ESPN | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

“Beach Games” Drift Closer To Reality…

Two things the world has enough of are sand and water, and more than enough resorts and beaches to try and lure tourists. So it was with great interest that this week SportAccord announced that the World Beach Games are inching closer to happening, although maybe not at the robust pace announced last fall.  Just to revisit the idea, especially for those in the Northeast still hoping for a bit more spring;

Sand castle building? Not quite. What the WBG could be is the X Games of the water, with some of the most popular existing Olympic sports like beach volleyball, and one popular Olympic wannabe, beach soccer, thrown in (along with beach tennis and some other hybrids). 

Now the concept is not altogether new, as  Asia has been hosting Beach Games since 2008, the last of which took place in Chinese resort Haiyang in 2012. The initial contests were a great success and incorporated events like wakeboarding and dragon boat racing which have long tried for Olympic inclusion but could never find success. They are not huge on attendance numbers, do not need large stadia, and fit a demo that Olympic sports crave (young and athletic) and are ripe for made for TV and digital, in the same way that the America’s Cup captured the tech space with their innovative broadcasts this past September.

Events like these are also a great draw for off-season resort locations which maybe could never attract world class international events before. The Bahamas, for example has made a big push into college sports with basketball and football, and a Beach games international competition in months where the resorts need to draw attention are a great fit.

Now there are some natural drawbacks. Even temporary stadia and facilities are costly, as organizations like the AVP found out when running their tour. You can’t just use any sand for high level beach competition; it needs to be pristine, and in many instances had to be trucked in from other locales. Building even temporary venues can also be a logistical nightmare, and you are also subject to the unpredictable wind, rain and currents that will crop up, not to mention having to stage many of the events at a time when there is daylight, as night or twilight competitions may look beautiful but can be very challenging. There is also a limitation on venues, but even staging games on massive lakes are an option (Chicago or Lake Victoria anyone?)

The opportunities far outweigh the drawbacks though. The IOC has long wanted to bring in new sports, and the ones on the water pose an opportunity, one that is lower cost than most large scale team events. The water and sand, albeit pricey to set up in some cases, is still a natural existing setting, and the ability for new sponsor dollars to flow in, as well as countries looking to host, are very wide. New faces, in many cases with lots of athletic skin to show, can present a very enticing package for broadcasters and corporations looking to find a breakthrough niche in global sport at a reasonable cost could gravitate to a competition that is sure to draw both core fans and a solid casual audience.

If you had to draw a line in the sand on whether the Beach games will succeed as an emerging, hip, fan friendly property, now with an international backing, it would be fair to give it a fighting chance, much in the way the “Combat Games” have worked for fight sports and the “Urban Games” can work for the innercity.

 Sand and water can bring lots of fun and new stars to global sport, making The Beach Games experiment one to follow.

Set The Ground Rules, Save The Aggravation…

A little over 10 years ago, during a Davis Cup trip to Zimbabwe, the U.S. team passed a street in front of Robert Mugabe’s palace. In big letters there was a warning; “If you take a photo on this street you will be shot.” No one took pictures. Yes that is extreme, but it is a pretty clear way to set ground rules that all understood.

A few weeks ago one of our Columbia classes taught by Neal Pilson had an open invite for staff, alumni, current students and potential students to come in and listen to a q and a with ESPN President John Skipper. The room was filled to listen to Skipper talk about his days in publishing, the challenges of having launched ESPN.com, and a host of anecdotes about life, sports business, broadcasting and the like. Lots of little tidbits that could have made their way out of the room. Nothing overtly controversial, but very insightful from a man who is usually frank and direct but willing to give of his time. As the room filled to capacity, several young socially engaged students prepped their mobile devices for a tweet or two. After all, this is the era of information, and Skipper and Pilson were ready to share. However to the disappointment of some at least, the ground rules were very carefully planned out. No tweeting, posting or recording could take place, in order to keep the session for those invited guests. The result? An open, frank discussion that respected the speakers wishes and a solid time was had by all. The ground rules were set, and the respect was in place.

Juxtapose that discussion, where the rules were set, to a pair of other recent incidents, one involving the Boston Red Sox and President Barack Obama and the other involving Rutgers Athletic Director Julie Hermann. In the first case, POTUS and David Ortiz willingly posed for a selfie that one of Ortiz’s sponsors, Samsung, turned into a marketing push without the consent of the President in any way. Then the Newark Star Ledger broke a story where Hermann was quoted while speaking to a student group at Rutgers as saying she hoped the paper, which had just gone through massive layoffs and is perhaps the media outlet that covers activities on the campus, would essentially go out of business. Whether it was meant sarcastically, or was even taken slightly out of context, it created a firestorm again with the media around the Scarlet Knights. The result? More brand damage and distraction for Rutgers.

