NFL | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

High School Media Day Scores In Concept

The overall potential for high school sports properties regionally and nationally remains a hot button for media and marketers, with many bullish on the future as national brands seek hyper local activity, cash strapped school districts look for ways to bring in revenue and media use cost-efficient tools to tell very worthy stories and capture the drama of high school athletics both on a local and national stage. While some have criticized the commercialization and added media attention for national elite high school programs, the fact remains that local media coverage and brand engagement for programs has existed for as long as high school sports have been around. The local hero and legendary coach have always been there; there is more of a means to tell the story to a larger audience now.

A good example of the power and reach of the high school platform took place this past week in Seattle. MaxPreps, along with USA Football and the Seattle Seahawks, hosted the inaugural High School Media Day, inviting some of the area’s elite athletes and coaches to the practice facility of the reigning Super Bowl champs for a day of interaction amongst themselves and assembled media from across the region. It also served as a great opportunity for USA Football to unveil its latest best practice programs for proper helmet and shoulder pad fitting and to introduce to Heads Up Football® tackling fundamentals to both the athletes and to the media in attendance.

The concept served many purposes and will probably be set forth as a best practice for areas where football especially is king, and basketball is a close second . The event gave a wide swath of media a chance to talk to coaches and players they will be covering in an efficient time window, as opposed to the usual practice of tracking down coaches one at a time on the phone for several weeks. It also gave media the opportunity to learn more some additional coaches and student-athletes they might not get a chance to interact with once practice starts and schedules tighten, and exposed all more to the human side of sport rather than just the numbers or the video media may see during a hectic fall season. For MaxPreps, the day was also a great opportunity to gather regional content and place their brand front and center as one of the key sources for creative coverage of high school football.

For the coaches and student-athletes, the day served as an opportunity for them to get a feel for what the limelight can possibly be like going forward, when college or other opportunities come calling for many of the participants. For some it may be the only time they ever see such bright lights as well, and gives them an interesting time getting some deserved recognition.  The Seahawks media team stepped in prior to the sessions to do some prep work with the students and the coaches, face time that can be invaluable going forward when media come calling and there is no seasoned communications professional around to lend an opinion or assist in making sure an interview goes well.

Is there any downside to such an event on a regional level? Some may say doing this in July again increases the window for student-athletes when they should be away from the spotlight, but in reality it actually lessens distractions when camp starts and gives the coaches a chance to get comfortable with the media before the pressure of winning is out on more squarely.  Some may say casting the national shadow of MaxPreps on more local kids is undue pressure, but in reality the exposure with social and digital media is there regardless of this type of event, and the media day streamlines and organizes the process and makes it more well-rounded for all the schools in the area.  The cooperation of the local NFL team also creates even additional goodwill in the region, not to mention some memories for the athletes that will last a lifetime.

In the end, the high school media day really served as proof  concept for MaxPreps and for USA Football, and can probably be a revenue generator in partnership for the local district going forward should a sponsor be found that makes sense. It is an event that can be replicated in key geographic areas, and brings a level of professionalism (in a good way) to the media process surrounding high school athletics. It looks good, it sounds good and it takes pressure off of student-athletes and coaches which would have been applied once practice starts. The day was a help to the media in advancing and telling stories, and was a strong-cost efficient best practice for the coverage of high school sports, a hot platform that is growing by the week.

As Training Camp Opens, Giants Others Start Their “Quest” At Home…

It used to be a rite of summer as the local NFL team headed off to some far-off  college for several weeks of hardnosed, secretive out of the way training camp that as conducted without distractions. Fans had to travel to find you, media was restricted, and the business of football went on its merry way.

Today, only 12 of the NFL clubs venture beyond their home boundaries, and with millions spent on practice facilities and brands partners looking for more ROI, the home-grown training camp makes more and more sense, although it is still left up to the football side to determine what is best to set the tone for the season. Still, as teams sell their naming rights and try to find more ways to engage high end season subscribers, turning to home to get things started is becoming more the norm than traditions of the past.

One such team is the New York Giants, who will mark the first full year of a new title sponsorship for their training facility later this month, and will be home hard by Route 3 in east Rutherford as opposed to following their stadium partner, the New York Jets, out of town for training camp this week.

The new naming rights partner is Quest Diagnostics, the biggest provider of diagnostic information services in the world with $7.4 billion in revenue in 2013. Quest became the partner not just of the 20-acre facility late last summer. They will  work with the team in an effort to expand its new sports diagnostic business. The goal in year one has been simple; to become the leader in developing tests related to sports. This could lead to new information on how performance is affected by variables such as diet and hydration, led not just by Quest, but with the teams’ medical and training staff, led Ronnie Barnes, the team’s senior vice president of medical services.

For Quest, a publicly traded but conservative company, the move was a bold one. They are not a commercial  brand, so now one driving down Route 3 is going to run to a store and ask to buy Quest products, In many ways the consumer only knows the company when they have to take a medical procedure, and the doctor or health worker gives them a quest kit for some kind of test, so the relationship to consumer may even be an unpleasant one at first thought. There are benefits for Quest clients for sure, like hospitality and ticketing, and the association with an elite franchise like the Giants is a plus when discussing  business with salespeople and doctors. Maybe that gets Quest some added sales and visibility in a crowded medical marketplace, but the real benefit, if done right, is not now, but in the future.

Teams are constantly looking for more ROI on their dollar investment in their players, and a living and breathing partnership with Quest in athlete care and development puts the brand at the forefront of a very hot topic.  Breakthroughs with elite athletes can also morph into the private sector in healthcare as well. There is also an education factor involved with the consumer on health and well-being,  so clinics and other programs that Quest can partner with using Giants current and former players and staff to talk health and wellness in the community also makes great sense, and can have ancillary benefits as well.

