Danbury Creates A Whale Of A Social Media Platform…

The Federal Hockey League may not be far off from the fictional league of the same name from “Slapshot” at least in terms of being the first, and sometimes last shot, for players looking to make a go of it on the ice. But at least one team in the league, the Danbury Whalers (with similar logo to the old Hartford Whalers I may add), always tries to be innovative. Their latest experiment to engage fans in the social space has taken hold, and could provide a really cool template for engagement in a sport like baseball, with bigger gaps of downtime and more players, at least on the Independent level.
For several weeks the Whalers have been doing Twitter Take Overs. While a twitter Takeover is certainly not unique for a brand, it is different when the Takeover is being done by a player…during a game. With Whalers Director of Media Relations, Tommy Pecoraro serving as host, players who are playing in the game, as well as coaches, are answering questions and posting their thoughts, from the penalty box, between periods, after a goal, in the lockerroom all in real time. It is a daring and certainly innovative way to get unfiltered access, and while leagues like the NFL have allowed live tweeting during the Pro Bowl from players, getting instant reaction during a regular season game where dollars and points are on the line takes social media to a new level. It also sets up some unique sponsor activations for in-arena and in real time through social media, where a platform with limited characters like Twitter can sometimes be challenging to monetize in short stints.
It is also interesting to see that the takeover hasn’t really caught a great deal of backlash from selected players; they get it, they trust Pecoraro to approach at the right times, and the engagement is gaining steam and attention for a team that has done a nice job of building a core following in a spot near the Connecticut and New York border. It is also a great way to increase the fan base and get more engagement far away from Danbury, which can lead to some additional merch sales and other bottom line benefits.

 

While it is doubtful that live takeovers will make it to the Major leagues or even affiliated minor league baseball teams, the Whalers experiment should be noted for Independent league teams, all-star events, even spring training. What would be better than getting a twitter takeover from Matt Harvey in the dugout from Port St. Lucie next spring to generate some Mets buzz right after he comes off the field? It may be a stretch, but the Whalers attempt is worth some points, and will probably be augmented, refined, sold and copied down the line. Innovation lives on in Connecticut, with a solid experiment that is not minor league in any way.

McManus, March of Dimes Sports Lunch Sets A High Bar For Fundraising…

It’s hard to get anyone in sports business to agree on anything, let alone a charity of choice. However one thing that is universally accepted this time of year is that the March of Dimes annual sports luncheon is the place to be every December. Over 600 attendees fill the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria for a well-run two hour event that features a host of sports broadcasting names spread around the room, from athletes turned commentators like Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason to longtime local favorites like Bruce Beck and Warner Wolf, all joining with an “A list” of honorees to raise funds for the March of Dimes. Every year the event also has a decidedly Jersey flair, especially because so many of the committee members are high level sports execs who live in and around the State.
This year’s lunch will take place just a few days after Thanksgiving, December 3, and will honor Howard Katz of the NFL (Sports Leadership), Kevin Plank of Under Armour (Corporate Leadership), Michelle Wie, Women’s Professional Golf Champion (Sportswoman of the Year Award), and Mark Messier, Captain of the New York Rangers 1994 Stanley Cup Championship Team (Sports Achievement Award). Emceed by Norah O’Donnell, Co-Host, CBS This Morning and Willie Geist (Co-Host, NBC’s TODAY & MSNBC’S Morning Joe) the lunch has raised over $10 million and is run by one of the most impressive steering committees you can find anywhere.
Chairing the committee since 1997 is CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. Under his leadership, the March of Dimes Sports lunch has really re-defined and re-shaped how such an event can assist a philanthropic effort. We caught up with McManus to talk about the growth of the event, where it is today, and how it got here.
When you first got involved with the Sports Luncheon, did you ever think it could become the massive event it is today?
Not really. When we first got involved our goal was to get the event back to being a major fundraiser for March of Dimes and go from there. The first few years it became a dinner and we had to scramble to sell just 10 or 11 tables ourselves. Now we as a group have grown it into an amazing yearly event, and a great story that helps babies and their families through the funds the community raises.
 Do you have a favorite memory from over the years?
 There are so many. Brian Williams had such a funny and memorable introduction for NBC’s Ken Schanzer one year; Billie Jean King, always such an amazing speaker introducing Lindsay Davenport, who was very touched and overwhelmed by the stories of the kids; Turner’s Ernie Johnson, whose son has faced some enormous physical challenges, with a very emotional and heartfelt plea for the organization, were all very memorable. However the one that touched so many people was when we honored Steve Sabol of NFL Films. Steve meant, and still does mean, so much to so many people in this industry because of the way he carried himself and the way he helped shape this industry. His acceptance was certainly one I will always remember, especially since he is no longer with us.
However the most touching stories, and the most memorable, are those of the families and the kids who have been directly affected by the monies raised and the great work the March of Dimes does. Seeing those kids creates the lasting memories that really make this all worthwhile.
On a personal side, how do you think your father, the late Jim McKay, would have handled all the digital/social immediacy that goes into being a media member today?
My father probably would have resisted all the changes at first, but he loved communicating and learning and I think he would have adapted very well. He really enjoyed being around people, and those who he worked with in the media, so if those tools that exist today would have helped him stay connected to so many people around the world, he would have used social media as a positive influence.
What he would have not enjoyed is the mean-spirited and petty ways social media has been used to spread rumors and denigrate people. He was a man of great thoughtfulness and always taught all around him about respect, and he would be very upset to see members of his profession, or people in the public eye in general, using the tools of the trade irresponsibility or to promote ill will. 
 
