Fox Sports | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

The Power Of The Special Olympics Can Transform, Enrich Brands, Careers…

The last year has seen its own set of drama good and bad in sport across The Garden State. From the excitement of The Super Bowl to the craziness surrounding the issues of Rutgers basketball, from the new ownership of the Devils to the disappointment of the Jets and Giants, from the return of the post-Sandy New Jersey Marathon to the Shore, to the folding of the Newark Bears, the Garden State fan has been on quite the roller coaster ride from 2013 to 2014. A long cold winter seems to finally be giving way to a slightly warmer spring, and with spring comes renewed hope that better things are on the horizon. The Red Bulls have started a new season, the state’s five remaining minor league baseball teams are ready to draw, and Rutgers is readying itself to make the jump to the Big Ten, all full of endless possibilities.   

However come June, perhaps the biggest event full of possibilities, and one perhaps with the greatest impact for thousands, will finally make its way to the State. From Trenton to Newark, more than 3,500 Special Olympics athletes from throughout the United States will come to compete in 16 sports, before tens of thousands of spectators and volunteers in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games for the first time.  

It is the largest and most diverse of its kind ever, showcasing the athletes competing, but will also serving as a platform to expose to the largest media and brand audience possible all that Special Olympics does for the loves of thousands…programs  in education, health and community building that have had transformative powers not just to those competing but to their families and friends and millions who know of the movement from what they have seen, heard and witnessed over the years.

From the Opening Ceremony at Prudential Center, through the Closing Ceremony at Sun National Bank Center, from a board-walk themed Olympic Town, a Special Olympics Unified Sports® Festival and  competitions at venues throughout Mercer County, New Jersey, including Princeton University, Rider University, The College of New Jersey, Mercer County Park and several area private schools the event will help transform sport in the state, and hopefully make long-time supporters out of all who will be touched by the events.

The games continue to gain steam every week, with a never-ending stream of brands that are not just investing chartable and promotional dollars for the cause, but are also looking to leverage media and good will to grow consumer loyalty and maximize ROI. The latest will take place this Wednesday in Hamilton, when Special Olympics athletes, along with representatives from the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, and partners ShopRite and General Mills to unveil a customized Wheaties box featuring a Special Olympics New Jersey athlete. The box will be sold exclusively at Shop Rite, and will serve as a great reminder to consumers that the games are coming and that these athletes represent much more than the sports they are playing. They represent hope, good will and the power of spirit.

There have been no shortage of partners coming to support the Games and their massive undertaking. Founding Partners like Prudential, Barnabas Health, Hess, PSE&G, Toys“R”Us and the WWE, along with ShopRite, PS E and G and 20th Century Fox have all stepped up to both engage and activate in various ways both locally and nationally. Broadcast and digital support has never been more diverse, and the use of social media will take the moments of these Special Olympics well beyond the playing fields and the stands, with a wide-spread infrastructure in place to serve the families and their legions of supporters around the world.  

However even with all the corporate support, the Games are still in need of volunteers. Hopefully they will continue to come from thousands of young people looking to get involved in the global business of sport, who can gain some first-hand knowledge and do some amazing community service as volunteers in all areas of Games operations. So many young people now taking countless programs in sports management, marketing, journalism and communications from schools in the northern, central and southern parts of the state, as well as those in New York and Philly, can hopefully jump on a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only give of their time, but to be involved in a life changing work experience that can help define a career just starting out 

Most importantly, the Special Olympics USA Games will be an amazing platform for the participants to enjoy and experience a global sporting event the likes of which are rarely seen here in our backyard. It will be a celebration of life whose impact will probably transcend anything that has gone on at Met Life Stadium or the Prudential Center or the RAC this past year, and will hopefully inject some much needed mojo into what has been a long, cold stretch for brand sport in many ways across The Garden State.

The Real Super Bowl Winner? Madison Avenue and Wall Street

As we reach pre-Super Bowl weekend the debate rages on as to why a cold weather game vs. the warm weather locations, and it could this game ever happen again? After all, some say, it’s being played between two teams from thousands of miles away, local fans can’t get tickets, it will clog restaurants and highways, and then there is the weather. So who wins other than the Broncos or Seahawks and the select few who can afford to be involved?

