A Great American Journey Reaches Its End…

It is a tradition at almost every sporting event across the country, the pre-game singing of The Star Spangled Banner. It has been done via guitar, and choir, with simplicity and comic relief, and in some cases bungled beyond recognition. It is not an easy song to do, but it never ceases to bring a crowd of a few hundred or thousands to their feet to pause and reflect if only for a few seconds.  The National Anthem at sports events is as American as it gets.

The song has inspired many an athlete to feats of greatness once kickoff or first pitch comes, however there is another person making her way across the country to a date with history that Francis Scott Key’s melody has inspired as well. Her name is Janine Stange, and she has come to be known as “The National Anthem Girl,” in ballparks across the country. A Long island native, Strange will make history by completing her mission to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” in all 50 states in time for the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key penning the lyrics for the hallowed song on September 14, 2014., She ‘officially’ began her journey to all 50 states on July 3, 2012 at a Rays-Yankees game, and since then, audiences big and small have witnessed her journey, from Madison Square Garden and The Great American Ballpark, to NASCAR and PBR, NHL and Drag Racing.

To date  she has hit her notes in 43 states with the Tennessee Titans being her 50th state, prior to  a preseason game in Nashville on August 28 at 7:00pm CST.  Janine has also been invited to perform for MLB’s Detroit Tigers (Aug. 16), aboard the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor (Aug. 22), and she will open the festivities of the 200th Anniversary for the Star Spangled Spectacular at Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry (Sept. 14).

At each stop on her largely self-funded journey (although she now has a not-for-profit to defray costs and raise awareness), Janine sets up a table after she performs and provides blank “thank you” cards for attendees to write messages to our deployed military and veterans. Each card goes into an Operation Gratitude military care package that is shared with trips around the world.

Ironically brands have not been part of Stange’s epic journey. One would think that an All-American brand like Chevy or even Cracker Jack with its new initiative, would find a way to tie to her trek to 50, and maybe beyond. To this point, she has forgone corporate assistance and is doing it for the challenge and the glory of paying tribute to Old Glory in a special way.  At a time when brands are looking for simple RPI and buzz, Stange’s trip seems like a novel one; one that is worthy of all the recognition she has gotten and a best practice on how simple ideas can turn into a road trip of epic, and historic proportions as she rounds the final turn toward Baltimore harbor next month. A nice sports philanthropy story to get August off to a bang.

The Troops Remain A Still To be Tapped Platform…

As Memorial Day is upon us here in the States, it is interesting to take a quick look at a group that is passionate, young, loyal, appreciative, athletic, budget conscious and enthusiastic, yet is among one of the most underserved groups for brands looking to reach the male demo and grow a fan base…the men and women of the military. While the Federal Government continues to bemoan the lack of ROI The National Guard had with its large NASCAR spend (although was the goal awareness or direct recruiting?) and recently announced bigger cutbacks in sports spending on recruiting advertising (over $80 million affecting properties like fishing and NASCAR at first), it remains a mystery as to why many brands looking for that young active male demo don’t go right to the bases and places where these loyal families and “captive” audiences sit. Armed Forces Radio and TV remains a very fertile and cost efficient ground for sports brands to reach a loyal audience, and bases are always looking for programs to keep the troops and their families busy and connected to mainstream America. More importantly, these groups, once discharged, remain very loyal to those who supported them while serving their country, with NASCAR-like brand buying and affinity. So why don’t more brands look to use sports to activate with the troops on base and in their communities vs. in stadium? Of course the immediacy of media at a game is powerful and impactful, but going to the troops and their families will also have a long lasting effect for those who care to take the step.

Is it because of the perception of Red Tape? The sometimes transient nature of the military and their families? Neither are clear but for those brands who can figure it out, the captive audience waiting to attach to their products, services and even teams as potential viewers and ticket buyers, is huge. Now there are a number of strong programs that serve as one-offs for honoring military men and women once at the game to give them and their families a chance to attend events. Camoflage Kids is one great one, and on Memorial Day MLB will have a series of ceremonies at all games, but those are all outbound programs once these young people are on site. Brands should look to base activation programs, tied to sports, to really make a sound investment.

