Timing Is Everything: Why The NBA’s European Foray Made Sense This Week…

As smooth leadership transitions go, many businesses should look to the model that the NBA has set as the league goes from David Stern to Adam Silver.  From little things like the name on the league’s game balls to bigger picture issues like labor negotiations and TV deals, the NBA has been sown unity and consistency as one era ends and a new one begins, albeit with a leadership team that is certainly not new to the business of basketball, given Silver’s longtime position in league governance.

So it should come as no surprise for a sport that is all about transition that the two joined forces as the league made its annual regular season foray to Europe this past week, when the Brooklyn Nets took on the Atlanta Hawks in London. For all to see, including those reading the cover story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the transition game was in full force and certainly not lost in the mix was the message that the global NBA brand is continuing to grow.

While there were a smattering of stories questioning the need for a game in Europe during the middle of the regular season, the timing of the trip and the staging of the game was yet another message of consistency to send to all interested in brand NBA. Here are some thoughts as to why:

Timing: The game came at a place on the schedule where basketball traditionally hits a bit of a lull. The Christmas Day games are a memory, the All-Star Game is still in the distance, and the playoffs are even further off the casual sports fans’ radar. Dropping the game in a spot on the calendar that is just before the Super Bowl crush and in advance of a time when the Sochi Olympics will also steal some business thunder on the global stage served as a great reminder to brands and fans that the NBA holds and is growing its position around the world. A relatively quiet week in sport gave the NBA an unencumbered marketplace to talk business and basketball before the eyes of sport turn focus elsewhere for a while.

Business: In addition to providing a showcase for all the global brands the NBA has and are courting, the game gave Brooklyn a chance to more fully embrace their Barclays partners in real time, with essentially a home game for the home office. The Nets have long tried to export their brand and business beyond their borders, and with Barclays so invested in their home arena and the team, bringing the game to London gave the league as well as Nets head Brett Yormark a chance to show off the property for even more business partners, without having to export them back to Gotham.

Development: Despite its gleaming arenas, the UK remains one of the few regions without its own top flight professional league. Even with the economic challenges around The Continent, leagues still do well in many countries, and by bringing the NBA regular season to London, the talk of starting a professional league there could be pushed along. With such string TV partners already in place in the UK, making O2 Arena or other top flight venues a regular stop could be a nice carrot for the development of a UK based professional league down the line.

Leadership: While few question the leadership and vision of the NBA as a global property, it does serve as a nice reminder of the value of European brands and partners to bring a regular season game across the pond. The NFL has set its sights on Europe as a marketing tool, and the NBA talk continues to look east to China and India as the hottest spots. Not forgetting that hoops is still king in many parts of Europe and not far behind soccer in others, is very important to continued development in places where the brand is mature but still has a wide path of growth.

Expansion: There continues to be lots of talk about which sport will make the jump to be truly global, with franchises dotting the world. While most of that type of expansion remains just that…there are still too many legal and logistical issues for any league to expand outside North America…the real value in playing a regular season game abroad is in brand expansion, not team expansion. Watching a broadcast, engaging in the mobile space, and purchasing product is all important, but to bring a live, competitive regular season event to a new geographic area on a consistent basis ties all the pieces together and gives much more focus to the business. It is a lesson soccer has learned in their growth in the US; you can make all the noise you want, but to really engage you need to also have the live event, and bringing a game to the UK every year…and maybe elsewhere in the future…is the best form of expansion.

Does such a trip have its warts? Sure. The travel is not the easiest and it disrupts the flow of a team for a short period, but the teams are treated with kid gloves and are given the chance to re-engage in the US in a relatively short period of time. The lost short-term revenue, if any, us fueled by the potential of long term growth in revenue sharing categories like TV and merchandise sales, and although such a mid-season trip is not for everyone, for teams like Atlanta and Brooklyn who are looking to expand and grow their brands, it makes great sense.

In the end, the game and its experience and business moves seemed to all go smoothly, and served as a nice reminder that the NBA and its transitioning leadership are not sitting still and will continue to score in the global business community.  For timing and execution, NBA London  seems to have scored again.

“Brand Rivera” Closes Sports’ Biggest Annual Call To Action

It was only fitting that New York Yankees legend Mariano Rivera served as the closer – albeit this time for an event that has a major impact on the future, not the present. The impact however, was less about baseball and more about legacy. It was the end of the 30th March of Dimes Sports Luncheon, the brainchild of former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson and some other network heads, and Rivera was making the latest, of not last stop in a post-season tour that has seen him add endorsements and awards to mark the end of his storied career. However this award, the Sportsman of the Year, seemed to be even that much more special, as it honored him not just for his on field accomplishments but for his work with young people, and was helping raise millions for those struggling to get through the first stages of life, and for those parents who are dealing with that type of adversity every day.

“This is helping babies. Babies who come with defects, and they didn’t ask for that. But here comes March of Dimes to help these babies, to help these families,” Rivera said Wednesday at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. “The amount of money we are raising is for a great cause. Me being here is a great honor and a pleasure, because we are giving back. That’s what it is all about — giving back.”

