MLB | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

Coming To A Theater Near You; Hollywood and Sport Mix Continues To Grow…

In recent months we have continued to see the crossover of sport and entertainment, be it Drake playing a bigger role with the Toronto Raptors brand management, or Hollywood movers and shakers like Peter Guber and Thomas Tull taking more active roles in areas on the business side of sport. While certainly not new in many ways; Bob Hope once owned part of the Cleveland Indians, CBS controlled the Yankees for Years, Fox the Dodgers etc., the move of real-life drama to the big screen appears to be happening with more frequency now than ever before. One of the reasons is that sport, perhaps more than any other area of life, has all the great elements that makes movies successful; heroes and villains, agony and ecstasy, real life success and failure, beauty and ugliness, truth and myth. Guber, who now is part of the ownership group of the Dodgers, the Golden State Warriors, and Mandalay Sports, has been a longtime believer in the art of storytelling in business, and has used that narrative to great success in entertainment and sports business, in addition to his teaching. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern has long said that sports was the first and ultimate reality TV show, before the genre really took off, so it shouldn’t come as that great a surprise to see the genre of “sports entertainment” taking off on a new level in Hollywood.

The question is will it work, and will sports as entertainment cross over to bring more sports fans to the box office, and more casual fans to follow sport? We will soon find out.

The latest two experiments open last weekend, with Lionsgate’s “Draft Day” and “50 to 1,” an independently-produced film about 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.  The NFL invested heavily, maybe not in dollars but in authentic brand exposure, to help push “Draft Day” along. Like “42” was for Major League Baseball last summer, “Draft day” became an amazing marketing tool for the league. The coverage of the making of the film was on par with any other Hollywood offering in recent years, with business and entertainment stories running as far as 18 months before the premiere. All that ancillary exposure was something the league could never actually purchase, but is invaluable in growing the brand. I had a first-hand account of that exposure recently when in a meeting, a young woman who was decidedly not a sports fan said she had been following the development of the movie for over a year and actually watched the NFL Combine this year, and was very intrigued by all the testing and skill that these future NFL players were involved with. That type of casual crossover may be extreme, but it the type of halo effect that a big-budget film can bring to sport, and vice versa.  “50 to 1” on the other hand, was small budget but effective in its own way to again expose new audiences to the drama of horse racing at a time of year when the Kentucky Derby is coming into focus. It certainly wasn’t the mega-marketing tool that “Draft Day” was for the NFL, but it was a solid entrée for a sport that is really pushing to get its footing back in the mainstream.

These two releases are not outliers either. There is a full slate of films either in production or on the horizon where sport and entertainment will mix. “Million Dollar Arm,” the Disney-led story of two Indian boys who learn the game of baseball, will be out in May, “When The Game Stands Tall,” the amazing story of deLasalle High School in California follows this summer, “Foxcatcher,” a wrestling themed real life story of murder and intrigued will hit Cannes and be out in the fall, while films about Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (with Will Farrell on board to play the hustling and aging Riggs), and Vince Lombardi all are also slated for 2015 and beyond.

Do these projects actually work? Depends on how you view the end game. There have been crossover hits in the genre, “Moneyball,” “Seabiscuit,” “The Blind Side,” “Talladega Nights,” “Rush,” that have gotten the full buy in and marketing support of the leagues they represent. Those films draw interest from the most talented of writers, directors and stars interested in not just sport but the narrative as well, and as a result, no matter what the box office dollars end up being, they become massive marketing opportunities for the brands involved at really minimal cost to the NFL, NASCAR, MLB etc. The best of worlds has these films translating into the massive box office success outside the States for the company releasing the film, an “Invictus,” for example, which a film about soccer or racing or rugby can do much better than say, “42” which could have limited appeal in places like Asia or the Baltic States where baseball and the Jackie Robinson story are not as interesting or well known. Then you also have the films that can do well because they push the controlled reality of the leagues and can pain a little harsher or edgier angle that the marketing groups may not want to help with, such as Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” A mega-hit at the box office about football, but not an NFL mark or logo anywhere in sight. There is still an argument to be made that any well done, well marketed film about sport raises the buzz level, and that too helps.

