Minor League Baseball | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

The New Sponsored Logo Game: The Battle of Consistency vs. Risky Dollars…

In the last few years sports teams in North America, from college through the pros, have forgone consistency of brand in their look for the sake of selling more diverse, quirky, unique and even outlandish jerseys, kits and other uniform pieces to an audience who want different, at least to have in their closets. With few exceptions…The New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Penn State football, the Montreal Canadiens, the Los Angeles Lakers…teams if every size and shape have taken to Day-Glo, faux flags, selfie encrusted, camo-filled looks as a way to gain attention, sell more merch and sometimes raise funds for charity, especially when apparel companies like Under Armour and Nike are always looking to engage a younger audience not thrilled with consistency and big on expressive and outlandish. Sometimes it works, sometimes it looks silly, but usually it draws attention and many times ancillary revenue.

That revenue challenge on the professional side, and maybe at some point on the college side, will soon be amplified when the four major sports leagues allow brands to advertise on uniforms at some point in the next few years. The logo’ed jerseys have long passed the sniff test in MLS, the CFL and the WNBA and on practice apparel with the NBA and the NFL, and brands on kits are the norm in sports like rugby cricket and soccer in the rest of the world, so it becomes a question of when and who, not if, the brand of choice will appear on many clubs uniforms in North America. Some still may forgo the selling of space on uniforms for the sake of purity and value of their look, but most will surely give it a try and reap the dollars.

However with the logo’ed jersey comes a unique problem, one which has arisen again with MLS as clubs like DC United switch kit sponsors; the availability of old inventory licensed out to commercial partners through television and digital still photography. Sponsors, especially new ones, will pay a high price for the ability to be seen everywhere associated with clubs, but archival footage sold and licensed, especially in transition years, could continue to show up with old and dated uniforms bearing brands that are long gone. A Volkswagen logo on a United kit for example, could continue to show up in a licensed video game or commercial or billboard or photo campaign for several years after a team makes a change, which can create problems both for the club and for the new brand, depending on how wide the usage is. Now in the still photographic world, the digitizing of shots can help alleviate that problem; lift a logo out and drop a new one in to share; but in video and even in many licensed products the logo change may be slow, which can potentially damage the brand for the short term. The problem is not a new one for clubs that have chosen to flip-flop uniforms or do specialized or throwback uniforms several times a season; you run the risk of those unfamiliar or “specialized” day glo or bright orange uniforms ending up in places where you would want your traditional and consistent look to be. Some cherish the thought of the specialized uni’s ending up in campaigns as great exposure, some go to great lengths to limit the accessibility of shots and video from special nights so the brand can stay consistent for the long term. However with a branded uniform work for the long term, that issue of inconsistency rises dramatically. The goal is to overachieve for a brand partner, especially one that is new or one that has plunked down millions for an affiliation, so consistency, and consistent policing of what footage is going where, is going to become even more critical when logos start appearing in prime time for the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB at some point.

Now brands who chose to forgo the branded bucks for their clean look may run the risk of less upfront sponsor dollars than those who chose to bring a sponsor in; but they run much less of a risk in achieving ROI for that sponsor by simply saying no to jersey signage. In many ways, their clean look is exposure for the team unto itself; it is what they are known for in the sports marketplace. However for most, the dollars to earn by dropping a carefully placed and sized logo will be too much to pass up.

So who wins and loses in the new sponsored logo world? The leagues and teams for the most part will see a win, as will many specialty sales spots who can offer up the new looks, much like they do with the “specialized” jerseys being done ad nauseum today in college and the pros. Brick and mortar apparel sales shops, who have to take the risk on dated material with old logos will have the same issue they have when a marquee player gets traded these days, getting stuck with inventory now deemed for the scrap heap, but online e-tailers who have less inventory and can shift quickly to a new look will also benefit.

For sure none of this is being done in a vacuum at the highest level. The risks and rewards and issues are being played out time and again in the elite leagues, each watching as minor league sports and others take the first steps. However once the step is made for logo’ed apparel, consistency and control may have an even bigger premium. It is one thing to have a special jersey from a few years ago showing up in an ad campaign or in printed material by a third party; it is something else when the ad contains a brand whose contract has long since expired. That can do damage not just to the authenticity of the ad, it can hurt the new sponsor relationship with the team and with the league itself.

