Can “Black Fives” Score As A Great Marketing/History Platform?

There has been a big push in recent years for professional sports in the United States to return to their roots and honor those who came first. MLB has done a tremendous job in and around all things Jackie Robinson and has worked to raise the profile of the Negro Leagues; the NFL recently helped honor their trailblazers with the film “Forgotten Four.” But what about basketball? While there are constant efforts by the NBA to look back at those who told the early stories of integration with the league, some feel the NBA has not fully embraced this history of players of color in the early stages of the sport.
One of those people pushing for more recognition is Claude Johnson, President and Executive Director of Black Fives. Johnson has worked tirelessly over the years to tell the story of some of the original, and most colorful (no pun intended) athletes in the early stages of when hoops became popular. (Claude’s bio follows the q and a)
We caught up with Claude to talk about those characters, his plans, and if the NBA can mix those great retro uniforms of clubs gone by into their marketing plans soon.
How did Black Fives come about as a property and what have you seen as your biggest success?
Our mission is to showcase and teach the pre-NBA history of African Americans in basketball, a period known as the Black Fives Era, as well as to honor those pioneers and their accomplishments. What started as a hobby that into a commercial business, Black Fives, Inc., which at first developed trademarks, then produced wholesale apparel including throwback jerseys, and finally sought licensing revenue from intellectual property and content. All the while, I spent a huge amount of time researching, documenting, and sharing this history with schools, descendants, and a growing number of online followers. This “side” activity is what I enjoyed the most, it was the most rewarding, and I felt it was making the biggest difference to others.
So in early 2013, I organized a public not-for-profit charity, the Black Fives Foundation to replace the old company, which I dissolved, and then donated all of its assets to the new foundation, including its entire portfolio of IP and its archive of historical artifacts. We got our tax exempt 501-c-3 status in August 2014, so we’re still fresh. Now there’s a better alignment between our org structure, our efforts, and our passion. I didn’t mind selling tee shirts, but dedication to a cause definitely resonates better with me.

For example, we believe we’re making the subject of history more interesting to certain students, which in its own small way helps close our country’s persistent academic achievement gap. We also include content and messaging that’s relevant today, in areas like leadership, teamwork, inclusion, business, problem solving, and finding common ground. Our slogan is “Make History Now.”

When reaching out to people to tell the story of the teams, what do you find most surprising that people don’t know?

People are probably most surprised to learn that dozens of African American basketball teams were playing well over 100 years ago. Those same people wonder– and some are even upset about it–why it’s taken so long for this history to “come out” … and conversely, why it was “kept hidden” for so long. All-black teams were playing all-white teams before 1910. The ball had laces. The basket was closed at the bottom. African American barnstorming teams had lucrative operations even during the Great Depression. There were 10 world championships in professional basketball before the NBA even began, with two all-black teams–the New York Rens and the Washington Bears–winning the first two titles. That’s just the beginning.

MLB and the NFL have done a great job of embracing their long-ago history. How do you feel the NBA has done in that regard?

The NBA has not done much if anything with this history. Yet. When the Barclays Center celebrated its opening by permanently installing a compilation of six mural-sized vintage Brooklyn-related African American basketball images that we provided to them, when the Mayor’s Office declared February 10, 2013, as “Black Fives Day” for the City of New York with a special proclamation, and when this year the New-York Historical Society borrowed over 200 artifacts from our historical archive to stage the first-ever Black Fives museum exhibition in their Civil Rights Gallery, with the tremendous media coverage that these milestones received, it truly made this history come to life. The NBA and its licensees now have a great opportunity to capitalize on this new virtually untapped vintage sports genre. I hope they consider it. The timing seems to be right.

Has there been any talk of the teams being recognized with throwback jerseys during NBA games?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told me that he went to see the Black Fives exhibit at New-York Historical and that it was terrific, which was profound considering this was right after the Donald Sterling drama. I expressed to Adam how great it would be if the Knicks wore Rens jerseys one day, to commemorate this history, and for other NBA teams to follow suit with the jerseys of Black Fives Era teams that overlapped in their cities. He said that that was a wonderful idea. Of course the Knicks would have to agree. And so would Adidas, which makes the official NBA uniforms. We see this starting off as perhaps a small, organic initiative that focuses on students, educational achievement, and community building in local NBA markets.