Rivera’s acceptance put the cap on one of the most special days in the sports business community every year; a day where almost 800 people take the time to gather, listen, share stories and donate their support to the March of Dimes, just like they have for 30 years. Maybe the cause doesn’t have the glitz or glamour of some others these days, but this event brings business star power like no other. Now chaired by Sean McManus, President of CBS Sports, the lunch pulls in some of the brightest names in sports and broadcasting to honor, observe and pay tribute on their own dime. From Olympic stars like Mike Eruzione and Tara Hughes to broadcast luminaries like Bob Costas and Michael Kay, one cannot go a few feet in the Waldorf on the day without recognizing a familiar face.

However the stars of the day are really the children and the volunteers of the March of Dimes, who have benefited to the tune of over $10 Million that the lunch has raised, and this year set a record with over $1 Million alone coming in from gifts. The issue of babies struggling, and the challenges everyone share in raising young people to be healthy, was not lost on even the biggest names in attendance. That was made clear during the festivities, when host Ernie Johnson of TNT, himself a cancer survivor, told the story of his adopted son Michael who has muscular dystrophy lives on a ventilator, and when Jon Miller of NBC Sports, the winner of the Corporate Leadership Award, described the harrowing times his family went through when his oldest son was born prematurely. Sportswoman of the year Skylar Diggans, became very emotional in her acceptance speech when she talked of her love for children and how her parents influenced her life as well, and Brett Yormark of the Brooklyn Nets  discussed very passionately the need for MOD work to help eliminate premature infant issues in their team’s new home borough of Brooklyn.

The event itself again served as a respite and a time for brief reflection from the craziness of the sports business world. For a few hours, the senior staffs of the Nets and Red Bulls, the Devils and the Sixers, the Mets and the Yankees, all put aside their worries of wins and losses and ticket sales and headlines and were able to mingle and focus on a greater cause, and what the impact of sport business as a motivator for helping those less fortunate can do.

Now the Sports Luncheon wasn’t the only event during the week that helped focus sports business on philanthropy. Thursday night tennis stars Andy Roddick, James Blake and Jon Isner held a Manhattan fundraising exhibition for memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and this past Tuesday the group Sports For Social Change seized on the platform of “Giving Tuesday” to launch “Give An Assist, ” a call to action for fans to help those in need through Donations, Volunteering, Coaching, Fundraising, Shopping for Socially Responsible Gifts and more. Those are just a few of the selfless acts that “brand sport” continue to take on away from the limelight, acts which can and do impact the lives of millions for the better.

While much of what we view “brand sport” as being is clearly based on the results on the field and in the marketplace, the March of Dimes Sports Lunch, and other events like it, serve as a great reminder to all who work in the space that there remains a bigger picture that sport and sport business should aspire to embrace…using the power of all the brands to better the lives of those who watch, spend and even play the games on some level. Wednesday was a great reminder not just of that responsibility, but of the power and impact that sports business can bring to literally change and transform lives. While Rivera’s trademark was the save, his appearance, and the contributions of the other recipients and those in attendance, will be marked down as wins in the bigger picture, wins not for him or the Bronx Bombers, but for thousands of future fans and their families who will be impacted positively from the event.

Knicks, Nets Brands Lay Seige To Gotham…Can Both Win?

You see the billboards everywhere from the Upper West Side to Secaucus, the hoops battle for Gotham…the Nets brand against the Knicks.  One takes over subway cars with sleek images of its multi-million dollar renovation, the other takes out newspaper ads challenging companies to become their latest corporate partners. One lauds cheerleaders and dancers on “Fox and Friends,” the other lines up celebrities to do a Letterman “Top Ten” list. One pushes its business head, Brett Yormark,  to the forefront with every new initiative; the other has a head of business, Dave Howard, whose name never makes the media.  One owns the broadcast station it plays on, the other is the television stepsister, albeit on the most watched regional cable channel in the nation (YES). On the airwaves, one has the ESPN partnership on a less visited FM-specific station, the other calls the home of NY sports (WFAN) its place of radio residence.  

Welcome to NBA in the New York area, 2013-14 style.

Who will win? It will be interesting to see. On the court both now sell stardom…aging, recognizable stars whose clock is ticking toward a run at greatness.  This is no longer the new kids on the Brooklyn, or the Prudential Center block against the Ivory Tower atop Penn Station. It is recognizable, national faces on both sides of the East River, clamoring for major dollars in marketing and sales. The days of large group outings to fill seats for at least one team are gone, for now. The two franchises have never really been in lock step with on-court success. The rise of Jason Kidd’s Nets outshone the Knicks of Tim Thomas and Stephon Marbury in terms of wins, and then the Carmelo Anthony  and A’mare Stoudemire Knicks took the center stage again as the nets retooled, rebuilt and set their business goals across two rovers into the heart of Brooklyn.  Gimmicky and buzzworthy partners and promotions filled seats in the interim, while MSG continued to pull in large scale partners as it had for almost its entire history. Now, the playing field, at least in terms of buzz, appears to have balanced.