Consistency of brand is something which seems to be a little less valuable these days, with new and flashy looks taking the place of the safe and simple. For sure there are dollars to be made with the changing times, the question remains is the risk worth the reward for the long term?  That remains to be seen, as sponsors enter the uniform game for most sports sometime soon.

“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.

An Opportunity Still To Be Had; Grabbing More “Senior Moments”

As we reach Opening Day of the MLB season the annual lament about baseball needing to attract a younger audience starts again. While there is no doubt that every sport wants to grab younger folks and engage more with every medium possible with its fans, the pact is that we as a society are still getting older, and those older fans do remain as an audience that has disposable income, time on their hands and are becoming more and more engaged in a digital environment. So with that in mind, here is a quick thought again on the value of having more senior moments…you cannot watch a game without ads for Pharma, so they realize that older fans are embracing sport like never before; why don’t teams to more. The older audience is what has held live theater together; it is embraced by movies, yet sports seems to stay away…time for a re-think on how to engage more over 21 in promotions, while in no way slacking off on engaging the younger audience as well.

It is the fastest growing segment of the population in North America…a segment that has vast consumer experience, knows how to activate in groups, has defined spending habits and in many cases a large amount of disposable time and purchases more high ticket items, like cars, more than any other segment of the population. They influence spending habits, young people, voting patterns and public policy. Yet for all the time sports looks to engage the young and the first adopter, the larger group (albeit sometimes with less disposable income) still goes largely ignored. They are the Baby Boomers and the seniors, a group which until recently was put aside as a group sales opportunity and little else, while teams and brands concentrated on developing new fans. New fans used to mean younger, however with an aging and more active population, it is probably time for those engaging in brand building to start courting the audience more.

Pharma spends huge amounts on sports, yet most programs for activation are still targeted at the younger audience. Giveaways at games are always geared towards those 21 and younger. Yet seniors buy in blocks, bring those younger to games and can help motivate others to come. There has probably always been a reticence to court seniors as a quiet or graying crowd, one that would be averse to young and hip. Yet many teams and properties regularly run Throwback Nights to try and get the arena going, featuring music and clothes for a bygone era. Those who lived in that era, no thanks…those who like the music and are younger, cmon in. Even tennis and golf, two sports which play to an older demo, constantly fight to get younger, but why? We are getting older, living longer, getting healthier and spending more money as we get there if we have it, so why not actively pursue the group with viable promotions, targeted sponsor activation and even specific digital campaigns more, just like brands are doing?  Seniors are engaged and online and have great word of mouth activation, so the time has come to make them a target as much as the young or the families. They spend, they enjoy events, they get around and they purchase, it makes good business sense.

Can Stick And Ball Sports Stick Together To Grow?

It was a seed that may have taken 100 years to germinate, but last week Major League Baseball made its bigger mark in cricket, Australian Rules Football and rugby crazed Australia. The two game series between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks drew solid crowds and lots of buzz at the Sydney Cricket Grounds,  and helped push along a massive commitment MLB has made to attract more people to baseball in the country, which has had some fits and starts playing the game and has produced a decent amount of professional players over the years.

At the same time the sport of cricket has looked to the U.S. in terms of ways to update the length and marketing of their sport, taking from the best practices of MLB and other American sports to make the game more interactive, more engaging and more fan-friendly, not just in Oz but in India as well. There is also continued talk about cricket trying to test the waters in the United States, given the huge numbers ESPNCricinfo gets showing the sport and the fact that many of the emerging ethnic groups in the United States, and those gaining more of a hold in the middle class with disposable income, have an affinity for the sport.

So the question becomes, can stick and ball sports play together to raise awareness and interest in both games? There does seem to be some interest, and looking at MLB’s approach to growing baseball in Australia would be a good primer for what cricket needs to do in the States.

The first example is very basic; infuse lots of cash strategically. While MLB  used a promoter to stage the regular season games in Sydney, one who knew the marketplace and took some of the risk, they have not been shy about pouring money into equipment, digital platforms and elite player development around the world, especially in Australia. The league helps fund Australia’s professional league and also makes sure that Aussie’s are involved in every aspect of playing the game. The return on the cash investment takes time, but it will bear fruit because of the basic understanding of stick and ball sports and the growing familiarity with the game. Cricket would have to do the same thing in the States. The governing body, or bodies, would have to start at the grassroots and come up with a well-financed strategic plan to expose the game to more and then develop those already interested. With that should come an investment in broadcast and continued efforts in digital to expose the greatest players on the world to a new population or potential engaged fans.

