“Rivalry On Ice” Scored For “Brand Hockey”

One of the great growth opportunities that appears to be occurring in conjunction with the rise of hockey interest in North America this winter is the expansion of interest in the college game. Whether its the effort of NBC Sports to expand its weekly coverage, the halo effect that the NHL’s added buzz from the Bridgestone Winter Classic and the other outdoor games, the Sochi Olympics, the endless showings of “Miracle” on cable TV the past few weeks or the polar vortex driving people to frozen ponds and rinks, the interest in the college game is markedly changed as a property.

Now in places where the college game has always been strong; the upper Midwest and New England, things are status quo, with 35,000 fans showing up for Notre Dame and B.C,’s “Frozen Fenway” doubleheader earlier this month, and thousands of other enjoying the high school and other college games, along with the public skating sessions, that also went on atop the covered grass of the Red Sox home. The entire event built great equity in all things hockey.

However to go beyond incremental growth there needs to be more of a breakthrough into the mainstream by creating a signature, sustainable event that marketers can activate around and the industry can use as a centerpiece to cultivate new interest. Yes there is the legendary Beanpot in Boston, and the Frozen Four has gotten legs to bring the best of elite NCAA hockey to vastly different markets, but a signature event can lift and be a showcase for all things college hockey.

In recent years promoters have brought the biggest programs to NHL rinks in Detroit and Pittsburgh, Denver and Chicago, all with their one-off variable degrees of success. Even in the New York area, the hardest of markets to crack, a Thanksgiving weekend game with Cornell as the feature has filled Madison Square Garden for several years, with minimal exposure and promotion, and this past fall the Prudential Center cane upon the unique opportunity of having Yale, the defending NCAA Champion, open its season on their ice, to some success.

However this past weekend, an attempt was made to put a classic rivalry known by both casual sports fans and the general consumers alike, front and center as the annual signature game in the largest marketplace possible. The matchup was Harvard and Yale, dubbed “Rivalry on Ice,” a chance to give both the schools with solid hockey traditions a special place on the biggest stage, the remodeled Madison Square Garden. Moving the matchup took several years and lots of scheduling fits and starts before the game and all its trimmings came together, and the result was a germ of a successful overall promotion that could be built upon as a lynchpin for college hockey’s greatest going forward.

The overall concept was wide-ranging, pulling in all sorts of events throughout the day, from an alumni game to youth promotions to traditional brand activation platforms in and around the game. The matchup played off of NBC’s expanded college platform to draw a national audience in primetime on NBC SportsNet, and had the foresight to harness the marketing and brand mojo of legendary Hall of Famer Mark Messier, who has familial ties to the Crimson (nephew Luke Esposito is on the team), to generate ancillary press (which Messier is using to also promote his-mega rink project in The Bronx with the City of New York)  and the cache of landing Secretary of State John Kerry as another ambassador through his ties to both schools. “Rivalry on Ice” also had history on its side, since the first time the two schools met in hockey was actually in 1900 at long-departed St, Nicholas Rink.  There were bands. Glee clubs, good social media banter, even a session with Messier on reditt to help promote the event and raise the causal interest in the sport.

Did it work? In many ways, especially for a trial effort, yes. The legendary schools enjoyed the exposure away from the normal areas where they would draw large crowds for such a matchup. There was tremendous goodwill generated by all the celebrity banter back and forth, the alumni associations enjoyed the chance to engage with their former students in a building and a setting that they are not normally used to use for an athletic event involving either school, and some unusual new brands…Turkish Airways, Mead Brown resorts, among others, got to mingle with both the elite schools but also with the other traditional sports sponsors you would see along the dasher boards at MSG.

Were there drawbacks? Several. While Harvard-Yale is an elite rivalry, the schools do not have the massive sports-crazed alumni following of say a Notre Dame or a Michigan, so ticket sales were a challenge when you passed a point of say, 10,000 or so. The date also ended up competing with the New England Patriots AFC Playoff game, something which could not have been predicted but probably lessened the interest in some parts of the viewing and engagement areas for casual fans. There were lots of solid players and a long history, but New York usually commands superstars, and a dominant name as a draw probably also dropped casual interest. Still even with a few wrinkles, the overall perception was that Rivalry on ice achieved its first time out of the box goals…to create a marketable concept and show a market interest that few thought existed; a viable event in a market that does not normally take to one-off successes.

