FIFA | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

Brazil Takes Small Step, Speaks Loudly With World Cup Teeshirt Ban…

Last year the newly minted Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League created a stir when their wildly popular launch T-Shirts, “Feeling Thorny?”  were deemed too sexist and were pulled from the shelves, but not before creating buzz for the team and quite a black market cottage industry for the suddenly scarce and more in demand than ever shirts. Some groups claimed the shirts sexist, the team, which had vetted the phrase before selling, considered the play good natured. Nonetheless, the Thorns, like their MLS counterparts The Timbers, fully respectful of all fans, removed the controversy by removing the inventory, but not before generating some national buzz and a little edge.

This week the question of objectionable and probably well intentioned soccer t-shirts again rose up in the news, when World Cup partner adidas on Tuesday agreed to a request from Brazil’s tourism board to stop selling two T-Shirts made in the US for US consumers, that were meant to be good natured but were thought to encourage sexual tourism, something which Brazil is fighting and monitoring very closely.

The two shirts, one showing  a bikini-clad woman with open arms on a sunny Rio de Janeiro beach under the word-play “Looking to Score, ” while the other had an “I love Brazil” heart resembling the upside-down butt of a woman wearing a thong bikini bottom.   Neither obviously were directed at the beauty of World Cup, which starts June 12. They played off a global perception that Brazilians are about sensuality and regularly use bikini clad women on their beaches as a way to promote tourism, not inspire sexual trafficking or exploitation. One would be hard pressed to find a Brazilian tourism which didn’t feature beautiful women on the countries beaches as a matter of fact. In talking to several Brazilians  who heard of the shirts, few found them offensive when first discussed.

However we are now in a world where the global awareness of human trafficking especially in BRIC countries is growing very quickly. It was a huge issue that was addressed during the Olympics and even during the Super Bowl, and nations rightfully so have taken a stance of zero tolerance. There is little doubt adidas, as a great global ambassador for soccer and for its brand and the World Cup, created the shorts in a vacuum. They used the marks of World Cup so there had to be an approval process. Whether that approval was in the US, since the shirts were only sold at this point in the US, and it showed insensitivity by an American audience to the problem in Brazil and elsewhere is up for debate. What was clear on adidas’ side is that there was no room for questioning the issue once it was brought to the attention of the media; they reacted quickly and effectively to fix the situation.  

Some may say this is window dressing by the Brazilian government to take what is a relatively minor incident, one which may have gone unnoticed by most of the world given the few shirts that were in circulation, to make a grandstand play against a global sports brand.  However it was an interesting pre-emptive strike that showed two things: officials are doing their best to watch everything, no matter how small, and that they will not tolerate even those spending huge sums of money in Brazil around World Cup trivializing what is a very serious issue. It also gave the government a platform to state their case at a time when the sports business world, especially in the US, is coming off an Olympic hangover and is more focused on other things than large-scale social issues around Brazil and World Cup.

Did the fervor and attention maybe create a new market for risqué knockoff tees around World Cup now?  Probably. Was it an overreaction by officials? At first blush maybe, especially given the way the country does flaunt its beauty and beaches, but it sent a pretty clear message not just for Word Cup, but for the 2016 Olympics and other events that will occur, that this is a serious topic that won’t be trivialized.  Will the halting of selling two tee shirts in the US mean that human trafficking will not be an issue during World Cup? Of course not, but it gave the government some leverage that it did not have before, and it also sent a message that global brands looking to market around World Cup need to take a string look at what is really acceptable and what is perceived as acceptable when understanding the culture. It is a mistake, especially with American brands, that is made time and again. Slapping “Los” and playing mariachi music does not mean you are marketing to “Latinos,” and serving Chinese food does not mean you are marketing to “Asians.” If you are going to play internationally, you have to understand and integrate unto the culture, something that adidas as a global brand usually does well, but seems to have missed on this time.

From Portland to Rio, small actions can still have global implications, and Brazil took an interesting stance over what some may see as a small, playful marketing ploy which now addressed a bigger issue.

