NFL | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

Snowflake Foundation Sets A High Bar For Super Bowl ROI…

The snow and ice have fallen; the last fans have left Secaucus Junction; the security perimeter is down and the toboggan is gone from Times Square. So when the dust, or ice, settles, who really won the Super Bowl, other than the Seahawks, the broadcasters and those who were able to cash in on the extravaganza?

One answer for the long term is hopefully the youth of the tri-state area, who received the legacy gifts from the largest charitable endeavor ever involved with the Super Bowl, The Snowflake Youth Foundation.   The impressive endeavor raised more than $11 Million that is going to 50 projects to help not just football-playing youth, but young people of all backgrounds,  from Newark and Belmar to Paterson and Rahway.

When it was launched in April 2012 by the Super Bowl Host Committee, the goal was pretty simple, but one that raised some eyebrows among skeptics; raise money for local community projects that will leave a significant and lasting legacy in the region, long after the game ends, so that the tail from the game actually has true impact for those who never ventured anywhere near Met Life Stadium.

The effort was driven by the key members of the Host Committee…the Mara and Tisch families and Jets owner Woody Johnson…as well as by large donations big and small. The result probably didn’t get as much glitz as the game or the brands who spent millions to activate programs during Super Bowl week. However what it did was serve as a reminder to potentially millions of young people for years to come that the game made an impact on their lives through field refurbishments, gym and playground rebuilds,  youth center reconstruction, and education programs. Those are aspects of the game that will live on long after the Host Committee turns off the lines and files its last report in the coming months, and it sets a very high bar for what future mega-events can do to give back, not just in the New York area but across the country.

The idea of legacy programs with elite athletes and celebrities, as well as events, is still growing and is one that brands are looking more closely at as well. While giving a large check or doing a splashy gala gets buzz for the short term, the ROI can be fleeting. Foundations that can create a lasting gift, especially one that has a tangible return for people in need, are being viewed as more and more effective, and the implementation of social media as a driver to continue to tell the story also adds to the impact of such programs. Now sometimes it is hard to quantify the results for a board or a group looking for a quick return. However a revisit on a program in 2-3 years or even five years, to show how such projects like what the Snowflake Youth Foundation has created is one way to show continuous ROI. Those type of results will be worth watching as the seed money the Foundation put into the community bears fruit.

In the end there will be lots of questions as to whether the cold weather Super Bowl was worth the effort. The immediate words from the Host Committee was that this was not just a one shot deal; that they would look to bring a future Super Bowl back here to New Jersey. Whether that happens or not is still to be determined by economic impact studies and other reports that show the cost and the benefit to the millions of people touched by the game. However what is clear is that a not-for-profit foundation found a way through all the hype and the clutter to raise big dollars and do what these events should do more of; positively impact the lives of millions who never made it anywhere near the Meadowlands for years to come… a legacy that will mean more to people in the area than whomever won last Sunday’s game.   

Will Pro Football Ever Spring Year-Round Again?

Wednesday, just three days removed  those fans of the gridiron reach what is an unofficial official end to all things football for a while…the media frenzy of National Signing Day. From coast to coast on every sports network and radio show, young men who are the best at their sport tell the world in choreographed press conferences, streaming video feeds and press conferences where they have decided to go to join the big business ranks of major college football. The four major sites Rivals, 247Sports, ESPN and Scout along with countless blogs and social media experts look to today as their biggest payoff; a day when all their year-round prognostications as to who is going where will come true, and for their paid subscribers, it is a day when any casual spend becomes justified or a waste of time.

From this day, booster hopes rise, coaches careers are stabilized, dreams are dashed and season tickets are sold, all on the backs of 17 and 18 year old student athletes. Ironically the day follows another American tradition that is also based on what might be…Ground Hog Day. Whether a little furry creature sees his shadow doesn’t really determine the fates of thousands, but it is just as safe a prediction as to whether those who commit to college on National Signing Day can turn the fortunes of college football.

Signing Day has turned from a clerical necessity to a media extravaganza in just a few years, but now for football it really serves as the end of a long trek that starts at the NFL Draft and marches almost unceasingly through the Super Bowl. On every level across America, the pageantry of college football starts in Radio City Music Hall in New York and goes through the day when high school players officially make their mark for where they will go. After that, the sport goes into a lull, despite the passion and yearnings for millions of fans who can’t seem to get enough.

Now there is the combine, and the revitalized Arena Football League, which is trying to make inroads through new TV and innovations such as a helmetcam. The specter of several spring leagues also sits out there (what happened to the USFL return?) as well as a quietly mentioned use of 7 on 7 football to look to replicate what 7 on 7 Rugby has done for the Olympics, starting in 2016. All are just speculation at this point, with no real financial model to justify such a jump yet. Other than that, fans have to wait for the draft, and talk about the perils and fortunes of free agency for the NFL, with maybe some spring practice banter mixed in.

