Remembering A Sports Business Pioneer…Mike Cohen…25 Years After His Passing…

It is amazing that it is 25 years this month that the sports business world, just growing at the time, prematurely lost a legend, someone who set the tone and helped create the sports and entertainment communication industry as it exists today.

His name was Mike Cohen and some called him “Inky,” because throughout his career that is what Mike got for his clients. Whether he was a Jewish publicist for a Catholic university (Manhattan College) or if he was pioneering the part of the publicity industry that dealt with announcers, directors and TV shows (when he was head of publicity for NBC Sports) there was no one better than Mike.

Cohen’s  life was based on the relationships he had in the media, and how he was able to take those relationships and make “name clients” bigger or rising clients  important.  Mike took the time to listen, strategize and plan the careers of people like Bob Costas, Spencer Ross, Marty Glickman, Steve Sabol and Marv Albert, as well directors like Michael Weisman and a seemingly neverending list of boxing promoters  and businesspeople,  and come up with unique human elements about their style that he could take and work his relationships with the media to make them into stories themselves. He also had a flair for the underdog as well, working with jockeys and trainers at places like Yonkers Raceway as well as baseball scouts, finding media opportunities for all along the way through his never-ending and always overflowing rolodex. Mike was the quintessential relationship builder, and his legacy lives on today in the form of some of the great professionals in this country who worked for and under him. His company, Mike Cohen. Communications, became part of industry leader Taylor Communications following his untimely passing that September of 1988 and that company, with many of the people who learned directly from Mike, is now Taylor, one of the world’s most elite brand strategy firms specializing in sport.

I had been in the business a few years after interning with Mike and his able bodied right hand man, Bryan Harris, while I was a senior at Fordham. Mike taught me how to find a story, how to cultivate relationships and how to build a network. As was the case every few months, he would check in, or I would call him to talk about what I was doing and to get a critique on how to improve my work, which was then as Assistant Director of Marketing and Public Relations at SportsChannel America, the precursor to what are now the myriad of regional networks across the country. Mike had brought me not one, but two opportunities…Sports Information Director at both Manhattan College and Fordham University. He had called me before he left his Rockland home that September morning to talk about which option would be best for me as a career move. We had a quick conversation because he was heading off to support one of his biggest pet projects, the Baseball Scouts, and his never-ending quest to get scouts who had signed thousands of players recognition not just by the media but by the Hall of Fame. They were having their annual softball outing that day. We agreed to talk after the outing and after I was done with work on Long Island that day. I came home to Brooklyn that night and immediately called Mike’s house, eager to get his advice for what would be next. What Mike said, I, and many others did.

Even 25 years later I remember it very clearly. I was in my basement calling and a young boy…one of Mike’s sons (who have gone on to amazing careers) answered the phone. I asked to speak to Mike and there was silence and a woman got on the phone. I eagerly explained why I needed to talk to Mike and again…silence. She then said that Mike had a heart attack and passed away that afternoon.  At a relatively young age I had suffered some personal losses, but none as shocking and sudden as this. I thanked her, she was staying with the boys as Mike’s wife Linda was out of the house, and hung up the phone.  I had lost my mentor…one that has never really been replaced…and the industry lost one of its guiding hands, a man whose impact could never be overtly measured by the public but who’s behind the scenes influence spoke volumes.

I remember going to Mike’s funeral with one of my bosses, Mike Lardner and his wife Leandra Reilly (Mike had a great influence on their lives as well, as Leandra was a finalist to be the first woman to call an NFL game on NBC, a spot which eventually went to Gayle Sierens). The room of course was packed not just with famous faces but with people from the neighborhood, coaches and scouts who Mike influenced. He had also passed during the Seoul Olympics, meaning that so many of his NBC family were a world away, and if they had been back in New York, the crowd would have needed its own stadium. Of all the people that spoke that day, the one I remember most was the legendary Marty Glickman, who looked at Mike’s two sons and said simply in closing his remarks…”Your old man was a mensch, someone who would do anything for anybody…it’s not something that can be measured sometimes in dollars but it can be measured in character and the impact he had on others, and that impact will never be forgotten.”

