MLS | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

As Their NASL Season Two Begins, Can “Brand Cosmos” Keep Growing?

The past few weeks the legendary Pele has made the rounds of book stores and media venues hyping his new book, while fans around the world stay glued to TV’s and mobile devices watching Champions League, news of coming World Cup, and final races for all the elite leagues across Europe. In North America, Major League Soccer continues to expand its footing as its franchises ramp up their marketing push and the league itself readies for expansion with new clubs in Orlando and New York and the continued buzz of a potential David Beckham-led franchise in Miami and new announcements in markets like Atlanta and potentially cities like Austin. As a brand, soccer continues to find its place in North America being more solid than ever.

So where does that leave the North America Soccer League and its flagship brand, the New York Cosmos? Tough to say for the long term. The Cosmos, as iconic a name in soccer as there ever was, came roaring back to life last summer on Long Island, amidst the fanfare of a title and several solid crowds at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium. Talk of global tours elite players and a massive stadium in Queens were all the rage.

 Now? With several NASL cities that have done well appearing to get MLS, the league remains a bit of a question mark for its long term stability as the competition for professional soccer visibility rises, while the “brand” Cosmos can only sell so much. Factor in a Red Bulls team in its state of the art facility that has considerably expanded its marketing efforts in recent months…doing viewing parties in Manhattan and Brooklyn now as well as in the Garden State, and the fact that Manchester City and the Yankees are riding into the market with a club in a to-be-determined location, and the Cosmos are going to have their work cut out for them to find an effective and profitable niche.

However the club still has a few things in its favor. Since 1977, many of those New York areas kids have been involved in the Cosmos brand because of the highly successful camps that former team executive Pepe Pinton continued to run at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Thousands of kids continued to know of the Cosmos without ever seeing a match, and those kids, and the camps’ ample data base, provide a very nice marketing push that any expansion club in any sport would die for. The club also has the name, which holds up well in any global soccer conversation, albeit the brand and those playing for the brand now are not on equal par just yet.  They also have the ability to market, and draw in brands, without many of the encumbrances of a well marketed national league. The team grabbed Emirates Airways as a jersey sponsor for example, because NASL has no current airline partner, and many of those categories are left wide open for the sales force to secure without having to share large chunks of revenue. They have also found other partners to come on board and do a good job of marketing the elite stars of their past to keep the brand relevant in a crowded marketplace as they open their title defense. They have also take the brand on the road in the offseason to soccer hotbeds, making sure that the team name, if not the current players, still is resonating. A new TV contract should also help bring more visibility as the battle for brand relevance for both the league and the team keeps moving along.

 Most importantly, while the club looks west to Madison Avenue for recognition, they should also look east for a solid example on how to market and expand a largely independent sports brand amongst the millions of people who live on Long Island. The Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic Baseball League, have done a tremendous job of building, maintaining and expanding a year-round fan base while bringing in media exposure and sponsor dollars not usually seen in independent baseball. They fill their field in Suffolk County and have become a fabric of a community that may never cross a bridge into Manhattan, and those Long Island-savvy fans will embrace a quality product that markets to them more than anyone who looks to just pull from areas in the New York City or even New Jersey or nearby Connecticut.

 The NHL Islanders were beloved on Long Island for years at Nassau Coliseum before the ugly fight over the aging building drove fans and brands away. Many may return as the team improves and they look west to their new Barclays Center home in Brooklyn, but  there remain thousands of fans looking for affordable, fun entertainment who could embrace a Cosmos brand for years if the team puts itself in a position to do so.

 Now maybe Hofstra’s former football field is not the long-term play, but maybe the oft-talked about stadium at Belmont Park isn’t the answer either. Maybe there is a play further east, even towards the open space that Stony Brook University has built a quality athletics complex on, that could make more sense. Most think that the Cosmos ownership is looking globally more than locally, but that global look takes big bucks and certainly won’t happen overnight, and it probably won’t happen in the NASL. Would a European group..The Barclays Premier League or some form of a global champions league…put down roots in two East Coast cities and make the Cosmos one of their tentpoles? That’s a long shot as well, and the MLS inclusion, barring some far-fetched merger with NYCFC, won’t work at all. The Red Bulls advanced push has also shrunk the market a bit, so maybe, at least for now, the major play is to grow its fan friendly…dare we say it…minor league approach of fun events with competitive soccer as the Cosmos become kings of NASL again, and then go from there. It may not fill Met Life Stadium or even Red Bull Arena or in every case 14,000 seats at Hofstra, but it certainly would make sense to grow slowly, manage expectations and take the established name and insert it consistently back into the conversation  not just for buzz, but for sales and quality world class play as well.

