Oyo Boyo, A Simple Idea Keeps Getting Bigger…

Several years ago when I was with the New York Knicks we were planning a promotion around Allan Houston, and as part of the plan, were going to send out to interested media the LEGO figure that had been made of our-then star, as a way to keep him top of mind when award voting season came along. It was quick, easy to mail and very unique amongst collectables. Did it really look like Allan? Not really but it was official and had his number, so it made sense. We found a way through the NBA to get 50 little Allan’s and off they went. As a collector of the unique, as well as a longtime supporter of LEGO, I had been interested in the possibilities of the product to engage sports kids, and somewhere in our basement, not passed on to my son Andrew, a master builder if there ever was one, are the original NBA-licensed sets as well as some hockey and extreme sports sets as well. They are now all collectors’ items, as the patients, and LEGO’s interest in sports, stagnated after a few years and the patents lapsed.

The problem then was that the Danish company didn’t really “get” the sports market in the States, and the risk of getting the wrong LEGO figures to market, they could not produce every player, far outweighed the rewards. In an era before short form video, 3D printing, and high speed molds, let alone self-generated content, LEGO was probably ahead of its time.

That was then, and to the delight of millions, another US-based company has taken LEGO’s seed, and their lapsed patents, and injected digital media and state of the art engineering into and opportunity. Welcome OYO Toys.

Boston based and now Boston-area manufactured, OYO has taken the old LEGO-licensed idea and brought it into the next decade. They have licenses to manufacture products for MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS, with more coming not just in the US, but internationally as well (how many kids in the States will now buy Messi figures who would not have a few years ago, thanks to soccer’s expansion in the media here?). Their system allows for custom printing and design of almost ANY player they have a license for that people can order, with delivery taking only a few days.

More importantly, OYO has used video, data and technology to bring the figures to life in short form video with self-created “stadia,” which thousands of young people with an interest in sport AND film (along with their dads and older siblings) can have fun with in re0creation scenarios, much like LEGO has done with the Star Wars themes line.  Even better, the figures are compatible with LEGO blocks, so parents don’t have to discard those mounds of blocks sitting around the basement. The kids can build stadia, or other scenarios, and use the OYO sports figurines as well.

The best part about OYO’s potential is that it again seeks to marry what were once divergent worlds for young people. Like robotics, LEGO were once thought to be nerdy and not for “sports” kids. Same with film and full motion video, or even photography. Now OYO can help merge those world’s, and make the arts and building good for “sports” kids, especially on rainy days, and can probably help the kids once thought to be a bit “nerdy” and not engaged in sports find a common ground as well. That merging doesn’t just help at home, it will help in the classroom, as suddenly science and technology, and even engineering, may seem just a bit more cooler to kids who might have been bored with sports. It also doesn’t hurt that media companies like Nickelodeon and Marvel are looking to find ways to pull sports into entertainment, and OYO’s analytics, video, and interchangeable parts can also play right into their plans as well.

Are there some limitations? Sure. Making the figures as life-like as possible is a challenge, and there is probably a limit as to how many figures the company can customize for now. However the upside and potential for OYO in any host of sports, even on the NCAA level, is very bright, and certainly makes their business one to watch. The Boston Globe had a piece the last few days on how the company came about and its new infusion of cash from Mandalay Entertainment, which is certainly worth a read.

Keep building OYO, and we will keep watching. What was a rare fail for LEGO is an opportunity for you.

Cold Sport, Hot Property: NHL Gets Things Going…

The Sochi Olympics are in the rear view mirror, there is labor peace, the Cup is basking in Southern California warmth for the fall and winter, there is talk of new ownership and even expansion and some of the biggest markets seem primed for a solid season on and off the ice. All signs are that the NHL is ready to take another step forward, and the league looks ready to take advantage of all those factors and then some. Here’s some reasons why

Tech Keeps Coming

GoPro, let’s go. The NHL’s point of view focus has helped changed the way fans can engage and watch the game both online and in broadcast, and now their partnership with GoPro can give that view an even bigger boost. Drop micro cameras here there and everywhere, and down the line give fans the ability to choose from Henrik cam or Trotz cam and the choices for intimate engagement, not to mention viral video will be endless. The partnership with Go Pro also generated some great buzz during a quiet preseason for the league, and dovetails nicely with the leagues investment in the mobile space.  In 2013, the league rolled out team-specific mobile applications, and invested heavily in mobile video and live streaming. Tie that to a new way for fans to view, and you have a very smart mix sent to your hand-held device, all sponsorable and sharable for fans.