So where to go from now? Is it Harvard-Yale every year? Is it other rivalries that can have the legs to fill a building at ease? Does the concept have legs to the other arenas in the area clamoring for big games and big promotions? Can it expand to a day-long celebration in the building vs. just a hockey game between to elite schools? Can a brand see the value and invest not as a one-off, but in the long term for the series because they have a substantial investment in seeing the project help grow their brand?  All to be determined.

As a concept, “Rivalry on Ice” scored for its uniqueness. Now on to see if the uniqueness can be sustained.  Regardless for 2014, the game and all its trimmings made for another nice positive statement for “Brand Hockey,” with outdoor games on the horizon, and the Olympics ready to again lift the sport in the coming weeks.

Brands, Buzz Continue To Build For Game Changing Super Bowl…

It hasn’t been the brightest of falls for football in the tri-state area, or even down the Turnpike to Philadelphia, but this year’s Super Bowl has certainly generated more buzz, brand activation and long-term talk than probably any other, and for a league that seems like it’s under constant siege these days that’s good news for Brand NFL.

From  2014 Super Bowl Boulevard down Broadway from West 34th Street, a televised NFL Honors awards show,  media day…a ticketed event for almost 15,000 people, at Newark’s Prudential Center, the opening of “Bronx Bombers” (a play about the Yankees, the use of cruise ships as hospitality and a tailgating and pregame tailgating event at the  Meadowlands Racetrack, contacts weather discussions, the largest effort to ever raise philanthropic dollars and put money back into the economy for Super Bowl, a host of outdoor hockey games, transportation tests, security technology which will be a bellwether for future mass events and countless economic impact studies over as large a population as has ever hosted the game, the task of making all sail right (barring an ice storm) will be one for the ages, and will set the bar for a host of other cities hosting an event in cold weather, which after all, is what football is played in.

So if you are a brand why or how can Super Bowl 2014 be a differentiator for you in the biggest media market in the world?

One way is capitalizing on the location, regardless of weather. The US Open in tennis has an amazing appeal to brands not because of its great athleticism and state of the art facilities, but because it is the one and only global sports event that takes place just a few miles from Madison Avenue each and every year in the same time period. Brands can build hospitality and marketing programs that lead toward the end of the summer every year, and not have to worry if the “home team” is in the mix. In many ways the same goes for the Knicks and the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.   No matter whether the teams win or lose, the buzz of the Garden is always palpable, and it makes for a tremendous entertainment platform, with fix dates, only minutes from hundreds of brand decision makers who call New York home, either full or part-time. And if a brand is not using New York as its home base, rest assured its media company is. The old axiom for business success still holds true today… “location, location, location,” and for the 2014 Super Bowl, the location is New York, the media capital of the world.

Now we are seeing brands get out in front with innovative programs…philanthropic events like playground builds and restoration events for victims of Hurricane Sandy, volunteer rewards programs for all the workers that will be needed around all the events,  legacy school programs that can enhance learning, consumer activation programs that can give fans special access to a series of events leading toward the game, getting a much needed edge as well, something that will be tested this year and probably engaged on larger scales beyond this year.

Jaguar, a new Super Bowl partner unveiled an ad during broadcasts of NFL football and on BBC America that tipped some of its hand for its strategy, while Intuit, another first year brand, has launched a contest in which it’s giving away the actual ad to a winning small business. The financial-software brand has set the stage where a winning small company will be the subject of their ad.  A story this past week also said that U2 is searching for a partner to introduce their next album live during Super Bowl. Not at halftime but during a spot or a series, with the requisite social media to follow, which would be a first for a music entity.  That type of offer is not just because of the game itself, but because of all the scrutiny that has come through the NFL stage that has been created for a “first,” this outdoor in the elements event.

While in past years Super Bowl engagement was about the one-time buzz, the implement of social media and the long tail this game has will actually give brands and businesses who have invested in the game a much longer window not just for success, but for correcting some issues that can come up during the lead up. If someone sees that an ad or a platform is slow to respond around the game now, they can adjust to make sure the message is properly delivered. It’s not all one and done as it has been in the past.

The great irony about the “outdoor” game is that every other sport, even baseball, has dealt with cold in their own ways before, and football last time we looked, is more a game about the elements than any other. However the game here is not for the players, the game of the elements is for the marketers and those who need this event to go well and garner the audience and market share so that others can benefit in similar climates going forward, roof be damned. Super Bowl or NFL in Europe is great to talk about, but a success in New York in February will be a huge push for a mature, business savvy and forward thinking brand like the NFL. Let the Super Bowl business games continue to grow.  

