NBA | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

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.

“Hardball Passport” Scores For Baseball Fans…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devils, Like Many Smart Brands, Look To Build Through Community…

One of the most important aspects of gaining support in good times in bad for any effective brand, let alone a sports or entertainment property, is to make sure you are ingrained as a part of the community, not just as an elite attraction. Whether you are a Valley National Bank or Target the Los Angeles Dodgers or Manchester United, finding ways to connect on a personal level with consumers who have discretionary income to spend with you or some competitor can mean life or death for your company, and that connection is even more essential during the rainy days as opposed to the sunny days when all is humming along. That need for support because they are “one of us” is vital.

In sport, often times elite brands seem to lose touch with fans during those boom years. The championships, the All-Stars, lead to a much needed rush for profit and athletes, the team and often times its partners, have so many people come a knocking that they can forget those who have been brand loyal for years and might get lost in the wash of success for those who have jumped on the bandwagon. Those types of problems are the ones that many in sport would like to have; too many fans and too big demands on time; but those are the times when all the building for the future, as part of the community, need to be emphasized the most. Teams like the Boston Red Sox and their longtime work with the Jimmy Fund, raising money for ill children, or the Philadelphia Flyers, with the Flyers Wives Save Lives campaigns, are just a few examples of sustainable, long-term legacy commitments that teams have regardless of what goes on between the lines.

In the Northeast, owner Josh Harris and his team of front office executives led by Scott O’Neil, certainly have their work cut out in rebuilding and extending that longtime connection with fans with not one but two franchises, the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils. Two recognizable and strong names with solid performance histories on the field, the Sixers and Flyers are going through transition periods as businesses, as well as in many ways on the ice and the hardwood (albeit the Sixers having a much worse season than Lou Lamoriello’s Devils).  With that transition on the field comes a growing innovation opportunity off it. Both franchises announced earlier this year a deal to find ways to tap into the now legal world of on-line gaming in New Jersey, and are looking to other categories to find economies of scale to bring new companies into the mix who haven’t been involved in the business of professional sports before. Trying times make for interesting partners.

In addition to that business opportunity, both teams realize the need to find new and creative ways to engage communities on a broader scope who can be part of the team experience from far and away in their geographic area. The advent of digital and social media has given teams a way to engage with fans on a global platform like never before, making everyone interested part of a community that was much more disjointed than ever before, and the ability to fill distressed ticket inventory during some lean times crates even more opportunity for casual fans to embrace and enjoy the in-game experience that they not be able to in other years.

With that idea of community in mind, the Devils and Prudential Center this week launched their “My Town” promotion. The idea is very basic, but effective. Recognize everyday leaders and heroes in select communities based on online nominations from fans. Throughout games in March, New Jersey towns will be highlighted with honorary game captains, an in-game welcome, a local color guard presenting pregame festivities, vignettes on the community and a Heroes Among Us feature. Woodbridge, N.J., was the first town highlighted this week for a game against the Boston Bruins. The program is an expansion of one many teams do, recognizing a local person for amazing community work, but it seems to take the idea to a new level. It is much broader and driven by fan and community interaction, and brings the Devils brand to the community as well as bringing casual fans to the Prudential Center. Maybe it helps a local realtor get more exposure to buyers, or a local business draw more foot traffic. Maybe it helps a school struggling for funds get more opportunity to attach to donors. Maybe it just lifts the spirits of a family struggling through the challenges of everyday life. Maybe it creates some binds to a community that didn’t really care about hockey, but now has a reason to support “one of us” down the road. It is smart business and smart community participation to expand the brand beyond the ice in a way that connects civic pride, economic growth, and community awareness all in one. Now it’s not like the Devils have not tried to be more inclusive before. The previous ownership under Jeff Vanderbeek looked to make thousands part of the “Devils Army” through community and digital and social programs that became a model for the NHL in many ways. This program however becomes even more grassroots, putting down stakes away from hockey into towns, with the hope that the team and the community become even more intertwined in support well beyond the ice; a program which can probably be replicated in Philly if needed down the road with ownerships their property.

Is the goal for any team to move more tickets and merchandise? Of course, it is a business after all. However by taking the time to listen and engage more un the community, the Devils and the Sixers, like all smart brands, are going to try and become much more than a team in a geographic area, they will become one of us, regardless of results, and that’s what successful brands do so well, in good times and bad.