In the end, the move seems to have been gradually fruitful in year one, with the most public-facing part of the partnership just starting with this training camp where thousands will flock to watch Big Blue practice and see those big Quest logos all around the field and the training center. While that decision to support a large partner was not the only one that factors into where a team does their preseason, it certainly doesn’t hurt a fledgling partnership, and is another example of why teams are increasingly staying home to get things started, as opposed to venturing out to places like Cortland, NY and Latrobe, Pa., settings which in the past made good football and business sense, but in today’s environment are becoming less of a necessity and more of a niche in the big business of the NFL.

Investing In a Heartbeat; q and a with Fantex

The latest in Tanner Simkins sitdowns with key executives is with Fantex CEO Buck French and their unique, and controversial, approach to literally investing in athletes…

Buck French is Co-Founder and CEO of Fantex Holdings, a company that offers investable securities linked to the performance of athlete entertainer brands. French, who holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS from West Point, has been building successful businesses for nearly 20 years.  We recently caught up with French for a discussion on Fantex and more. A brief bio of French follows the Q&A.

 Full Court Press: For those who may be unfamiliar tell us a little about yourself and Fantex Holdings.

Buck French: I am cofounder and CEO of Fantex. I’ve spent close to 20 years as entrepreneur building tech companies. I built a tech company called OnLink Technology and sold that for $609M to Siebel Systems. I then built a $200M side of Siebel Systems into the largest eCommerce business in the world at the time. I built a network security turnaround company called build Securify which turned into Secure Computing. Basically, I’ve been building companies for 20 years.  The idea behind Fantex was to change the approach of building an athlete entertainer brand [in two main ways].  One, You can apply additional brand marketing techniques to athletes entertainer. And two, you have the ability to develop a security linked to the value and performance of the athlete brand. [The idea is] that these would lead to a level of advocacy out in the marketplace. If you were able to sell a security to the general public and they had an ownership interest…we felt one day that would marry well with social media and advocacy to help build the brands into the post-career.

FCP: How did the idea originate?

BF: Dave Bur, my fellow cofounder, came up with original idea. He was working with john Elway, Michael Jordan, and Wayne Gretsky on a company called MVP.com. Dave, also was one of the leading partners at Benchmark Capital, a leading silicon valley VC firm. [Benchmark Capital] was involved with eBay and companies like that. Dave noticed that these athlete brands had unique attributes. And it wasn’t that they were the greatest to have ever played the position. That didn’t mean you had a consumable brand like Elway, Jordan, Gretsky.  [Identifying those that do] really became the nexus to start investigating this concept.  Again maybe you do not obtain this level of brand status as a Jordan or Elway but [brands] are about creating audiences of various sizes. Dave felt there was an approach where we could ultimately do that. That was really the genesis. [Prior] Dave brought me into Securify where he was on the board. After we sold that company he approached me and said ‘are you interested in building this company [Fantex]?’ That was the start.

FCP: Tell us about the business model

BF: Our business model is to increase the branding associated with athlete entertainers. Ultimately everyone’s interests are aligned. If we can generate awareness and interest with the brand then the brand can activate on that awareness.  This turns into income, which then flows into Fantex. This is all positive for everyone.

FCP: Thus far, what is the greatest success at Fantex?

BF: Milestone is better word in my opinion. The best milestone is happening right now: our ability to actually offer shares in an IPO to the general public.  This security is linked to the value and performance of the athlete’s brand. This is a tremendous milestone that we worked 2 years to achieve.

FCP: What is one challenge you had to overcome?  What have you learned from that?

BF: To generate enough awareness and education where someone feels comfortable investing dollars into Fantex. Approximately 10 shares of Fantex Vernon Davis cost the same as a jersey; but there is a mental barrier. It is crucial to build up the level of trust and awareness and that’s what are building right now

FCP: What qualities do you look for with the athletes?

BF: We have a defined methodology for the athlete brands that we are interested in working in. They have to have a high degree of character, and their brand has to be multidimensional. They’re not just great athletes because you can’t really build a sustainable brand on that. Therefore, we look for multidimensional aspects that many of these athletes and entertainers do have, but we as the general public aren’t exposed to this. We look for character, a multidimensional aspect, interesting, articulate; those are the key big bucket items. We are not looking to work with everyone – it doesn’t fit everyone. But there is a large pool out there where this does fit, and we want to work with as many of them as possible.

FCP: Where do you see Fantex in 5 years?

BF: Today’s the first step and the process of getting the first offering out the door. In 5 years, hopefully there’s a lot [Fantex users] across the world of sport and entertainment. Its been tried before in different flavors people have not been able to achieve it. At the end the day competitors just tell you have a good idea. I welcome it I jump on in and the waters warm

FCP: Are you working on any other projects we should know about?

BF: No, all I work on is Fantex.  If you’ve never done an early stage business, if you get distracted on iota, you have it give it your all everything you got. And that’s what I’m doing. That’s paid good dividends in the past and I expect it to do so in the future. Everyone here, the entire team, is focused on building a great company that helps build great brands out in the marketplace. Hopefully, the plan is to make everyone successful. That’s the only thing I’m doing. [laughs] And occasionally I see my family, that’s my hobby.

FCP: What are some industry trends or developments that you are closely following?  

