NCAA | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

As Spring Slowly Arrives, There Is No LAX Of Interest In Lacrosse Again

Every year around this time lacrosse enthusiasts start the drum beat that this is the year lacrosse crosses into the mainstream of acceptance, branding and dollars. Yet by June, a successful NCAA tournament is complete, thousands of young people have enjoyed playing the game, and the sport beats a hasty retreat, save for the outdoor professional league that holds its own but still has not gotten the exposure that all had hoped. However this spring, the cause for hope may be more justified because of the ever-changing political tide of college athletics.

Two years ago the University of Michigan announced that its men’s lacrosse team would move from club to Division I status, a landmark move for the sport and for a BCS-competing University. The club, which had raised millions on its own, would be essentially self funded and go to play not with a scholarship-laden team, but with its elite club players, at least for now. Michigan’s business-like approach to club lacrosse has been followed by other schools that are looking to increase sports but not the bottom line and may signal a way for lacrosse to grow exponentially at the Division I level, especially in the midwest and the west, where the sport currently has only two elite Division I programs, at Air Force and Denver. The addition of Michigan helped the Falcons and the Pioneers (whose move to hire legendary coach Bill Tierney was a strong play in building their program) in scheduling and also set a tone for further potential expansion of the sport in major markets in the region. The more schools can use a self-sustaining model, the easier a move to D-1 it will be, which leads to easier scheduling.

The second shift in the lacrosse landscape came when Syracuse shifted all its sports from the Big East, not a lacrosse powerhouse, to the ACC, the standardbearer for the sport across the southern Atlantic states. The Orange presence strengthens the ACC position and give more of a consistent presence of quality play in upstate New York.

With those moves brings more eyeballs, larger crowds and a more effective geographic footprint to continue to grow the game, without sacrificing the core of the sport in the States from the Carolinas through New England, where it flourishes at all levels. That larger footprint, now expanding west into larger collegiate settings, will naturally expose more casual fans to the sport, helping to build the fanbase. With that growth comes more media opportunities and more chances for new brands to engage with both the core and the casual followers. That translates into more dollars and more media and more potential.

Now the growth of lacrosse will probably continue to be steady, not meteoric. The spring landscape in collegiate athletics is not as cluttered as the spring, so a window of opportunity exists, especially as baseball struggles to keep its hold at the collegiate level. It also does not mean that the sport will take off at the professional level, with game that is still run by different groups for its indoor and outdoor seasons. TV has shown more interest in professional lacrosse, but the jury still remains out on its overall effectiveness as a property. However the shift and expansion with effective and efficient cost programs seems to have given those who love LAX more hope than before, if not for a Super Bowl than for a super spring every year. Whether brands, crowds and TV follow is TBD. Whether a stronger college game and buoy its professional counterpart is still a mystery. But the window of opportunity appears to be wider than before, and that is good news for those who play and follow lacrosse at all levels

Set The Ground Rules, Save The Aggravation…

A little over 10 years ago, during a Davis Cup trip to Zimbabwe, the U.S. team passed a street in front of Robert Mugabe’s palace. In big letters there was a warning; “If you take a photo on this street you will be shot.” No one took pictures. Yes that is extreme, but it is a pretty clear way to set ground rules that all understood.

A few weeks ago one of our Columbia classes taught by Neal Pilson had an open invite for staff, alumni, current students and potential students to come in and listen to a q and a with ESPN President John Skipper. The room was filled to listen to Skipper talk about his days in publishing, the challenges of having launched ESPN.com, and a host of anecdotes about life, sports business, broadcasting and the like. Lots of little tidbits that could have made their way out of the room. Nothing overtly controversial, but very insightful from a man who is usually frank and direct but willing to give of his time. As the room filled to capacity, several young socially engaged students prepped their mobile devices for a tweet or two. After all, this is the era of information, and Skipper and Pilson were ready to share. However to the disappointment of some at least, the ground rules were very carefully planned out. No tweeting, posting or recording could take place, in order to keep the session for those invited guests. The result? An open, frank discussion that respected the speakers wishes and a solid time was had by all. The ground rules were set, and the respect was in place.