 In your professional career, what has been the biggest change you have had to deal with?
 It really is the change of the immediacy in which we all have to communicate and the quickness in which we have to adapt, react and tell the news. It has brought is closer together in some ways but it has created a rush to judgment in minutes or seconds that can be problematic sometimes. The explosion of the cable networks and the amount of content we have to consider, and all the platforms we have to use now, is also something that has changed our business, and we continue to adapt and grow. 
 
We have now gone through the “Ice Bucket Challenge” era which boosted  ALS research; does a cause need such events today to stay relevant?
Not really. I think what we have built with this lunch as an annual get-together for the media world is very special, and it’s for a great cause. It doesn’t need a gimmick, it sets the standard and it is very effective. The Ice Bucket Challenge did wonders for ALS Awareness and it was great to see, but we are very proud of this event and it doesn’t have to change in any way. The quality of our honorees goes above anything we could ever dream up as a gimmick or a stunt.
 What is the one thing you hope people who leave the lunch every year remember?
That they are making an immediate different in the lives of young people. Every year people come for the first time and are really blown away by the stories they hear and the kids and families they meet, and we want that to continue. We are very grateful that the sports media industry turns out every year and takes time from such busy schedules to not just support, but attend the lunch, and we think that combined with the stories of the recipients, it makes for a memorable few hours every year.

Gambling In Sport: Will Fantasy Bring Reality Soon?

Toward the end of the series finale of Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson, played so well be the actor Steve Buscemi for these past few years, turns to a young man in his employ and makes a reference about sweeping the sand off the front porch. Thompson knows from his work as a youth in the hotel business that the sweeping is the same as trying to battle against the tide, inevitably you lose, as wind and sane and nature will have their way.

 
While not exactly the same, it is becoming more and more apparent that the fight for legalized sports betting in some way, shape or form, not just in New Jersey but across the country, is a battle that eventually will be regulated and won out, and will be a major, major revenue stream for sports teams and leagues down the line.

 
For now, State legislators continue to battle the Federal law prohibiting sports betting while states far and near grandfathered into the system, find ways to make a solid profit. This past week John Brennan, perhaps the best authority in the media on the sports betting fight, had an extensive piece on how Delaware has used its loophole to create a profitable sports wagering system that has boosted the coffers of small business that have worked the lottery system for years. One part of the story has stores setting up kiosks and tents OUTSIDE their stores on Sunday mornings to take advantage of blue laws prohibiting them to open before noon, because the demand for NFL (called “pro football” to get around an NFL trademark issue) is so high. Nevada continues to thrive on their sports betting operations, and other states have quietly assembled “gambling czars to work on horse racing, casino and other currently legal forms of sports gambling, while keeping an eye out for best practices that states can take advantage of as loopholes and opportunities open up for sports wagering. Be in position to strike quickly, the theory is.

 
Every week that passes there is another chink in the armor in the fight that states, especially New Jersey, are making in this battle for a revenue stream that is very fertile around the world. Two years ago the NCAA banned New Jersey colleges and university from hosting post-season events because of the State’s challenge to legalized sports betting, and that banishment was overturned last year. The New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers had two firsts in the space, first with an online poker sponsorship and then last month the Devils struck a first-ever team deal with New Jersey based Hot Box Sports to create a team pay fantasy game for the first time. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been the most vocal and bullish of all the major sports heads on the subject, stating in September that he supported legalized gambling and stating time and again that it will be inevitable and a big source of income for the leagues and the clubs if and when it does happen…with more stress on the when than the if.

 
This week a good amount of focus fell on the political front, where pundits weighed in on whether the shift in power from the Republicans to the democrats in the Senate could affect the viability of the anti-sports betting lobby outside of Nevada. Senator-elect Cory Booker of New Jersey, a former football player himself, has yet to formally and fully engage in the subject, but his input now that he has a six year term could be very important as the issue grows more and more from a New Jersey issue to a national issue.

 
Is sports wagering inevitable, and is it the cash cow many predict? In a state like New Jersey it’s hard to say, but it does present great opportunity not as much for casinos but for the income a lottery-style taxed game can bring in to the state coffers. The loopholes with programs like pay fantasy football are becoming stronger and stronger and teams and leagues are seeing income from those streams become more and more a reality. The Brooklyn Nets just became the latest team to add a fantasy sports partner, and more will follow. The leagues and the NCAA will continue to monitor and keep the engine revving should laws change and continue to adjust. The NFL’s announcement this week of an expansion even more to games in London, along with the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady signing a sponsorship deal for a company called FantasyMVP, raise more questions about the validity of legalized gambling in sport. London has long carried NFL gaming lines, and there is no issue with patrons of legal betting parlours wagering on the games there, although the NFL has no affiliation and doesn’t yet profit in the take.