One of the most unique partnerships could be between the New York Rens and the Knicks or the Nets, especially with the Renaissance Ballroom now slated for destruction. Have either team embraced the idea recently?

We previously had reached out to Knicks and Adidas execs, as well as to the Brooklyn Nets, but that was prior to the foundation and these new developments. What is so interesting in life is that sometimes everything could be right about a situation, but the timing so wrong. Or vice versa. When it all comes together, that’s a beautiful thing. We’ve since reached out again, because we feel these ideas are at least worth a discussion to explore the what-ifs, to see if the timing is right, and to consider possible next steps.

What organizations or brands have been most supportive of your work?

In 2006, we had a solid but very short-lived licensing partnership with Nike and Converse. That’s how they roll and we were happy to partner with them. More recently, Barclays Center has been tremendously supportive with their murals and coverage. The New-York Historical Society with their unprecedented exhibition of our artifacts, for which I was invited be their guest curator. Now the Brooklyn Nets have asked us to develop an educational program for them, which will take a graphic panel version of our museum exhibition into some of their local schools, along with a short film, actual artifacts for show & tell, and a presentation followed by discussion. Another development, so recent it’s not yet formally announced, is that we have joined into a long term licensing partnership with the popular youth-oriented lifestyle apparel company ’47 Brand, f.k.a. Twins. They are an existing NBA licensee, which indirectly brings us closer to the league, and their first collections of team-identified merchandise will drop at retail in May 2015. Although there is so much room to expand in this landscape, our DNA as a brand right now is to proceed always in an organic, authentic way.

Hollywood has embraced the stories of pioneers like Jackie Robinson, have there been any plans to tell the stories of the teams and their personalities?

None yet, partly because our bandwidth is so full. But as you can imagine there are vast numbers of stories from which to choose … a quick look at the array of articles in our blog will illustrate that.

What is the next big step your forsee for Black Fives as a business/foundation?

We see the Brooklyn Nets educational program as pilot that might expand into more Brooklyn schools next year as well as potentially to schools in other NBA cities. Adding an academic curriculum would be logical, and would give a generous underwriting corporate sponsor some very meaningful community visibility.

Another big project for us is that we are planning to launch a community-based campaign in Pittsburgh seeking to enshrine local native Cumberland Posey, Jr. in the Basketball Hall of Fame. During the 1910s he was one of the greatest basketball players of his time, black or white, and he later owned the Homestead Grays baseball team, perennial Negro National League champions, earning him a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. We believe he would be the first individual enshrined in both Cooperstown and Springfield. Depending on how it goes, we hope to apply that same grass roots model to other Black Fives Era pioneers who are deserving candidates for enshrinement.

We just got our official tax exemption in August 2014, so we will be applying to grant-making institutions for funding for the first time, which if successful will allow us to add much-needed basic staffing, such as more interns, an administrative assistant, and a development resource.

Finally, next week we will be launching our first-ever annual fundraising campaign! Anyone wishing to contribute could visit

Claude Johnson, an author and a historian, is President & Executive Director of the Black Fives Foundation, a public 501(c)3 charity whose mission is to use the pre-1950 history of African-American basketball to engage, teach, and inspire youth, while honoring its pioneers and their descendants.

Claude enjoyed a 20-year corporate career with best-in-class brands including IBM, American Express, NBA Properties, Nike, Phat Farm, and Benetton Sportsystem, gaining extensive experience in sports marketing, sports licensing, and apparel merchandising, before launching Black Fives, Inc., the commercial predecessor to the Foundation.

He is the author of “Black Fives: The Alpha Physical Culture Club,” the history of a pioneering early 20th century all-black basketball team, and is working on his second book. Editorial coverage of Claude and the Black Fives Foundation includes The New York Times, AP News, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, Jay Z’s Life+Times, The Root, The New York Daily News, New York Newsday, Sports Illustrated, Sports Illustrated for Kids, ESPN, and in many others. A former regular columnist with the Greenwich (CT) Post, he also has been published in SLAM Magazine, Bounce Magazine, and on

Claude was born in Vienna, Austria. His father is African American, from the South Side of Chicago, and his mother was German, from the Römerstadt section of Frankfurt am Main. He lived in the Republic of the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) before moving to the USA with his parents at age six, attending public schools outside Boston and then in Cincinnati. Claude has a BS in Civil Engineering and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, and an MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University.