 It was a good start for the Cosmos last summer, but the real test is in the offing to see if a world class brand can be a world class business in all aspects on and off the field, with a potential audience of millions right in their eastern backyard. 

The New Sponsored Logo Game: The Battle of Consistency vs. Risky Dollars…

In the last few years sports teams in North America, from college through the pros, have forgone consistency of brand in their look for the sake of selling more diverse, quirky, unique and even outlandish jerseys, kits and other uniform pieces to an audience who want different, at least to have in their closets. With few exceptions…The New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Penn State football, the Montreal Canadiens, the Los Angeles Lakers…teams if every size and shape have taken to Day-Glo, faux flags, selfie encrusted, camo-filled looks as a way to gain attention, sell more merch and sometimes raise funds for charity, especially when apparel companies like Under Armour and Nike are always looking to engage a younger audience not thrilled with consistency and big on expressive and outlandish. Sometimes it works, sometimes it looks silly, but usually it draws attention and many times ancillary revenue.

That revenue challenge on the professional side, and maybe at some point on the college side, will soon be amplified when the four major sports leagues allow brands to advertise on uniforms at some point in the next few years. The logo’ed jerseys have long passed the sniff test in MLS, the CFL and the WNBA and on practice apparel with the NBA and the NFL, and brands on kits are the norm in sports like rugby cricket and soccer in the rest of the world, so it becomes a question of when and who, not if, the brand of choice will appear on many clubs uniforms in North America. Some still may forgo the selling of space on uniforms for the sake of purity and value of their look, but most will surely give it a try and reap the dollars.

However with the logo’ed jersey comes a unique problem, one which has arisen again with MLS as clubs like DC United switch kit sponsors; the availability of old inventory licensed out to commercial partners through television and digital still photography. Sponsors, especially new ones, will pay a high price for the ability to be seen everywhere associated with clubs, but archival footage sold and licensed, especially in transition years, could continue to show up with old and dated uniforms bearing brands that are long gone. A Volkswagen logo on a United kit for example, could continue to show up in a licensed video game or commercial or billboard or photo campaign for several years after a team makes a change, which can create problems both for the club and for the new brand, depending on how wide the usage is. Now in the still photographic world, the digitizing of shots can help alleviate that problem; lift a logo out and drop a new one in to share; but in video and even in many licensed products the logo change may be slow, which can potentially damage the brand for the short term. The problem is not a new one for clubs that have chosen to flip-flop uniforms or do specialized or throwback uniforms several times a season; you run the risk of those unfamiliar or “specialized” day glo or bright orange uniforms ending up in places where you would want your traditional and consistent look to be. Some cherish the thought of the specialized uni’s ending up in campaigns as great exposure, some go to great lengths to limit the accessibility of shots and video from special nights so the brand can stay consistent for the long term. However with a branded uniform work for the long term, that issue of inconsistency rises dramatically. The goal is to overachieve for a brand partner, especially one that is new or one that has plunked down millions for an affiliation, so consistency, and consistent policing of what footage is going where, is going to become even more critical when logos start appearing in prime time for the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB at some point.

Now brands who chose to forgo the branded bucks for their clean look may run the risk of less upfront sponsor dollars than those who chose to bring a sponsor in; but they run much less of a risk in achieving ROI for that sponsor by simply saying no to jersey signage. In many ways, their clean look is exposure for the team unto itself; it is what they are known for in the sports marketplace. However for most, the dollars to earn by dropping a carefully placed and sized logo will be too much to pass up.

So who wins and loses in the new sponsored logo world? The leagues and teams for the most part will see a win, as will many specialty sales spots who can offer up the new looks, much like they do with the “specialized” jerseys being done ad nauseum today in college and the pros. Brick and mortar apparel sales shops, who have to take the risk on dated material with old logos will have the same issue they have when a marquee player gets traded these days, getting stuck with inventory now deemed for the scrap heap, but online e-tailers who have less inventory and can shift quickly to a new look will also benefit.

