DeVry Tries To Score With Baseball…

 

The age of online higher education of all levels continues to grow each year, and in a world that is increasingly more technologically savvy, the ability to study and earn a degree without ever setting foot in a classroom is becoming more and more commonplace.
Whether that is healthy, and whether the loss of actual human interaction and discussion is valuable is a big debate, but for the time challenged and the budget challenged, the for-profit online world of education can be seen on almost every bus shelter, infomercial and recruiting site out there. Some lager outfits, like the University of Phoenix, have sought to distance themselves from the competition, and others have sought to find marketing niches to set them apart in the conversation.
One of which is DeVry University, which last year found a unique niche by partnering with the United States Olympic Committee to provide online education and enhancement programs online to athletes with little time for formal and traditional education during their training and competing years. The partnership started with six Olympic athletes and has grown to about 200 enrolled today, including American gold medalist bobsledder Steven Holcomb, who was featured in DeVry ads during the games.
This year, DeVry will try another wide ranging partnership with a little more grassroots appeal, a partnership with Minor League Baseball that will give them exposure at all 160 minor league franchises ranging from rookie leagues to AAA and will include online promotions, signage and other events to drum up awareness to the millions who flock to games over the course of the summer.
However in addition to the wide-ranging consumer sponsorship, DeVry will institute a higher education program to assist minor leaguers interested in pursuing a degree, as well as providing 20 full-ride scholarships to minor league players, staff, alumni and other team and league employees, as well as reduced tuition for interested players and their spouses. Like the USOC partnership, the athletes become the advocates, and the success stories out of the partnership can be merchandised as equity for DeVry while providing a very unique service for those in MiLB who are in many cases just out of high school and thrust into the rigors of MLB without a fallback when their careers end. Even for those MiLB player who spend some time on the NCAA level, the ability to complete a degree, or help a spouse who has sacrificed for them, get their education is also appealing.
The DeVry partnership also falls in a pretty unique niche for minor league baseball, a category that is probably not over-sold locally throughout the minor league system, giving the program a real chance at success in markets big and small. The program will also make for a nice test case for other potential sponsorships, from the D-League to minor league hockey, using young athletes and those toiling at the lower levels as ambassadors not just for DeVry, but for online education as well.
Will it succeed? The USOC program seems to be taking hold, and while the experience at the minor league baseball level is sometimes more geared towards young people and giveaways, the ability to tell positive stories by engaging young athletes looking for a fallback when the time on the diamond becomes short is a good one, especially as you aggregate the stories across all levels of baseball and in a host of markets.

 

 

For MiLB it’s a smart partnership, and for DeVry it seems like an educated guess at success, with an RI that can drive brand, enrollment and good will. A hot could be in the making.

Danbury Creates A Whale Of A Social Media Platform…

The Federal Hockey League may not be far off from the fictional league of the same name from “Slapshot” at least in terms of being the first, and sometimes last shot, for players looking to make a go of it on the ice. But at least one team in the league, the Danbury Whalers (with similar logo to the old Hartford Whalers I may add), always tries to be innovative. Their latest experiment to engage fans in the social space has taken hold, and could provide a really cool template for engagement in a sport like baseball, with bigger gaps of downtime and more players, at least on the Independent level.
For several weeks the Whalers have been doing Twitter Take Overs. While a twitter Takeover is certainly not unique for a brand, it is different when the Takeover is being done by a player…during a game. With Whalers Director of Media Relations, Tommy Pecoraro serving as host, players who are playing in the game, as well as coaches, are answering questions and posting their thoughts, from the penalty box, between periods, after a goal, in the lockerroom all in real time. It is a daring and certainly innovative way to get unfiltered access, and while leagues like the NFL have allowed live tweeting during the Pro Bowl from players, getting instant reaction during a regular season game where dollars and points are on the line takes social media to a new level. It also sets up some unique sponsor activations for in-arena and in real time through social media, where a platform with limited characters like Twitter can sometimes be challenging to monetize in short stints.
It is also interesting to see that the takeover hasn’t really caught a great deal of backlash from selected players; they get it, they trust Pecoraro to approach at the right times, and the engagement is gaining steam and attention for a team that has done a nice job of building a core following in a spot near the Connecticut and New York border. It is also a great way to increase the fan base and get more engagement far away from Danbury, which can lead to some additional merch sales and other bottom line benefits.