He is a former trustee of the Greenwich Public Library, a former candidate for the Connecticut State House of Representatives, a hobby photographer, and a volunteer youth football coach.

Claude lives with his wife and their three boys in Greenwich, Connecticut.

D-League Grows At Tip Off…

Next week the NBA season will tip off, with LeBron’s return to Cleveland, Phil Jackson reshaping New York, Miami revamping itself, Kobe coming back to action in LA and the Spurs looking to defend. However shortly after the NBA gets rolling, the NBA D-League will kick off its season, with perhaps the best strategic positioning the league has ever had.
D-League as a viable business platform? A few years ago the thought of a D-League franchise sent marketers and owners running for cover. The League was a business loss leader, with no real hope of marketing or business success. However under then-commissioner Dan Reed, and with a new approach and additional time investment by clubs, the D-League changed and has transformed more into what was the original vision of then-Commissioner David Stern; to be a great testing and proving ground both national for basketball and locally for clubs. A growing number of teams now have used their own partially or wholly owned D-League clubs not just to develop and mold their on-court talent, but to grow their sports business and media groups as well, and along the way have increased their fan development side like baseball, and in some ways hockey have done for years. Teams like the Golden State Warriors have a D-League club in Santa Cruz that has the look and feel of their parent club, while at the same time bringing in several million dollars in sponsorship and promotional dollars. The Sixers have their team in nearby Wilmington, using those assets for fan development in an area where the assets of the parent club could not always focus. The Detroit Pistons are making a bigger effort to market to a wider audience through their new affiliation with the Grand Rapids Drive, once a hotbed of minor league hoops. The Knicks will use their new White Plains-based team to test new marketing initiatives and bring a little more of their team-branded feel back to the county where so many fans reside but may not make it into the City for games all the time, in an area not far from their practice facility in Greenburgh. All of the parent teams can use these D-League clubs as a way to hone new programs with brands that may not be able to engage with the lofty dollars associated with an NBA partnership but still crave an association with pro hoops.
For the NBA itself, the D-League becomes a great test market for new rules, coaching changes and even sponsorship with things like branded patches on uniforms and ways to engage in wearable tech devices, all of which can be tried out in real time in solid markets without infringing on the sanctity of the NBA. It also makes more sense for the teams themselves to have more control of D-League franchises from a personnel standpoint, using their D-League to craft and mold players not yet ready while keeping them close to home to watch that development in person. The Lakers D-League team for example, plays and practices in their practice facility, a model which Phil Jackson will have with his club now in New York (although their games will be not that far away at the Westchester County Center).
So what does this mean for other markets, even a state like New Jersey? With Philly and the Knicks having much closer relationships, the once-New Jersey and now Brooklyn Nets have aligned themselves with a team in Springfield, Mass for now. Wouldn’t it make sense, given the affluent and basketball-crazed environment in The Garden State, to pursue a relationship closer by to develop and rekindle some marketing and brand affiliation in New Jersey? While the Prudential and Izod Centers are too big for a D-League budget, college arenas like the one at Monmouth University on the affluent and commuter-friendly Jersey Shore could make sense, along with a place like Jersey City, which has the Yanitelli Center at St. Peter’s College not that far from the Barclays Center. The Nets organization also has an ongoing relationship with Nassau Coliseum which will now be targeted for redevelopment, but their focus for Long Island is to rope fans into Brooklyn more. New Jersey as a state has found become very fertile ground during the summer months for minor league baseball, with clubs like the Lakewood Blue Claws doing very well as businesses. The winter months, not so great these days, with no minor league hockey anywhere in the State today. So why not the D-League? It has become a burgeoning business, and the state has the facilities and the fan base, not to mention the local businesses who love to engage in sport.
It is an interesting proposition to look at as fans try and find affordable spends for their discretionary dollars across a long winter.