BF: The major one is what we are partaking in, the ongoing development of athlete brands beyond just there on field performance. I think Fantex is just the next step on what social media started, which was giving the athlete brand a voice. That was step 1. This next step is the brand development that Fantex is providing. I think that is a natural trend. The team brands will always sustain and be out there. But as you see this fragmentation of media, which we are living through, pools of hyper localized audiences will be created. Athlete entertainer brands will be much more granularly applied to that audience. We’re just one piece of what a larger overall trend of athlete brands that can potentially drive an audience. 

FCP: What is your favorite book?

BF: Unbroken.  If you are going to be an entrepreneur read that book. Its not about being an entrepreneur. It’s about perseverance, strength of will, dedication, never giving up, and belief, all core attributes you need to be successful as an entrepreneur. Its an amazing story.

FCP: Lastly, do you have advice or tips for young people? This could be general or related to finance, sports business, etc

BF: The best tip I can give anyone is to know your passion.  Don’t follow the paycheck. That will come if you follow your passion and what you are really truly deep down in your core interested in. Don’t say I got to pay my student loan or pay my bill; those are short term. If you go after what you are passionate about, whatever it is, you will be great at it because you will love it.  If you are great at it you will be paid for it. …I love what I do every day its awesome. I get to build a company and work with great people. …You got to love it or you will be average and who wants to be average. I don’t.

Buck serves as our Chief Executive Officer and a Co-Founder of Fantex Holdings. Buck brings to Fantex Holdings his extensive management, business development, financial and strategic planning experience. Previously, Buck founded and served as CEO of OnLink, which sold to Siebel systems. He then built and ran Siebel Systems eCommerce business unit. He was also CEO & Chairman of Securify and led its sale to Secure Computing. Buck holds an MBA from Harvard University and a BS in Economics and General Engineering from West Point.

 

Laying Down The Law; Sports-Style

Here is the latest interview our Tanner Simkins did with some elite professionals in sports business; this one with Columbia profesor and sports law leader Carla Varriale

 

Carla Varriale is a leading sports lawyer with a honed focus on venue litigation.  We recently sat down with the HRRV partner for a reflection on her career and commentary on the changing sports law landscape.  Varriale’s brief bio is provided after the Q&A

___________________________________________________

Full Court Press: For those who may be unfamiliar, tell us about yourself and your work?

Carla Varriale: I am a Partner in a law firm I founded with several other lawyers about ten years ago. It is one New York’s few female-owned law firms—we own sixty percent of the equity in the firm.  My law practice is mostly litigation (spectator injuries/security issues are a specialty within that specialty).  I do some contract drafting and review– I like to create waivers of liability! I work with some local sports teams and clients who are in the fitness and recreation industries. I also teach Sports Law and Ethics at Columbia. This summer, I will lead the summer project and study the controversial sport of Mixed Martial Arts (“MMA”) and efforts to bring it back to New York where it has been banned since 1997. We will study the arguments for and against sanctioning the sport, analyze why the legislation to allow it here has failed and  how the sport could be regulated to address some of its detractor’s concerns if it is sanctioned. We may be the first class to study MMA in the country.

 FCP: Why sports?

CV: I was not a sports fan (but the Nets are changing that) but I am a fan of the business of sports. Sports law is an amalgam of tort, contract, antitrust , discrimination and constitutional law. And more! I am weaving in more criminal law cases in my Sports Law and Ethics class  in recent years because criminal issues seem to be coming into focus more and more. Sports law is a tapestry woven from several disciplines that I like and found interesting. There is always something in the news with this industry and it certainly ignites people’s passions. What lawyer would not want to work against that sort of backdrop?

 FCP: Describe your leadership style?

CV: Direct. I practice transparency. Although I am naturally a collaborative person, I prefer strong central management versus diffused authority and decision making. Otherwise things never get done. For management purposes, I think I am a benevolent dictator.

 FCP: What are some industry trends or developments that you are closely following?

CV:  I jokingly refer to the NCAA as sports law’s gift that keeps on giving—I think the rights of student-athletes (or student-employees) will be at the forefront of our discussions. Between the O’Bannon and Jenkins cases and the recent efforts by the Northwestern football team to unionize, I think we may see a seismic shift in what it means to be a student-athlete and the rights of college athletes in general.

 FCP: Who is someone you learned the most from? What did they teach you?

CV:  I had (and still have) a wonderful mentor that I met at my prior firm named Stanley Kolber. He was a senior lawyer and counsel to my first firm out  of law school.  Even though we worked in different departments, he took an interest in my professional development. He is retired now and a noted nature photographer, but we are in touch and he remains a trusted advisor. When I was a young lawyer, he gave me no-nonsense, unvarnished  feedback—sometimes it was difficult to hear but that is the difference between a mentor and a cheerleader. However,  I appreciated his vantage point and knew that he was pushing me to be my best self personally and professionally. One of his  things he said was that not every horse takes the bit—I took the bit.  He also encouraged me to develop hobbies and interests outside of work—lawyers, like many professionals, can easily work all the time and that’s just not desirable. Stanley used to say “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I am only now realizing how true that is.

FCP:  What is your biggest regret?

CV: I do not believe in regrets, it’s just not part of my DNA, but  do believe in lessons. And I have learned plenty.

I had insomnia for years, it was self-driven. It now seems so unnecessary that I did  that to myself.

FCP: If you go back, what would you tell you?

CV: It’s going to be alright, lighten up.

 FCP: What was the last book you read?

CV: I am a  passionate reader and I always have three books going at the same time. I just read Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides and it was fantastic-I stayed up late every night until I finished it. Right now, I am reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. She is a journalist who writes beautifully about inhabitants of the worst slums on earth.  I love history and I am trying to finish Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Anyone who is interested in management and leadership would do well to read that book—it is breathtaking.