Knicks, Nets Brands Lay Seige To Gotham…Can Both Win?

You see the billboards everywhere from the Upper West Side to Secaucus, the hoops battle for Gotham…the Nets brand against the Knicks.  One takes over subway cars with sleek images of its multi-million dollar renovation, the other takes out newspaper ads challenging companies to become their latest corporate partners. One lauds cheerleaders and dancers on “Fox and Friends,” the other lines up celebrities to do a Letterman “Top Ten” list. One pushes its business head, Brett Yormark,  to the forefront with every new initiative; the other has a head of business, Dave Howard, whose name never makes the media.  One owns the broadcast station it plays on, the other is the television stepsister, albeit on the most watched regional cable channel in the nation (YES). On the airwaves, one has the ESPN partnership on a less visited FM-specific station, the other calls the home of NY sports (WFAN) its place of radio residence.  

Welcome to NBA in the New York area, 2013-14 style.

Who will win? It will be interesting to see. On the court both now sell stardom…aging, recognizable stars whose clock is ticking toward a run at greatness.  This is no longer the new kids on the Brooklyn, or the Prudential Center block against the Ivory Tower atop Penn Station. It is recognizable, national faces on both sides of the East River, clamoring for major dollars in marketing and sales. The days of large group outings to fill seats for at least one team are gone, for now. The two franchises have never really been in lock step with on-court success. The rise of Jason Kidd’s Nets outshone the Knicks of Tim Thomas and Stephon Marbury in terms of wins, and then the Carmelo Anthony  and A’mare Stoudemire Knicks took the center stage again as the nets retooled, rebuilt and set their business goals across two rovers into the heart of Brooklyn.  Gimmicky and buzzworthy partners and promotions filled seats in the interim, while MSG continued to pull in large scale partners as it had for almost its entire history. Now, the playing field, at least in terms of buzz, appears to have balanced.

The Nets and the Barclays Center have become a spectacle in a positive way, with full houses and ticket prices that may have already outpriced the average blue collar Brooklyn family they were coveting just a few years ago, but that’s the cost of fame. Lower prices to see the Barclays can go to college hoops, or the Globetrotters or the Atlantic 10 Tournament now. The Knicks and MSG? Once again they are must-watch TV for casual fans, with celebs of a higher level ringing the court every night, while hundred dollar glasses of champagne pour on the new walkways high above the court.  The building didn’t really need a renaissance for its loyal fans, but in an era where even super models may go for a slight nip and tuck, the time for making the palace more palatial was right.

So where to go from here in this “battle?” The Barclays center team won a huge battle to the east with their takeover of Nassau Coliseum and the annexation of the Islanders down the road. That creates new seamless inroads into Long Island and even Queens, longtime stalwarts for the tenants of MSG.  The Knicks can try and reclaim those parts of New Jersey that may have fallen by the wayside in recent years and now are wide open with no NBA team in The Garden State, and a new president in Steve Mills who has called New Jersey home for years. NJ Transit is a lot easier to take into 33rd Street than it is to traverse a second subway ride, and there are corporate dollars left behind in New Jersey that the Knicks high prices could demand.

For all their growth, the Nets will have challenges that they did not in previous years. Their well-oiled PR machine could always find a player or two for the latest community initiative to gain ancillary attention. Now a team of aging stars whose focus is on the court, not the community will make Brooklyn’s all out event blitz less frequent. Then again, winning on the court can still trump winning off the sports page as well. For the Knicks, they will continue to do the obligatory events to keep them connected to their loyal core following, while continuing to grow the casual observer and even the foreign tourist who make MSG, like a trip to Yankee Stadium, a “must see” new York experience at any price. They have also done a solid job of trumpeting new partners into the Garden fold, with companies like SAP  thinking that their ROI on the MSG experience outweighs the lofty price of brand entry above Penn Station.