A Hall Of An Opportunity In Springfield

If you are fan of inductions, then late July and August is your time. Two weeks ago the Baseball Hall of Fame had one of their biggest weekends ever with massive attendance and media exposure. Last weekend the Pro Football Hall of Fame served as the unofficial kickoff of the NFL season with their Hall of Fame weekend, and in just a few weeks the College Football Hall of Fame will open its doors in Atlanta for the first time. While all these Halls celebrate great largely American sports heroes, this weekend the one Hall in North America that is truly global will do its induction, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

The 2014 class is no less notable than those going in baseball or football the past few weeks; it  includes David Stern, and former players Alonzo Mourning,  Sarunas Marciulonis and Mitch Richmond, along with NCAA championship-winning coaches Nolan Richardson and Gary Williams and the pioneering women’s  team from Immaculata University. A great mix of stars from almost every corner of the U.S. and around the world. The Hall is located in Springfield, hard by one of the busiest corridors in the U.S. and not that far from Boston or New York. Yet for its location and its global designation, the Hoop Hall seems to get lost in the mix at this time of year; making it a great opportunity for brands and partners looking to maybe find a little diamond in the rough for promotion in a long, hot and busy summer.

Maybe it’s because the Hall is not tied to an actual time of year when hoops is top of mind; like baseball or football are. Maybe it’s because it is August and even those who are passionate about seeing such inductions may be suffering from a nostalgic hangover, for whatever the reason, it seems like there is missed opportunity abounding in Springfield. Basketball is the second-most popular game in the world; the All-Star cast going in is certainly worthy of large media coverage, and those returning to the Hall each years for its ceremony rival the returnees in any sport. The NBA and the national wires will do their part to get the stories told, but in terms of buzz and glitz and glamor basketball on the rarest of rare occasions misses the boat this weekend.

Can there be more that could be done? Sure. While none of the Halls are officially aligned with their respective pro leagues, their support is always welcomed and appreciated, so bringing more social media presence and technology to the induction in Springfield through the NBA and even FIBA partners would help. Maybe there should be more of an in-market presence for the inductees to take the Hall experience more on the road; Team USA just finished up its practice sessions with more to come, could Springfield have been a place where they came around the induction weekend? Does the ceremony have to be at a time of year when hoops is so far off in the distance? All of those questions have probably been addressed and answered by the powers that be, but the Basketball Hall of Fame weekend should be a must attend for media, brands interested in the game and fans, much like baseball and football induction weekends are.  The building is a grand tribute to a great game, as are its inductees. Finding the best way to shine a brighter light on the weekend is the challenge, one which companies should be looking at probably closer than they have in the past as a great entrée into basketball.

Father’s Day Promo: The Simpler Are Sometimes The Best

A couple of years ago on a  Sunday morning  I was going to get bagels I heard New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan on “Ed Randall’s Talking Baseball” show on WFAN in New York talking about how the simplest of actions with his father, playing catch after work, were some of his brightest memories. Often times in big time sports and promotions it is the simple ideas that get lost as not glitzy or glammery enough, but with the right platform, can be the most effecting. Dolan’s thoughts thatmorning spurred one of those ideas.

 Several years ago I was approached by a colleague, Lance Laifer, to see if there was a way to create awareness for an anti-Malaria campaign he had organized, and do it through sport. The idea was simple, take a nerf basketball hoop and pass it around with a ball through Madison Square Garden, letting each person in the arena dunk the ball, and with each dunk a dollar would be donated to charity. At some point it was going to become a logistical nightmare, setting the world’s largest dunk record, but the event worked. It got exposure for the charity, and as the ball and hoop were passed around the lower seats, several NBA officials and even some players took notice. One was Dikembe Mutombo, who used the idea and the platform to continue to grow his own initiative to eradicate malaria in his native Congo by purchasing bedding nets. The link between the basketball net and the mosquito net was simple, and eventually led Laifer’s group to an association with the NBA, national exposure and fundraising, and a leadership position which has helped eradicate the problem of mosquito-born malaria in Congo and other parts of Africa. All from a simple, cost efficient plan to dunk a nerf basketball. But timing, part passion, part simplicity helped a small idea contribute in a big way.

Laifer has gone on to now solving pneumonia issues for kids in a big way, and is also helping scores of big name folks negotiate twitter through his company, all through looking at big issues and creating simple solutions one step at a time.