The answer really is much broader, and it will probably get a New York game a second consideration down the line should there not be some logistical disaster like the one that happened with bad weather in Dallas a few years ago. Former President Calvin Coolidge once said “The Business of America is Business,” and that couldn’t be more true for the reason this year’s Super Bowl will be a success for being in the New York area.

Aside from the fact that thousands of hotel rooms on both sides of the river will make more money in a week than some will in a typical six month period, or limo drivers will rake in large sums at a time of year that is pretty quiet, or restaurants during the slowest time of the year will be fully booked, or even the millions that will be part of the legacy of the Snowflake Youth Foundation which will help young people and others for years to come with added resources, the business done away from the game will be unparalleled.

Over 500 events, both public  and private, are already underway as everyone from Wall Street executives to advertising agencies to the window dressers at Macy’s get some part of the Super Bowl business experience.  Those who work with hundreds of current and former players, coaches and even announcers who have some distant relationship to the Super Bowl have had a never-ending stream of requests for appearances, from intimate gatherings for clients to shopping mall appearances.  Companies big and small who have never had a chance to logistically experience even part of the world’s largest sports and entertainment event can sample some of what it is like to be in and around the game for the first time, all because of location.

Yes, for every Super Bowl there is a great amount of travel and entertainment. Annual parties like the one Maxim does, are annual “must visits” for the rich and famous. However by having the event in the center of the advertising and business world, the New York area, corporations can amplify their involvement with clients and employees because there is no cost prohibitive travel involved to get people to the events around the game. That means more business can be done face to face over a longer period of time, and more money can be spent actually entertaining and engaging than travelling.  Maybe it doesn’t have the “escape” feel of getting from cold and snowy New York or New Jersey to golf or sit poolside, but the area has ample spaces to keep people warm, engaged and involved, and for those wanting an outdoor experience, there are plenty of cold weather activities at least for short periods of time.

No matter where the Super Bowl is played, it is big business. However when you can bring an event like this to the place where big business takes place, it amplifies the opportunities. That certainly is not lost on the NFL or other mega-event hosts which want to engage a large public audience but also make sure the long and short term business needs of the entity are being  addressed.  It is why NASCAR, the Barclays Premier League, Formula One and every other global sporting event looks to engage in New York no matter what the cost. It is why tennis keeps the US Open in New York every year, and why broadcasters and business partners spend millions to engage with the USTA whether they use tennis as a tool the rest of the year or not.  It is a business and entertainment destination, and until you can bring an event to Madison Avenue, at least once, you are selling yourself short.

Will there be hiccups this week? Sure. Will there be hand wringing about the weather? Of course. Will some people wish they were walking along a beach rather than chatting someone up in a ballroom? Yes. But at the end of the day the success of this experiment will be measured more on long term business relationships than on who wins on the field. The Super Bowl is here, make the most of it. President Coolidge would probably agree.

Richard Sherman Stirred A Very Still Pot; And That’s A Good Thing

“You always need an Avis to play someone’s Hertz,” was a line the late Jay Larkin often used  when talking about how Showtime built its boxing business and kept the sport uber-competitive against the matchmaking of HBO. The rivalries and the storylines and the competition he believed, were key to grow the sport. Parity and monopolies were deadly, as casual fans like the inter-play, the story arcs and the heroes and the villains. It is what brought boxing to its heyday, and frankly what also built WWE into a global brand powerhouse, albeit more entertainment then true sport. Whether it be fictional TV, good books or movies, reality TV, or even better the ultimate reality TV…live sports…we crave good stories and great characters.  Edge is key.

So into that mix is the NFL, as tough a sport as there is on the planet, one which has come under great scrutiny for its violence and the issues that surround such great athletes going at each other with sometimes catastrophic  physical consequences. Yet for all the violence, the structure of the business of the league leans towards parity…teams rise and fall and stay to the middle of the pack and battle to great drama til the final week…but that parity sometimes takes away from the story arcs that make the NFL such a great property. Yes there are great stories told every week by the media machine the league puts together, but in the past those stories that were perhaps most compelling were not the great, altruistic stories…they were interspersed with the bad boys, the villains, the players so flamboyant many people loved to hate them when they were in their prime.  Deion Sanders, Hollywood Henderson, Dick Butkus, Jim McMahon, Keyshawn Johnson just to name a few. All were great athletes but also great copy, sometimes not for the best of reasons but they helped play to the story lines.

