Lessons From A Lifer At ESPN…

When we were lucky enough to be asked to update our text “Sports Publicity” in 2013, we called on several of those in the media industry who have been around the evolving world of communications for a while, and asked them what they have seen in terms of changes and how they have been able to adapt to the changing world and remain successful.
The sampling of sports communications execs ranged from those at media companies like NBC and Sports Illustrated to agencies like Taylor and leagues like the NBA. However one of the stories that struck is the most was the narrative told by ESPN, and its longtime communications head Chris LaPlaca. LaPlaca, one of a handful of original employees at “The Worldwide Leader,” has always looked to find ways to learn, and encourages his staff to do the same. By doing so, ESPN has taken a unique and aggressive approach to communications, teaching everyone on the staff to be “360 degree communicators;” using every medium possible to make sure that the story behind the ESPN story is being told. The staff learns how to use video, audio and every form of digital device to capture the unique goings-on behind the scenes, and make it into a communications experience in addition to what major story is being covered.
We were able to more clearly document the practice in 2013 with a blog post  so today we caught up with LaPlaca to ask him more about his thoughts on the industry today, where it’s going, and what he is most proud of with all the time he has logged in Bristol (his bio follows the story).



What is the biggest challenge you see in the communications business today, and how is it best overcome?

Information flow these days begins at warp speed and accelerates from there, often bringing a lack of context and at worst, complete misinformation along for the ride. All you can do is be savvy about which issues are worth the time spent and then use all the tools you have at your disposal to insert your point of view.

Who is the person you learned the most from in your career and why?

I learned work ethic and integrity from my dad, how to communicate in writing from a variety of professors at St. Bonaventure University, how to be a member of a team from my high school football and basketball coaches, how to hustle from Joe Goldstein, and the intricacies of corporate communications from Tom McElroy, Hank Rieger and especially Rosa Gatti, who took a shot on me right out of college and then again, nine months later, when we both joined ESPN within its first year. I am still learning today from tons of people who have no idea I am stealing from them.

What are you most proud of from a work perspective?

I’m proud to be among a dwindling group of ESPN folks working here who joined the company in its first year…clearly, I was just a kid then! None of us spend much time looking back when the present is so fun and challenging and the future is bright…but when we do, we quietly express pride and gratitude for having started from scratch and contributed to what we’ve built, brick by brick, over 35 years. The reason we’re still here isn’t because we signed a lifetime contract: it’s because we learned how to adapt, evolve, get in front and work like challengers to stay there.

Who do you learn the most from today?

The way this industry is evolving, I learn something new every day. And it can come from anywhere if you are open to it.

What has been your biggest disappointment?

I don’t spend much time on “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” It’s over, I can’t change it and I’ve already deposited whatever I’ve processed from any disappointments. I much prefer to channel whatever emotional energy I have into the present and future. If pressed, I would likely say Game 6 of the ’86 World Series…..but the Red Sox have won three Series since so I’ve let that go.

Who were a few of the people you enjoyed working with the most and why?

It’s really difficult to condense 35 jam-packed, fun years to answer that question. I love my current team, for example, some of whom were kids when I got to Bristol and some of whom weren’t even born. That’s simultaneously scary and wonderful. If pressed, I would say those of us who were here in the very early days will always have a special bond. When we run into one another – those still here or those who have retired – there’s an unspoken but palpable and very special connection.

What is your biggest concern with the business of media and entertainment?

Speed’s impact on veracity and context from a journalistic perspective. From a business perspective, I’m confident about ESPN’s future in a rapidly changing environment. We used to be the toy department…..now, live sports is arguably the most powerful entertainment genre in this country.

What’s the most positive change you have seen recently in business?

I have three: Mobility in consuming content. The ability to personalize. Sports as a preeminent genre. There has never been a better time to be a sports fan.

What’s the thing that makes you stay focused and positive in your life?