 

While it is doubtful that live takeovers will make it to the Major leagues or even affiliated minor league baseball teams, the Whalers experiment should be noted for Independent league teams, all-star events, even spring training. What would be better than getting a twitter takeover from Matt Harvey in the dugout from Port St. Lucie next spring to generate some Mets buzz right after he comes off the field? It may be a stretch, but the Whalers attempt is worth some points, and will probably be augmented, refined, sold and copied down the line. Innovation lives on in Connecticut, with a solid experiment that is not minor league in any way.

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.

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.

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.

Hockey Poised For An Olympic-Sized Run After The Games…

While Sochi 2014 continues to march on into its second week, its stars, especially the American stars, are coming into focus in some of the larger platform events that casual fans love. The misses of Shani Davis and Shaun White continue to leave new openings for bobsled, figure skating and perhaps even more than ever before, for hockey.

The drama, some expected, some surprising, that Team USA has provided fans with as they enter the Quarterfinals this week has been terrific and has given at least short justification for the NHL shutting down their business for two weeks. Would hockey even on its best regular season Sunday that wasn’t in outdoors stadiums have generated enough buzz and interest when going against the NBA All-Star game, the run-up for Daytona, and pitchers and catchers reporting? Would regular season NHL have even been able to out-draw interest in an Olympics which the elite players were not participating in? Probably not.

For all the short-term issues created by a schedule stoppage, hockey can still be the big winner coming out of Sochi, with new stars, well rested players and the prime time drama which has the potential to be played out this week.  The biggest opportunity hockey will have going forward is something that no other Olympic medalist or team will have in the months coming; its own pre-set city by city night by night tour, called the NHL regular season and playoffs. The biggest bobsledders, the greatest figure skaters, the most dynamic downhill skiers who can all claim gold this week will not have the massive pre-planned platform that hockey will have when it returns to action. Every night casual fans will tune in to see their local teams, but they will also see some newly minted Olympic heroes from countries far and wide returning home to play not just once, but time and again. There will be multiple chances for U.S. and Canadian fans to see their returning heroes and re-live the memories already forged and those still to come, an opportunity which local marketers and community programs should be jumping on, and something which any other sport will have to concoct at breakneck pace once the games are concluded.

While going into the Games the NHL and NBC had a set list of stars to promote, the early run by Team USA has brought yet two new names to the forefront in St. Louis Blues hero T.J. Oshie and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, both solid names in their own markets who now have national buzz for casual fans who until this past weekend may have never heard of them. While youth…and that’s important…youth shirts for USA Hockey with Oshie’s and Kessel’s names have been flying out the door and off sites like Fanatics.com, the more important element will how these new faces to most of the audience can be pushed forward through the rest of the winter and into the spring, when their teams are on the road, and how they can be partnered with the existing stars as the hockey tournament plays out.

Now several key places are already in the mix for “brand hockey” in the States. The grassroots push of “Hockey Weekend In America” is already set for the week following the Games, with a host of local celebrations in communities big and small to help bring the Olympic experience to many communities. College and high school games, along with the elite NHL and minor leagues, can now invest in social media sharing and re-living of Olympic moments that can be played out through on a large scale through the deep resources of the NHL-NBC relationship. Brands in various locales can also indirectly ride the Olympic crest of interest by partnering with teams and even former Olympians to help retell the stories of glory past and present, all of which can be revisited time and time again as hockey moves into the spring on various levels.

Now does all this mean that suddenly, as happened in 1980, there will be thousands of kids who never played hockey before suddenly rushing to rinks? Probably not. What it does mean is that hockey, and the NHL, have perhaps one of their best brand awareness platforms now in place to really bring in new ticketholders and consumers, and probably some additional sponsor partners. While some may say that Oshie’s success is limited in helping the Blues, it really lifts the overall hockey platform, and that rising tide can benefit everyone in the game from the grassroots to the NHL.