“One Over 90″…Lessons We Keep Learning From “The Superstat” Harvey Pollock

On Monday the Sports Business Journal unveiled their latest “40 Under 40″ list…some of the biggest and brightest stars of today and tomorrow in the industry.  However this past weekend one of the longest shining stars turned a very young 93, and is still going strong. he is Harvey Pollock, the Philadelphia 76ers longstanding Director of Statistical information. Harvey was there, and got the ball. for Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game in Hershey, Pa., he was there when Allen Iverson had his number retired last week, and he has been everywhere in Philly sports almost since Ben Franklin walked the streets. If the Funding Fathers would have taken a break for rounders, Harvey would have scored it for them. Most importantly, he has served as a caring father, grandfather, great grandfather and surrogate Uncle and mentor to literally hundreds of interns and wannabe stats folks for decades. Here is a look at “The Superstat” from our book. While there are many under 40 who get honored, there are few over 90 still beating the bushes.  Harvey is one of them, with energy and a memory that any 40something should envy. Belated Happy Birthday to an old friend, not just tome but to thousands who have played, watched and worked in Philly.

Harvey Pollock

 The “Super Stat” as he was dubbed by Philadelphia Bulletin writer Bert Kiseda has been involved with the NBA, and sports in Philadelphia…well…since there has been an NBA in Philadelphia.  One of only three employees to have worked for the league every day since it began operations, Pollock continues to go strong. The author of an annual NBA statistical guide, and now a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame as well as 11 others is in a league by himself. He started as the assistant publicity director of the old Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State) in 1946-47 and midway through he 1952-53 season, he because head of media relations for the Warriors. He maintained that post until the spring of 1962, when the franchise was sold to San Francisco. During the 1962-63 season, when here was no team in Philadelphia, neutral court games were played here and he did the publicity to maintain his NBA connection. Then in 1963-64, the Syracuse franchise was shifted to Philadelphia wand the franchise was renamed the "76ers." He served as the media relations director for the 76ers until the 1987-88 season, when he assumed the duties of Director of Statistical Information for the team, a position he still holds. Long before the league adopted the following categories, he kept them for Philadelphia home games: minutes played blocked shots, offensive and defensive rebounds, steals, and turnovers. At the same time, he began tabulating categories the league didn't do and the esoteric items and tables eventually became part of his widely read stat guide. In addition to his NBA duties, he also heads basketball stat crews at six major colleges in the Philadelphia area, and heads the crew at the Major Indoor Lacrosse League games of the Wings, and the Soul in the Arena Football League. His past includes 15 years as the head of the Baltimore Colts NFL stat crew and in football also in Philadelphia led the crew for the Philadelphia Stars, Bell and Bulldogs. He currently has been Temple University's football statistician since 1945. He's en route to The Guinness Book of Records by wearing a different t-shirt every day since June 29, 2003.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM HARVEY POLLOCK:  Sports publicity remains a statistics driven business for the most part.  By being able to create compelling stories via all the stats and figures that go into the games, and then being able to pitch those stats effectively, we can find new angles that have not been explored, even for the simplest of efforts.


D-League Test: If It Can Make It Here It Can Make It Anywhere

The two most populous counties in the United States without any professional sports franchise encircle New York City. They are Westchester County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey. That was until last week when the D-League and the New York Knicks announced they are re-locating their Erie (Pa.)Bayhawks franchise to Westchester’s County Center starting next fall. On first blush, why should anyone care that minor league basketball is coming to the suburbs. The building, once the home of the NBA’s Doral Arrowood Summer League and the home of more than a few legendary high school basketball games, usually draws its biggest crowds with antiques shows or the annual flower show.  If fans want to see the Knicks, they can jump on the train and be in Manhattan in about 20 minutes. There is little minor league about the demands of many in Westchester.

However the move has great potential value to the Knicks brand, and the the awareness factor of the D-League, which continues to serve not just as a proving ground for NBA talent, but for technology, coaching and branding options not yet ready for prime time NBA. For years there have been rumors about moving a D-league team to the New York area, much in the way the L.A. Lakers have their Defenders playing in their practice facility and now the Philadelphia 76ers have their team in nearby Wilmington. Talk of Jersey City, The Bronx, even Harlem circulated for a good amount of time with not much weight or attention, until the move was announced last week.  With the Knicks practice facility only a few miles away, the club can keep a close eye on talent and training with little extra cost, and the NBA gets a place to showcase D-league innovation with media and other partners without venturing too far outside Gotham. While the Knicks have always had string roots north of Manhattan, the location of the D-league team also gives them more assets for community development, a host of new young faces and coaches to engage not just in Westchester but in other affluent and basketball-savvy communities in the surrounding counties. The D-League team can also bring added sponsor value for brands looking to engage with things at MSG, but maybe can’t afford the hefty all-in price tag.  There is also added content for the two MSG-owned networks on nights or days when hockey or NBA hoops are not live as well, along with the ability to potentially train a growing sales and branding force who are not yet ready for work at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Now will the D-League move to a major suburb be easy to sell? No. It will take specific marketing talents and attention outside the norm of what MSG staffers are already offering up, and with those talents will come some extra costs to make sure that all goes well. Some teams looking to bring teams close in have not found a mix in past years, but if done right, a D-league showcase close to MSG can be a nice little extra to give fans an affordable “taste” of the NBA, much like the successful minor league Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten island Yankees are for the Mets and Yankees respectively. For the D-league it is an all win situation if successful, an opportunity to showcase young talent and innovation in a place where many media already call home.  For a league on the come, the timing is right, and it can set another standard for future expansion or development opportunities for markets on the fence in taking on the extra challenge of a D-league franchise.  