So as we head towards the Super Bowl, we entered into a matchup with some outstanding teams and ended up with a pair, Denver and Seattle, who were both truly likeable, with lots of likeable athletes, no matter who you were. How could you not root for Russell Wilson or Peyton Manning, Derrick Coleman or even Wes Welker. They are portrayed, and rightfully so, as smart, effective and successful athletes. A dream matchup on the biggest stage with few losers for the casual fan.

And then we get Richard Sherman. Millions saw or have heard about the interview with Erin Andrews seconds after the game ended, and the debate has raged over whether sideline interviews bring any value, what did Sherman do to hurt the game, were his antics planned, were they justifiable and on and on and on. What they did was expose to America a new character, one who football fans knew but casual fans certainly knew less about, and helped unleash a healthy debate about a whole slew of topics both positive and negative about the true gladiator nature of football, the issues with live heat of the moment reactions, the passion of live sports and the power of the digital space to react instantaneously to an occurrence in real time.

Richard Sherman, at least for a few moments, became the villain to many. And a new storyline was born. It was not one of praising God or Tebowing, it was one of bombast and raw emotion which probably offended many and shocked many others. It was not what one would expect in the calm calculated, carefully crafted messaging of professional live sports today, especially the NFL.

Now in the past few days the world has been exposed even more to Richard Sherman’s story.  A gifted student, grew up in Compton, hugely popular at Stanford, suffered a devastating knee injury, came back as a cornerback, began working on his master’s degree, a fifth round and quick learner  became an All-Pro,  suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, won his appeal and has emerged as a deep thinking, come as you are outspoken athlete, who also was carefully selected by Peter King to write for SI’s Monday Morning Quarterback. Little filter, a throwback athlete in many ways who enjoyed playing the part.  The only drawback for those interested was Sherman was playing that role in the Pacific Northwest, part of the positive New Age team coached by rah-rah Pete Carroll, and many missed the Sherman style, until the end of Sunday’s game.

Now not everyone was not aware of the Sherman persona.  Beats By Dre and Nike both knew the positives and the issues with such a mercurial personality, and broke their campaigns with him during the game to a national audience for the first time. CenturyLink has used Sherman as a spokesperson throughout Seattle, and his jersey was one of the most popular Seahawks jerseys throughout the year.

So what did Sunday do for the Sherman brand? Exploded it. His social media following was amplified, brands lined up to talk about his value and “street cred,” his jersey sales jumped and he became the focus of national media that will build now for two weeks. He continued on without filter, thoughtful and respectful but not apologetic, and the love him or hate him debate continued to grow. Beats became a brand of marketing genius, and there was now a recognizable loud face to love, hate, or debate as the world’s largest sports and entertainment spectacle comes into full focus. Everyone had an opinion, and suddenly the NFL had an in your face personality to balance all the good will and happy talk that had been built by all around Seattle and Denver, and that’s not a bad thing in any way.

The biggest question is what comes next? He apologized and has done all the requisite media to move on. Will there be more shouts and boasts or will the rhetoric be toned down. Will something more inflammatory be launched into the cauldron of Super Bowl fires, will some try and bait Sherman with silly talk on media day? It remains good fodder for an event that was to be all about great teams and now has more great personality.

In the end if you are the NFL, or any brand looking to capture the casual fan, you want the story arcs, the peaks and valleys, the heroes and yes, the villains, especially well-spoken ones. That’s not to say Richard Sherman is a villain in the wear the black hat and pull the chair out from old ladies fashion. He has a foundation, has been a solid teammate and is beloved in Seattle with legions of fans who also loved him at Stanford.  What he has is edge, spice and interest and in a few seconds ratcheted up the level of discourse for the NFL in a time where they may have hit a lull for a few days. Planned or not, it made for great copy and amazing video and social media play, something which his brands, and his sport, cannot buy.

Like his actions or not, you have to love Richard Sherman’s timing, both on the field and off, and all the debate and fun it will create in the next two weeks. The games off the field, until Met Life Stadium’s kickoff, will now be more interesting than anything that would have happened on it, and a brash and talented Seahawk helped get the party started.