So with the lull in gridiron action, is there a chance that a spring football league can fill the void? It is a sexy, intriguing idea, but can it work?

The sad thing is that the UFL could have made great brand inroads had they played in the spring in their first few years, as the NFL went through its long ago labor pains. Into the void they could have gone loudly, filling an interest for the casual and the disgruntled, testing the marketing dollars of brands who may have been worried about the NFL, and providing a great showplace for the free agents and unsigned who needed a chance to play somewhere. It would have also continued to have been a great testing ground for new rules, new styles and coaches looking for a chance to either re-engage or find a new home.

Alas we received none of that.  There remain mid-markets that love football that probably can use cost-containment professional football, and if the NFL does not grow roster size there has been proof that there is still a solid amount of talent waiting to be turned over. Would brands take an offseason Hertz to the NFL’s Avis? Would TV support a promotable spring product and not have to worry about NFL backlash when new deals come up? One thing is for sure, America is a football crazy country. The question is…is the market important enough to support year-round football? The WLAF failed with the NFL’s backing, as had other leagues. The UFL started off with the right capital infusion and found some niche’s, but at the wrong time of year for fans to get energized. The argument that you have one NBA. one MLB and one NHL is different…those seasons are very long and give fans ample opportunity to see the product. The NFL, even at 16 games, still limits the in-season experience for fans, which could create an off-season alternative.

Over a quarter century ago the USFL saw that opportunity and had some level of success, in the days before regional sports networks were en vogue. The latest version of the USFL has made some noise to grab the space again, but a 2013 launch was scrubbed and a 2014 season announcement has come and gone with little talk of capital raised, TV contracts signed or cities announced. Another spring league has proposed public funding, selling shares to raise the millions needed, but that effort is doomed before it starts, as using the public markets for sports is fraught with needs to satisfy millions of investors and pay down the large administrative costs needed to keep a business running in the public sector. If you can’t find investors in the private market, forget the dealings of a business that has to be transparent to all who come looking.

So is there a need and a void to bring football back to play in a league format in the space from say, early March to early July? The NFL could use a developmental component, especially one they would not have to fund but could look seriously at technology and enhanced player safety. The plethora of regional and now national TV networks still have time to fill, albeit not on their own dime for production. There are any number of brands which would enjoy the engagement of football but not at NFL prices, and technology partners would crave using the space as a way to test activation projects that they could then implement at the NFL level in a more refined manner. Would fans turn out in numbers to make franchises financially viable? Would TV audiences tune in to watch a product that may be quality but not at the level of the NFL, on a national level? Would the digital space provide enough of a revue stream to also offset costs of running an expensive proposition like professional football, given its size of rosters and events? Could you find stadia that would be of the right size and standard in enough markets?

We don’t know the answers yet, but the demand for more football has grown in recent years, not shrunk. There are markets that clamor for more professional sports, but whether the private sector will take such a high risk remains to be seen. Secondary leagues in an age where the primary major team sports are striving to give fans more access are not what they once were, and the launch of any league in the United States, major or minor, has not seen any level of true success since Major League Soccer.

So while we hit the football lull, the specter of a never-ending stream of live games to tide the public over is still ripe in the entrepreneurial mind. Whether that mind can bring the league to bear is a pipe dream right now, but certainly one that bears watching as the dollars and the interest in football still seem to hold strong as we head into the final phase of a winter where the gridiron falls silent, at least for 2014 again.

Unfiltered Access In A Filtered World; The Phenomenon of “Radio Row”

There are few sites as unique as “Radio Row” at the Super Bowl. Once a one stop shop for the handful of diehard stations looking to promote the game, it has now evolved into a “who’s who” gathering of stars big and small, brands large and launching, pitches good and bad, and most importantly media sites of various shapes and sizes. However for all the hype and hoopla, radio row is a throwback to the era from which it started in many ways; a face to face gathering of media types, brand ambassadors  and celebrities live and in living color and for the most part, without filter.  

The site this year, in the ballroom of the Sheraton in Manhattan, was also so full that ESPN and New York’s WFAN moved elsewhere to individual sponsored sites at Bryant Park and the M and M store of all places, while keeping satellite locations in the room for individual or off-hour guests. And while it is about live audio, with a smattering of TV, “Radio Row” has also become the home for podcasters, streamers, and networked sites of all sizes from Bleacher Report to SB Nation. Throw in various media with a mic and an IPhone with day passes, and the potential for encountering someone willing to talk a topic is pretty strong.