MLS Provides A Well-Timed Visit To Kick Off The Media Season

It certainly isn’t easy to cut through a cluttered February landscape that includes NBA All-Star, the Olympics and USA Hockey’s dramatic weekend, the peak of college basketball season, the coming NFL Combine, pitchers and catchers reporting and the Daytona 500, but Major League Soccer went on a strategic quest to find its preseason niche this past week, bringing their stars to the media at a time of year when even local MLS media are off doing other things as teams train in warmer climates in preparation for the start of the season. Much like what MLB is does in Arizona (bringing the Cactus League managers together in one location to better serve the media upon their arrival in Phoenix), MLS took a diverse group of players to the media in what was a combination immediate media coverage, brand building, awareness seeding exercise which was wide ranging and generated some solid awareness, especially among casual fans, of MLS when their thoughts were probably elsewhere prior.

The players  MLS’ took on the two day junket included Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Michael Bradley and Tim Cahill, a group that has both domestic and international appeal, services many markets and can talk to the big picture about many topics in and around soccer and the coming MLS season and the World Cup.  They were racially and geographically diverse with some local ties (two being New York Red Bulls, one from New Jersey) and understood the reasons and value of leaving training and other commitments to promote the game that has given them so much.

The visit was actually very well timed despite the busy calendar. With a holiday in place many outlets might be looking for a softer side of coverage, and the lack of any other regular season games to cover (perhaps only the second time that a weekend had no regular season NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA games in at least 25 years) combined with a bit of a respite in the Olympics provided a manageable window to engage on platforms that on a busier time might have passed on MLS.

During the two days, the group made stops at the predictable (ESPN, Univision, SI),  and the trendy (GQ), but also dropped in for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Time Magazine, CNN, Bloomberg TV and FS1’s “Crowd Goes Wild.”  The players also found the time in the schedule to do the grassroots as well, hosting a soccer clinic in Harlem at the Children’s Aid Society, before ending up at a photo shoot and at the Empire State Building.

Was the two day two the massive junket that a film would do, replete with Late Show and screaming throngs of fans? No, but that was not the ultimate goal. It was to shake the relevant media outlets, plant seeds for future coverage and continue a conversation that will become more and more relevant as the MLS season starts, and more importantly for soccer and its partners, for when World Cup kicks in to engage casual fans globally in the late spring. The Tour was not done with athletes fresh off Olympic glory or a world championship; it was done in advance of future success, and ironically did not include anyone from last year’s MLS Cup Championship between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. It included relevant, recognizable faces with stories that appealed to the market, and in the end building that ubiquitous appeal was key for MLS to start cutting through the clutter and becoming more top of mind for media outlets hence forth in what will be a key year for on-field growth and awareness, with a year of expansion on the docket for 2015.

Timing Is Everything; Beckham Boosts American Soccer Again…

The past week after the Super Bowl, the Today Show, in the midst of its Olympic buzz, welcomed a global star to its air. It wasn’t Russell Wilson and his freshly minted NFL title; it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin, headed for Sochi and the homestanding Russian team; it wasn’t Lindsay Vonn, readying for her on-air role for Sochi. It was David Beckham and he was talking not Barclays Premier League or World Cup, he wasn’t talking Super Bowl underwear ads. He was talking Major League Soccer, on a dreary morning where most of the Northeast was longing for pitchers and catchers in sports and most MLS teams were off in some warm clients training for a season still to come in most home markets.

The timing was great, and the announcement was simple; the global star was bringing his brand back to help the league jump once again in another warm weather location, this time Miami, as the new “owner” of the latest MLS expansion franchise. They don’t have financing or a stadium, the announcement was  to let the world know Beckham had exercised his expiring option to own a team, and that choice would be Miami, a city where if you aren’t the Heat on a title run you have a tough time filling seats and capturing the attention of sports fans. Regardless of the obstacles, the day was a great one for MLS, which used the Beckham celebrity to inject itself into the global sports and business conversation at a time where they were a distant afterthought even in the soccer world which past midseason across Europe and is starting to ramp up for Brazil World Cup later this year.