I’ve been blessed with a “glass half-full” outlook no matter my circumstance. Sometimes I have to spend a lot of energy to get to half-full, but it’s always worth it. That said, my wife and I have two little girls at home, ages 6.5 and 8, and to be able to see the world through their eyes at this stage of my life is a wonderful gift. They make me laugh every day.
Chris LaPlaca was named ESPN, Inc.’s senior vice president, corporate communications in June 2008. He is responsible for the Company’s worldwide internal, public and media relations strategies, including oversight of consumer, corporate and employee communications for ESPN’s 50 business units. He also oversees the company’s day-to-day working relationship with The Walt Disney Company’s corporate communications and investor relations groups.

LaPlaca, a 34-year veteran of ESPN, had been senior vice president, communications (2006-08), overseeing public and media relations. Prior to that he was senior vice president, consumer communications (2003-06), overseeing consumer media and public relations efforts for domestic services ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPN and ESPN2 HD, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, Mobile ESPN, and several other brand extensions. He is based in ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. headquarters.
Prior to joining ESPN, LaPlaca worked for one year (1979 80) as assistant sports information director at Brown University.
LaPlaca received a bachelor of arts degree in journalism/mass communication from St. Bonaventure University in 1979, and remains active in support of the University’s Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
ESPN’s Communications team has earned many accolades over the years, including PR Week’s “Team of the Year” for large corporations in 2005, and CableFAX Magazine’s “Team of the Year” for 2012.
LaPlaca was honored by his alma mater in 1995 with the Jandoli School’s Alumnus of the Year Award, given to a graduate who exemplifies the highest professional standards and for service to the journalism program at St. Bonaventure. In April 2003, LaPlaca became the seventh alum in the program’s 54-year history to be inducted onto the J/MC school’s “wall of fame,” which includes five Pulitzer Prize winners.
LaPlaca is active within the industry and the community. He is a member of the NCTA’s Public Affairs Committee, and co-chaired the Association for Cable Communicators’ annual conference in 2013. In 2010, he was a keynote speaker at the PR News annual Media Relations Forum, and presented at the Conference for Corporate Communication at Notre Dame in 2013.

Big Ten, New Schools Win The Day, Look To The Future

The day came and went with fireworks and fanfare, music and lots of Scarlet and Terp Pride. Rutgers and the Big 10. Maryland and the Big 10. For the casual fan it had a bit of a wow factor, for the ardent supporter it had a bigger wow factor. For those selling the brand to the business and media world, it was a day of cautious optimism. Of you are counting dollars in the halls of the athletic department; it was a day of cautious optimism.

If you are the Big 10, you are officially, at least in name, slotted in the Capitol District and at least near Madison Avenue to do business every day.  If you are in the halls of academia, you hope that the promises and the flood of long term positive cash flows, as well as the chance to maybe partner with elite institutions on programs well beyond a playing field, makes your job more interesting and perhaps your research better funded. And somewhere in new Jersey as the World Cup is going on, if you are former Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, now watching over another transitional franchise, this one coming into Major League Soccer in New York City Football Club, you are probably smiling at a job well done steering the Scarlet Knights into a Power Five conference against some steep odds.

So when the bands went away, the mascots went home and the smoke from the fireworks blew away, who won?  The jury for both schools is still out and will be for some time, but from a strategic position the real winner right now is the Big 10 itself. While it is easy to “say” you are part of the New  York business marketplace or the fabric of DC, as entities like NASCAR or even the Pac 12 have said for years with media events, sponsor activations or TV buys, having a physical presence where brand and media buyers can actually experience the look and feel of what you are selling 24/7 is required. You can talk and then fly someone to an event; NASCAR at Pocono for example, or taking brands on a junket to a football weekend in Tuscaloosa, but to be able to say on a Tuesday, hey come and see Michigan play Rutgers, or Ohio State is visiting College Park tomorrow bring your family, is a big difference. That experience is amplified even more because New York, and Washington to a large extent, are really professional sports towns by nature.  Yes there are thousands of fans and alumni from colleges who live and congregate for games on their own, but for the large part the media, especially in New York, and most of the population, live and die with those in the pros.  The massive offerings of the Big 10 as a whole and its member schools individually, now get tot take advantage of a regular physical presence in two major markets they have never had before, and that means a great deal when battling with brands for discretionary dollars. It’s not like the Big 10 is hurting in any way for dollars and exposure on a national level, but having those two schools as an entertainment and activation hub in those markets makes the business of college sports just that much easier.