 
But why wouldn’t or shouldn’t the league profit from an industry that is global and currently unchecked in many places. The theory is that the leagues would make the money not on running betting entities but on the licensing and use of data and on each transaction. Given the fact that mobile usage and connectivity is growing daily in stadia, the amount of revenue leagues and teams could make…think of the amount of activity in a baseball game where every pitch, every swing could be a transaction…is something that could dwarf almost all other sources, except maybe live broadcast rights.

 
Other “vices,” lottery, hard liquor and spirits, casino advertising, fantasy sports, once taboo are now accepted by professional leagues as legitimate sources of income. Sports gambling will be the next, and maybe the greatest hurdle with the most upside. As the consumer clamors for more access and affordable prices, teams and leagues need to find new revenue sources, and gaming is the biggest one sitting out there to be had.

 
Are there issues and concerns about game fixing or an illegal element that could go on? Yes. But those concerns have been weighed and dealt with for every other questionable revenue stream, and federal acceptance and legislation can and will be a big step in legitimizing what will come. It will be smart, calculated, engaging and very profitable.

 
So as New Jersey politicians and track operators continue to wage a battle in the courts against the anti-sports gaming lobby, other states and companies who have found a way make their money; some boldly, some quietly. Many businesses small and large are following and hoping that the gamble The Garden State is taking will be an economic win for all in the long run.
Until that happens, all bets, legal ones outside of Nevada anyway, are off.

Brand Re-Launch For Smith Brothers Nothing To Sneeze At…

If you are of certain age you remember The Smith Brothers Cough Drop. With their signature bearded brothers and shiny box, the cherry-flavored drops were not only around when you had a cough or a sore throat, but often times were used as candy when other items weren’t around. However in the uber competitive, high spend marketing world of cold products, Smith Brothers disappeared from the marketplace in favor of brands like Hall’s, and Cold-eeze, and Ricolah, many of whom spent big time in the sports space.

 
However as a story by Danny Ecker in Crains Chicago pointed out this week, because of some sports ties, The Smith Brothers, with some new found equity money and some ties to the ice, are making a comeback.

 
The tie was through the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that under President John McDonough has undergone quite a brand revival of its own even without its pair of Stanley Cups. The key link between hockey and the cough drops was the beard. A longtime staple of superstition in the NHL postseason, the beard growing has morphed in recent years into a cause celebre’ for fans and for charities looking to engage in hockey playoff fever, with Beard-A-Thins popping up in almost every NHL market. The unshorn, rough and tumble look as also been embraced in other sports for the postseason, especially baseball, where the Red Sox beards were the stuff of legend during their second World Series run. However hockey and beards are really where it started, and those bearded cough drop-promoting brothers came along at the right time last winter.
With little traditional marketing spent, Smith Brothers staged a call to action last winter in Chicago with Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, and had over 1,000 fans turned out at of all places a Walgreens for the brand coming out party, albeit one with the Stanley Cup. They repeated the promo, actually a co-promotion with Walgreens with the Hawks Duncan Keith, and again turned out a solid crowd on a busy day. The affinity with the Blackhawks served as a great entrée for the brand in its home market.

 
Their “Bring Back the Beards” slogan has also been a big help, as has their use of two actors bringing the brothers to life to participate in the promos, all again, without the mega-spending of many of their new-found competitors in the market. The expansion of the program will see “Beard Nights” at the United Center and a branded “Beard Cam” in the building, as well as probably an expansion of the Walgreens co-promotional partnership.

 
There is also talk, according to the story, of bearded brand extensions into hockey-solid markets like Boston and New York, also solid Walgreens areas, pulling in players like Zdeno Chara and Henrik Lundqvist into the mix, which should lead to a natural extension of the program when the beards really come out in hockey next spring, maybe even tied to existing charity programs, with a natural affinity to the health and wellness category.

 
But how about outside of hockey? How about tying to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ever-growing beard with the Houston Texans, or Brett Keisel with the Pittsburgh Steelers? The crossover into the NFL would be a much bigger spend than for the NHL marks, but who knows what natural affinity could grow (no pun intended) out of the beard promotion and beard awareness that seems to spiral into every sport not on a track or a pool these days.

 
The Smith Brothers logo, and its story, also extends to those 40 and above who recall the brand from their youth, which could help ease the company into more homes without a massive relaunch at first. Then again, it looks like the Blackhawks have gotten them back in the game.
Now make no mistake, cute and smart local viral promotions, even in a major market, don’t translate into national sales and success overnight, especially when there is private equity money involved which is looking for immediate ROI and low spending to get there and you are going up the massive marketing programs of big pharma.

 
Even with those obstacles, it’s nice once again to see a brand that found a way to engage with the right partner at the right time and is leveraging its initial success into a much larger play. Certainly nothing to sneeze…or cough…at.

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.