The Nets and the Barclays Center have become a spectacle in a positive way, with full houses and ticket prices that may have already outpriced the average blue collar Brooklyn family they were coveting just a few years ago, but that’s the cost of fame. Lower prices to see the Barclays can go to college hoops, or the Globetrotters or the Atlantic 10 Tournament now. The Knicks and MSG? Once again they are must-watch TV for casual fans, with celebs of a higher level ringing the court every night, while hundred dollar glasses of champagne pour on the new walkways high above the court.  The building didn’t really need a renaissance for its loyal fans, but in an era where even super models may go for a slight nip and tuck, the time for making the palace more palatial was right.

So where to go from here in this “battle?” The Barclays center team won a huge battle to the east with their takeover of Nassau Coliseum and the annexation of the Islanders down the road. That creates new seamless inroads into Long Island and even Queens, longtime stalwarts for the tenants of MSG.  The Knicks can try and reclaim those parts of New Jersey that may have fallen by the wayside in recent years and now are wide open with no NBA team in The Garden State, and a new president in Steve Mills who has called New Jersey home for years. NJ Transit is a lot easier to take into 33rd Street than it is to traverse a second subway ride, and there are corporate dollars left behind in New Jersey that the Knicks high prices could demand.

For all their growth, the Nets will have challenges that they did not in previous years. Their well-oiled PR machine could always find a player or two for the latest community initiative to gain ancillary attention. Now a team of aging stars whose focus is on the court, not the community will make Brooklyn’s all out event blitz less frequent. Then again, winning on the court can still trump winning off the sports page as well. For the Knicks, they will continue to do the obligatory events to keep them connected to their loyal core following, while continuing to grow the casual observer and even the foreign tourist who make MSG, like a trip to Yankee Stadium, a “must see” new York experience at any price. They have also done a solid job of trumpeting new partners into the Garden fold, with companies like SAP  thinking that their ROI on the MSG experience outweighs the lofty price of brand entry above Penn Station.

In the end, an area which had so little in terms of “new” in the arena space now has seven gleaming new facilities on all sides of the Hudson, with the revamped MSG and the still-new Barclays joining the slightly older but always solid Prudential Center for winter time attention. The Nets on court moves have set the sites for less off-court hype, while the Knicks continued star power can more than hold their own, now with an elegant, revamped home to show their well-heeled fans. We are also talking about filling buildings under 20,000 night in and night out, not the massive areas of seats that Citi Field or Yankee Stadium or even Met Life Stadium   or even Red Bull Arena have to offer. This is a basketball-savvy area that loves its pro sports and enjoys the buzz, which is good for the hype machine of both Knicks and Nets. Will one come out on top? The battle will probably ebb and flow, dictated more by the moment than the long term. Who will win? The buildings for one, and all the ancillary businesses around them who have had in some cases to endure strike-shortened NHL and NBA seasons in recent years. The business partners for another, who can probably reap more benefits this year as the competition ramps up than in previous years. The media for another, who should have their fair share of drama on and off the court as the season progresses. And hopefully the fans has well, who for a long time have seen more hype than hope over an elongated period of time, even with all the steep prices bandied about.

Are there losers? Maybe those on many levels who can’t afford the big bucks, but in an era when digital and experiential are growing, the actual event attendance is less and less a must and more and more a maybe.  Regardless, it should be an interesting winter of hoops, as not one, but two basketball brands wage war to see who can be the kings of the area.

If nothing else, it will make for great drama, and that drama is what drives the business of sport in the area.

Good Ideas: Mets, Nets and Butts

Yet another good ideas roundup as summer comes to a close…

Brooklyn Goes For A Marketing Encore: The glare of the bright lights for a first successful season at the Barclays Center had not dimmed before the Brooklyn Nets started making noise for their second season…naming a new coach/old star and revamping their lineup to steal the summer away from their crosstown rivals. Along the way the organization even embraced hockey even more, accelerating their work with the Islanders and even taking management control of the re-development of their old building, the Nassau Coliseum. The tent poles in Brooklyn and Long Island give both teams a marketing leg up that extends across the valuable territory of Long Island, and with some success can even tweak into Manhattan.

They added a Russian star in Andrei Kirilenko, made the choice to broadcast in a mosaic of languages that reflect their borough, Spanish, Russian and English, and will market aggressive to all communities. They even chose to retire their new coaches number…Jason Kidd…on a PRESEASON night albeit against the Miami Heat…to bring even a little more early season buzz to the brand.  While the Islanders tried to take a page from the Nets buzz by adding things like a tattoo sponsor in their final seasons at Nassau, the Nets will attempt to market the two brands, and hockey fans and hoops fans usually don’t cross over well…as one lifestyle brand with the same partners.