A 20 minute afternoon window  on Friday was a great slice of what Radio Row has become.  Standing at the entrance waiting for a friend, an eclectic mix of faces; Kevin Costner, Jesse Jackson, Miss World (with tiara and everything), Jim Brown, Dennis Leary, Spike Lee, Sean Astin, Michael Vick, all wandered in and out, chatting up media members, playing to carefully orchestrated scripts, stopping for selfies, and of course talking football.  An endless stream of products from ticketing sites to e-cigarettes to personal pizzas to custom jewelry and even fashion socks, were being touted by recognizable and sometimes obscure faces, while scores of radio producers and other scoured the room to find compelling guests for a few minutes at a time to fill the hours of air from Vancouver to Caracas. Maybe because it was New York, but the vibe was really unlike anything in media; more a tribute to the value of the spoken word and the integration of new and digital media that seemed to make it all flow in a disjointed way. The Olympics has its media center, the NBA and MLB have their hubs at All-Star, the US Open for golf and tennis have massive media setups, but the confluence of people and personalities all on top of each other for “Radio Row” is unparalleled.

Now is “Radio Row” exposure for everyone? No. Thursday Aaron Paul and Kid Cudi went through four hours of live radio and TV for their upcoming film “Need For Speed,” ranging from CBS and NFL Network to all-sports radio in Baltimore, Nashville, and Philly just to name a few, crisscrossing the room to find the obscure tables of each station. They rarely complained and kept up the pace to hype the film, two guys who got the junket circuit and took the push to get the value. Friday Marlon Wayans came in to talk about his latest film “Haunted House 2,” and stayed in the top part of the room, hitting only national outlets while posing for any number of shots with other stars like Jackson, Jamie Foxx and Chris Tucker. The breakneck pace of radio row wasn’t the goal; it was only the larger outlets. Costner was there for a presser for “Draft Day,” his new film, and avoided the room altogether, doing hos media outside the craziness, but having to endure the crowd like everyone else in and out of the second floor ballroom.

For a brand or a media outlet looking for promotion, it really came down to spokesperson, advance work, and timing. Thursday’s schedule in the crowded space with two pop culture stars was hectic but worked and could have gone on for another hour with outlets far and wide. Friday the room was even more packed as the final wave of stations from across the world came in to set up shop for the weekend, and the chances of getting air time for a vague name or brand with major markets was much less.

If you were looking for volume, hitting stations earlier in the week was better, if you were looking for hyper-local, targeting key markets in advance was best; if you had a “celebrity” looking to bring an entourage or stop for lunch or hang out quietly in a green room then this was not your place; it is the melting pot of sports and entertainment  where thin skins can be exposed and everyone at every minute is on stage to countless numbers of cell phones, tweets, and text messages. There is no filter, no red carpet, and although most people are respectful and all are credentialed, the chances for even a small blow up that could become a major incident for a misplaced celebrity endorser or spokesperson is pretty high. It is certainly not a place for the uninitiated, and it is a place where the aggressive survive and thrive.

At the end of the day, for a brand or an athlete or even a celebrity looking to make a dent there is probably no greater one stop shop than “Radio Row” at The Super Bowl. The well placed can get their five minutes of airtime over and over again in markets big and small and although the overt commercialism some may try would not work, the room is much more about the sound than about the visual, so delivering brand messages via radio and digital is possible, even for an ambush marketer.  You have the opportunity to go market to market even if you don’t land a quasi-name on Jim Rome or Mad Dog Radio, and then leveraging those interviews, video, and photos to tell a bigger story post-visit is the key. That type of exposure, and the quick hit photos, along with all the advance planning to know where and when to arrive, is invaluable. Radio Row isn’t the easiest place to push product or faces, but for the well-timed it can be fun, rewarding and highly effective.

Sometimes Super Bowl doesn’t live up to its hype; however the real hype is done well before kickoff and miles away from Met Life Stadium this week, on the airwaves across the world from one oversized ballroom, with hundreds telling stories to millions. That is as much the nexus of the success of the NFL as the games itself; creating a vehicle to tell stories and promote 24/7 when not a single ball has been kicked for a week. The media machine rolls on.  

The Real Super Bowl Winner? Madison Avenue and Wall Street

As we reach pre-Super Bowl weekend the debate rages on as to why a cold weather game vs. the warm weather locations, and it could this game ever happen again? After all, some say, it’s being played between two teams from thousands of miles away, local fans can’t get tickets, it will clog restaurants and highways, and then there is the weather. So who wins other than the Broncos or Seahawks and the select few who can afford to be involved?

The answer really is much broader, and it will probably get a New York game a second consideration down the line should there not be some logistical disaster like the one that happened with bad weather in Dallas a few years ago. Former President Calvin Coolidge once said “The Business of America is Business,” and that couldn’t be more true for the reason this year’s Super Bowl will be a success for being in the New York area.