Krafting A Brand Message

Along with MLS, the NHL has been the home for new brands looking to find their way into major sport in the US in recent years, as well as for some traditional brands looking to re-jig their image with a demo that is highly engaged and a bit younger.   In 2014-15 Kraft will create “Kraft Hockeyville 2015,” a program which will support hockey at a local and community level, giving kids a chance to lean and becoming a home for communities where the game is embraced and enjoyed already. Kraft will be giving local communities a chance to win $150,000 for an arena, rink and/or facility makeover, and then have then refurbished arena play host to an NHL preseason game on national TV.

TV Takes

The NBC partnership with the NHL continues to evolve in various ways, the biggest of which will be cross promoting hockey and soccer and then driving all ancillary hockey fans to a night which the league can own throughout the year, and that appears to be Wednesdays. No football to really speak of, college hoops pushes towards early week and weekends, and the NBA has taken Thursday with Turner, so the NHL can focus on mid-week excitement, the night when their ratings have already shown a dramatic uptick.  The league’s 12 year deal with Rogers Communications in Canada also affords them more of an innovative platform that breaks a little with tradition and helps re-invigorate the strong sports brand up north, while bringing Ross Greenburg back to re-engineer the Road to The Winter Classic and “The Road To the Stadium Series” with new partner EPIX will also provide a new, fresh and added edge for broadcast fans of the sport. All of which brings new glitz, new focus and new voices to an already growing broadcast audience for hockey.

So as the season begins this week and into the weekend, will hockey suddenly vault over baseball, hoops and football in terms of engagement? Not yet, but not that it has to. Hockey has done a good job of realizing that its first goal was to embrace and cultivate its core, like soccer has, and then go from there to find new audiences. It has really done a solid job with step one, and continues to find ways to infiltrate step two all of which makes for a compelling story, and for smart business, as fall arrives and the ice starts settling in. Solid product in the building, solid extensions outside will make NHL a warm property for cold North American nights.

Devils Go All In…

They lost their most marketable, albeit aging star; the cornerstone of their franchise to free agency. They are in an ultracompetitive marketplace which now includes the defending conference championships, a young rising team with new owners about to move into a building whose penchant is to tell stories very loudly, and to the south, a stalwart franchise that has owned a good part of the state for years and shows little signs of letting up. So if you are the New Jersey Devils what do you do? Everything you can, and that starts with finding every way to tie the community of both hockey fans and citizens of their state to the team, and find very way to tie the team to the community. Build the narrative, and there comes the loyalty.

Under their new ownership team and led by CEO Scott O’Neil, New Jersey made some of those strides last year. They went to great lengths to bring communities, whole towns and their leaders, to the Prudential center for themed nights which looked at everything from civic and academic involvement to athletic success, little of which had to do with hockey. Make the towns part of the fabric of the team, and loyalty will grow. This year, as training camp starts, the team is taking the other approach to compete the circle.

Their new campaign  “We’re All Devils Inside,” will showcase a season of Devils’ narratives on and off the ice that shine a light on the many faces that comprise the Devils family. Featuring players, season ticket holders, fans, Devils and Prudential Center employees, as well as those communities throughout New Jersey, the campaign reveals how the Devils inhabit everyday situations. The campaign will live throughout Devils and Prudential Center assets, including Devils in-game presentation, arena branding, web and mobile, and will be featured on game tickets and promotional materials, as well as television, print and out-of-home creative.

The campaign is smart as it links the personal stories of everyone around the club to a particular town or neighborhood, and makes that connection more hyper-local than ever before. All of this is in addition to the massive digital affinity programs the club has built throughout the years, and will hopefully strengthen the ties and the reach of the Devils brand as really the only professional team that now calls the State home and uses just “New Jersey” in its name. As the team builds new and marketable stars off the ice, making communities feel a part of that growth is key, and the clear communication that we are all in this together should give fans with some disposable income an opportunity to venture to Newark and enjoy their hometown team.

