“Brand Kobe” Finds Its Place…No Not That Kobe…

So the Thanksgiving business lull comes and goes, and with it comes, hopefully the end of the NBA lockout, which means the players and teams can get back to the business of basketball. One of those key to NBA success is Kobe…as in the Lakers Kobe Bryant, and in many ways how his season goes can help determine the business success of many. Lots of questions to be answered in LA this winter with the Lakers, but the Kobe brand should continue strong.

However this past week brought the continued unique emergence of yet another Kobe…competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi. The thin, energenetic Japanese native helped establish the world of competitive eating in the world of popular culture, as he broke record after record, not just of hot dogs, but of meatballs, hamburgers, whatever was placed in front of him. Kobayashi helped create the competitive marketplace, and with it helped create a brand for himself to travel the world and not just win contests, but draw attention and business away from the eating table. With that brand came challenges though, and as others signed their rights away to compete at select elite events, specifically the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest on July 4th in New York, Kobe did not. As a result he and his team have forged on to find other ways to establish himself and partner with other events to expand his business portfolio.

This past week, the Japanese competitive eater again took another step to prove his brand is bigger than the one July 4 event, staging an event in New York to set the record for most turkey consumer in ten minutes. He and his team partnered with YouStream to show the event live, and Kobe used the event to again talk to his dedication to events away from just the niche world of competitive eating…he used it to talk about helping those less fortunate on the Thanksgiving holiday in his now adopted home, New York. Yes he broke the record, but even more impressive, with little dollar spend or promotion, were the almost 100,000 word of mouth downloads of the video that followed on one of the busiest holiday weekends on the calendar.

What does it say about “brand Kobe”? First it says that yes, competitive eating is still a pretty unique prospect for those who are well…best at it. They can draw crowds, thousands, to watch them ply their gastronomic trade. Second, and more important, it says that Kobayashi has actually created his own brand away from one event, one that has a following and one that, if he can diversify and show his personality away from just eating, could have value to companies looking to connect with a young, unique and very strong personality. It is a great market for brands looking to be edgier and more viral, who can push the envelope a bit in exposure in their quest to reach a larger audience. It is not as much about the act, it is about the personality and the story, and Kobayashi is looking to carve his niche as an endorser, a supporter of causes that can draw views, and one that almost certainly can be bigger than the one event which he helped put on the map.

Maybe down the line one Kobe and meet the other, as both are champions and unique personalities, and both certainly worthy of their own exposure as they ply their trade and draw attention around the world.

Hockey Is As Hockey Does…

One of the burning questions during the NBA lockout has been, “How does hockey, or the NHL, take advantage of the casual fan during a fall of no NBA hoops?” The answer is simple, they don’t, not really. One of the biggest misconceptions is that fans will jump to another sport or activity quickly to fill a void, and that other sports, leagues, activities should spend large amounts of dollars trying to grab more casual eyeballs. In reality, cultivation of fans takes a long time, and those passionate fans will return to their viewing habits over time when the lockout is settled. Also the assumption in these challenging time that casual fans will go and spend those same dollars on other sports or activities they may or may not like is also a bad one. In most cases those dollars will go to other leasure activities or they will be banked for when the activity they are passionate about comes back. So what do other sports like hockey do during the lockout? What they should do best, concentrate on their own strong and casual fan base.

That’s what the NHL is doing, and had planned to do regardless of the lockout. The hockey fan will get his first in a longtime dose of national coverage on NBC this Friday, followed by enhanced and expanded programs on Versus over the weekend. Many regional networks are filling their NBA void with college hockey (the annual sold out Cornell-Boston University at MSG will make it to air for the first time this weekend) or maybe some expanded NHL shows, which is also a help to reinforce the value of the sport to those flipping the dial. The NHL/NBC partnership even pulled in some added eyeballs with a presence in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Also on the content side, the ability to pitch and place personality stories about fans, players and the game itself is a bit wider without competition for space from the NBA, so a little more friendly ear from media decision makers can help grow the game a bit as well.