Aside from the fact that thousands of hotel rooms on both sides of the river will make more money in a week than some will in a typical six month period, or limo drivers will rake in large sums at a time of year that is pretty quiet, or restaurants during the slowest time of the year will be fully booked, or even the millions that will be part of the legacy of the Snowflake Youth Foundation which will help young people and others for years to come with added resources, the business done away from the game will be unparalleled.

Over 500 events, both public  and private, are already underway as everyone from Wall Street executives to advertising agencies to the window dressers at Macy’s get some part of the Super Bowl business experience.  Those who work with hundreds of current and former players, coaches and even announcers who have some distant relationship to the Super Bowl have had a never-ending stream of requests for appearances, from intimate gatherings for clients to shopping mall appearances.  Companies big and small who have never had a chance to logistically experience even part of the world’s largest sports and entertainment event can sample some of what it is like to be in and around the game for the first time, all because of location.

Yes, for every Super Bowl there is a great amount of travel and entertainment. Annual parties like the one Maxim does, are annual “must visits” for the rich and famous. However by having the event in the center of the advertising and business world, the New York area, corporations can amplify their involvement with clients and employees because there is no cost prohibitive travel involved to get people to the events around the game. That means more business can be done face to face over a longer period of time, and more money can be spent actually entertaining and engaging than travelling.  Maybe it doesn’t have the “escape” feel of getting from cold and snowy New York or New Jersey to golf or sit poolside, but the area has ample spaces to keep people warm, engaged and involved, and for those wanting an outdoor experience, there are plenty of cold weather activities at least for short periods of time.

No matter where the Super Bowl is played, it is big business. However when you can bring an event like this to the place where big business takes place, it amplifies the opportunities. That certainly is not lost on the NFL or other mega-event hosts which want to engage a large public audience but also make sure the long and short term business needs of the entity are being  addressed.  It is why NASCAR, the Barclays Premier League, Formula One and every other global sporting event looks to engage in New York no matter what the cost. It is why tennis keeps the US Open in New York every year, and why broadcasters and business partners spend millions to engage with the USTA whether they use tennis as a tool the rest of the year or not.  It is a business and entertainment destination, and until you can bring an event to Madison Avenue, at least once, you are selling yourself short.

Will there be hiccups this week? Sure. Will there be hand wringing about the weather? Of course. Will some people wish they were walking along a beach rather than chatting someone up in a ballroom? Yes. But at the end of the day the success of this experiment will be measured more on long term business relationships than on who wins on the field. The Super Bowl is here, make the most of it. President Coolidge would probably agree.

Richard Sherman Stirred A Very Still Pot; And That’s A Good Thing

“You always need an Avis to play someone’s Hertz,” was a line the late Jay Larkin often used  when talking about how Showtime built its boxing business and kept the sport uber-competitive against the matchmaking of HBO. The rivalries and the storylines and the competition he believed, were key to grow the sport. Parity and monopolies were deadly, as casual fans like the inter-play, the story arcs and the heroes and the villains. It is what brought boxing to its heyday, and frankly what also built WWE into a global brand powerhouse, albeit more entertainment then true sport. Whether it be fictional TV, good books or movies, reality TV, or even better the ultimate reality TV…live sports…we crave good stories and great characters.  Edge is key.

So into that mix is the NFL, as tough a sport as there is on the planet, one which has come under great scrutiny for its violence and the issues that surround such great athletes going at each other with sometimes catastrophic  physical consequences. Yet for all the violence, the structure of the business of the league leans towards parity…teams rise and fall and stay to the middle of the pack and battle to great drama til the final week…but that parity sometimes takes away from the story arcs that make the NFL such a great property. Yes there are great stories told every week by the media machine the league puts together, but in the past those stories that were perhaps most compelling were not the great, altruistic stories…they were interspersed with the bad boys, the villains, the players so flamboyant many people loved to hate them when they were in their prime.  Deion Sanders, Hollywood Henderson, Dick Butkus, Jim McMahon, Keyshawn Johnson just to name a few. All were great athletes but also great copy, sometimes not for the best of reasons but they helped play to the story lines.

So as we head towards the Super Bowl, we entered into a matchup with some outstanding teams and ended up with a pair, Denver and Seattle, who were both truly likeable, with lots of likeable athletes, no matter who you were. How could you not root for Russell Wilson or Peyton Manning, Derrick Coleman or even Wes Welker. They are portrayed, and rightfully so, as smart, effective and successful athletes. A dream matchup on the biggest stage with few losers for the casual fan.

And then we get Richard Sherman. Millions saw or have heard about the interview with Erin Andrews seconds after the game ended, and the debate has raged over whether sideline interviews bring any value, what did Sherman do to hurt the game, were his antics planned, were they justifiable and on and on and on. What they did was expose to America a new character, one who football fans knew but casual fans certainly knew less about, and helped unleash a healthy debate about a whole slew of topics both positive and negative about the true gladiator nature of football, the issues with live heat of the moment reactions, the passion of live sports and the power of the digital space to react instantaneously to an occurrence in real time.