The announcement was full of what MLS sells best; future hope combined with lots of buzz as it continues to build the quality of its play and the value of its franchises.  It had all the right trappings; mentions of celebrity owners coming in, a call to action for the Latino audience dominant in South Florida to embrace a professional soccer franchise, a that an elite former player was now focused on creating a new legacy off the field in the game he loves, and a that a market where MLS had died years ago was now mature and ready to grow again, not unlike cities like Washington have done with baseball and Sacramento in some ways is going through with basketball. Miami is now a welcomed and potential great success story for soccer in America.

Now when the sizzle clears there is lots to be done and many questions to be raised; where does the money come from, who builds the stadium, can Beckham, with no managerial experience and lots of business initiatives, spend the time and hire all the right people to make the franchise a success as a business and as a soccer club, and even if he does, will the fickle Miami audience turn out?  While a big announcement for sure, others questioned why the next franchise wouldn’t be in a more mature soccer city like Atlanta, San Antonio or Austin, vs. the risky move back to South Beach. However for today, having Beckham back in the fold was great news for MLS, and helps jump start a series of events for 2014 that can continue to propel the business of soccer in the States forward. It follows the popular partnership between the New York Yankees and Manchester City Football Club to add an expansion franchise to New York, and the string announcement to bring Central Florida, a very solid soccer market already, a club in Orlando all of which sounded good and brought buzz and like Miami, are still off in the distance as to what level of actual success can be achieved with such high expectations.

We all know in sport nothing is easy, and when dealing with real life drama on and off the field even the best plans and biggest dreams can go awry. However for MLS to cut through a cluttered February landscape already filled with Olympics, the Super Bowl business hangover, the coming NBA All-Star game and more than enough exciting college sports (not to mention Daytona for NASCAR and Pebble Beach in golf), was a huge score for soccer, and a move which has set the tone once again for what can be an exciting, and definitely intriguing sports business landscape not just for 2014 but for the next few years to come as these new franchises look to emulate the success of places like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver with lots of sizzle, and hopefully a steak to go with it, the latest one in the hands of one of the world’s most recognizable faces, now settling in in South Florida.  

MLS Cup and World Cup Draw Help Float The North American Soccer Boat…

Say what you want about Major League Soccer and where it sits in the lexicon of professional sports in North America or where it sits as an established and viable entity in the global game, but there is no doubt that progress continues to be made as a brand.

The latest step will take place this weekend,  when MLS Cup will be held in Kansas City after a very long season, timed to follow the great global buzz around Friday’s World Cup draw. The weekend will be symbolic in highlighting what MLS has done best in recent years; growing and cultivating the game in the North America from the grassroots up, and then taking advantage of the key moments globally where soccer is premium and using that wave to raise awareness for the sport in their markets.

The past two weeks of lead up to MLS Cup has been a non-stop promotional tour for Commissioner Don Garber and others, using every form of media to engage and tell the story of the league and the sport overall. From Google hangouts to twitter chats to town hall meetings and visits with Regis Philbin, Garber has been everywhere as the face of the game in the U.S. the past few weeks. Using the consistent messages of growth and business health to spur the sport. The announcement of expansion into the Orlando market, the progress of a new stadium in the Bay Area and the continued rumors, albeit loud ones, of a David Beckham group getting a franchise have helped offset some of the warts on the MLS skin, like league sponsor Volkswagen ending its kit deal with DC United, or the ongoing questions of a future schedule format and the increased potential salary levels of players.  All of the negatives are actually positive signs of a maturing property, along with wherever the league TV contract ends up in future years.

The week, and the weekend, are all about spin positive for MLS and “Brand Soccer” in the States. Despite cold weather, something which will be an interesting factor should the league go to the traditional winter soccer schedule in future years, the league gets to show off one of the most technologically advanced facilities to a world which may not have seen how far ahead Sporting Kansas City is in terms of innovation. MLS has tried to replicate the buildup in the local market that other championship events have done; music events, food tasting, community builds and charitable donations for example; to try and expand the casual scope of the sport in the marketplace.   A host of brand activation projects from MLS national sponsors will also help to round out the goings-on around the Cup.

The timing of the Championship tied to the World Cup draw is also well planned and fortuitous for those pushing soccer in the States on the highest level. With the US and Mexico both qualifying for Brazil in  2014, the buzz around all things soccer, no matter who one roots for, will be high during the weekend, and MLS can slide into that conversation on many levels, especially in social media. Maybe all the talk is not about Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, but any talk about the game helps raise the awareness of all involved.