The fall is always crowded in the marketplace, and most fans don’t really engage in winter coverage until we are closer to the holidays. Now hockey does have a window for expanded content to remind those who do follow when the weather is colder to come aboard a bit earlier. It is less about conversion of hoops fans and more about enhancement of their own casual followers and reinforcing the support, with broadcast and brand partners, that hockey makes good business for the passionate core and the casual follower.

What hockey, especially the NHL, can and will do best with during these challenging times for the NBA is to focus on their core business and fans, and enhance their own product. When the NBA does come back it will fill its own void in a media frenzy. However until that point there is a void for content and feel good enhancement of a good product, and that is the best place to focus for the business of hockey.

Collateral Damage NBA Style…

We are just over a week from what would have been the start of the NBA season…a terrific encore to a great finish of last season, with the Olympics in the offing for 2012. Instead we have the lockout, and the start of the D-League and college hoops on the horizon. While many hold out hope that the owners and players will settle in time for a 50 game season, those with the most at stake are the individual game employees who need the ancillary income from a full slate of arena dates to make ends meet in challenging times, many of whom are now in limbo.

While there were issues and collateral damage from the late settlement by the NFL, the loss of income for those around hoops is potentially march larger. Yes, NFL training camps away from the home base brought thousands to watch practice and fill small town hotels, but that was for a week to ten days. NBA training camps are just as long but without the large throngs of people, but the amount of workers needed for arenas, restaurants, broadcasts night in night out is staggering. yes the exo. season is tedious, but it brings in dollars, some of which for smaller arenas is guaranteed money they will not make back. While there is an assumption that many prominent broadcast figures are on staff year-round, that is usually not the case. Some teams have announcers on staff for various events, but the majority are contract employees, same as directors, producers and tech staff. They get paid game by game. While it is true that some of the more prominent announcers may end up picking up some college work, that means that others on a level below will be missing out of work, and the trickle effect goes on and on.

Some arenas may be able to fill dates with a concert or two or extend the life of a travelling show, but for the most part no games means empty buildings. That means a loss of income for many people at a critical time of the year, heading into the holidays.

On the fan side, there is a thought that NBA fans will now fill their days watching and going to a hockey game or a college hoops game. That also is probably not true. The cultivation of a fan takes time for any brand, and does not happen overnight because of a lack of games for a given sport of choice. While many NBA fans may be fans of basketball, they may not be running to see local college action that quickly. It is a different experience. Also those who have worked in venues where hockey and hoops are both housed realize that the in-game experience and the demo of the crowds are different and rarely cross in large numbers. Hockey fans are hockey fans. Does that mean there may not be a slight bounce in casual interest? No. Will it be a bonanza for those sports not locked out? Probably not.

At the end of the day, the lockout is not good for anyone in the short term. It damages brand, takes away dollars from everyday workers and hurts the fan experience for all sports. When all is settled there will be “winners” and “losers” proclaimed, but until that time we all lose, especially those who make their living in the business of sport, on any level. It may be short term pain for long-term gain for the sport, its owners and its players, but for some those dollars lost may be hard to find in today’s challenging times.

Stoudemire, Anthony Not Locked Out Of Business…

It’s not what they certainly planned to be doing in the middle of October, but New York Knicks teammates Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony certainly kept themselves busy and in the headlines this past week, without much controversy and without ever stepping on a basketball court. The duo spent the last five days visiting Duane Reade Drugstores, Modell’s Sporting Goods, and Footlocker hyping and talking up new product endorsements, which obviously will gain greater value when the NBA lockout is settled. They competed for space in the tabloids and on TV as much as they would compete for loose balls in practice at this time of year, extolling the value of new age products like Sheets Energy Strips (for Stoudemire) and Power Grip hand products (for Anthony), while talking about the labor unrest, their offseason workouts, and even Stoudemire’s vision of a potential players league should the lockout go more than a year. They also had a common ground through their Nike endorsements, but showing off their new shoes for the media and the public