Potential Blackout A Black Eye Or A Learning Experience For All?

Small markets, holiday spending issues, surprise home games, viewing enhancements, fan apathy, weather, elite opponents. All factored into the firestorm the NFL came under for three of its four wild card home games this weekend as teams rallied to hit sellout modes and avoid being blacked out. Only better prepared, large market Philadelphia avoided the controversy, selling out in minutes despite the fact that it is cold and plenty of people owned the latest TV’s from Camden through The Main Line.

In the end all three cities, Green Bay, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, hit their numbers with some corporate sponsor help, and we move on to the story of the day which is the actual games on the field. However even with the sellout, the weekend served as another problem that any type of live viewing experience from movies and plays to sports events, will have to continue to deal with; how to make the in-venue experience a “must be” place for those willing to spend discretionary dollars.

Now maybe this weekend was an outlier for the NFL, who point out that blackouts are at an all-time low and that the huge excitement of last-minute playoff qualifying games last week is what is really important. It is also noteworthy that opponents for the three games…Kansas City, San Francisco, and San Diego…aren’t exactly easy drives from where they are playing this weekend, further adding to the movement of distressed seats.

We are also talking about a few thousand seats not the swaths of open sections that Bowl Games and many other sports have to deal with even in postseason, and at the end of the day the NFL Playoff experience is a shared one by fans in stadiums and millions engaging on broadcasts and in any host of second screen experiences.  Politicians maintain that the blackout rule is archaic and needs to be changed to better serve the fans, while the leagues and broadcasters argue the law needs to be upheld in order to keep the games away from a pay per view scenario which could be forced by loss of gate revenue and other factors. It is not something that can be solved overnight, but in the end can brand enhancements come out of the controversy that the NFL and its local teams stemmed in the first week of the playoffs? Here are some thoughts.  Is the issue an embarrassment for the NFL? Not really. What it is is the next amplification of a business challenge that has been a long time in coming for all live events, with the NFL being the largest stage.

What are some of the potential answers?

Lower the ticket prices? The NFL sets the market for the playoffs, based on each market’s ability to pay.  Elite events naturally deserve elite prices, but with the secondary market in full swing now does a lower price mean more tickets would move, and at what price point will those seats be filled on short notice? Also this is still a business, and although the gate is no longer the biggest driver, it is still vital to the mix on the revenue side so teams cannot afford to throw hundreds of thousand dollars away in lower costs because of the fixed number of home games. Each team has their own formula for success…the Colts and many others have group plans for example that they could not activate with such a short turnaround this week for example. In the end, the teams looked to local brands to buy blocks of tickets, in Indy, Meijer used them to donate to military groups and deserving families, which was a nice added perk, while in Green Bay  Associated Bank, local Fox affiliates and Mills Fleet Farm and Bellin Health came in and used the tickets for customers and other partners as a thank you. However how many of those sold actually will get used in frigid temperatures, and is the bottom line more important at that point than the fan experience? Hard to say. Are there incentives that can be created for those who purchased in advance that would make the outlay more important to them beyond the game? Perhaps, but only those experts in the marketplace will know what buttons are best pushed to get the handful of distressed seats filled. At the price point being asked, its not T-shirts and hats, maybe it’s working with partners to get a break on heating prices or free gas cards or even a slight break on college tuition or a high end meal service that gets written off. Each market will be different.

Lower the blackout threshold? This is perhaps the most viable short-term option, if the threshold is for short notice games the first week of the playoffs. It probably shouldn’t apply after that to make sense, and if it was at 90 to 95 percent of capacity for week one, the issue would be avoided.  This would also go along way with public perception, as most people probably believed there were huge swaths of unsold seats, not a few thousand in stadia that are gargantuan compared to other sports outside of NASCAR. The 95 pct threshold also gives teams a few more precious days to get last minute groups and walkups into place, and if weather and hype hold, will push some folks into purchasing even on game day, which is not such a bad thing either.

Better Education of the Secondary Ticket Marketplace? The leagues and teams have done a good job of trying to manage the marketplace and see what the options are. However searches by the uninformed will see very high prices and very low prices for elute games. Giving fans a better primer on what is available and where can also be a better driver for distressed seats, even at a discount offered by the primary seller at the last minute.