What do all four anecdotes show? Pretty simple. We live in an age where media of all kinds is available for consumption willingly or unwillingly, and unless one takes the proper steps to guard against public-facing statements or information, as Skipper did, then anyone is fair game. Was the selfie with Ortiz innocent on the part of the President and Big Papi? Probably. Was there someone on the savvy marketing side waiting or planning to take advantage of the innocent moment? Seems so. In Hermann’s case, was she trying to make news in a frank discussion with students? Probably not. Did she set herself up for an issue by not setting ground rules prior, as happened at Columbia. Looks like that is the case. Now this is not to say setting ground rules can always lead to people acting honorably or responsibly. The thought of embargoes on news stories seem to be more and more a thing of the past, with media outlets scrambling to break news on any platform willing to sometimes ask forgiveness now more than permission, and a tweet, no matter how innocent, just seconds before a story breaks can have career implications for all involved.  Does the Ortiz incident mean that events at White House or other official gatherings will now be like some elite weddings or courtrooms, where any mobile devices need to be confiscated to avoid potential conflict? Could be. We did live in a world not too long ago where images were not captured on phones, they were done by cameras on film and then shared by those who wanted those images distributed and we all seemed fine with it. Taking temptation away can have its benefits in such cases, as can very clear ground rules. The more you think and know your audience, the better off all will be. Image creation and media consumption are great, and by no means should the free flow of ideas be curtailed in most cases. However the higher the image the higher the risk, as we saw again this week, both in DC and New Brunswick. Without setting the rules going in, all bets are off coming out and a news cycle, no matter how innocent or unintentional begins and creates even more distractions for the parties involved.  

Verizon and Indy Car; A Long Haul Not A Quick Fix

Vibrant, relevant, different, important to new fans. That’s what people are saying about Indy Car’s new partnership with Verizon, a mega-player in sports business if there ever was one in the U.S. today. Then again that’s what people said about IZOD’s involvement four years ago, and Izod put its money into non-conventional spending and branding as it sought to lift the sport away from its core fans and find more casual interest. Unfortunately the buzz, didn’t offset the in-fighting, confusing television, the departure of several stars and at least one major tragedy, to lift the sport away from anything, and the apparel brand moved on to projects that probably best fit their brand message. Cool and hip didn’t match really with fast and exciting all the time.

So now the 10 year relationship is being heralded as another huge lift for the very exciting, ultra-experiential racing brand as it seeks to find its mainstream footing as well as gain momentum amongst the racing fan in North America, with the continued  battle with NASCAR and the always hovering specter of Formula 1 sitting out there to engage as well. Will it work?

For sure Verizon is a much better fit for the world’s fastest and most technologically savvy racing circuit. Speed and efficiency are what Verizon is supposed to be about, so there is a match there. Telecommunications companies are all about using sport as a testing ground for new products and as a way to engage mass casual audiences, and Indy Car can deliver on both fronts. They can also borrow some pages from what Sprint has done to market NASCAR and vice versa, and can even go one step further since the brand already sponsors the highly successful Team Penske program, as well as being the primary sponsor of the cars of Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, so it is not like an effective partnership has to re-write the book on successful integration.

The question remains how well can Indy Car market itself as well. It appears that maybe the cards are aligning as best they have in years. The Danica Patrick hangover is gone, and the sport has as deep a field of talent and telegenic drivers as it has had in years, with  Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti all potential crossover stars. It has the keystone of the Indy 500 to use as a lynchpin to casual fans, and it has a second year race at Pocono Raceway to draw brand and fan interest from both Philadelphia and New York, a place where Indy Car is missing a consistent presence that the other circuits have sought to drive to help sell its story, in addition to what is now a more consistent series across the country. Its TV package is better, and Verizon can also hopefully bring the weight of cross-promotion across its other sports platforms to lift the profile of the drivers and the races. Their coverage area is heavy in cities where Indy Car is NOT a household name, so that spillover can also be a boon for name awareness as well as brand affinity. So a bigger push married with a mainstream consumer brand which has that name recognition away from retail could just be the trick.