While there may be some risk, for brands on the come like the Isles and Nets, there can also be great reward for economies of scale with teams that have distressed space to grow. It’s not something that can work well with mature brands…say the Knicks and Rangers who have their own categories to fill without support of the other team…but Nets and Isles makes sense as long as they are pulling from the same direction. Sometimes the encore can be even better than the opening act, and that’s what is hoped for in Brooklyn.

Wipe and Win: The guys at Dollar Shave Club have done it again…a fun way to engage a key audience with an effective spend, a charity component and a good message. They announced this week they have employed several of the most under marketed and larger than life athletes on the planet…NFL centers…in a campaign for a line of well…butt wipes.

One Wipe Charlies are flushable wet toilet-paper products launched in the spring and they have enlisted four NFL centers — Travis Frederick of the Dallas Cowboys; John Sullivan of the Minnesota Vikings; Eric Wood of the Buffalo Bills; and Nick Hardwick of the San Diego Chargers -- to appear in the male-targeted brand’s “Clean Snap” campaign.  The centers are largely from small markets not likely to draw big dollars or even large media attention on a weekly basis, except of course for Frederick of the Cowboys, in front of Tony Romo every Sunday. None have a big social media following either, and for the most part they are pretty name and faceless, but they are marketable as a group to a male audience, and a program like this will help probably raise the profile and put some dollars in their pockets.

Now all the details have yet to be laid out,  but the charity tie…every time the company sees a tweet reading #cleansnap, it will donate $1 to the charity of the four centers’ choice…is not a bad one. Can the centers enlist their high trafficked teammates to chip in with a mention or two…can some celebrity fans join the process and can some viral videos also help poke fun at the campaign for a brand that is not an NFL licensee…all to be seen.

Dollar Shave has built a strong brand out of the viral and the fringe, and this move is a little more bold but certainly lean and mean. Will it lead to some higher profile endorsers down the line? For mow it’s more brand building than product selling, but it certainly was a creative way to engage pro athletes who are under marketed and create a niche that draws the eyes.

Mets Grab Jerry For A Last bit Of Attention: Summer doesn’t end til Saturday night, but the Mets summer ended long ago. So for the team to find a way to bring positive and fun attention to themselves as the season winds down is a great salve for all wounds from the long season.

Tuesday night the team brought longtime fan Jerry Seinfeld into the booth to call the game alongside SNY regulars and Seinfeld fans Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. Seinfeld filled a similar role in 2010, and can certainly help carry a broadcast. To bring him back for a late September Mets-Giants telecast while the casual fan in New York has turned his eyes to football will get the team national exposure and probably provide lots of content for a long winter in the digital space. The series may be gone, but Seinfeld’s popularity and his talent live on, and that combo gives New York at least a triple for effort on a night when most people would be tuning elsewhere. It’s not overuse or overkill of a relationship, but a good strategic placement to go into the winter. Nice job by all around.

Nets Brand Now Bigger Than The Borough

Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey said that “Luck is the residue of design.” “The Mahatma “would be proud of his borough’s current tenants in professional sports then. Now there is no way, even in his wildest dreams that Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark could have foreseen a billionaire Russian owner, the failure of an NHL team to achieve a deal in the region for a new arena, or even a future Hall of fame coach and several hall of Fame players all converging within a relatively short time to make the centerpieces of his business, the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, the talk of professional sports in recent weeks.

However what Yormark and his team could have foreseen was setting up a brand that was capable of capitalizing on success should that success come along, and that’s what has happened not just for the Nets, but for Brooklyn Sport and Entertainment as a brand. The days of packaging promotions around Green initiatives, free tax return nights, and jerseys of visiting players in an outdated arena in the Meadowlands may seem like a century away for some, but those were the seeds that helped lead the brand to its success today. Hokey promotions and a thirst to keep the team relevant in any possible way despite the turmoil or inconsistency on the court made the Nets brand one to be noticed, if not valued by many. The team continued to position itself as the Barclays Center became a reality and Mikhail Prokhorov ceded the team from Forest City Ratner. That constant buzz of new ideas even made the team more relevant as it went from the Prudential Center in its transition year, wrapping up a star crossed history respectfully in New Jersey, while all the while looking ahead to Brooklyn.

By almost all accounts the first Brooklyn year was a success. Awards for innovation, a return to a borough for professional sports (although the very successful minor league Cyclones are there and remain a great draw), lots of “firsts” from college basketball to boxing, all became the mantra of year one. It was all Brooklyn all the time, and even the team performed well enough to be a draw along, with its new arena.