Now virtually every sports property honors a local vet during a break in play. Those moments are inspirational for sure. Some teams have set about hiring programs for those returning in droves from the battlefields of Afghanistan. All good. However sustaining programs that support the military and their families at the core rather than just a base visit here or there is really what would be unique. It may not sell huge amounts of tickets at first, but the word of mouth amongst the military is very powerful, and the legacy built in for what will be a long future of a solid fan base or a consumer alliance is probably well worth the initial investment. Several lifestyle sports…NASCAR, the UFC, Ironman…have done a good job with putting their brand with the core of the military. Finding a brand to activate with that sport is still not easy though, but combining that powerful sports brand with a solid consumer program is something that is worth cracking as we hopefully move toward more troops coming back to the States and entering civilian life.

Verizon and Indy Car; A Long Haul Not A Quick Fix

Vibrant, relevant, different, important to new fans. That’s what people are saying about Indy Car’s new partnership with Verizon, a mega-player in sports business if there ever was one in the U.S. today. Then again that’s what people said about IZOD’s involvement four years ago, and Izod put its money into non-conventional spending and branding as it sought to lift the sport away from its core fans and find more casual interest. Unfortunately the buzz, didn’t offset the in-fighting, confusing television, the departure of several stars and at least one major tragedy, to lift the sport away from anything, and the apparel brand moved on to projects that probably best fit their brand message. Cool and hip didn’t match really with fast and exciting all the time.

So now the 10 year relationship is being heralded as another huge lift for the very exciting, ultra-experiential racing brand as it seeks to find its mainstream footing as well as gain momentum amongst the racing fan in North America, with the continued  battle with NASCAR and the always hovering specter of Formula 1 sitting out there to engage as well. Will it work?

For sure Verizon is a much better fit for the world’s fastest and most technologically savvy racing circuit. Speed and efficiency are what Verizon is supposed to be about, so there is a match there. Telecommunications companies are all about using sport as a testing ground for new products and as a way to engage mass casual audiences, and Indy Car can deliver on both fronts. They can also borrow some pages from what Sprint has done to market NASCAR and vice versa, and can even go one step further since the brand already sponsors the highly successful Team Penske program, as well as being the primary sponsor of the cars of Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, so it is not like an effective partnership has to re-write the book on successful integration.

The question remains how well can Indy Car market itself as well. It appears that maybe the cards are aligning as best they have in years. The Danica Patrick hangover is gone, and the sport has as deep a field of talent and telegenic drivers as it has had in years, with  Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti all potential crossover stars. It has the keystone of the Indy 500 to use as a lynchpin to casual fans, and it has a second year race at Pocono Raceway to draw brand and fan interest from both Philadelphia and New York, a place where Indy Car is missing a consistent presence that the other circuits have sought to drive to help sell its story, in addition to what is now a more consistent series across the country. Its TV package is better, and Verizon can also hopefully bring the weight of cross-promotion across its other sports platforms to lift the profile of the drivers and the races. Their coverage area is heavy in cities where Indy Car is NOT a household name, so that spillover can also be a boon for name awareness as well as brand affinity. So a bigger push married with a mainstream consumer brand which has that name recognition away from retail could just be the trick.

Will it work? Not overnight. The announcement and the series have gotten a late start for 2014, with the announcement coming just prior to this weekend’s opening race in St. Petersburg. The competition on telecom for elite sports not just in North America but across the world is very high, and the race to gain market share can bring many to question the ROI on spends like title sponsorships. However Verizon is one company that seems to have made the title work well beyond just slapping a name on a building or a circuit.  The learning curve for casual consumers with Indy Car is still pretty high, although almost everyone can understand what racing is when they see the cars in any form of media. What they will need to see more of are the drivers and their personalities, which is what NASCAR has done best. What will also have to make this work are other sponsors investing in the sport on the large scale marketing side, as Verizon cannot do this alone. The races are very expensive, the technology is fast and the risk factor for disaster remains high, so it will not be easy. It will have to be a steady build with little wins along the way, and it is not something which can be evaluated by ratings numbers for a weekend broadcast in a single year. Indy car needs to take a page out of the NHL and MLS in terms of selling its partnership; continued digital integration, a cool and wow factor and cutting edge non-traditional promotion while still embracing its core fans. It won’t be easy, but the sport has excitement, power and it is highly experiential, all things which Verizon can help amplify as they get the partnership moving.