So who wins in this new genre? Do these films have to be critical successes to be successful? Again depends on what the overall goal is. If you are Hollywood you want to get ROI at the box office obviously, but you understand the landscape of the sale, and getting the exposure from all the assets a league may have to market a film offsets the dollars you would have to spend in a traditional film marketing budget. If you are the league or the athlete, you can see this as a cost and message controlled vehicle to expand the brand, without having to risk millions on self-producing. You like the partnership, you love the exposure, and you have little risk on the back end so long as the story is somewhat interesting and well marketed. You have tremendous opportunity for exposing not just your league brand, but your brand partners to a larger audience through film or other entertainment venues like Broadway. That woman in the meeting a few weeks ago, you hope, is proof that your plan has worked. Most importantly for both parties is that the story line is well maintained. If you are dealing with sport, and all of these films recently and going forward are based on actual events, you know what the outcome is, and what the response from at least the hardcore follower has been. There is little sell-in to the core audience, they get it and they loved it when it happened, now it’s time to re-tell the tale to the larger audience. It’s not “Bull Durham” or “Field of Dreams,” which had a little more risk as they were not actual events, so there is much less of a risk.

Will this genre continue to grow, and will it expand beyond the borders of great U.S. stories as well? The marketplace will certainly tell us, but for now it looks like it is telling us that the genre is working, and if that’s true there are certainly no shortage of stories that can be told to a larger audience than ever before. That’s good news for entertainment business, and even better news for great crossover storytellers like Guber, Tull, Disney and others, and its great news for sports business.

Set The Ground Rules, Save The Aggravation…

A little over 10 years ago, during a Davis Cup trip to Zimbabwe, the U.S. team passed a street in front of Robert Mugabe’s palace. In big letters there was a warning; “If you take a photo on this street you will be shot.” No one took pictures. Yes that is extreme, but it is a pretty clear way to set ground rules that all understood.

A few weeks ago one of our Columbia classes taught by Neal Pilson had an open invite for staff, alumni, current students and potential students to come in and listen to a q and a with ESPN President John Skipper. The room was filled to listen to Skipper talk about his days in publishing, the challenges of having launched ESPN.com, and a host of anecdotes about life, sports business, broadcasting and the like. Lots of little tidbits that could have made their way out of the room. Nothing overtly controversial, but very insightful from a man who is usually frank and direct but willing to give of his time. As the room filled to capacity, several young socially engaged students prepped their mobile devices for a tweet or two. After all, this is the era of information, and Skipper and Pilson were ready to share. However to the disappointment of some at least, the ground rules were very carefully planned out. No tweeting, posting or recording could take place, in order to keep the session for those invited guests. The result? An open, frank discussion that respected the speakers wishes and a solid time was had by all. The ground rules were set, and the respect was in place.

Juxtapose that discussion, where the rules were set, to a pair of other recent incidents, one involving the Boston Red Sox and President Barack Obama and the other involving Rutgers Athletic Director Julie Hermann. In the first case, POTUS and David Ortiz willingly posed for a selfie that one of Ortiz’s sponsors, Samsung, turned into a marketing push without the consent of the President in any way. Then the Newark Star Ledger broke a story where Hermann was quoted while speaking to a student group at Rutgers as saying she hoped the paper, which had just gone through massive layoffs and is perhaps the media outlet that covers activities on the campus, would essentially go out of business. Whether it was meant sarcastically, or was even taken slightly out of context, it created a firestorm again with the media around the Scarlet Knights. The result? More brand damage and distraction for Rutgers.

What do all four anecdotes show? Pretty simple. We live in an age where media of all kinds is available for consumption willingly or unwillingly, and unless one takes the proper steps to guard against public-facing statements or information, as Skipper did, then anyone is fair game. Was the selfie with Ortiz innocent on the part of the President and Big Papi? Probably. Was there someone on the savvy marketing side waiting or planning to take advantage of the innocent moment? Seems so. In Hermann’s case, was she trying to make news in a frank discussion with students? Probably not. Did she set herself up for an issue by not setting ground rules prior, as happened at Columbia. Looks like that is the case. Now this is not to say setting ground rules can always lead to people acting honorably or responsibly. The thought of embargoes on news stories seem to be more and more a thing of the past, with media outlets scrambling to break news on any platform willing to sometimes ask forgiveness now more than permission, and a tweet, no matter how innocent, just seconds before a story breaks can have career implications for all involved.  Does the Ortiz incident mean that events at White House or other official gatherings will now be like some elite weddings or courtrooms, where any mobile devices need to be confiscated to avoid potential conflict? Could be. We did live in a world not too long ago where images were not captured on phones, they were done by cameras on film and then shared by those who wanted those images distributed and we all seemed fine with it. Taking temptation away can have its benefits in such cases, as can very clear ground rules. The more you think and know your audience, the better off all will be. Image creation and media consumption are great, and by no means should the free flow of ideas be curtailed in most cases. However the higher the image the higher the risk, as we saw again this week, both in DC and New Brunswick. Without setting the rules going in, all bets are off coming out and a news cycle, no matter how innocent or unintentional begins and creates even more distractions for the parties involved.  

