NFL | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

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.     

As A Property, Competitive Robotics Continues To Grow…

This weekend in St, Louis at the Edward Jones Dome over 30,000 students, parents and coaches will gather for one of the most inspiring, creative and interactive team events that will be held in the Dome all year. It isn’t football or soccer, lacrosse or cricket or rugby. It is competitive robotics.  The U.S. FIRST is back for the fourth straight year, and is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing co-ed competitions of any “sport” out there.   It is entitled FIRST, standing for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and was the brainchild of Segway PT inventor Dean Kamen 25 years ago with the goal of boosting science in the way that high schools glorify sports.

This past week President Obama got to see the interactive robots shoot hoops as he talked about science and sport growing with Americas children. Several thousand people showed up at New York’s Javitz Convention Center to see that City’s finals, replete with cheerleaders and blaring music.

The weekend long event is the culmination of work by middle and high school students from across the country, each team of whom had to first score well in regional tournaments to move on to the state events, with the winners moving on to the World Championships in St. Louis.

The competition is not your father’s Erector Set version of building a robot. Each team trains for weeks many using the LEGO Mind Storm system to have its robot perform a series of complex tasks in 2:30  against another table of robots. The tension will be palpable and the sense of team  very, very apparent.

However what is more amazing is the sense of fun, competition and creativity that each of the teams will have on throughout the event. From posters to mascots to elongated signs, the students and their supporters cheer with a fervor that would match any athletic event. Everyone who goes sees the best of what New Jersey has to offer…healthy competition with a mosaic of children from every ethnic and social background in a healthy competition devoid of many of the trappings that childhood events have these days. There may be some uber parents in the crowd, but most were there for good natured support both moral and emotional.

Club robotic competitions have propped up all around the country and are growing with each passing semester, from sixth grade through high school. There is no “Revenge of the Nerds” feeling at all. Most of the kids look fit, coordinated and ready to do battle in every form of athletics as well as a competition of the mind. Indeed, mind sports, from robotics to other activities like chess, bridge and even poker, are being seen more and more by organizations like the International Olympic Committee as a way to teach strategy that applies to traditional athletics and help grow the whole young person, combining a healthy mind with a healthy body. Also the rise of “Money Ball” in traditional athletics, where front office positions are being taken up by young people who understand business and strategy as well as athletic fundamentals, is also spurring a new generation where young people will take academics and team activities in the lab or the classroom as seriously as many take athletics. For a rising immigrant population that is more focused in many ways on academics but who is still trying to assimilate to American culture through athletics, activities like robotics provide a great balance. For young people who like athletics but are not into the ultra-competitive areas of Little League or Gymnastics, robotics and mind sports can also provide a balance, instilling that sense of team and competition while sating the mind and the skills they excel at as well.

For brands looking to activate against an audience that understands both team competition and gaming, robotics is also a unique answer for engagement. Now it is not to say that analytics and team competitions like robotics should be at the detriment of traditional sports. There is a place for both, and the two actually complement each other very well. However in a society today where young people are getting more and more technologically savvy, competitions like mind sports and robotics can fill a growing need, keeping young people active and involved and finding ways to stimulate the mind as well as the body.

Is it the start of a long term trend of cyber warriors, or a fad like crystal radios and rocketry was in the 1960?s or 1970?s? The jury is still out, but judging from the crowds, the engagement and the spirit of competition, the “sport” of competitive robotics is here to stay, and that is not a bad thing for a young group who wants to grow into a well-rounded and healthy adult.

Most importantly robotics takes kids interested in science, gaming and technology as well as sport, and puts them into a public setting where they have to actually interact with each other, a revolutionary idea in a world where “interaction” is done more by thumbs and keystrokes not by spoken words and actions as a group.

While not replacing traditional athletics in any way, robotics is becoming more and more intriguing, a well-intentioned and healthy type of “sport” whose time is definitely coming.

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

“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.