Is the format for MLS Cup perfect? No. While rewarding the high seed with to host seems like the best way to build local interest, it limits the amount of advance planning and event management that can be done around MLS Cup. The cold weather scenario for the current schedule also doesn’t help, although that would change if the schedule does flip. Then there is market size and star power for the casual fan. No doubt that Real Salt Like and Sporting KC are solid businesses and quality franchises. But in the growing world of MLS having a major market and its major stars to draw is a big plus, albeit something no one can control. The plus side of emerging markets is that there is a window to tell new stories, expose new fan bases and continue to build for the future. If that future also happened to be located in New York or LA or Toronto or Seattle that too would be great, but one can only play the cards that are dealt on the pitch.

At the end of the day, the weekend is a celebration of all things soccer in North America, and hopefully a look back on the success of coming franchises, large digital exposure and new brand partners. Dwelling on the short term items like TV numbers and cold weather will probably be overshadowed by the continued growth of soccer in North America, and the looking forward to possibilities of what World Cup and new faces will bring to the league will outshine the lesser news cycle. MLS continues to build and grow, and this weekend is a good reflection of where the sport and the league have come and more importantly where they can go in the future.

Ivy Sports Symposium Sends A Clear Message: Opportunity Abounds

We are hiring!

That was the common thread that seemed to continue to pop out during one of the best days on the sports business calendar, the annual Ivy Sports Symposium. From the eclectic panel assembled to discuss sports in Brazil, to Yahoo’s Eric Winter and Talent League’s Tom Richardson to Gillette’s Greg Via the message was very clear…if you can hustle, be willing to take some risk, and bring a unique set of talents to an organization, especially those in the digital space or those needing to ramp up with the mega-global events coming…from World Cup and Olympics…there is a place for you.

Maybe it’s because it is a mix of students and  global sports executives from all areas of business, maybe it’s because the setting is a college campus, maybe it’s because  the combination of those two give the speakers a chance to be a little more loose and free thinking with ideas, but for the eight straight year the Ivy Sports Symposium topped itself as one of the most unique and comprehensive one day gatherings on the sports business calendar.

This year’s event was held at Harvard University for the first time, after one year stops at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University  and five years at Princeton University, and the over 100 speakers and 600 attendees were treated to a day of open conversation, leadership ideals, networking and sharing of best practices from areas ranging from social responsibility to new media to finance to team and league governance. While much of the details can be found on the Symposium website, some of the more frank and positive discussions came from the leadership core of speakers that frankly rarely take such opportunities to address a conference.

The rare voices heard from included MSG President Dave Howard, Excel Sports President Jeff Schwartz, Rio 2016’s Leonardo Gryner, NBA President  Joel Litvin, Sports Illustrated’s Mike McCann and Pete Thamel,  and they mixed and match well with both the students and the industry execs gathered to talk about such a wide range of topics. The audience and the Ivy cache’ clearly helped drive new faces to the event, and mixing those names and voices in with others like Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, the Boston Celtics Rich Gotham,  ESPN fantasy expert Matthew Berry, MLB Security head John Skinner, and Palace Sports and Entertainment head Dennis Mannion among many others really helped create a tension-less and free flowing exchange of ideas and positive thought on a rainy Friday in Cambridge. In the end, it seemed like not just the attendees but the speakers as well who sat in on one another’s panels throughout the day, all seemed to have learned something that had not thought of before.

Now if you were a student or someone in transition or looking for guidance to see what’s next, the messages were pretty clear; if you speak a second language, can express yourself in the written word outside of twitter, have an understanding of finance and sales, are willing to travel and have a feel for the various forms of media available today, then you have a leg up. There were few rambles about wanting to be bold and challenge every aspect of traditional authority or structure. Rather, the discussions were about a mix…understanding the traditional ways business has been done and then adapting to a new global environment. Lawyers and accountants mixed with high school students,  senior team and league executives shared thoughts with graduate students, and for the most part everyone seemed to embrace an old fashioned idea…listen before you speak. While the networking was part of the event, the halls were far less crowded while segments were going on than most conferences, meaning that there was substance being discussed, whether it was in philanthropy or new media or law or sales or athlete representation. Some may say the event is sometimes too wide ranging and not focused, but it always seems to come across as a nice slice of the industry, a look both back and forward of all aspects of the business.