“Hardball Passport” Scores For Baseball Fans…

Last fall our colleague Peter Casey launched an ambitious online tool where hoops fans could create a mosaic of all the great places they had seen hoops games, and marry those events to a narrative that matched any fans passion for basketball. It was called “Basketball Passport,” a first of its kind way to catalogue and track all the arenas on both the college and professional  where games have been played. No need for ticket stubs saved, “Basketball Passport” helped you bring back the memories in a virtual world.

This past week, as the MLB season began, Casey and his partners unveiled their latest tracking tool, one which might even be a bigger hit that its hoops counterpart. It is  “Hardball Passport,”  an easy-to-use web tool that lets baseball fans track every major and minor league baseball game they’ve attended over the years.

“Hardball Passport” allows fans to find and log every major and minor league game they’ve attended with simple search functionality. Leveraging a comprehensive games database that goes back to October 21, 1975 – date of Carlton Fisk’s Game Six walk-off homer in the bottom of the twelfth – the tool serves as a repository for game-going memories. Fans can share stories and ticket stubs, and upload photos to complement their game histories. As fans log their games, “Hardball Passport” dishes out personalized stats – number of games attended, stadiums seen, best performances witnessed, and each team’s record for games fans personally attended – to compare year over year or even against other fans. “Hardball Passport” allows future-oriented fans to easily create and track their stadium bucket lists, plan road trips and compete in head-to-head stadium challenges. Fans that complete a stadium challenge or achieve game-specific accomplishments earn unique digital stamps for their Passport. Combined with active leaderboards for “Most Games Logged,” “Hardball Passport” creates a friendly culture of competition among avid game goers.

Will it gain more traction than “Basketball Passport” did in season one? Probably. Baseball is much more a game of tradition and ritual, summer evenings spent with family at probably a more leisurely place than basketball experiences are. For sure the traditions of college basketball run deep in many places, as do the memories, but baseball as a shared experience is probably a lot wider than basketball is. From a business perspective, both platforms have a nice upside. Brands can integrate perks into the platform for fans who engage regularly, and the model remains scalable to any sport. While the baseball data going back to 1975 is probably reflective of the user base, an expanded set of games going at least into the 1960’s would probably create more shared experiences for an older generation vs., first adopting milennials, bit fir a first try “Hardball Passport” seems to score as a new engagement tool, one that can help unite generations and stir interest in the long baseball season for legions of casual fans. Worth a try for sure.

An Opportunity Still To Be Had; Grabbing More “Senior Moments”

As we reach Opening Day of the MLB season the annual lament about baseball needing to attract a younger audience starts again. While there is no doubt that every sport wants to grab younger folks and engage more with every medium possible with its fans, the pact is that we as a society are still getting older, and those older fans do remain as an audience that has disposable income, time on their hands and are becoming more and more engaged in a digital environment. So with that in mind, here is a quick thought again on the value of having more senior moments…you cannot watch a game without ads for Pharma, so they realize that older fans are embracing sport like never before; why don’t teams to more. The older audience is what has held live theater together; it is embraced by movies, yet sports seems to stay away…time for a re-think on how to engage more over 21 in promotions, while in no way slacking off on engaging the younger audience as well.

It is the fastest growing segment of the population in North America…a segment that has vast consumer experience, knows how to activate in groups, has defined spending habits and in many cases a large amount of disposable time and purchases more high ticket items, like cars, more than any other segment of the population. They influence spending habits, young people, voting patterns and public policy. Yet for all the time sports looks to engage the young and the first adopter, the larger group (albeit sometimes with less disposable income) still goes largely ignored. They are the Baby Boomers and the seniors, a group which until recently was put aside as a group sales opportunity and little else, while teams and brands concentrated on developing new fans. New fans used to mean younger, however with an aging and more active population, it is probably time for those engaging in brand building to start courting the audience more.

