outfit the colorful elite participants in sponsor apparel? Maybe design custom stones for charity (where is the pink stone?). The brooms? Not a bad tie to all the Harry Potter fans of many ages who have enjoyed Quiddich. For brands looking to chance exposure riding some popularity, curling could be a nice fit.

The elite athletes appear to get it. From the provocative calendars to the fun outfits, it looks like there are ample stories to be told by the athletes away from the games, and there are probably multiple ways to engage elite athletes from other sports. The NFL’s Vernon Davis has come on board, and who is to say other athletes…like Chris Paul has done in bowling…along with celebrities, couldn’t engage.

It has a simple broadcast platform. There is no expansive space needed for broadcast, and the ability to use technology for very unique point of view broadcasts is an added plus. The combinations of simplicity plus good characters with the athletes make it possible to create good content for both a digital and a conventional broadcaster.

Now this is not to say curling is going to be the sport of the future and that it is the “fastest growing” anything, as many other sports claim. There is also little to no room or need  for a “professional curling league” as has been suggested. It is much more participatory than a spectator sport for long periods of time. However the sport does have an interesting window, especially with the US Pro Championships landing in a major market (Philadelphia) next month, to continue to expand its platform with a goal of gaining more brand exposure in 2018. It won’t be easy, but curling certainly has done some of the things to give it legs as a growing niche. How well it scores and how much it grows, remains to be seen, but at least for a snowy winter, and for an Olympics which has lacked in mega-stars thus far the stone and the broom has taken some slides forward.  

For some great insight on the sport, take a look at Hit The Broom

Can Bobsled Lift Our Olympic Interest?

Bobsled, can you make us watch the 2014 Sochi Games? With a U.S. Olympic team lacking lots of start power going into the Games, it may be bobsled, with technology on the course, and star-power off the course (on the women’s side) that may deliver the best branding stories of the Games, if all goes well.

First there is the unique work that BMW North America, a German company but a USOC sponsor, is doing to activate its partnership around Sochi. Not only are they doing many of the traditional sponsor activations, they have used their engineering expertise to re-design the American sleds to make them faster and more technologically advanced, which, if all plays out right, can help the American men capture their first gold since 1936, and help the  U.S. women advance the medal count they have had the last three Winter Games.

The two-man sleds are shorter and have different weight distribution, whose design dated to 1992. BMW moved weight from the front to the center of the sleds to improve handling and to help maintain momentum during the directional changes on the track and helped driver  Steven Holcomb of the U.S. win the World Cup title, with Elana Meyers  finishing second overall among the women. It is a unique way in which a sponsorship can be tailored to actual performance, which if played out correctly can open additional commercial research categories for sponsors going forward. While much of the focus for USOC sponsors goes to amassing dollars to help athletes train, the BMW deal uses the engineers the company has to actually help craft a better vehicle. While Speedo can certainly design a better swimsuit, it is pretty rare that a brand can take invested dollars and turn it into a tangible advantage such as a sled, and the story that can be told can assist BMW grow not just as an Olympic sponsor, but in technology and in the consumer space away from Sochi, where there need for speed and safety is what their brand confidence is all about.

Then there are the personalities of bobsled. While Holcomb and Meters are among the bobsled lifers on the team and prime for medals, other newer team members like Jazmine Fenlator and Lolo Jones can really help lift the sport away from the track. Jones is a lightning rod for brands and attention from her days during and prior to the London Olympics, where her personality drew almost as much attention as her performance, and she brings that telegenic base, along with some controversy real or contrived, to Sochi. Last week the talk centered around whether she made the team as a way for NBC to drive ratings, something denied by all involved, but even the accusation, as well as the unveiling of the teams sleek body suits, drew new light to bobsled at a time when most Americans were thinking Super Bowl. Fellator, another track star turned bobsledder, may end up being Jones’ sled partner, and brings another great story to the Games, coming from an All-American track family who lost their house in Superstorm Sandy while she was off training.  As a pair of powerful African American women (Fellator being not far from New York helps drive the story as well) they can transcend the die-hard Olympic following with their style and their athleticism and even with a bit of an edge, something that these Games seem to lack going into the opening ceremonies.  More importantly they stir debate, and come into the Games with tremendous marketing potential to help lift the profile of all in the sport well past the final medal ceremonies, if they are successful on the track.