 FCP: Any tips for aspiring sports professionals who may be reading this?

CV: Lend a hand to those before you and those after you—it is important to try to help someone on his or her career path. It is part of your professional development as well. Volunteer your time, get involved in alumni activities, write for industry publications, mentor someone formally or informally. This is my idea of networking.

And keep on top of the news—by that I do not necessarily mean blogs or the sports pages—read The Wall Street Journal, industry publications, keep on top of the Supreme Court decisions. I subscribe to Twitter feeds for a variety of sports  industry professionals and law professors to help me digest the vast amount of information about developments in antitrust, labor, risk management.    Now you know why I have to make time to sleep!

_____________________________________________________

Carla Varriale is an attorney with Havkins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale, LLP, and has litigated cases for Major League Baseball teams and players, minor league teams, and various clients in the recreation and sports industries. Varriale has won dispositive motion victories in cases involving injuries arising out of promotional activities at sporting venues. She writes and lectures on issues of interest to sports, recreation, and entertainment venues. In her practice, she counsels entities with self-insured retentions regarding methods to minimize exposure and the development of successful risk management and litigation strategies, with a focus on security issues.

Big Ten, New Schools Win The Day, Look To The Future

The day came and went with fireworks and fanfare, music and lots of Scarlet and Terp Pride. Rutgers and the Big 10. Maryland and the Big 10. For the casual fan it had a bit of a wow factor, for the ardent supporter it had a bigger wow factor. For those selling the brand to the business and media world, it was a day of cautious optimism. Of you are counting dollars in the halls of the athletic department; it was a day of cautious optimism.

If you are the Big 10, you are officially, at least in name, slotted in the Capitol District and at least near Madison Avenue to do business every day.  If you are in the halls of academia, you hope that the promises and the flood of long term positive cash flows, as well as the chance to maybe partner with elite institutions on programs well beyond a playing field, makes your job more interesting and perhaps your research better funded. And somewhere in new Jersey as the World Cup is going on, if you are former Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, now watching over another transitional franchise, this one coming into Major League Soccer in New York City Football Club, you are probably smiling at a job well done steering the Scarlet Knights into a Power Five conference against some steep odds.

So when the bands went away, the mascots went home and the smoke from the fireworks blew away, who won?  The jury for both schools is still out and will be for some time, but from a strategic position the real winner right now is the Big 10 itself. While it is easy to “say” you are part of the New  York business marketplace or the fabric of DC, as entities like NASCAR or even the Pac 12 have said for years with media events, sponsor activations or TV buys, having a physical presence where brand and media buyers can actually experience the look and feel of what you are selling 24/7 is required. You can talk and then fly someone to an event; NASCAR at Pocono for example, or taking brands on a junket to a football weekend in Tuscaloosa, but to be able to say on a Tuesday, hey come and see Michigan play Rutgers, or Ohio State is visiting College Park tomorrow bring your family, is a big difference. That experience is amplified even more because New York, and Washington to a large extent, are really professional sports towns by nature.  Yes there are thousands of fans and alumni from colleges who live and congregate for games on their own, but for the large part the media, especially in New York, and most of the population, live and die with those in the pros.  The massive offerings of the Big 10 as a whole and its member schools individually, now get tot take advantage of a regular physical presence in two major markets they have never had before, and that means a great deal when battling with brands for discretionary dollars. It’s not like the Big 10 is hurting in any way for dollars and exposure on a national level, but having those two schools as an entertainment and activation hub in those markets makes the business of college sports just that much easier.

So what does it mean for Rutgers especially? Maryland has never been a stranger to big time athletics with its presence in the ACC. But Rutgers has ebbed and flowed for years into the national conversation through its relationships in the American Athletic, the Big East and before that the Atlantic 10. Pernetti when he was at the Scarlet Knights helm, fought and won a steep stealth battle to get the school into the Big Ten, arguing the upgrade in the long run would change every piece of the University for the better. He succeeded, and despite his controversial departure from the school, has left a mark that current AD Julie Hermann and her staff will have to evolve with going forward, with cautious optimism. The argument is that win or lose, Rutgers will now be able to grab part of that Big Ten national spotlight for themselves, and will be able to cash in literally on the bigger crowds of say, Michigan State coming to Piscataway for football or hoops than  a Cincinnati or a Seton Hall would ever bring. The naysayers bring up the fact that the Big ten schools are better built and supported than what Rutgers has experienced, and the competitive climb for all sports will be very steep and may never be realized.  Those on the positive side say the ancillary sales aspects of having larger profile schools involved can bring bigger sponsor dollars even for individual events, while those on the negative side say that Rutgers is not New York, that the professional sports will still get the larger flow of cash.  The argument for looks at the massive revenue share that the schools will get from playing in a college football championship pool, the argument against says it’s nice to think that all will be equal but in reality the culture of big time athletics is ingrained and managed at schools like Ohio State and Indiana, and it is not part of the culture at a school lie Rutgers. Some academics see the switch as another huge dupe of the public, with dollars spent better going towards world class programs in chemistry or mathematics or communications, all of which have suffered in a challenged environment, while those for say that the association with Big 10 schools can further grant money and in the long run will raise the tide across the University.