Enhance The Fan Experience? Colleague Darren Heitner pointed out new ways the Dolphins, along with other teams are doing more to help fans better enjoy the in-stadium experience. A lot of that enhancement has to do with mobile, and many teams are still struggling with better connectivity in stadia that are older. The investment in “stadium only” enhancements is still risky for some teams not willing to invest, because for the NFL at least, you are not talking about a majority of ticketholders who need such enhancements to plunk down their dollars. You are talking about that less than five percent, and are enhancements worth the cost of investment. The reality is though, that a larger number of fans will start questioning ROI as the out of stadium value grows, so investing now as a hedge against the churn in sales is worthwhile.  Why is mobile so important? Look abroad for the reason.

There will be a time when the well-connected in stadium fan will be able to use his or her mobile device for everything they need; from tracking seat location improvements to special meals to better parking spots, to video and yes, the revenue stream of online wagering on all that goes on in the game.  You see many of these enhancements being used by corporations like Disney to better control crowd flow and offer more incentives by geo targeting where and what their consumers are doing at their parks…you see it in the music business with crowd sourcing at concerts, and you see it in better equipped stadia in the UK and elsewhere where fans are constantly engaged and interact with all going on around the event. Part of the sports experience elsewhere is through the gaming and gambling experience on mobile, and there will come a time when that enhancement becomes legal and federally regulated in the U.S. It is an inevitability. That investment in better connectivity is perhaps the best part of the draw for the casual fan going forward. Making the stadium a place where you can only get something…the amplification of the giveaway…is the key part of moving the distressed fan away from his or her living room.

Is there a simple answer? No. Does the NFL have issues that almost every other sports or media company wishes they had as their biggest challenge today? For sure. In the end, for the short term, the seats are filled and most importantly the millions of local eyeballs watching the broadcast will be sated for the postseason. That means big TV ratings, happy sponsors,  and a respite from the controversy.

There are some that think that technology has made the in-game experience obsolete, and that we will head the way of “Slamball,” a once made for TV sport that was taped in a huge hangar with a few hundred spectators.  That is more an issue for concerts and other entertainment properties which are more repeats time and again. An event like the Harlem Globetrotters for example, would be in more danger than a live sporting event.  Live sports, unlike anything else in entertainment, is still a tribal shared experience where you have the ability of seeing something in person that you never thought possible. Ask those at Auburn-Alabama or someone who has seen a no-hitter or a shootout in the NHL or a golden goal in soccer or the final point at the US Open or Tiger’s winner at The Masters if they would trade that experience for anything and the answer is no. Does it mean somewhere down the line that mega-events will become pay per view? Doubtful, given the larger scale dollars and viewership needed to make the finals of a sport viable, and the billions already invested in broadcast for the long term. Boxing, the UFC and the WWE have taken the path of using free events to feed a pay per view build, but for team sports that approach would be much more drastic and detrimental to the brand that each team has in the marketplace. It is not entirely out of the question, but it is not on the horizon for now.

What has to happen for the in-stadium experience is evolution. Maybe it is a smaller crowd threshold, but it is definitely enhanced wireless capability and the ability for teams to tap new streams of revenue to offset rising ticketing costs that are passed through because of the cost of talent on the field and other cost amplifications that the marketplace puts upon other businesses in addition to sport.

In the end for the NFL is the blackout a black eye? Nope. It’s a punch that a mature savvy business needs to take and come back with long term viable answers that will make not just football, but any live even effective, profitable and worthwhile for those who will continue to follow their passions and attend. There is not one solution, there are many that need to be combined, and the eventual answers will come from the digital, the traditional and the still to be developing marketplace globally, not just from one weekend of play across the States.  Take notice and learn sports business, the NFL offered up some painful, and hopefully short term, business lessons for all to learn from this weekend.

The Price of Information Just Got Higher…

What price, big data? That’s becoming more and more of a question as the need for real time in depth statistics for sports around the world become more valuable to the end user, be they brands looking to add value to consumer offerings, broadcasters trying to get an edge in providing added value to viewers, or companies providing information to paying customers in the fast-growing gaming, fantasy and gambling world.  The days of waiting even minutes for detailed numbers are quickly becoming a thing of the past, as connectivity improves and transaction speeds elevate and morph into a data-driven consumer environment.

