The FXFL Is Here…Will It Stay?

The allure of minor league sports is very powerful. Doing the right thing, having a great experience with young people as they work their way up the ladder on and off the field, an affordable family experience, a year-round chance for brands both locally and nationally to engage all are great opportunities that happen in a host of professional sports in the United States, from hockey and soccer to hoops and baseball. It is a multi-million dollar cottage industry that has launched thousands of careers.
So into the mix the past few weeks comes the FXFL, the latest in a series of developmental leagues around American football. The premise is that the football talent pool is deep, there is a need to develop that talent, there are other jibs like coaching that need opportunities, and there are rules to be experimented in and brands that are looking to engage that can’t afford the prices of the NFL or are locked out of categories, and there is a whole lot of potential content to be had out there. There are also stadia looking for events, and presumably, there are investors looking to throw money into the dream of sports ownership at some level.
The premise works in other minor league sports, football is arguably the largest and most engaged sport in America, so there has to be a market for it. Right?
So welcome in the four team FXFL, which in two weeks proved what many thought; the talent on the field and in the coaching area is there for more room. They have found a TV home, so there is an interest in content, and they have facilities who want to host games. So that works. They also have set spending limits on talent and have played with rules to help grow the game, so all that makes sense.
The question is; is it a business that can return revenue at some point? That is very hard to say. Staging events, especially football, is a very, very expensive proposition, and gaining market share where money is coming in to justify cost, and investor ROI at some point, is also really really tricky once the buzz of initial exposure wears off and a grind of a season starts. It has been tried before in football, and has never worked, even with the NFL-owned properties a decade ago that tried to develop talent in a smaller setting. Arena football? Some limited success in a different model. The CFL? Much more successful in a culture and a style, and with a TV partner and national brands that have worked for decades. The FXFL in the fall? Tough to say.
Is it fun and engaging? Yes. Is there content to potentially go and do reality or digital programming which could generate interest? Sure. Is there potential as a viable business? Maybe. Will brands look at it, assuming there is a consistent broadcast package and effective and consistent local marketing and sales, to say we want to out our dollars here and activate against and with you? Maybe, but that has to be proven. Will investors step up and buy and operate teams in local markets with substantial capital for years at a time? Hard to say.
The biggest challenge with the FXFL and other parallels like minor league affiliated baseball, the DLeague and even minor league hockey and in some instances soccer now, is that the parent club, major league sports, spends a lot of the cash and in many instances absorbs the L in a P and L. Even in Independent baseball, the possibility exists for those teams, which run greater risk but have good talent, to sell contracts to MLB or MiLB or even Japan for a profit. The FXFL has none of that as a safety net to be innovative or creative and not always look at the bottom line. The NFL, as it has since the failure of the WLAF, watches with no risk and simply picks up the talent with no cost or effort. They are quietly supportive with n involvement, which is a great situation to be in.
Would it be great if the FXFL bucks the trend of minor league football, finds investors and cities willing to support with a media company diving in for a partnership akin to what the NHL and NBC had at one point? Sure. Would it be great for brands to come on board with fixed partnerships that involve cash to raise the bottom line? Yes. Success of the FXFL is a success for everyone involved in sport.
Will it work? It is great the investor group got the league up and running to prove concept. That already is ahead of scores of others who have just talked and spent and never saw the light of day. If it is long term and viable, we will see hopefully next fall and the one after that. Ideas and sports are great, but in the end bottom line is what matters in sports business. Time, and dollars, will tell.

Oyo Boyo, A Simple Idea Keeps Getting Bigger…

Several years ago when I was with the New York Knicks we were planning a promotion around Allan Houston, and as part of the plan, were going to send out to interested media the LEGO figure that had been made of our-then star, as a way to keep him top of mind when award voting season came along. It was quick, easy to mail and very unique amongst collectables. Did it really look like Allan? Not really but it was official and had his number, so it made sense. We found a way through the NBA to get 50 little Allan’s and off they went. As a collector of the unique, as well as a longtime supporter of LEGO, I had been interested in the possibilities of the product to engage sports kids, and somewhere in our basement, not passed on to my son Andrew, a master builder if there ever was one, are the original NBA-licensed sets as well as some hockey and extreme sports sets as well. They are now all collectors’ items, as the patients, and LEGO’s interest in sports, stagnated after a few years and the patents lapsed.