Of course winning helps, but the use of this inward and outward affinity to the Devils brand is a smart way to manage the controllable assets and keep the interest alive and growing regardless of the results on the ice.

Five Years In, Beard-A-Thon Still Growing For The NHL

While it may not work at Yankee Stadium, where rules against facial hair are still in place a bit (it did work for the Red Sox last year, and a “growing” legion of MLB clubs again in 2014), but in the NHL, the fifth year of Beard-A-Thon continues to be one of the most unique fan engagement activation events in any sport. The brainchild of East Aurora, New York based Cenergy, Beard-A-Thon encourages fans (mostly male we hope) fans in each NHL playoff city to not shave during their team’s playoff run. Fans who don’t shave are encouraged to find pledge support, with monies going to local charities. The idea started in 2009, with over $350,000 dollars going to local charities. Since then, over $2.5 million has been raised for all participating NHL team foundations. These include the Garden of Dreams for the New York Rangers and the Kings Care Foundation for the Los Angeles Kings. As fans pledge to grow a playoff beard during the duration of their team’s run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Beard?A?Thon® continues to grow.

King of Shaves, a longtime supporter of the St. Baldrick’s charity events where people shave their head for cancer, was a supporting sponsor of the hockey-based tradition early on, where players show support and superstition by not shaving during the playoffs. The program has picked up more social support every year, with the increased viral play adding to the popularity. Of course the best is yet to come, as teams move on and the facial hair grows over the next month. Could there be a locks of love element added to the end of the promotion, where a brand comes on to do the shaving of the losing team’s fans during the final. Maybe throw in a head shaving element for charity as well? And what about the ladies? As hockey grows in popularity amongst women, and even with kids, what additional elements can be added in. There is no doubt that the communal bond amongst hockey fans is really encapsulated in Beard-A-Thon. Like the Winter Classic, it has a cache that can be NHL-specific and can grow (no pun intended) over time, with maybe even adding in virtual beards for more involvement.

As in many cases, it’s the simple ideas that sometimes can have the greatest impact, and Beard-A-Thon is certainly one that can reach that potential.

Devils, Like Many Smart Brands, Look To Build Through Community…

One of the most important aspects of gaining support in good times in bad for any effective brand, let alone a sports or entertainment property, is to make sure you are ingrained as a part of the community, not just as an elite attraction. Whether you are a Valley National Bank or Target the Los Angeles Dodgers or Manchester United, finding ways to connect on a personal level with consumers who have discretionary income to spend with you or some competitor can mean life or death for your company, and that connection is even more essential during the rainy days as opposed to the sunny days when all is humming along. That need for support because they are “one of us” is vital.

In sport, often times elite brands seem to lose touch with fans during those boom years. The championships, the All-Stars, lead to a much needed rush for profit and athletes, the team and often times its partners, have so many people come a knocking that they can forget those who have been brand loyal for years and might get lost in the wash of success for those who have jumped on the bandwagon. Those types of problems are the ones that many in sport would like to have; too many fans and too big demands on time; but those are the times when all the building for the future, as part of the community, need to be emphasized the most. Teams like the Boston Red Sox and their longtime work with the Jimmy Fund, raising money for ill children, or the Philadelphia Flyers, with the Flyers Wives Save Lives campaigns, are just a few examples of sustainable, long-term legacy commitments that teams have regardless of what goes on between the lines.

In the Northeast, owner Josh Harris and his team of front office executives led by Scott O’Neil, certainly have their work cut out in rebuilding and extending that longtime connection with fans with not one but two franchises, the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils. Two recognizable and strong names with solid performance histories on the field, the Sixers and Flyers are going through transition periods as businesses, as well as in many ways on the ice and the hardwood (albeit the Sixers having a much worse season than Lou Lamoriello’s Devils).  With that transition on the field comes a growing innovation opportunity off it. Both franchises announced earlier this year a deal to find ways to tap into the now legal world of on-line gaming in New Jersey, and are looking to other categories to find economies of scale to bring new companies into the mix who haven’t been involved in the business of professional sports before. Trying times make for interesting partners.

In addition to that business opportunity, both teams realize the need to find new and creative ways to engage communities on a broader scope who can be part of the team experience from far and away in their geographic area. The advent of digital and social media has given teams a way to engage with fans on a global platform like never before, making everyone interested part of a community that was much more disjointed than ever before, and the ability to fill distressed ticket inventory during some lean times crates even more opportunity for casual fans to embrace and enjoy the in-game experience that they not be able to in other years.