For sure none of this is being done in a vacuum at the highest level. The risks and rewards and issues are being played out time and again in the elite leagues, each watching as minor league sports and others take the first steps. However once the step is made for logo’ed apparel, consistency and control may have an even bigger premium. It is one thing to have a special jersey from a few years ago showing up in an ad campaign or in printed material by a third party; it is something else when the ad contains a brand whose contract has long since expired. That can do damage not just to the authenticity of the ad, it can hurt the new sponsor relationship with the team and with the league itself.

Consistency of brand is something which seems to be a little less valuable these days, with new and flashy looks taking the place of the safe and simple. For sure there are dollars to be made with the changing times, the question remains is the risk worth the reward for the long term?  That remains to be seen, as sponsors enter the uniform game for most sports sometime soon.

MLS Provides A Well-Timed Visit To Kick Off The Media Season

It certainly isn’t easy to cut through a cluttered February landscape that includes NBA All-Star, the Olympics and USA Hockey’s dramatic weekend, the peak of college basketball season, the coming NFL Combine, pitchers and catchers reporting and the Daytona 500, but Major League Soccer went on a strategic quest to find its preseason niche this past week, bringing their stars to the media at a time of year when even local MLS media are off doing other things as teams train in warmer climates in preparation for the start of the season. Much like what MLB is does in Arizona (bringing the Cactus League managers together in one location to better serve the media upon their arrival in Phoenix), MLS took a diverse group of players to the media in what was a combination immediate media coverage, brand building, awareness seeding exercise which was wide ranging and generated some solid awareness, especially among casual fans, of MLS when their thoughts were probably elsewhere prior.

The players  MLS’ took on the two day junket included Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Michael Bradley and Tim Cahill, a group that has both domestic and international appeal, services many markets and can talk to the big picture about many topics in and around soccer and the coming MLS season and the World Cup.  They were racially and geographically diverse with some local ties (two being New York Red Bulls, one from New Jersey) and understood the reasons and value of leaving training and other commitments to promote the game that has given them so much.

The visit was actually very well timed despite the busy calendar. With a holiday in place many outlets might be looking for a softer side of coverage, and the lack of any other regular season games to cover (perhaps only the second time that a weekend had no regular season NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA games in at least 25 years) combined with a bit of a respite in the Olympics provided a manageable window to engage on platforms that on a busier time might have passed on MLS.

During the two days, the group made stops at the predictable (ESPN, Univision, SI),  and the trendy (GQ), but also dropped in for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Time Magazine, CNN, Bloomberg TV and FS1’s “Crowd Goes Wild.”  The players also found the time in the schedule to do the grassroots as well, hosting a soccer clinic in Harlem at the Children’s Aid Society, before ending up at a photo shoot and at the Empire State Building.

Was the two day two the massive junket that a film would do, replete with Late Show and screaming throngs of fans? No, but that was not the ultimate goal. It was to shake the relevant media outlets, plant seeds for future coverage and continue a conversation that will become more and more relevant as the MLS season starts, and more importantly for soccer and its partners, for when World Cup kicks in to engage casual fans globally in the late spring. The Tour was not done with athletes fresh off Olympic glory or a world championship; it was done in advance of future success, and ironically did not include anyone from last year’s MLS Cup Championship between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. It included relevant, recognizable faces with stories that appealed to the market, and in the end building that ubiquitous appeal was key for MLS to start cutting through the clutter and becoming more top of mind for media outlets hence forth in what will be a key year for on-field growth and awareness, with a year of expansion on the docket for 2015.

Timing Is Everything; Beckham Boosts American Soccer Again…

The past week after the Super Bowl, the Today Show, in the midst of its Olympic buzz, welcomed a global star to its air. It wasn’t Russell Wilson and his freshly minted NFL title; it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin, headed for Sochi and the homestanding Russian team; it wasn’t Lindsay Vonn, readying for her on-air role for Sochi. It was David Beckham and he was talking not Barclays Premier League or World Cup, he wasn’t talking Super Bowl underwear ads. He was talking Major League Soccer, on a dreary morning where most of the Northeast was longing for pitchers and catchers in sports and most MLS teams were off in some warm clients training for a season still to come in most home markets.