All of the above is up for debate at this point. The one certainty is that change in college athletics seems to be constant, and if the current environment does not work for the five big conferences now, that more change may be in the offing, especially for those leagues that DO NOT now have solid boots on the ground in markets like New York and Washington and may need to change yet again. For Rutgers, from an athletic brand standpoint, the association with the Big 10 was an immediate buzz generator, and that buzz will continue into the fall. Success on the field will certainly raise the level of exposure and with it the dollars that can flow in.  Will either matter to a casual fan in the New York area? Maybe. But how far Rutgers can insert itself into a sports culture that is purely professional is still up for debate. Maryland has a better chance in the Washington area, but for the Scarlet Knights to be in the conversation consistently will take a great, great deal of time and effort and success. What is more important for bath is the internal sell. The convincing of alumni, passionate local supporters, brands and administrators and students that this move is consistent, positive and for the better for all. That won’t happen for everyone with a few football games. It will take a constant reinforcement with hard numbers and data and interest, and that sell is much more important than the one to those listening to ESPN radio in DC or WFAN in New York.

In the end who won with the conference shifts this week? Certainly the Big Ten did, as their schools and their sales and marketing forces now have a place to call home in addition to a satellite office near Madison Avenue.  If you believe change is good then Rutgers and Maryland also are winners right now, with the potential for bigger wins on the bottom line down the road. Nine of that is guaranteed for the long term and there will be some painful days and decisions coming as that transition occurs, but if you were betting on longer term health, it seems like being with the have’s if you are in those athletic administrations, projects better than being on the outside trying to climb in.

July 2014 certainly brought optimism and buzz across two campuses, especially the one in New Jersey. Maintaining that buzz and pulling in the dollars will be the tough task at hand, and certainly one to watch as the leaves turn not just this fall, but for years to come as college sports continues its evolutionary dance into the sports business stratosphere.

Rugby 7′s Makes Its Case…

Last weekend I was invited to PPL Park in Chester, Pa. to take a look at a test event for a sport that has a big grassroots following in the US, has been played in some form on the college and high school level for ages, and is a massive sport in its more traditional form throughout the world. It is fast paced, has great athletic skill, is TV friendly, and has great star power and backstories. It wasn’t lacrosse, or Ultimate Frisbee, or Water Polo, it was the fast-paced game of Rugby 7’s, and the event was the Collegiate Rugby Championships, eventually won by the University of California. Probably over 20,000 enthusiastic, passionate followers attended the event, with rooting sections from Michigan to Navy, Kutztown to Life University of Georgia, all supporting their schools just like they would on any fall football weekend. The result of the weekend from a brand standpoint showed that for many reason’s Rugby 7’s has a prime opportunity for growth in North America for many years to come.

The business changes made to the sport to speed it up, simplify it, and even remove some of the violence of “American football without pads” has certainly helped mainstream the game, and the participation of NBC in helping push the Olympic-style game of Rugby 7’s, while also televising the World Cup, has certainly been a huge pop for a sport that for years has been a great club sport on college and high school campuses. The Olympic acceptance for the game was also a huge boost in both awareness and potential funding for a team sport that was an afterthought in this country for many years.

The sport has embraced digital and social media as a key way to grow the personalities of the game around the world, and the business opportunities for sponsorship and brand engagement amongst a young and active audience increased greatly with Olympic acceptance.

But do we need another professional sport in the crowded U.S. landscape? While it is true that lacrosse has been clamoring for years to get its professional side growing to a level of the college game in interest, it has not happened. Popular Olympic sports like beach volleyball have struggled on the professional side as well. So why Rugby 7’s?

First, the Olympic involvement gives the game a leg up on niche sports that miss that cache, and that funding and that four year opportunity to capture the casual fan. The grassroots support, and now the added television exposure of a college and national team competition give the sport a consistent presence that some Olympic sports don’t get, so rugby now has the best of both worlds. Now any effort on a professional level in the States would have to be gradual. MLS’ took over years to build from the grassroots up to make itself a solid professional entity, and a rush to pro rugby would be foolhardy. Cost control could work. So also could a match with football fans clamoring for a spring sport that is definitely football-like, and in Rugby 7?s and the more streamlined and TV friendly version of the traditional game is more action and easier to follow. While the lack of equipment may lead to more injury from time to time, the unencumbered look of athletes will also have a plus in growing personalities from all walks of life. It is also a game that most of the world plays and understands, so the new immigrant to the country can assimilate pretty easily. Can you grow quality talent to fill the league, and then build that talent level up to world-class quality? Time will tell, but that’s where elite training, and taking from other sports, can come in.

There was also the cost-effective use of the sport by the colleges. The game is co-ed, and is not expensive to play from an equipment standpoint. You do not need a massive amount of players to fill and train a team. The instance of concussion, long-worried by college football critics, is minimalized with rugby as well. Another interesting aspect is college recruitment. As Universities seek to grow their student body globally, rugby 7’s is being used as a key tool to bring in a diverse student body as evidenced by the effort made by schools like Kutztown University and Life, two schools whose presidents have seen the cost-efficient value rugby 7’s can bring to campus. The growth of a sport from a club level is also very intriguing, as clubs can recruit and self-fund before they make their case for varsity acceptance. Michigan and other schools have done this very successfully to grow lacrosse in the Midwest, and the same case can be made for rugby 7’s.

Now will all this enthusiasm work to make rugby the new sport of choice, like soccer has been for almost 20 years and lacrosse has claimed to be? Hard to say.

It certainly won’t happen overnight, but suddenly the interest in rugby in the States seems to be taking hold and growing, from a grassroots, television and sponsor perspective. Making the jump to a new level of engagement is a big one, but one which today seems more plausible than ever before, and one certainly worth watching as we head into another Olympic cycle.

Rugby 7’s; a sport to watch going forward.