Will it work? Not overnight. The announcement and the series have gotten a late start for 2014, with the announcement coming just prior to this weekend’s opening race in St. Petersburg. The competition on telecom for elite sports not just in North America but across the world is very high, and the race to gain market share can bring many to question the ROI on spends like title sponsorships. However Verizon is one company that seems to have made the title work well beyond just slapping a name on a building or a circuit.  The learning curve for casual consumers with Indy Car is still pretty high, although almost everyone can understand what racing is when they see the cars in any form of media. What they will need to see more of are the drivers and their personalities, which is what NASCAR has done best. What will also have to make this work are other sponsors investing in the sport on the large scale marketing side, as Verizon cannot do this alone. The races are very expensive, the technology is fast and the risk factor for disaster remains high, so it will not be easy. It will have to be a steady build with little wins along the way, and it is not something which can be evaluated by ratings numbers for a weekend broadcast in a single year. Indy car needs to take a page out of the NHL and MLS in terms of selling its partnership; continued digital integration, a cool and wow factor and cutting edge non-traditional promotion while still embracing its core fans. It won’t be easy, but the sport has excitement, power and it is highly experiential, all things which Verizon can help amplify as they get the partnership moving.

Will the partnership breathe new life into Indy Car? There are dollars, marketing, and a series of best practices with a brand that “gets it” in the mix, along with a hope that this is not a fast fix in the world’s fastest sport. Hopefully it pulls in casual fans, catches that speed in a bottle and then gets other brands into the mix to create a successful run for all involved.  It won’t be a quick fix, it will be more of a marathon, but it will be one hopefully worth watching, even at 200 miles per hour.

Will Championship Week Move More To Gotham?

As we move through Championship Week and fully into March Madness, the sense of underdog success permeates the air. It is totally unlike the big-time sports business feel of college football, which generates millions for select schools competing at the highest levels, but has little of the mystery and mystique of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

The pre-amble to that drama are the conference tournaments, now spread across several rights-holding networks (NBC, Fox, CBS and ESPN) and held in tourist locales like Las Vegas (which the legal gambling-averse allows without issue) as well as longtime like St. Louis (for the Missouri Valley’s “Arch Madness” and Greensboro for the ACC Tournament on a semi-annual basis). However the one tournament to consistently call the media and sales capital of the world home, The Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, is undergoing a transformation of its own. While still billed as a sellout, the conference and its new TV partner in Fox has taken to the subways and the busses with ad campaigns explaining the members and the event to its casual fans, something unneeded and unheard of in previous years.  It is smart to do so; the league should take nothing for granted, especially with some of its newer members from cities like Omaha and Indianapolis, with far smaller alumni groups within driving distance like former members Notre Dame, Syracuse and Connecticut. Still the Big East calls MSG home, and will use the event to showcase its brands and its high quality hoops to both existing and new potential partners who may never get to go an experience the home court at Hinkle Fieldhouse or even The Bradley Center in Milwaukee, let alone Xavier’s Cintas Center or the new future downtown home of the DePaul Blue Demons. It is a great showcase and celebration for a college sports brand in transition. Change as we have seen on college sports is constant.

So will the Big East, now in transition with new geographic faces, stay in Gotham, and should it? All last fall, conference like the Big Ten and the ACC constantly visit New York and all its business trappings, talking about the power of the college football brand to a city and a fan base that remains basketball centric. Yes thousands flock to pubs and houses to watch college football at the highest level, but it has nowhere near the street cred, and the longstanding ties to casual fans, that basketball has. The distant allure of Rutgers, the pageantry of Army, even the claims by Syracuse of being “New York’s College Team,” are still gridiron stretches, and very hard to consistently maintain. Yes brands love college football, as do millions of fans, but in New York it is still second fiddle to hoops.

What does that mean for the marketing opportunities of the ACC and The Big Ten, or heck maybe even the SEC down the road? Could they use their postseason college basketball tournaments as a lure to further infiltrate Madison Avenue year round? Absolutely, and that day will probably come sooner rather than later. Despite all the genteel agreements college sports we know is big business, and to consistently showcase your best of the best in New York is critical to get to the next level. The ACC now probably has more big ticket sellers in basketball in New York…Syracuse, Duke, Notre dame, North Carolina, even Pittsburgh and on a good year Boston College…than any league including The Big East, and that flow of cash is what makes MSG shine, much more than tradition than ever before. Those football schools also bring a carryover to brands for college basketball, something which the non-football playing Big East schools struggle to do, and that year-round presence with an active college community is a brand’s golden ticket. The Big Ten is not that far behind, and with large fan bases from schools like Michigan and Wisconsin in the New York area, laying an occasional claim to Gotham also makes great sense for an occasional March rotation.