The work off the court this week for these NBA superstars showed an interesting mix of what they bring to the table for hoops and what hoops can do for them away from the court, and really emphasized the need for labor peace to grow both sides of the business quickly. Anthony and Stoudemire were well versed in their product endorsement stances this week, and while many may see the idea of a “Player’s League” as far fetched, the fact that every day one or the other, or sometimes both, were able to find headlines in the crowded sports fall landscape shows the brand value of being a hoops superstar in a major market. The great thing for their brand partners is the time that the athletes have been able to give to push their products at this time of year…time which obviously would be going to play on the court, not talk off it, if the lockout was settled. The fact that it is a baseball-less October in New York also gave way to additional off-field coverage for outlets looking to fill time and space with new content. The time also gave the stars a chance to connect with a larger segment of media who would not normally get access to the players at this time of year…non-credentialed bloggers, college media types and other digital publications found their way into press availability sessions this week in addition to the usual throng of beat reporters and TV cameras, which actually played in the favor of the brands and the athletes.

Now it is true that these athletes are superstars with a legacy in the marketplace of being able to draw interest. They are the exception more than the rule for endorsement partners, and it is unlikely that rank and file NBA players could pull off such media attention in most markets during a lockout situation. What will be interesting is to see how their brand value grows or diminishes over time if the lockout continues and fans and businesses either become apathetic or indifferent to a sport which they are not watching. It will also be interesting to watch and see how teams, with no stars to market, find ways to engage their fans as we near what would have been a great start to a solid finish of a campaign for the NBA; a season which, in addition to the regular and post season drama, will lead to an Olympic window in London next summer.

The week showed the boardroom power of NBA superstars once again, power which will hopefully be amplified with on court ability again when the labor strife settles and both sides can get back to the business of basketball both on and off the court. The business off the court will only grow long term when the business on the court starts again.

Sports Help Motown Matter Again…

No matter what happens Sunday with the Lions and the Tigers, sport and its feel good messages have helped slowly recovering Detroit matter more to many again. The crash of the economy was reflected no more than in the downtrodden Detroit, where the auto companies fled for bailout money and the infrastructure of a once proud region collapsed upon itself. What would happen to sports, the lifeblood of the blue collar town and one of the few things the city had to draw to for hope.

The Lions collapse despite the beauty of Ford Field, the Tigers ills, the Pistons slide, the Univ. of Michigan’s ongoing sports issues, even the Red Wings lack of Stanley Cup luster as the rival Blackhawks took home a Championship, did not bode well. Along came a Mayor with deep sports ties, Hall of Famer Dave Bing, and maybe, just maybe things started to change to better reflect a Detroit on the rebound. Maybe one of the most important factors during the bleakest of days was that the sports teams did not abandon Detroit, they actually increased their outreach. The Tigers found tickets to get to the unemployed and extended the lives of sponsor programs at discounts or in some cases, chose not to remove a non-paying big auto brand for a short time. The Red Wings increased inner-city programs while the Pistons tried to find new groups to lure to The Palace.

On the field, each organization found its leadership core. The Tigers under Dave Dombrowski rebounded with a division title, the Lions are now back in the NFL mix after years of mismanagement, the Red Wings are again nearing the top of the NHL as the season beckons, and the Pistons, under new ownership and the front office of newly arrived Dennis Mannion, will look to again embrace a core fan base that probably can relate to hoops as much so or more than the other three sports. New companies have looked to take advantage of land and business space in Detroit, sparking more and younger fan interest around teams that are hungry and willing to find ways to accomodate those trying to find creativity in what was a stagnant economy. More importantly for those lifers in the city and the area, the ownership of the teams and the front office have seen the great value that sport can bring on the darkest of days for those less fortunate, with the lift of winning teams bringing even more than a distraction to those on the comeback. The auto industry, still based in the area and once the largest sponsor of athletic events in the world, has also found ways to re-engage in sport, and linking to those teams in the area has been a big plus for morale and for the teams who need the partnerships.