So now back to playing catch. Every year the Northern League St. Paul Saints hold the “World’s Largest Game of Catch” to kick off their promotional season. A simple act connects fans of all ages in a communal and promotable activity that links young and old, boy and girl, dad and son, mom and daughter. Timeless, simple, easy. So with all the charities, initiatives and campaigns out there, why hasn’t anyone latched on to a “Simple Game of Catch” as an easy promotion at the Major League level? Lots of teams do runs around the bases, sleepovers and giveaways, but a linked, simple game of catch can be an amazing communal experience either as a fund raiser or as a stand-alone promotion. problems with liability if Johnny gets hit in the head? Use a soft ball. Problems in moving it along? Like Laifer’s idea make it a nerf promotion that goes around the stands and finishes on the field. If the simple act of dunking a nerf hoop literally helped to change lives, then a simple game of catch could as well. Just an idea.

 And with that…Happy Father’s Day To All…

Leadership 101: Adam Silver’s Teachable Moment

Those who know Adam Silver and have followed his career probably were not overly surprised by Tuesday’s announcement. He has learned not just from David Stern, but from countless others in sports, law, finance and communications as to what best practices should be. Listen, build consensus, communicate with those around you, take away surprises and make sure all who speak do so from the same script. Be prepared.

We saw the same preparation go into Sunday’s press conference in Memphis. Silver understood that he was not just speaking to a national audience but that he was in Memphis the home of the Grizzlies, with many of their media in attendance. Before addressing the news of the day with the Clippers, he spoke clearly and thoughtfully on the passing of former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, who had died earlier in the day. It showed compassion and humanity, with no rush to hyperbole or the buzz of what the real news was to come. Compassion and thoughtfulness set the tone. Once that was stated, it was on to the news of the first steps in the Donald Sterling investigation. There was no ambiguity, every answer was well thought-out and addressed clearly.  A timeline was set up, and there was little indecision on when next steps would be. No joking, no sarcasm, just clearly thought out messages.

Tuesday was more of the same. Clear definition. A solid message brought forth from consensus. There were few if any “don’t knows’ or items left to chance. Clear, calm and definitive as one can be. No key parties were left to twist in the wind. The Clippers, a valuable franchise and an unwilling victim in the circumstances of one man, were not thrown aside, they were acknowledged and their subsequent actions in the digital space helped unite rather than divide the news of the day. That was seen throughout the sports and entertainment world as every party reacted, and those within the NBA family either spoke loudly in support or did not speak at all. Everyone pulled from the same playbook. The message of one face ruled the day. Clear and concise with no margin for ambiguity.

Now for sure this was not just a soapbox push to do what is right just by itself. This was a clear statement built out of the word in the business community, both short and long term. Over the past few days, from Capitol Hill to Wall Street to Madison Avenue, influencers have voiced opinion and taken action to show how important this decision was going to be. When sponsors run, season ticketholders speak, politicians weigh in, your business, that of the NBA, is at risk, and all those actions obviously played into the decision Tuesday and rightfully so.

Is this battle over? No way. Silver’s actions and words on behalf of the league now get passed through the court of public opinion to the legal system, where big ticket items like fair market value for the club will be bandied about for months of not years, and we will come to know the name of any series of arbitrators down the line.   

However the teachable moment was the most important; a clear message by one voice that ruled the day. Clear and concise with no margin for ambiguity. That’s what we want from all in a position of leadership, be they parents or educators or mentors or business leaders. Adam Silver set the bar very high today, and all who helped him get to this point should be proud.

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.

Vice Becomes Nice…What’s Next?

For people of a certain age, seeing Marlboro or Virginia Slims or Winston associated with the biggest brands in American sport was commonplace. Big tobacco fueled bug sponsorships, especially when the Federal Government began curtailing cigarettes from their first large-scale media investment…television…in the late 1960’s.  Along with smokes, spirits also fueled the athletic coffers, turning out big time promos in print and TV and radio with stars like Joe Namath hawking their favorite alcoholic libation. No gambling of course, but everyone could drink and smoke.