Pharma spends huge amounts on sports, yet most programs for activation are still targeted at the younger audience. Giveaways at games are always geared towards those 21 and younger. Yet seniors buy in blocks, bring those younger to games and can help motivate others to come. There has probably always been a reticence to court seniors as a quiet or graying crowd, one that would be averse to young and hip. Yet many teams and properties regularly run Throwback Nights to try and get the arena going, featuring music and clothes for a bygone era. Those who lived in that era, no thanks…those who like the music and are younger, cmon in. Even tennis and golf, two sports which play to an older demo, constantly fight to get younger, but why? We are getting older, living longer, getting healthier and spending more money as we get there if we have it, so why not actively pursue the group with viable promotions, targeted sponsor activation and even specific digital campaigns more, just like brands are doing?  Seniors are engaged and online and have great word of mouth activation, so the time has come to make them a target as much as the young or the families. They spend, they enjoy events, they get around and they purchase, it makes good business sense.

Can Stick And Ball Sports Stick Together To Grow?

It was a seed that may have taken 100 years to germinate, but last week Major League Baseball made its bigger mark in cricket, Australian Rules Football and rugby crazed Australia. The two game series between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks drew solid crowds and lots of buzz at the Sydney Cricket Grounds,  and helped push along a massive commitment MLB has made to attract more people to baseball in the country, which has had some fits and starts playing the game and has produced a decent amount of professional players over the years.

At the same time the sport of cricket has looked to the U.S. in terms of ways to update the length and marketing of their sport, taking from the best practices of MLB and other American sports to make the game more interactive, more engaging and more fan-friendly, not just in Oz but in India as well. There is also continued talk about cricket trying to test the waters in the United States, given the huge numbers ESPNCricinfo gets showing the sport and the fact that many of the emerging ethnic groups in the United States, and those gaining more of a hold in the middle class with disposable income, have an affinity for the sport.

So the question becomes, can stick and ball sports play together to raise awareness and interest in both games? There does seem to be some interest, and looking at MLB’s approach to growing baseball in Australia would be a good primer for what cricket needs to do in the States.

The first example is very basic; infuse lots of cash strategically. While MLB  used a promoter to stage the regular season games in Sydney, one who knew the marketplace and took some of the risk, they have not been shy about pouring money into equipment, digital platforms and elite player development around the world, especially in Australia. The league helps fund Australia’s professional league and also makes sure that Aussie’s are involved in every aspect of playing the game. The return on the cash investment takes time, but it will bear fruit because of the basic understanding of stick and ball sports and the growing familiarity with the game. Cricket would have to do the same thing in the States. The governing body, or bodies, would have to start at the grassroots and come up with a well-financed strategic plan to expose the game to more and then develop those already interested. With that should come an investment in broadcast and continued efforts in digital to expose the greatest players on the world to a new population or potential engaged fans.

Along with the grassroots efforts comes facilities. Currently there is one perm ant cricket stadium in the United States, far from the core followers of the sport who live in cities in the Northeast. It is in Florida. While the ability to retrofit cricket grounds for baseball is easier than vice versa, a robust cricket facility is needed to give fans a full experience at home, similar to what happens in other parts of the world. It does not have to be permanent, but is should be adequate to give those first attendees a great taste of the game.

Third, take the tour. MLB has been bringing their best players on occasion to Australia for clinics for years and when the game went to the continent this month it was not minor league in any way. They were games that counted in the regular season, so fans were seeing the real deal.   Cricket would need to do the same thing; bring the world’s greatest stars first for an educational tour and them for an important match so that devoted fans feel they are getting a quality product ad new fans feel they are getting the best to see in their owns backyard. It’s why NFL regular season games draw in Europe and why sometimes soccer friendlies struggle to fill seats. People want real and authentic and they can sniff out when they are getting a “lite” version of the game. Educate with the stars, and then give a product worthy of the dollars spent.

Brand engagement. MLB helped infuse both current brands and new engaging brands in their trip to Australia, and cricket could do the same here. Any number of engaged brands with cricket globally would love the entrée into the American sports market, and there are a host of brands in the States who would love a full cricket experience to engage with fans of the sport here who might not follow traditional American sport.  An effective cricket to baseball crossover could spur more sponsor dollars as well, and give brands entrance into a new marketplace. There actually is a great example of that crossover occurring now.

Michael Clarke, international cricket star and captain of Cricket Australia, signed a multi-year endorsement agreement with Rawlings, as traditional a baseball brand as exists.  Clarke joined Rawlings international roster of professional athletes who play integral roles in the development of their on-field equipment and training products. He will travel to the United States this April to collaborate with Rawlings product management team on the development of his signature fielders’ glove line, set to debut worldwide later this year. It was the first-ever endorsement deal for Rawlings in the sport of cricket, while Clarke began using Rawlings fielders’ gloves 12 years ago at the suggestion of Mike Young, Cricket Australia’s current fielding coach and former manager of Australia’s national baseball team.  A great first step and one other brands should take note of.