One of those companies who has found a growing service business on the back end is Chicago-area based Stats. The company’s sweet spot is in providing almost instantaneous game and player information to fantasy football applications and TV broadcasters through partnerships they have with leagues such as the NBA and over 230 organizations sports leagues globally.  Some of the data is proprietary, some is shared, but from the US to China and India, the company co-owned by Fox and Associated Press News Service is a must-have for over 600 clients around the world who pay top dollar for their back-end service.  Now Stats is not the only company with high-end data deals. The UK-based company, Perform, is also a mega-player in the space, licensing out their data in sports like soccer to broadcasters and others with a need for raw information or customized feeds. The Elias Sports Bureau has long been the source for Major League Baseball data, along with the work that MLB.com does as well. Then there are also smaller providers who pull data close to real time from the public domain and service other outlets who need the information for their consumer services, but not in light speed. So the space can be muddled, and because there are a finite number of games being played at any one point, the data collection does have somewhat of a ceiling.

However what does not right now have a ceiling is the way analytics can be used by any number of growing global audiences and who can ultimately pair that data with consumer-facing businesses or media companies to turn a profit margin.  Connectivity for the consumer in the mobile space, an area which is still growing in fits and starts in North America, makes the customizable data even more valuable as services like pay fantasy games, lottery games involving stats, and eventually mobile gambling outside of where it is currently licensed in Nevada, becomes more and more of a viable tool for revenue in sports. And as that viability increases, the data providers become more valuable.

How valuable? That market appears to be coming clearer. A report in Wednesday’s  New York Post said that STATS is seeking a buyer for their technology services and their licenses and partnerships at around $200 Million dollars. If that is a realistic number, then other data providers can fall into line for what their market value is, depending on the amount of proprietary content they can offer. That number is also one that has value in today’s environment, where analytics are being provided to a very select number of gambling organizations who can use the data for their clients legally. They include sports books in Nevada and then other houses in countries where wagering is legal at this time. If and when sports gambling becomes legal in the US outside of Las Vegas, those relationships held by STATS and others become infinitely more valuable.  That data is not just of value to the companies providing information to potential gamers and gamblers; it also has value for brands that may go and create their own fantasy games or apps for fans to engage during live sporting events. Companies like SAP or Microsoft for example, can build very elaborate platforms to engage their customers, but without the back-end data their offerings won’t be as robust. That is where the value of a data provider really comes into play in the consumer world.

So where all this data mining go for companies that were in early like a STATS, an Elias, or a Perform?  That is the question at this point. The value is in what a consumer or a media company will pay, and with multiple lower cost providers out there mining what is essentially free information as games go on, what is the fair market price for information. All that is still to be determined, but in a world where the consumer, the media company, even the league and the athlete, has an ever-growing thirst for customized and proprietary data, the market appears to be growing, and a price, maybe $200 million at least for a part of the business, may about to be set.  

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.

Two All-Star Ideas Shine Through

The MLB All-Star events have grown into a weeklong baseball and branding extravaganza that have not just surpassed the original intention of the events, but have expanded into what is arguably the largest multi-day single sport platform in the industry. Super Bowl is a celebration of a championship, the All-Star festivals of the other professional leagues and the Olympics toast multiple sports during its bi-annual runs, winter and summer.  Even the World Cup, coming into focus in Brazil in 2014, is spread across a nation, not confined to the one city like the baseball All-Star events are.  Each event in each sport has its own traditions and creates its own memories, but it seems that baseball, for all its traditions, continues to re-define the All-Star experience while finding new ways to engage casual and traditional fans.

While there are so many ways baseball sets itself apart, two ideas that sprung up at Monday’s Politico breakfast, hosted by Bank of America and featuring Commissioner Bud Selig in a discussion with Politico’s Mike Allen, came up as more unique and more worthy than most.

Ironically one came from a new media channel, tweeted in by a young boy, while the other was presented by the host, a longtime partner of MLB. The ideas show both the simplicity and the complexity that baseball can present to its fans, and why it remains such a strong and sometimes emotional activation platform.