The problem then was that the Danish company didn’t really “get” the sports market in the States, and the risk of getting the wrong LEGO figures to market, they could not produce every player, far outweighed the rewards. In an era before short form video, 3D printing, and high speed molds, let alone self-generated content, LEGO was probably ahead of its time.

That was then, and to the delight of millions, another US-based company has taken LEGO’s seed, and their lapsed patents, and injected digital media and state of the art engineering into and opportunity. Welcome OYO Toys.

Boston based and now Boston-area manufactured, OYO has taken the old LEGO-licensed idea and brought it into the next decade. They have licenses to manufacture products for MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS, with more coming not just in the US, but internationally as well (how many kids in the States will now buy Messi figures who would not have a few years ago, thanks to soccer’s expansion in the media here?). Their system allows for custom printing and design of almost ANY player they have a license for that people can order, with delivery taking only a few days.

More importantly, OYO has used video, data and technology to bring the figures to life in short form video with self-created “stadia,” which thousands of young people with an interest in sport AND film (along with their dads and older siblings) can have fun with in re0creation scenarios, much like LEGO has done with the Star Wars themes line.  Even better, the figures are compatible with LEGO blocks, so parents don’t have to discard those mounds of blocks sitting around the basement. The kids can build stadia, or other scenarios, and use the OYO sports figurines as well.

The best part about OYO’s potential is that it again seeks to marry what were once divergent worlds for young people. Like robotics, LEGO were once thought to be nerdy and not for “sports” kids. Same with film and full motion video, or even photography. Now OYO can help merge those world’s, and make the arts and building good for “sports” kids, especially on rainy days, and can probably help the kids once thought to be a bit “nerdy” and not engaged in sports find a common ground as well. That merging doesn’t just help at home, it will help in the classroom, as suddenly science and technology, and even engineering, may seem just a bit more cooler to kids who might have been bored with sports. It also doesn’t hurt that media companies like Nickelodeon and Marvel are looking to find ways to pull sports into entertainment, and OYO’s analytics, video, and interchangeable parts can also play right into their plans as well.

Are there some limitations? Sure. Making the figures as life-like as possible is a challenge, and there is probably a limit as to how many figures the company can customize for now. However the upside and potential for OYO in any host of sports, even on the NCAA level, is very bright, and certainly makes their business one to watch. The Boston Globe had a piece the last few days on how the company came about and its new infusion of cash from Mandalay Entertainment, which is certainly worth a read.

Keep building OYO, and we will keep watching. What was a rare fail for LEGO is an opportunity for you.

Diamondbacks Science Promo Is A Big Winner…

It hasn’t been the greatest of baseball years in the Valley of Sun, but that doesn’t mean the Arizona Diamondbacks haven’t continued to make an impact on the lives of young people through programs on and off the field. One that will bring classroom work together with a baseball club will take place this weekend, when the DBacks become one of the first professional sports teams to tie baseball together with the key core teaching curriculum of  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).

The team will host 14,000  students and their families, and give  3,000 students and teachers a chance to take part in a pregame STEM parade on the field and receive a D-backs Science of Baseball t-shirt. Combined with their naming rights partner, Chase and the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation, 10 different STEM clubs with a $2,500 grant for their work, especially in the growing field of competitive robotics, and a host of other teams from schools will be able to present their projects throughout the stadium during the night for the other fans in attendance.

