NBA Teams | 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.

UConn, Chevy Score With Quick and Fun “Final Four” Promo…

In college hoops, especially at this time of year for those schools left playing, timing is everything. Schools like Kentucky and Connecticut, on life support for an NCAA run just a few weeks ago, found a way to regroup and focus and make it to Dallas for this weekend’s Final Four, something that probably would have been unthinkable when Selection Sunday rolled around just a few weeks ago.

However with the improbable run, especially for the Huskies, came opportunity off the court as well in the form of a quick and cool activation with a long-time brand partner. Now it helped that UConn’s run last weekend happened not so far from home, at Madison Square Garden in New York. It also helped that UConn has always had a knack for innovative activation programs involving their loyal legions of supporters, and hence a new, easy and fun digital promotion was born, with the help of their partners at IMG College.

As part of the Huskies’ “Road Warriors” promotion with official partner Chevrolet, (the official vehicle of UConn Basketball for the past two years) a Chevy Sonic quickly painted with the school’s colors will make the trek from Connecticut to North Arlington, site of the Final Four this week. Alternating behind the wheel will be Erik Antico and Brett Greenfield, serving as the Chevy “Road Warriors” as they take Jonathan the Husky Dog and the Sonic cross country, covering a distance of 1,698 miles. They will be making the stops along the way and handing out UConn gear, and posting photos on social media. 

Fans are following on the official UConn Athletics Facebook (facebook.com/UConnHuskies) and Twitter (@UConnHuskies) accounts, and have been encouraged to share their favorite Road Warrior moments with the hashtags #UConn and #BleedBlue.

The promo, created on the fly and with little lead time, was a great extra for the Chevy/UConn partnership. It showed innovation, a smart use of social media and a solid use of available time with little hard costs. It effectively conveys the largesse of the Huskies brands literally beyond its borders and will make for a great rallying point for all the UConn fans enjoying the ride to the Final Four. In an age where augment and virtual reality get a lot of the buzz, UConn, IMG College and Chevy should get points for a quick promo that was a little bit of a throwback but scored on many fronts.

Can Those “Other” Hoops Tournaments Find Their Niche?

The world of the haves and the have nots in college athletics ebbs and flows in any given year, and this time of year the hope for Cinderella trying on the glass slipper in March Madness is what keeps fans up at night.  However this year, perhaps more than ever, Cinderella seems to have gone home early, as only Dayton from the Atlantic 10 remains in The NCAA Sweet 16 as the lone survivor not tied to major college football. The little guys it seems, have gone home early this year. Still that doesn’t mean that the NCAA Tournament is any less interesting, fun or compelling to watch. It also doesn’t mean that March madness ends with the regionals going on this weekend.

For someone cruising the dial on a Monday night, a hoops fan might have wandered on to the mayhem going on in Moody Coliseum on the campus of SMU. A raucous crowd was there to cheer on Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs against a young SEC team from LSU, playing in the second round of the NIT. The game had all the feel of an NCAA matchup, and for these schools even more at stake perhaps; something to prove as teams that missed the field of 64. Brown’s squad especially is playing for pride, to return the coach to New York perhaps next week for another trip to Madison Square Garden. The NIT after all has value.

Now the second tournament is not without its issues. While it provides those who win regular season conference championships but miss out on their tournament title a guarantee of playing on, like a Robert Morris, it also has its failures. Because of the quick turnaround for arena space and TV time, a first round matchup by the Colonials at St. John’s drew barely 1,000 people, and took some creative camera work to keep the focus on the court and not on the acres of empty seats in Carnessecca Arena. However that issue appears to be less so this year, as a very balanced top 100 in college hoops, combined with some strong local support in places like SMU and Clemson, have turned the NIT into a better consolation trip than perhaps in years past.

However what keeps many coaches and administrators up at night is what happens when you are a good mid-major or even a rebuilding school in a major conference and the Big Dance, or even the little dance, the NIT, don’t come calling. The answer for some is to go and try another tournament or another… two to choose from ….The College Basketball Invitational and the CollegeInsider.com.