In the end, an area which had so little in terms of “new” in the arena space now has seven gleaming new facilities on all sides of the Hudson, with the revamped MSG and the still-new Barclays joining the slightly older but always solid Prudential Center for winter time attention. The Nets on court moves have set the sites for less off-court hype, while the Knicks continued star power can more than hold their own, now with an elegant, revamped home to show their well-heeled fans. We are also talking about filling buildings under 20,000 night in and night out, not the massive areas of seats that Citi Field or Yankee Stadium or even Met Life Stadium   or even Red Bull Arena have to offer. This is a basketball-savvy area that loves its pro sports and enjoys the buzz, which is good for the hype machine of both Knicks and Nets. Will one come out on top? The battle will probably ebb and flow, dictated more by the moment than the long term. Who will win? The buildings for one, and all the ancillary businesses around them who have had in some cases to endure strike-shortened NHL and NBA seasons in recent years. The business partners for another, who can probably reap more benefits this year as the competition ramps up than in previous years. The media for another, who should have their fair share of drama on and off the court as the season progresses. And hopefully the fans has well, who for a long time have seen more hype than hope over an elongated period of time, even with all the steep prices bandied about.

Are there losers? Maybe those on many levels who can’t afford the big bucks, but in an era when digital and experiential are growing, the actual event attendance is less and less a must and more and more a maybe.  Regardless, it should be an interesting winter of hoops, as not one, but two basketball brands wage war to see who can be the kings of the area.

If nothing else, it will make for great drama, and that drama is what drives the business of sport in the area.

Nets Brand Now Bigger Than The Borough

Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey said that “Luck is the residue of design.” “The Mahatma “would be proud of his borough’s current tenants in professional sports then. Now there is no way, even in his wildest dreams that Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark could have foreseen a billionaire Russian owner, the failure of an NHL team to achieve a deal in the region for a new arena, or even a future Hall of fame coach and several hall of Fame players all converging within a relatively short time to make the centerpieces of his business, the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, the talk of professional sports in recent weeks.

However what Yormark and his team could have foreseen was setting up a brand that was capable of capitalizing on success should that success come along, and that’s what has happened not just for the Nets, but for Brooklyn Sport and Entertainment as a brand. The days of packaging promotions around Green initiatives, free tax return nights, and jerseys of visiting players in an outdated arena in the Meadowlands may seem like a century away for some, but those were the seeds that helped lead the brand to its success today. Hokey promotions and a thirst to keep the team relevant in any possible way despite the turmoil or inconsistency on the court made the Nets brand one to be noticed, if not valued by many. The team continued to position itself as the Barclays Center became a reality and Mikhail Prokhorov ceded the team from Forest City Ratner. That constant buzz of new ideas even made the team more relevant as it went from the Prudential Center in its transition year, wrapping up a star crossed history respectfully in New Jersey, while all the while looking ahead to Brooklyn.

By almost all accounts the first Brooklyn year was a success. Awards for innovation, a return to a borough for professional sports (although the very successful minor league Cyclones are there and remain a great draw), lots of “firsts” from college basketball to boxing, all became the mantra of year one. It was all Brooklyn all the time, and even the team performed well enough to be a draw along, with its new arena.

So now Brooklyn is set, the launch year is complete, and what’s next is now on the horizon. That horizon, through both luck and design, now includes an NHL tenant as well as possibly an additional venue to manage and sculpt should Forest City Ratner beat out Madison Square Garden for the rights to develop what is now the Nassau Coliseum. The Nets brand and its buzz and business acumen now extends to Charles Wang’s Islanders, perhaps one of the best on-ice resurrections in the NHL, and now perhaps one of the better business stories in sports which we will now hear about every day, if the Nets spin doctors have their way of building brands come true. Year two also sees a Nets team, with an owners deep pockets, be a team of stars, ones which casual fans won’t need any introduction to. From new coach Jason Kidd to the coming veterans from Boston to newest signee Andrei Kirilenko (who will help fill some additional seats from the heavy Russian area of Brighton Beach), there will be more buzz and brand interest associated with the on-court performance of the Nets than there has been in years. All of that is good business for the brand, the arena and the borough.

But what about beyond Brooklyn? There is where the real value lies, and that’s where the business can now expand its reach. The exciting team and its state of the art arena now extends several hundred miles east into Long Island and through Queens, drawing casual hoops fans and now hockey fans as well. The star power of the Nets team can pull fans probably from Manhattan and even from New Jersey now,  something which in year two of a launch may have been harder to do. Does it mean the mega brands of MSG and the Knicks should be shaking in their Nikes? No, there is a large enough market for hoops anyway to go around. But for ancillary brand building and getting casual dollars, the Nets brand extension, especially if they win the bid  for the Long Island arena projects, could continue to become that much more powerful in the TV world, in the digital world, in the sales world and in the event world. Brooklyn as a borough has a power all to its own, now its home standing sports brand has ratcheted up its limelight as well. Of course there remain many “ifs,” the team has to play well and win, the arena has to continue to manage costs and make it affordable, the Islanders transition has to be smooth and successful and the economy needs to stay strong. If all those go well, the brand is positioned better than it ever has been before.