So what does it mean for Rutgers especially? Maryland has never been a stranger to big time athletics with its presence in the ACC. But Rutgers has ebbed and flowed for years into the national conversation through its relationships in the American Athletic, the Big East and before that the Atlantic 10. Pernetti when he was at the Scarlet Knights helm, fought and won a steep stealth battle to get the school into the Big Ten, arguing the upgrade in the long run would change every piece of the University for the better. He succeeded, and despite his controversial departure from the school, has left a mark that current AD Julie Hermann and her staff will have to evolve with going forward, with cautious optimism. The argument is that win or lose, Rutgers will now be able to grab part of that Big Ten national spotlight for themselves, and will be able to cash in literally on the bigger crowds of say, Michigan State coming to Piscataway for football or hoops than  a Cincinnati or a Seton Hall would ever bring. The naysayers bring up the fact that the Big ten schools are better built and supported than what Rutgers has experienced, and the competitive climb for all sports will be very steep and may never be realized.  Those on the positive side say the ancillary sales aspects of having larger profile schools involved can bring bigger sponsor dollars even for individual events, while those on the negative side say that Rutgers is not New York, that the professional sports will still get the larger flow of cash.  The argument for looks at the massive revenue share that the schools will get from playing in a college football championship pool, the argument against says it’s nice to think that all will be equal but in reality the culture of big time athletics is ingrained and managed at schools like Ohio State and Indiana, and it is not part of the culture at a school lie Rutgers. Some academics see the switch as another huge dupe of the public, with dollars spent better going towards world class programs in chemistry or mathematics or communications, all of which have suffered in a challenged environment, while those for say that the association with Big 10 schools can further grant money and in the long run will raise the tide across the University.

All of the above is up for debate at this point. The one certainty is that change in college athletics seems to be constant, and if the current environment does not work for the five big conferences now, that more change may be in the offing, especially for those leagues that DO NOT now have solid boots on the ground in markets like New York and Washington and may need to change yet again. For Rutgers, from an athletic brand standpoint, the association with the Big 10 was an immediate buzz generator, and that buzz will continue into the fall. Success on the field will certainly raise the level of exposure and with it the dollars that can flow in.  Will either matter to a casual fan in the New York area? Maybe. But how far Rutgers can insert itself into a sports culture that is purely professional is still up for debate. Maryland has a better chance in the Washington area, but for the Scarlet Knights to be in the conversation consistently will take a great, great deal of time and effort and success. What is more important for bath is the internal sell. The convincing of alumni, passionate local supporters, brands and administrators and students that this move is consistent, positive and for the better for all. That won’t happen for everyone with a few football games. It will take a constant reinforcement with hard numbers and data and interest, and that sell is much more important than the one to those listening to ESPN radio in DC or WFAN in New York.

In the end who won with the conference shifts this week? Certainly the Big Ten did, as their schools and their sales and marketing forces now have a place to call home in addition to a satellite office near Madison Avenue.  If you believe change is good then Rutgers and Maryland also are winners right now, with the potential for bigger wins on the bottom line down the road. Nine of that is guaranteed for the long term and there will be some painful days and decisions coming as that transition occurs, but if you were betting on longer term health, it seems like being with the have’s if you are in those athletic administrations, projects better than being on the outside trying to climb in.

July 2014 certainly brought optimism and buzz across two campuses, especially the one in New Jersey. Maintaining that buzz and pulling in the dollars will be the tough task at hand, and certainly one to watch as the leaves turn not just this fall, but for years to come as college sports continues its evolutionary dance into the sports business stratosphere.

What’s Next In The U.S., “Brand Soccer”?

It’s kind of an interesting juxtaposition for team sports. As the four biggest American leagues all look to be more global, Major League Soccer looks to continue to better establish a global game in the United States, and their leverage continues to increase daily as not just the U.S. Men’s National Team continues its good work, but casual fans become more attuned to the ebb and flow of the global game of soccer through the World Cup.