Richard Sherman, at least for a few moments, became the villain to many. And a new storyline was born. It was not one of praising God or Tebowing, it was one of bombast and raw emotion which probably offended many and shocked many others. It was not what one would expect in the calm calculated, carefully crafted messaging of professional live sports today, especially the NFL.

Now in the past few days the world has been exposed even more to Richard Sherman’s story.  A gifted student, grew up in Compton, hugely popular at Stanford, suffered a devastating knee injury, came back as a cornerback, began working on his master’s degree, a fifth round and quick learner  became an All-Pro,  suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, won his appeal and has emerged as a deep thinking, come as you are outspoken athlete, who also was carefully selected by Peter King to write for SI’s Monday Morning Quarterback. Little filter, a throwback athlete in many ways who enjoyed playing the part.  The only drawback for those interested was Sherman was playing that role in the Pacific Northwest, part of the positive New Age team coached by rah-rah Pete Carroll, and many missed the Sherman style, until the end of Sunday’s game.

Now not everyone was not aware of the Sherman persona.  Beats By Dre and Nike both knew the positives and the issues with such a mercurial personality, and broke their campaigns with him during the game to a national audience for the first time. CenturyLink has used Sherman as a spokesperson throughout Seattle, and his jersey was one of the most popular Seahawks jerseys throughout the year.

So what did Sunday do for the Sherman brand? Exploded it. His social media following was amplified, brands lined up to talk about his value and “street cred,” his jersey sales jumped and he became the focus of national media that will build now for two weeks. He continued on without filter, thoughtful and respectful but not apologetic, and the love him or hate him debate continued to grow. Beats became a brand of marketing genius, and there was now a recognizable loud face to love, hate, or debate as the world’s largest sports and entertainment spectacle comes into full focus. Everyone had an opinion, and suddenly the NFL had an in your face personality to balance all the good will and happy talk that had been built by all around Seattle and Denver, and that’s not a bad thing in any way.

The biggest question is what comes next? He apologized and has done all the requisite media to move on. Will there be more shouts and boasts or will the rhetoric be toned down. Will something more inflammatory be launched into the cauldron of Super Bowl fires, will some try and bait Sherman with silly talk on media day? It remains good fodder for an event that was to be all about great teams and now has more great personality.

In the end if you are the NFL, or any brand looking to capture the casual fan, you want the story arcs, the peaks and valleys, the heroes and yes, the villains, especially well-spoken ones. That’s not to say Richard Sherman is a villain in the wear the black hat and pull the chair out from old ladies fashion. He has a foundation, has been a solid teammate and is beloved in Seattle with legions of fans who also loved him at Stanford.  What he has is edge, spice and interest and in a few seconds ratcheted up the level of discourse for the NFL in a time where they may have hit a lull for a few days. Planned or not, it made for great copy and amazing video and social media play, something which his brands, and his sport, cannot buy.

Like his actions or not, you have to love Richard Sherman’s timing, both on the field and off, and all the debate and fun it will create in the next two weeks. The games off the field, until Met Life Stadium’s kickoff, will now be more interesting than anything that would have happened on it, and a brash and talented Seahawk helped get the party started.

Davis Cup Served A Not So “Super” Hand…Again

There are few team sports competitions with such a long history and tradition as Davis Cup in men’s tennis. Similar to Ryder Cup in golf, Davis Cup takes usually the best of the best in an individual men’s sports and brings those players together in the rarest of rare, as a team, to play for their country  against the greatest tennis-playing nations around the globe. In many countries the interest can rival that of World Cup or the Olympics, and for many tennis federations the ability to bring the best players in the world together in some very unique venues is a great way to showcase the game, grow interest and bring in much needed revenue to fuel junior programs and keep the sport healthy. Few who have ever attended a Davis Cup tie will ever forget the experience, one which is different from anything else seen in the sport, with the exception of World Team Tennis and Fed Cup (which is the women’s equivalent). It is a loud, raucous, fan friendly event.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the event continues to be lost in the global landscape, especially in the United States. It’s annual schedule is cumbersome and not easy to understand; countries who win the title in the late fall rarely have time to enjoy their benefits, as the new schedule starts in mid-Winter, right after the Australian Open, and an early round setback kills all the equity built from the year before. The annual must-commit schedule also makes it very difficult for the best players to consistently compete, and Davis Cup suffers from some of the same things that make the World Baseball Classic just a notch below what its goal is’ in theory it is the best of the best but without all the top players committed it can become an also-ran. Yes Davis Cup is well funded globally and the International Tennis Federation outs large resources behind it. It is usually well attended locally and the potential television audience globally is considerable. But in the landscape of sport, especially in the United States, Davis Cup is continuing to fall off the map.