So now Brooklyn is set, the launch year is complete, and what’s next is now on the horizon. That horizon, through both luck and design, now includes an NHL tenant as well as possibly an additional venue to manage and sculpt should Forest City Ratner beat out Madison Square Garden for the rights to develop what is now the Nassau Coliseum. The Nets brand and its buzz and business acumen now extends to Charles Wang’s Islanders, perhaps one of the best on-ice resurrections in the NHL, and now perhaps one of the better business stories in sports which we will now hear about every day, if the Nets spin doctors have their way of building brands come true. Year two also sees a Nets team, with an owners deep pockets, be a team of stars, ones which casual fans won’t need any introduction to. From new coach Jason Kidd to the coming veterans from Boston to newest signee Andrei Kirilenko (who will help fill some additional seats from the heavy Russian area of Brighton Beach), there will be more buzz and brand interest associated with the on-court performance of the Nets than there has been in years. All of that is good business for the brand, the arena and the borough.

But what about beyond Brooklyn? There is where the real value lies, and that’s where the business can now expand its reach. The exciting team and its state of the art arena now extends several hundred miles east into Long Island and through Queens, drawing casual hoops fans and now hockey fans as well. The star power of the Nets team can pull fans probably from Manhattan and even from New Jersey now,  something which in year two of a launch may have been harder to do. Does it mean the mega brands of MSG and the Knicks should be shaking in their Nikes? No, there is a large enough market for hoops anyway to go around. But for ancillary brand building and getting casual dollars, the Nets brand extension, especially if they win the bid  for the Long Island arena projects, could continue to become that much more powerful in the TV world, in the digital world, in the sales world and in the event world. Brooklyn as a borough has a power all to its own, now its home standing sports brand has ratcheted up its limelight as well. Of course there remain many “ifs,” the team has to play well and win, the arena has to continue to manage costs and make it affordable, the Islanders transition has to be smooth and successful and the economy needs to stay strong. If all those go well, the brand is positioned better than it ever has been before.

So yes, many of the events that have put the Nets brand in the position today could not have been predicted. What could have been predicted is that the team and brand leadership was going to be relentless in taking advantage and telling the world about every move, and when the sun came out and opportunity arose, they could literally cash in.  They are moves that Mr. Rickey would have liked, and if he were alive today, would certainly support as the Nets become bigger than the borough.

Winning The Marathon, Scoring In Brooklyn

As we head toward Election Day, few quick items from the weekend.

The Nets Build A Public Trust: Make no mistake about it, the Brooklyn Nets are a business. They are there to sell tickets and sponsorships first and foremost and make the Barclays Center a winner on the ledger sheet. They are not a charity. However the steps the team has taken to become as big a part of the community and to be innovators has been impressive. Their delayed opening night brought back a host of famous Brooklyn faces, like former Dodgers, which will help them get credibility and buzz with a community that may not love hoops, but loves their borough.  yes they had Jay-Z and Beyonce, but to fill the seats on Tuesday nights in February the team needs to be a gathering place for the community, a sense of civic pride. They need to do all the little things that will give people with limited discretionary dollars  reason to spend them on basketball when they may not yet love the team. Those little things included a well detailed email on Friday with every possible travel option  to the arena for Saturday nights game, and a detailed description of all the goings on. Contrast that with the Knicks, who opened Friday, and sent out a reminder that the game was being played. Not much detail on subway lines, buses or other facts, just a reminder…we are opening, we are sold out come follow us. That works for the Knicks, an established brand sitting atop Penn Station. It won’t work for the Nets yet.

Another great example of innovative thinking unveiled Saturday was their own Brooklyn Super Hero, “The Brooklyn Knight.” The launch came complete with a Marvel  partnership and design and a comic book to go along with the costumed character. A great brand extension for the team in a borough which loves education. The Knight can help again extend a brand into the community with a product, and a series of products, the Knicks do not have. It wasn’t hoaky, it was smart, and is the latest way the Nets are really trying to make themselves a commodity Brooklyn can be proud of vs. a team that plays there.

Not every night will have Jay Z and Beyonce sitting courtside, but cultivating a diverse list of faces from all walks of life with ties to the borough are great. Again if the team doesn’t win some of this may be for naught, but by doing all the little things, the team is finding ways to make sure that when the quiet days come, they are still in the conversation.

Don’t Shoot The Runners: While there was a ton of controversy around the ING New York City Marathon which is going to continue on for some time, the bottom line and the long-lasting positive that could come out of the race is all the volunteering and dollars that have been raised not just for Hurricane Sandy but for thousands of other charities. At this point a debate over a “damage” brand or leadership is moot. What is important is that thousands who were to run took to the streets on Sunday to do community service and aid the victims of the hurricane, and millions have been donated by the Road Runners, sponsors and the Rudin family for the cause. For the next month it does not matter how the decision was reached, what matters most is that the dollars that were raised and will continue to be raised go to places that need the help, and that those who WERE giving to hundreds of charities follow through eventhough the runners supporting causes could not complete the race. The history of the Marathon, and its future are very valuable to the City and to those who participate and it should not be lost on the issues that arose this week. Hopefully at the end of the day the real winners are the people who spoke out and the millions helped by the donations and support, many of whom could or would never run the race. That is what Fred Lebow started and that is what has made the race so amazing over the years. It has never been about the man and woman who finished first and it should never be about a CEO or a board, it has been about the human spirit.