The simple idea was presented by Allen to Selig via twitter. It was a thoughtful notion which could spring new areas of media coverage and casts a light on some people on the field most fans know little about. The idea was to mention the names and hometowns of the team’s batboys as they take the field every night. Not the honorary batboys that come out fully sponsored, but the young men and women who play a role, usually anonymous in and around the field every game. They have stories all their own, sometimes coming from a long tradition, some found by chance, with a pedigree that is rarely explained. Surely sometimes they are offspring of players and coaches, but more often than not they have come through a system, paid their dues, and have normal and interesting lives that many fans and the media take for granted.  Maybe there is a program to honor the more accomplished or legendary batboys over the years…Selig could not recall any great stories off the top of his head…but maybe, like the traditions of tennis and golf, there is a call for open tryouts for ballboys as well. While keeping the process commercialized could be a minimalized, a little more well deserved light could be shed on ballboys in major and minor league towns, a smart suggestion sent in through new media.

The second idea was announced by B of A, and will take place during the seventh inning of Tuesday nights game. Following the playing of “God Bless America,” fans at Citifield will be asked to continue standing…and every fan still standing will be part of a large donation to veteran’s charities by the bank. Technology will allow the bank to capture all those continuing to rise, and each fan will have a dollar connected to him, which could make for an instant and emotional donation to the military in excess of $40,000, all by a simple gesture ala what baseball did with Stand Up to cancer last fall. It is an easy and actionable idea that takes a few seconds and does not require much hype. Understated, and over delivered on ROI as part of the ever growing relationship between bank of America and baseball.

So yes there will and have been hundreds of unique platforms and moments captured during this All-Star week. All are notable, but these two seemed to stand out just a bit more for their simplicity, ingenuity and effectiveness in making an impression. Enjoy the game and all around it this week.

Weidman’s Win Lifts The UFC Tide…

Make no mistake that the UFC is still a dominant and evolving global brand in sport, especially in key younger male demos that crave action and engagement.  However like all large brands, there is a tendency from time to time to get caught in a routine of success without looking for more innovation or testing new boundaries. Now thankfully for the UFC their anxious followers won’t let them sit tight for very long, and if they do sit tight their followers can migrate to other things to keep them engaged, so the need not just for news ways to activate, but to also have new faces emerge is really important to keeping story lines, rivalries and the business flow fresh. That’s why “The Ultimate Fighter” still remains a key strategic point, and it’s why Chris Weidman’s surprise title last weekend was important for the brand going forward.

One of the inherent problems with marketing MMA is its unpredictability. Over the years, promotions have invested huge efforts into building a star, only to have someone come along with an expertise in one of the disciplines to unhinge the champion.  That parity is something few sports have to deal with all the time…the ATP is probably a close second for not having predictable long term star power…so the UFC investment in recent years has been again on veterans and the careful matchmaking of rising stars.

Legend Anderson Silva was an established star with huge credibility in the MMA world but nit mega-marketing potential in the mainstream in the U.S. Polished and effective, Silva is a great fighter, but not someone who could be loved by English-speaking Madison Avenue. He also lacked a great deal of edge or controversy that some other mainstream brands could gravitate to. Is he a successful ambassador for the sport in emerging countries? Absolutely. Does he resonate with casual fans, especially with partners like Fox ? Not so much.

So now you have a new belt holder in Weidman. A former college wrestler with a passion to help that sport get back into the Olympics when their vote comes up in September gives him added gravitas. He has a strong bit not over the top personality, which will resonate with mainstream MMA fans. He is New York born, bred and educated, so there is a tie to marketing in and around big business. He also hails from one of the few states still yet to legalize MMA, so his presence and his reputation can help in lobbying as well. Add on his surprising KO of a champion, and the build that the UFC can now do with a tear-end rematch, and Weidman is a great fit to help the UFC re-engage and move forward yet again.  Fans love a little controversy, they love undefeated (he is), and they love the hype of the rematch. Their new titleholder fits all those things.

For sure there is probably a little long term equity risk in investing in Weidman for some brands looking for long term planning. But for the short term it is all good news for the UFC, a brand which is rock solid but always in need to find what’s next in the marketplace.        

Mixed Martial Arts Winning A Perception Fight…

If you have been to New York’s Times Square in the last five or six years toy would have seen it, the billboard towering over the Marriott Marquis. Amidst the glowing brand ads throughout the square and the endless video displays is the huge promotion board for the UFC, always telling the tale of their next upcoming pay per view. Every big name in the sport has been featured on the billboard as their event came and went, a constant reminder to everyone that the largest Mixed Martial Arts promotion is alive and growing around the world. Except of course in New York, where the sport remains illegal, one of the few states in the U.S. where professional MMA cannot be held.