Leveraging a global phenomenon in sports is certainly not new; women’s soccer tried with their success in the women’s World Cup, and Olympians big and small do the same to various degrees of success every two years, and other sports like Formula 1, Indy Car, America’s Cup even Beach Volleyball and now rugby and even cricket, try to take those unique windows where the consumer is entranced and stretch that window as wide as possible. Usually it ebbs and flows away, with few long term consistent results. Sometimes the telegenic break through; Michael Phelps, Brandi Chastain, Alex Morgan, Lolo Jones,  Keri Walsh; but often times it’s here today and on to the next thing tomorrow.

Soccer obviously is different for many reasons. It has built from the ground up over a long period of time for sport. It has had the unique opportunity to have its biggest global clubs infiltrate the US media market with brand activation and fan education platforms (which will continue this summer) and now it has success in front of an audience that is more primed for the game and more educated than ever before. It also has the benefit for the most part of being the sport of choice for the new immigrant, all of which helps rise the tide.

So when the sun sets on the American World Cup, or if the US goes through an improbable but still possible run through the knockout round now in Brazil, what’s next?  Sometimes athletes, sports, brands build to the moment or the key event, the event comes, and that is the pinnacle of exposure. For soccer in the US, the next step is even more important than the ones in the past or the ones now, and that’s where MLS seems to be best set up.

The league can certainly take a page from the NHL and its partners, who rode post-Olympic notoriety to solid numbers and brand exposure again this past winter. Stars were built, global stars, as they went back to their markets and all of hockey benefitted. Brands got more engaged, teams used social platforms to expand their reach, and NBC’s investment across all platforms made hockey overall more relevant in the casual sports landscape than it has ever been before.

Soccer, and MLS in particular, has used this quiet league time to be great ambassadors for the sport. Instead of spending all his time in Brazil, Commissioner Don Garber beat the media bushes here in the States, talking growth, partnerships and business with everyone who would listen. Bring scarves to Morning Joe? There was the comish. A late night talk? The comish was there. Leveraging ESPN (even though it is their last World Cup they are still invested in the game with partners) to the hilt, MLS officials are there. All smart ways to make sure the conversation is driven back to what could happen and what people will look to when the World Cup ends and discretionary dollars get allocated again. A lull in an MLS season did not mean a lull in brand activity; it has been just the opposite.

So coming out of Brazil, how does MLS keep the buzz going? Well it has the league and all its partner cities to make sure the flavor and the pageantry of what was seen by casual fans can be amplified to some extent. It has friendlies with some of the biggest clubs in the world coming to selected markets to again amplify the soccer experience and bring global soccer back to the US in some form. It has VERY eager brand partners to activate with who now see the engagement possibilities, and it has new potential partners who looked at World Cup and see potential in the States they may not have seen before.

Are there challenges? Absolutely. Hockey had the advantage of having most Olympic stars coming back to North America to play in the NHL. MLS does not have that, as even many of the most recognizable Americans re still pulling in big bucks abroad. That is changing, but it is a challenge. It is still very much an experiential sport and a sport of tradition vs a sport that is consistently strong in broadcast numbers in the US, but like hockey, the overall engagement across all platforms, especially for a younger soccer fan in the States, is more important than a Nielsen number. There is also the continuing challenge of converting the global fan of soccer to a fan of the American game and its MLS teams. That is a slow but evolving process, and one which the popularity of this World Cup will not change.

So while all about World Cup has been great for American partners in soccer, the biggest evolution and step is yet to come. The challenges exist, but the opportunity is great, and the MLS leadership, and the leadership of USA Soccer, looks from their actions ready to keep the buzz going and the brand building once the sun sets in Brazil, and rises to a bold “what’s next” back in the States.

Tennis Talk: Skip Gilbert and the US Open

With Wimbledon here we dip into the tennis q and a archives with Tanner Simkins and his “Full Court Press” profiles. this one is with Skip Gilbert of the USTA talking tennis as the US hardcourt season approaches after the grasscourt season ends with the Hall of Fame event in Newport, Rhode Island after Wimbledon finishes…

We caught up with Skip Gilbert, US Open Tournament Manager, and Managing Director of Professional Tennis Operations for the USTA.  Gilbert has left a lasting impact on every organization he has been a part of.  Whether as a NCAA first team All American soccer goalkeeper, a professional athlete, or his time in executive roles with US Soccer, USA Swimming, USA Triathlon, the Arena League and more, we learned Gilbert is on a similar trajectory of growth and success with the USTA and the US Open. A detailed biography for Skip Gilbert is provided after the Q&A. Connect with Skip on LinkedIn.