Now it’s not an easy road for either the economy or Detroit, and certainly it is not yet one that has a silver lining. The Lions are still in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions and remain a young team, the Tigers have their work cut out to try and overtake the Yankees, the Pistons, when the lockout is settled, have perhaps the toughest rebuilding task both on the court and on the business side of any of the teams at this point, and the Red Wings need to continue to find ways to grow a fan base that is still ethnically challenged despite being in such a hockey hotbed. However if the Detroit sports resurgence continues through the winter…including the Wolverines rise back in hoops and football…don’t be surprised if many draw parallels to economic recovery and that in sport. The President is after all, a sports fanatic himself, and rode the sports theme to garner casual voters in 2008.

We all love the comeback and the underdog in sport, so a Detroit success in sport fits in many ways with tough economic times, more so than any other city. Winning on the field matches winning in business and vice versa. Now more than ever. Go Motwon go.

Can The D-League Leverage The Lockout?

We have all seen the stories of the mass defections of stars to Europe, China, Turkey, Mars…wherever the hoops rumors and dollars real and imagined may lead the NBA cognoscenti should the lockout take hold. Visions of Dwight Howard in Italy sampling pasta, Deron Williams chasing opponents around the minarets of Istanbul and Kobe Bryant being adored by billions in China are dancing in basketball fans heads, real or imagined. However the economic issues facing professional clubs around the world remain very real, and if the lockout does take hold, many players under contract may find the offerings abroad not as plentiful as what is being bandied about.

An NBA lockout would be as difficult on all the ancillary businesses…arenas which now would have to fill in excess of 40 dates with large scale events for example…as well as on the psyche of fans who are weary of labor talk and want more on court trash talk. So who could benefit from the lockout? One entity could be the D-League. Now while players under contract cannot play for D-league teams, the developmental system will continue on schedule, with a host of players who are not bound to contracts and have the time and energy to showcase their talents. Small markets around the league have started to prosper and the league has become a solid testing ground for the NBA, both on the court and in marketing objectives for the future. Many teams have brought affiliations in house, using the team as another way to expand fan outreach to smaller markets, or in the case of the LA Lakers, to get more use out of their practice facility. So with no other pro basketball, could the D-League move up in stature, social media and branding opportunities? Maybe so. There is no CBA or UFL or CFL to supplement a professional hoops fans fancy in the United States. Yes there is more than enough college hoops, but the NBA fan is not always an NCAA fan, and the level of play, even in the cash-limited and cost controlled D-League, is getting stronger every year. The league won’t move into a replacement player mode like the NFL of the past, trying to put D-League teams in NBA arenas, but some of the interest in NBA teams could flow to D-league eyes. It’s not even close to an alternative for NBA play, but it is an opportunity for intuitive and unique marketing, and a window for some who have been out of the limelight to shine maybe a bit brighter, and create a following that will help should they move up to the NBA when play returns.

The best plan is for labor piece and the D-League keep its steady growth. However should the worst case pop up and pro hoops fall silent, the NBA’s developmental players and coaches could be in position for some solid brand noise.

Love The Timing For Jose Cuervo

Beach Volleyball is a great lifestyle sport that has had trouble resonating on a national level away from the Olympics in a troubled economy. In short, it costs a lot of money to support a tour which needs to build its own venues and then needs a live TV draw at a time (weekend afternoons) when those who love the sport are well, outside playing it. Hence a big reason for the demise of the AVP last year. Great lifestyle, tough to draw consistent dollars to finance. Now into that void steps the deep activation pockets of Jose Cuervo, a spirits brand that does all kinds of promotions and successful events in various settings to promote their active brand.

Cuervo has spent time in and around various levels of pro and recreational volleyball for a few years, and now will make their own play for an abbreviated calendar of professional events in markets that make sense (California especially) in the run-up to the Olympics next summer. They won’t have the large outlay and high overhead of the AVP, but they will probably be effective promotions for the brand and hopefully the sport. This past week Cuervo spent considerable dollars and got considerable bang by bringing the sport to Times Square, which as mentioned before has become the must have promotional space for everything from NASCAR to Wrestling to XGame sports in recent months. Now Cuervo Volleyball in the Square is not uncommon…the brand was in the space with a smaller promotion earlier in the year. However thois time they stepped it up by going full-court, large scale event mode, and tieing in locked out Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves as their spokesperson/star athlete. Love, a Californian schooled as UCLA and tied to the legendary Mike Love of The Beach Boys, is making an attempt to join the Cuervo Tour as it kicks off, and in the meantime will serve as a very vocal spokesperson for the brand and the sport.