In the end, is the stick and ball pie big enough for baseball/cricket crossover? Probably. While there are dedicated fans of both ho will never make the transition, there is a growing number of fans who are looking for fun, quality, time-efficient entertainment that is worthy of their discretionary income. Baseball will never be the full MLB level in Australia or India, not will cricket surpass baseball overall in the States. However working together to grow the core of stick and ball amongst competition from other team sports makes sense, and can lift the tide of both sports.

It looks like MLB sees that value with their successful jaunt across the Pacific. It will be interesting if cricket takes the cue and returns the ball to the States, a place where they appear to have a solid core but much more education is needed to grow from the bottom.  It looks like the template is there, whether it takes hold remains to be seen, all they have to do is look across the pitch to their American friends.

Majoring In The Minors: Three Promo That Score

March Madness is in full bloom this early spring. However there is still baseball in the air, at least in Arizona and Florida and this weekend in Australia, where the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opened the 2014 season.  So we wanted to highlight some cut through the clutter moves that two minor league, and one college summer league team, have taken on in recent weeks. They touch on all the great things that the minors can do and even set up as best practices for those in the majors; connect with a local community, be a little edgy and use, effectively, low cost and simple promos to engage fans.

A TAT For The Team: In recent years several teams including the New York Islanders, have gone the route of tattoo pop up stands in venues. Whether they work or not on a permanent basis is up for debate, but the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs this week found a way to engage a tattoo sponsor and make some hay with an offer for a loyal fan who maybe would have had a few too many and took a risk.

The Chiefs, an affiliate of the Washington Nationals, are offering free tickets for life to anyone who gets the team’s logo tattooed on their body. This specifically is being offered on July 1, the team’s Tattoo Night.  Local sponsor Carmelo’s Ink City will do a Chiefs’ tattoo and you’ll get a general admission ticket for life. The logo tattoos would be free, a locomotive coming out of a C, and it doesn’t make it clear whether the tattoo has to be in a certain area or a certain size or even if it has to be permanent, though those requirements could obviously be a determining factor for some folks seduced by the idea of ink and minor-league baseball tickets.

What’s the downside for the offer? None. It promotes a sponsor, got national exposure for the team’s artwork in the preseason, is a great call to action to remind folks that baseball is coming, and probably inspires some debate amongst fans who may already be inked and wouldn’t mind some free, low-cost ducats and some local celebrity status. Even if there is a winner, the chance that he or she would put a financial burden on a club with large areas of distressed seats is very low, and it opens the door for a larger scale tattoo night for any club willing to showcase body art as a way to draw fans. Nice score chiefs on a cold March week, when the local men’s college hoops  team will also send fans scurrying for warm weather thoughts with their early exit from the NCAA tournament.

Spokane Makes A Loud Statement: The ongoing controversy with the Washington Redskins name came up again this week in the Pacific Northwest, but in a positive manner, as the Spokane Indians announced the creation of a jersey in native Salish script.  While some may see this as yet another minor league marketing ploy, it actually speaks to the level of community that minor league teams have; they are not just brands looking to sell game tickets, they are 24/7 members of the places they live.  

The Indians have had a longstanding positive relationship with their local Native American tribesmen, and have looked to find ways to engage rather than exploit that relationship.  The latest step is the a new jersey featuring “Spokane” spelled out in Salish script: Sp’q'n’i (the “i” is followed by a circular symbol that is not part of the English language). It will be worn during weekend home games as well as June 13′s season-opening contest. Furthermore, a portion of the apparel sales proceeds will be donated to Spokane youth programs, as well as the money raised from an end-of-season auction featuring the Salish script game-worn jerseys.

Now yes the jersey will be a novelty and a collector’s item nationally.  The Indians are also not the only team to both acknowledge and assist the Native American ties to sport (The Oakland Raiders have broadcast games n Navajo and the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves have had longstanding programs designed to help the plight of Native Americans). Spokane’s move seems to be more cultural and less exploitive though. It shows an understanding of a core group of their fans who are looking to tell their story wider as their centuries old culture is sliding away, and may just be a great call to action to help raise funds and awareness of Native American traditions to casual fans who may not know anything about the history and plight of local tribes. A home run for branding, fan engagement , philanthropy and creativity.  