 

The Battle For Gotham…NBA Style

There have been times in the past 20 years where the Nets brand has made attempts to solidly establish itself in the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of Madison Avenue. Jon Spoelstra trying to change the name of the team to The Swamp Dragons, the time when the team made their runs to the NBA Finals with mega-talent like Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, the coaching genius of Larry Brown and the late Chuck Daly, all made the Nets more of an interest and a curiosity to casual fans than a real threat to the brand of the Knicks and their seat atop Penn Station in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” The Knicks are a New York institution, the Nets are a basketball team.

In the last few years ownership change, two moves, first to Newark and now to Brooklyn, have given the Nets more substance to their bluster than before. Gradually the team would add sponsors never seen before in an NBA circle, try new “influencer” ideas, boast of “record” increases in attendance and sponsorship without really ever getting into the numbers to see what the “records” actually were. However they  did get attention. The Knicks? The continue to operate as an established brand. Never doing a constant barrage of news but ann ouncing large scale partnerships as their renovated home evolved over quiet summers, finding a more international fan base who would come to MSG at very high prices like they would go to a Broadway play, and bringing in bold face names both on and around the court to keep the franchise in the lexicon of popular culture that matches what even casual fans deems to be  interesting. Interesting like watching a train wreck or a reality TV show sometimes? Yes. But interesting enough to keep people engaged.

So while the Knicks fire back with a salvo of news every once in a while, the Nets continue to go all out in screaming about the Barclays Center, its innovative lights, its first ever in Brooklyn events, to anyone who will listen. Only now the difference is that the screaming is being heard by a more national audience, almost as if the franchise is an expansion team. Deron Williams is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Nets gear is a hot seller, the arena is state-of-the-art, and most importantly, their long-awaited new home opens at a time where Brooklyn has become the destination of more high net worth thirtysomethings who can pay premium prices than ever before.  The new arena also has had the benefit, one of the few, of being able to book a large number of events this fall while MSG (and The Prudential Center in Newark and Nassau Coliseum) continue to sit largely idle because of committed and unused dates due to the NHL Lockout. While that doesn’t directly effect the battle for hoops fans, it does give Brooklyn a boost in added interest, which ultimately leads to exposure for the Nets brand. More people in, more thoughts about Nets basketball.

Now none of this means the Knicks are hurting with exposure in the public eye. Their team may be older, but they have established names. Their building may not be new, but it is renovated and state of the art. They may not have an aggressive new owner but they have one with deep pockets. they may not have to boast of new fans but they have thousands lined up to purchase tickets , and have a large corporate base within minutes to draw from. They may not have new subway lines with sparkling stations, but they  sit atop one of the busiest transportation hubs in the world, which means MSG is an easy stop for high net worth commuters on their way home, or even for those coming from the north or south who are making Manhattan a destination.Whether you love or loathe the Knicks, they are still prime water cooler talk.

Sports fandom is also tribal, and those tribal loyalties just don’t turn overnight. The Nets have been courting the urban fans for several years, and can now play in front of them. However that casual courting is much different from a marriage. Sure people will come by for a visit, but will they come back again after they sample the new digs? Or will they go back to old habits in a part of New York (Manhattan) where they spend more of their waking hours? Yes the Nets will again be more affordable, but will affordable mean profitable,, or do you need mega-prices to make it in a very tough business environment? yes the Nets by default will have more people who can go to games in the urban environment that is Brooklyn…younger, hipper and more vibrant than Newark or the Meadowlands. But will those people keep coming back? Yes the Nets have brought in new sponsors looking to engage in a new building, but will all those sponsors be able to lure very busy clients away from Manhattan and into Brooklyn? They still have to cross a river, not a street.

These perceived battles have happened in other cities. The Clippers have risen up to try and challenge the Lakers in the eyes of the local fan, and the result appears to be a market which can love both at least for the short term. New York has its own caste system with Jets/Giants and Mets/Yankees, each appealing to a certain core fan. There are Cubs/White Sox loyalties that rarely change. The biggest difference here is that both the Knicks and the Nets are trying to appeal to a more elite audience with deeper pockets than probably ever before. Both like the casual fan, both both need big bucks to make this work.

Then there is also the ultimate litmus test, what happens on the court. The Knicks are older, and established at least with name players. The Nets are younger and looking to challenge with new names (which is not different from other times the team has tried to grab fans). So in order to fill the void of distressed tickets each night, the team needs to win.  The Knicks larger base means they have less tickets to sell, at least for the short term. The Nets, a smaller base which leads to larger expanses of open seats. That eats into the bottom line.

In the short term, it appears the market can bear out both efforts. Opening night will see “sellout” for both. Over time, can the Nets plan push them into new fans who will change loyalties or bring in fans who never really followed basketball? That new immigrant, one raised on soccer and cricket and rugby vs. baseball, is in full force throughout Brooklyn. He and she is prime to be converted and join their more local team from time to time. But that will not happen overnight.  the Nets have always been about the quick headline, the Knicks the slow and steady build with the brightest of lights on their side, win or lose. Which strategy, or maybe both, will ultimately win out is worth watching. It will make for interesting times for both fans and brands, as a full NBA season tips off in a few weeks.