Lessons Learned: Robin Harris, Ivy league Executive Director

As part of our ongoing best practices series as part of the Columbia University Graduate Program in Sports Management we will be doing occasional pieces with leaders in sports business. Our first is with Robin Harris, Executive Director of the Ivy League

Robin Harris serves the The Council of Ivy League Presidents’ Executive Director.  Colleague Tanner Simkins caught up with the Duke Law graduate for a conversation on her experiences, the future of the conference, and more.  You can connect with Robin Harris on Twitter. [A detailed biography of Robin Harris is included after the Q&A]

Full Court Press: What experiences drove your career to the Ivy League?

Robin Harris: In retrospect, all the steps on my career path led me to the Ivy League, including:  working at the NCAA national office for nine years, particularly staffing and advising presidential and other leadership groups on a wide variety of issues; co-chairing and managing the collegiate sports practice at a law firm for six years; my legal training which helps both substantively regarding legal issues and more intangibly regarding analysis of issues; and my belief in the value of intercollegiate athletics as part of the overall educational experience of the student-athletes, which was initially formed during my time as a student at Duke University.

FCP: Fondest memory as Executive Director?

RH: I am fortunate to have had many wonderful experiences during my time as Ivy League Executive Director and it is difficult to pick one.  Like other collegiate athletics administrators, I enjoy my work because it benefits student-athletes.  I also believe in the collegiate model and the pursuit of excellence both athletically and academically, which the Ivy League embodies.  Thus, my fondest (and most recent) memories involve Ivy League student-athletes succeeding at the highest levels this past spring.  One day in May, I had the opportunity to present four different team championship trophies at Ivy League events to our champions and in April I was able to attend the 2013 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four and to cheer Yale on to victory for the national championship.  Witnessing first hand the student-athletes’ joy in competing and succeeding is a most rewarding and exciting experience.

FCP: Describe your leadership style.

RH: I try to be inclusive and to seek input from a variety of individuals on major decisions.  The specific individuals will vary based on the issue of the moment. I believe it is important to gather information, understand the full landscape surrounding an issue, consider the various opinions that exist and then make a decision based on all of the available information while being prepared to support that decision with specific facts and rationale.  I also try to balance focusing on short-term and longer-term/strategic issues — in terms of accomplishing the work that needs to be done in a high-quality and efficient manner, while at the same time setting a course for the future.

FCP: What does it mean to have Val Ackerman as commissioner of the Big East and other female leaders succeeding in the industry?

RH: The Big East made a fantastic decision in hiring Val as the commissioner.  She brings a wide range of experiences and is incredibly smart and insightful.  She will be a tremendous asset to the conference.  Val was hired on her merits and the choice was based on the breadth and strength of her experiences.  With seven women Division I multi-sport conference commissioners and over 35 women Division I athletics directors, I hope that more and more young women entering the profession or mid-way in their careers will see and learn from these role models that it is becoming much more common for women to assume the leadership roles at Division I institutions.  I hope these young women will in turn aspire to becoming and will become athletics directors or conference commissioners.  In addition, as our numbers grow, the focus is less on the fact that we are woman (as that becomes less unusual) and more on the fact that we are leaders in our field without attention to our gender.

CP: What are some industry trends or developments that you are closely following?

RH: I am closely following and involved in various discussions regarding the pending Division I governance restructuring.  While the changes will not be as drastic as the media originally predicted, I believe they will reshape the way the division considers and adopts legislation in a (mostly) positive way.  Some issues of concern to me include:  earlier and earlier recruiting in many sports that results in prospective student-athletes committing to a school with only two years (or even less) of high school; increasing out-of-season time demands on student-athletes, particularly during the summer; and the potential impact lawsuits against the NCAA may have on the collegiate model.

FCP: Due to recent news, the debate whether to pay student-athletes has picked up.  If NCAA policy would allow a payment system, would the Ivy League follow suit?

RH: I do not believe there is any real interest within the leadership of Division I institutions and conferences to implement a “pay-for-play” system.  I do think that some schools and conferences will likely in the future choose to provide more benefits to student-athletes and/or to increase the value of the athletics scholarship (e.g., by $2,000 or to the full cost of attendance), consistent with the collegiate model.  The Ivy League has a long-standing policy of not awarding merit aid, including not allowing athletics scholarships, so an increase to the value of an athletics scholarship adopted by other schools/conferences would not impact us.

FCP: Are you working on any other projects we should know about?

RH: The Ivy League has been and continues to be a leader in addressing issues regarding concussions in intercollegiate athletics, including conducting several sport-specific studies, adopting changes designed to promote student-athlete safety, and supporting ongoing and future research.  Between 2010 and 2012, the Ivy League conducted six separate studies regarding concussions in football, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s ice hockey, and men’s and women’s soccer (combined study as the rules are the same for men’s and women’s soccer). The Ivy League Council of Presidents adopted a series of recommendations for each sport, including changes to practice schedules and the education provided to student-athletes and coaches regarding the signs and symptoms of concussions, emphasizing the potential long-term risks of repetitive brain trauma and stressing the need to report and not take chances when symptoms of a concussion appear.  Additionally, during these reviews, it became apparent that additional data and research were needed.  Accordingly, beginning with the 2013-14 academic year, the Ivy League is collecting and analyzing league-wide concussion data for all varsity sports and we are partnering with the Big Ten in a collaborative research initiative.   

FCP: Any tips for aspiring sports professionals who may be reading this?