In the end the most encouraging news was the frankness with which senior executives readily admitted that the job market is opening wider and more diverse than ever. There was no hemming and hawing, it was very clear. Of course the openings won’t suit everyone. A workforce that hiring industry executives admit may have as much as 65 percent  of people as consultants by 2020 doesn’t mean that those of a certain age can suddenly take a $60,000 a year position at a startup without benefits, but in a world or re-engineering the skills one has, hearing that employers are willing to listen and look for new ways of engaging talent was a very strong message, and probably the best one that could come out of the day- long conference…a message that probably wasn’t expected by most who have heard about downsizing and doom and gloom for the better part of a decade.

Every year the Ivy Sports Symposium has brought a little more light and discussion to the industry. This year, its biggest message may be the most impactful yet; that those who attended Friday may have had tangible opportunities presented to them as a result of taking the time to make the trek to Harvard, and that’s the type of ROI that everyone; from the most senior execs to those looking to get started down the road, could have ever expected.

Samsung, NBA Start “Brand Everywhere”

If you have a tablet around an NBA team, it better be a Samsung. TV’s, Galaxies, flat screen monitors, get out of the way Apple and Microsoft, one of the world’s biggest investors in sports marketing just got deeper in the pool last week. Samsung Electronics will be wall to wall on  NBA broadcasts and events, from Las Vegas Summer League through the Finals. Every referee will get a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet for rewatching plays at halftime and between games, and the league will use Samsung technology for reviewing calls courtside during games.

Now what does all that mean other than a mega-TV buy? Will we see Greg Popovich or Tom Thibodeau reaching for the tablet instead of the clipboard to pull real time video married to stats soon? Not likely but it’s a big bold start to partner with a league that has thrust itself into the forefront in data analytics use in the last few months, from adding biomechanical devices to measure athletic output to putting motion sensitive cameras around key arenas to collect even more data married to performance. But holograms replacing clipboards during a time out? Not yet. In many ways the deal is not dissimilar from the ones cut by Microsoft with the NFL and MLS this past summer. Those involve more signage and sport-specific spots highlighting athlete personalities and brands than technology thus far, especially since the Microsoft phone is nowhere near the penetration level of the American consumer that Apple or Samsung are to date.

The other big issue is connectivity. While the technology exists, and MLB uses behind the scenes with some partners, to marry data and video together almost in real time, the signal levels in most arenas are still in the dark ages, and to be able to use courtside wireless technology during play, both sides have to have equal consistent signals and the signal has to be consistent in every arena throughout the league. Many arenas are updating and adding better download speed not just for teams but for consumer engagement, but consistency is still years away.

For now, the initial goal is to make the Samsung brand ubiquitous with the global NBA brand. Get the tablets and phones in the hands, reinforce it with some low hanging practical engagement, even if the engagement is hard wired vs. wireless, and then continue to activate and promote to the millions of NBA fans around the world that Samsung is the “Must have” for basketball engagement.    

This new Samsung barrage is not the first, but it is easily the most extensive partnership for the brand and the NBA. Last year, Jesse Williams popped up on ABC with a microphone in one hand and a Galaxy smartphone in the other, telling viewers to check out his sideline pictures. During halftime of Game five, they aired a three-minute ad to tease its release of Jay-Z’s new album and have steadily incorporated players into their promotions as one-off’s.

The biggest opportunity outside of sales will be in mobile engagement down the road. As teams look to improve the in-game experience and engage with fans minute by minute as they are at a game or crowd-source the likes/dislikes of a particular section, or fill distressed seats at a moment’s notice, Samsung can help provide the solution. As teams use more technology to evaluate talent, Samsung should be the answer. As TV’s themselves become more data-friendly, Samsung units can provide advanced analytics and promotions during NBA Games that competitors will not be able to.