So yes, many of the events that have put the Nets brand in the position today could not have been predicted. What could have been predicted is that the team and brand leadership was going to be relentless in taking advantage and telling the world about every move, and when the sun came out and opportunity arose, they could literally cash in.  They are moves that Mr. Rickey would have liked, and if he were alive today, would certainly support as the Nets become bigger than the borough.

College Events Embrace The Apple…

It is probably less true of an individual athlete than ever before, and maybe truer of an event than ever…if you want success you have to find your way to New York at some point. While mega-stars like LeBron James and Sydney Crosby and Payton Manning and thrive in other markets with endorsements and media coverage, events that don’t find a New York area stop are trying to still find that way to directly get an experience with Madison Avenue. The latest case is Formula 1, which continues its push to grow in North America by staging a road race just across the river in West New York, New Jersey in 2014. A successful race around Gotham may not add millions more to the purses, but will give senior brand and Wall Street execs a chance to fully embrace F1 without having to travel far in a world where budgets for such trips are ever tighter. Sports like cricket and rugby are also looking to find a platform to make a New York stop as well, with the hope that fans of the sport, as well as those interested in learning more for a brand or marketing spend, will get a chance to see what the events and the personalities are all about.

The yearning for New York success is also not lost on the college side, and the late fall and winter  will see no less than four draws try and find a place in the media and brand world.  In November Yankee Stadium will host the 150th meeting between Pennsylvania rivals Lehigh and Lafayette in a rare opportunity to showcase that long running battle on the grandest stage possible, while the ACC has joined the Big 10 in an affiliation with the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in December. Also in December a host of elite collegiate wrestling programs will turn to the mats at Madison Square Garden for the second “Grapple in the Apple” event, while January 11 Harvard and Yale will meet in hockey  at Madison Square Garden in the first-ever New York edition of the “Rivalry on Ice.”

In past years staging such events in New York would have been seen as costly and not a draw for the schools involved…the spectacles can best be captured on campus. However the need for facilities like MSG and Yankee Stadium to find more sources of ancillary revenue away from their core tenants…the Knicks, Rangers and Yankees…as well as the realization by the schools themselves that a huge marketing and potential branding opportunity exists by bringing elite events to such iconic venues, can help boost all areas of the Universities involved, from development to alumni relations and even undergraduate recruiting of both student-athlete and traditional students as well. The events themselves have now become the culmination of a multifaceted campaign by the Universities that can use the games themselves as a continued outreach point for anyone in the area they are looking to engage with. Brands that may not be as interested as going on campus, now have an elite event in their backyard where they can test market the combination of college athletics and a high level sporting event, something which, outside of some college basketball, was never easy to do in a city where intercollegiate athletics have long taken a back seat to professional sports.  Now this is not to say that suddenly New York will become a college town for sport, or that every event tried will be successful.

However for the special events, ones with a hook, and for the right schools with a focus on branding in a certain window, New York can be branding boon, one that was probably laughed at not long ago.

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.

“Brand Tennis” Gets A Bounce…

It’s never easy to create a global initiative in anything for one day, let alone anything to do with sport…on a weekday at a time of year when most of the sporting world is thinking soccer, pitchers and catchers, basketball, ice hockey, lacrosse or any myriad of ideas. Tennis? The hard courts of Melbourne are a memory, the clay of Roland Garros and the grass of Wimbledon is still covered and even in the US the spring outdoor events at places like Key Biscayne and Indian Wells are only starting to come into focus. Then you lop on schedules for indoor events both exhibitions and scheduled tournaments, Davis and Fed Cup, and getting casual fans and the media to focus on tennis  on a Monday in march seems like quite a challenge.

 However the International Tennis Federation, with a huge lift from two mega-exhibitions in New York and, and the support of over 40 countries have put a stake in the ground, proclaiming Monday March 4 World Tennis Day…a day where lessons indoor and out, events big and small, will serve as a call to action to remind people of the benefits and star power that the sport has, as the weather in many places gets warmer and people start to look for outdoor activity. It will also serve as a good call to action to event promoters around the globe with tickets to sell for upcoming events to give media and fans a chance to engage with them at a time when thoughts may still be elsewhere for tournaments this summer.