RH: Learn as much as you can about our industry — including regarding areas outside of your day-to-day responsibilities. Talk to successful sports professionals so you can learn about their job and career paths to determine what interests (and does not interest) you. Develop a network of peers and advisors, including more senior role models. Work hard and recognize these are not 9 to 5, 40-hour positions. Focus on producing quality and timely work product. Embrace the mission of your organization and use that to help you make decisions. Know your audience and tailor your work for that audience’s interests and needs. Understand that most issues are complex (not black and white) and analyze from various perspectives. Seek and volunteer for additional assignments. Keep an open mind and always look for new opportunities to learn and gain experience. You only get one chance to make a first impression; it’s important to define your personal brand and protect it over time — remember that the athletics community is small, with at most two or three degrees of separation

Robin Harris became The Council of Ivy League Presidents’ second full-time Executive Director on July 1, 2009, replacing Jeffrey H. Orleans, who retired from the position after 25 years.

Harris came to the Ivy League office after seven years at Ice Miller, LLP, based in Indianapolis. At Ice Miller, she served as senior counsel and co-chair for Ice Miller’s Collegiate Sports Practice and worked with the firm’s college and university clients on variety of matters related to athletics.

Prior to Ice Miller, Harris worked nine years in increasingly responsible roles in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), ending her tenure at the NCAA national office as associate chief of staff for Division I. In that role, she provided advice and guidance to the NCAA president, Executive Committee, Division I Board of Directors, Division I Management Council and other committees in nearly all athletic governance areas, including academic standards, amateurism, championship policies, diversity, gender equity and Title IX, legislative proposals, membership requirements, strategic planning, student-athlete welfare and studies regarding basketball and football concerns. From 1993-1998, she was the NCAA’s director for the Committee on Infractions.

For the 2012-13 academic year, Harris was the president of National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA), where she previously served as legal advisor to the organization’s Board of Directors, and is on the Board of Governors of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, serving as one of two NCAA representatives. She recently completed a four-year term as a member of the NCAA Division I Leadership Council, an advisory body to the Division I Board of Directors.

Harris is or has been a member of numerous other professional associations, including the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) and National Association for Athletics Compliance (NAAC).

She is the author of several articles on issues related to intercollegiate athletics and has made presentations at numerous NCAA, NACUA and Division I conferences and seminars.

Harris is a graduate of the Duke University School of Law, where she served as editor of the Duke Law Journal. She also received a Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, from Duke.

She is married to Max Harris, a native of Manhattan, Kan. The couple has two children, twin daughters Alexandra and Vanessa.

Why The NFL Draft Delivers…

It’s not the most compelling TV for those looking for fast action, and some media folks have criticized it for being too over the top with hype, but as a platform it is hard to argue that the NFL Draft as it stands today does not deliver for brand partners, fans, buzz and media content.

Perhaps this year was a bit of an outlier, because of the added hype of Johnny Manziel on round one and then Michael Sam on Saturday, and the event was bolstered in advance by the buzz and marketing around the film “Draft Day” that hit theaters less than three weeks before. However by doing all the “little things,” this year’s Draft had something for everyone by telling so many of the stories across so many outlets behind the scenes.

Want to know about how the names now get sewn on uniforms as players are picked and come to the podium? There was a story for that. What music to the draftees prefer? The NFL let players do their walkout music and then made sure the list was circulated (great artist hype and something the NBA will probably glean off of). Who dresses the athletes? More than one outlet brought us the story of the tailors to the stars. Want to connect with the history of the league, let’s bring in NFL Legends on Day Two to announce the picks and then let them speak about the glory of the game. How about some celebrity splash? There is the red carpet at Radio City filled with entertainment press.  In market buzz? How about live drop in’s from mega- parties conducted by teams all weekend long in each of their markets. Make the event a travelling road show beyond just New York? Let’s have other cities talk about hosting the draft going forward.

That is all in addition to key sponsor events by Budweiser, Verizon and many others where clients can be engaged leading up to the draft and fans can experience the elongated show by getting free tickets to sit in the audience at Radio City as the event goes on.

The result? A huge win weekend during a time when games are months away, now netter placed strategically between the Super Bowl and the start of training camp, with equal time on both sides. Record buzz, record social media attention, and the building of new stars underway.  Is there too much hype placed on all the trappings of The Draft? While some say yes, the career of the non-guaranteed contract in the salary capped NFL of today provides a limited window for some talent to shine, so giving everyone drafted the chance for some exposure is a valuable service provided to all the young players who walk through the door. It is much more enhanced than years before, but it is a great example of a property effectively taking advantage of a window in time to tell its story in unison to an audience that is both deeply engaged and one that may just be passing by for a look.

There were certainly best practices that the NBA, which has a similar format, can pull in for their draft, and perhaps event then NHL, MLS and MLB can also grab on to, although the development of stars for those three is a much more elongated process in most cases than hoops and football. Now all of the extras were certainly not just invented; many come from the hype and buzz surrounding the yearly entertainment show gatherings, like the Oscars or the Grammy’s or the Tony’s or even the MTV Music Awards.  However the big difference is the honoring of young people here really BEFORE they achieve greatness, not after their career success is cast in stone.

There is talk of the Draft going to four days as well. Too much too long? Maybe. But if the content, the brands and the fans say go, why not? If you are the NFL or any of its partners you want feel good stories to be told year round, and the controlled environment and drama of The Draft presents the perfect launch pad for those stories to begin, and then to be extended throughout years and careers.

It’s a great celebration of a property in a very controlled environment with all the trappings, with the games still way off in the distance.  

Can Sport Influence Social Change In Nigeria?

We have seen time and again how sport, especially on a global stage; can have an impact for social change. Whether it is caused-based programs like wearing pink for breast cancer awareness or blue for prostate cancer initiatives, or larger scale calls to action like anti-bullying, athletes, the brands they work with, and their massive broadcast partners have found the platform more now than ever to use their influence to drum up awareness and invoke massive change. The passion of sport can help move opinion and get casual fans engaged in causes they might not know about.