Juxtapose that discussion, where the rules were set, to a pair of other recent incidents, one involving the Boston Red Sox and President Barack Obama and the other involving Rutgers Athletic Director Julie Hermann. In the first case, POTUS and David Ortiz willingly posed for a selfie that one of Ortiz’s sponsors, Samsung, turned into a marketing push without the consent of the President in any way. Then the Newark Star Ledger broke a story where Hermann was quoted while speaking to a student group at Rutgers as saying she hoped the paper, which had just gone through massive layoffs and is perhaps the media outlet that covers activities on the campus, would essentially go out of business. Whether it was meant sarcastically, or was even taken slightly out of context, it created a firestorm again with the media around the Scarlet Knights. The result? More brand damage and distraction for Rutgers.

What do all four anecdotes show? Pretty simple. We live in an age where media of all kinds is available for consumption willingly or unwillingly, and unless one takes the proper steps to guard against public-facing statements or information, as Skipper did, then anyone is fair game. Was the selfie with Ortiz innocent on the part of the President and Big Papi? Probably. Was there someone on the savvy marketing side waiting or planning to take advantage of the innocent moment? Seems so. In Hermann’s case, was she trying to make news in a frank discussion with students? Probably not. Did she set herself up for an issue by not setting ground rules prior, as happened at Columbia. Looks like that is the case. Now this is not to say setting ground rules can always lead to people acting honorably or responsibly. The thought of embargoes on news stories seem to be more and more a thing of the past, with media outlets scrambling to break news on any platform willing to sometimes ask forgiveness now more than permission, and a tweet, no matter how innocent, just seconds before a story breaks can have career implications for all involved.  Does the Ortiz incident mean that events at White House or other official gatherings will now be like some elite weddings or courtrooms, where any mobile devices need to be confiscated to avoid potential conflict? Could be. We did live in a world not too long ago where images were not captured on phones, they were done by cameras on film and then shared by those who wanted those images distributed and we all seemed fine with it. Taking temptation away can have its benefits in such cases, as can very clear ground rules. The more you think and know your audience, the better off all will be. Image creation and media consumption are great, and by no means should the free flow of ideas be curtailed in most cases. However the higher the image the higher the risk, as we saw again this week, both in DC and New Brunswick. Without setting the rules going in, all bets are off coming out and a news cycle, no matter how innocent or unintentional begins and creates even more distractions for the parties involved.  

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.

“Hardball Passport” Scores For Baseball Fans…

Last fall our colleague Peter Casey launched an ambitious online tool where hoops fans could create a mosaic of all the great places they had seen hoops games, and marry those events to a narrative that matched any fans passion for basketball. It was called “Basketball Passport,” a first of its kind way to catalogue and track all the arenas on both the college and professional  where games have been played. No need for ticket stubs saved, “Basketball Passport” helped you bring back the memories in a virtual world.

This past week, as the MLB season began, Casey and his partners unveiled their latest tracking tool, one which might even be a bigger hit that its hoops counterpart. It is  “Hardball Passport,”  an easy-to-use web tool that lets baseball fans track every major and minor league baseball game they’ve attended over the years.

“Hardball Passport” allows fans to find and log every major and minor league game they’ve attended with simple search functionality. Leveraging a comprehensive games database that goes back to October 21, 1975 – date of Carlton Fisk’s Game Six walk-off homer in the bottom of the twelfth – the tool serves as a repository for game-going memories. Fans can share stories and ticket stubs, and upload photos to complement their game histories. As fans log their games, “Hardball Passport” dishes out personalized stats – number of games attended, stadiums seen, best performances witnessed, and each team’s record for games fans personally attended – to compare year over year or even against other fans. “Hardball Passport” allows future-oriented fans to easily create and track their stadium bucket lists, plan road trips and compete in head-to-head stadium challenges. Fans that complete a stadium challenge or achieve game-specific accomplishments earn unique digital stamps for their Passport. Combined with active leaderboards for “Most Games Logged,” “Hardball Passport” creates a friendly culture of competition among avid game goers.

