Gaming | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

What Next, Clippers?

The speed and price of the Los Angeles Clippers potential sale this week pointed two key facts; there are more billionaires in the world than there are sports franchises for sale, and the most important part of any transaction is not a valuation or a sticker, tis what someone in the market will pay for the asset. Steve Ballmer’s speed to beat others to become an NBA owner this time around proved that point.

Earlier in the week a lot of the talk had been about the potential brand damage the entire Sterling mess had brought to the franchise. However even before the sale there was little evidence that the madness had actually brought more value to the Clippers brand off the court than ever before, should the right owner be found and a sale go through. Sponsors who threatened to walk came back in the door, upper management was stabilized with the help of the NBA, and the support of the players and the coaching staff following Adam silver’s moves had given all a sense that justice in some form was being meted out, and the business of the LA Clippers was as sound, if not sounder, than ever before.  Now the a $2 billion price tag where exactly is the Clippers brand going forward, especially given the flux of their co-tenants the Los Angeles Lakers, and the ever-fluid state of the NBA from a personnel standpoint.

On the court the franchise obviously has some of the most marketable stars in North American sport in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They have paid handsomely for a coach in Doc Rivers and have added the pieces they saw as needed to move the club to one level for now, but it is a level still short of an NBA title. They sell tickets in a building where they are a tenant, they bring in brands which are solid but not overly cutting edge, they draw a bit of a national audience but still not a massive one, and their presence outside the US in the scope of the NBA is still behind that of brands like the Knicks, the Lakers, the Bulls, the Heat and even teams like the Rockets, the Nets and the Mavericks. They are not currently, but will soon, be in a position to set up a better structured and more lucrative TV deal, but that is still a bit off in the distance.

The big question from a brand standpoint right now can be addressed in the time and effort Ballmer as an owner will put in to changing a culture even further. Many have said the organization outside of ownership was progressing into being more aggressive and cutting edge, but will more changes be coming as the former Microsoft head now evaluates staff and brings in new and different faces to continue to accelerate the face of the Clippers?

There has even been some talk of the new life the team has received, coupled with the new name recognition amongst casual fans because if the issues with ownership and the marketable stars they have may even push the longstanding but in flux Lakers brand as the most marketable in Southern California. That really, really remains to be seen. Fans are loyal and tribal and won’t jump ship that fast, and the market certainly is big enough for both clubs to survive and thrive. One looks to new York, where the Nets have certainly grown as a brand in Brooklyn, but the Knicks from a business perspective have not suffered in any substantial way yet, and have generated even more offseason buzz than Brooklyn with all the talk of what Phil Jackson may be doing for the long term. Now none of that talk has translated into anything substantial in terms of wins and losses for the Knicks, who missed the playoffs and are still coachless, but it has continued to keep them well in a basketball conversation throughout the spring, and the revamped Madison square Garden remains a prime destination for hoops fans from around the world, despite the rise of the Barclays Center and tis main tenant a river away.

The interesting question around LA may be more of what the Lakers can do to right their ship than what the Clippers are doing to ramp up theirs. LA has a solid business and marketing mind in Jeannie Buss, but who ultimately makes the business calls may not be in her capable hands right now, although it would be a solid move forward for the team. The brand is certainly not suffering in terms of sales or recognition yet, and it takes several bad years, not one, for loyalty to wane. The vastness of the market can certainly support both teams having filled buildings and viable brands, and a little extended completion on the business side is certainly not a bad thing.

In the end the real intriguing part of the Clippers sale if and when it goes through to be final, will be to see how innovative, fresh and forward-thinking the team will be. What will brands put a value on when they are looking to gain entry into the NBA, and what will the team do to continue to now accelerate the buzz not just in the marketplace but nationally. The new owner has said he will stay in LA, but does that mean the Staple Center? Does Anaheim come back into the mix as it has before? And what happens with TV rights and other manageable assets? All will be interesting to watch as yet another successful business man enters the field of pro sports looking to make his mark and rearrange the furniture in a house that was recently shaken to its core, but one with a very solid foundation.