Now this is not to say in any way the United States Tennis Association does not do a good job of finding creative ways to promote their home events. The staff continually finds creative and enthusiastic venues, from Idaho to Jacksonville to this year’s first round in Petco Park in San Diego, California. They engage the local community, invest hard dollars into marketing and event presentation, and always deliver a top notch show with sizable crowds.  The players are treated first class, and the support they are given is reflective of their commitment to play in the event. This year’s first round matchup is even more historic than others; a meeting with Great Britain, the U.S.’ longtime rival in the Cup, and playing it outdoors, on clay, in the home of the San Diego Padres should be a treat for all involved.

So what’s the problem? Schedule. For the second year in a row the U.S. will host a first round matchup on perhaps the worst weekend of the year in the country, unless you happen to be playing American football. Super Bowl weekend. Last year a sellout crowd in Jacksonville, Florida cheered the U.S. to a stunning win over Brazil…on Super Bowl weekend. Outside of North Florida, with the exception of some tennis diehards tuning in on The Tennis Channel, who knew? Few. The crush of media attention for Super Bowl makes it a virtual impossibility to leverage the excitement of Davis Cup in the States when you go head to head with the world’s largest single day sports and entertainment spectacle. You can market locally and bring the fans in, but playing the event on the eve of Super Bowl…again…is a disservice to all involved, and certainly does not help grow the sport of tennis in its largest country or help get the committed players the exposure deserved.  What should be a huge national celebration of a great sport turns into an afterthought and is something the USTA does not have control over.

So what to do? The suggestions have long been in place; move the event to a World Cup or Ryder Cup format over a period of years to build equity; take notice of other global events so as not to clash; move off of a weekend-only format to capture a prime time audience in the States have all been out forward, with the argument being that internationally the U.S. is not the only country that needs to be considered. That is fine and good, but against The Super Bowl? An event which will draw millions not just in the U.S. but around the globe? It is again a bad hand tennis has been dealt in the U.S., at a time when overall professional interest in the game is at a crossroads. It certainly is not dying, but it is plateaued as the casual fan waits for the next American male star to emerge. There are lots of compelling stories for sure, but in a society that loves winners, especially home grown ones, tennis needs a U.S. face to cross-over, and playing Davis Cup on Super Bowl weekend in the U.S. certainly doesn’t help.

It’s not a new issue but it certainly is one of frustration for those who look to market not just the sport of tennis, but all the ancillary properties around the game, as an iconic platform continues to struggle find its place in an ever changing and fast-evolving global sports community. The sport in the States is again served a bad hand, and because of the schedule, few may even notice in two weeks time.

The Megacast Gives Us A Glimpse Of the Future…

Some critics will say it was a reaction to Turner’s announcement of multiple programs live for the coming Final Four, but for a world that constantly buzzes second screen, ESPN offered a very unique litmus test for what fans die hard and casual would want in a major event, not just a sporting event, going forward. Some may say ESPN had nothing to lose on such a light sports night; what could possibly be of note on ESPN News, ESPN2 would have been replete with shoulder taped programming and ESPN Classic would offer some distant replay which would draw flies, but diluting an audience for the sake of one rating, as well as making a bit of a mockery of the BCS Championship Game was certainly somewhat of a question.

In the end, the night became a screen of a blank canvas per se, full of lots of test ideas that down the line could mesh into an event that isn’t about the TV screen, but is about the mobile, the digital and the social environs that can be created. And not even in just English. Welcome to  the Megacast.

The mix  of 16 trucks, 63 cameras, 72 microphones and shows on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPN Goal Line and ESPN3, tried to figure out what any fan at any time would want (maybe a little Deportes as well?) with quiet feeds, screaming feeds, deep thinking feeds and traditional feeds that could have given any channel surfer whiplash. Whether you wanted what you normally get with Msrs. Musburger and Herbstreit, some in-depth analysis with coaches Sumlin, Chryst and Addazio along with ESPN’s Matt Millen, Tom Luginbill and Chris Spielman or the loud distractions  of guests coming in to join Jemele Hill and Michael Smith like  actor Cheryl Hines , Scandal’s Columbus Short, and of course Msrs. Tebow and Manziel there was something to sample on a night when America was attune to college football buzz and banter.