Nets Have The Sizzle, Will The Steak Follow?

Last week the Brooklyn Nets started their countdown clock to the long-discussed opening of Americas newest showplace, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Not a day goes by without another announcement of a concert, high school hoops extravaganza, new billboard going up, community visit, concert or “innovation” as the organization continues to scream “Look at Me” to anyone who will listen or not.

The team has re-made itself on the court under GM Billy King, re-signing Deron Williams and adding Joe Johnson while adding a host of other new faces to go along with the new look and their new arena. Every week there is a new boast of a sponsor or a ticket milestone, along with more than a few rumblings of other major attractions like an NHL game or the Women’s Final Four in the offing soon or down the line. Promote, promote, promote and never miss a moment to remind someone that a new building will be coming into vogue in at least part of the world’s largest media market, in its most populous borough.

There is probably no organization on the planet which has tried as hard to find ways to place itself in the media than the Nets and the Barclays Center in the past 18 months. From the added exposure coming from Kris Humphries’ ill-fated and short lived Karadashian experience, to the constant push of brand partners and the man who is pulling the pieces together from a sales side (Bret Yormark), everyone has at least a casual knowledge of where the Nets will be.  Every day there is a reason to at least be intrigues by the goings-on in Brooklyn, whether you like NBA basketball or not.

Now of course all of this is not going on in a vacuum. Just across the river Madison Square Garden is undergoing their second summer of renovation, occasionally parachuting in with updates for the media on what a renovated MSG will look like like. Following their Olympic performance, stars like Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler have made their way back to Gotham to grab their own headlines with teammate Amar’e Stoudamire taking in the US Open or attending Fashion Week, and if the NHL does start on time, the Rangers have made themselves more media friendly with their marketing of Henrik Lundquist and company. There is also the Nets recent home, the Prudential Center, which still remains the most accessible arena in the area thus far, with a team (the Devils) that has done a great job of engaging in the social space.  So the Nets and the Barclays Center have take the aggressive approach to position themselves and their partners as the “must see” venue of the fall, each and every day in the marketplace.

Now will it work?  First of all the market is big enough to adequately support the venues full time. The amount of shows and events coming through such a wide media market with amazing public transportation hubs can keep the event calendar flowing. The rebirth of New York as a tourist destination has also helped fill the distressed inventory of MSG in recent years, and that draw to a borough not far away should also help the Barclays. Will the team play well enough to have fans show up night in and night out for games against subpar opponents?  Will the arena be a technological innovation along the lines of Kansas City’s Livestrong Park, which has emerged as the most tech-savvy of all new facilities to date? Will die-hard Knicks fans who have to traverse Penn Station on their daily commutes be drawn consistently to an aggressive  vibe in Brooklyn? What happens when the sizzle comes off the new arena in a years time? Old habits are tough to break, and that’s when the real selling will come in…on the rainy days when there are few “firsts” left in the Nets bag of tricks. As much as the Jets have sold hype, the bottom line is their Stadium co-tenants, the Giants, have found smart and innovative ways to engage their fans AND win, which in a market like New York, is what you need.

There is no doubt the Nets and their PR and Marketing teams have created sizzle. Now they have to serve the steak as well. Great first step, one worth watching for what the next one will be.

Rockets Should Take A Page From Brooklyn…

There is no team that pushes its brand…shamelessly, unabashedly, to those interested and disinterested…as the former New Jersey  now Brooklyn Nets. Nary a day goes by where some player, staffer, partner is not out doing something in the community, or the team is touting its latest innovations. New players in town? Go to the Yankees for a night of brand building. 95 degrees on a summer Friday? Hold a block party. Jay Z not coming, make people think he is. Every time the cash register ticks with a jersey sale or a new season sub, tell the world. Maybe sometimes its white noise, or in the case of the teams new “colors” (eventhough white and black are the lack of color not colors themselves) black and white noise in the hopes that someone will hear it. As the late Ted Williams said, if you keep swinging eventually you will hit something.

So now we have Jeremy Lin in Houston, a brand and an athlete cultivated not in the hinterlands and going to Broadway’s bright lights, but one nurtured in Gotham and now heading away to a team that needs to fill seats now and compete for global brand dollars again, as they did in their short and sweet run with Yao Ming. What to do? Take a page from the Nets. Go wall to wall with Lin as leverage not just for himself but for all those around him who can use the boost to boost the brand.