The games off the field in LA will be just as interesting as the ones on the court.       

Can California Chrome Help Racing Strike Gold?

At long last maybe, just maybe horse racing has positioned itself to take a long overdue ride, thanks to the people and the personalities in and around California Chrome and the industry itself. Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, none of the 12 horses who have taken the first two legs has gone on to make history in the Belmont Stakes. On June 7, California Chrome will be the next to attempt to join horse racing’s elite fraternity, can 13 be the lucky number not just for colorful co-owners Art Sherman and Steve Coburn, but for the industry as well?

We shall see.

One thing that is for sure is that unlike in many years past, most of the industry stakeholders and their partners seem to be ready to seize this moment. In the past three years the NTRA and The Jockey Club, through their vibrant platform America’s Best Racing, have unceasingly tried to find stories and personalities and numbers that will appeal to a casual fan. From film to long-form stories to embracing celebrities, ABR has churned out story after story, info graph after info graph, to try and explain and embrace the beauty of the sport, from the glory of the Kentucky Derby to the majesty of Saratoga through the mega-size and value of the Breeder’s Cup. While doing all this promo they have noticed a trend that may seem to turn the tide, and the perception of horse racing as an aging, old man sport in dark tracks on the fringes of society; Nearly 50% of America’s Best Racing web traffic is female; 40% under age 34 and 60% under age 55. That shows progress at a time when a horse has come along to bolster this casual numbers with the biggest and longest run of his life on June 7 at Belmont Park.

Now ABR has not done the work alone. NBC has stepped up to create a more consistent, in-depth and robust viewing and engagement package for horse racing year round across all its platforms, so that fans have one destination to go for the biggest races. The Breeder’s Cup has invested in explaining and making their offering more consistent to fans, with a series that links many of the lead-in races to the year-end event better than ever before. Many of the elite tracks around the country have expanded their use of the digital space, while also making the tracks more fan and family friendly than ever before. All can capitalize on the next three weeks as a springboard to future success, much like the NHL has leveraged the success of their outdoor games and the Olympics to bigger numbers this spring, showcasing the personalities of their sport (another good job by NBC in leveraging that property as well by the way).

Are there brands that will now emerge from the sidelines and try and jump on board for the long term as well as the short? In years past Visa saw an opportunity to sponsor The Triple Crown, but the fractious nature of horse racing at the time, along with races on multiple networks, didn’t lead to a strong or consistent ROI. When Big Brown made its run for the Crown, UPS came forward to take advantage of that short window with a unique partnership. The difference now is that there is a more consistent package and platform for brands to activate against. You can see the TV strategy, the brand strategy and the engagement possibilities more clearly than ever before. It may not be one stop shopping for someone looking to engage, but it is certainly easier and more robust than ever before.

This past weekend we continued to see some newer brands testing the waters. Some spirit brands, appealing even to women, showed up during the Preakness broadcast and will probably do the same now that there is great excitement for the Belmont.

Of course all the issues of horse racing aren’t solved with one glowing potential champion. The marketplace for the casual fan is more crowded than ever, with a robust NHL and NBA Playoffs coming to a head, not to mention the World Cup on the horizon and the added competition from virtually every sport imaginable in the next few weeks, from the NCAA Lacrosse Championships to the Indy 500, and the constant beat of baseball. The issues of abuse of horses, the viability of tracks and the increased attention on a daily basis for the sport remain problems that are being dealt with, but horse racing overall is stronger in leadership and vision than it was even a year ago, and that can help lift the ship when the tide comes in, in the form of more casual viewers for a Triple Crown Saturday. There is better promotion of personalities like jockeys, trainers and horses than ever before and a unified platform like ABR can now be a driver and a resource for many.