There will still be many skeptics as to the value of a league shutdown for several weeks, and a league like Major League Soccer is certainly watching closely how much the Olympics benefited the NHL as they go through a similar situation in some respects with World Cup this summer. Will the benefit to the NHL, which is perhaps even bigger than what the league went through following the Vancouver Olympics, be amplifies enough to  continue the partnership in 2018? Is there enough that is built for the NHL to try and do its own World Championships in the fall, like MLB has tried to do with the World Baseball Classic and soccer does with World Cup? Hard to say if that Olympic buzz would translate to a non-Olympic event away from the buzz of the Games.

What is pretty clear is that hockey is structured for a very unique test of brand growth in the coming weeks after the Games, one which any Olympic sport would love to have to keep the flames fanned for casual and brand interest, and one which could help propel interest and engagement in the game to new heights of casual interest and brand development in markets large and small.

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.

The Winter Classic Wins Are Just Beginning…

The Bridgestone Winter Classic on New Year’s Day is being touted as the best ever and impossible to top. True? Depends on your perspective, but for “brand hockey” this year’s New Year’s Day Game is even more potentially impactful than all the games held before as it becomes the launch point for the sport as we head toward not just the Winter Olympics but the outdoor games coming up across North America, all of which should help elevate the sport, not drag it down from what happened for over 100,000 frozen fans in The Big House Wednesday.

While some will say the hockey wasn’t great or that the rest of the outdoor series will play second fiddle to what is the signature game on the first of the year every year, the truth is that all of the games, collectively, nationally and regionally, have the NHL in the bigger media conversation in key markets, and each will have their own appeal and as a whole, can help stir buzz, brand interest and the bottom line for all things hockey, especially for casual fans. Are two games at Yankee Stadium, involving the Rangers, Devils and Islanders, too much? Not if the ticket sales and media coverage say they are not. Is there a need for a game at Dodger Stadium? If there is brand support and media coverage that will easily trump what the game would get at The Staples Center or in Anaheim so what’s the downside? Does a game in Vancouver cause a problem? The Canucks sell out anyway, all of Canada will watch regardless…moving the game to an unusual, throwback location again enhances what would have just been another day in the NHL regular season.  All these events become not just destination viewing, but they become sponsor enhancements, merchandising opportunities, fan engagement points, and most importantly, a vehicle to showcase the sport to a casual lineup who may now use discretionary dollars to come see another game inside.

Then there are the Olympics. Again USA Hockey was met with some criticism by latching the Team USA announcement on the back of the Winter Classic, and doing it live vs. doing it as a stand-alone event? Standalone event when and where and for who? You have your signature event and the biggest audience you will find, why not showcase on the network who will be carrying you, who the faces that they will be seeing (at least the Americans) will be?  The NHL, just like the Olympics, is built on personalities as well as stellar athleticism, and bringing the faces of Team USA to the audience…the casual audience was a good move not just for the day, but to create a bridge that can run all the way to Sochi.

Next up are the brands that connected through NBC and the NHL. The ones that delivered customized programs…like Enterprise and Bridgestone…probably id the most to maximize their spend and tie directly to the game and its pageantry. For others, the association is solid but is not as impactful, and having that leverage…with a payoff somewhere (in game, online etc.) is becoming more and more invaluable for brands and ROI.

On the NBC side, the flow of programming in and around not just the game but leading up to, and now through the next few months across all NBC platforms is invaluable to the NHL. Naysayers will still point to Nielsen numbers and say hockey draws what hockey draws, but what Olympic sport would not want the advance exposure that hockey received and will continue to receive going towards the Games in Sochi and beyond. On the digital side, the ancillary programming created around hockey lifts not only the Olympic effort but the reach of individual teams as well, and the Ross Bernstein-led creative effort to take fans in and around all the events of hockey in the coming months (which will air across the NBC Networks and look much like 24/7 does for HBO) will only enhance the fan, the brand and the team experience for the sport.