For a team that has been a punching bag most of the winter, bringing the D-League team close to home is a win for the Knicks, not for the short term but for the longer haul of brand, and hopefully player, development. If done right, it can score with rising fans, brands and job seekers, all looking for a breakthrough in the world’s biggest media market.

Trading Day Remains Unchartered Brand Territory…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can A Smart Biz Culture Make Sacramento “Kings” Of Sport Innovation?

When he first bought the woeful Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban knew he had to make noise to draw attention and change the culture of the franchise. So he brought in an aging but always entertaining Dennis Rodman. It sent a message that things would be different, and a young owner would do what he needed to do to set a culture and make basketball in Dallas more relevant than it ever was.  Some ideas worked, some didn’t but eventually the Mavs won a title and created enough innovative disruption to make their owner and their team’s business a must follow, while making their games a “must do” in a city and state where football has and always will be king.

Similar types of culture change usually happen when suffering franchises take on new ownership. The New Jersey, now Brooklyn, Nets would do anything to sell a ticket and get attention during their toughest days in and around the Meadowlands, finding “new innovations” every game to try and drum up support. The New York Islanders took to finding a tattoo artist to draw eyeballs, and across the country “new ideas” to create attention, some good, some bad always seem to be essential to any new regime looking to stir the pot, create interest and obviously find the bottom line on the rise.

One of the most interesting changes in sport has been going on in Sacramento, and it is different not because of the disruptive mentality going on with the team, but it’s because of the forward-thinking and civic mindedness happening off the court. The story of Vivek Ranadivé rise to the ownership circle in the NBA has been documented in a host of places in the past year since he came almost from nowhere not just to buy the team, but to keep it in Sacramento instead of the more popular move of taking the franchise to the lucrative market of Seattle.  Ranadivé, an Indian immigrant who grew up loving cricket only came to basketball because of his love of analytics and the theories he put forth coaching his undersized daughter’s basketball team later in life. Highly successful and always forward-thinking, his business acumen in Silicon Valley, along with ample cash, gave him both the to help Mayor Kevin Johnson fight an uphill battle to rescue a team that had bottomed out as a business. Now Ranadivé is seen as a savior, and new things are on the horizon for the team.

This is not the first time that ownership has ridden into the California capitol to turn the franchise around. The Maloof family did much of the same, injecting fun and lots of dollars into the organization while filling then-ARCO Arena. However the lack of a new building put a damper on the Kings business, and the family interest in the business fizzled, along with the fan base. Now there is new owner with deep pockets, how will it be different, other than the new arena that is on the horizon for the team.

It really is different this time because of the culture of innovation that  Ranadivé’s business team appears to be fostering. While many teams, the mavericks among them, are looking more and more to use analytics to measure in-court performance, the Kings have embraced every form of analysis to try and give the coaching and training staff every potential competitive advantage not now, but in the future. They have become the first sports franchise to attempt to use Bitcoin as a system, pulling  the new payment system into the NBA to see if it can work and be accepted by fans in a digital world. The team has been aggressive in saying they would look abroad to grow their fan base, especially to India, a market that is fertile for hoops but also a key part of the new fan base emerging in central California for all sports. They are business moves that are not just forward-thinking for sports; they are priorities for any global business looking to compete in the US today. The Kings, according to the new culture, will lead in business innovation and take chances, in addition to again being the fan-centric team they were once known for being. It is smart, simple, and certainly buzz worthy.

Now are some of these things different from what other new owners have done? The Jacksonville Jaguars under Shahid Khan made their intentions of growing a fan base in the UK well known and made the bold attempt to be the franchise of choice once a year for several years in London, giving up a home game they probably wouldn’t have sold out anyway. They created a state of the art social monitoring suite for fans, a suite that was probably not being sold but one that showed how valuable the team felt the digital space will be in the future.  The Orlando Magic are pushing their community initiatives as the team rebuilds. The Golden State Warriors, now on the upswing but in their darker years when new owners led by Peter Guber and Joe Lacob (Ranadivé had a minority stake their too) cultivated bloggers and other forms of social media to draw attention, and played with all sorts of creative ticket pricing to be innovative and forward-thinking, so many of the “changes” are different perhaps only to Sacramento right now.