Will 13 be a lucky number for the business of horse racing in a few weeks, a new chance to push the sport further? While sometimes it’s better to be more lucky than good, the good business sense now in place in the sport should be a plus in taking advantage of the skilled, and lucky emergence of America’s latest potential hero, California Chrome.  The race for growth is on.

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.

Taylor at 30: Looking Briefly Back and More Importantly, Ahead

Periodically we will pull from some of the best or more innovative work being done in sports communications and marketing. In the past we have looked at ESPN, Sports Illustrated, MLS, NBC Sports and others, but now we will start to look at some agencies and other entities. We start with the folks at Taylor…

This past Sunday, Tampa Rays Manager Joe Maddon was a guest on “Ed Randall’s Talking Baseball” on WFAN radio in New York, and he touched on the difference he sees in what is “old school” and what can be “traditional but changing with the times.” He remarked,  “I see old school as being respectful and understanding of the past; I don’t see it as doing the same thing over and over because that’s the way we used to be successful.”

It may seem strange to hear one of the most successful practitioners in the tradition-filled sport of baseball liken past ideals with new age success. It is refreshing, nonetheless, and it is an element that should be seen in every business, in and out of sports; learn from the past and look to the future. Now many times in the instant ROI, get it done, be everything-to-everybody world that we live in, that is easy to talk about but hard to execute, especially  in the fast-paced world of sports and entertainment media. Clients want results, and the results today may not be best for the long term, but they give you the opportunity to compete, or work another day. Building a long-term relationship with a client, a relationship built on trust, is a daunting and time-intensive exercise, one that is surely not for the faint of heart or narrow-minded. But in many cases, building that trust by delivering a high level of strategy and counsel – true value — that impacts a brand’s business far beyond traditional media coverage,  can pay large and lasting dividends…

Such is the case with a professional service firm that is now 30 years old in structure but not in practice. Taylor, whose principals I have known and in some cases, worked with for that same period of time, still considers itself as a “ public relations” agency (with a long and deep legacy in sports), but how they got to their current leadership position in the industry and how they deliver business-building results for their clients extends  far beyond the remit for most public relations agencies – especially those that play in the sports arena.

 Taylor chief executive officer and managing partner Tony Signore is the visionary leader of his agency’s forward-thinking strategy, one which did not develop overnight. In 2004 Signore led a management buyout of his firm, founded in 1984. At the time, they had a roster of 70-plus clients and was viewed largely as nimble, hard-working – if not remarkable — sports publicity shop. What followed was a massive shift in philosophy about client service, akin to  the “Jerry Maguire Manifesto” in the famous movie starring Tom Cruise in the title role. Taylor sought far fewer clients and deeper focus, aligning itself solely with category leading brands and properties that it could service holistically through an immersive approach that addressed a brand’s overarching business objectives, not simply its PR challenges. In effect, Taylor sought to be a “brand counselor” to its clients by providing what Signore calls “irreplaceable value.”

To that end, Taylor ventured far outside the traditional realm of public relations by recruiting talent and expertise from other marketing communications disciplines such as brand planning, digital strategy, consumer insights, and creative. They challenged their existing staff to take a step forward and evolve with this new way of thinking about their business. Instead of being everything to everyone and living on the immediate results of publicity as traditional firms did, they would take an immersive approach to understanding their client’s target consumer and develop programs that would help build engagement between the brand and consumer. Their work didn’t center on a singular  event or product launch; it would encompass every aspect of a brand’s business to make sure all was aligned properly from discovery to conception of idea to measuring results. Increasingly, their work would be grounded in digital and social media, and less on traditional media platforms. This became the new normal in consumer PR and Taylor aspired to be at the cutting edge.    

The result is that now, in 2014, as the company itself enters its fourth decade, Taylor is serving in the role of brand counselor  to a very select list of just 15 blue-chip companies and ranks among the 10 independent PR firms in the country.  They have a deep and diverse team, from its New York office to full service operations in Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles and London, that works seamlessly together delivering award-winning programs in the sports, entertainment and lifestyle consumer space.