So yes, right now the goal is Samsung brand everywhere in the traditional sense…signage and advertising and promotions. In the near future, it will be more about portability, mobility and analytics. Is it a gamble? For the short term not really, and it serves as a preemptive strike to lock down hoops while competitors focus elsewhere. The NBA’s ability to transcend borders also gives Samsung a strategic global leg up as well against other sports, and helps support in some ways what they do in other sports like soccer around the world. The calculated rick lies in the next step…can arenas align properly, can teams get coaches to engage, and will fans migrate to a Samsung device after years of apple happiness.

If you are going to out a stake in the ground in pro sports, especially winter sports, hoops is the right place, and for the NBA and Samsung, it seems like a smart partnership that can grow and lift both brands.     

Beach Games A New One To Watch…

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 not a great deal of surprise that this week SportAccord announced that it will be the creator of the World Beach Games at a predetermined location starting in 2015.

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 last year. 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 recently staged “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.

Soccer and Snacks Score Together…

Oreos and soccer go together, and so does Trident and futbol. At least they will in the future in one of the most intriguing, all-encompassing branding exercises announced this week.

Mondelez International and Soccer United Marketing announced a wide ranging partnership that can be a game changer for both as they evolve together, a marriage of established consumer products with one of sports’ most innovative leagues. The Mondelez brands, which include Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies, Ritz and Wheat Thins crackers, Trident and Stride gums, and Sour Patch Kids and Cadbury candies, will align with the U.S, men’s and women’s soccer teams and some of its biggest personalities (Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders, Omar Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Alex Morgan, an Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League) as well as with MLS clubs and Club Deportivo Guadalajara, and sponsor of all Chivas occasional matches the team plays in the United States. It makes the brands the official snacks of the women’s and men’s United States national soccer teams.

What makes it so successful?  Here are some reasons:

Timing: With men’s World Cup coming in 2014 and Women’s  Cup in 2015, as well as the Rio Olympics in 2016, Mondelez gets an early jump on positioning itself for exposure as soccer becomes even more top of mind with the American consumer.

Cross-Gender: Grabbing Dempsey gives the brand one of America’s biggest crossover stars and one of the games more popular global players in a market (Seattle) that is a soccer hotbed. Pulling in Morgan ties both to young girls who play soccer and to a young male audience who know of the vibrant personable star through her non-sports brand work. She also is enjoying her time and exposure playing in the Pacific Northwest with a team (The Thorns/Timber) who do a great job of marketing their players and building brand. Then you add in Gonzalez in Los Angeles to appeal to a vibrant Hispanic audience and you have three marketable faces for different audiences who can also combine to deliver powerful awareness to millions of core soccer fans. Such a cross-gender professional sports partnership is very difficult to pull off even in sports like tennis and golf, where both genders have high visibility. To do it in a team environment you could do it with NBA/WNBA or perhaps on an Olympic level, but sharing the stage is difficult to manage. This will be a key way to reach to different groups, the soccer fan and the soccer mom, in one fell swoop.   

Multi-cultural: Despite the lack of success with Chivas USA in MLS, the Chivas brand is still very powerful amongst Mexican fans of soccer and culture on both sides of the border and can draw millions of eyeballs through a US partnership. Gonzalez and the Galaxy also give the partnership a lift at retail and with marketing programs not just in Los Angeles but across the country as MLS increasingly expands its Hispanic footprint.

Soccer Credibility: MLS has done a textbook job of building from the ground up with fans, starting at the youngest level. This partnership puts some of soccer’s most promotable faces front and center not just with soccer fans, but with mainstream America right on the snack foods shelf. It also opens up great opportunities should the brands look to combine athletes in promotional spots from other sports. The Williams Sisters and Oreo Double Stuff meet Alex Morgan, for example. That type of extension is invaluable as soccer moves ahead.

Digital: While media spending isn’t mentioned in the deal, the fact that all of the brands have spent millions investing and growing their digital footprint will also pay off big time for soccer. The 34.4 million followers Oreo has on Facebook alone give soccer a huge amplification when the promotions hit, exposing MLS to a casual audience who may still think the letters stand for a reality listing service.

Traditional Media: While not mentioned in the deal exactly, the fact that Mondelez has been known for big spends in TV and print with key sports properties will also be a boon for soccer and MLS. Clint Dempsey in a Super Bowl spot? Not out of the question any more.