Unlike the CBI, which has the value of TV (CBS College Network) and a unique but curious best 2 of 3 final and seems to focus on bigger name schools willing to burn a pretty hefty fee to play on (and drew criticism from several schools who chose not to fork up the extra dollars this year, Indiana being one), the CIT is a play for mid-majors only at a much smaller fee with a traditional one and done format, and has actually gained more mainstream traction than originally thought possible by many critics who through post season hoops was already NCAA or nothing.   The 32 schools invited to the CIT bracket seem to be excited to be playing on, with a chance to build toward the NCAA or other success in future years. Schools like Columbia for example, have found a way to draw fans (over 2,500 packed Levein Gym to see a win vs. Eastern Michigan) and get a chance to take on archrival Yale in the semifinals of the CIT, an extra perk for a pair of schools not used to post-season play and looking to build a program to match up with Harvard, which has been not just the kings of Ivy hoops but a national power to be reckoned with as well.

There is probably more room, at least in the short term for the CBI and the CIT than in recent years. The power shift to the larger conferences has made a long advance into March for mid-major schools more difficult, while the issue of players leaving schools early at large schools has created more parity overall than ever before. Good schools with sold seasons, often young programs, still will get squeezed out of NCAA play, and need a place to build brand and legacy. These three tournaments to varying degrees help do that.  

 In the end, the CBI and the CIT have a ways to go to see if that are totally viable for casual fans and brands. Can they build equity, increase their content potential and add sponsors who can’t crash The Big Dance? Maybe. Can they bring in some revenue for the home school in these troubled times through ticket sales and sponsor value? Great. Can they find a way to decrease costs to get away from the pay for play stigma? Perhaps.  If the games save the jobs of some deserving and pressured coaches and gives the athletes one more shot at glory, great. Nether, nor will the NIT ever replace the dollars or bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, but if they can continue to sustain and enhance their reputations maybe they can carve their own necessary and meaningful niche in the complex web of big time college hoops.

Will Championship Week Move More To Gotham?

As we move through Championship Week and fully into March Madness, the sense of underdog success permeates the air. It is totally unlike the big-time sports business feel of college football, which generates millions for select schools competing at the highest levels, but has little of the mystery and mystique of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

The pre-amble to that drama are the conference tournaments, now spread across several rights-holding networks (NBC, Fox, CBS and ESPN) and held in tourist locales like Las Vegas (which the legal gambling-averse allows without issue) as well as longtime like St. Louis (for the Missouri Valley’s “Arch Madness” and Greensboro for the ACC Tournament on a semi-annual basis). However the one tournament to consistently call the media and sales capital of the world home, The Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, is undergoing a transformation of its own. While still billed as a sellout, the conference and its new TV partner in Fox has taken to the subways and the busses with ad campaigns explaining the members and the event to its casual fans, something unneeded and unheard of in previous years.  It is smart to do so; the league should take nothing for granted, especially with some of its newer members from cities like Omaha and Indianapolis, with far smaller alumni groups within driving distance like former members Notre Dame, Syracuse and Connecticut. Still the Big East calls MSG home, and will use the event to showcase its brands and its high quality hoops to both existing and new potential partners who may never get to go an experience the home court at Hinkle Fieldhouse or even The Bradley Center in Milwaukee, let alone Xavier’s Cintas Center or the new future downtown home of the DePaul Blue Demons. It is a great showcase and celebration for a college sports brand in transition. Change as we have seen on college sports is constant.

So will the Big East, now in transition with new geographic faces, stay in Gotham, and should it? All last fall, conference like the Big Ten and the ACC constantly visit New York and all its business trappings, talking about the power of the college football brand to a city and a fan base that remains basketball centric. Yes thousands flock to pubs and houses to watch college football at the highest level, but it has nowhere near the street cred, and the longstanding ties to casual fans, that basketball has. The distant allure of Rutgers, the pageantry of Army, even the claims by Syracuse of being “New York’s College Team,” are still gridiron stretches, and very hard to consistently maintain. Yes brands love college football, as do millions of fans, but in New York it is still second fiddle to hoops.