While a great way to fill distressed seats and celebrate community, the DBacks work goes far beyond just one special night for kids and teachers who may rarely get recognized in an athletic setting. It is part of a growing trend to tie analytics and science to give kids an added boost and create more fun in academics, much like “Schoolhouse Rock” did with music for a previous generation. The program in Arizona was started in 2013 by Science of Baseball Founder, and University of Arizona Professor, Ricardo Valerdi, and his engineering students to keep the kids engaged by using curriculums that include classroom activities, athletic activities, and take-home activities. It has grown vastly since then, and should be replicated not just by baseball, but by every sport going forward as a way to link onfield and offfield activities. An event, and a program like this, is also highly sponsorable and can open new areas for brands who were not originally involved in sports but can use science and technology as a key area of ROI on their own businesses. For financial services firms like Chase, a tie to a sports-related STEM program further enhances their brand affiliation with sports, and also gets them connected to a younger demo which they crave but have probably not been able to hit with during a traditional signage and advertising campaign.

There is no doubt that the growing field of analytics in all areas of sport has become a hot button. On the field, teams are looking to get the extra edge through analysis like never before, while in recreation sports wearable tech and geolocation have created a new and fast growing industry. Lop on to all that the fast-expanding field of pay fantasy and e-gaming and you have a whole slew of new business opportunities tied to science and technology through sport that did not exist even a few years ago. In order to enhance and grow that field, and its future workforce who can be loyal followers and consumers of professional sport, or even college sport, teams big and small should look to the DBacks program as a way to tie in and get younger people interested and engaged through science, while at the same time taking “sports” kids and showing cool and interesting ways that science can engage with sports.

The program, and programs like it, have a very long tail for growth going forward, and should be embraced as a best practice. They tie to community, sponsorship, education, and on field performance like few others.

A big win for Arizona with this one on all fronts, and a best practice that should be copied across the board and around the world.

(Hat tip to our friends at sporttechie for pointing this out)

Mind Sports Continue To Grow…

As the fall sports now get into full swing we see analytics, gaming and pay fantasy becoming more and more a factor in the decisions of American sport. Into that mix later this fall will be another combination of all of those efforts, the latest, most robust installment of the World Mind Sports Championships, which will be held in Beijing .  The bi-annual event grows in stature and acceptance every year, and now comes with a growing list of brands looking to activate in and around the space much like they do in traditional sports.

 Are all these events some sort of rise of “nerds” into competitive events to try and steal the thunder from the die-hard sports fans and jocks for media and social attention? No. What these events signify is actually a melding of entertainment and gaming worlds to hopefully form a partnership of healthy mind, healthy body which can appeal to millions and even attract some amazing brands to a more diverse audience.

Mind Sports have been around for thousands of years, and many, especially chess, have been used by world leaders to teach strategy for ages, that is certainly no secret. Most have always operated in a vacuum and away from the casual public eye. The advent of competitive poker on television, as well as an elite champion like a Bobby Fischer, have helped to gradually raise the image of some Mind Sports over time. However in more recent times, as science comes to understand more about the stimulation of the brain to combat issues such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s Disease, the value of all mind sports has grown. Factor in the ever-growing popularity of gaming, both casual and competitive, and the case for unifying the millions who play mind sports together for a country by country competition and celebration makes great sense, and has endless possibilities. The strength will be in the numbers.

Similar to the mind sports opportunity, robotics is growing in popularity amongst young people. A culture that has grown up with gaming tied to advances in technology gives robotics on a competitive level a wide audience that can connect across any boundary via the digital world, as well as in person to person traditional competitions. The competitions teach the same skills…teamwork, strategy, attention to detail…as traditional sports do and help to also stimulate the mind.

So what does this all mean to traditional sports?

First, the simple connection is to analytics and strategy. Coaches of any level, as well as elite athletes are constantly looking for a competitive edge, and the lessons taught by mind sports or even robotics, can satisfy another dimension for both strategy that applies to athletics and for an alternative way of thinking and expanding the ability to think quickly and effectively while competing. The world of traditional sports is also becoming more and more digitized, whether that is in scouting, analyzing skills, communicating or even watching events. Robotics and mind sports can also help provide a bridge of understanding into a high tech world by applying tools and technical elements to athletes and coaches. Then there is gaming. Perhaps the fastest growing segment of competition globally is competitive and casual gaming, whether you are considered a jock or a techie. Everyone enjoys games from Angry Birds to Madden ’14, and gaming provides another key common ground between mind sports and competitive traditional athletics. There is also the jobs marketplace. More and more we are seeing professional and collegiate athletics look outside traditional circles for leadership, and those with an understanding of the tech, strategic and business world are getting more and more opportunities. The competition in mind sports could help bring another employment dimension for those versed in both convention athletics and the expanded use of competitive mind sports and gaming.