The result is a strong multi-tiered platform with a signature standalone national event that brand hockey has built off of for the coming months. “Brand hockey” is not just a TV ratings driver; those double digit audiences are not what the NHL is all about. “Brand hockey” is about engagement in every way possible, and using that engagement as a selling point has made the sport stronger as all eyes look to Sochi and then hopefully a long and fruitful playoffs.

So what does all this mean for the long term? Will millions of people start wearing jerseys as a fashion statement, and will ratings start rivaling the Super Bowl? No.  Does it mean that every year we will need multiple outdoor games? If the marketplace says yes, then why not? How about an All-Star game outdoors in a large market without an NHL team, or in a place like Russia, like the KHL did in Red Square several years ago? It only loses its luster if it becomes stale, and this far the game is in no way stale.

What it means is the NHL has taken the time to find ways to seed a fertile market and understood they needed to take care of the strong fan first, then move to the casual hockey fan and then finally find ways not just to connect, but to continually engage the average guy and girl on the street. Some of it is good fortune; some of it was smart business. It really doesn’t matter which weighs more. What matters is “brand hockey” is stronger because the leadership took the time to build where their fans are, and when the snow came out they had the right pieces in place to engage not just for one event, but for the long term to make the sport and all its partners stronger for what should be a memorable run for all involved.

Tossin The Bear, Setting A Trend…

Only in Detroit can you throw an object on the ice during a hockey game and not be escorted from the building, in this case Joe Louis Arena. However the new en vogue toss, controlled and buzz-worthy, is the Teddy Bear toss for charity. Minor and junior hockey teams from Topeka to Portland brought in the sponsored between period and post-game event this past week, where fans came in with their own Teddy’s of all shapes and sizes, and filled the ice with bears. Saturday’s Teddy Bear Toss was 11,862 stuffed animals in sports-crazy Portland, where the Winterhawks  donated all the animals to a local children’s charity. The Topeka toss was several hundred, but also got some nice local buzz. Now the “record” of 25,921 is held by the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, with outposts like Hershey of the AHL doing their own 13,000 plus bears as well.  The Bear Toss is not new to hockey; the Kamloops Blazers of the Canadian Hockey League claim to have originated the tradition in 1993-94, and it has gone on across minor and junior league hockey clubs for years.

The advent of digital and social media his significantly amped up the exposure, and the competition of the bear toss this year, with more challenges probably coming from clubs large and small in the coming months. Is there risk from projectiles of any kind being hurled around an arena? For sure, but clubs have seen nothing but positives in the promo in recent years.

So what else can be done with bear tosses? Lots. For one, the whole event is sponsorable either in a giveaway of customized bears to toss, or in a redemption program for a sponsor like a Build-a-Bear in years to come. There is a “hidden bear” opportunity, where players select tossed bears and exchange them with fans whose names are tied to their tosses for tickets and signed items. There is the opportunity for a give back, where players can even toss their own bears back into the crowd, ala a teeshirt toss. The promo also does not have to be just at period or game end, there could be scores of back and forth promos during a game.

Want to factor in some technology into the bear toss? How about a mini camera on a bear that makes it to the ice, with a little viral video showing the life of the bear from purchase to when he or she makes it onto the ice and is retrieved by a player. The possibilities of micro cameras tied to crowd sourcing can be a nice sponsorable add-on as well.

Could the bear toss make it to the larger and more controlled arenas of the NHL or other elite minor leagues?  The possibilities for liability probably go up, but set at the right level, with the right amount of bears, or maybe other stuffed animals, the promotion has great potential for both a charity raise or for a sponsor, not to mention the viral aspect that every club craves. The toss as it currently exists is quaint in that the bears are all sizes and colors and make for an amazing panorama of colors on the ice. Could a little uniformity slow it down or diminish the tradition? Maybe but that’s certainly low risk.

So congrats Winterhawks for amping up the promo. Many families can never figure out what to do with the dust collecting dolls over time anyway, so coming up with a very unique way to clean out a closet and do good in the community is always a good thing.