Mike’s impact is still felt today in a media industry which he helped shape and would still be loving, even though he was with us for less than 45 years when he passed. The luminaries of the business are people he was there with at the beginnings of their careers, especially in broadcast and boxing, two areas which he excelled in. There is also “The Mike Cohen Award,” given out to the MVP of the Fordham-Manhattan basketball game when it is played at Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym every other year. Most years some of Mike’s friends and family will gather for dinner and the game and to present the award after the game, and the brief introduction tries to amplify the impact of a man in the industry which, frankly is hard to explain in just a few words. Regardless it is still a very nice gesture and a chance to pay homage to one who deserves it.

I still think about what Mike taught me almost every day…work hard, be honest, don’t betray your sources, listen to people, write well, help others, and tell good stories…they are the basis for what I think has been a pretty good career thus far, all influenced by a bear of a man who took me under his wing, someone we lost just over a quarter century ago. Gone but never forgotten, Mr. Cohen. Your influence, both overt and subtle, will never be lost.    

Second Screen Can Make “Hard Knocks” Just That Much Better…

There are few, if any, more well written and well-told series on broadcast than HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” No matter how mundane the day, the cameras of NFL Films, combined with exquisite direction and writing can deliver moving and impactful stories of the lives of previously unknown or little known NFL players like nothing else. The format has worked in almost all of HBO’s award winning efforts, from “24/7” to their “Winter Classic” series, each time giving casual fans a look inside the minds and the lives of athletes and those around them like never before.

This year the cameras go back to Cincinnati and focus on the players and personalities of Marvin Lewis’ Cincinnati Bengals, a team which has risen to the playoffs in recent years but now seeks to make the jump to another level. The second time participants in the series will have a different cast of characters than the first time. Some maybe right now not as engaging as the first time around…no Chad Johnson to disrupt the flow and bring interest and drama like the first time “Hard Knocks” went to Cincy. However episode one, which premiered Tuesday night, set the stage with more on field insight than ever before, and also a little look into the bigger issues of the NFL with how, in real time, potential concussion issues were handled.

However it is in the drama of the human condition that sport thrives and the show captured it at the very end with popular free agent and local hero Larry Black leaving the facility in tears with a season ending ankle and leg injury. Those images are what scores for the series. Even when other shows look to duplicate the “Hard Knocks” system, they somehow usually fall short, because of the timing, the dedication and the dollars HBO and the NFL out behind the production.

So how to make it better? HBO is already providing scores of added footage and commentary post-show through their solid online companion sites, but what about real time? They drive attention with the #Hardknocks hashtag on twitter, providing those first-time watchers with a repository for comment. So why not now expand the second screen experience with real time interaction from players, and maybe even coaches engaged in the show. Black’s injury was devastating, and his rehab, since the show only goes through the preseason, will be tough to follow long term. How about, if he is interested, engaging him in answering questions and commenting on the shows as they transpire over the next few weeks. People who watched now “know him” for the first time, and they can identify with his pain and disappointment, so maybe use the second screen…Google hangouts, twitter chats, maybe a small video link…to bring him back. The show also airs Tuesday nights, which may be a quiet night or an hour for staff. Maybe hook up the episode star with the ability to react and answer questions as things unfold, like entertainment shows that are taped are now doing. It might be out of the question for some, but an Adam Jones or a James Harrison joining in could drive numbers and engagement for the series and also help amplify the Bengals brand nationally.

Make no mistake there is little wrong with “Hard Knocks” now, so trying to fix something that is not already broken may not be necessary.  However we live more and more in a world that wants more content, engagement and access, and pulling a true second screen experience…one that is interactive, into what is already a great taped event could make it just a little greater, and can raise the bar even higher for competitors, not to mention enhancing the players and the personalities that are being brought more to light than ever before.

Liverpool Takes The Reality Plunge, Sort Of…

NBA commissioner David Stern has long said that live sports has always been reality TV…drama played out in front of the cameras for millions to see, packed with drama, excitement and of course now all the access that teams, brands and fans can muster. The digital world has brought us into the living rooms, bed rooms and locker rooms like never before, and we can’t seem to get enough of the insider information that fans diehard and casual crave.