There is also the projection of the complete individual, one that marries healthy mind and healthy body. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative has inspired thousands to get up and get active physically, and balancing that physical aspect with a healthy and active strategic mind fits very well, so a mix of competitive athletics with mind sports is a great balance.

If you are a brand what does all of this mean? Lots. Those brands of all sizes involved in traditional sport are always looking to get more bang and get access to a larger, wider demo. Activities like mind sports and robotics provide that wider audience. Tech brands are always looking to access a more mainstream audience that is becoming more savvy, and traditional sports provide that mix. Does it mean we may see Nike or Under Armour sponsoring robotics or the U.S. chess team somewhere down the line? It is actually a possibility. Does it mean that you may see more athletes paying attention to bridge or more poker players throwing a baseball, or watching rugby? That’s already happening. For 2014 brands like Rado, Renault Nissan and Samsung are already on board to activate around the games and against the thousands who will follow online or watch in person.

Mind Sports continue to grow as an intriguing alternative to the traditional engagement,  one without many of the controversies and issues of traditional sport with lots of the gamification and strategies built in for a global audience of all ages. While it will always be a niche, it is a niche that is growing, as evidenced by media partners and brands in engaging in an organized fashion, which makes the property an intriguing one to watch this fall.

Gaming, Gambling and Engagement: Where Is It All Going?

This past Sunday, three of the most read stories in the New York Times involved the growing and ever-changing world of gaming and gambling. From competitive, professional e-gaming to lotteries now being devised to teach people about healthy savings to the continued troubles two of the biggest online games companies, Rovio and Zynga, are having, it is becoming more and more apparent that the digital and mobile gaming world is becoming more relevant, more fluid and in many ways more treacherous than ever before as brands and investors look to throw money good and bad into the space to see how to engage not just millennials, but a growing consumer base that wants to be more connected in the digital world than ever before.

Against that volatile and ever-changing mobile backdrop also came the final nail in the coffin for two of Atlantic City’s biggest resorts, the venerable Showboat and the quick to burn Revel, along with another massive employer going down the tubes in the coming weeks in the Trump Plaza. Put against that the massive marketing dollars being thrown about by arguably the two biggest players in the pay fantasy world, Draft Kings and Fan Duel, and the ongoing battle States are having to overturn federal law to bring relevance and dollars to sports gambling, and you have a virtual sports, gaming and gambling business that resembles the wild west, with huge investors trying to find answers as to how and where people want to engage in the gaming space, and what exactly they will, or won’t pay for.

Now the casino business is far from dead. Just looking at the companies lining up to open buildings in states like Massachusetts and New York and other states shows that sin is in, and those governments are more than willing to get their slice of the current pie. The problem is that the pie, at least as it exists today for boots on the ground casinos  is not growing. The goal for these new venues is to keep people home, and to find the right critical mass of players to keep the new casinos vibrant and healthy. That is the same challenge Atlantic City will now face; how many are too many for the clientele that make the trip down and across the Atlantic City Expressway, and what will keep bringing them back?

Some legislators feel that sports gambling, via mobile device or in person, will be the difference and could be a billion dollar federally regulated industry that will create new revenue streams for governments, for the casinos and for the leagues that would get a piece of each transaction. After all the sports gambling industry has flourished in Nevada for years, and is a growing multi-billion dollar business globally, with clubs like those in the Barclays Premier League aligned with legitimate legal betting houses for years. The theory is not if, but when, the legal gambling spigot gets turned on that the revenue, and the fan engagement, will rise all ships. Today that remains a theory though, as lobbyists on both sides battle back and forth to keep Nevada as the sole spot for sports gambling. Arguments of match and game fixing abound on one side; arguments of a tight federal system that works in many parts of the world fill the other side. When the stalemate will break is open for debate.