Using Love as a high visibility spokesperson during the lockout makes great sense for the sport and for Cuervo. He has the time, he has a great pedigree and he is arguably one of the more popular faces of the NBA these days. His hoops play with Minnesota last year brought around a cult following, and his collegiate play at UCLA can make him a great draw, should he play, in the areas where the tour will need to draw eyeballs, fans and media coverage to make Cuervo’s spend effective. With the lockout not being close to settled, and LA without an NFL team, the Love/Cuervo Volleyball matchup is a good one, regardless of the outcome. Launching the series with the promotion in New York satisfied a great branding opportunity, and using a transcendent athlete helped lift the promotion away from those who may just follow for the sake of being interested in the sport. It pulled casual coverage and interest, which in this crowded time of year with the NFL frenzy underway, was a solid timing move as well.

The Collateral Damage Of Lockouts…

Labor disputes in any business are never fun. We all want peace so that our cars are sold fairly, our pools stay open, our garbage is picked up and our teams play when they are supposed to. While fans grow frustrated with the current lockouts in the NBA and the NFL, the seasons are still far off enough so that most social unrest is still below the waterline. However the real unrest at this time of year is through the collateral damage that work stoppages have on an industry, this time the industry of sport. Here are some examples as to how the lockout has effected and can continued to effect this who make their living off the field but in the sport.

NBA Summer League: Canceled early on this year, the Vegas Summer League created more hotel jobs, broadcast spots, vendor opportunities and entry level basketball career jobs for a few hundred folks. Young people attended an annual job fair for teams and others in the business which will not happen this year, creating a void and a backlog in opportunities.

Fantasy Sports: Conventions which filled ball rooms, sold meals, and helped the travel industry will not be held or have been postponed this summer. Dollars by brands have been held up for fall spends on fantasy sites, creating great angst amongst salespeople and those who run sites that are dependent on the dollars brought in through fantasy football. It may seem silly to some, but that ancillary and primary income, especially for digital sites, could be a huge issue come the fall if that money is not spent by brands or reallocated outside of the fantasy industry.

Broadcast: In addition to fantasy specific shows like those on Sirius XM curtailing their football previews, announcers and broadcast staffers have been furloughed or put on delay as to what their fall income will be. No NBA hoops in the preseason or summer means no work for tech people or announcers. NBA-specific sites cannot cover player events, which leads to less traffic, dollars, and working hours.

Football Camp Workers: Many NFL teams have announced the move of training camp from colleges back to their own training facilities. The loss of hourly wages, meals and hotel rooms in places like Cortland, New York can be very hurtful to a local economy which thrives in those three to four week stints every summer where media and fans descend on the town.

Advertising Sales: Whether one is selling or buying, the uncertainty in the marketplace means deals are deferred, and for commission based sales folk, that deferrment does not necessarily mean dollars will come back when the lockouts are settled. Those dollars may go elsewhere, to entertainment shows for example, or they may not get spent at all by a brand looking to cut costs. While some feel those dollars would go to places like college sports or hockey or September baseball, the bottom line is that NFL brands spend NFL or NBA brands spend NBA, and they may not necessarily have to spend elsewhere because at some point the lockouts will settle, and they may wait until that point to infuse dollars.

Ticket Sales: Many entry level jobs in sport start at ticket sales. While the NFL may not have that many seats to fills on a per-game basis, the NBA does, and all that offseason sales activity can be curtailed by the lockout. That curtailing means less sales and with it less opportunity to sell for young people looking to get a foot up.

While all the news is not glum, and some remain optimistic that the lockouts will settle, the uncertainty makes for more issues for those who live off the game but never play the game. Wen teams are back, the fans will forgive and return and the excitement of pro sports will keep business flowing. However until that point, there are thousands who need income who will have many sleepless nights, and that income may be very hard to recoup. here’s to labor peace, and ehlping those in the industry to get on with business.