The timing was great, and the announcement was simple; the global star was bringing his brand back to help the league jump once again in another warm weather location, this time Miami, as the new “owner” of the latest MLS expansion franchise. They don’t have financing or a stadium, the announcement was  to let the world know Beckham had exercised his expiring option to own a team, and that choice would be Miami, a city where if you aren’t the Heat on a title run you have a tough time filling seats and capturing the attention of sports fans. Regardless of the obstacles, the day was a great one for MLS, which used the Beckham celebrity to inject itself into the global sports and business conversation at a time where they were a distant afterthought even in the soccer world which past midseason across Europe and is starting to ramp up for Brazil World Cup later this year.

The announcement was full of what MLS sells best; future hope combined with lots of buzz as it continues to build the quality of its play and the value of its franchises.  It had all the right trappings; mentions of celebrity owners coming in, a call to action for the Latino audience dominant in South Florida to embrace a professional soccer franchise, a that an elite former player was now focused on creating a new legacy off the field in the game he loves, and a that a market where MLS had died years ago was now mature and ready to grow again, not unlike cities like Washington have done with baseball and Sacramento in some ways is going through with basketball. Miami is now a welcomed and potential great success story for soccer in America.

Now when the sizzle clears there is lots to be done and many questions to be raised; where does the money come from, who builds the stadium, can Beckham, with no managerial experience and lots of business initiatives, spend the time and hire all the right people to make the franchise a success as a business and as a soccer club, and even if he does, will the fickle Miami audience turn out?  While a big announcement for sure, others questioned why the next franchise wouldn’t be in a more mature soccer city like Atlanta, San Antonio or Austin, vs. the risky move back to South Beach. However for today, having Beckham back in the fold was great news for MLS, and helps jump start a series of events for 2014 that can continue to propel the business of soccer in the States forward. It follows the popular partnership between the New York Yankees and Manchester City Football Club to add an expansion franchise to New York, and the string announcement to bring Central Florida, a very solid soccer market already, a club in Orlando all of which sounded good and brought buzz and like Miami, are still off in the distance as to what level of actual success can be achieved with such high expectations.

We all know in sport nothing is easy, and when dealing with real life drama on and off the field even the best plans and biggest dreams can go awry. However for MLS to cut through a cluttered February landscape already filled with Olympics, the Super Bowl business hangover, the coming NBA All-Star game and more than enough exciting college sports (not to mention Daytona for NASCAR and Pebble Beach in golf), was a huge score for soccer, and a move which has set the tone once again for what can be an exciting, and definitely intriguing sports business landscape not just for 2014 but for the next few years to come as these new franchises look to emulate the success of places like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver with lots of sizzle, and hopefully a steak to go with it, the latest one in the hands of one of the world’s most recognizable faces, now settling in in South Florida.  

“Truck Day” Grows As A Promo…

It is a tradition that has been quietly happening for years, but thanks to some opportunistic marketing folks is steadily turning into a hot stove event that could actually transcend baseball and into other sports. It is “Truck Day,” the day when MLB clubs in cold weather cities literally load up their 18 wheelers with team equipment for the long drive south or west for the start of spring training. Really energized by the folks in and around the red Sox, the day is quickly becoming another offseason call to action for baseball to remind fans of the good times ahead.

From mascots in Detroit and New York helping send off the truck to players in cities like Arlington turning out for a little more media push. At Fenway Park it has become more of a fan event, with the truck adorned outside in baseball markings and even Jet Blue signing on as a sponsor on the truck, to compliment the amazing work they are doing around the Red Sox spring training facility. It’s all really nice, but the potential for “Truck Day” becoming a bigger call to action event is even more intriguing.

The large volume of social media can give the fans the ability to track the truck, complete with photos and some surprise visits as it makes its way south or west. Video can capture the entire trip for a travel log, and maybe an enterprising intern with a mascot head goes along for the ride with some additional splash. While some moves are on weekdays right now, having select fans turn out via a contest on a Saturday or Sunday pre-trip to help load the truck, even ceremonially, could make for news and buzz, and there are probably legions of truckers who would love some small involvement in the trip. How about guessing what’s in the truck for fans, or fans on the other end helping welcome and unload the truck with a message back home. You could even name the truck, and make the truck into a season-long promotional tool, or even another sponsorable giveaway. The list is endless, and is not really confined to just Major League Baseball.