So where does that leave the Big East of the future?  That remains to be seen. Does the move of the tournament occasionally to a market like basketball-crazed Indianapolis or even Washington, DC or make more sense for the new geography? Would “tradition” go by the wayside without the call to MSG every early March? Would new brands in other locales embrace the change as progressive thinking instead of a kick in the pants out of town? All of those options are in the offing, along with the ancillary possibility of the nearby Barclays Center or even the state of the art Prudential Center getting in the mix, much like Barclays has tried with the Atlantic 10 Tournament with some degree of success. Still for all its internal and media issues, Madison Square Garden is still the Holy Grail, one which the private schools of the Big East have fought to hold on to for now.  It is the brightest light, the biggest stage, and one, as the business of college basketball continues to bounce, will get even more alluring and more coveted for others as dollar and brand value rise on a national scale. New York may not be the home of big time college football all the time, but for big time college sports business having that center stake in the ground to market and entertain and activate around is perhaps more valuable than ever.

Who will win out? Can all of the leagues win out by rotating? Remains to be seen but as we have understood all too well in recent years, dollars rule the big campuses more than ever, whether that is in September or March.

Trading Day Remains Unchartered Brand Territory…

Other than opening day and the start of the playoffs there is probably not one other in-season day that garners more attention in baseball or hoops than trading deadline day. Like National Signing Day in college for football, there is a media frenzy with speculation, rumor, blockbuster trades, hurried press conferences and lots of attention, whether your team is good or not. In recent years, media entities like ESPN, Rivals,  and CBS College have gone to great lengths to brand and activate on signing day, but why not on trading deadline day? Granted some trades do happen the day before or a few days before, but the activity leading up to the deadline, which is a hard and fast time, is phenomenal, and summary shows, best trades/worst trades, smartest mover, smartest not to move etc., could all be packaged together for brands that well…spend a lot of money in sports.

Auto Trader,  E-Trade, Geico. All have massive businesses built around sports activation and trading. Heck, a smart brand could even come in and scoop up some low cost viral activation programs among the best cities were trades were made or not made. Even ticketing companies should be involved. Think of all the new signage that gets handed out in arenas as welcome placards, or all the background signage that gets shot at press conferences.  The NBA has devoted massive amounts of time on their new Sirius launch to trade deadline time, why not roll it together for the right brand?

Some may say that a trading day affiliation is playing on the negative for teams; those looking to unload talent. But in reality for brands looking to take advantage of a high trafficked bug buzz period, trading day presents some very unique opportunities to master a space.

There is a lot of real estate to be had and opportunities to grow a brand for the right company at a time of year; one in late February and one in early August, times that are relatively slow in the sports space except for the moves on the field, and being in that conversation is certainly something that some may desire.

Will Pro Football Ever Spring Year-Round Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Megacast Gives Us A Glimpse Of the Future…

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

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

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

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

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

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

UFC Takes Its Brand Punch, Re-Emerges Stronger Than Ever Going Into 2014…

It was a night that maybe in other years would have sent the UFC leadership scurrying for new spin. There was their vaunted former champion, Anderson Silva, screaming with a horrific broken leg; night over, maybe career over. It comes just a few weeks after another of the promotion’s biggest stars, Georges St. Pierre, announced his unexpected retirement. In a business where pay per view is a life blood those two names disappearing could be really tough to overcome.

However this is the UFC of 2013-14, and the results from a Saturday night card give more insight into what the future may be than the past. First you have Ronda Rousey, the promotion’s marketing darling with Danica Patrick-like drawing power (and unlike Patrick, results to back it up), not just winning, but winning a match that went longer than expected (giving hope that women’s MMA for those who like it, is becoming deeper) and immediately announcing her next match against a former Olympic wrestler, Sara McMann, already fueling hype, sales and probably an even broader audience.

Then you have the defending champion, somewhat of a surprise, in Chris Weidman, now having beaten Silva twice, and if you are the UFC looking at an American audience you have to be somewhat pleased with the marketing potential of a college educated, well spoken, community-oriented star from the one market you still cannot compete in; New York.