Along with the grassroots efforts comes facilities. Currently there is one perm ant cricket stadium in the United States, far from the core followers of the sport who live in cities in the Northeast. It is in Florida. While the ability to retrofit cricket grounds for baseball is easier than vice versa, a robust cricket facility is needed to give fans a full experience at home, similar to what happens in other parts of the world. It does not have to be permanent, but is should be adequate to give those first attendees a great taste of the game.

Third, take the tour. MLB has been bringing their best players on occasion to Australia for clinics for years and when the game went to the continent this month it was not minor league in any way. They were games that counted in the regular season, so fans were seeing the real deal.   Cricket would need to do the same thing; bring the world’s greatest stars first for an educational tour and them for an important match so that devoted fans feel they are getting a quality product ad new fans feel they are getting the best to see in their owns backyard. It’s why NFL regular season games draw in Europe and why sometimes soccer friendlies struggle to fill seats. People want real and authentic and they can sniff out when they are getting a “lite” version of the game. Educate with the stars, and then give a product worthy of the dollars spent.

Brand engagement. MLB helped infuse both current brands and new engaging brands in their trip to Australia, and cricket could do the same here. Any number of engaged brands with cricket globally would love the entrée into the American sports market, and there are a host of brands in the States who would love a full cricket experience to engage with fans of the sport here who might not follow traditional American sport.  An effective cricket to baseball crossover could spur more sponsor dollars as well, and give brands entrance into a new marketplace. There actually is a great example of that crossover occurring now.

Michael Clarke, international cricket star and captain of Cricket Australia, signed a multi-year endorsement agreement with Rawlings, as traditional a baseball brand as exists.  Clarke joined Rawlings international roster of professional athletes who play integral roles in the development of their on-field equipment and training products. He will travel to the United States this April to collaborate with Rawlings product management team on the development of his signature fielders’ glove line, set to debut worldwide later this year. It was the first-ever endorsement deal for Rawlings in the sport of cricket, while Clarke began using Rawlings fielders’ gloves 12 years ago at the suggestion of Mike Young, Cricket Australia’s current fielding coach and former manager of Australia’s national baseball team.  A great first step and one other brands should take note of.

In the end, is the stick and ball pie big enough for baseball/cricket crossover? Probably. While there are dedicated fans of both ho will never make the transition, there is a growing number of fans who are looking for fun, quality, time-efficient entertainment that is worthy of their discretionary income. Baseball will never be the full MLB level in Australia or India, not will cricket surpass baseball overall in the States. However working together to grow the core of stick and ball amongst competition from other team sports makes sense, and can lift the tide of both sports.

It looks like MLB sees that value with their successful jaunt across the Pacific. It will be interesting if cricket takes the cue and returns the ball to the States, a place where they appear to have a solid core but much more education is needed to grow from the bottom.  It looks like the template is there, whether it takes hold remains to be seen, all they have to do is look across the pitch to their American friends.

Majoring In The Minors: Three Promo That Score

March Madness is in full bloom this early spring. However there is still baseball in the air, at least in Arizona and Florida and this weekend in Australia, where the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opened the 2014 season.  So we wanted to highlight some cut through the clutter moves that two minor league, and one college summer league team, have taken on in recent weeks. They touch on all the great things that the minors can do and even set up as best practices for those in the majors; connect with a local community, be a little edgy and use, effectively, low cost and simple promos to engage fans.

A TAT For The Team: In recent years several teams including the New York Islanders, have gone the route of tattoo pop up stands in venues. Whether they work or not on a permanent basis is up for debate, but the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs this week found a way to engage a tattoo sponsor and make some hay with an offer for a loyal fan who maybe would have had a few too many and took a risk.