In order to take the access even further, documentarians began bringing us inside the locker rooms of American sport, NFL Films, NBA Entertainment and MLB Productions brought us the sights and sounds, and the HBO came along and created their signature 24/7 series. Showtime followed with “The Franchise,”  and the weekly “insiders” program has become a must for every league or property looking to expose their brand to the highest, most intimate level. No the all-access shows are not for everyone, and all are not produced with the majesty of master story tellers and videographers. Some knock offs have been tried at smaller budgets and more contrived access and they don’t work. But when done right, like “Hard Knocks” or 24/7, the stories told leave an indelible imprint on the memory of the viewers.

However this type of access is still in its nascent stages outside of the U.S. Japanese baseball (even with the all access given to Bobby Valentine in the landmark film “The Zen of Bobby V” ) is largely hidden from view, with stories carefully crafted outside the locker room. Rugby, cricket, and soccer rarely let anyone into the inner circle in real time and while the season is going on. Yes the Olympics has always had the landmark works of the late Bud Greenspan, but even those films were done well after the fact to an audience enamored with the Olympic spirit. Inside Manchester United or Chelsea or Real Madrid? Thanks but no thanks. The fans didn’t ask, brands didn’t demand, and the clubs had little interest. A documentary or two along the way about the fans, sure. Those have been done around Man U and Chelsea, but inside the inner workings? No way. A fictional movie like “Goal: The Dream Begins”  tried to take fans inside the world of Newcastle United, but movies can only go so far, and there aren’t always happy endings in sport.

Perhaps that is why the documentary the Liverpool (under the ownership of John Henry and his Boston-based team) has done with Fox is being seen as so earth shattering everywhere but in the United States.

“Being Liverpool” will debut in the United States  on September 16 with a five part series, with a debut to follow on  Channel 5 in the UK rights. The show, which worked hand in hand with the club, gave Fox all unfettered access through the end of last season and captured much of the drama of wins, losses, coach firings and hirings and all the pageantry and fan following that AMERICAN audiences are used to. Fans have never been this far inside the makings of the storied club, and the series will expose player’s lives to the cameras like Barclays Premier League soccer has never seen before.

Now it is not “Hard Knocks.” The shows are taped and edited well in advance, it is not done in season so the immediacy of the drama will be felt to some extent but not to what we see with HBO for their NFL or their Winter Classic work, or for Showtime with The Franchise (cut short by the Miami Marlins this year). It is more a string and dramatic look back. What is more important is that it is yet another step to expose high level European club football, its brands and its players to an American audience in a way that Americans enjoy experiencing their own athletes. Like the uber successful friendlies this summer, “Being Liverpool” will be another massive brand extension for the club into the growing soccer-savvy market of the United States, hoping to capture more of the market for future sales, tours, web traffic and maybe somewhere down the line, in-season games with thousands of die-hard supporters.

Will it work here? If it has the drama look and feel, it has a great chance. Will it work in the UK? It will be a culture change for sure, and for sure traditional followers of the club may be reticent to watch or enjoy a show about a season past, telling them more about their club, good and bad, than maybe they want to know. However if brands engage, fans enjoy and possibilities exist, the expansion of the series into a regular in-season EPL global show ala “Hard Knocks,” with Manchester City, Chelsea and others lining up, won’t be that far off.

It is a new version of reality TV for those outside the States, a genre which the world is now mimicking on a nightly basis. As Commissioner Stern said, sport is the greatest reality TV, so why not meshing both worlds for fans to engage in. It has worked in the States, now the concept goes global.

Tune in and find out more.  

Is All “Luck” Good For Racing?

The sport of horse racing has tried to right itself in the past year, and reverse the overall downward spiral that has befallen a once thriving industry. With solid turnouts, ratings and storylines for the Triple Crown, a renewed interest in the Breeder’s Cup, and a strong focus by the NTRA and The Jockey Club to find and implement more forward-thinking, technologically savvy and fan friendly programs, horse racing as started to enter back a bit into the consciousness of the casual fan. It will be a slow turn, but the recognition of change along with greater outreach and cohesive management, is a next, and hopefully great step.