So as we reach Mother’s Day, it will be interesting to see with the NBA and NHL Finals, and European soccer reaching its end, if athletes rally to draw awareness for the atrocities going in with the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria by the terrorists of Boko Haram. Politicians, including First Lady Michelle Obama, have now taken up the cause to find the missing girls and have begun to put pressure on the Nigerian government to address this tragedy, and sport now has a window to step up as well.

There are few things that motivate athletes to take a stand than atrocities with children, and the influence Nigerian athletes have had on global sport; in athletics, soccer, basketball, even football and now baseball in the States, is very powerful. However this is not a Nigerian issue; it is again a humanitarian issue that sport can help raise awareness for, and the time to do so is now, especially leading into the World Cup.  In the States, as the U.S. team gets ready to make its way to Brazil, there will be a reality show done by ESPN following the members of the team, so maybe, maybe, there will be a window where an athlete, one who is white, not of color, speaks out or wears a t-shirt talking about the atrocities going on. Over the weekend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a stand to draw awareness, maybe WWE with its massive outreach and its influence on parents, can organize a call to action. Could LeBron James or Paul Pierce or and NBA athlete who is a father, step up and make a statement or subtly say something during a media access period? Could the WTA or the LPGA, or the WNBA be the massive group that starts the process? That type of awareness, as we have seen in the past, is massive and very impactful. It moves politicians and governments to act faster than almost anything the common man can do.

Now this is not to say that any other charity or humanitarian athlete going on today should be given short shrift because of the goings on in Nigeria. This is also not to say that massive dollars needs to be put towards this issue as would happen with an earthquake or flooding. It’s also not to say that this should be a statement of military intervention by the U.S. What it is is a chance for athletes, who have used their massive influence before, to take an immediate stand and help ratchet up the attention meter. Starting today, Mother’s Day, would be a great place.  

One Theme, Two Events, Three Million Dollars Raised; Sports As A Metaphor For Social Change

Many times we in this business get caught up in the hype, the ROI, the buzz and sometimes the routine that we forget about the amazing power that sport has to change lives. Each week my colleague Sab Singh puts out his Sports Doing Good newsletter, which highlights events from around the world and serves as a great reminder of what athletes, leagues, teams and brands are doing that can help move the needle in terms of good will, and how sport can find ways to be a motivator for social change where governments, religion and race cannot.

This past 10 days I have been lucky enough to work with not one, but two organizations that are all about the inspiration to use sport as a motivator for social change, and along the way use the power of the athlete…in both cases the Olympic athlete…to raise funds for the cause.

The first was Right To Play USA and their “Big Red Ball” which was held near Wall Street in Manhattan last week. The semi-annual event is usually held just after the Olympic Games, and celebrates the success the athletic endeavors of Olympians recent and past, who all come together to raise awareness and funds for the organization started 20 years ago by Gold medal speed skater Johan Olav Koss to harness the power of athletics as a motivator for education and getting young people, especially in impoverished environments, involved and active in their daily lives. The event drew over 25 Olympians from Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen and Summer Sanders to newer faces like Tim Morehouse, Jazmine Fenlator and Kaitlyn Farrington and a full house to meet their supporters and most importantly, to raise money for the cause.   It was grassroots, albeit deep roots, fundraising and schmoozing, no huge corporate campaigns or silent auctions of memorabilia, but in three hours the event put $1.5 million into the coffers of Right to Play, a great haul considering the post-Olympic hangover still in the air and the crowded sports schedule in New York that week, which would draw the attention of many passionate high end donors.

Then this past Wednesday in Times Square was the annual “Beat The Streets” gala and wrestling event. While the “Big Red Ball’ was a pretty straightforward fundraiser set in an elegant ballroom; “Beat the Streets” is all about the buzz. For the fifth straight year organizer Mike Novogratz and the folks at BTS and USA Wrestling assemble the greatest American names in wrestling and pair them against some of the elite from around the world in a setting that is second to none; three times it has literally been in Times Square, once in Grand Central Terminal and once on the deck of the USS Intrepid, always followed  by a dinner which salutes the young people who benefit from the program. However the night is usually much more than wrestling in a unique location. With each passing year it has become one of the best events on the calendar to show how sport can bridge the gap between countries that have deep differences. Last year “Rumble on the Rails” pulled together teams from the US, Russia and Iran at a time when political tensions were aiming the highest, and set a great example of how the mission of sport  can inspire and rally thousands to overcome their differences. This year, a US vs the World format has 11 American elite wrestlers competing against a team from countries like Spain and Canada, but also Kazakhstan, Russia, Venezuela and the Ukraine, nations which don’t usually share a positive spotlight with the U.S. in day to day media coverage. The result again, was peace through sport, with only cheers for all the competitors and a new level of good will achieved.

As for the night, “Beat The Streets” raised over $1.6 million for its grassroots programs, which fund inner-city education and wrestling programs in cash-strapped school districts, again giving young people a chance to excel through sport.

The cynical may say that the two NY-centric events are just a small drop in the bucket, and that Wall Street execs can easily absorb the donations for either. However, the crowds were diverse, entertaining and certainly engaged. Was there a hard sell for cash? Of course, but it was done in such a way that one felt that a greater good was being served through the work of all these elite athletes and their supporters, a refreshing change from what many see as the overhyped and glitzy misogynistic world of professional sports today. Both events highlighted the highest levels of success as a way to reward those less fortunate, making for a great forum to inspire those in the room to do more.

Two nights, less than seven hours, over three million dollars raised for two sports philanthropic endeavors that put their time and effort in for the greater good. Sports as a metaphor for change? We got to see it first hand, times two.