There is no doubt that as a worldwide property the UFC is still a dominant and evolving brand, especially in key younger male demos that crave action and engagement.  They have continued to look globally for more dollars and engagement, and they saw that success in 2013. In the U.S. however, the brand has hot a bit of a stagnation point, and new stars, new stories, and some new controversies are what was needed, and the end of 2013 seems to have provided all. The promotion’s deal with Fox Sports has steadily grown but has not really provided the mega-brand push that some had predicted right away, however the wall to wall coverage Saturday that ESPN provided to augment the Fox coverage again showed how much star power UFC has now and will continue to develop with its new stars on the rise.

Silva was an established star with huge credibility in the MMA world but not mega-marketing potential in the mainstream in the U.S. Polished and effective, Silva is a great fighter, but not someone who could be loved by English-speaking Madison Avenue. He also lacked a great deal of edge or controversy that some other mainstream brands could gravitate to. Was he a successful ambassador for the sport in emerging countries? Absolutely. Does he resonate with casual fans? Not so much and that’s maybe where Weidman now steps in more, along with established names and personalities like Rashard Evans.

So now you have a solid belt holder in Weidman. A former college wrestler with a passion to help that sport grow gives him added gravitas. He has a strong but not over the top personality, which will resonate with mainstream MMA fans. He is New York born, bred and educated, so there is a tie to marketing in and around big business.  Add on his two surprising wins over a legendary champion, and the build that the UFC can now do around him for 2014 and marketers should breathe a little easier about engaging with the promotion, and maybe even enhancing their investment with such a mature and social savvy company like UFC in the USA.

By the way on the marketing side, how savvy is Rousey? Less than four hour s after her title defense she was on twitter plugging one of her sponsors, Metro-PCS, in a contest giveaway. Of course it was planned in advance, but many an athlete would take a step back rather than attack after any kind of performance, and the beauty of social media made the MMA star a business star yet again.

The business of MMA, be it UFC or even its best competitor in Bellator, still has its issues with violence which do not make it a fit for many. However for an audience that craves action and engagement UFC is again proving that it has taken a punch and is even stronger on its feet than before, and in its home country having marketable American stars going into a new year is a great help.

Can “BowlsForBowls” be Bigger?

There is no bigger promotional engine than the one that ESPN has. Once the folks at the hands of the controls get started, the buzz, brand-building and good will that can be spread to sports fans die hard and casual around the world is almost unparalleled. Yes all the other networks can do it well, but few can reach with every medium on a global level as effectively as ESPN.

So it is with that in mind that I took great interest in the Bowls For Bowls promotion the network launched this week. “The Worldwide Leader” visited Auburn and Florida State with Kenny Mayne and made this simple offer: Receive a bowl haircut for a chance to win bowl tickets. The response was tremendous and a great deal of fun, and the video is growing virally. So the question becomes, what’s next? Well…maybe a lot…of hair anyway.

One of the biggest platforms ESPN works with every year is the V Foundation for cancer research. The recently completed Coaches vs. Cancer events are always huge hits and go a long way to raising dollars and awareness to fight all kinds of cancer. Few platforms have been as successful and as innovative with sports fans and charity.  As most know, one of the biggest side effects with cancer is the loss of hair by the patient, and there are countless foundations…Locks For Love, St. Baldricks…that do programs where people shave their heads for loved ones who have cancer, and the hair is donated many times to making wigs or hair pieces for patients.

So why not tie #BowlsForBowls with the V Foundation,  and take the program nationally to every school who is involved in any bowl. The Playoff system next year will amp up the casual interest in the Bowls, and every school and promoter of a lesser bowl is looking for a hook. ESPN already televises most of the system, so finding ways to cross promote could be a natural. How about a sponsor? Men’s grooming products are spending more and more in sports, and even customized hair places like “Sports Cuts” are investing in radio to promo their franchises.  The payoff for those who do the promo could be tickets or other prizes, and a great way to show support for the school and do some giving back.

It all seems like a great way to flow promotion, charity, and brand building into one, all starting with a highly successful launch done this week.

Maybe BowlsForBowl was a one off..maybe it can be something bigger and grander. It usually starts with a simple idea and then it grows. Just like all that hair.

NFL Brings More “There” Over There…But Why? Some Thoughts…

The NFL continues to amp up its marketing agenda both domestically and abroad from mandating elite teams participate in “Hard Knocks” to expanding the number of games in London going forward, and making sure that elite teams like the Dallas Cowboys (next year) help augment the sometimes iffy matchups served up by longtime stakeholder the Jacksonville Jaguars and others. Strong record or not, the Cowboys presence abroad draws interest, much like other elite global brands like the New York Giants would.