Will the partnership breathe new life into Indy Car? There are dollars, marketing, and a series of best practices with a brand that “gets it” in the mix, along with a hope that this is not a fast fix in the world’s fastest sport. Hopefully it pulls in casual fans, catches that speed in a bottle and then gets other brands into the mix to create a successful run for all involved.  It won’t be a quick fix, it will be more of a marathon, but it will be one hopefully worth watching, even at 200 miles per hour.

Can Bobsled Lift Our Olympic Interest?

Bobsled, can you make us watch the 2014 Sochi Games? With a U.S. Olympic team lacking lots of start power going into the Games, it may be bobsled, with technology on the course, and star-power off the course (on the women’s side) that may deliver the best branding stories of the Games, if all goes well.

First there is the unique work that BMW North America, a German company but a USOC sponsor, is doing to activate its partnership around Sochi. Not only are they doing many of the traditional sponsor activations, they have used their engineering expertise to re-design the American sleds to make them faster and more technologically advanced, which, if all plays out right, can help the American men capture their first gold since 1936, and help the  U.S. women advance the medal count they have had the last three Winter Games.

The two-man sleds are shorter and have different weight distribution, whose design dated to 1992. BMW moved weight from the front to the center of the sleds to improve handling and to help maintain momentum during the directional changes on the track and helped driver  Steven Holcomb of the U.S. win the World Cup title, with Elana Meyers  finishing second overall among the women. It is a unique way in which a sponsorship can be tailored to actual performance, which if played out correctly can open additional commercial research categories for sponsors going forward. While much of the focus for USOC sponsors goes to amassing dollars to help athletes train, the BMW deal uses the engineers the company has to actually help craft a better vehicle. While Speedo can certainly design a better swimsuit, it is pretty rare that a brand can take invested dollars and turn it into a tangible advantage such as a sled, and the story that can be told can assist BMW grow not just as an Olympic sponsor, but in technology and in the consumer space away from Sochi, where there need for speed and safety is what their brand confidence is all about.

Then there are the personalities of bobsled. While Holcomb and Meters are among the bobsled lifers on the team and prime for medals, other newer team members like Jazmine Fenlator and Lolo Jones can really help lift the sport away from the track. Jones is a lightning rod for brands and attention from her days during and prior to the London Olympics, where her personality drew almost as much attention as her performance, and she brings that telegenic base, along with some controversy real or contrived, to Sochi. Last week the talk centered around whether she made the team as a way for NBC to drive ratings, something denied by all involved, but even the accusation, as well as the unveiling of the teams sleek body suits, drew new light to bobsled at a time when most Americans were thinking Super Bowl. Fellator, another track star turned bobsledder, may end up being Jones’ sled partner, and brings another great story to the Games, coming from an All-American track family who lost their house in Superstorm Sandy while she was off training.  As a pair of powerful African American women (Fellator being not far from New York helps drive the story as well) they can transcend the die-hard Olympic following with their style and their athleticism and even with a bit of an edge, something that these Games seem to lack going into the opening ceremonies.  More importantly they stir debate, and come into the Games with tremendous marketing potential to help lift the profile of all in the sport well past the final medal ceremonies, if they are successful on the track.

Some may say the glitz and glamour doesn’t help the Games; that the traditional will help raise the sport. Not in the least in an environment today where you need both steak and sizzle to be successful and cut through the clutter. Jones’ name on her own will turn heads, and her performance will draw new eyeballs who may look elsewhere when she is not on. It also will not erode a core following that is distinctly female and is also looking for the best story lines, which Jones and Fellator can provide.

So figure skating and hockey will bring the safest bets for good numbers during the Games, with the hope that some of the newer events will pull in a younger audience. Who knows, curling may also provide some unique opportunities as well. But going into the Games with a proven name in Lolo Jones helps get interest moving much faster for NBC and for all with a casual interest, and that interest can open doors for others. It’s not to say that suddenly all race fans will switch off the Daytona 500 to go and watch bobsled every week. But in a world where speed is king, fast sleds built by an elite name brand, with some non-traditional athletes at the helm can certainly lift bobsled, and there is no downside to the extra exposure for the brand, the USOC and an Olympics that has been more about angst and caution than athletic performance during its lead up.    Welcome bobsled, take us along for the ride.

Can E-Cigs Find A Sports Niche?