World Tennis Day is centered around two high-profile events; BNP Paribas Showdown in New York’s Madison Square Garden that this year will see Rafa Nadal highlight a card that also has  World No. 1, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and  Juan Martin del Potro,  and a new event of the same name to be played at the AsiaWorld-Arena in Hong Kong with Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl.

In the US, The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has already established promotion were clubs are asked to open their doors as part of a month-long drive to get children playing the sport. Over 2,200 clubs in the United States took part in this initiative in 2012 and the goal is to eclipse that number this year.

For their part, the ITF has offered up their own simpler grassroots style event to clubs around the world with a similar goal…so the question is, will it work?

An initiative of this size needs two part…star power and commitment to follow through at the grassroots. For the two anchor events, New York and Hong Kong, the stars for the night are in places, and the global television audience should effectively help merchandise the benefits and the fun of the sport at a time when many won’t be thinking tennis top of mind. The mobilization of thousands of club pros around the world not just on the day, but n the weekend prior and the weeks following, is also key to making the promotion effective.

 Now is this a global media event with millions watching live? No. Does it need more brand opportunities away from New York and Hong Kong to activate at a consumer level? For sure. Will it suddenly vault tennis back into a higher level of daily awareness? No. What this event does do is give those casual fans a strong reminder to start picking up a racquet, it creates some nice brand awareness in two key markets for the stars of the game (especially Nadal whose injuries have kept him out of the spotlight as one of the game’s most telegenic faces) and it gives the hyper local a great rallying point. Sure it needs lots of follow-up to sustain the bounce the game will get for a night, but as an attempt to create buzz and grow the game, the concept of World Tennis Day is a good one, and one that as it expands can have even more impact on healthy lifestyles than it will on finding the next Grand Slam Champion.

 A good promotion, and a nice next step for a game that needs the boost.   

No Bull…PBR Gets A Chance To Ride A Quiet NY Weekend To Success

This weekend the New York area will be without a boxing match, an MMA card, the NFL, the NHL, arena football and indoor soccer. There is a smattering of college hoops and a little NBA, but what can someone with a hankering for some action check out. Well the PBR is back for its annual stop at Madison Square Garden. From its bulls to its interactive displays, its riders and its clowns, the PBR experience is certainly a unique one for sports branding coming through New York for what is its only east coast appearance.

In previous years the PBR has tested jousting, marched the bulls through Times Square and offered up first hand visits to try and distinguish themselves from other events in the area. There is usually a Giants playoff game or some NHL looking to draw attention. This year, the sports card is pretty much all bull for a weekend which the Tour uses to kick off its season and remind Madison Avenue that its fans and its product are unique to sport.

Why MSG in January? Even with a slower economy than when the circuit first came to MSG, the PBR still pulls some major brands from Ford to Stanley Tools to Wrangler to Cooper Tires, and even a new official chainsaw in Echo Power Tools (try selling that category, MLB). Their exclusive TV partner, CBS, also needs to entertain and engage partners in the buying capital of the sports world, especially since the PBR does not come any closer than Fayetteville, North Carolina at any point in 2013. We do live in a global sports environment now, but being able to experience an event like the PBR for skeptical brand buyers is very important, and there is no better way than hosting a showcase event in their backyard.

Families may be looking for a post-holiday event to attend that is both affordable and a bit different, and the casual sports fan is looking for some live event that is not of the norm and is a ways away from a normal trip to “The World’s Most famous Arena.” Add in the NASCAR-like appeal of the bull riders, the spectacle and drama of the bulls and you have an event that can actually draw attention and pull in a strong weekend crowd in a very fickle environment.

Aside from the spectacle of PBR, the fact that it is a stand-alone East Coast event for the sport, at the same time every year, can even make the weekend a destination spot for staycationers in the burbs, but also for fans of the sport from up and down the east coast and parts inland. All that works because of the consistency of the calendar, and a willing partner in Madison Square Garden. If the event moved from time to time, or if it had to go up against better weather or any host of other events in the crowded New York schedule, the event would be nowhere near as successful. Casual fans would not seek it out, or be able to circle the date with consistency. Even diehard fans would have to adjust from the rigors of daily life, and any stretch from annual consistency could spell doom.