However that long battle may soon end, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated this week that he is now open to having the sport legalized in New York, which can open the doors even more for Madison Avenue and others to ramp up their support of MMA. Why and how is this move important for the UFC and other promotions like Spike’s Bellator brand? Simple. There are few sports as experiential as professional MMA for the fan, and as close as New Jersey is, it is still not New York for companies who want to engage in the brand, and an OK in New York will boost the image, and the marketing appeal beyond what it currently is.

Now the legalization move won’t mean that suddenly the Nets at the Barclay’s Center or the Knicks and Rangers at Madison Square Garden are going to suddenly be cast out for cage fighting. In reality, the move will help the State’s casinos upstate even more that the large facilities in New York. Those smaller venues can host profitable smaller promotions that will draw a younger demo into their gambling establishments more consistently. For companies like Fox, the UFC broadcast partner, and Spike, the Bellator broadcast partner, it will give a chance to showcase an elite event a few times a year right down the street from where its main advertisers live and work. It will also provide a new backdrop for the programmers reality shows on the sport, should they choose to use it.  The use of New York as a marketing tool is certainly not new for the sport…like NASCAR and recently Major League Soccer, the UFC and Bellator have brought their athletes into New York for press events and trainings. Now they can deliver the complete package to the Big Apple, probably helping erase some of the doubt of brands that are still on the fence about the sport. No longer will they say…if it’s so hot why can’t you compete here in New York. It is one less objection to battle, and more legitimacy for the sport.

Is the change potentially in New York the be all and end all for the sport? No. Does it mean that suddenly promoters and fighters will have a huge new stream of get rich quick cash? No. Events are still expensive to produce and will be very carefully regulated. However for the promotions like the UFC and Bellator potentially, the legalization in New York is a big win in perception and value, and a nice next step for their business, whether you like fighting or not.

As Conference Madness Starts Again, Don’t Sleep On St. Louis

As the schools leaving the Big East Conference and taking the name with them mix and match potential suitors to join them, one that seems a great business fit…along with the growing programs at Butler and Xavier and some others…is St. Louis University.  Media partners, no matter who they are, will love not just the traditions of the exiting schools but their markets as well, and while Indianapolis and Cincinnati are solid (although one could easily argue Indy is a Big Ten City that likes Butler), St, Louis is a major market with slight winter competition, especially in hoops. The University of Missouri is in the distance, and it is a school that appears to “get” the marketing of collegiate sports, much like a Marquette does in Milwaukee.

Together, those at SLU, administrators and community, developed a financial and operational platform for athletic excellence in a major basketball market that does not have an NBA franchise. A big factor in the school’s strength is its 10,600 seat on-campus home, Chaifetz Arena, opened in 2008. Since moving to the facility the basketball team has a home winning percentage close to .800 and has significantly enhanced its revenue from ticket sales, sponsorships, and athletic donations. Dr. Richard Chaifetz, founder and CEO of ComPsych Corporation was the driving force behind the Billikens move, with a  $12 million naming gift that helped finance its construction. It is an interesting look at how a mid-sized university in a mid-major conference, without the resources and infrastructure of a football program or a BCS-level television payout, can legitimately position itself to win a national championship in basketball.

The Billikens were ranked in the top 30 in most preseason national polls, and second in the Atlantic 10′s poll of coaches and media (ahead of new conference members and recent Final Four participants Butler and VCU). Coming off a year in which they won 26 games and nearly upset top-seeded Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament, SLU is once again making  a run to March Madness, despite the emotional loss of one of the game’s most beloved and accomplished coaches in Rick Majerus this past November.

One thing is for sure…if the school stays in the A 10, it will be one of the magnets to keep the conference success flowing. If they are selected to jump, they might be an afterthought in the eyes of the national media, but from a nosiness perspective, they would be not just a great fit but a model on how other schools can do it right, using private money to best enhance a spot in a major market.

So as we look towards sleepers in March madness and conference chaos may start again, don’t sleep on St. Louis…a growing fish in a big business sea.