They are unregulated by the FDA, claim to be safer than the regular brands, are environmentally friendly, have started to sign u celebrity endorsers and have the large budgets for marketing that could all be part of a new category on the rise, especially amongst a younger demo. So will E-cigarettes find their way into the sports sponsorship mix?

With endorsement deals that include Jenny McCarthy and Courtney Love, photos with Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlie Sheen and flavors like chocolate and “cherry crush,” and a wide ranging radio campaign and print and digital to match, e-cigs are definitely becoming a tempting play for media salespeople starved for new revenue sources. Online gambling is still in the distance, some hard liquor is still questionable, condoms have not yet taken ahold in the sports and action space, so e-cigs could fill the massive void of vices that are not yet regulated. Smokeless tobacco still has its spot in some fight sports and other places, so the e-cig route could be a natural.

Now for sure the top American sports leagues, and probably circuits like golf and tennis, are going to take a long hard look at e-cigs before taking the money that is growing in the sponsorship pool. Recent reports have also shown E-cigarette use has doubled among middle- and high-school kids — and experts fear the devices are creating a new generation of smokers rather than helping people kick the habit. Factor in that ten percent of US high-schoolers admitted having tried e-cigs last year, up from 4.7 percent in 2011, according to a survey by the National Youth Tobacco Survey, and the number of middle-school students who tried them also doubled, rising from 1.4 percent in 2011 to 2.7 percent last year.

Even with the team market probably off limits for now, fight sports, maybe even auto racing could embrace the big dollars of the e-cigarette market, one which appeals to a less traditional and sometimes a bit edgier marketplace. While the UFC or Bellator might not let e-cigs in the cage, there is room for on-site offers and other promotions that could be tied to athletes, much like they are now tied to a rising list of celebrities. And while athletes have shunned, or been forced to shun, direct endorsements of tobacco products for years, that has not stopped athletes and celebs from cigar ads and promotions, and e-cigs could fall into that slightly less addictive area where cigars reside to this day. There also remains a huge global event audience, which could draw eyeballs in the plethora of broadcast offerings now out there, where e-cig promotions could also pop up. Formula 1 could also be a natural for the new devices which are growing in popularity.

So while we won’t suddenly see e-cig promotions in the manner of Joe Camel or The Marlboro man tied to game promotions or signage for the foreseeable future, the lucrative e-cig market will test the waters to see what the response will be from sports business partners always looking for acceptable marketing dollars. Those producers’ pockets are deep and creative, and with some celebs now on board, the push to ask athletes will not be very far behind.

Can New Film Bring A “Rush” Of Momentum For F1 In The US?

Earlier this summer Indy Car hoped that the casual appeal of the new animated film, “Turbo” about a racing snail, would help get them some much needed bounce with consumers. After all, “Cars” and “Cars 2” gave NASCAR some amazing licensing and branding pushes at a time when their brand had plateaued, so another animated racing film, with some engaging voices, would be the push maybe the circuit needed.  NASCAR also got a nice pop during the real action movie “Days of Thunder,” and even with the comedy “Talladega Nights,” so the track record of success was there.

The hope was that kids and families would watch, enjoy and then get a better sense of personality, speed and power and start become engaged a little more with Indy’s speed and its drivers even.. Unfortunately the film ended up more on the side of the partnership that then-CART had with Sly Stallone’s film “Driven.”  Some great hype, but the story didn’t deliver, and the partnership shrivled pretty quickly.

So into that mix now comes Ron Howard’s new film “Rush,” all about the legendary rivalry of Formula 1, and if initial reports are true, “Rush” could give F1 a much needed bounce in popularity in the States going into a year when the circuits Texas race does gangbusters, its numbers on NBC Sports are improving, but its struggle to find a second race in the US seem to have fizzled yet again.

A little more than a year ago it looked like Formula 1 on the banks of the Hudson River was dead in the water. However the race was given a second life by the circuit and its organizers and some new dollars and enthusiasm but the race back on track for 2014.  However this past week came more disappointment, growing rumors that the latest effort was still for naught, and F1 in the States was to remain a Texas-only stop at least for 2014.

Why? Let’s revisit some of the points talked about when the initial suspension of plans came about last September.

There is perhaps no more costly undertaking that the traveling sports “circuit,” which needs to recreate infrastructure wherever it goes. Those huge out of pocket costs are what do in event the biggest of events…from the defunct AVP to tennis tournaments to even large scale events like the Ironman or the X Games and the Dew Tour or the U.S. Surfing Championships, in some places. Big costs for building structures, big permit fees and in the case of first-time events, but learning curves with little margin for error.