Some may say the glitz and glamour doesn’t help the Games; that the traditional will help raise the sport. Not in the least in an environment today where you need both steak and sizzle to be successful and cut through the clutter. Jones’ name on her own will turn heads, and her performance will draw new eyeballs who may look elsewhere when she is not on. It also will not erode a core following that is distinctly female and is also looking for the best story lines, which Jones and Fellator can provide.

So figure skating and hockey will bring the safest bets for good numbers during the Games, with the hope that some of the newer events will pull in a younger audience. Who knows, curling may also provide some unique opportunities as well. But going into the Games with a proven name in Lolo Jones helps get interest moving much faster for NBC and for all with a casual interest, and that interest can open doors for others. It’s not to say that suddenly all race fans will switch off the Daytona 500 to go and watch bobsled every week. But in a world where speed is king, fast sleds built by an elite name brand, with some non-traditional athletes at the helm can certainly lift bobsled, and there is no downside to the extra exposure for the brand, the USOC and an Olympics that has been more about angst and caution than athletic performance during its lead up.    Welcome bobsled, take us along for the ride.

Can A Smart Biz Culture Make Sacramento “Kings” Of Sport Innovation?

When he first bought the woeful Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban knew he had to make noise to draw attention and change the culture of the franchise. So he brought in an aging but always entertaining Dennis Rodman. It sent a message that things would be different, and a young owner would do what he needed to do to set a culture and make basketball in Dallas more relevant than it ever was.  Some ideas worked, some didn’t but eventually the Mavs won a title and created enough innovative disruption to make their owner and their team’s business a must follow, while making their games a “must do” in a city and state where football has and always will be king.

Similar types of culture change usually happen when suffering franchises take on new ownership. The New Jersey, now Brooklyn, Nets would do anything to sell a ticket and get attention during their toughest days in and around the Meadowlands, finding “new innovations” every game to try and drum up support. The New York Islanders took to finding a tattoo artist to draw eyeballs, and across the country “new ideas” to create attention, some good, some bad always seem to be essential to any new regime looking to stir the pot, create interest and obviously find the bottom line on the rise.

One of the most interesting changes in sport has been going on in Sacramento, and it is different not because of the disruptive mentality going on with the team, but it’s because of the forward-thinking and civic mindedness happening off the court. The story of Vivek Ranadivé rise to the ownership circle in the NBA has been documented in a host of places in the past year since he came almost from nowhere not just to buy the team, but to keep it in Sacramento instead of the more popular move of taking the franchise to the lucrative market of Seattle.  Ranadivé, an Indian immigrant who grew up loving cricket only came to basketball because of his love of analytics and the theories he put forth coaching his undersized daughter’s basketball team later in life. Highly successful and always forward-thinking, his business acumen in Silicon Valley, along with ample cash, gave him both the to help Mayor Kevin Johnson fight an uphill battle to rescue a team that had bottomed out as a business. Now Ranadivé is seen as a savior, and new things are on the horizon for the team.

This is not the first time that ownership has ridden into the California capitol to turn the franchise around. The Maloof family did much of the same, injecting fun and lots of dollars into the organization while filling then-ARCO Arena. However the lack of a new building put a damper on the Kings business, and the family interest in the business fizzled, along with the fan base. Now there is new owner with deep pockets, how will it be different, other than the new arena that is on the horizon for the team.

It really is different this time because of the culture of innovation that  Ranadivé’s business team appears to be fostering. While many teams, the mavericks among them, are looking more and more to use analytics to measure in-court performance, the Kings have embraced every form of analysis to try and give the coaching and training staff every potential competitive advantage not now, but in the future. They have become the first sports franchise to attempt to use Bitcoin as a system, pulling  the new payment system into the NBA to see if it can work and be accepted by fans in a digital world. The team has been aggressive in saying they would look abroad to grow their fan base, especially to India, a market that is fertile for hoops but also a key part of the new fan base emerging in central California for all sports. They are business moves that are not just forward-thinking for sports; they are priorities for any global business looking to compete in the US today. The Kings, according to the new culture, will lead in business innovation and take chances, in addition to again being the fan-centric team they were once known for being. It is smart, simple, and certainly buzz worthy.

Now are some of these things different from what other new owners have done? The Jacksonville Jaguars under Shahid Khan made their intentions of growing a fan base in the UK well known and made the bold attempt to be the franchise of choice once a year for several years in London, giving up a home game they probably wouldn’t have sold out anyway. They created a state of the art social monitoring suite for fans, a suite that was probably not being sold but one that showed how valuable the team felt the digital space will be in the future.  The Orlando Magic are pushing their community initiatives as the team rebuilds. The Golden State Warriors, now on the upswing but in their darker years when new owners led by Peter Guber and Joe Lacob (Ranadivé had a minority stake their too) cultivated bloggers and other forms of social media to draw attention, and played with all sorts of creative ticket pricing to be innovative and forward-thinking, so many of the “changes” are different perhaps only to Sacramento right now.