What does that mean for the marketing opportunities of the ACC and The Big Ten, or heck maybe even the SEC down the road? Could they use their postseason college basketball tournaments as a lure to further infiltrate Madison Avenue year round? Absolutely, and that day will probably come sooner rather than later. Despite all the genteel agreements college sports we know is big business, and to consistently showcase your best of the best in New York is critical to get to the next level. The ACC now probably has more big ticket sellers in basketball in New York…Syracuse, Duke, Notre dame, North Carolina, even Pittsburgh and on a good year Boston College…than any league including The Big East, and that flow of cash is what makes MSG shine, much more than tradition than ever before. Those football schools also bring a carryover to brands for college basketball, something which the non-football playing Big East schools struggle to do, and that year-round presence with an active college community is a brand’s golden ticket. The Big Ten is not that far behind, and with large fan bases from schools like Michigan and Wisconsin in the New York area, laying an occasional claim to Gotham also makes great sense for an occasional March rotation.

So where does that leave the Big East of the future?  That remains to be seen. Does the move of the tournament occasionally to a market like basketball-crazed Indianapolis or even Washington, DC or make more sense for the new geography? Would “tradition” go by the wayside without the call to MSG every early March? Would new brands in other locales embrace the change as progressive thinking instead of a kick in the pants out of town? All of those options are in the offing, along with the ancillary possibility of the nearby Barclays Center or even the state of the art Prudential Center getting in the mix, much like Barclays has tried with the Atlantic 10 Tournament with some degree of success. Still for all its internal and media issues, Madison Square Garden is still the Holy Grail, one which the private schools of the Big East have fought to hold on to for now.  It is the brightest light, the biggest stage, and one, as the business of college basketball continues to bounce, will get even more alluring and more coveted for others as dollar and brand value rise on a national scale. New York may not be the home of big time college football all the time, but for big time college sports business having that center stake in the ground to market and entertain and activate around is perhaps more valuable than ever.

Who will win out? Can all of the leagues win out by rotating? Remains to be seen but as we have understood all too well in recent years, dollars rule the big campuses more than ever, whether that is in September or March.

“One Over 90″…Lessons We Keep Learning From “The Superstat” Harvey Pollock

On Monday the Sports Business Journal unveiled their latest “40 Under 40″ list…some of the biggest and brightest stars of today and tomorrow in the industry.  However this past weekend one of the longest shining stars turned a very young 93, and is still going strong. he is Harvey Pollock, the Philadelphia 76ers longstanding Director of Statistical information. Harvey was there, and got the ball. for Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game in Hershey, Pa., he was there when Allen Iverson had his number retired last week, and he has been everywhere in Philly sports almost since Ben Franklin walked the streets. If the Funding Fathers would have taken a break for rounders, Harvey would have scored it for them. Most importantly, he has served as a caring father, grandfather, great grandfather and surrogate Uncle and mentor to literally hundreds of interns and wannabe stats folks for decades. Here is a look at “The Superstat” from our book. While there are many under 40 who get honored, there are few over 90 still beating the bushes.  Harvey is one of them, with energy and a memory that any 40something should envy. Belated Happy Birthday to an old friend, not just tome but to thousands who have played, watched and worked in Philly.