Although many NFL teams are not traveling away for training camp these days, those who do can also make “Truck Day” a tradition, as can some NHL and NBA teams. The guess is that MLS probably also does the same, since many of their training camps are in warm weather cities this time of year. Regardless whether the load is a full series of semi’s or even a small van, the idea of loading and packing and unpacking is a necessity and something which any fan can relate to. It also has great wheels for sponsors, and can even be tied into charity programs…maybe with some kids helping select some items. Social and digital media make it promotable and scalable and cost efficient, with maybe even a national sponsor sitting out there to grab hold.  It appeals to kids, collectors and traditional fans, and with some bells and whistles can pull in a casual audience as well. Once again what is a necessity can now become a revenue and media opportunity.

Are there some issues with liability? Maybe but they can be overcome. Is it a mega-promotion that every team may want to or need to do? No. But for an economy of scale, it seems like “Truck Day” is an easy one that can keep growing, another little slice of promotion that a smart marketer grabbed on to in Beantown and other places, and should continue to grow for years to come. Pitchers and catchers await.

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

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

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

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

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

What are some of the potential answers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Wilson, Alaska Airlines Score Together

If you live east of say, The Wasatch Mountain Range, you may not know about the success of Alaska Airlines, or that it is the seventh-largest carrier in the US, a key part of a traveler’s itinerary from the Pacific Northwest to California, Hawaii and other locales.   You may think they are a quaint little mom and pop airline, who services some hard to get to locales way up north. You would be right about the service areas, but not really about the airline though.  Alaska has become one of the most progressive, market savvy and customer friendly airlines in the skies, and this week they took another progressive leap forward in signing Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to an endorsement deal.

In addition to all the regular promotional use of likeness and some regular meet and greets, the Airline decided to engage their sports-crazy customers in the area to show their colors as well, and give all those wearing a Wilson jersey while at  Sea-Tac Airport priority boarding privileges.  They also added on the support of Wilson’s community events to the partnership, all of which gives the deal lots of arms and legs.

All that is very smart and quite fun, but what’s even more important is the timing. With the Seahawks at the top of the pack in the parity-filled NFL, Wilson’s star could be set to rise really quickly on the national stage between now and a potential trip to the Super Bowl. Getting in now with a long-term commitment to one of the game’s fastest rising stars, despite the market he is playing in, is a bet that Alaska Airlines is making on their exposure as well. Taking on a rising star is probably much more affordable than a full blown star, which could happen in just a few weeks. He fits the young, mobile and hip persona that Alaska plays, and having his face and story on board assists not just with Seattle bound passengers (many of which will know him already), but with those heading to far off points who may be fans of other teams and not have really embraced the Seahawks story yet. As the airline goes more national in scope, they now have someone who can deliver them potential wide exposure if he continues to be successful.

Is there risk? Sure. The Seahawks can get upset, Wilson can get injured, some other player could take his spot in that void, especially in a league where careers can sometimes be fleeting. However for Alaska Airlines the risk seems to be a smart one, and helps give a winter compliment to their other sports partnerships which revolve around the area’s successful soccer clubs.

In the end, getting on board with Wilson now is a smart move for the carrier, one which can give them some added miles both in the coming month, and as the surprise star continues to ratchet up the coverage, both for the NFL fan and those millions of casual followers who will be coming on board as the playoffs and Super Bowl fast approach.

The Online Games Begin…Can Pro Teams “BetFair” Soon?

The announcement in the early fall came; New Jersey was continuing ahead and would now allow online poker play in the State in their latest challenge to prove that the Federally-mandated ban could be overturned. The goal was to get consumers engaged in late November, and with that a flood of legal, monitored and secure businesses would enter the marketplace to be the mobile hub of first online poker, and then conceivably other forms of online gaming down the road.

So into that mix, six Atlantic City casinos — the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, the Tropicana Casino and Resort; Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino; the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort; Caesars Atlantic City and Bally’s Atlantic City — began offering online gambling with a seventh, the Golden Nugget Atlantic City having an Internet gambling permit but has not yet begun offering games as it works out problems with its systems.