Most agree that the coaches insight provided the most in-depth and interesting companion work to the main broadcast, but in the end it was the combination of social, digital and traditional broadcast that made the night noteworthy. With tweets coming in from Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James surrounded by those from Mr. and Mrs. Auburn and Florida State fan, those watching and following got the feel that they were part of a real time shared experience not just with fans, but with the whole sports world watching. They were seeing and hearing emotional responses and getting feedback from stars big and small who were experiencing the same thing that they were, which was very unique and quite spontaneous for a sports or entertainment event. And other than the chatter on the Deuce, one never really lost track of the broadcast at any point, and knew they could switch to the main feed at any time. The goal at the end of the day was a shared live experience that could provide more depth, and some distraction, for those who wanted it, which in essence is what the second screen will be all about going forward, on whatever device one chooses.

Could it have been better? Sure. Some have pointed out getting a coach like an Urban Meyer to tweet in a short answer or email or skype in some added insight would have been over the top. Adding in more detailed graphics or some additional color or video might enhance the story of the game, along with additional remotes from the home cities. Down the line could there be more brand integration, more surprises that don’t distract, and more interactivity with fans and guest visitors to enhance the real time experience? Sure. Is this something that can be done every week? Nope and few alongside ESPN could pull such a thing off. However other entities, like the group that brought a host of former college coaches to the second screen (including the always entertaining Barry Switzer) with “Coaches Cabana” in partnership with Yahoo this fall showed there is an affordable, entertaining and consistent market to be played out in the weekly live space as well.   

However for a first test the Mega Cast drew in casual fans, provided a great safety valve should the game have been a bust, avoided glitches and issues and helped set a new bar not just for sports, but for The Oscars, a Presidential debate, A Royal Wedding or any large scale event that demands big attention and multiple points of view. It was a great test and a great bar setter for “The Worldwide Leader,” as we all watch and listen to see what comes next.   

Potential Blackout A Black Eye Or A Learning Experience For All?

Small markets, holiday spending issues, surprise home games, viewing enhancements, fan apathy, weather, elite opponents. All factored into the firestorm the NFL came under for three of its four wild card home games this weekend as teams rallied to hit sellout modes and avoid being blacked out. Only better prepared, large market Philadelphia avoided the controversy, selling out in minutes despite the fact that it is cold and plenty of people owned the latest TV’s from Camden through The Main Line.

In the end all three cities, Green Bay, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, hit their numbers with some corporate sponsor help, and we move on to the story of the day which is the actual games on the field. However even with the sellout, the weekend served as another problem that any type of live viewing experience from movies and plays to sports events, will have to continue to deal with; how to make the in-venue experience a “must be” place for those willing to spend discretionary dollars.

Now maybe this weekend was an outlier for the NFL, who point out that blackouts are at an all-time low and that the huge excitement of last-minute playoff qualifying games last week is what is really important. It is also noteworthy that opponents for the three games…Kansas City, San Francisco, and San Diego…aren’t exactly easy drives from where they are playing this weekend, further adding to the movement of distressed seats.

We are also talking about a few thousand seats not the swaths of open sections that Bowl Games and many other sports have to deal with even in postseason, and at the end of the day the NFL Playoff experience is a shared one by fans in stadiums and millions engaging on broadcasts and in any host of second screen experiences.  Politicians maintain that the blackout rule is archaic and needs to be changed to better serve the fans, while the leagues and broadcasters argue the law needs to be upheld in order to keep the games away from a pay per view scenario which could be forced by loss of gate revenue and other factors. It is not something that can be solved overnight, but in the end can brand enhancements come out of the controversy that the NFL and its local teams stemmed in the first week of the playoffs? Here are some thoughts.  Is the issue an embarrassment for the NFL? Not really. What it is is the next amplification of a business challenge that has been a long time in coming for all live events, with the NFL being the largest stage.

What are some of the potential answers?

Lower the ticket prices? The NFL sets the market for the playoffs, based on each market’s ability to pay.  Elite events naturally deserve elite prices, but with the secondary market in full swing now does a lower price mean more tickets would move, and at what price point will those seats be filled on short notice? Also this is still a business, and although the gate is no longer the biggest driver, it is still vital to the mix on the revenue side so teams cannot afford to throw hundreds of thousand dollars away in lower costs because of the fixed number of home games. Each team has their own formula for success…the Colts and many others have group plans for example that they could not activate with such a short turnaround this week for example. In the end, the teams looked to local brands to buy blocks of tickets, in Indy, Meijer used them to donate to military groups and deserving families, which was a nice added perk, while in Green Bay  Associated Bank, local Fox affiliates and Mills Fleet Farm and Bellin Health came in and used the tickets for customers and other partners as a thank you. However how many of those sold actually will get used in frigid temperatures, and is the bottom line more important at that point than the fan experience? Hard to say. Are there incentives that can be created for those who purchased in advance that would make the outlay more important to them beyond the game? Perhaps, but only those experts in the marketplace will know what buttons are best pushed to get the handful of distressed seats filled. At the price point being asked, its not T-shirts and hats, maybe it’s working with partners to get a break on heating prices or free gas cards or even a slight break on college tuition or a high end meal service that gets written off. Each market will be different.