Take the event to an urban area, and the potential for problems escalates even further. The Super Bowl in New Jersey? Sure there is some rick but you have the most important element — the venue — established and well used before and after the event.

Yes it would be a mega attraction, with perhaps no greater backdrop than the New York skyline. Yes, it would bring in ancillary dollars to towns like West New York, that need the dollars and the work. But the cost, especially for a sport that is well established globally but has little to no footprint in the United States? Devastating.

While promoters talk about millions to flow into the economy, they sometimes gloss over the millions it takes to re-route traffic, build stands, and important all those needed to stage the race to an area where there is no given that people would spend a very high ticket to turn out. A reasonable cost, sure. But thousands for the best seats? Hard to say. The organizers of Formula One are amongst the most savvy, and the most wealthy promoters in the world. They fully understand the value of bringing the sport back to Madison Avenue. It is an idea that every racing sport has chased for years since the Meadowlands Grand Prix departed in the early 1980s.

There are fans of racing in the New York area, but they go to places like Pocono to see NASCAR and now Indy Car and Watkins Glen to see open road racing. The track in the New York area just doesn’t exist. So can the spectacle work in the area? Maybe, but you need to have someone assume very great risk to get it done.

Racing is all about passion and the involvement of brands to activate and support the event. In NASCAR and Indy car to a large extent, the circuit drives sponsors. Yes there are local event sponsors but many of the big dollars come from activation constantly across the country with drivers and their teams. That the beauty of NASCAR’s marketing engagement. Formula One? Big brands for sure. Big TV and technology for sure. But with just one race in the States (Austin) and a few others on this side of the Atlantic, the ability for brands to constantly engage is lost. As great as it is around the world, here Formula One today is what soccer was 10 years ago. Lost in a sea of sports choices for the casual fan.

Maybe it is still too soon for F1 to return to the States outside of the track built for it in Texas.. Maybe it needs other places with a little more established infrastructure first before it takes a shot at Gotham. Maybe, like Ironman, surfing and even the AVP, the X Games and even the Red Bull Air Race the costs of being in New York far outweigh the benefits. Organizers will point to events like the New York City Marathon that have success, but they don’t take the same type of dollar commitment to stage, and they are repeat community events far different from the big business of racing.

F1 is a spectacular experiential event that will win fans when it is done right. Whether it can be done right on the streets in the shadows of Manhattan is another issue. It’s not cheap, and it certainly has a huge long term cost for those who try to buy in to the staging and have little precedence for return, but big precedence for failure. Maybe the organizers will rally and find the dollars and the structure to stage what would be a spectacular event, but in today’s challenged economy, it may be a long and risky ride to the finish line.

What was true a year ago hasn’t really changed. Maybe the big screen will give it a boost for years to come, but even the buzz of a film may not put the event back on schedule for The Garden State somewhere in the future. The cost..in millions…still may outweigh the benefit.

Can Formula 1 “Rush” To A New American Audience?

This past week The Sports Business Journal gave out its 2013 Sports Business Awards, and among many of the usual exemplary nominees and winners…IMG, the USOC, ESPN, NBC Sports…was the winner for Event of the Year…2012 United States Grand Prix in Texas.  What made the event a nit of a surprise winner was a combination of dogged determination to get the race finally staged at all, and the fact that it was about a sport wildly popular globally but almost invisible in the minds of casual American fans, Formula 1 racing.

In many ways F1 could be following the path of another sport which took decades to grab a foothold in the States but is now the talk of the town, soccer. And while no one is expecting grassroots F1 or an American circuit to be the driver, other elements…an ever growing multicultural population, technology, access to compelling video content, new brand interest, and a young audience which loves thrill seeking…all plays in F1’s favor to grow at least, as a sport to watch in the U.S. finally.

Two other factors’ a willing broadcast partner in NBC and the potential effect Ron Howard’s upcoming film, “Rush” ; could also help raise the tide of F1 interest as the year goes along as well. The live showing of Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix very early in the morning in the States (at a time usually reserved for cartoons, local news shows and infomercials) on NBC was an interesting litmus test to see what the interest is in the sport, with very little downside should the answer be…not much.