 Full Court Press: “Nothing beats being here”, a very appropriate slogan for the US Open – what does it mean, as tournament manager, to be involved in such a marquee international event?

Skip Gilbert: Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of sport properties that create events, large and small.  Each has in common a passionate fan base, unbelievable competitors and a unique environment to that respective sport which makes it special.  The US Open is similar to those other events with the exception that it is the world’s largest sporting event being showcased on the world’s largest stage, New York.  So you have fans, athletes, officials, media, staff, medical and other critical groups that are all integrated throughout the footprint of the venue.  Of course there are many, many more of them to handle.  When you do it well at the US Open, there is simply a sense of pride of accomplishment unlike any other annual event.

 FCP: Walk us through the week leading up to the Open? Chaotic or finalized?

SG: The week before the US Open brings to close a year of solid planning.  At the end of every tournament we ask each member of our team: full-time, seasonal and volunteers, to complete a comprehensive after-action report.  We add to it player and partner surveys.  A good part of the year is developing solutions to all of the issues raised to help make the subsequent US Open even better than the last.

FCP: How do you effectively bring together so many areas of the tournament – facilities, marketing, ticket sales, PR, hospitality, etc, to lead a successful event?

SG: Communication is critical.  Nobody likes surprises so we bring all of the departments together on a regular basis starting months before the tournament to provide status reports, share ideas and concerns and basically put everything on the table.  They are large, time consuming meetings but worth it

 FCP: What is the most satisfying part of your role with USTA and specifically with the Open?

SG: David Baker, my former Commissioner at the Arena Football League, used to say that those of us who had the privilege of working in sport are in the business of “making dreams come true”.  You can’t find a bigger canvas to paint those dreams than the US Open.  So when it’s over and you think about the impact you helped to have on so many different people that underscores why we do these jobs and why they bring such an immense level of satisfaction.

FCP: What initiatives do you lead through the Open to push the USTA’s not-for profit mission?

SG: The mission of the USTA is to promote and develop the game of tennis.  So we push that through everything we do.  Offering free admission to watch our US Open qualification tournament provides people the opportunity to experience world-class tennis.  Arthur Ashe Kids Day (Saturday before the US Open start) opens our facility to twenty thousand kids (and their parents) to enjoy the largest single-day, grassroots tennis and entertainment event in the world.  The US Open, the world’s largest annual sporting event, allows us to continue to develop the best American tennis player and promote the game to millions of people in the US alone.  And finally, adding the Junior and Wheelchair competitions within the US Open shows the width and depth of our efforts to push our mission.

 FCP: What is your fondest US Open memory as a fan and now as tournament manager?

SG: I spent almost twelve years with The Sporting News and each year we had series packages to entertain our advertisers at the US Open.  So I saw many great matches, but the one that stands out is the 1991 Semi-Final match with Jimmy Connors.  His run that year at 39 (his last) ended in the Semis, but he put on a great show, even in defeat.

 FCP: Any negative experiences or extenuating circumstances surrounding your time with the Open?  How did you overcome or deal with it?

SG: With only one Open under my belt, there really aren’t any negative experiences of note to date.  Perhaps the only real negative experience has been when it rains.  We’ll overcome it in the future by building a roof on Arthur Ashe.

 FCP: How has your past experiences either at the AFL, Times-7 or elsewhere, helped with managing the US Open?

SG: That sounds like an interview question!  Every step throughout my career has provided a tremendous base to be able to step in help manage the US Open and oversee Professional Tennis Operations throughout the US.  Having an experience mix of advertising/sponsorship sales, organizational marketing and being a CEO of a growing NGB has given me a wide background to handle almost any issue.

 FCP: In addition to the Open, you manage the Cincinnati, New Haven, and Atlanta tournaments –how does your approach change when overseeing these other tournaments?

SG: We are a majority owner in Cincinnati, a minority owner in Atlanta and a partner in New Haven.  With those tournaments, the staffs in place each are incredible and do amazing things to showcase tennis within their community.  So the major difference is that instead of being hands-on as with the US Open, we become a source of information, a supportive resource for the Tournament Director and staff in each city.