The Chiefs, an affiliate of the Washington Nationals, are offering free tickets for life to anyone who gets the team’s logo tattooed on their body. This specifically is being offered on July 1, the team’s Tattoo Night.  Local sponsor Carmelo’s Ink City will do a Chiefs’ tattoo and you’ll get a general admission ticket for life. The logo tattoos would be free, a locomotive coming out of a C, and it doesn’t make it clear whether the tattoo has to be in a certain area or a certain size or even if it has to be permanent, though those requirements could obviously be a determining factor for some folks seduced by the idea of ink and minor-league baseball tickets.

What’s the downside for the offer? None. It promotes a sponsor, got national exposure for the team’s artwork in the preseason, is a great call to action to remind folks that baseball is coming, and probably inspires some debate amongst fans who may already be inked and wouldn’t mind some free, low-cost ducats and some local celebrity status. Even if there is a winner, the chance that he or she would put a financial burden on a club with large areas of distressed seats is very low, and it opens the door for a larger scale tattoo night for any club willing to showcase body art as a way to draw fans. Nice score chiefs on a cold March week, when the local men’s college hoops  team will also send fans scurrying for warm weather thoughts with their early exit from the NCAA tournament.

Spokane Makes A Loud Statement: The ongoing controversy with the Washington Redskins name came up again this week in the Pacific Northwest, but in a positive manner, as the Spokane Indians announced the creation of a jersey in native Salish script.  While some may see this as yet another minor league marketing ploy, it actually speaks to the level of community that minor league teams have; they are not just brands looking to sell game tickets, they are 24/7 members of the places they live.  

The Indians have had a longstanding positive relationship with their local Native American tribesmen, and have looked to find ways to engage rather than exploit that relationship.  The latest step is the a new jersey featuring “Spokane” spelled out in Salish script: Sp’q'n’i (the “i” is followed by a circular symbol that is not part of the English language). It will be worn during weekend home games as well as June 13′s season-opening contest. Furthermore, a portion of the apparel sales proceeds will be donated to Spokane youth programs, as well as the money raised from an end-of-season auction featuring the Salish script game-worn jerseys.

Now yes the jersey will be a novelty and a collector’s item nationally.  The Indians are also not the only team to both acknowledge and assist the Native American ties to sport (The Oakland Raiders have broadcast games n Navajo and the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves have had longstanding programs designed to help the plight of Native Americans). Spokane’s move seems to be more cultural and less exploitive though. It shows an understanding of a core group of their fans who are looking to tell their story wider as their centuries old culture is sliding away, and may just be a great call to action to help raise funds and awareness of Native American traditions to casual fans who may not know anything about the history and plight of local tribes. A home run for branding, fan engagement , philanthropy and creativity.  

Take A Picture, Make The Jersey:  Minor league teams are always looking to push sales and be innovative, and with social media as a low cost engagement tool, the opportunity for fans to be in the conversation and engage with a club has never been higher. So it is interesting to see how innovative teams can be. One that has come up as unique are  the efforts of a Michigan Summer Collegiate League  to literally bring their fans faces into the game; not on a scoreboard or an add but on their jerseys.

The Kalamazoo Growlers are asking for fans to take selfies and post them to one of the team’s social media accounts. The Growlers will collect the selfies through April 1, then build a mosaic-style jersey assembled entirely from the photos entered in the promotion. The jerseys will be worn July 24 when the Growlers take on the Wisconsin Woodchucks on Salute to Selfie Night. 

The promo works for several reasons. The Growlers can collect data on thousands of fans from around the world to have for future promos. They will probably sell scores of jerseys that include fans photos to people who probably would never have purchased one before. They have the ability to get even more media exposure by helping tell the best stories of those who submitted selfies, and they also have the ability to engage casual fans who may love the social space but never thought to engage with the team. It is fun, creative, an attention getter and if it doesn’t work well; hard to say it won’t, didn’t really coast the club anything.

So there you have it, three solid promos that win on many levels for creativity, engagement, social responsibility and most of all, brand awareness. Congrats to all three minor organizations for some major league ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

College Baseball/Softball Openers Remain A Missed Oppt. For Brands…

It came and went again this week buried amongst the large piles of snow in the Midwest and the Northeast and without any  fanfare, the official start of college baseball season. While most media outlets are closely following every pitch and move prior to the official opening of spring training next week, and others are focused on the Olympics, the start of college play went by the boards without much of a flurry of activity. While most eastern teams will head to Florida and Arizona for short trips over the next few weeks, the opportunity for brands looking to embrace or at least try and get a feel for activation in college athletics through baseball remains very high.

