Happy 100th Birthday, Coach Lombardi and The Values He Stood For

Other than politicians, he may be the most quoted, and even mis-quoted man in America over the last 100 years. His name adorns the championship trophy of the league he helped grow from a sports afterthought to the leader of a multi-billion dollar industry,   Happy 100th birthday to “The Coach,” Vince Lombardi.

Having worked on the Tony-nominated play that was produced by Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, I spent more time “around” The Coach than most people who knew him both personally and anecdotally and the lessons learned in the process were amazing. While many think of him as a fire and brimstone yeller. In reality he was most revered for his quiet teachable moments after losses with his players. While the great people at NFL Films captured him often times just pacing the sidelines and ranting, in reality at those points his work was done in meticulous pre-game preparation, and he left the game itself to those who would play it. His yelling was more of cheerleader at that point than coach. He was a man who loved a joke and loved to laugh. He understood the value of controlling the message and handling the media at a time when such practices were misunderstood or mis-managed in getting the message out .  He understood the value of television and mass media as a tool to grow his brand…hence the reason why this uber coach allowed himself to be one of the first to wear a mic on the sidelines and sat down every week for an in-depth TV show well before Hard Knocks was in vogue.

Lombardi was a deeply religious man, but he also understood that he was a man constantly battling his own inner faults. He did pray every day, but he prayed for forgiveness of his own shortcomings more than for God to help the Packers in on any given Sunday…that he left it to his players and the staff he had assembled. He didn’t motivate through fear or intimidation as much as many believed…he motivated through teaching and repetition and hard work. He was old school in a reflection of his work ethic, but he was extremely progressive n thought…the Packers tried to devise a heating system to keep Lambeau Field from freezing for example, and he was constantly looking for new technological ways to improve the game. He may not have used twitter, but tablets on the field, The Coach would have loved.

In many  his workaholic approach was his undoing, but it is an attitude embraced in the workplace today…sacrifice family and personal life to get ahead. That may still not be a good thing, but it is tolerated probably more than it should be. That was reflected in the fact that Lombardi did not have a great relationship with his family and of course in the fact that he neglected his health to the point where a very treatable form of colon cancer if caught early was what ended his life at a very young age of 57.

The Lombardi quotes and his work ethic  are followed by many leaders in corporate America today, and his style was idolized by coaches around the world, including one of his greatest fans, Sir Alex Ferguson, the recently retired coach of Manchester United. Many wonder could Lombardi, who many saw as old school, have coached in today’s environment? What we learned from those around him, and what comes through in the play, was that Lombardi the man was one of great compassion, more probably than what was understood in his time. He was the first to have an African American a chance at middle linebacker, he was tolerant of players personalities and adapted and motivated to whatever got a player to focus. Some have spectated that the recent buzz around gay athletes may have driven a coach like Lombardi over the edge. In reality, his surviving brother Harold, is gay, and Lombardi was much more tolerant and accepting of alternative lifestyles than any would have predicted. He was a master at motivation, and had a great understanding of overcoming adversity and finding ways to succeed.

These days the Lombardi brand is closely guarded by his son Vince and others, and the recent success of the Green Bay Packers both on and off the field has given “The Coach” more positive exposure than he might have had in recent decades. The difference in the Lombardi brand today is really how it is viewed vs. in previous decades. He is much more revered as a motivator and a teacher, which is what he loved to be known as, than a get it done at all costs coach. 

June 11 is a day that also holds some extra karma for me personally, as my good friend Jimmy  Dempsey, as big a Packers fan as there is and a fierce devotee of “The Coach,” will enter memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for a bone marrow transplant that will keep him with us for decades to come.  Jimmy got to see the play, and understand the man, much better in recent years than he did when Coach Lombardi was on the sidelines, and that better understanding will probably help him in his drive to succeed and recover from a harrowing experience as well.