One other apparent constant in the recent influx of owners is the desire to try the business initiatives and stay away from the issue of who is on the court.  Like the Warriors and the Jags, Ranadivé appears fixated on the fan and the future business experience, and has gone after names both large (Shaquille O’Neal) and small to help raise the profile and “street cred” of the team on the court. The owners are present and involved, but publicly they talk business, not players. All of those moves are part of the changing business culture that goes in the organization.

Will it work for the long term? At the end of the day you need success on the field and in the business side, and while they don’t always go hand in hand, in order to have the culture work you need both pieces working well and consistently. The Kings have revived a franchise that is more part of the fabric of the community than probably ever before, and they have made their first steps with business and fan innovation vs. large player spends. As sports goes global, the work  Vivek Ranadivé is doing and the culture he is building is worth a look, its making a big impression in a small market, and if the initiatives work, look for others to join along.

Baseball’s “Hot Stove” Fuels The Grassroots Game On A Quiet Weekend…

While the NFL tries more ways to keep the Pro Bowl relevant, fun and brand-worthy during the week before the Super Bowl, the real winners of the weekend appear to be hockey and yes, baseball, in grabbing the spotlight and engaging with fans, some with a national footprint but in many instances at the grassroots. On a weekend where there is no real national broadcast focus for the casual fan, baseball and football have found their own spots to bring relevance in the long winter.

For baseball, the push of interest this weekend is not from games, but from the celebration of both the past and the future. From the Baseball Assistance Fund (BAT) Dinner to the Baseball Writers Dinner this past week, media and casual fans got a reminder of all the celebratory points of the game, brought together on one stage. The 2013 award winners, from Miguel Cabrera to Andrew McCutcheon, all shone bright on a cold winter night while luminaries of the past, like Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, also took the stage Saturday night in New York.  Ironically for such a bright night, the event is not covered by any outlets live, a lost opportunity in the digital age, but the two major January functions always get ample coverage and talk going around baseball’s hot stove.

In addition to the awards and hoopla with the game’s biggest stars, this late January weekend also saw teams and fans of baseball engaging in the grassroots across the country. Several teams, with the Detroit Tigers being one of the most prominent, hosted their annual Fan fests, to remind everyone how great baseball is, and to provide a sneak peak toward spring on a cold winter weekend. Fan fests have always provided great engagement points for baseball teams, and although some teams in major markets look at the benefits as almost being cost prohibitive, those teams in secondary or teams on the rebound effectively use the cost associated to engage at a key buying time with their partners, and with all they need to come through the gates during the long spring and summer months.  The other grassroots push unique to baseball is the annual kickoff by the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), with their SABR day. Always planned late in January, SABR Day used to be a quaint little activity which self-proclaimed “stats nerds” used to start their fantasy baseball talk. Today, with the explosion of analytics in sport, SABR Day has grown with hundreds of local events all connected through social media. From New York to Nashville, Phoenix to Florida, SABR Day serves as a great link for avid baseball fans looking to gather and discuss their favorite sport, with a host of guest speakers planned to add to the mix.

Then ironically, there is also hockey to help provide another subtle reminder that pitchers and catchers are not that far away. The Stadium Series games in New York and Los Angeles, help provide the NHL with another solid platform boost in the US as we head toward Sochi and then the playoffs in the spring. While some may say all the outdoor games are getting to be mundane, the fact that casual fans by the thousands will or did turn out in Dodgers and Yankee Stadiums for the three contests, ones which also brought in some solid brand sponsors and drew more attention to the sport with a good mix of celebrity and nostalgia, is certainly a plus for hockey, but it is also good for baseball.  Being able to showcase the two landmark facilities in the dead of winter is another nice perk for baseball, which gets its brand name out in front, and maybe helps re-engage some fans who may have not been thinking baseball in the months following the holidays and leading up to spring training.  

Does it also help that a mega-star like Masahiro Tanaka ended up signing in New York this past week to keep baseball top of mind? Sure. However the events of the weekend at the grassroots provide a very fertile ground for baseball as a brand to till the soil and start the ramp up to spring, on a weekend where most fans would naturally still think football, and thanks to the mega-events of the NHL, hockey. Strategic or lucky, baseball got a positive boost.

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.