So into the mix this winter comes “Luck,” a new HBO series created by David Milch and starring Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and a cast of others. The series is built around Hoffman’s character, Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a paroled and profitable organized crime figure, and the trials and tribulations of all those around Santa Anita race Track. Milch’s wildly popular success with “Deadwood” could bring back another solid audience to the new series, and with it maybe help lift the profile of racing even more going into the spring. The only problem is that “Luck,” in the vein of popular series like “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire,” appears to be all about the more seamy side of the characters and their lives, and thus far has portrayed the sport as what many perceive it to be…filled with down on their luck individuals showing up to sparsely filled racetracks amidst a backdrop of gambling, violence and unsavory behavior. “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat” it is not. What is even more curious is that Santa Anita, a beautiful track, allowed its name to be used in the show tied to such dark themes. The thought is probably that all publicity and exposure, especially with such stars, is a good thing. However it runs counter to the philosophy that many major entities in professional sport have taken in recent years, forgoing brand exposure for brand protection.

The NFL passed on involvement with the ESPN series “Playmakers,” and Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” The NHL never came close to supporting the upcoming film “Goon” or the wildly popular “Slapshot.” MLB is careful to defend its marks. Even the UFC, with its careful brand protection, chose not to support the Oscar-nominated “Warrior,” despite its very positive reaction from the MMA community. Arenas like Madison Square Garden and Fenway Park constantly turn away scripts which may portray the venerable buildings in a negative light. However Santa Anita went ahead to have its name used in “Luck.” Great for the series, not so sure for the sport of the track.

Now all is not lost for the efforts with “Luck.” Last week the NTRA and the Jockey Club announced a series of education programs to combat the negative stereotypes put forth by “Luck,” including a series of online chats each Monday at 9 PM Eastern/6 PM Pacific with the hashtag #LuckChat. The purpose is to create an interactive forum where “Luck” viewers who are unfamiliar with horse racing can better understand the jargon and various racing activities featured in the show and hopefully supplant some of the negative sterotypes portrayed. The show will also get loads of free exposure for the track and hopefully will bring some of the positive stories (and the beauty of racing) to the forefront as the series evolves. It may also bring even more curiosity and exposure to racing, and create enough casual interest to combat the negative and bring more folks out to the track. All of that is TBD.

What is positive for horse racing is the renewed efforts of leadership to stem the tide with more aggressive and forward thinking campaigns designed to reach a new audience. Whether “Luck” helps that effort remains to be seen, and will probably be based more on the success of the show than anything the industry can do either way. The series will draw attention, and attention for a sport that is trying to rally is a good thing. Whether the attention is positive or negative will play out over time, and if it is negative it can hopefully be offset bu another solid spring and other tracks across the country.

And off we go.

Horse Racing, Boxing Share A Day And The Same Crossroads…Again.

They are sports driven by gambling dollars and the big event, and they have spent years trying to reconnect with the heyday of the past. Saturday boxing, in the form of Manny Pacquaio and Shane Mosley’s title bout, and horse racing, with the Kentucky Derby, will again take center stage in sports and try and use these elite events to resurrect their businesses. Can they?

Well the good news is that despite the alphabet soup of governance, the fractured leadership, and the migration to other sports by the casual fan, both sports remain on the edge of the public eye, and both have tremendous untold stories, especially in the markets that are growing fastest in this country, Hispanic and African American. They also both have the looming issue of gambling, both positive and negative, that can draw both ire and interest from the public and the media. Tainted sports? Yes. An upside for brands looking to engage or leadership willing to consolidate? Absolutely. Now boxing seems to be making the biggest strides towards resurrection. Promoters like Top Rank and Golden Boy have looked to professionalize their business sides, taking chances on new marketing partnerships (Top Rank’s cross promotion of the fight tonight with CBS is a great example, chronicled by the Sports Business Journal this week) and non-traditional ways to promote in an effort to use the big fight to lift the overall business. The sport’s violence and the athleticism of its elite fighters always draws a crowd and buzz, and the upsurge in interest in the UFC has actually helped pull boxing back into the brand discussions, which is counter to what many thought would happen with the rise of MMA.

Horse Racing is a different story, but one with solid potential. The horses, the jockeys, the owners, the tradition still remain largely untold outside of the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup. Online gambling and an aging population has taken its toll on the tracks, and public funding in once profitable places like New Jersey has dried up a thriving business. There is little activation in the social media space and rumors of corruption always abound. Yet the sport thrives around the world, the excitement of the race and the pageantry of race day still exists, and the upside for thoroughbred racing to combine efforts to better educate fans and capture attention consistently still is very much in play. Maybe not at hundreds of tracks 365 days a year, as happened in years past, but certainly with a focused, consistent schedule that makes sense to the casual fan.