With that idea of community in mind, the Devils and Prudential Center this week launched their “My Town” promotion. The idea is very basic, but effective. Recognize everyday leaders and heroes in select communities based on online nominations from fans. Throughout games in March, New Jersey towns will be highlighted with honorary game captains, an in-game welcome, a local color guard presenting pregame festivities, vignettes on the community and a Heroes Among Us feature. Woodbridge, N.J., was the first town highlighted this week for a game against the Boston Bruins. The program is an expansion of one many teams do, recognizing a local person for amazing community work, but it seems to take the idea to a new level. It is much broader and driven by fan and community interaction, and brings the Devils brand to the community as well as bringing casual fans to the Prudential Center. Maybe it helps a local realtor get more exposure to buyers, or a local business draw more foot traffic. Maybe it helps a school struggling for funds get more opportunity to attach to donors. Maybe it just lifts the spirits of a family struggling through the challenges of everyday life. Maybe it creates some binds to a community that didn’t really care about hockey, but now has a reason to support “one of us” down the road. It is smart business and smart community participation to expand the brand beyond the ice in a way that connects civic pride, economic growth, and community awareness all in one. Now it’s not like the Devils have not tried to be more inclusive before. The previous ownership under Jeff Vanderbeek looked to make thousands part of the “Devils Army” through community and digital and social programs that became a model for the NHL in many ways. This program however becomes even more grassroots, putting down stakes away from hockey into towns, with the hope that the team and the community become even more intertwined in support well beyond the ice; a program which can probably be replicated in Philly if needed down the road with ownerships their property.

Is the goal for any team to move more tickets and merchandise? Of course, it is a business after all. However by taking the time to listen and engage more un the community, the Devils and the Sixers, like all smart brands, are going to try and become much more than a team in a geographic area, they will become one of us, regardless of results, and that’s what successful brands do so well, in good times and bad.

Hockey Poised For An Olympic-Sized Run After The Games…

While Sochi 2014 continues to march on into its second week, its stars, especially the American stars, are coming into focus in some of the larger platform events that casual fans love. The misses of Shani Davis and Shaun White continue to leave new openings for bobsled, figure skating and perhaps even more than ever before, for hockey.

The drama, some expected, some surprising, that Team USA has provided fans with as they enter the Quarterfinals this week has been terrific and has given at least short justification for the NHL shutting down their business for two weeks. Would hockey even on its best regular season Sunday that wasn’t in outdoors stadiums have generated enough buzz and interest when going against the NBA All-Star game, the run-up for Daytona, and pitchers and catchers reporting? Would regular season NHL have even been able to out-draw interest in an Olympics which the elite players were not participating in? Probably not.

For all the short-term issues created by a schedule stoppage, hockey can still be the big winner coming out of Sochi, with new stars, well rested players and the prime time drama which has the potential to be played out this week.  The biggest opportunity hockey will have going forward is something that no other Olympic medalist or team will have in the months coming; its own pre-set city by city night by night tour, called the NHL regular season and playoffs. The biggest bobsledders, the greatest figure skaters, the most dynamic downhill skiers who can all claim gold this week will not have the massive pre-planned platform that hockey will have when it returns to action. Every night casual fans will tune in to see their local teams, but they will also see some newly minted Olympic heroes from countries far and wide returning home to play not just once, but time and again. There will be multiple chances for U.S. and Canadian fans to see their returning heroes and re-live the memories already forged and those still to come, an opportunity which local marketers and community programs should be jumping on, and something which any other sport will have to concoct at breakneck pace once the games are concluded.

While going into the Games the NHL and NBC had a set list of stars to promote, the early run by Team USA has brought yet two new names to the forefront in St. Louis Blues hero T.J. Oshie and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, both solid names in their own markets who now have national buzz for casual fans who until this past weekend may have never heard of them. While youth…and that’s important…youth shirts for USA Hockey with Oshie’s and Kessel’s names have been flying out the door and off sites like Fanatics.com, the more important element will how these new faces to most of the audience can be pushed forward through the rest of the winter and into the spring, when their teams are on the road, and how they can be partnered with the existing stars as the hockey tournament plays out.