So while this is great for soccer branding, it is also great for the Mondelez  audience that it already markets to (moms and kids) as well as a potential new more active and engaged soccer audience. What doesn’t it have yet? Big market ties in places like New York and Chicago, but maybe those are still to come, especially as the bgger picture promotions can tie to World Cup.

It is so rare to find a partnership that hits on every potential cylinder. This one is one to watch for sure, and a win for “brand soccer” and snack foods fans across the U.S.

Hockey’s Hit Can Make Olympic Baseball Swing and Miss…

It is the largest global sport not part of the Olympic programme now, and unless there is a big shift come September in popular sentiment, it will continue to be.  The baseball/softball bid that moved to final consideration in September o to return to the Games in 2020 was surprising to some, but in the end, especially given the NHL’s announcement about stopping their season, may be very hard to move to the next stage with the powers that be of the IOC.

Baseball has enjoyed varying degrees of success in the Games, the most memorable coming when Tommy LaSorda’s Team USA captured gold in Barcelona, in front of the very supportive president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch. A host of players from those games, as well as games prior and through the Beijing Games, went on to MLB success both from the US and other countries, and Major league baseball has spent millions on their own developing the sport globally.

Still, the issue of having the best players play, even in a shortened format, is what many have indicated the IOC wants, and that is something MLB has not supported in this go-round after the sport was voted out of the Games for 2012. The combined baseball/softball bid, which helps with the issue of more women athletes, the huge advancements MLB has made with drug testing, and the growth of the game in many key markets all helps, but in the end it appears that baseball’s brightest stars and its leadership would prefer the game shine elsewhere outside the Olympic window.

The continued growth of The World Baseball Classic as the destination every few years for a global baseball champion, and the fact the baseball in the Olympic wasn’t hardly mentioned during last week’s All-Star festivities (which could have given the bid a huge international push in awareness) leads those in the business to believe that MLB is OK with the current state of affairs, and that the business risks for season interruption are too great for 2020.

Unlike hockey, there has been no outcry of players to participate in the Olympics, there has been little public push in baseball-savvy countries, and the leaders of the sport on the highest professional level have been supportive but not dogmatic in their push to get the game back in the Games. Hockey also has an advantage of having a TV partner in NBC who is also heavily invested in the Olympic programme…baseball does not have such a partner.  Recent years the elite professional team sports have appeared to be distancing themselves from Olympic competition; soccer has a rule that would never stop elite leagues and has only under 23 players participate in the Games, and there have been rumblings that at some point the NBA could follow suit with their World Championships. The NHL also looked at such a model…one that brings all the revenue to the sport in a window that makes sense in the calendar, and avoids some of the hurdles Olympic participation takes on, much in the way baseball has developed the WBC and soccer the World Cup.  However the NHL move back was a slight change in direction for team sports, and it remains to be seen which way basketball could go in the future.

For softball, the sad thing is that the Olympics raises the sport to levels it doesn’t do for baseball. The joint bid probably should have happened years ago, and it certainly boosted baseball’s chance this time. Whether it works, especially with hockey now agreeing to the season cessation, is not a good message for baseball supporters.

Does baseball belong in the Games? Yes it probably does, and having rising stars play that will help grow the sport seems like a fair compromise and one that can help emerging nations and even new brands engage in the sport. Will it get back in? Tough to say. MLB has been supportive on so many fronts, but will bend but not break it appears with player involvement at this point. Without that, it may be a swing and a miss for a sport long on global growth and revenue, but short on star commitment for the leaders in IOC leaders in Lausanne.

Ronaldinho to Goya, Pats to Blackhawks, Good Brand Messages Abound…

As we hit July, some interesting brand enhancement campaigns, and one new one to watch in a taboo category, have popped up. Take a look…

It’s A Good Year For Pirates, Current and Former: The Pittsburgh Pirates still haven’t caught the attention of casual fans, but they will soon, as the best story in baseball so far this year. However last week, perhaps their greatest player ever got a fitting new tribute from a brand looking to continue its growth outside of the traditional consumer space it occupies.