Will it gain more traction than “Basketball Passport” did in season one? Probably. Baseball is much more a game of tradition and ritual, summer evenings spent with family at probably a more leisurely place than basketball experiences are. For sure the traditions of college basketball run deep in many places, as do the memories, but baseball as a shared experience is probably a lot wider than basketball is. From a business perspective, both platforms have a nice upside. Brands can integrate perks into the platform for fans who engage regularly, and the model remains scalable to any sport. While the baseball data going back to 1975 is probably reflective of the user base, an expanded set of games going at least into the 1960’s would probably create more shared experiences for an older generation vs., first adopting milennials, bit fir a first try “Hardball Passport” seems to score as a new engagement tool, one that can help unite generations and stir interest in the long baseball season for legions of casual fans. Worth a try for sure.

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.

“Beats By Dre” Scores With NCAA Seeding…

The high end audio business tied to sport continues to boom, no pun intended, one of the  brands that continues to make noise in the space is still Beats By Dre.  From their launch that organically dropped LeBron James into the mix as a fan to their attempts at Olympic ambush with athletes to their high end product handed out to the Seahawks and Broncos during the Super Bowl, Beats continues to find ways into the conversation with product seeding and very little in terms of traditional ad buys.

While their biggest coups came with the unique creative they had with Colin Kaepernick and Richard Sherman around the NFL Playoffs and then into the Super Bowl, with Sherman’s post-game rant after the NFC Championship Game coming on the heels of his second half debut commercial, the brand continued to score during NCAA Championship Week as well.  Some of their branding came from traditional buys on-air on ESPN and the networks, but some other great opportunities came through their gifting project with no less than six league tournaments.  

Now it wasn’t the normal headsets in a bag that Beats offered up. What they did was drop different product for each league; a wireless Bluetooth for members of the ACC; in-ear headphones for the Atlantic 10; Dr. Dre pill for the Big 12; different headphones for the Colonial; wireless headphones for the SEC; and a pill for the Pac 12.  Strategically seeding different product amongst a national core of elite basketball student-athletes shows the breadth and depth of Beats accessories and also gives those athletes a chance to share a product conversation down the line. All those athletes then become ambassadors of their brand; loud and large influential ambassadors not just when they return to school but throughout the post-season and the viral pictures of players wearing Beats accessories as they get on and off buses, in locker rooms, in meals etc. will get pickup both by broadcast media and in the social space. Young people love new, so engaging these guys while they are on the road at a tournament gives Beats the best chance at viral exposure without being an NCAA partner.

For sure Beats wasn’t the only audio brand to offer up gift items during conference tournaments. Skull Candy had some ties and Bose even found a spot or two, but no brand had such wide ranging product or such mass offerings as Beats did this past week.

Does the viral seeding with elite athletes work? Their brand studies shows it is successful both subtly and in social media  in what is an ultra-competitive and very crowded space and a quick look around most locker rooms, from high school to the pros, see the simple Beats logo being worn by more and more athletes. Does that translate down into sales? Their records show it has in the past few years, but what is most important is that Beats is seeding the growing market of influencers by building affinity with top college players before they make their big splash, either in March Madness or on the professional side. They have cast a wide net with the conferences, but it is a net that could score some big catches in affinity down the line.

The viral influencer market is not always the easiest to identify, but by being strategic with their choices and knowing their market, Beats by Dre, looks to have scored as college hoops really takes center stage.

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.

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.

A Sport Curls Its Way To Relevance…

The greatest element of the Olympics are the unique stories that are told through elite athletes casual fans don’t get to meet in their everyday sports and business encounters. The Games creates those rare windows to expose to the pubic the passion and drive to success, and failure, of faces and events we rarely think about in our day to day dealings. The beauty of social media does give those athletes a better chance to embrace their fame and connect with fans for a longer period, and some smart brands have looked to the digital space to create a tail for engagement that can continue well beyond the games themselves, but for the most part the rising tide crests for many Olympians during and just after the Olympics and then slides back for several years to come. There are the rare faces that can cross from winter to summer Games, like a Lolo Jones, or professional athletes like those of the NHL or KHL who can use their large window to grow their sport when the Games end, but for the most part the moment is now, and figuring out how to leverage that window for long-term growth is a challenge.