Take A Picture, Make The Jersey:  Minor league teams are always looking to push sales and be innovative, and with social media as a low cost engagement tool, the opportunity for fans to be in the conversation and engage with a club has never been higher. So it is interesting to see how innovative teams can be. One that has come up as unique are  the efforts of a Michigan Summer Collegiate League  to literally bring their fans faces into the game; not on a scoreboard or an add but on their jerseys.

The Kalamazoo Growlers are asking for fans to take selfies and post them to one of the team’s social media accounts. The Growlers will collect the selfies through April 1, then build a mosaic-style jersey assembled entirely from the photos entered in the promotion. The jerseys will be worn July 24 when the Growlers take on the Wisconsin Woodchucks on Salute to Selfie Night. 

The promo works for several reasons. The Growlers can collect data on thousands of fans from around the world to have for future promos. They will probably sell scores of jerseys that include fans photos to people who probably would never have purchased one before. They have the ability to get even more media exposure by helping tell the best stories of those who submitted selfies, and they also have the ability to engage casual fans who may love the social space but never thought to engage with the team. It is fun, creative, an attention getter and if it doesn’t work well; hard to say it won’t, didn’t really coast the club anything.

So there you have it, three solid promos that win on many levels for creativity, engagement, social responsibility and most of all, brand awareness. Congrats to all three minor organizations for some major league ideas.

Can The Grassroots “Kiners Korner” Idea Lead To A Big Oppt?

The passing of Hall of Fame New York Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner this winter at age 91 brought a great amount of responses not just locally, but nationally. From Keith Olberman to CNN, the stories of Kiner and his malaprops in the broadcast both to his star crossed career hitting homers with struggling teams in Pittsburgh and Chicago to his brushes with Hollywood starlets made Kiner larger than life for many baseball fans.
The Mets, fully aware of Kiner’s presence in baseball lore and pop culture, quickly moved to honor his legacy, announcing the team will wear a patch in honor of Kiner on the right sleeve featuring a microphone with “Ralph Kiner” over it and “1922-2014” at the bottom. They will also unveil a commemorative logo on the left field wall and will honor Kiner with a ceremony on Opening Day as well as having a display in their Hall of Fame at Citifield for all to see.
Still some fans think that there should be more of a living tribute to Kiner by taking a section of the ballpark and giving it the “Kiner’s Korner” moniker in perpetuity. The name of the section was the same as his postgame TV show that ran for year’s following Mets broadcasts, as well as part of the outfield in Pittsburgh where he both played and hit homers for years. The campaign has head some steady flow in the social space, with a twitter handle created by fan Ed Salomon to try and get the Mets to engage in the idea.  The handle   @MetKinersKorner has gotten some legs and is an interesting, simple grassroots activation that Solomon hopes will actually take a eureka idea and bring it to life.
Will it work? Tough to say even if it really should. The Mets are already doing their very visible part to honor Kiner’s legacy this season, one which through the broadcast world will continually be engaged throughout the season. Assuredly their new radio partner, WOR, as well as their broadcast outlet, SNY, will also find ways to constantly revisit the Kiner broadcast legacy, as well as that of his departed longtime colleagues Lindsay Nelson and Bob Murphy.
What is interesting is the idea of renaming a section as a living legacy as Salomon has proposed. For years teams have created charity sections around current players who buy seats for their foundations that go to kids in need and other groups. The transient nature of players today makes those sections not that sustainable over time and other than some signage there is no real ROI. Now taking names of past greats or events and assigning them sections in a ballpark or arena would be different. Sitting in the “Seaver Section” or the “Mookie Wilson outfield”  might just make fans be a little more attuned to seat choice and to history, and the ability of mobile apps to download some info about the player and the section one sits in could be a growing trend. It builds affinity, buzz and history and could be done on every level from college through the pros. So while the intent was for an engaged fan in New York was to create a bigger legacy for a baseball hero, the idea could actually be one that is sellable well beyond CitiField, and could add to assets and teachable tools for teams around the country and around the world. It is also an opportunity to engage with legendary names outside of a standard jersey retirement, especially when numbers these days can be changed and may not be as tied directly to just one player. The named section becomes a daily reminder of the player that can be part of the daily conversation.
Sure there are some pitfalls, such as where to place what player’s names, but section naming could become an interesting trend in sport, inspired by a fan for one of his favorite voices.