The reason F1 has not been a success in the States has really been one of economics over the years. To bring an event to the States required millions in infrastructure in a climate where NASCAR appeared to fill much of the need for racing of any form, and Indy Car took up the rest of the space. However the appeal of Indy Car, a cousin at least in look to F1, also remains very much an issue, as the circuit continues to struggle to find its identity outside of the Indianapolis 500 in an environment where compelling stories and high speeds should be driving it upwards.   So can F1 finally grab that high speed space and grow in the States?

Maybe. The success of the Texas race, with a multimillion dollar home race course, showed that there was an event marketplace for F1 in the States. It drew people, media coverage and brands in its launch. The possibility of a second road race in the New York area would be a huge boost for the sport as well, bringing racing to the New York area where not just fans, but Madison Avenue, could really get the speed, power, and sexiness that fans around the world already love about F1. Technology also gives F1 an opportunity to engage with fans and draw in a younger audience in a virtual environment. Drop in the adrenalin filled racing at high speed s around tight curves that any thrill seeking first adopter would love, all of which can be delivered in formats from second screens to video games, and you have somewhat of a framework for audience development.  Mix in some high spending brands…Mercedes presenting the Sunday race on NBC for example…and there is more reason for interest in F1.

There are many hurdles the sport still needs to climb to see if the market is there. A governing body which has been skittish on the American market needs to better focus on the States, especially now that the Texas track has worked. The sport is wildly expensive to produce and there are no viable American stars as drivers right now, although there is always the chance for crossover from other forms of racing. It can be challenging to follow from a fan perspective, and the fact that it is a global circuit makes view times difficult for broadcast TV in the US. There is also the quandary of why Indy Car…which had a movie of its own in “Driven” a few years ago, hasn’t caught on consistently with the casual fan despite its high speeds and exciting races.

That being said, F1 is big business, big bucks, big thrills, big technology, big content and bug audience in an industry that is becoming more global by the minute. What is a  novelty to view on a Memorial Day weekend morning today could be must see TV in a few years for sports fans, much like the Indy 500 once was.  As a sport with global appeal, F1 coming into the American marketplace will be one to watch, literally online, on TV and as a business, in the coming year, especially if “Rush”  makes  a dent from Hollywood and a second race in Gotham grabs ahold.   

Danica Delivers Early…

 It looked like a slow start for NASCAR leading into the week’s Daytona 500. The NBA All-Star Fame, pitchers and catchers reporting, the sudden controversy with the Olympics and wrestling, the Oscar Pistorius  tragedy, even the NHL’s “Hockey Across America Day,” were grabbing headlines and casual viewers. Next weekend was Daytona, along with the NFL combine and more hoops and hockey, so what to do to break through.

Enter Danica Patrick. By stretching out the coverage of Daytona over a week, NASCAR stuck gold for the casual fan, as Patrick grabbed the pole position for the race next weekend, giving the sport a huge jump in the minds of casual fans who might not remember where Daytona is on the sports calendar. They do know Patrick, who continues to match her driving skills with her marketing prowess, a combo which would be another big win for NASCAR growth, especially amongst young women who love her style but could now identify a little bit more with her as a successful racer. Maybe they won’t follow her to the track, but to a dealership down the line…now that’s another boost the sport and its sponsors could use.

Make no mistake NASCAR is doing just fine.  There is still no sport whose fans are more brand loyal and the push to connect the personalities of the drivers to fans even more…especially through social media…will continue to elevate the sport. Another big winner in the Danica pole position could be Miller Coors, who is the circuit’s official beer but doesn’t have huge positioning on cars on race day. However what it does have is sponsorship of the Coors Light pole award for each race. Dropping Danica in at the start of Daytona, with thousands of photos of her this week in the media, could give that partnership an even bigger boost  as the hype builds toward race day. Brands love being part of history, and putting Danica on the pole for this week is one of those intangibles that large scale sponsors like Miller Coors can reap an unintended benefit from.

Now of course lots of this goes away if Patrick goes out early in the race next weekend.  Regardless for this week at least, It is a monumental next step in the career of a driver who has delivered off the course and looks to now win on it, and for a sport which may have to push just a little bit less to cut through the clutter as its season rockets off in Florida next weekend.