It is all a smart amplification of NFL business, putting the pedal to the medal while things are going well as opposed to riding out the good years and hoping no bad comes about that can’t be overcome.  The look to become more “global” as a sport makes great sense from a brand standpoint vs. an actual permanent team boots on the ground position, as the digital world shrinks boundaries of the way casual fans can engage either consistently or from time to time with the gridiron.

So does all this London play really mean a franchise is going to go across the pond permanently? Not necessarily. The cost of putting just one franchise in Europe, or anywhere outside North America is a huge challenge, especially for a sport like American football that does not have huge grassroots ties abroad. American expats, casual followers, brands looking to engage in American sport. Sure. But football is not basketball or soccer or even hockey, with thousands of club teams and youth programs already engaged. It’s not even baseball, who has made some stronger forays into not just Latin America and Asia but into Europe (countries like Italy, Germany and the Netherlands) and will now have a larger test in Australia to start 2014. But it is just a test, and a brand activation platform, much like the London games are really for the NFL. Now sure the NFL, like soccer, has a distinct advantage over other team sports in that the games are once a week and an argument could be made that travel is no worse these days than a cross country flight from Miami to Seattle for a weekend.  Still the tax implications, differing workman’s compensation rules, the extra few hours of broadcast time all play against a solo franchise abroad.

Where is the benefit? Branding for one. The NFL and its merchandise and licensees are global and a steady foothold to point to every year in London gives a destination to market around every year, much like brands do with the US Open in the States. Knowing the time and location every year makes for great long-term planning.

Another key move is the introduction of new brands to the NFL and American sports culture. By having a more steady presence abroad, there are a host of brands from across the world who can safely sample the American sports landscape in their own back yard before dipping in whole hog. Want to touch and feel American football in a great setting before travelling across the world, then the NFL London stop, in a regular season game, is the place to give it a shot.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose owner Shahid Khan now also owns Fulham of the Barclays Premier League, the consistent presence in London each year is both a fan cultivation and business cross-pollination tool. Jacksonville is not a major market with tons of major brands, even in successful years for the team. Exposure not just to London, but to other business on the continent, can help out ancillary income short and long term into the Jags coffers, in addition to boosting all sales of the NFL.  Sharing healthy best practices between EPL teams looking to market more aggressively, and the masters of marketing in the US at the NFL, and with the new Jags front office, also makes great sense. It beats struggling to fill an eighth home game in North Florida.

There is also another unspoken but interesting opportunity that will come more into focus as a revenue stream in the coming years, and that is the testing of sports wagering on the NFL. While taboo still to be looked at in the States, gambling rules the roost in the UK. Could the NFL strike some bookmaker deals for solid revenue for games being played in the UK to test the waters for when gambling becomes legal on sport at some point in the US? It would make for a very good litmus test to see the level of interest, and revenue, that would be brought to the table.

There are also other brand tests that could occur for brand NFL beyond the shores of North America.  Could the NFL London games test a uniform patch for a new exclusive partner, could those games also test on field advertising of elite brands to see what will and won’t work.  Are there broadcasters…a Netflix, an Al Jazeera, a Google…who would take the Europe games as their first foray as a live sports partner maybe not as a US broadcaster but as a digital or non-US test?

All the London activity also doesn’t mean that American football is the must-see for sports fans across the continent. You don’t see Cologne, which had one of the stronger entries in NFL Europe, rising up for a franchise, or Barcelona, or The Hague or even Berlin.  What NFL London has become is a very strong business beachhead with great possibilities as a destination for all partners and fans. When it was one preseason game it was a curiosity, when it was a regular season game it became a branding event, when the Jags threw consistency in it became a consistent business play, now with multiple games it becomes a series with economies of scale and consistency for the fall. All of which makes great sense and has nothing but a solid business upside.

In the end, will there be NFL teams in Europe? The reality is that the best chance of global clubs still rests with soccer, which could have elite clubs…at least two in the U.S., which is now a more mature soccer market than ever before. Its schedule lends to it and the culture of soccer, at least for elite clubs, now exists in the States where the NFL does not have that solid culture abroad.

Can NFL every week work across The Atlantic? Tough to say, but it’s not really needed if the brand business proposition as it is now structured continues to grow. Football in Europe is still all things soccer, and changing that culture or finding a stranglehold on a critical mass around soccer or even rugby and cricket, is a huge mountain to climb. Does it have to be climbed to be a success? No. It’s just a matter of defining the role and expanding the niche incrementally, and that’s what the NFL has done.

Smart business by some of the smartest in the game.