 FCP: Any creative packages you sell to tournament sponsors?

SG: Our sponsorship platforms are unique to each company given the size and scope of the US Open.  Each of our partners brings a unique program to the tournament that helps to drive awareness and relevance to our fans.  We have a very talented partnership team that spends the year working with each sponsor to map out what they want to accomplish and how they can do that on our grounds. For example, American Express has an interactive Pavilion that allows Cardmembers to literally “touch” the game while also providing devices so fans can listen to the radio broadcasts of the matches.

FCP: What are some innovative ways you embrace new media and the digital realm?

SG: Our New Media team has created a Social Media Wall, a 50’ x 8’ video wall, which will display social feeds from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  This is just one example of many different initiatives to integrate the wonders of the digital world into the sport of tennis.

FCP: What are some industry trends or developments that you are closely following?

SG: The issue of childhood obesity is a significant one that every National Governing Body (NGB) should be monitoring.  If the pool of tennis players gets smaller due to fewer kids playing the sport, the number of competitive players will ultimately decrease.  This would hurt our ability to develop world class champions.  With childhood obesity, this is not just a tennis problem but an overall sport and society issue.

 FCP: What’s the future hold for the US Open? For the USTA?

SG: The future for the USTA and the US Open is incredibly bright.  The major news impacting the US Open is the $550m renovation of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.  The design calls for two new stadium courts, better public access to our five practice courts, increased fan capacity with our field courts and we will install a roof on Arthur Ashe, the world’s large tennis stadium.

 FCP: What’s your favorite book, sports business or otherwise?

SG: “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.   It really has been a valuable resource for me. It shows how great companies are run by leaders who are humble, but driven to do what’s best for the organization.  I’ve used often throughout my career his bus theory.  Get the right people on the bus, then figure out where to go.

FCP: Any tips for aspiring sports professionals who may be reading this?

SG: The level of business professionalism throughout the sports industry has grown significantly stronger over the years.  So for anyone really interested in working in the sports industry, the best advice is to come to the interview prepared.  Do your homework about the organizations strengths and weaknesses.  Show how you will have a positive impact by utilizing your unique skills and/or experience.  And finally, don’t say you are a “fan”.  Most of us could care less if you are a fan.  Ultimately that’s nice but it won’t help you do your job.

 Skip Gilbert brings over 25-years of sales, marketing and managerial experience from various sport organizations to his role as the Managing Director of Professional Tennis Operations and US Open Tournament Manager with the United States Tennis Association.  Previous to the USTA, Skip joined USA Triathlon (USAT) as its CEO and guided that governing body through one of its most explosive periods of growth in its 30-year history.  USAT under his leadership grew membership from 52,000 members to over 135,000, increased the organizational budget from $5.5m to over $11.5m per year and elevated their investment account from $1.5m to over $6.5m in just six years. 


While at USAT, Skip was elected Chairman of the NGB Council, comprised of CEO’s and volunteer Presidents representing the interests of the 47 sport governing bodies within the Olympic Family and Chairman of the Association of the Chief Executives of Sport, membership trade association for 65 National Governing Bodies in and outside of the Olympic Movement.  Prior to USAT, Skip worked in various sales and marketing roles for USA Swimming, US Soccer, the Arena Football League as well as with sport publications such as the Sporting News, Outside and Tennis magazines.


Skip graduated from the University of Vermont, attended the prestigious Lawrenceville School and was a soccer goalkeeper for the Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) before joining the business community.


Skip currently lives in Ridgefield, CT with his wife Jenifer and their three children Fritz, Austin and Greta.


Lessons Learned: Joyce Aschenbrenner

We are taking the time a day here and there to look at some of the lessons learned we featured in the book. Over the weekend I saw it was Joyce Aschenbrenner ‘s birthday, so we decided to highlight her story…see below.