Whether the guard from Harvard can be healthy and play a full slate at a high level is now irrelevant to those selling the Rockets. As a matter of fact, what’s only relevant is he is theirs and he won’t suit up til October. So the selling season is now til then, because after that, who knows? For the team it’s also not just about Jeremy Lin…it is a chance to re-expose their diverse and savvy GM Daryl Morey and it is a chance to have Lin help put his teammates on a higher platform. How? By association with the man in the limelight. Jeremy Lin has the media leverage in one of the world’s greatest team sports, so pulling his mates in with him, mentioning, highlighting, posing with them, lifts the team and the brand. It also promotes a heck of a lot good will for a guy who whispers have said (probably wrongly) the guy has gotten a big head. Yes pushing the Rockets is about their new savior, but using that savior to push through all the teams initiatives…constantly and loudly to a global audience…has never had more of a chance. Cause marketing? Jeremy and the kids of Houston…with a teammate. New sponsor…yes J Lin but also another guy, pick one. He is a point guard, he makes the team better, by rule. Now he has the leverage to make his guys better as brands as well, all by association.

So don’t be quiet Rockets, use the window to grab the sales and promote your guys. Follow the Nets rule, don’t be shy and scream loudly…some obvious folks will hear you, but probably some unexpected ones will too. That’s the best way to grow the team brand. 

The Nets Have (Almost) Left The Building

In just over 10 days, professional basketball, at least the NBA version, will officially leave the state of New Jersey, when the Nets host the Philadelphia 76ers in what will be their final game during a two season transition period from the IZOD Center to their new home two rivers away at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. From Teaneck to Piscataway to East Rutherford to Newark, New Jersey’s star-crossed NBA franchise has seen a host of memorable, and like any organization, some forgettable nights. While the protests of the announced move have long been drowned out by the endless positive beat on the move to Brooklyn by the organization, the move will leave New Jersey with a bit of a gap in the professional sports landscape for the first time in almost 30 years. The question will be, is the Nets brand better or stronger in Brooklyn than it has been in New Jersey? And can or will the Knicks or even the 76ers, look to capture at least a portion of the small but solid fan based that may feel disenfranchised by the Nets long anticipated move?

As far as brand strength, the Nets under the current ownership and leadership have never been louder and more active. Nary a day goes by where the team is not trumpeting some appearance, partnership or activity, both in Newark and in Brooklyn. It is a constant beat to keep the franchise relevant while their rock solid competitors in Madison Square Garden rise and fall through Linsanity, coaching changes and the other drama surrounding “The World’s Most famous Arena.” The Nets have long preached promotion and family entertainment, and tried hard to keep their Jersey ties as strong as possible as their vision was drawn more and more to the gleaming new Barclay’s Center and it’s September opening. This season’s promise of a strong finish at The Pru was dashed in an injury-riddled season, as fans focused more on players to be (including one from Orlando) more than the ones here many nights. Still the Nets sold the experience, and did they best they could in a lame duck building to paint a smile for the fans who stayed loyal, the hopes of maybe even luring some to their new digs. While many franchises could have emotionally walked long ago, the Nets kept trying and trying to reward, even though departure was imminent.

Will Brooklyn be better for the team? There is an old saying in sport, “You either sell hype or hope,” and the Nets have done a good job of trying to sell both during their latest non-playoff run. The move to The Prudential Center from IZOD did bring some hope and a certain newness to the franchise, but the move to Brooklyn certainly symbolizes a fresh start. New arena, new professional sports in the largest borough of the City of New York, Long Islands millions not far away, a great new transit hub in the offing, and maybe with some strong moves general manager Billy King can help right the recent wrongs of administrations past. We all like new, and no one would like a fresh new start more than the Nets. Better? Maybe. Different and fresh? For sure. A new challenge to the established and hard charging Knicks for fans and dollars? Maybe, but then again, given the size of the market, the challenge may be different, but certainly not new.

So what about the building, which recently has been the subject of more than a little bad blood between the primary tenants and Mayor Corey Booker. Will the area suffer a blow without the Nets? Given the versatility of the building and the quality of shows that have been brought in and could be expanded, probably not. There are always concerts and other events that can probably use the dates, and those events, along with the Devils and Seton Hall, will keep the building moving and thriving without the current NBA tenant. Is it better to have the Nets than not? Yes. Is it a death sentence when the team vacates? Not at all.

By the way hoops will not be leaving Brick City at all, between the return of the WNBA Liberty, the NBA Draft in June, the Hall and other events, the hardwood will continue to get used at The Rock, just not as often as in the past two years. In the end, the Nets have had a nostalgic, if not always successful run, in New Jersey. The leave the state with a more vibrant brand than when they came from Long Island, and return to that same piece of real estate that juts into the Atlantic (albeit a little closer to the mainland U.S.) with lots of lessons learned and memories created and promotions spun. It may not have always been the “Perfect Together” slogan that former Governor Tom Kean always used for his State, but it was a good fit and when that did grow over time.

Those lessons learned from a business perspective will serve the team and their fans well in their new digs, and hopefully will even pull some fans with their memories to check out the new place, in their old state. Every brand needs a dusting off from time to time, and the Nets brand will now get one, courtesy of their time spent in New Jersey.