In all likelihood The Coach would not have wanted to make a big deal about his Centennial, but hopefully many other business, brands and organizations recognize all that Lombardi truly stood for…a drive to succeed, a commitment to being the best, compassion and understanding of those around you, and the ability to teach and learn from others…today and through what should be a year-long celebration of his life.

Happy Birthday Coach, and best to all who keep his spirit and passion alive. He was a man not fully understood by all in his time, but his core values are needed and revered more today than when he was winning championships in Green Bay.

Kicking It Out, Tagging Together, And Throwing Good Money Afer Bad

Kick It Out Gets Kicked Back: It seemed like a great sign of unity for a positive message. The anti-racism campaign Kick It Out struck a deal with the Barclays Premier League to have all players wear t-shorts as a sign of anti-bullying prior to matches this weekend. A clear, powerful message delivered by a diverse group of players on the largest of global stages.

However a number of players, most notably Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand, decided not to wear the t-shirt in protest of the lack of action from the organization. The players remain unconvinced that the platform holds any water when driving interest in anti-bullying, because of the amount of issues that continue to go on. The racist incident that involved Anton Ferdinand in October 2011 came days after an altercation between Liverpool’s Luis Suárez and Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, which saw the Uruguayan receive an eight-match ban and £40,000 fine after being found guilty of racial abuse by the FA.  Other issues continue to arise as well, leading to the player’s issues wearing the shirts pre-match.

Be that as it may, the player’s issues seem to be directed in the wrong place. Participation by all sends a strong message to those watching that bullying is an issue and should not be tolerated on any level, not just amongst those playing football. The charity is the conduit to try and spread the message, nit the governing body that can control what goes on and levy fines to players in violation. There is no doubt that some of the protesting players are staunchly with an anti-bullying campaign. Not participating in the symbolic gesture probably makes the rift a little wider, and drew even more negative publicity to a campaign that tried to raise awareness through solidarity. Sometimes two wrongs don’t help anyone get things right.

Hello Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Nets have become one of the first professional teams to pool all their fans digital assets, using the hashtags #HelloBrooklyn and #BarclaysCenter . The cumulative site is smart because it gives fans the opportunity to tag all media they create in and around the arena, not just tied to a game. Therefore sharing Jay-Z concert pictures with those fans at NBA games will help build more affinity for the arena brand, and bring some commonality to all those coming to the arena. It also gives casual fans a chance to see what other events have look and felt like at the new building and maybe gives them a second thought when looking for another night out that is not on their A list for event.

RIP UFL: After reporting losses of over $120 million the UFL announced this past weekend it would suspend the season but pick it up again in the spring…before moving back to the fall later in 2013. So if they somehow get the money to play the last half of a season with four teams and do well in the spring they are going to them go back to the fall, where they have been a colossal failure. Instead of staying in the spring with no competition, they go back to the issue of the NFL, high school and college football not to mention hockey, hoops, NASCAR, MLS and oh yeah, the playoffs and the World Series for MLB.

The definition of lunacy is continuing to do the same thing repeatedly and hoping for a different result. Fits the UFL’s business plan. Too bad, the league has solid players and coaching and a good TV presence. Just no sports business sense. The league will never get to crown another champion, let alone play another game in all likelihood.

Man U “Gets” Local Branding, PSU Speaks As One, And Value As “Intrepreneurs”

As we hit the opening weekend of the Olympics, some thoughts on good moves away from London…

Manchester United Thinks Globally, Acts Locally: There is perhaps no more better positioned global sports brand than Manchester United. The club will play to packed stadia anywhere in the world and their web traffic, kit sales and TV audiences stack up against any other property in sports. So while scores of clubs came to North America for “friendlies” this July, Man U left the UK and went east for a China  tour, further cementing their position as arguably soccer’s strongest brand in Asia. It was a big part of DHL’s sponsorship with ManU, which will also bring them across North Europe before heading back to start Barclays Premier League training.