Consistent and effective year in, year out branding and timing leads to a good churn of the casual fan and builds brand loyalty for the core follower, which translates into three days of an enthused, supportive and engaged fan, which is what all events strive to deliver in these challenging times, especially in the largest media market in the country.

So is the PBR season opener a model for branding success for niche events? It has many of the elements for a good one off, most important of which is exciting live content in a weekend which is as quiet in the area on the sports calendar as any. If it spectacle you like, the PBR certainly delivers.

The Battle For Gotham…NBA Style

There have been times in the past 20 years where the Nets brand has made attempts to solidly establish itself in the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of Madison Avenue. Jon Spoelstra trying to change the name of the team to The Swamp Dragons, the time when the team made their runs to the NBA Finals with mega-talent like Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, the coaching genius of Larry Brown and the late Chuck Daly, all made the Nets more of an interest and a curiosity to casual fans than a real threat to the brand of the Knicks and their seat atop Penn Station in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” The Knicks are a New York institution, the Nets are a basketball team.

In the last few years ownership change, two moves, first to Newark and now to Brooklyn, have given the Nets more substance to their bluster than before. Gradually the team would add sponsors never seen before in an NBA circle, try new “influencer” ideas, boast of “record” increases in attendance and sponsorship without really ever getting into the numbers to see what the “records” actually were. However they  did get attention. The Knicks? The continue to operate as an established brand. Never doing a constant barrage of news but ann ouncing large scale partnerships as their renovated home evolved over quiet summers, finding a more international fan base who would come to MSG at very high prices like they would go to a Broadway play, and bringing in bold face names both on and around the court to keep the franchise in the lexicon of popular culture that matches what even casual fans deems to be  interesting. Interesting like watching a train wreck or a reality TV show sometimes? Yes. But interesting enough to keep people engaged.

So while the Knicks fire back with a salvo of news every once in a while, the Nets continue to go all out in screaming about the Barclays Center, its innovative lights, its first ever in Brooklyn events, to anyone who will listen. Only now the difference is that the screaming is being heard by a more national audience, almost as if the franchise is an expansion team. Deron Williams is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Nets gear is a hot seller, the arena is state-of-the-art, and most importantly, their long-awaited new home opens at a time where Brooklyn has become the destination of more high net worth thirtysomethings who can pay premium prices than ever before.  The new arena also has had the benefit, one of the few, of being able to book a large number of events this fall while MSG (and The Prudential Center in Newark and Nassau Coliseum) continue to sit largely idle because of committed and unused dates due to the NHL Lockout. While that doesn’t directly effect the battle for hoops fans, it does give Brooklyn a boost in added interest, which ultimately leads to exposure for the Nets brand. More people in, more thoughts about Nets basketball.

Now none of this means the Knicks are hurting with exposure in the public eye. Their team may be older, but they have established names. Their building may not be new, but it is renovated and state of the art. They may not have an aggressive new owner but they have one with deep pockets. they may not have to boast of new fans but they have thousands lined up to purchase tickets , and have a large corporate base within minutes to draw from. They may not have new subway lines with sparkling stations, but they  sit atop one of the busiest transportation hubs in the world, which means MSG is an easy stop for high net worth commuters on their way home, or even for those coming from the north or south who are making Manhattan a destination.Whether you love or loathe the Knicks, they are still prime water cooler talk.

Sports fandom is also tribal, and those tribal loyalties just don’t turn overnight. The Nets have been courting the urban fans for several years, and can now play in front of them. However that casual courting is much different from a marriage. Sure people will come by for a visit, but will they come back again after they sample the new digs? Or will they go back to old habits in a part of New York (Manhattan) where they spend more of their waking hours? Yes the Nets will again be more affordable, but will affordable mean profitable,, or do you need mega-prices to make it in a very tough business environment? yes the Nets by default will have more people who can go to games in the urban environment that is Brooklyn…younger, hipper and more vibrant than Newark or the Meadowlands. But will those people keep coming back? Yes the Nets have brought in new sponsors looking to engage in a new building, but will all those sponsors be able to lure very busy clients away from Manhattan and into Brooklyn? They still have to cross a river, not a street.

These perceived battles have happened in other cities. The Clippers have risen up to try and challenge the Lakers in the eyes of the local fan, and the result appears to be a market which can love both at least for the short term. New York has its own caste system with Jets/Giants and Mets/Yankees, each appealing to a certain core fan. There are Cubs/White Sox loyalties that rarely change. The biggest difference here is that both the Knicks and the Nets are trying to appeal to a more elite audience with deeper pockets than probably ever before. Both like the casual fan, both both need big bucks to make this work.