Now several key places are already in the mix for “brand hockey” in the States. The grassroots push of “Hockey Weekend In America” is already set for the week following the Games, with a host of local celebrations in communities big and small to help bring the Olympic experience to many communities. College and high school games, along with the elite NHL and minor leagues, can now invest in social media sharing and re-living of Olympic moments that can be played out through on a large scale through the deep resources of the NHL-NBC relationship. Brands in various locales can also indirectly ride the Olympic crest of interest by partnering with teams and even former Olympians to help retell the stories of glory past and present, all of which can be revisited time and time again as hockey moves into the spring on various levels.

Now does all this mean that suddenly, as happened in 1980, there will be thousands of kids who never played hockey before suddenly rushing to rinks? Probably not. What it does mean is that hockey, and the NHL, have perhaps one of their best brand awareness platforms now in place to really bring in new ticketholders and consumers, and probably some additional sponsor partners. While some may say that Oshie’s success is limited in helping the Blues, it really lifts the overall hockey platform, and that rising tide can benefit everyone in the game from the grassroots to the NHL.

There will still be many skeptics as to the value of a league shutdown for several weeks, and a league like Major League Soccer is certainly watching closely how much the Olympics benefited the NHL as they go through a similar situation in some respects with World Cup this summer. Will the benefit to the NHL, which is perhaps even bigger than what the league went through following the Vancouver Olympics, be amplifies enough to  continue the partnership in 2018? Is there enough that is built for the NHL to try and do its own World Championships in the fall, like MLB has tried to do with the World Baseball Classic and soccer does with World Cup? Hard to say if that Olympic buzz would translate to a non-Olympic event away from the buzz of the Games.

What is pretty clear is that hockey is structured for a very unique test of brand growth in the coming weeks after the Games, one which any Olympic sport would love to have to keep the flames fanned for casual and brand interest, and one which could help propel interest and engagement in the game to new heights of casual interest and brand development in markets large and small.

A Sport Curls Its Way To Relevance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baseball’s “Hot Stove” Fuels The Grassroots Game On A Quiet Weekend…

While the NFL tries more ways to keep the Pro Bowl relevant, fun and brand-worthy during the week before the Super Bowl, the real winners of the weekend appear to be hockey and yes, baseball, in grabbing the spotlight and engaging with fans, some with a national footprint but in many instances at the grassroots. On a weekend where there is no real national broadcast focus for the casual fan, baseball and football have found their own spots to bring relevance in the long winter.

For baseball, the push of interest this weekend is not from games, but from the celebration of both the past and the future. From the Baseball Assistance Fund (BAT) Dinner to the Baseball Writers Dinner this past week, media and casual fans got a reminder of all the celebratory points of the game, brought together on one stage. The 2013 award winners, from Miguel Cabrera to Andrew McCutcheon, all shone bright on a cold winter night while luminaries of the past, like Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, also took the stage Saturday night in New York.  Ironically for such a bright night, the event is not covered by any outlets live, a lost opportunity in the digital age, but the two major January functions always get ample coverage and talk going around baseball’s hot stove.

In addition to the awards and hoopla with the game’s biggest stars, this late January weekend also saw teams and fans of baseball engaging in the grassroots across the country. Several teams, with the Detroit Tigers being one of the most prominent, hosted their annual Fan fests, to remind everyone how great baseball is, and to provide a sneak peak toward spring on a cold winter weekend. Fan fests have always provided great engagement points for baseball teams, and although some teams in major markets look at the benefits as almost being cost prohibitive, those teams in secondary or teams on the rebound effectively use the cost associated to engage at a key buying time with their partners, and with all they need to come through the gates during the long spring and summer months.  The other grassroots push unique to baseball is the annual kickoff by the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), with their SABR day. Always planned late in January, SABR Day used to be a quaint little activity which self-proclaimed “stats nerds” used to start their fantasy baseball talk. Today, with the explosion of analytics in sport, SABR Day has grown with hundreds of local events all connected through social media. From New York to Nashville, Phoenix to Florida, SABR Day serves as a great link for avid baseball fans looking to gather and discuss their favorite sport, with a host of guest speakers planned to add to the mix.