While the club was on their whirlwind tour through China they made a very pointed move to connect, donning jerseys with Mandarin on the front, a departure from the English “AON” branding that adorns their kits the rest of the time. As brands still grapple with how to connect with the Chinese marketplace, this was a great example of understanding local culture. It is not all about saying we are doing “Hispanic” night and playing salsa music and putting “Los” on everything. It is about thinking and doing what that audience can connect with and making the effort to show that you understand what pleases them. The change of kits, even temporarily, showed supporters that ManU “got” them, and created a nice surprise, not to mention a great visual.

Great example of a global brand adapting and sending a message that no matter how big they are, they can identify with their supporters in every market.

PSU Speaks: The aftermath of the Penn State football situation will not be clear for a very long time. Regardless of which side one falls in the decision, it was impressive that players and coaches spoke in unison this week of their desire to stay with the program.  Coach Bill O’Brien used the national media, with a day-long trip to ESPN, to speak to the nation and explain in his voice the challenges and potential opportunities that student-athletes may have with the sanctions, while players spoke in groups to support each other and the University. The program even was able to turn the recruiting habits of other schools looking for potential transfers into a rally point, with players speaking out against assistant coaches spread out across the campus trying to speak to players about leaving Penn State for their school. Perhaps it is short term messaging, and many thought it was expected for the players to rally, but the fact that almost all players spoke in support as one, and that Coach O’Brien went on the aggressive to the national media, gave the program a window of fresh air for a few days and set a tone that was the most positive element to come out of the program in a very long time.

The Value of “Intrepreneurship”: I don’t often use my blog to speak about brands I work with, but Friday while teaching high school students at Columbia University, Bloomberg Sports’ Bo Moon gave a nice talk on the value of being not an entrepreneur, but an intrepreneur. It is a word that has been around for a few decades, but raised many eyebrows in the room…the definition is: “behaving like an entrepreneur when you’re employed at a large corporation for the benefit of the corporation as a whole.”

Moon and fellow employee JB Lee became intrepreneurs at Bloomberg when they took the idea of using the company’s vast analytic engine for business to create a vertical business in the would of sports. They presented to senior management, were given some seed money and as a result of their efforts Bloomberg Sports was born three years ago, and recently was spun off partially to IMG.

They saw an opportunity that existed in a large company to create a new revenue stream and came up with a business plan to present to management to expand a potential offshoot which was away from the core business. They did it on their own time, explained it very clearly and when ready went to senior management with the idea. They didn’t have to go out on their own or be rebellious…they knew the workings of the company and how to unify and be inclusive and respectful as opposed to breaking away and trying things on their own. They did not know at first if they would get support with the idea, but their presentation made sense, especially in a challenged economy where a large business was looking for ways to provide new services using existing assets.

It is a great example of presentation and thinking “in the box” per se, vs. trying to go at something alone. Companies need to encourage more intrepreneurs as a way of growing, and Bloomberg Sports is a great example of how to do so.


Delta Makes The Sports World Smaller

About eight years ago, Emirates Airways, looking to find a way to start connecting with an American sporting audience, joined forces with the Breeder’s Cup as a key sponsor. At the time, some looked at the partnership as a stretch by the airline, which had little presence in the United States but a bigger tie to the Gulf States patrons who also were heavily investing in horse racing while American breeders were leaving the business. Patronage at its best.  Really?

Today, the Dubai based airline operates four of the world’s ten longest non-stop commercial flights from Dubai to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston and is continuing its push into the American marketplace. It also never stopped expanding its sports sponsorship, taking the title sponsorship of tennis’ US Open Series to go along with its extensive golf, horse racing, soccer and cricket partnerships. The Breeders Cup was just a first step into brand integration in the United States, a very cost-effective move that is part of a growing strategy.