The spring for the college market is devoid of football and hoops after March Madness subsides, and is a time of year which is crying out for a way to activate with the audience as students head back home for the summer and have time on their hands as they prep for exams and have less classes. The weather is nicer, more students are outside, so why has no one embraced the opportunity for college baseball. Some may say that the weather is a hindrance in the Northeast and that schools outside of the Sun Belt put little to no marketing and sales time behind baseball. Games are played in afternoons and crowds and facilities are sparse. Yet the interest in baseball overall at this time of year is at its highest, and the amount of schools that do play baseball on all level, junior colleges included, is still very high in comparison to other spectator sports. Could a brand find a way to create a college opening day and activate around that program on campuses around the country or maybe a college baseball opening weekend? Maybe the program is tied to telling the stories of the student-athletes and encompasses college softball as well. The activation could also be less about attendance at games and more of an experiential event on campus which keeps even casual sports fans engaged through the baseball program. Maybe the program can also tie to an overall opening day with Little League and softball in a community, and rally the sport itself through the college experience. Colleges put a great deal of time through to drive revenue through football in the fall and basketball through the winter, it would make sense to tie and give added values to brands with a spring activation as well. College baseball is competitive, provides a good wrap-up to a marketing plan, and is extremely affordable for brands to activate against with athletes that would welcome the exposure. There is also a great opportunity for charities or philanthropic efforts to tie to college baseball in the spring, much like programs are laid out for other sports in other seasons. Also keep in mind that most programs now play extensive fall ball seasons, so there is no reason why an activation program could now also have some ties into the next semester as well.

Also with the buzz of baseball/softball re-entering the Olympics for Tokyo 2020, the  ability for time guerilla campaigns to build brand awareness around some future stars who would play (since MLB won’t shut down during the Games) has never been higher.

College baseball is in no way the activation giant that football and hoops is, even at its highest levels in the south and the west. Lacrosse seems to have become the favored nation outdoor sport of the spring, but MLB has the marketing ability to help propel one of its prime sources for talent forward. College baseball is a large scale activity that fans can identify with, a breeding ground for the future of the sport. and if marketed properly and cost efficiently remains one of the few mainstream spectator sports on the collegiate level with little barrier to entry.

There are ongoing efforts with MLB that will connect with the NCAA to give college baseball a boost, helping with much needed equipment changes that would put wood bats back in the hands of those players getting ready to make the jump to the minors, looking to help with marketing and even boosting interest between baseball’s draft and the NCAA tournament in the late spring. However all of that is still yet to be hashed out. In the meantime, pitchers and catchers in gyms and on fields at hundreds of schools have taken to the diamond, with hundreds of games to come. For brands looking to boost their intercollegiate activation they need to look no further than the diamond. The balls are in the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little School, Big Idea: Caldwell (NJ) College

This past week at article appeared in The Record Newspaper talking about the challenges and opportunities three Division I basketball programs in the state…Fairleigh Dickinson, Rutgers and Seton Hall…face in selling tickets and building brand. However with so many other programs competing across all divisions in New Jersey, we found one that is using technology as well or better than most to speak to their key audiences. It’s not Monmouth or Rider, NJIT or Rowan. It’s Caldwell College. The Division II Cougars, who began men’s play in 1986, may not be the state’s brightest athletic program, but they may be one of the most efficient in terms of telling their story to the right audience.

Led by Mark Corino, who doubles as athletic director and head men’s basketball coach, Caldwell has used a combination of well-thought out digital infrastructure and forward thinking to build a live digital sports broadcast program for its marquee sports…men’s and women’s basketball, that is cost efficient and merchandises the school’s athletes, its academic programs and its brand, to several thousand people every time the teams take the court for a home game at the George R. Newman Recreation and Athletic Center. They provide what many other schools on any level are still struggling to do; a clean and cost effective and information filled live streaming broadcast of both audio and video. It’s not like Caldwell is a powerhouse; both teams are 9-6 and are certainly in contention for the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference titles (and they will host the men’s and women’s tournaments this year) but what they have is the ability to effectively tell their story, through the use of video, to a core audience of not millions, but several thousand people across the country each time they take the court.