Harvey Pollock

 The “Super Stat” as he was dubbed by Philadelphia Bulletin writer Bert Kiseda has been involved with the NBA, and sports in Philadelphia…well…since there has been an NBA in Philadelphia.  One of only three employees to have worked for the league every day since it began operations, Pollock continues to go strong. The author of an annual NBA statistical guide, and now a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame as well as 11 others is in a league by himself. He started as the assistant publicity director of the old Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State) in 1946-47 and midway through he 1952-53 season, he because head of media relations for the Warriors. He maintained that post until the spring of 1962, when the franchise was sold to San Francisco. During the 1962-63 season, when here was no team in Philadelphia, neutral court games were played here and he did the publicity to maintain his NBA connection. Then in 1963-64, the Syracuse franchise was shifted to Philadelphia wand the franchise was renamed the "76ers." He served as the media relations director for the 76ers until the 1987-88 season, when he assumed the duties of Director of Statistical Information for the team, a position he still holds. Long before the league adopted the following categories, he kept them for Philadelphia home games: minutes played blocked shots, offensive and defensive rebounds, steals, and turnovers. At the same time, he began tabulating categories the league didn't do and the esoteric items and tables eventually became part of his widely read stat guide. In addition to his NBA duties, he also heads basketball stat crews at six major colleges in the Philadelphia area, and heads the crew at the Major Indoor Lacrosse League games of the Wings, and the Soul in the Arena Football League. His past includes 15 years as the head of the Baltimore Colts NFL stat crew and in football also in Philadelphia led the crew for the Philadelphia Stars, Bell and Bulldogs. He currently has been Temple University's football statistician since 1945. He's en route to The Guinness Book of Records by wearing a different t-shirt every day since June 29, 2003.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM HARVEY POLLOCK:  Sports publicity remains a statistics driven business for the most part.  By being able to create compelling stories via all the stats and figures that go into the games, and then being able to pitch those stats effectively, we can find new angles that have not been explored, even for the simplest of efforts.

 

“Geekfest” No More; Thoughts On Why MIT Sloan Is A Winner…

It was once rightfully so called  ”Geekfest,” a small to medium size gathering of young men looking to figure out how to make statistical analysis more relevant. However the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as a brand has now grown into an event that has probably even surpassed the vision of what its founders, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Kraft Sports VP of Consumer Marketing and Strategy Jessica Gelman could have ever imagined; a gathering not just of several thousand general manager  wanna-be’s, but a place where those largely behind the scenes in professional sports come to listen to learn and to discuss the business of how to make sport better.

While some bemoaned the fact that the event has gotten too big, many others felt that this year’s event had listened to its critics and actually become more open in topics, ideas and speakers. ESPN has played a key role in driving topics and speakers in the past few years as the event expanded its footprint to the point where many others doing great work in the space who were not aligned with “The Worldwide Leader” were driven away or excluded from the conversation during the two day event. This year, rightfully so, panel discussions were left to those who know the space best; the popular baseball analytics panel was run by The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and included speakers from MLB Network, Bloomberg Sports and elsewhere, and showed that the conference was not just an ESPN “love fest” as had happened in recent years as the conference expanded its audience.

The vibe of the conference is different from most other “industry” events, because of its academic nature and its audience. Hours before the first Friday session, several hundred industry wanna-be’s buzzed around the lobby of the Westin Hotel, wearing their Sunday best and gleefully discussing which panels and speakers they wanted to see. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross sat among the throngs of young people listening to the discussion of building a culture with a franchise between Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, while later NBA D-league president Dan Reed, Utah Jazz assistant GM Scott Layden, Washington Wizards assistant GM Tommy Sheppard, and others sat in to discuss the making of a champion with Malcolm Gladwell and “Sports Gene” author David Epstein. Former Calgary Flames president Brian Burke hovered with the NBA’s Kiki Vanderweighe as Gladwell and new NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked about potential changes to the draft and the playoff system rarely heard before, while scores of MLB and NFL assistant GM’s and player personnel and development folks mixed with high school and job seekers to hear adidas talk about the future of wearable tech and its impact on developing players and maintaining careers. The Celtics Brad Stevens walked the hall almost unbothered as he entered a session on using data in college and now in the NBA, while Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was asked for nary an autograph while posing for a selfie or two after his panel on player performance.

Discussions about the hair choices of Glad well and fivethirtyeight founder Nate Silver were as prominent as the talks between soccer officials on which panel on leadership they should attend.  