The transformation of Taylor was not easy, it was not a single event; rather, it was a long term process. Some talented executives did not fit in with the new strategy and change was in the offing. However, for the ones that stayed or arrived from other agencies, Taylor became a place to learn, to grow and to test the limits and capabilities of what could be accomplished in public relations, be it in sports or other categories.

“We fully understood that organizational change is an on-going process, and not an event,” said Signore, when we caught up with him recently. “For us, there were multiple phases that spanned nearly five years with everyone in alignment with our vision and business model.  All executives needed to advance their own strategic performance to ensure Taylor was in a better position to ladder up to our client partner’s brand and business-building goals.  Change can be uncomfortable and it’s certainly not for every professional.  I’m pleased to say that most bought into our evolved approach and remain with the organization.”

Their prestigious roster of client partners today include Allstate, Diageo, Procter & Gamble, Nestle-Purina, NASCAR, Capital One, 3M, Nike Jordan and Taco Bell and a select few others, all of whom rely on Taylor for insights and strategy well beyond traditional execution. Signore’s leadership has not gone unnoticed. In 2011, Harvard University published a case study, “Transformation at Taylor,” which explored Taylor’s bold approach to enact organizational change. And this week, he was selected by The Holmes Group to receive an individual achievement SABRE Award for the way he turned the vision of Taylor into a reality.

“We must continue to take a more innovative approach in the development of global sports influencer campaigns,” said Signore.  “Over the past five years, my colleagues have effectively utilized digital and social platforms to engage fans across the globe, and each day I marvel at the manner in which they capitalize on select advancements in technology to create social trends around our client partner’s alliance with major sports properties.”

Like Joe Maddon, Signore and his colleagues at Taylor draw from some “old school” traits, albeit in sports public relations vs. baseball. Teamwork, consistency, forward-thinking, respect and dedication to one goal. And like the Rays manager, Taylor is positioned to evolve in an era where the imperative is not just to survive, but to thrive. It’s not quite “Moneyball” for Public Relations, but it is a proven winning strategy, one that has made Taylor so successful as an agency – in some respects, like what Maddon has accomplished from the dugout in Tampa.

 

Why Mayweather Is Money…

For those ‘Rocky” fans, the business side of Floyd Mayweather is a lot like the image of Apollo Creed before he takes on “The Italian Stallion.” Pick the venue, but the flowers for the Mayor’s Wife, create the package for your challenger and collect the big pay day in the best suits. Control the brand image. Just don’t lose.

And although Argentinian Marcos Maidana isn’t quite the Latino “Rocky,” he nearly did what 45 other fighters couldn’t, taking the fight to Mayweather before losing a 12-round majority decision at MGM Grand arena. Regardless, the champ and all the piece around him went on to a mega payday and the close result will soon be a memory.

What won’t be forgotten is again the way Mayweather and his team carefully orchestrated every aspect of his fight, from ticket and TV sales to fighter purses, venue choices and every marketing deal in and around the bout. Nothing was left to chance, and all came back to the man they call “Money.”

Mayweather is in the middle of a six-fight deal with the Showtime network and is supposed to fight again in September. He has almost 7 million Twitter and Instagram followers, more than 4.1 million likes on Facebook, and a social networking team so that he is in constant contact with his fans. He negotiates all deals for its promoted fighters, receives all revenues generated by his fighters and then pays fighters, other promoters (if it is a co-promotion), and other expenses (operating costs toward the promotion) out of the revenue generated. The result is something that few single sport athletes can achieve; net worth of close to a billion dollars with all aspects of the brand coming back to its owner.  It is the rarest of opportunities that comes to an elite boxer who understands the business; even tennis or golf, where success is based on the individual; still have to negotiate a course, the field or the draw. Boxing it’s one on one. Even the UFC, with all its power, is still controlled by Zuffa Inc. Elite MMA athletes can do really well, but when they go to the UFC, like in a team sport, there are certain elements that get negotiated away.