Then ironically, there is also hockey to help provide another subtle reminder that pitchers and catchers are not that far away. The Stadium Series games in New York and Los Angeles, help provide the NHL with another solid platform boost in the US as we head toward Sochi and then the playoffs in the spring. While some may say all the outdoor games are getting to be mundane, the fact that casual fans by the thousands will or did turn out in Dodgers and Yankee Stadiums for the three contests, ones which also brought in some solid brand sponsors and drew more attention to the sport with a good mix of celebrity and nostalgia, is certainly a plus for hockey, but it is also good for baseball.  Being able to showcase the two landmark facilities in the dead of winter is another nice perk for baseball, which gets its brand name out in front, and maybe helps re-engage some fans who may have not been thinking baseball in the months following the holidays and leading up to spring training.  

Does it also help that a mega-star like Masahiro Tanaka ended up signing in New York this past week to keep baseball top of mind? Sure. However the events of the weekend at the grassroots provide a very fertile ground for baseball as a brand to till the soil and start the ramp up to spring, on a weekend where most fans would naturally still think football, and thanks to the mega-events of the NHL, hockey. Strategic or lucky, baseball got a positive boost.

“Rivalry On Ice” Scored For “Brand Hockey”

One of the great growth opportunities that appears to be occurring in conjunction with the rise of hockey interest in North America this winter is the expansion of interest in the college game. Whether its the effort of NBC Sports to expand its weekly coverage, the halo effect that the NHL’s added buzz from the Bridgestone Winter Classic and the other outdoor games, the Sochi Olympics, the endless showings of “Miracle” on cable TV the past few weeks or the polar vortex driving people to frozen ponds and rinks, the interest in the college game is markedly changed as a property.

Now in places where the college game has always been strong; the upper Midwest and New England, things are status quo, with 35,000 fans showing up for Notre Dame and B.C,’s “Frozen Fenway” doubleheader earlier this month, and thousands of other enjoying the high school and other college games, along with the public skating sessions, that also went on atop the covered grass of the Red Sox home. The entire event built great equity in all things hockey.

However to go beyond incremental growth there needs to be more of a breakthrough into the mainstream by creating a signature, sustainable event that marketers can activate around and the industry can use as a centerpiece to cultivate new interest. Yes there is the legendary Beanpot in Boston, and the Frozen Four has gotten legs to bring the best of elite NCAA hockey to vastly different markets, but a signature event can lift and be a showcase for all things college hockey.

In recent years promoters have brought the biggest programs to NHL rinks in Detroit and Pittsburgh, Denver and Chicago, all with their one-off variable degrees of success. Even in the New York area, the hardest of markets to crack, a Thanksgiving weekend game with Cornell as the feature has filled Madison Square Garden for several years, with minimal exposure and promotion, and this past fall the Prudential Center cane upon the unique opportunity of having Yale, the defending NCAA Champion, open its season on their ice, to some success.

However this past weekend, an attempt was made to put a classic rivalry known by both casual sports fans and the general consumers alike, front and center as the annual signature game in the largest marketplace possible. The matchup was Harvard and Yale, dubbed “Rivalry on Ice,” a chance to give both the schools with solid hockey traditions a special place on the biggest stage, the remodeled Madison Square Garden. Moving the matchup took several years and lots of scheduling fits and starts before the game and all its trimmings came together, and the result was a germ of a successful overall promotion that could be built upon as a lynchpin for college hockey’s greatest going forward.

The overall concept was wide-ranging, pulling in all sorts of events throughout the day, from an alumni game to youth promotions to traditional brand activation platforms in and around the game. The matchup played off of NBC’s expanded college platform to draw a national audience in primetime on NBC SportsNet, and had the foresight to harness the marketing and brand mojo of legendary Hall of Famer Mark Messier, who has familial ties to the Crimson (nephew Luke Esposito is on the team), to generate ancillary press (which Messier is using to also promote his-mega rink project in The Bronx with the City of New York)  and the cache of landing Secretary of State John Kerry as another ambassador through his ties to both schools. “Rivalry on Ice” also had history on its side, since the first time the two schools met in hockey was actually in 1900 at long-departed St, Nicholas Rink.  There were bands. Glee clubs, good social media banter, even a session with Messier on reditt to help promote the event and raise the causal interest in the sport.