This year there was even breaking news this year when former Toronto Raptors head Bryan Colangelo candidly and openly discussed the fact that he had wanted the team to dump games during part of his run there to better improve their draft position in seasons deemed hopeless. Although Colangelo was quick to say he never discussed the push to lose with coaches and players, it was something that the wide ranging amount of media as well as those engaged in live conversations in social media quickly turned into news well beyond the walls of the Hynes Convention Center.  Tyler Hamilton had his first face to face discussion with USADA’s Travis Tygart on the debilitating and damaging use of steroids and other PED’s in cycling.  Rarely would those types of unfiltered conversations take place at industry events where the audience is more corporate, and the networking and news is done more in hushed tones away from the bright lights of the speakers stage.

 Oh there were the stats, with panels like Baseball Analytics, Coaching Analytics etc etc. But there were also first rate panels on Social Media Marketing, International Expansion and the Future of Sports Media and sales, with industry leaders like Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Fanatics founder Michael Rubin debating the future of the apparel market, while AS Roma head Jim Pallotta, Octagon President Phil de Piciotto, Celtics owner Wync Grosbeck and MLB.com head Bob Bowman all voiced their open opinions about the global nature of sport, the need for innovation and the value of having sound business functions to parallel an entrepreneurial spirit.

Other than the Ivy Sports Symposium (founded at Princeton by grad Chris Chaney and now rotating among several Ivy League schools), which in many ways has become the fall sister to MIT’s late winter event, the MIT Sloan Event is more about those looking to engage and get into the field of sports business and analytics, combined with people actively engaged in the onfield business of sports. While the highly successful events run by the Sports Business Journal deal with those off the field topics (as does the growing annual Bloomberg Business of Sports event, much more of a C Suite gathering with its own unique focus) , MIT and Ivy take a different approach to audience and structure. Many times the value in conferences is less what is said on stage than what is said in the hallways and over lunch. If you missed a session at MIT and were out kibitzing in the hallways, you missed real learning experience and thought that you might not have heard before, and you might not hear again because of the rare collection of leaders from varied places.  

Geekfest? Maybe. As someone who was once accused of being part of the “lunatic fringe of sport” there is something to be said for a bit of Geekiness. However as someone who also attends multiple events, it was still a very entertaining few days that industry leaders others can learn from and build upon. After all, isn’t that what colleges and universities are really supposed to do for all of us? Find ways to inform and inspire and get us out of thinking what we do every day is the best way to do it.

Congrats to all those like-minded dudes. See you next March with an even bigger crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

Building An Accepting Culture Goes Beyond The Game…

The talk of gay male athletes coming out continued this week as Jason Collins joined the Nets, Michael Sam went through the NFL Combine, and closer to home, Drew University catcher Matt Kaplon revealed to his team that he was gay. As someone who went to an all-boys Catholic high school and had classmates and teammates who were gay, went to a Jesuit University where two of my roommates at different times were gay, and have been in and around sports of all kinds where athletes admitted to the world they were gay (as was the case in tennis with Amelie Mauresmo) or there was no secret amongst people on teams or leagues that certain athletes were gay but they did not want to be public about it, this news neither shocks nor offends me in any way. What matters, and should matter from a business and social perspective, is that they are quality athletes, quality people and good brand ambassadors no matter what their private lives are. Period.

Now I realize this is not the case for some others, and maybe it’s because I was raised in an atmosphere that was a little more welcoming and understanding than some, but  the fact that athletes reveal their private lives should hopefully become less and less of a factor in the coming months, not years. In all the instances that I have personally seen on every level going back over 30 years, most people cared more about what the character was of the person, male or female, than their choice of a partner. If they could play, that’s what was remembered in the heat of competition. If they couldn’t then you move on.  Live and let live.