 One of the trailblazers for women in the industry, Joyce Aschenbrenner made her first mark in the collegiate ranks at the University of Pittsburgh, having a hand in the publicity and promotion of future NFL stars Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett in a time when very few women were fulltime in the industry, especially on a major college level. A graduate of the University of West Virginia and a Pittsburgh native, Joyce moved on to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas from 1982 through 1990. It was while she was with the Runnin Rebels that college basketball became an even bigger showpiece than in the past, and her work fine-tuning the pregame excitement at Rebels basketball for Jerry Tarkanian’s squad, including light shows, red-carpet entrances and indoor fireworks became an industry trend.  She took college basketball and helped make it into showtime in the showiest city in the world.

Aschenbrenner then moved on to the University of Colorado, where she was the associate athletics director for external affairs and senior women’s administrator. During that time, she also worked as a liaison to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Following her time in Boulder, she served a three-year term on the Defense Advisory Commission for Women in the Services for the Department of Defense. She then left collegiate athletics and moved on to The V Foundation for Cancer Research in November 2001 as the director of marketing and communications and now works on various consulting projects. She is also a cancer survivor, and role model to the many women now entering the industry at record rates.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM  JOYCE ASCHENBRENNER:  The skills that are learned as publicists can translate to many different fields, including the not-for-profit area.  There are many ways to help grow the area where charities and sports intermix these days, and make that area into a very worthwhile part of sports publicity as well.

Why The NFL Draft Delivers…

It’s not the most compelling TV for those looking for fast action, and some media folks have criticized it for being too over the top with hype, but as a platform it is hard to argue that the NFL Draft as it stands today does not deliver for brand partners, fans, buzz and media content.

Perhaps this year was a bit of an outlier, because of the added hype of Johnny Manziel on round one and then Michael Sam on Saturday, and the event was bolstered in advance by the buzz and marketing around the film “Draft Day” that hit theaters less than three weeks before. However by doing all the “little things,” this year’s Draft had something for everyone by telling so many of the stories across so many outlets behind the scenes.

Want to know about how the names now get sewn on uniforms as players are picked and come to the podium? There was a story for that. What music to the draftees prefer? The NFL let players do their walkout music and then made sure the list was circulated (great artist hype and something the NBA will probably glean off of). Who dresses the athletes? More than one outlet brought us the story of the tailors to the stars. Want to connect with the history of the league, let’s bring in NFL Legends on Day Two to announce the picks and then let them speak about the glory of the game. How about some celebrity splash? There is the red carpet at Radio City filled with entertainment press.  In market buzz? How about live drop in’s from mega- parties conducted by teams all weekend long in each of their markets. Make the event a travelling road show beyond just New York? Let’s have other cities talk about hosting the draft going forward.

That is all in addition to key sponsor events by Budweiser, Verizon and many others where clients can be engaged leading up to the draft and fans can experience the elongated show by getting free tickets to sit in the audience at Radio City as the event goes on.

The result? A huge win weekend during a time when games are months away, now netter placed strategically between the Super Bowl and the start of training camp, with equal time on both sides. Record buzz, record social media attention, and the building of new stars underway.  Is there too much hype placed on all the trappings of The Draft? While some say yes, the career of the non-guaranteed contract in the salary capped NFL of today provides a limited window for some talent to shine, so giving everyone drafted the chance for some exposure is a valuable service provided to all the young players who walk through the door. It is much more enhanced than years before, but it is a great example of a property effectively taking advantage of a window in time to tell its story in unison to an audience that is both deeply engaged and one that may just be passing by for a look.

There were certainly best practices that the NBA, which has a similar format, can pull in for their draft, and perhaps event then NHL, MLS and MLB can also grab on to, although the development of stars for those three is a much more elongated process in most cases than hoops and football. Now all of the extras were certainly not just invented; many come from the hype and buzz surrounding the yearly entertainment show gatherings, like the Oscars or the Grammy’s or the Tony’s or even the MTV Music Awards.  However the big difference is the honoring of young people here really BEFORE they achieve greatness, not after their career success is cast in stone.

There is talk of the Draft going to four days as well. Too much too long? Maybe. But if the content, the brands and the fans say go, why not? If you are the NFL or any of its partners you want feel good stories to be told year round, and the controlled environment and drama of The Draft presents the perfect launch pad for those stories to begin, and then to be extended throughout years and careers.

It’s a great celebration of a property in a very controlled environment with all the trappings, with the games still way off in the distance.  

“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.