Now of course the issue becomes what happens if Mayweather loses a fight? Does much of that brand equity built up immediately fly out of the ring? Some might, but because of the longevity of his career and the guaranteed TV money that comes win or lose, the Mayweather gravy train continues on. Besides, who doesn’t like a comeback after a surprising loss?

Is the Mayweather model an anomaly or a new trend in fight sports? Right now there are others Pacquaio, Dela Hoya, who can control a good part of the marketing pie, but Mayweather is the one who appears to want, and have total control, something which can be very, very difficult to duplicate should another mega-star come along early and maintain the brand power for such an elongated tome. For sure he has his critics, but it is hard to argue with his success in business or the ring. Apollo would be proud.

We talked Mayweather on CBS this past Saturday as well, here is a link to the clip.   

As Regulations Change, Will .Fans Be the Engagement Platform of The Future?

Every day we comb the digital world looking for new, more efficient and unique ways not just to engage, but to engage more effectively. If you are a league, a team or a brand in sports and entertainment, you spend hours trying to use the most effective tools to quickly and cleanly reach not just the masses, but the most effective core you can. Content may be king, but ROI is queen, at least. So in the not too distant future may come another way where teams, leagues, brands, even talent, can better align and engage. It is not a new technology per se, it is really a play on a basic platform, albeit much more customized, and perhaps easier to organize and identify with those core followers everyone in business needs to reach.  

The organization who regulates the internet, (ICANN – Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has licensed 1,300 NEW web extensions to be released over the next few years. From (dot)guru to (dot)marketing to (dot) photography, these extensions will provide better signposting for marketing messages. The new web extensions or gTLD’s (Generic Top Level Domains) are the letters that are RIGHT OF THE DOT…they provide messaging that is specific to clients wants and needs…

Google and Amazon have invested tens of millions of dollars in the new gTLDs. They and other leading web companies see new gTLDs as a core element of the future of the internet, making it easier for users to find the content they want, and easier for brands and companies to monetize online relationships. With consumers attention being spread thinner than ever, across multiple online destinations, the new web extensions will allow companies to create websites with short punchy domain addresses that speak directly to what the end-user is looking for at that site.

One TLD that is launching in early 2015 and is targeted towards teams, leagues, brands, music artists or anyone who has fans to engage is (dot)FANS, and it is positioned as the NEW web address for fan engagement. It will provide the opportunity to create a complimentary website to an existing .com or act as a messaging tool that points at existing content at their .com address. And be a destination that they own and control.

As an example, a broadcast network might build a marketing campaign around their content and drive fan engagement by utilizing football.fans, soccer.fans, baseball.fans, golf.fans etc.; so a network like Fox can take existing programming “FOX SPORTS the home of true FANS” and use the TLDs to point to that content which is highly organized and highly relevant to that core fan who might not want to search through a host of tabs or Geico could target their marketing message in on some of their sponsorships and utilize geicogolf.fans for promotions behind their activation in that sport.

Teams and leagues and athletes may  have unlimited new real estate to market against and gain new eyeballs, which will help them utilize their existing .com website better. A team such as the Red Sox can effectively and inexpensively build a specific site redsox.fans to house all their fan engagement and social media elements on one home landing page, which could make for more involvement by fans visiting and looking just for key content that appeals to a set group of die-hards without having to search through pages that are not appealing to them.

The .fans platform will have its issues, as huge amounts of digital rights have been poured into existing agreements, and countless millions have been spent creating effective portals as could exist before the new gTLD’s were released. Sports and entertainment are also tribal, so getting people to break old habits and patterns to engage in a new place will take some time. How would the pricing work and what would be the benefits other than ease of navigation? Will core fans be enough to sustain whatever the ancillary costs will be? All to be determined in a world where sometimes cool and hip can burn through millions fast without ROI. However as a novel engagement opportunity that is on the come, .Fans may be one to watch as it grows in the coming years and the consumer gets maybe more used to a different way to cull content, and content providers give the new platform a test drive.