There Was Another Hockey Team That Also Tried New York…

All that talk of the Islanders move to Brooklyn, and encouragement from an old friend (Charlie Cuttone) prompted this post about a New York hockey team that well…never was. But I was a part of it. Here is the story circa 1985, of a team which I left working for before it really started, 26 years ago this week.

Yes there have been other hockey teams in the New York area other than the current three, and that includes the one making the move eventually from Long Island to the new Barclay’s Center, the Islanders. The New York Raiders and Golden Blades, the Long Island Ducks,  the New York (Brooklyn as well) Americans, the River Vale Skeeters (in my current town, although no trace still exists), the New York Rovers, the just-departed Brooklyn Aviators and the Jersey Outlaws (now playing outdoors in the Federal Hockey League in Williamsport,Pa.), and…the New York Slapshots.

Never heard of the Slapshots, who were to play at the Phil Esposito Sports and Entertainment Center on Staten Island in the fall of 1986? Good reason. The arena and for the most part the team, never really existed for a long time. Now it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Slapshots, named after the movie, were housed in the Windsor Terrace offices hard by the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, not far from where the Staten Island Yankees play in the New York Penn-League today. They were to be part of the fledgling Atlantic Coast Hockey League (there is a Wikipedia page for it) and would bring professional sports to the sometimes-forgotten but sports-crazy borough of Staten Island. They would be playing in a gleaming pre-fab building that would seats 3,500 (we had the diagrams) in the Travis section of Staten Island, near a new state-of-the art bowling center and easy access for fans coming from New Jersey and Brooklyn as well. The team had good senior management…Cuttone and longtime NHL and minor league sports empresario Norb Ecksl and we had a big time coach- Dave “The Hammer Schultz, not far removed from his days leading the Philadelphia Flyers to their Stanley Cups and looking to get into hockey adminstration.

There was a spring press conference in Manhattan, and a sales and marketing team was in place. So myself, fresh out of Fordham and working nights at SportsPhone (in the days before sports radio and regional networks this was how you git score updates, 976-1313) and a group of others looking to break into sports, including a former MLB umpire named Zach Rebekoff and a former Oakland A’s sales and marketing guy named Scott Alderman. I didn’t have a car so I would take the subway and the ferry to Staten Island and then set out on foot, train and bus to all parts of the Island selling tickets and advertising throughout the summer of 1986 and into the fall. There was great enthusiasm…we sold dasher boards and promotions, plastic cups and season tickets, eventhough no arena even existed. We hired a day-to-day guy to run the hockey operations (Joe Selenski who later went on to coach the Johnstown Chiefs in the city where “Slapshot: was filmed) and we had a draft and started to get players. All with seating charts and hope.

As the fall progressed even the most enthusiastic followers were getting worried. You see, the arena had yet to arrive. “It’s coming on a truck in pieces from Georgia, it will be here in a matter of days,” we were told. September turned into October, and players even started to arrive. We had a woman named Kate McCoy who helped arrange housing for the players as they showed up in Staten Island, staying at the Holiday Inn adjacent to the Staten Island Expressway. We started to plan for a season to start on the road in outposts like Erie, Pa., with hopes I had of broadcasting the games. We were hired to be the official statisticians for the ACHL (there were other franchises with real buildings in addition to players). Dave would do appearances and we would sign sponsors with the building arriving any day. It all seemed real…we had had real marketing people, real offices, a real logo, a VERY real coach and very real players. How couldn’t the building be real (we never did see Phil Esposito by the way, who never had any stake in the building or the project other than giving his name to it)? So I kept walking Staten Island with my sales kit (there were farms still at one end of the island) and kept talking to the players as they arrived from all parts of the hockey world, with training camp starting in the Ironbound Arena in Newark, New Jersey.

As the preseason started, we would now open the season on the road for a month and play the home opener before Christmas we were told, Alderman and I, neither with a car, decided to take a trip out to the site, which we heard was now being prepared for the area. As we arrived, the silence was deafening. Nothing. Not a worker or a construction trailer, just a blown down sign proclaiming the site as the “Future Home of The Slapshots.”  Tumble weeds, Staten Island style, blew across the huge empty expanse of land. We were crushed. We returned to the ferry terminal in hopes that we were missing something.