The idea of streaming games came to Corino following a contest a few years ago when the rarest of rare came about; a game broadcast live on television for the Cougars against Bloomfield College on CBS College Sports TV. The game became a great source of communication for the school to alumni, students and most importantly recruits, and Corino realized that there has to be a way to effectively and cleanly continue that dialogue through the use of media. It’s not like suddenly the conference or Caldwell was going to develop its own broadcast television or even radio package, but the use of the digital space could provide an answer that was both effective and cost efficient. So enter into the picture a series of low cost streaming partners, all looking to capture the space just below broadcast for colleges. The one that Caldwell eventually, and still does, work with is NMTV Sports, which provides much of the broadcast infrastructure to bring live video to the digital space for Caldwell and many other schools across the country. Suddenly, the Cougars had a platform for which to not just tell their games but merchandise their story, and Corino found students and an enterprising local resident, Jerry Milani, to help amplify and professionalize the broadcast.

The result was a live broadcast channel that speaks directly to an interested audience; the exact goal of what social and digital media is supposed to achieve. It’s not looking to reach millions or hundreds of thousands; rather the Caldwell broadcasts are designed to professionally reach a core group of intersected parties from alumni and recruits to players families and others; live and with a quality and consistent broadcast signal. It’s not CBS or NBC, but it is clean, fun and a great vehicle at a solid price investment by the school. The result is destination viewing for those interested and a growing cult following for Caldwell hoops that would have never existed even ten years ago.

Is it perfect? Of course not, but it is still light-years ahead of many “broadcasts” that were occurring only a few years ago. Caldwell has invested in state of the art high speed broadcast lines in the gym which have multiple sues when games are not being broadcast; they have a production team that uses several angles to make the broadcast look professional, and they have a voice in Milani and others who take the time to deliver a quality how to all who watch. The viewer is entertained and informed and feels like he or she is part of the experience of Caldwell hoops. The result, according to Corino, is that the program now has a national presence and there is a sense of community for athletics that didn’t exist before.

Now is what Caldwell is doing different from other high schools, let alone colleges across the country who have looked to the digital space as a form of outreach. In some ways no, as NMTV and other sites like it provide a great platform to broadcast and most Division I schools have created very cost effective platforms for their non-broadcast events like men’s basketball and football. However at the Division II and III level, especially in our state, what Caldwell has done is remarkable for brand building.

The school has put the time and the effort in to make the broadcasts seem first rate. They treat each production professionally and use it as a marketing platform for the school and as a test area for students looking to excel in the field. The difference is in the quality of the deliverable. While some schools slap up a camera in a distant corner and have anyone chime in on audio, Caldwell acts and sounds professional. Where some schools feed fades in and out, Caldwell’s remains consistent. Whereas some schools promote as an afterthought, Caldwell makes it an expandable priority, all of which are smart and consistent brand building business practices that any sports property can work from. Most importantly, the broadcast is cost efficient and timely and considered an investment in building the equity of the college and the programs, something which many of the Division I programs across the state don’t even appreciate.

Now is the live broadcast of home games going to change the course of Caldwell? No, not right now. What is does is create a differentiator for the staffs from their competitors (this year only one other conference school, Georgian Court, is streaming its games and they are only doing a select few) and it builds equity in the Caldwell brand. Those to elements, according to Corino, were worth the investment alone. They don’t have to reach millions, they have to take the time to reach the right few hundred consistently, and that connection gets amplified by social media and word of mouth. The next step will be finding other sports, especially those contained by time and space…like volleyball…to accept the platform, and then growing the sponsor base incrementally to offset the cost. College, after all, should be about the investment as much as the return, and Caldwell’s investment is one to watch, literally and figuratively.

So in the end, maybe the small Division II school doesn’t win a national title, but it educates and informs its core and helps expose the school to a wider and targeted audience. That makes for not just smart athletics and marketing, it makes for a smarter education system, and one that should be emulated by schools big and small. The outlay can justify the return, and for Caldwell that means winning not just on the court, but in the entrepreneurial space as well.