From a business perspective in sports today, there is a lot of talk about whether the inclusion of openly gay athletes by brands will help or hurt.  Will religious groups and conservative groups stage quiet or possibly loud, protests that can hurt the bottom line of a brand, and damage the relationship, at least privately, with a team? Can teams market to an openly gay community with select nights, like they have with church groups or other organizations; will the money be enough to be that proactive? Will there be enough groups to make it important? The WNBA in some markets has tried to be more open about their marketing, and in some cases it has helped. Can or would male sports do the same? Can it be overt or subtle? Will an openly gay male superstar draw more eyeballs and interest from brands than he would if he were just a superstar? That still remains to be seen.  For sure it is a more intriguing question and more of a possibility today than it was ever before. However with the marketing of ANY athlete, brands have to make sure that there is both sizzle and steak. You can’t just grab an athlete because he or she is gay and hope to make hay with consumers for long term brand success. They have to be all the things you would want in a brand; good person, smart spokesperson, reflective of your company mission, and a quality athlete who can continue to deliver for the long haul. The NBA made a point this week about how fast-selling Jason Collins jerseys were. The great positive about the sale of Collins jerseys is not about the quantity, it is about awareness. Awareness that a solid, smart thinking professional athlete chose to be first, and in solidarity people are supporting him through jersey sales. Now maybe those dollars could be better targeted to donations to LGBT charities or anti-bullying programs vs. buying a jersey, but that marketing step is next in the process. What’s important for now is that there is not just support but acceptance in a widening circle for any athlete, and in the sometimes byzantine world of team sports in the US, that is certainly a positive step.

Now the Collins popularity may or may not continue should the team keep him as an athlete who can contribute, and it should not reflect poorly on the Nets should they decide to cut him. While Brooklyn, much more than the Knicks in this area, have always been about the sizzle and the sale, it is ultimately about the chemistry and the on-court performance that ultimately determines brand success, not the sale of a few extra licensed products or a group or two.  Short term is nice, long term is more important and in the case of sports branding, the healthier, more educated and more inclusive a brand is in society today, the better the culture and the better the business. What we can hope for at some point is that the issue of sexual preference becomes no issue at all, and is rarely covered by media or talked about by fans. If that is so, the steps that any host of athletes, from Martina Navratilova to Dave Kopay to John Amaeche to Greg Louganis to Michael Sam and Jason Collins on the global stage, or athletes like Kaplon at Drew should all be applauded and not forgotten. What we should applaud even more however is their overall success both on a personal and a competitive athlete level. The goal is to have complete, successful role models as smart, upstanding people regardless of color, creed, sexual orientation, ethnic background. We certainly aren’t there, but, hopefully this week was another step forward big and small, and will serve as the right example for brands to look to some pioneering new faces, should they match their courage with career success and most importantly, fit the goals the brand wants to achieve overall.

 Winning people make for winning teams, and winning brands. 

Trading Day Remains Unchartered Brand Territory…

Other than opening day and the start of the playoffs there is probably not one other in-season day that garners more attention in baseball or hoops than trading deadline day. Like National Signing Day in college for football, there is a media frenzy with speculation, rumor, blockbuster trades, hurried press conferences and lots of attention, whether your team is good or not. In recent years, media entities like ESPN, Rivals,  and CBS College have gone to great lengths to brand and activate on signing day, but why not on trading deadline day? Granted some trades do happen the day before or a few days before, but the activity leading up to the deadline, which is a hard and fast time, is phenomenal, and summary shows, best trades/worst trades, smartest mover, smartest not to move etc., could all be packaged together for brands that well…spend a lot of money in sports.

Auto Trader,  E-Trade, Geico. All have massive businesses built around sports activation and trading. Heck, a smart brand could even come in and scoop up some low cost viral activation programs among the best cities were trades were made or not made. Even ticketing companies should be involved. Think of all the new signage that gets handed out in arenas as welcome placards, or all the background signage that gets shot at press conferences.  The NBA has devoted massive amounts of time on their new Sirius launch to trade deadline time, why not roll it together for the right brand?

Some may say that a trading day affiliation is playing on the negative for teams; those looking to unload talent. But in reality for brands looking to take advantage of a high trafficked bug buzz period, trading day presents some very unique opportunities to master a space.

There is a lot of real estate to be had and opportunities to grow a brand for the right company at a time of year; one in late February and one in early August, times that are relatively slow in the sports space except for the moves on the field, and being in that conversation is certainly something that some may desire.

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.