Lower the blackout threshold? This is perhaps the most viable short-term option, if the threshold is for short notice games the first week of the playoffs. It probably shouldn’t apply after that to make sense, and if it was at 90 to 95 percent of capacity for week one, the issue would be avoided.  This would also go along way with public perception, as most people probably believed there were huge swaths of unsold seats, not a few thousand in stadia that are gargantuan compared to other sports outside of NASCAR. The 95 pct threshold also gives teams a few more precious days to get last minute groups and walkups into place, and if weather and hype hold, will push some folks into purchasing even on game day, which is not such a bad thing either.

Better Education of the Secondary Ticket Marketplace? The leagues and teams have done a good job of trying to manage the marketplace and see what the options are. However searches by the uninformed will see very high prices and very low prices for elute games. Giving fans a better primer on what is available and where can also be a better driver for distressed seats, even at a discount offered by the primary seller at the last minute.

Enhance The Fan Experience? Colleague Darren Heitner pointed out new ways the Dolphins, along with other teams are doing more to help fans better enjoy the in-stadium experience. A lot of that enhancement has to do with mobile, and many teams are still struggling with better connectivity in stadia that are older. The investment in “stadium only” enhancements is still risky for some teams not willing to invest, because for the NFL at least, you are not talking about a majority of ticketholders who need such enhancements to plunk down their dollars. You are talking about that less than five percent, and are enhancements worth the cost of investment. The reality is though, that a larger number of fans will start questioning ROI as the out of stadium value grows, so investing now as a hedge against the churn in sales is worthwhile.  Why is mobile so important? Look abroad for the reason.

There will be a time when the well-connected in stadium fan will be able to use his or her mobile device for everything they need; from tracking seat location improvements to special meals to better parking spots, to video and yes, the revenue stream of online wagering on all that goes on in the game.  You see many of these enhancements being used by corporations like Disney to better control crowd flow and offer more incentives by geo targeting where and what their consumers are doing at their parks…you see it in the music business with crowd sourcing at concerts, and you see it in better equipped stadia in the UK and elsewhere where fans are constantly engaged and interact with all going on around the event. Part of the sports experience elsewhere is through the gaming and gambling experience on mobile, and there will come a time when that enhancement becomes legal and federally regulated in the U.S. It is an inevitability. That investment in better connectivity is perhaps the best part of the draw for the casual fan going forward. Making the stadium a place where you can only get something…the amplification of the giveaway…is the key part of moving the distressed fan away from his or her living room.

Is there a simple answer? No. Does the NFL have issues that almost every other sports or media company wishes they had as their biggest challenge today? For sure. In the end, for the short term, the seats are filled and most importantly the millions of local eyeballs watching the broadcast will be sated for the postseason. That means big TV ratings, happy sponsors,  and a respite from the controversy.

There are some that think that technology has made the in-game experience obsolete, and that we will head the way of “Slamball,” a once made for TV sport that was taped in a huge hangar with a few hundred spectators.  That is more an issue for concerts and other entertainment properties which are more repeats time and again. An event like the Harlem Globetrotters for example, would be in more danger than a live sporting event.  Live sports, unlike anything else in entertainment, is still a tribal shared experience where you have the ability of seeing something in person that you never thought possible. Ask those at Auburn-Alabama or someone who has seen a no-hitter or a shootout in the NHL or a golden goal in soccer or the final point at the US Open or Tiger’s winner at The Masters if they would trade that experience for anything and the answer is no. Does it mean somewhere down the line that mega-events will become pay per view? Doubtful, given the larger scale dollars and viewership needed to make the finals of a sport viable, and the billions already invested in broadcast for the long term. Boxing, the UFC and the WWE have taken the path of using free events to feed a pay per view build, but for team sports that approach would be much more drastic and detrimental to the brand that each team has in the marketplace. It is not entirely out of the question, but it is not on the horizon for now.

What has to happen for the in-stadium experience is evolution. Maybe it is a smaller crowd threshold, but it is definitely enhanced wireless capability and the ability for teams to tap new streams of revenue to offset rising ticketing costs that are passed through because of the cost of talent on the field and other cost amplifications that the marketplace puts upon other businesses in addition to sport.

In the end for the NFL is the blackout a black eye? Nope. It’s a punch that a mature savvy business needs to take and come back with long term viable answers that will make not just football, but any live even effective, profitable and worthwhile for those who will continue to follow their passions and attend. There is not one solution, there are many that need to be combined, and the eventual answers will come from the digital, the traditional and the still to be developing marketplace globally, not just from one weekend of play across the States.  Take notice and learn sports business, the NFL offered up some painful, and hopefully short term, business lessons for all to learn from this weekend.