As luck would have it for me, an opportunity arose. Iona College’s Sports Information Director Tom Didato had suddenly resigned, and the Gaels needed a quick replacement. Their season was to open in two weeks at the University of North Carolina. My mentor, the late PR guru Mike Cohen, called Iona athletic director Rick Mazutto and the job was mine. I left Staten Island and the Slapshots as the season opened somewhere in upstate New York. Although I returned to the borough to do stats for the league through the first month of the season on Sunday nights…typing and then sending the league info out via telecopier…the team never arrived. They played a few games in Ironbound and then headed to other locales like Virgina to play “home” games. The arena was some sort of scam, the money disappeared, and the Slapshots faded into history.

Over the years I kept in touch with Cuttone who has been involved in a variety of business and currently runs a top soccer website. Ecksl went on to work again with several professional teams in various marketing functions and stays busy in various areas of sports. Rebekoff ran an umpiring school for a while and stayed in sales, while Schultz remained and is still a Philly icon, although never as a coach.  The others drifted away over time, some continuing on as the team ended up in Troy, New York before folding. As far as the ACHL, it eventually became part of the ECHL which exists today in the minors, but no team anywhere near Staten Island. The Yankees finally figured out the Staten Island passion and build their ballpark overlooking Manhattan and remain a strong force in minor league baseball. As far as the site goes, it had another brush with fame in sports a few years later, when NASCAR proposed building a track in the vast area close to New Jersey. Like the hockey building, that project never came to see the light of day either.

For me, the Slapshots were a great first step in a career, at the lowest rungs of sports, selling something that didn’t exist. It gave me that grassroots experience and a lot of fun with some very smart people who were in it for the passion as much as the money.  Luckily I emerged from the experience unscathed financially, with a business card that I still hold on to (my first) to this day.

So as the Isles make the move to Brooklyn, maybe somewhere down the line they will honor some of those teams of the past with a little retro night. If they do, I have the logo from a team that tried, and failed, to do what they will probably be successful at…creating fun and successful professional hockey outside of Manhattan.Nothing better than majoring in the minors to get a start, even on Staten Island.

 

What Pocono Means To Indy Car And Indy Car Can Mean To Pocono

While most of the causal sports world focused on the MLB playoffs, college football, the NFL and the return of referees and the opening of NBA training camps, IZOD IndyCar made an announcement that could be a real boon to the circuit in the coming years as it continues to try and find its rightful place…the return to racing at Pocono Raceway after a 23 year absence.

Why is that a big deal for the circuit? Few reasons. The track has been a NASCAR hub with two races for several years, making it the place where ANY racing fan from the metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia could come to watch their favorite sport. The hills of Pennsylvania have been a long-established hub for open wheel racing in the United States (Andretti anyone?) with not one but two tracks (Nazareth is now long gone) when the sport was in its heyday. With Formula One in New Jersey now apparently revived for 2013, open wheel racing could take hold for fans with a one-two punch in the area.

More specifically for Indy Car, the circuit seems to have plateaued again this year. The loss of Danica Patrick from a marketing angle slowed casual interest in the circuit, and the move to Pocono, along with the relaunch of a “Triple Crown” challenge, which will award $1 million to a driver that wins the Indianapolis 500, the 400-miler at Pocono and the season finale at Fontana, Calif., gives the sport new tent poles from which to grow next year.  Returning to Pocono also gives Indy Car a leg to market directly to Madison Avenue as the trip to the race in July is more than manageable for those wanting to experience the power of the sport. Yes it is true that drivers will always make the trek into New York to do promotions, but what racing has missed is the opportunity to have an event close enough to get marketers out to feel the race as it happens. NASCAR and Pocono have still never properly marketed the two races that exist directly to New York, but IndyCar will now have that opportunity should they choose to take it…a consistent, year round presence to remind fans that this is their race, both in the Apple and the City of Brotherly Love.

Now the success of the race won’t happen by just hanging out a shingle. The past success of open wheel racing in the Poconos came because the sport spent dollars to market directly to New York. Promotions with local and regional brands need to be struck, a strong presence in the market needs to be had, the digital strategy needs to be in place. Casual fans know when to go see NASCAR at Pocono already, that does not mean they will just go back a third time for IndyCar, a sport which is racing of course but is of a different brand and style than NASCAR.

Will it be easy to succeed in year one? No. is it great to see the return for a sport with great power and personality. For sure. Start those marketing engines for the Apple and Philly, IZOD Indy Car.