So it is with that knowledge of history that is should come as no huge surprise that Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, looking to grow its footprint outside of the United States, aligned itself with the storied mega-club Chelsea this week, becoming the club’s official airline partner. Delta, already a sports branding stalwart in the United States with deals with the New York Yankees, the Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings, the New York Mets and the Minnesota Vikings among others, will leverage the Chelsea partnership to link a solid U.S. base not just to Europe but well beyond, using Chelsea as the bridge.

From a timing standpoint, the deal makes even more sense, as Chelsea comes to the U.S. for a series of “friendlies” in July and Americans venture abroad for London 2012, giving a wide runway to market on both sides of the Atlantic to a sports-savvy public. The implementation of a strong social media component, something that a few years ago would not have been available to bolster such a partnership beyond geographic borders, will add even more to a spend that is truly global for a solid  American brand.

More importantly for other brands who might have been gun shy in understanding the global sports marketplace vs. just the North American landscape, the deal shows that it is becoming more and more accepted to create high level partnerships in sport that transcend borders and cultures. While the airline might not start by sponsoring a Chelsea bobblehead night, it will find ways to tap into the club’s loyal supporters for activation in the mobile space and with any other series of evolving promotions. Delta’s move follows the deal General Motors signed with Manchester United in May, the first large-scale American sports sponsorship in the Barclay’s Premier League. Delta’s was the second, and it certainly won’t be the last.

So what does this type of brand expansion mean for American sports organizations? Trouble? Not really. It probably means that the global marketplace is even more wide open for brands like an Emirates Airways to finally tap into the American sports landscape for brand extensions, just as Delta and GM have now done in the UK. Social and digital media have helped to create opportunities and break down barriers to entry for brands in new marketplaces which leads to greater possibilities and a larger potential marketplace. It is certainly not for the small scale spend, but for a society that is becoming more and more diverse along with being more sports business savvy the potential for unique deals is greater than ever before.

Emirates may have been one of the first to the race with the Breeders Cup, a sponsorship that at the time raised eyebrows, but it may have opened a visionary floodgate that other brands now appear to be ready to sprint through.

Free Engagement? Manchester City Takes Another Step To Grow…

The cultural and business differences in how digital sports is offered in Europe and North America is in many ways as wide a divide as well, the ocean that separates the two continents. The early growth of mobile and digital platforms by the sports consumer outside of the United States, as well as the passion and tradition of club followings, gave elite brands like those in the Premier League a decided advantage in fan engagement at an early stage.

Club followers could gain access to all sorts of content, but only for a fee. Followers of Manchester United and Arsenal would buy in for extended content and access, much of which was delivered via a mobile platform to hundreds of thousands of fans around the world. Conversely in the United States, most clubs and properties, faced with a more fickle fan base and a consumer not yet fully in tune to the mobile pace, chose to go the free route to provide content access. Volume of coverage and the ability to engage those fans was the way brands would activate digitally in sport in North America, with digital being less of a hard dollar stream than it is abroad. It was complimentary and a needed addition, but not the hard source of sponsor or fan dollars as it is in the UK and other places.

One club that has looked to buck that trend, one of many ways they are trying to change the view of sports marketing in Europe, is Manchester City. The world’s wealthiest soccer club rolled out a number of new digital initiatives to help drive support and increase fan engagement earlier this year. It was the latest step by the club, purchased by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008, to increase its casual following globally as well as find new ways to engage its traditional followers. The club became one of the first to launch a YouTube channel and cross promote the content posted through all their traditional and non-traditional media, and followed that up with free tweets and chats involving many of the club’s players and staff. While it may seem normal for American sport to do such programs, having an EPL team take that step is a departure from the norm of putting all such top content and access behind a pay wall