Then there is also the ultimate litmus test, what happens on the court. The Knicks are older, and established at least with name players. The Nets are younger and looking to challenge with new names (which is not different from other times the team has tried to grab fans). So in order to fill the void of distressed tickets each night, the team needs to win.  The Knicks larger base means they have less tickets to sell, at least for the short term. The Nets, a smaller base which leads to larger expanses of open seats. That eats into the bottom line.

In the short term, it appears the market can bear out both efforts. Opening night will see “sellout” for both. Over time, can the Nets plan push them into new fans who will change loyalties or bring in fans who never really followed basketball? That new immigrant, one raised on soccer and cricket and rugby vs. baseball, is in full force throughout Brooklyn. He and she is prime to be converted and join their more local team from time to time. But that will not happen overnight.  the Nets have always been about the quick headline, the Knicks the slow and steady build with the brightest of lights on their side, win or lose. Which strategy, or maybe both, will ultimately win out is worth watching. It will make for interesting times for both fans and brands, as a full NBA season tips off in a few weeks.

Nets Have The Sizzle, Will The Steak Follow?

Last week the Brooklyn Nets started their countdown clock to the long-discussed opening of Americas newest showplace, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Not a day goes by without another announcement of a concert, high school hoops extravaganza, new billboard going up, community visit, concert or “innovation” as the organization continues to scream “Look at Me” to anyone who will listen or not.

The team has re-made itself on the court under GM Billy King, re-signing Deron Williams and adding Joe Johnson while adding a host of other new faces to go along with the new look and their new arena. Every week there is a new boast of a sponsor or a ticket milestone, along with more than a few rumblings of other major attractions like an NHL game or the Women’s Final Four in the offing soon or down the line. Promote, promote, promote and never miss a moment to remind someone that a new building will be coming into vogue in at least part of the world’s largest media market, in its most populous borough.

There is probably no organization on the planet which has tried as hard to find ways to place itself in the media than the Nets and the Barclays Center in the past 18 months. From the added exposure coming from Kris Humphries’ ill-fated and short lived Karadashian experience, to the constant push of brand partners and the man who is pulling the pieces together from a sales side (Bret Yormark), everyone has at least a casual knowledge of where the Nets will be.  Every day there is a reason to at least be intrigues by the goings-on in Brooklyn, whether you like NBA basketball or not.

Now of course all of this is not going on in a vacuum. Just across the river Madison Square Garden is undergoing their second summer of renovation, occasionally parachuting in with updates for the media on what a renovated MSG will look like like. Following their Olympic performance, stars like Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler have made their way back to Gotham to grab their own headlines with teammate Amar’e Stoudamire taking in the US Open or attending Fashion Week, and if the NHL does start on time, the Rangers have made themselves more media friendly with their marketing of Henrik Lundquist and company. There is also the Nets recent home, the Prudential Center, which still remains the most accessible arena in the area thus far, with a team (the Devils) that has done a great job of engaging in the social space.  So the Nets and the Barclays Center have take the aggressive approach to position themselves and their partners as the “must see” venue of the fall, each and every day in the marketplace.

Now will it work?  First of all the market is big enough to adequately support the venues full time. The amount of shows and events coming through such a wide media market with amazing public transportation hubs can keep the event calendar flowing. The rebirth of New York as a tourist destination has also helped fill the distressed inventory of MSG in recent years, and that draw to a borough not far away should also help the Barclays. Will the team play well enough to have fans show up night in and night out for games against subpar opponents?  Will the arena be a technological innovation along the lines of Kansas City’s Livestrong Park, which has emerged as the most tech-savvy of all new facilities to date? Will die-hard Knicks fans who have to traverse Penn Station on their daily commutes be drawn consistently to an aggressive  vibe in Brooklyn? What happens when the sizzle comes off the new arena in a years time? Old habits are tough to break, and that’s when the real selling will come in…on the rainy days when there are few “firsts” left in the Nets bag of tricks. As much as the Jets have sold hype, the bottom line is their Stadium co-tenants, the Giants, have found smart and innovative ways to engage their fans AND win, which in a market like New York, is what you need.

There is no doubt the Nets and their PR and Marketing teams have created sizzle. Now they have to serve the steak as well. Great first step, one worth watching for what the next one will be.