Then came the FDA and the FTC and the push back and eventual ban on all vice advertising. With the ban went some moral clarity, but millions of dollars in revenue for teams and leagues. Cleaner, healthier but poorer. Now of course other categories arose to fill the void, and then the lottery became more en vogue and their advertising dollars began to fill a huge hole in sport, so the balance of vices kicked in yet again. Still even though legal federated gambling dollars, and then casino monies, were OK, still spirits were off limits. That all began to change in the last few years, as teams looked at the millions being left on the table for team sports and being channeled into boxing, MMA and other alternative options by the global spirit brands, who were more than willing to spend on international sport like soccer, rugby and cricket. There was certainly no issue with the way the brands were being sold at retail or in venues; it was a matter of perception.

Slowly but surely tests were being done to see what would pass the consumer and broadcast sniff test. Teams began adding luxury seating sections branded with spirits, brands like Captain Morgan would find experiential events to push to the sports consumer, and then TV and print advertising became OK again. Teams started to be able to sell to spirits in some very high level ways…lower targeted categories like malt liquor are still pretty much off the market…but high end brands for the high end consumer, bring it on. Most were regional partnerships, but the leagues certainly were aware of the spend, and the opportunity to grow partnerships, especially as sport looked to be more global than national.

So it is into that trend that this week the NBA launched their most comprehensive spirits partnership in history, one involving all forms of media as well as celebrity tied to teams. No active players as of yet, but lots of solid linkage to all things NBA. The deal is with Diageo as exclusive spirits sponsor, with Sean “Diddy” Combs and Diageo’s Ciroc premium vodka becoming “The Toast of the NBA.” Diageo will promote its Ciroc and Crown Royal brands across the NBA and NBA Development League while bringing Baileys Crème to a WNBA audience.  Although Bacardi was the league’s first official spirits sponsor in 2010 the multi-brand partnership with Diageo really ramps up the exposure and the messaging and the dollars for the NBA in spirits.

What does this mean about categories that were one taboo for pro sports in the US? Lots. In the search for more revenue and creative partnerships, the leagues need to go to new places. Lottery, once off-limits, is now a must have, and many teams have slowly started to introduce a form of “paid” fantasy, which certainly flies in the face of but does not yet cross the line with the world of online wagering and gaming.  A world where social issues are becoming more and more in the headlines could also lead to ways to introduce the uber-lucrative world of condoms and STD prevention to sport, which has easily accepted the dollars and significance of every form of ED medication under the sun. E-Cigarettes, although still unregulated and facing a lot of pushback, may also test the waters in sports like MMA and boxing first, but those may still be in the distance.

Then there is the elephant in the room, gambling, especially in the mobile space. While states like Delaware and New Jersey press on to fight the decades old federal law that prohibits sports gambling everywhere except Nevada, clubs and leagues around the world are making huge inroads with controlled and legal gaming and gambling platforms. While no league will publicly address the issue, all must be placing a watchful eye on the States because once a foothold is established, legal gambling could go the way of the other legal “vice” categories, and as a result will help push all forms of sponsorship up. It will not happen tomorrow, but it will come at some point, and those naysayers should easily look back on the history of spirits, and lottery and casinos to mark the process.

For now, the NBA and probably the rest of the leagues, can lift a glass and toast an ever-widening spirits category, one which is lucrative, interactive, well-modulated and certainly worth every dollar invested for all.   

Brand NBA Tips Off With A Little More Zing Than Before…

Nicknames on uniforms, fans names on the court, athletes partnering with global brands that are emerging into the US marketplace, steady, healthy brand growth outside the regions of where franchises currently are, small market success, establishing an expansion marketplace without actually having to move a team, and, having a team turn to its fans for a one-off uniform design. As training camps open this week, welcome to the happier, innovative world of the NBA.

Now this is not to say that the other major sports aren’t doing their exemplary work in so many areas. The NFL, for its offseason issues, continues to bring in new partners and look outside its borders for growth. The NHL will leverage off the Sochi Olympics to increase its international scope, while expanding its signature in-season platform (The Winter Classic) and its landmark partnership with NBC to establish itself even more with casual sports fans and its core as well. MLB leveraged the World Baseball Classic is expand its borders, continues to make cutting edge strides in the digital space and has even found its way to revive some long dormant franchises with exciting young players. Then there is MLS, and global soccer in general, that will ride a US qualifying World Cup team, some cutting edge innovation, and the continued love affair with the elite clubs of the world to push a more savvy and robust soccer offering on all platforms.