While Baseball’s Hot Stove Cools, Cricket Scores Down Under

Save for this past week’s Hall of Fame announcement and the on-going Alex Rodriguez drama, baseball’s Hot Stove is on a low simmer for the next few weeks (except for the New York opening of “Bronx Bombers” on Broadway, of course). However in Australia it is mid-summer, and one of the world’s other global stick and ball games, cricket, is in full swing. Baseball and cricket share more than just the game’s beginnings these days; while several hundred Aussie’s have made it to the major and minor professional ranks over the years and the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers will open the 2014 season in Sydney, Australia for the first time (March 22-23), cricket is finding its way at some levels in the States as well.

ESPN’s cricket hub, ESPNCricinfo, is one of the most-visited mobile destinations of ANY sport around the world, and cricket clubs around the nation are growing in number, similar to the rising population of Indian, Pakistani and other ethnicities who enjoy the game. Some reports even say that this spring there will be more high school cricket clubs in New York than high school baseball teams, although the amount of people actually playing baseball continues to be dominant, with no signs of letting down. Talk of a large scale cricket exhibition in the States continues to be talked about, although there is only one substantial cricket ground (in Florida) in the U.S. that could hold the world’s elite players and the thousands of supporters who would show.

 However in Oz, cricket continues not just to thrive, but to innovate in becoming more fan friendly, more socially responsive, and more media friendly than ever before.  Similar to the Indian Premier League, Aussie cricket is borrowing best practices from the success of North American sport to draw new fans and make it even more competitive for a global audience who may not know cricket from baseball.

 Some of our friends “Down Under” helped us with a look at the latest and greatest that’s opening pocketbooks and eyes in Australian Cricket as 2014 gets rolling…

Cricket Australia launched the Big Bash League (with good old American brand KFC as a key partner) in 2011 with the goal of creating a fan, family and youth-friendly style of cricket. The BBL has been a summer TV ratings smash achieving the nightly dominance of what the US is used to for Sunday Night Football. The box office success has been equally impressive as the BBL is drawing crowds as high as 40,000.

Dan Migala, Co-Founder of Chicago-based PCG has served as a Senior-level advisor to the league in all areas of marketing, promotion and fan development since the BBL’s origin. Migala spent the first two weeks of 2014 in Australia attending matches throughout the country. Dan, who is known for his creative marketing work both in MLB and MiLB, gives us a unique lens into the innovative marketing tactics BBL teams that he feels can be adaptable to teams worldwide.

Hobart Hurricanes: Every team is looking for a way to connect its players authentically with young players. The Hurricanes executed an idea that raises the bar to what’s possible in driving youth engagement. The team held a contest for its junior members to win a chance to have star player Tim Paine drive the winner to school.

Perth Scorchers: A new player press conference announcement is arguably the same everywhere around the world. Have a team executive introduce the player, the player speaks, both answer questions and the press files their story. The Scorchers added life to this template by moving a player press conference announcement to a local elementary school and have a 12-year old girl who is a fan of the team make the announcement. The result was positive press, a more colorful introduction and furthered the team’s objective of showing vs. telling that they are both child- and fan-friendly.

Sydney Sixers: A fan’s first experience is critical to an enjoyable gameday experience. The Sixers nailed this challenge by creating a paparazzi-style welcome for its fans making them feel like stars from the moment they walked through the turnstiles. The area was complete with a carpet emblazoned in the team’s primary pink color and staffers snapped pictures that were later posted on the club’s Web site. An added business benefit was the photo backdrop featured the team’s primary sponsors increasing their exposure.

Sydney Thunder: Ethnic-targeted promotions are a difficult challenge for any team. Even more so for a team like the Thunder that play in West Sydney, one of the most diverse areas in one of the world’s most diverse cities. The team created a grass roots cricket competition among local club cricket teams from nine key ethnic communities, including Afghans and Sri Lankans. The winner of each ethnic community division was awarded the Thunder Nation Cup and honored on the pitch prior to a Thunder match.

While it will be interesting to see the successes and next steps with these and other promotions, the most important aspect which Australian Cricket has embraced is the need for changing and adapting while not losing a solid group of core fans. The influx of MLB into the market in a few months will also be interesting, as the synergies between baseball and cricket on the promotional level have never really been exploited, and could provide an interesting 365 day platform for all sports stick and ball and around the world. Are they competing for the same fans? In some ways yes, but the complimentary factor is even more enticing as both baseball, and cricket, look for new global allies business partners and fans, as they play seasons that compliment and not clash with each other.