Did it work? In many ways, especially for a trial effort, yes. The legendary schools enjoyed the exposure away from the normal areas where they would draw large crowds for such a matchup. There was tremendous goodwill generated by all the celebrity banter back and forth, the alumni associations enjoyed the chance to engage with their former students in a building and a setting that they are not normally used to use for an athletic event involving either school, and some unusual new brands…Turkish Airways, Mead Brown resorts, among others, got to mingle with both the elite schools but also with the other traditional sports sponsors you would see along the dasher boards at MSG.

Were there drawbacks? Several. While Harvard-Yale is an elite rivalry, the schools do not have the massive sports-crazed alumni following of say a Notre Dame or a Michigan, so ticket sales were a challenge when you passed a point of say, 10,000 or so. The date also ended up competing with the New England Patriots AFC Playoff game, something which could not have been predicted but probably lessened the interest in some parts of the viewing and engagement areas for casual fans. There were lots of solid players and a long history, but New York usually commands superstars, and a dominant name as a draw probably also dropped casual interest. Still even with a few wrinkles, the overall perception was that Rivalry on ice achieved its first time out of the box goals…to create a marketable concept and show a market interest that few thought existed; a viable event in a market that does not normally take to one-off successes.

So where to go from now? Is it Harvard-Yale every year? Is it other rivalries that can have the legs to fill a building at ease? Does the concept have legs to the other arenas in the area clamoring for big games and big promotions? Can it expand to a day-long celebration in the building vs. just a hockey game between to elite schools? Can a brand see the value and invest not as a one-off, but in the long term for the series because they have a substantial investment in seeing the project help grow their brand?  All to be determined.

As a concept, “Rivalry on Ice” scored for its uniqueness. Now on to see if the uniqueness can be sustained.  Regardless for 2014, the game and all its trimmings made for another nice positive statement for “Brand Hockey,” with outdoor games on the horizon, and the Olympics ready to again lift the sport in the coming weeks.

Devils, Sixers Hedge Their Bets…For The Better and The Bettor

A little over a month ago we noticed the huge amount of exposure new legalized online gambling sites were getting in New Jersey. You could not go a few miles on a major highway without seeing something for Betfair or any of a number of other sites, and given the fact that sports teams in Canada…the Raptors, the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens…were already calling Poker Stars.net a partner with prominent advertising, it seemed like just a matter of time before a franchise like the Devils started to cash in…literally…with one of the online sites now legal in the market. What we didn’t realize at the time was that it didn’t have to be a team that was located in the State, one that televised into the market was also OK to partner with, so the opportunities for the deep pockets of the online sites expanded exponentially across the Hudson and the Delaware at least.

On Thursday at the Prudential Center, the convergence of team ownership on both sides of the border river to the South of the State, Josh Harris’ tandem of the Devils and the Sixers spearheaded by President Scott O’Neil, broke the logjam and announced what was billed, and truly is, a historic partnership between partypoker, run by the UK gambling house Betwin, and the two teams, making  partypoker the Official Online Gaming partner of the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center. This multi-year deal in the online gaming category is the first of its kind for US-based sports organizations and signals a continued commitment by both franchises to create and foster partnerships with the world’s best brands. Welcome to the billion dollar sponsorship world of online gaming and gambling in the US…a world which will grow exponentially in the coming years.

As part of the partnership, co-branded assets will be built for fans of the two teams. Through a new and exclusive promotion called the ‘Dream Seat Series’, fans located in New Jersey who play on nj.partypoker.com will be able to compete for a number of great prizes, including regular, courtside and VIP suite seats to all Devils and Sixers home games, road trips with the teams and coveted tickets to concerts all year round including the upcoming January 22 Jay Z concert at the Prudential Center. Included in the partnership is the integration of partypoker into the Devils and 76ers web sites and social media channels, and mobile applications; tickets and hospitality; in-arena signage, including dasher boards, on-ice and on-court; and rights to broadcast television and radio advertisements during Devils and Sixers games.