Still with all that success, it just seems like the NBA is finding new ways to push the brand limits, ramp up its competitive edge in the market, and find effective ways to leverage all thing basketball. The last few months have seen areas that were always hallowed ground…uniform names and logos, the pristine  look around every court, even the mix of more personality into apparel…lighten up and become fair ground for innovation and just a little more buzz. The NFL will always protect its shield and its uniform looks with very little individual change as to how players look on court. The NBA? Let’s try something different. Brands from China and the Middle East look to leverage NBA players like Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade, along with their on national stars now playing in North America, much more than happens with American players from other sports. Their personality just seems to transcend the boundaries better on both sides of the ocean.  While the NFL again takes football to the UK more aggressively and consistently, the NBA is taking teams to play games around the globe this fall, with no thoughts of slowing  down, and not only will play amongst other NBA teams, they will again match up against elite local clubs to showcase how far the game has gone. That is something only soccer and hockey could possibly do effectively, which is a testament again to the ability of hoops to show its strongest brand face in real time around the globe.

While the Miami Dolphins have tried the minority celebrity owner stake, and the Seattle Sounders have made the most with people like Joe Roth and Drew Carey at the helm, the NBA has continually found ways to ingrain urban culture, and its leaders, into positions of authority on the brand side. Jay-Z’s influence with the Nets, and now Drake’s shot at helping rev up the Toronto Raptors are great examples not of lips service or flash bulb brand investment, they are great examples of a dedicated push not just to have the name, but to have these tastemakers be involved in the creative process. It is buzz worthy and if successful, can help re-invigorate a franchise. Now that’s not to say the NBA, like any mature brand, does not have its warts.

However like any mature, successful brand the NBA is evolving again, and taking down some barriers to say “What If?” when it comes to creative license and fan involvement, as the league transitions from David Stern to Adam Silver at the helm. It’s also not to say that the NBA is going to risk soiling its brand with inconsistent messaging, design and branding, there is too much equity built into the multi-billion dollar business.

What is does say is the NBA, maybe more than its other counterparts, is willing now to take a little more risk and try some groundbreaking efforts more than in the past, to both stay relevant and to expand its reach with new audiences.  With healthy teams in major markets, a diverse mix of stars, even a rising new crop of coaches to promote, it should be a winter of fun hoops, made even more so with some of the tight brand reins pulled back just a bit, for all things brand basketball.  

Age Limit Olympic Hoops Grows Brand Basketball…

It was nice seeing the second version of “The Redeem Team” take the Olympic gold on Sunday over Spain, but what did it do for the future of the great game of basketball? By contrast, the men’s Olympic soccer tourney, won by Mexico over Brazil, gave the sport a big lift and highlight a host of the young stars fans will see in elite league’s around the world later this summer, and more importantly, in World Cup 2014. It was an exciting glimpse at the furte of the world’s most popular sport, while the second-most popular sport gave the Olympics, well…more of what fans have seen for the past year…NBA stars who we can see and enjoy for eight months every year, next to be seen in November. Is the soccer model, championed by FIFA, the way to go for basketball in the future?

The idea has been floated by NBA officials as high as David Stern in the past few months, and the Olympic tournament did nothing to show that a move to a separate World Championship, with elite young players partaking in the Olympics, could be the best to grow the game. Why? Some thoughts.

1- While bringing the original Dream Team to the Olympics was best for global growth, the sport has matured. In Barcelona ’92, the original “Dream Team” lifted both the sport of basketball and the Olympics to a new level of casual awareness. Since then, basketball has grown significantly on the global scale to the point where the Olympics, although important for men’s basketball, is not the be-all for those who follow the sport. It is mature beyond the experience and in many ways suffers because the focus is on those who rarely get the spotlight. Olympic basketball was prime time viewing, but even with its mega-stars, it is not must watch Olympic TV.