One of those sports, and its athletes, that seem to have found itself into a larger window is of all things, curling. A relatively simple game to understand, its use of stones and sweeping, not to mention some entrepreneurial athletes, has made curling in the Winter Olympics what Beach Volleyball has kind of become for the Summer Games. It is a sport that casual fans can relate to; people have an understanding of shuffleboard or bowling for example; and it has a long list of participants at the Sochi games who seem to understand better than most that they can use the social sphere in real time to get attention, whether it is by some outlandish outfits or by taking advantage of outer beauty to gain attention. Female athletes like Russia’s Anna Sidorova, Austria’s Claudia Toth, Norway’s Linn Githmark and Germany’s Kathy Selwand have even gone one step further, using their athletic builds without much on to draw a casual male audience, and get some precious pre-event coverage as well.

So with the US men’s and women’s teams close to going out in the preliminaries, how can curling, at least in the States, see if they can play a card similar to AVP to close the gap between Olympics and draw fans, participants, and most importantly sponsor dollars, broadcast time and buzz. Is it possible? Some thoughts as to why.

It is a simple game to watch and engage with. The space that is needed is pretty pristine and the idea of curling is an easy one to understand for people of all ages. It does not need a huge surface; there are many rinks which could engage in temporary surfaces for curling (Bryant Park in New York could be one or any series of temporary ice rinks in cities around the US) and there is not a huge outlay for cost to get people to try the game.

At the elite level large skill is needed, but at the grassroots it welcomes all ages. Shuffleboard, knock hockey, bowling; great games that people of all ages…even teens can engage in. Curling fits, and it plays to all sizes and shapes.

It is a relatively simple game to adapt to a mobile gaming audience. It’s not a big money player but playing some virtual curling is really easy and downloadable. It does not need great detailed graphics and it can be played in Angry Birds fashion by people of all ages.

The rules translate globally. There are no boundaries, no complex scoring system, no language issues. The game can be played the same regardless of culture.

It has a great upside for brand engagement. Mount a GoPro on a stone? Drop virtual ads along the sheets? Outfit the colorful elite participants in sponsor apparel? Maybe design custom stones for charity (where is the pink stone?). The brooms? Not a bad tie to all the Harry Potter fans of many ages who have enjoyed Quiddich. For brands looking to chance exposure riding some popularity, curling could be a nice fit.

The elite athletes appear to get it. From the provocative calendars to the fun outfits, it looks like there are ample stories to be told by the athletes away from the games, and there are probably multiple ways to engage elite athletes from other sports. The NFL’s Vernon Davis has come on board, and who is to say other athletes…like Chris Paul has done in bowling…along with celebrities, couldn’t engage.

It has a simple broadcast platform. There is no expansive space needed for broadcast, and the ability to use technology for very unique point of view broadcasts is an added plus. The combinations of simplicity plus good characters with the athletes make it possible to create good content for both a digital and a conventional broadcaster.

Now this is not to say curling is going to be the sport of the future and that it is the “fastest growing” anything, as many other sports claim. There is also little to no room or need  for a “professional curling league” as has been suggested. It is much more participatory than a spectator sport for long periods of time. However the sport does have an interesting window, especially with the US Pro Championships landing in a major market (Philadelphia) next month, to continue to expand its platform with a goal of gaining more brand exposure in 2018. It won’t be easy, but curling certainly has done some of the things to give it legs as a growing niche. How well it scores and how much it grows, remains to be seen, but at least for a snowy winter, and for an Olympics which has lacked in mega-stars thus far the stone and the broom has taken some slides forward.  

For some great insight on the sport, take a look at Hit The Broom