College Baseball/Softball Openers Remain A Missed Oppt. For Brands…

It came and went again this week buried amongst the large piles of snow in the Midwest and the Northeast and without any  fanfare, the official start of college baseball season. While most media outlets are closely following every pitch and move prior to the official opening of spring training next week, and others are focused on the Olympics, the start of college play went by the boards without much of a flurry of activity. While most eastern teams will head to Florida and Arizona for short trips over the next few weeks, the opportunity for brands looking to embrace or at least try and get a feel for activation in college athletics through baseball remains very high.

The spring for the college market is devoid of football and hoops after March Madness subsides, and is a time of year which is crying out for a way to activate with the audience as students head back home for the summer and have time on their hands as they prep for exams and have less classes. The weather is nicer, more students are outside, so why has no one embraced the opportunity for college baseball. Some may say that the weather is a hindrance in the Northeast and that schools outside of the Sun Belt put little to no marketing and sales time behind baseball. Games are played in afternoons and crowds and facilities are sparse. Yet the interest in baseball overall at this time of year is at its highest, and the amount of schools that do play baseball on all level, junior colleges included, is still very high in comparison to other spectator sports. Could a brand find a way to create a college opening day and activate around that program on campuses around the country or maybe a college baseball opening weekend? Maybe the program is tied to telling the stories of the student-athletes and encompasses college softball as well. The activation could also be less about attendance at games and more of an experiential event on campus which keeps even casual sports fans engaged through the baseball program. Maybe the program can also tie to an overall opening day with Little League and softball in a community, and rally the sport itself through the college experience. Colleges put a great deal of time through to drive revenue through football in the fall and basketball through the winter, it would make sense to tie and give added values to brands with a spring activation as well. College baseball is competitive, provides a good wrap-up to a marketing plan, and is extremely affordable for brands to activate against with athletes that would welcome the exposure. There is also a great opportunity for charities or philanthropic efforts to tie to college baseball in the spring, much like programs are laid out for other sports in other seasons. Also keep in mind that most programs now play extensive fall ball seasons, so there is no reason why an activation program could now also have some ties into the next semester as well.

Also with the buzz of baseball/softball re-entering the Olympics for Tokyo 2020, the  ability for time guerilla campaigns to build brand awareness around some future stars who would play (since MLB won’t shut down during the Games) has never been higher.

College baseball is in no way the activation giant that football and hoops is, even at its highest levels in the south and the west. Lacrosse seems to have become the favored nation outdoor sport of the spring, but MLB has the marketing ability to help propel one of its prime sources for talent forward. College baseball is a large scale activity that fans can identify with, a breeding ground for the future of the sport. and if marketed properly and cost efficiently remains one of the few mainstream spectator sports on the collegiate level with little barrier to entry.

There are ongoing efforts with MLB that will connect with the NCAA to give college baseball a boost, helping with much needed equipment changes that would put wood bats back in the hands of those players getting ready to make the jump to the minors, looking to help with marketing and even boosting interest between baseball’s draft and the NCAA tournament in the late spring. However all of that is still yet to be hashed out. In the meantime, pitchers and catchers in gyms and on fields at hundreds of schools have taken to the diamond, with hundreds of games to come. For brands looking to boost their intercollegiate activation they need to look no further than the diamond. The balls are in the air.

Trading Day Remains Unchartered Brand Territory…

Other than opening day and the start of the playoffs there is probably not one other in-season day that garners more attention in baseball or hoops than trading deadline day. Like National Signing Day in college for football, there is a media frenzy with speculation, rumor, blockbuster trades, hurried press conferences and lots of attention, whether your team is good or not. In recent years, media entities like ESPN, Rivals,  and CBS College have gone to great lengths to brand and activate on signing day, but why not on trading deadline day? Granted some trades do happen the day before or a few days before, but the activity leading up to the deadline, which is a hard and fast time, is phenomenal, and summary shows, best trades/worst trades, smartest mover, smartest not to move etc., could all be packaged together for brands that well…spend a lot of money in sports.

Auto Trader,  E-Trade, Geico. All have massive businesses built around sports activation and trading. Heck, a smart brand could even come in and scoop up some low cost viral activation programs among the best cities were trades were made or not made. Even ticketing companies should be involved. Think of all the new signage that gets handed out in arenas as welcome placards, or all the background signage that gets shot at press conferences.  The NBA has devoted massive amounts of time on their new Sirius launch to trade deadline time, why not roll it together for the right brand?

Some may say that a trading day affiliation is playing on the negative for teams; those looking to unload talent. But in reality for brands looking to take advantage of a high trafficked bug buzz period, trading day presents some very unique opportunities to master a space.