Brands will turn out Saturday for both events, as will casual fans on site and watching on TV. NBC’s consolidation of the Triple Crown makes great sense, and a younger, more savvy group of owners in horse racing can help drive change and consistency there as well. Both sports have opportunity…again…and at their core they are understood by the casual fan. What is needed is 21st century marketing and branding on a consistent level that uses the big event to drive the growth of the sport. Will it happen? Time will tell, as will leadership. Regardless it should be a great day of viewing.

We Love Team Sports…But Not Every Sport Is For Teams…

This past week the Sports Business Journal had an extensive report of the financial failure of the World Boxing League, which limped home following its first season. The WBL launched last year with city by city team boxing, hoping to pit young stars trained in cities like Los Angeles and Miami against other global cities in an effort to build new stars for boxing and also build off the concept that fans will find an allegiance not just for individuals but for some civic or ethnic pride. The result, according to the piece, saw ticket sales of less than 50 in some cities like Memphis, and the concept, which was looking for multi-million dollar investments, never really caught on.

Why? A few reasons, little of which actually have to do with any of the larger scale issues that boxing has today. First, boxing first and foremost is an individual sport, and like many other individual sports before it, the “team concept” doesn’t really work. Mixed Martial Arts has tried the team of county by country and city by city with no luck, volleyball tried city by city with no interest, and while World Team Tennis has had staying power, even Davis and Fed Cup in tennis struggle to find an audience. Individual sports are just that…fans want to see individuals rise up and win, mano a mano. They are intrigued by those from their hometown and certainly enjoy rooting for one’s county, but if there aren’t more than two people on the field at the same time the concept of team is usually hard to explain. Also in most individual sports, the athletes are a vagabond lot, often traveling a circuit and rarely compete in a given “season” in one place. The money and often the media coverage (and the fans) are at the bigger events for individual purses, and that’s where the players are best known. Maybe that changes a bit in some sports for the Olympics, where pride of nationality may take precedence, but even at the Olympics a sport like boxing is much more about the individual than the team country.

Another reason. We have more than enough team sports already. This year we have again seen second tier leagues in a challenged economy struggle to find their way, and the fan, at least the casual one, seems happy with the large scale team sports we already have. Soccer, baseball, football, hoops and hockey appear to be enough, maybe with some lacrosse thrown in from time to time. There does not seem to be clamoring for more team sports to fill the landscape. We are also in an economy where lifestyle sports are becoming more important to the consumer struggling with health issues, and action sports have filled a void for many younger enthusiasts who may have been interested in yet another team sport in the past. Chuck Norris’ departed World Combat League even showed that emerging sports like karate and tae kwon do, may be good for one person, but no one cares about teams from Austin and Houston battling it out.

One more. Any new concept takes time, and time is not an ally of large scale sports launches these days. Having to explain who the new fighters were, what the team concept did, and how winners were going to be selected takes away from what fight fans want to see…a good battle of individuals. Those who would tune in went for the fights as a one off, not to see the standings of tams that in a start up had little to no relevance. Even recently launched team sports that made sense to the public like the UFL and WPS have struggled to find their place because it takes time…years…to build alliance and change viewing patterns. Brands, media partners, and unfortunately investors, are not willing to wait that long in a 24/7 world like today.

The fact still remains that boxing still can hold its own for splash and interest when there is a big fight. There may not be many heavyweights to capture the attention of the casual fan right now, but especially among a growing Hispanic audience, big names can draw attention and eyeballs as individuals and in certain geographic areas. They fight with pride for their country and for themselves, and to try and fold them into a team isn’t a good way to try and develop an individual sport. Now maybe the WBL was before it’s time, and it is the proper way to develop young boxing talent. Boxers do train as individuals in certain geographic areas and do fill local fight cards on every level. However unfortunately the early returns on the investment appear to show that the public, at least in the U.S., does not want or need another team sport concept yet, no matter how high the level of competition. Americans do love the team sport concept, that is true. They just don’t have to love it for every sport that is out there.