The player is the late Roberto Clemente, and the brand is Goya Foods, and the two came together to unveil a 3,000 pound bronze likeness of the Hall of Famer, in the aptly named Roberto Clemente State Park, not far from Yankee Stadium.  It is also one of a handful of larger than life memorials in the United States dedicated to any native Puerto Rican.

For Goya, a brand which is a behemoth in the Latino community, the commissioning of the statue further cements its ties to its core audience. However just as important is the significance of the unveiling for Goya to gain popularity amongst casual sports fans. With the baseball world descending on New York for the All-Star game, the brand, and the statue should get some added buzz, and with the Pirates returning to a long-lost upper echelon in baseball, the statue can become even more of a national symbol for the glorious past. Look for some great brand extensions by Goya with the statue likeness and probably some additional promos if the Pirates keep on a pace that would make their late star extremely proud. Great timing Goya in the unveiling.

Condoms Making Their Push?  There are very few categories that have yet to cross unto acceptable sports advertising. Hard liquor continues to grow as a property, the pay fantasy space is expanding, and now maybe condoms will find a home, with sport finding ways to grab the dollars of big pharma that they have not been able to engage in,  to this point.

The latest acceptance came in South America, where Brazilian star Ronaldinho, the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, is launching a condom brand called “Ronaldinho” and produced by manufacturer “Sex free.”  The pitch, according to reports, includes work with his current club Atletico Mineiro  and is aimed directly at fighting AIDS, which is still in epidemic proportions in parts of Brazil. It is not going to be a pleasure filled romp of a campaign that may send parents scurrying for explanations; it is going to be well timed to explain how preventative measures can save lives.  Similar campaigns have been tied to athletes and celebrities in Asia and Africa as well, trying to save lives and initiate the uninitiated.

The conservative lobbies in North America will still push to keep condom advertising out of the mainstream, but with male enhancement programs dominating the marketplace more and more, it seems like campaigns for AIDS prevention and safe sex by major pharma brands, endorsed by athletes, can’t be that far away. Maybe it can start in the digital space vs. in broadcast, with education messages being prominently displayed. There are huge budgets to back such campaigns, and maybe the time that such awareness programs will be deemed acceptable and tasteful are in the offing.  Ronaldinho has taken a leadership position, and as soccer becomes more and more mainstream in the States, that position may help amplify and gain acceptance for a product category, one of very few, still deemed off-limits for those selling sport. An interesting one to watch.

Pats, Blackhawks Step Up To Enhance Their Brands: Lastly, for opposite reasons, the Chicago Blackhawks and the New England Patriots both took stands this week that reaffirmed their positions as not just smart sport brands, but forward thinking elite businesses as well. Chicago, which has risen to new heights off the ice for their forward thinking and innovation under John McDonough, took one of the rarest of steps in sport, spending money to thank the BOSTON fans after Chicago’s exciting Stanley Cup win. It showed compassion, class and a great awareness of the power of doing the little things…albeit this time with a big ad…which differentiates companies in a competitive marketplace. The good will that resonates from such a move, both in Chicago and in Boston, helps lift not just the position of the Blackhawks but of all of hockey, and is a step that could easily be repeated down the line if circumstances warrant.

Then you have the Patriots, dealing with the issues of  Aaron Hernandez. Their move to have fans redeem Hernandez jerseys for another Pats jersey, no questions asked, was a smart and decisive message to fans who spend lots of money on such items, items which all too often become useless once a player moves on to another team in today’s volatile sports world.

Now to be fair, this is Aaron Hernandez, not Tom Brady, so the amount of merch out there is not huge, and the redemption has to take place in a short window and at only designated locations. But the idea that the Pats even made the offer to their fans sends the message that New England gets it and needs to find a way to right a wrong. No doubt the move will pay for itself in appreciation and even more brand loyalty down the road for Robert Kraft and his team.  It also sets a very interesting precedent for other teams in all sports when some sort of egregious behavior occurs. Will others copy what the Pats have done in such extreme circumstances? This is not a player underperforming or even being convicted of a petty crime…this was a player in his prime close to being potentially convicted of a capital offense.  It is a situation hopefully few, if any teams will have to ever deal with, but if it does, the way the Pats handled such a tangible element as a jersey return speaks loudly as to what could be done in the future. Nice score for New England in a horrible, no win situation for so many.