The latest step of giving fans a bit more engagement took place this past week, when the club announced it would start implementing tweets and Facebook posts by fans in stadium during the course of matches. The posts would be monitored as to not be offensive, and will come directly from the Manchester City sites, giving fans the ability to engage with the team and those in attendance, an immediate real-time global reaction to performance, support and buzz around one of the world’s premier sport brands. While some may say the giving away of premier content, or providing such a large forum as a stadium message board is counter to the revenue stream that existed, it may actually be the opposite that is true. The EPL teams have done a great job of monetizing content, and are well aware that there are legions of fans around the world who either can’t or won’t pay a price for the added value. Giving away snippets, creating new content platforms and reaching out to those fans to get them more engaged may actually increase the dollars coming in down the road. The casual become more engaged, and their interest grows with the potential for up-sell and engagement. The perceived “loss” is really sweat equity not hard dollars or investment, as all the tools needed for the social media “freebies” already exists, and much of the content is going to be user generated.

The move by Manchester City is also the latest by clubs to find ways to use social media even more in their real time fan engagement platforms. Hashtags have started showing up in college football stadia. Now of course most of this has to do with experimentation, building critical mass and presenting a new avenue engagement that can in turn be packaged and monetized. Broadcasters have used live feeds of fan comments to try and enhance and not distract television audiences for years to mixed reviews. Whether bringing the comments to the huge screens in stadia as an addition will be welcomed remains to be seen. Regardless it is an interesting move by one of the world’s richest clubs, who realizes that the next step of engagement needs to be to a wider audience, and hopes that the dollars that flow from that free step will far offset the gamble they will take.

A great example of best practices from both sides of the Atlantic coming together.

Who Really Benefits From World Cup? Brand Soccer.

They are on every talk show…one player adorns the rarefied air of the cover of Sports Illustrated. They are the new darlings of sport, despite their loss on Sunday. They are the women of American soccer, and their media tour this week has again helped to lift the profile of a sport…soccer…as much as if not more than women’s sports. So how does all this help in the long term for brand soccer?

While the natural assumption is that these heroes coming home could bolster the much beleaguered path that Women’s Professional Soccer is on (teams have reported increased ticket sales, at least for the first few homecoming games for the league), the bigger picture is how this success can be weaved into the overall interest in soccer…not men’s soccer, not women’s soccer, not youth soccer…overall. Next up for the sport in the United States is the very high profile All-Star game at Red Bull Arena…MLS vs. Manchester United…and the league will be pulling out all the stops to showcase the game, it’s brand and its stars across the river in New York to fans, advertisers and media partners. Having some of the recently successful women on hand would also be a nice help. Women’s World Cup will surely be mentioned in the same breath as MLS next week in and around the marketing and the soccer community.

The other big bridge World Cup success builds is to next summer and the London Olympics. Much as officials will say that there will be a huge bump in interest in WPS, the fact remains that professional women’s soccer, both here and even more so abroad, still does not register. Go up to the casual fan next week and they will know Hope Solo or Abby Wambach maybe, but ask if they know what Sky Blue FC is, even in New Jersey where the team is based, and you will probably get a blank stare. Publicity and media attention is great, but without continued reinforcement with marketing dollars and TV, the pro interest will wan as it has in the past. The real value is toward the next group of bright lights at the Olympics. USA Soccer and key brands now have added bounce to profile the women of soccer going into London, something they might not have had before this past weekend. While women’s soccer may not have been key for NBC before, it could be now, and those who played in World Cup and shined, and will play in the Olympics a year from now, will get more stage time. That helps the athletes and it helps the sport on all levels, as every ounce of exposure continues to be critical for the game’s growth in the States.

So as we look back at the real value of this past weekend, with its record tweets and posts and TV numbers and drama, we should look for the real winner, which is brand soccer. A sport which has enjoyed steady growth over the last ten years got another bump, this time from the women’s side, and that bump helps the game more than the individual, which is what team sports is supposed to be about.