On the e-gaming side, insiders say the business is exploding, with million dollar tournament and some events drawing in excess of 10-12,000 fans, all millennials, watching tournaments both live and online, with brands lining up to engage and drop product in and around those games. Whether or not professional e-gaming is a massive sustainable business is up for debate though. Yes some players make huge sums and some brands have found healthy engagement and some tournaments draw big numbers. But what happens when those millennials turn to the next big thing and abandon the game they are so loyal to. Or what happens when they become a bit older and turn to more traditional discretionary spends; like sports or music or family or even school. Will they continue to turn out in massive numbers? The jury is still very much out. It is intriguing, but so are the X Games and the Dew Tour and the UFC and competitive surfing and Comic-con and any number of  platforms all battling for attention in a business environment that is becoming more targeted and much more competitive on a global scale with each passing week. Witness the issues Angry Birds has had in trying to stay engaged with an evolving and fickle audience, or the problems Zynga has had in keeping their massive scale with simple games.

Then there is the largest part of the population; those over 50. They are on fixed incomes in some cases and while they were the sweet spot of many casinos, they obviously don’t have the amount of discretionary income to keep all those brick and mortar casinos viable. They don’t really engage in e-gaming yet, but they do enjoy sports, so is there some type of hybrid that makes since in the digital world there that could cross over all platforms? They are avid lottery players, so the pay fantasy sports model could work for them, and the recent launch of effective savings programs tied to a lottery system seems to be hitting home not just with Baby Boomers but with a growing number of middle to lower income families who play traditional lottery in the hopes of hitting it big, but can now use an effective savings program that will help them get a chance at a bigger prize as well.

So where is all this e-gaming/gambling/traditional gaming business going? That is literally a billion dollar question. While right now all of these business seem to be working in legislative silos, the breakthrough success will come with more and more convergence down the line. Can e-game athletes mesh with traditional sports, and is there a pay system for consumers through a mobile, regulated environment that would bring revenue and excitement to consumers of all ages? Can federal regulators find a system where casinos now struggling as brick and mortar businesses battling for the same pie actually grow the pie and not just the pieces? Is some form of pay fantasy an answer in some way?

All has yet to play out, but thousands of brands are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see where all this nets out. For now, the collateral damage, especially in New Jersey, is pretty devastating in the form of lost jobs. Hopefully that is a temporary problem because one thing is for sure; the mobile digital gaming and gambling world is growing in interest on all fronts, and somehow, some way, the path to success needs to be carved.

“Hyper-Local” Gets Another Digital Shot…

It certainly wasn’t the greatest week for Gannett, with their news of the virtual shuttering of their long form national sports platform “Sports on Earth” and the spinning off of their newspapers. However for the local sports fan, a new offering on the digital Gannett platforms could provide a nice option for additional coverage of college, high school and special event sports throughout the state, an area which news 12 and Verizon Fios have covered to various levels of success on broadcast TV, bit one which has seen a loss of hyper local coverage with the loss of an entity like MSG Varsity.

The new offering is called “Jersey Sports Rant,” and it will be hosted by longtime area voice Joey Wahler, who consumers in New York may recognize from places like MSG Network and News 12, and have heard on WFAN and WCBS radio for years.  The digital offering  debuts Monday. Aug. 18, streaming live video Monday through Thursday from 6:30 to 7:00 p.m. Wahler will host the show from the new Asbury Park Press newsroom in Neptune, bringing in personalities with Jersey ties via digital connection, and in some cases in person. The audience will be asked to interact with the show through social media platforms and by a live chat box on the screen. Consumers can access the show live or through a daily archive on Gannett’s five New Jersey newspaper websites: app.com (Asbury Park Press), mycentraljersey.com (Home News Tribune/Courier News), courierpostonline.com, dailyrecord.com and dailyjournal.com, giving some great added value to those news site’s subscribers, and helping to give the Gannett papers statewide a more unified presence in the local sports conversation.