One other apparent constant in the recent influx of owners is the desire to try the business initiatives and stay away from the issue of who is on the court.  Like the Warriors and the Jags, Ranadivé appears fixated on the fan and the future business experience, and has gone after names both large (Shaquille O’Neal) and small to help raise the profile and “street cred” of the team on the court. The owners are present and involved, but publicly they talk business, not players. All of those moves are part of the changing business culture that goes in the organization.

Will it work for the long term? At the end of the day you need success on the field and in the business side, and while they don’t always go hand in hand, in order to have the culture work you need both pieces working well and consistently. The Kings have revived a franchise that is more part of the fabric of the community than probably ever before, and they have made their first steps with business and fan innovation vs. large player spends. As sports goes global, the work  Vivek Ranadivé is doing and the culture he is building is worth a look, its making a big impression in a small market, and if the initiatives work, look for others to join along.

Timing Is Everything: Why The NBA’s European Foray Made Sense This Week…

As smooth leadership transitions go, many businesses should look to the model that the NBA has set as the league goes from David Stern to Adam Silver.  From little things like the name on the league’s game balls to bigger picture issues like labor negotiations and TV deals, the NBA has been sown unity and consistency as one era ends and a new one begins, albeit with a leadership team that is certainly not new to the business of basketball, given Silver’s longtime position in league governance.

So it should come as no surprise for a sport that is all about transition that the two joined forces as the league made its annual regular season foray to Europe this past week, when the Brooklyn Nets took on the Atlanta Hawks in London. For all to see, including those reading the cover story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the transition game was in full force and certainly not lost in the mix was the message that the global NBA brand is continuing to grow.

While there were a smattering of stories questioning the need for a game in Europe during the middle of the regular season, the timing of the trip and the staging of the game was yet another message of consistency to send to all interested in brand NBA. Here are some thoughts as to why:

Timing: The game came at a place on the schedule where basketball traditionally hits a bit of a lull. The Christmas Day games are a memory, the All-Star Game is still in the distance, and the playoffs are even further off the casual sports fans’ radar. Dropping the game in a spot on the calendar that is just before the Super Bowl crush and in advance of a time when the Sochi Olympics will also steal some business thunder on the global stage served as a great reminder to brands and fans that the NBA holds and is growing its position around the world. A relatively quiet week in sport gave the NBA an unencumbered marketplace to talk business and basketball before the eyes of sport turn focus elsewhere for a while.

Business: In addition to providing a showcase for all the global brands the NBA has and are courting, the game gave Brooklyn a chance to more fully embrace their Barclays partners in real time, with essentially a home game for the home office. The Nets have long tried to export their brand and business beyond their borders, and with Barclays so invested in their home arena and the team, bringing the game to London gave the league as well as Nets head Brett Yormark a chance to show off the property for even more business partners, without having to export them back to Gotham.

Development: Despite its gleaming arenas, the UK remains one of the few regions without its own top flight professional league. Even with the economic challenges around The Continent, leagues still do well in many countries, and by bringing the NBA regular season to London, the talk of starting a professional league there could be pushed along. With such string TV partners already in place in the UK, making O2 Arena or other top flight venues a regular stop could be a nice carrot for the development of a UK based professional league down the line.

Leadership: While few question the leadership and vision of the NBA as a global property, it does serve as a nice reminder of the value of European brands and partners to bring a regular season game across the pond. The NFL has set its sights on Europe as a marketing tool, and the NBA talk continues to look east to China and India as the hottest spots. Not forgetting that hoops is still king in many parts of Europe and not far behind soccer in others, is very important to continued development in places where the brand is mature but still has a wide path of growth.

Expansion: There continues to be lots of talk about which sport will make the jump to be truly global, with franchises dotting the world. While most of that type of expansion remains just that…there are still too many legal and logistical issues for any league to expand outside North America…the real value in playing a regular season game abroad is in brand expansion, not team expansion. Watching a broadcast, engaging in the mobile space, and purchasing product is all important, but to bring a live, competitive regular season event to a new geographic area on a consistent basis ties all the pieces together and gives much more focus to the business. It is a lesson soccer has learned in their growth in the US; you can make all the noise you want, but to really engage you need to also have the live event, and bringing a game to the UK every year…and maybe elsewhere in the future…is the best form of expansion.

Does such a trip have its warts? Sure. The travel is not the easiest and it disrupts the flow of a team for a short period, but the teams are treated with kid gloves and are given the chance to re-engage in the US in a relatively short period of time. The lost short-term revenue, if any, us fueled by the potential of long term growth in revenue sharing categories like TV and merchandise sales, and although such a mid-season trip is not for everyone, for teams like Atlanta and Brooklyn who are looking to expand and grow their brands, it makes great sense.

In the end, the game and its experience and business moves seemed to all go smoothly, and served as a nice reminder that the NBA and its transitioning leadership are not sitting still and will continue to score in the global business community.  For timing and execution, NBA London  seems to have scored again.