There is a lot of real estate to be had and opportunities to grow a brand for the right company at a time of year; one in late February and one in early August, times that are relatively slow in the sports space except for the moves on the field, and being in that conversation is certainly something that some may desire.

D-League Develops Way Beyond It’s Original Plan…

It started out as an answer to the defunct Continental Basketball Association, a way to help young, and mostly young players, in the U.S. through a minor league system that could mirror what baseball had done.  Although that isn’t really where the NBA Development League is totally today, what has emerged is something perhaps more beneficial to the NBA from a business and technology standpoint than the original idea, and is one which other sports’ developmental properties should continue to watch and expand upon, as evidenced by the latest news coming out of All-Star Weekend in New Orleans .

The NBA announced that the D-League will become the latest and most prominent organization to implement wearable tech as a way to establish new baselines for player performance in live games, with the small devices, which weigh one ounce, to be worn by players under their jersey with either a small disc attached to their chest, or inside an undergarment pouch located between the shoulder blades. At least two teams; the Bakersfield Jam and Fort Wayne Mad Ants have begun outfitting their players with the performance analytic devices. The goal is to have real time data available to evaluate cardiovascular exertion, musculoskeletal intensity, fatigue, rate of acceleration and deceleration, number of jumps, and distance run and direction, among other things.  In a perfect world down the line, the data can be served in real time to trainers and coaches during games to help players make immediate adjustments to their playing style, such as stepping back to calm a bit during a free throw, or take a few extra breaths to stay less fatigued. It can also help in improving the long-term health of athletes by studying what before could only be guessed at during games; how and when a players peak performance actually occurs, with all the factors of crowd noise and competition added in.

In years past the NBA has used the D-League to help in coaching development, referee training, secondary market development, rules experimentation, and sponsorship branding (aka uniform patches), in addition to its main goal of helping create a stay at home cost controlled marketplace for players just a notch below the elite rosters of the NBA. NBA teams have also taken more and more to the MLB minor league model of keeping D-League teams close to home, such as in LA and Philadelphia, to help keep a closer watch on their young players and giving some up and coming front office talent a place to help get on the job training. However what the DLeague has never really been us the glorious and overflowing family fun entertainment that we associate with minor league baseball and to some extent, minor league hockey. The D-League has become much more of a controlled lab for the NBA, which in some ways has forgone the goal of keeping large groups of American players in the States vs. going to Europe and elsewhere to further their careers. With overall league development as a primary focus, the NBA has created a tremendous proving ground for rules and now technology to see what works and what doesn’t in bettering the consumer and the athlete experience at the highest level. There is no crapshoot in testing a new rule in exhibition games or even in the regular season, which had happened in the past. Teams can look at best practices in technology at the D-League level before deciding what to use or not use in evaluating their players, and the league can even test wireless capability in the smaller arenas of the D-League for fan engagement and technology opportunities before moving things to a higher level with larger venues of the NBA.

On the sponsorship side, the D-League provides a great test environment for new branding, digital and social media and sponsor categories that can be perfected before reaching the bright lights of the NBA. The league’s television relationship also provides for a great platform to test new broadcast angles and other consumer data interaction before it has to go live across the much larger broadcast environment of the NBA teams as well. In other sports the ability to test and grow at the minor league level is not as robust. Baseball’s tight restrictions on players development, as well as the entrepreneurial ownership spirit of minor league clubs, makes rules testing much less of a possibility today, and the experimental pieces of the game largely fall to the independent leagues, which can try things because of their lack of affiliation with MLB clubs. The NFL’s developmental systems have never really come full circle, with rule adaptations and real-time player data programs now going more to the independent Arena league, although whispers of a fall or spring developmental league continue to surface. Much like baseball, hockey’s minor league system is also more stringent on innovation, although a more loosely affiliated league like the Central Hockey League continues to look to ways to better innovate and engage. Soccer, like the NBA probably has the most room for innovation amongst its lower levels these days, and can probably look to the hardwood for the best ways to engage and test before projects get to the MLS level.

So maybe the D-League has not come through as the full-blown minor league structure that was originally talked about. However what has emerged is probably much more valuable for the business of basketball and the future of the NBA as a robust and forward-thinking sports and entertainment property. There is still plenty of talent that is engaged in playing in the D-League, and in addition the test cases that can be built to improve the quality and the experience of the game can go on unabated, a best of both world’s scenario in a cost controlled environment for new commissioner Adam Silver to continue to grow as his term begins in full force this weekend.