One of the largest, PokerStars and its millions of marketing dollars, was suspended by the New jersey Commission earlier this week because of its online Federal litigation issues. Others have begun spending away to lure fans not just in Atlantic City, but everywhere and anywhere they can advertise. 888Poker is one, finding media partners to offer their product. However the one that the consumer can’t go far without seeing…newspapers, online business sites, billboards on every highway is the UK-based Betfair.  Headquartered in London, Betfair is an experienced Internet gaming operator with over four million customers worldwide, and is publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange. They also run TVG, the largest legal wagering website and horse racing network in the US, having offered online horse race wagering for 20 years. The company has  pioneered and operates the world’s leading betting exchange, in addition to a full suite of sportsbook and casino gaming products in jurisdictions where permitted to do so. For some of their online services, one of those places is now the Garden State.

While the goal of many of the brick and mortar casinos is to prove that online gaming is safe, acceptable, and a lure to draw people ostensibly to the struggling Atlantic City buildings, Belfair’s marketing strategy may be a little different. Their ties are less bright lights and more of glowing mobile devices in every corner of the state, not just for poker and other games but for the coming tide of legalized sports betting across North America. Right now outside Las Vegas legal sports books are verboten, but the tide and the economics are changing. Professional sports are, and should continue to, hold strong against the tide of opinion that would engage in legal gambling because the Federal Government has not changed the law, being challenged in many States, that would allow the type of wagering legal on sport in other parts of the world. However the pressure to reap the millions, if not billions, in dollars from legalized gambling by professional sports is growing.

So how does BetFair take advantage of the marketplace now? Well how about sports-related advertising? Companies like PokerStars have used Canadian teams like the Toronto Raptors and Montreal Canadiens to advertise their product on courts and dasher boards with no backlash. Casinos readily partner with almost every professional sports team without incident. Abroad, online casinos and other legal bookmaking entities adorn the uniforms of professional soccer clubs, and even individual athletes like Rafael Nadal have worn legalized gambling patches during some Grand Slam events.  Casinos continue to host college basketball, and in the case of Mohegan Sun the WNBA, just feet from slot machines. So if all that works, why not have the State’s two highest-profile professional teams, the Devils and Red Bulls, use Betfair and others as an entrée into a larger scale partnership? The clubs could use the new category, or enhance a casino partnership they already have, to expose their mobile activity as well as add much-needed sponsor dollars with some creative, safe, and tasteful promotions.

Will online gaming be allowed as a sponsor for professional sports teams in New Jersey, or even in markets across the rivers like Philadelphia and New York which are televised into the state? The precedent is clearly there in other markets north of the border. The challenge will be if leagues and other entities worry that companies like Betfair can use what’s legal as a marketing wedge for future business in sports gambling. Then again, casinos, which are already all over professional sports marketing, will do the same thing, so there should not be an issue. If you work in sales or marketing for pro sports, quietly you watch and welcome these new mega-million marketing partners, like your predecessors did with the lottery and then casinos. You play by the rules and when a door opens you walk through with creative and competitive opportunities that pass the smell test of your wide-ranging fan base. Test, approve and move forward. 

Betfair dollars and access, along with other super-competitive gaming companies looking to engage with sports fans, await the next steps.

Can Rugby Get Its Kicks In In The States?

It is the third most popular sport in the world according to some numbers…its World Cup Final brings the largest audience and the most sponsorship of any event short of the Super Bowl…it has amended its rules, added fan and sponsor friendly events and carved out a faster version of the sport so popular that it will be part of the Olympic Games in 2016 and beyond…it has had a growing grassroots and collegiate following in North America…and by many accounts it was the first large scale male team sport to accept an elite athlete as being gay. So can rugby make a foothold in areas where it is not yet popular, namely the United States as a professional sport or at least an elite one-off event? Maybe.