Soccer Gets Another Kick Forward In The States…

Yes it’s lead in was a half hour Wonderbra commercial and yes the football vs. soccer comparison by Michael Strahan was unneeded and more than a tad insulting (or maybe it was more a statement about how far soccer still has to go in the States?), but “Brand Soccer” in the U.S. took another step forward Saturday with Fox televising live the Champions League Final between F.C. Barcelona and Manchester United from Wembley Stadium. Dropped on a quiet sports afternoon as a lead-in to baseball…yes a holiday weekend but one with no noise from NASCAR, the NBA or the NHL and little from baseball…the match was a two hour showcase for both the die hard soccer fan in the States who may not yet be an MLS convert, and for the casual fan who has chased his or her kids around a pitch and maybe has caught more interest in the game through the World Cup or the expanded efforts of MLS in its markets. It was also a good litmus test for Fox, who has invested and harvested large sums from the game around the world, and has put a good chunk into marketing the Fox Soccer Channel in the States (a great but sometimes hard to find tool for the sport in growing its footprint).

Moving the Champions League Final to broadcast television, despite the solid coverage ESPN has given elite club soccer as well as the World Cup, also helped enhance the image of the sport to a global audience, showing that Americans maybe, just maybe, can take soccer not just on the vaunted all-sports network but on a broadcast station, the home of so many other elite sporting events that Americans follow. Now will the ratings be huge? No. Holiday weekend, great weather, not huge marketing dollars put forth and no real American presence doesn’t lead to big numbers of people leaving barbeques to tune in. However more importantly was the willingness by Fox to show the game live, and to make the investment not just in putting up a feed but in making the show just a little more American to an American audience. It was more education and investment in the future than a sales and branding win for today. With the uncertainty of the 2022 Qatar World Cup now in the play, showing more elite soccer in broadcast TV also sends another message to officials that the game is indeed growing and more appreciated in the States than before. Should that bid come loose, Fox’s broadcast could be another good message to send to FIFA that the U.S. is the rightful home for that World Cup.

Regardless, it was another positive move forward for soccer in the States Saturday. A year that has seen MLS continue to grow as a property and a brand, and with it, more interest and understanding of the global game and its positive messages and elite play.

The Social Media Game On A Global Scale…

The social landscape in sports across North America is growing exponentially every day. Teams, athletes, events, brands, media companies, are all scrambling to add followers, build alliances, grow traffic and scream louder than anyone else to draw critical mass for whatever reason, from selling tickets and growing brand loyalty to giving consumers the unfettered access they crave. Yet for all the scrambling and the theories of what is brand success…is it millions of followers or the right few thousand for your audience for example…a great piece by Eric Fisher in this week’s Sports Business Journal shows that American teams are still lagging in the social media footprint to the soccer clubs of Europe, and that the recently completed cricket World Cup had more of an impact in the digital space than almost any other North American sporting event, save the Super Bowl…and that impact was not on non-American servers, it was on a well known platform in the States…ESPN digital.

This type of news may create some consternation amongst the sports social media elite in the United States, and may send some “experts” heading for cover as they advise brands. However in reality the news is a great example again of how the sports landscape is far more global than we sometimes care to admit, and taking a look at best practices of some of the world’s largest soccer clubs can continue to give North American brands insight into social media. Often what is also overlooked is the advanced use of the handheld outside of the States and in emerging companies, where landlines are not useful. Telecom companies have been using the digital space for years…the French Open and Formula One were among the first events ever, as early as the 1990’s…to use digital technology to bring fans multiple images and export data to as wide an audience as possible who were following events in their handheld devices.

The list also serves as a reminder to the tribal nature of soccer as a global brand. The largest clubs in the world have truly global followings…loyal groups who consume all things about their home club win or lose…and while American sports are king here, the amount of team-specific fans outside of this country (vs. fans of the league like the NBA or NHL) is far less than the amount of club-specific fans around the world.

This is also certainly not an indictment of the great innovation and brand activation programs American sport has pioneered in the digital space, and those programs are growing exponentially each day. What it is, is a great look and reminder into the potential of the global brand and the appeal of effective social media programs that are based on both content and support. Passion drives interest no matter what the platform.