The goal of “Jersey Sports Rant” is to provide a state-specific platform to discuss the sports news of the day; from Rutgers and the Big 10 to minor league baseball to the casino industry to high school sports, with a mix of coverage and discussion about the professional game as well. In addition to being a nice addition to the news sites, it can provide much-desired video that can drive traffic, and in theory, brands and dollars back to fund the project. This works in many smaller markets, can it work in a large market like New Jersey?

While not venturing outside the studio at first, the show will look to spread its wings with event content and news of the day as well; making it much more than a stagnant “talking head” with calls just coming in. Video and guests can drive conversation and engagement, something which sometimes gets lost in New Jersey sports as the talk is controlled by the professional sports across the rivers in Philadelphia and New York.

Will “Sports Rant” find an audience to make it viable and desirable to advertisers? That will take time to build, but studies do show that the consumer today loves hyper-local engagement and unique content. In this crowded environment it may be a challenge, but it is one that Gannett looks like it is willing to take on as it tries to find new ways to engage its subscribers and grow its base.

Let the story pitching begin.

In The Social Space, The Heat Remain Hot…

Before any trade movement happened, the entirety of the NBA waited with baited breath on one event: the decision of LeBron James. Everyone in the sports world knew that once LeBron picked his destination, that the shakeout would be swift and violent. Now that the smoke has cleared, what did it all mean in terms of NBA Teams’ social media presence? Our colleagues at MVP Index took a look, and while the Cavs gained, the demise of the Heat seems greatly exaggerated thus far. Are the Heat in retreat?

In short: no. Miami still reigns supreme in the MVP Index’s rankings of NBA teams. They maintained their seat atop the social media mountain by staying the course and by having built such a solid global following that has stayed loyal, which is great, but probably not surprising news, for brands and partners in South Florida. Since LeBron vacated his throne in Miami, the Heat’s Facebook likes and Twitter followers have increased by over 413K and 28K respectively. If you’re wondering what those numbers look like compared to the rest of the league; the Heat gained the most Facebook likes in the entire NBA followed by Chicago, Cleveland, LA Lakers and San Antonio. Twitter, however, is an entirely different story. The Cleveland Cavaliers hold the title for the most Twitter followers gained since Decision II with over 75K. The next four teams in that category are the Lakers, Bulls, Heat and Knicks.

MVP INDEX TOP 10 NBA TEAMS

Miami Heat

Los Angeles Lakers

Boston Celtics

Chicago Bulls

San Antonio Spurs

Oklahoma City Thunder

Golden State Warriors

New York Knicks

Portland Trail Blazers

Los Angeles Clippers

 

TRENDING UP

Sacramento Kings + 5

Cleveland Cavaliers +4

Portland Trail Blazers +3

Memphis Grizzlies +3

Los Angeles Lakers +2

Chicago Bulls +2

Denver Nuggets +2

Minnesota Timberwolves +2

Golden State Warriors +1

Dallas Mavericks +1

Socially, Cleveland has made some serious strides. In addition to those over 75K new Twitter followers, the Cavs also gained over 240K Facebook likes. Additionally, they gained the most followers of any NBA team on Instagram at over 91K. They also more than doubled their monthly Facebook shares with an increase of over 13K. Overall, the Cavs moved up 4 spots on the MVP index to the 12th slot. In just over 3 weeks after the decision, that’s some significant movement. It will be interesting to watch the rest of the league to see how social strategies change and how fans react to see who will end up with the top spot as deals like the one for Kevin Love play out, and more importantly, how teams perform once training camp gets started in October.

One thing that is pretty clear though; social followings, unless there is something catastrophically negative occurring; remain tough to rock once built, and are still challenging to grow unless the social space is combined with real time results in games. That combination remains king; for LeBron and everyone else.

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.