The business changes made to the sport to speed it up, simplify it, and even remove some of the violence of “American football without pads” has certainly helped mainstream the game, and the participation of NBC in helping push the Olympic-style game of Rugby 7?s, while also televising the World Cup, has certainly been a huge pop for a sport that for years has been a great club sport on college and high school campuses. The Olympic acceptance for the game was also a huge boost in both awareness and potential funding for a team sport that was an afterthought in this country for many years. The ability for elite clubs to also add additional sponsor dollars by traveling and staging large scale events in and around the United States has also been a big plus. The sport has embraced digital and social media as a key way to grow the personalities of the game around the world, and the business opportunities for sponsorship and brand engagement amongst a young and active audience increased greatly with Olympic acceptance. But do we need another professional sport in the crowded U.S. landscape? While it is true that lacrosse has been clamoring for years to get its professional side growing to a level of the college game in interest, it has not happened. Popular Olympic sports like beach volleyball have withered on the professional side as well. So why rugby?

First, the Olympic involvement gives the game a leg up on niche sports that miss that cache, and that funding and that four year opportunity to capture the casual fan. The grassroots support, and now the added television exposure of a college and national team competition give the sport a consistent presence that some Olympic sports don’t get, so rugby now has the best of both worlds. Now any effort on a professional level in the States would have to be gradual. MLS’ took over years to build from the grassroots up to make itself a solid professional entity, and a rush to pro rugby would be foolhardy. Cost control could work. So also could a match with football fans clamoring for a spring sport that is definitely football-like, and in Rugby 7?s and the more streamlined and TV friendly version of the traditional game is more action and easier to follow. While the lack of equipment may lead to more injury from time to time, the unencumbered look of athletes will also have a plus in growing personalities from all walks of life. It is also a game that most of the world plays and understands, so the new immigrant to the country can assimilate pretty easily. Can you grow quality talent to fill the league, and then build that talent level up to world-class quality? Time will tell, but that’s where elite training, and taking from other sports, can come in.

It certainly won’t happen overnight, but suddenly the interest in rugby in the States seems to be taking hold and growing, from a grassroots, television and sponsor perspective. Making the jump to a new level of engagement is a big one, but one which today seems more plausible than ever before, and one certainly worth watching as we head into another Olympic cycle.

“Movember” Grows

The gold standard by which charities are measured these days remains the pink campaigns of Breast Cancer Awareness month, led by the yeoman work of Susan G. Komen, even with its issues last year. However as we reach mid-November, it is worth a tip of the hat to the growing work for the “Movember” campaign, which supports cancer that strikes men, especially prostate cancer and early detection.

The theme for “Movember” is to get primarily men (although women can help out with a fake one) to grow a mustache or not shave for the 30 days of the month, and then gain dollars through pledges for growing their ‘stache.  Given what we have seen with the Boston Red Sox and their epic beard growth (and subsequent sponsored shaving by Gillette), mustache growth is a natural follow-up as we transition into winter sports.

Major League Soccer has gone on board in a big way with Movember, with clubs throughout the League growing ‘Mo’s (moustaches).  Players, supporters, staff and partners are clean-shaven on November 1st and grow their moustaches throughout the month. Participants document  progress on their ‘MoSpace pages as part of the MLS Movember Network, on the Movember website. Women participated by becoming ‘Mo Sistas’ and created their own ‘MoSpaces to support the men they love.

In 2011, the first year of a League-wide Movember campaign, players, supporters and staff throughout the League joined together to raise approximately $45,000. In 2012, we raised $57,000 to support Movember.

The NHL has also been a long supporter, following on their yearly ritual of not shaving during the playoffs. The Washington Capitals Karl Alzner, the Canucks Roberto Luongo and a wide-ranging group from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment have all signed on for 2013.

Now “Movember” has its shortcomings; guys have to look a little unkempt in a month not known for vacations, and it is not as easy to activate such a program as it is with a “Wear Pink” campaign. Also other sports, especially Major League Baseball, do activate against prostate cancer with blue bats and other events around Father’s Day each year. Still “Movember” continues to have a great upside, with the potential of thousands of fake ‘staches being given out at games during the month, maybe even tied to Coaches vs. Cancer events in college hoops. The fake handouts are low cost and would make for great digital integration and TV. Still it does cost money to engage nationally or internationally, and the campaign is growing now with the NHL assisting. It is a fun and noteworthy push for awareness, one which hopefully can continue to gain steam in the coming years for a very noble cause or series of causes.