For the Devils and the Sixers, two teams that are challenged in the sponsorship space, it is a jackpot that the new ownership group in New Jersey may have seen but could never have anticipated happening so soon. For partypoker it establishes a price and a beachhead for which other sites will now bid against. Strategically the deal makes sense for many reasons other than just the sponsorship. The Sixers, no longer owned by publicly traded Comcast as the rival Flyers are, have probably less investor pushback than their hockey brethren in “The City of Brotherly Love.” They have attendance issues and lots of distressed seats to fill right now, and they have a D-league team across the river in Delaware who also needs help in a state where online gaming may also soon be legal. While some questioned the synergy that could exist between the devils and Sixers when Harris’ team made their purchase in 2013, this deal, and potentially others like it, show the value. They are able to blanket not Philly, but the corridor between Philly and New York through NBA and NHL partnerships with unique deals in two arenas and in a very large geographic area. That for sure appealed to their new sponsor and may set a precedent for other deals in new categories going forward for two franchises that need to carve new roads for dollars. While it is true that franchises with distressed inventory have created “unique” partnerships before…the Islanders signing a tattoos sponsor, and the Nets when in New Jersey creating any number of unique categories, including “official tax service” for a while, this virgin category has huge potential, huge dollars and huge ramifications for sponsorship going forward.

There is no doubt that New York’s prominent franchises in the winter, the Rangers and the Knicks, who already have solid sponsors in the casino space, will find a way to engage with one of the online sites. Their broadcast partners, also looking for new revenue streams, are almost certainly in the hunt for dollars that are now free, clear and very legal as well.

The question will be if the more conservative ranks of MLB, or the deeper and somewhat more selective teams of the NFL…the Jets, Giants, and Eagles…will also find a way to engage. For New Jersey’s minor league baseball teams, as well as for the Red Bulls…the deal and the opportunity will also set a precedent for them to negotiate and engage with. It is hard to believe that the MLS club, a sport with deep relationships abroad in not only gaming but with Betwin itself, won’t find a way to exploit the new coffers. The minor league teams affiliated with MLB clubs may be a bit hesitant because of their promotion of more “family friendly” environs, but the State’s independent teams in Somerset and Montclair should be on board with creative programs before first pitch this spring. Who knows maybe there will even be hope for the recently deceased Newark Bears? And how about Pocono Raceway, tucked in the mountains with several hundred thousand NASCAR and Indy car fans coming every year? The online dollars and fan engagement that is now OK can’t be too far away.

While Thursday’s announcement was all about poker in New Jersey and online non- financial prizes in Philly, this is just the beginning for a wave that will continue to challenge the Federal statue for all sports wagering, something which new jersey has led the fight for. Already a growing number of teams are allowing “pay fantasy” programs, and now the infiltration of the online poker category will put more behind the scenes pressure, and create more sponsorship opportunities for large dollars, for professional teams already challenged with finding new revenue to offset ticket prices. That is to say nothing of the chunk of mobile revenue that can be brought in through established online wagering, as is the case in many places where sports gambling is legal around the world.

What will the leagues say if there is opposition to gambling? As has been the case, there will never be a challenge publicly by any league or team. They will abide by the Federal law and what Congress determines as fair and legal. However when the law changes or evolves, they will follow suit.

Now as we have said before this is not Armageddon or the end of sports as we know it, where the fix is in for every game, and fans are scurrying to betting parlors to bet against their hometown heroes for the sake of a buck. What it is is the evolution of sport in a category that has multi-BILLION dollar potential, and already has a well-documented illegal marketplace going on. The legal side of sports betting is well established abroad and even in Nevada, and the Caribbean, where sports gambling goes on every day without incident. Will there be hiccups and issues and adjustments? Yes. However the tide for legal wagering and gaming in the United States is rising, and Thursday’s announcement by the leadership of the Devils and Flyers is the latest, and certainly not the last, move in that lucrative evolutionary process. It will be a slow and steady test to see what the American fan base will endure, just as it was with fantasy, with cable broadcasts, with the lottery, even in some sports already with jersey advertising. Test, record, respond and see what the market will bear.

So far, all tests for the Devils and Sixers are positive.  Where will it go next? Sports gambling is still a ways away, but the other teams and their broadcast partners will clamor for their own share, and those creative promotions and big dollars will be next. All will be slick, fun, legal and highly effective for all involved.

So with the gambling vice in the mix, is there anything left for challenged sports brands to conquer, especially in and around The Garden State, the home of Big Pharma? How about condoms, an industry also with huge pockets and promotional expertise. Scott ONeil and company found a way with one gamble, maybe they can test another “first” for sport.

In either case, don’t bet against it.