2- An off-year “World Cup” puts hoops on its own stage. We have obviously seen the lure of soccer’s World Cup in a non-summer Olympic year and what it does to grow the sport globally. Baseball, kicked out of the Olympics for 2012, has created its World Baseball Classic that s growing as a non-Olympic year global event, Rugby has its World Cup despite its coming inclusion in Rio 2016. The best of the best in team sports…established team sports…need their own window where they are the central focus. (In addition to basketball, hockey is also at this crossroads, although for different reasons).

3- The Basketball World Championship Frees Branding and Sales: Olympic basketball falls under the IOC and restricts sales, TV and marketing.  That would not happeb in a World Cup format, which can be sold and licensed by the NBA with FIBA, creating a huge dollar and branding flow directly to the governing bodies.

4- Under 23 Olympic Basketball Showcases The Future: Keeping men’s basketball as a Global Under 23 event in the Olympic Games ensures a competitive event that exposes new faces to the world…faces which casual and ardent fans will follow going forward. Given the elite nature of young basketball players, it certainly will still have some “star” power, the stars will be rising vs. established. That model, as in soccer, will help grow the game which after all is what the Olympics are all about…the advancement of sport.

5- It increases youth involvement and competitive nature: One of the reasons that USA Basketball fought to bring NBA players to The Games was because the rest of the world was improving at a young age in the sport, while American youth elite play was slipping. Under 23 can further grow the global game, and hopefully give young Americans a chance at Olympic glory as well…an opportunity they may not get in the current format of elite older players.

Yes there are major hoops and political battles to be fought should basketball go the route of soccer. Hockey right now is wrestling with an issue that is different…is there value enough in Olympic hockey to effectively shut down a thriving NHL season for a few weeks, while baseball could actually make a strong case for re-inclusion if basketball goes the soccer route for the future (baseball is primarily out because of the lack of MLB elite players participating since the Games are in the MLB season). Building time and equity in a global championship also has its challenges as well, and won’t happen over night.

However if the powers that be on the basketball side want to continue to grow the game globally and increase “brand basketball,” the soccer model of World Cup and young Olympians, is the smartest and most lucrative.

Great to see Kobe and company win the gold with Coach K on Sunday, but that World hampionship model could be even better for the game.


NBA Wins A Weekend…

There are few weekends busier than this one in sports for big events (especially if you happen to be in Florida). From the roar of Daytona to the snap of spring training (throwing in several hundred college games across the state as well) to NBA All-Star weekend and the NFL Combine, and virtually no sports fan will be left without anything to do or watch on the last weekend in February.

So who wins the weekend from a brand standpoint? Probably the NBA. Every year the league finds ways to take their signature mid-season gathering and make it a mega-event that is a must-see or must-watch for the casual fan. From the activation platforms that extend way beyond the weekend to consumers around the world to its ultra-innovative tech summit, no All-Star event in sport has more activation, is better leveraged, and is more followed and more valuable than NBA All-Star weekend. The NBA was the first to extend the platform beyond just the game, pulling in the dunk contest from the ABA and adding the rookie game and other stand-alone and sellable events. They were the first to risk giving up a weekend of highly valuable game time to defer to their stars and fans, and generate interest in mid-season that serves as a great jumping off point for sports fans not just for the NBA, but for all things basketball as we head toward March Madness.

Now it may be true that All-Star weekend is more about the events than about the game itself. It seems as all All-Star games have eroded from what they once were in terms of overall interest and competitive nature. However NBA All-Star weekend remains a tentpole for the brand of the NBA that still is growing, especially as the league extends its footprint globally even more.

While football fans will drop in to find out about their future stars this weekend, baseball fans will read through the latest news as full squads start working out, and NASCAR fans get excited and watch the start of their season, the NBA will pull globally to remind everyone how strong their business is (especially coming off a lockout) and use that continued momentum to re-engage as we head towards the playoffs.

While the NFL struggles with the Pro Bowl, the NHL tries to enhance their All-Star experience (although the Winter Classic has become their signature event), only baseball’s All-Star events can compare to what the NBA has built and maintained. However even baseball seems to suffer more from people’s attentions being diverted to other summer events that have made the All-Star game just a little less valuable than what the NBA has. That’s not to say that won’t change in the future, especially with the massive digital engagement assets MLB has created and pioneered over the years. However for this weekend, at this time of year no All-Star event shines brighter than that which the NBA has created and refined, and will continue to do so around the globe.