As A Property, Competitive Robotics Continues To Grow…

This weekend in St, Louis at the Edward Jones Dome over 30,000 students, parents and coaches will gather for one of the most inspiring, creative and interactive team events that will be held in the Dome all year. It isn’t football or soccer, lacrosse or cricket or rugby. It is competitive robotics.  The U.S. FIRST is back for the fourth straight year, and is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing co-ed competitions of any “sport” out there.   It is entitled FIRST, standing for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and was the brainchild of Segway PT inventor Dean Kamen 25 years ago with the goal of boosting science in the way that high schools glorify sports.

This past week President Obama got to see the interactive robots shoot hoops as he talked about science and sport growing with Americas children. Several thousand people showed up at New York’s Javitz Convention Center to see that City’s finals, replete with cheerleaders and blaring music.

The weekend long event is the culmination of work by middle and high school students from across the country, each team of whom had to first score well in regional tournaments to move on to the state events, with the winners moving on to the World Championships in St. Louis.

The competition is not your father’s Erector Set version of building a robot. Each team trains for weeks many using the LEGO Mind Storm system to have its robot perform a series of complex tasks in 2:30  against another table of robots. The tension will be palpable and the sense of team  very, very apparent.

However what is more amazing is the sense of fun, competition and creativity that each of the teams will have on throughout the event. From posters to mascots to elongated signs, the students and their supporters cheer with a fervor that would match any athletic event. Everyone who goes sees the best of what New Jersey has to offer…healthy competition with a mosaic of children from every ethnic and social background in a healthy competition devoid of many of the trappings that childhood events have these days. There may be some uber parents in the crowd, but most were there for good natured support both moral and emotional.

Club robotic competitions have propped up all around the country and are growing with each passing semester, from sixth grade through high school. There is no “Revenge of the Nerds” feeling at all. Most of the kids look fit, coordinated and ready to do battle in every form of athletics as well as a competition of the mind. Indeed, mind sports, from robotics to other activities like chess, bridge and even poker, are being seen more and more by organizations like the International Olympic Committee as a way to teach strategy that applies to traditional athletics and help grow the whole young person, combining a healthy mind with a healthy body. Also the rise of “Money Ball” in traditional athletics, where front office positions are being taken up by young people who understand business and strategy as well as athletic fundamentals, is also spurring a new generation where young people will take academics and team activities in the lab or the classroom as seriously as many take athletics. For a rising immigrant population that is more focused in many ways on academics but who is still trying to assimilate to American culture through athletics, activities like robotics provide a great balance. For young people who like athletics but are not into the ultra-competitive areas of Little League or Gymnastics, robotics and mind sports can also provide a balance, instilling that sense of team and competition while sating the mind and the skills they excel at as well.

For brands looking to activate against an audience that understands both team competition and gaming, robotics is also a unique answer for engagement. Now it is not to say that analytics and team competitions like robotics should be at the detriment of traditional sports. There is a place for both, and the two actually complement each other very well. However in a society today where young people are getting more and more technologically savvy, competitions like mind sports and robotics can fill a growing need, keeping young people active and involved and finding ways to stimulate the mind as well as the body.

Is it the start of a long term trend of cyber warriors, or a fad like crystal radios and rocketry was in the 1960?s or 1970?s? The jury is still out, but judging from the crowds, the engagement and the spirit of competition, the “sport” of competitive robotics is here to stay, and that is not a bad thing for a young group who wants to grow into a well-rounded and healthy adult.

Most importantly robotics takes kids interested in science, gaming and technology as well as sport, and puts them into a public setting where they have to actually interact with each other, a revolutionary idea in a world where “interaction” is done more by thumbs and keystrokes not by spoken words and actions as a group.

While not replacing traditional athletics in any way, robotics is becoming more and more intriguing, a well-intentioned and healthy type of “sport” whose time is definitely coming.

“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.