The FXFL Is Here…Will It Stay?

The allure of minor league sports is very powerful. Doing the right thing, having a great experience with young people as they work their way up the ladder on and off the field, an affordable family experience, a year-round chance for brands both locally and nationally to engage all are great opportunities that happen in a host of professional sports in the United States, from hockey and soccer to hoops and baseball. It is a multi-million dollar cottage industry that has launched thousands of careers.
So into the mix the past few weeks comes the FXFL, the latest in a series of developmental leagues around American football. The premise is that the football talent pool is deep, there is a need to develop that talent, there are other jibs like coaching that need opportunities, and there are rules to be experimented in and brands that are looking to engage that can’t afford the prices of the NFL or are locked out of categories, and there is a whole lot of potential content to be had out there. There are also stadia looking for events, and presumably, there are investors looking to throw money into the dream of sports ownership at some level.
The premise works in other minor league sports, football is arguably the largest and most engaged sport in America, so there has to be a market for it. Right?
So welcome in the four team FXFL, which in two weeks proved what many thought; the talent on the field and in the coaching area is there for more room. They have found a TV home, so there is an interest in content, and they have facilities who want to host games. So that works. They also have set spending limits on talent and have played with rules to help grow the game, so all that makes sense.
The question is; is it a business that can return revenue at some point? That is very hard to say. Staging events, especially football, is a very, very expensive proposition, and gaining market share where money is coming in to justify cost, and investor ROI at some point, is also really really tricky once the buzz of initial exposure wears off and a grind of a season starts. It has been tried before in football, and has never worked, even with the NFL-owned properties a decade ago that tried to develop talent in a smaller setting. Arena football? Some limited success in a different model. The CFL? Much more successful in a culture and a style, and with a TV partner and national brands that have worked for decades. The FXFL in the fall? Tough to say.
Is it fun and engaging? Yes. Is there content to potentially go and do reality or digital programming which could generate interest? Sure. Is there potential as a viable business? Maybe. Will brands look at it, assuming there is a consistent broadcast package and effective and consistent local marketing and sales, to say we want to out our dollars here and activate against and with you? Maybe, but that has to be proven. Will investors step up and buy and operate teams in local markets with substantial capital for years at a time? Hard to say.
The biggest challenge with the FXFL and other parallels like minor league affiliated baseball, the DLeague and even minor league hockey and in some instances soccer now, is that the parent club, major league sports, spends a lot of the cash and in many instances absorbs the L in a P and L. Even in Independent baseball, the possibility exists for those teams, which run greater risk but have good talent, to sell contracts to MLB or MiLB or even Japan for a profit. The FXFL has none of that as a safety net to be innovative or creative and not always look at the bottom line. The NFL, as it has since the failure of the WLAF, watches with no risk and simply picks up the talent with no cost or effort. They are quietly supportive with n involvement, which is a great situation to be in.
Would it be great if the FXFL bucks the trend of minor league football, finds investors and cities willing to support with a media company diving in for a partnership akin to what the NHL and NBC had at one point? Sure. Would it be great for brands to come on board with fixed partnerships that involve cash to raise the bottom line? Yes. Success of the FXFL is a success for everyone involved in sport.
Will it work? It is great the investor group got the league up and running to prove concept. That already is ahead of scores of others who have just talked and spent and never saw the light of day. If it is long term and viable, we will see hopefully next fall and the one after that. Ideas and sports are great, but in the end bottom line is what matters in sports business. Time, and dollars, will tell.

We Are The World; Global Sports Convergence Grows

Sunday morning thousands of soccer fans in the US will turn on Barclays Premier matches on NBC while others will watch the Ryder Cup live from Scotland. Then later it will be the Dolphins and the Raiders playing…in Wembley Stadium. Across the pond a growing number of fans will be watching NFL games as their day turns into night, and others will be engaging on NBA.com as training camp updates come flooding in. In Latin America baseball fans will be tuning in this afternoon watching Derek Jeter’s last game at Fenway Park.  Not too long ago each of these events would have been news, covered by media as a special happening, an unusual event. Now they are happenstance met with no fanfare at all. The digital world, and the growth of global sponsorship has changed live viewing habits in sport around the world, and has made sport more global than ever before, with Sunday being a great example.

There are many factors that play into why we see sports on a global scale as less unusual than ever before. The growth of soccer in the US, not just MLS but the fact that the new immigrant has taken his club loyalties and brought them here, as well as the marketing efforts of the elite clubs of the world to gain recognition amongst a grassroots following of young people that follow Chelsea or Manchester City on TV and engage on EA’s FIFA2014 as much as other generations would have put their loyalties in the Texas Rangers or Philadelphia Phillies, is a big reason for our global comfort these days. The consistent outward-bound marketing of the professional sports leagues to a more global audience, not just with merchandise but with games that are not just exhibitions (like the NFL in London) but count in the standings (MLB in Australia last spring was another big step forward) is another massive factor. Traditional broadcast media, especially the efforts of ESPN, NBC Sports and FOX to take global sporting events and find windows to broadcast and promote (not just soccer but Formula 1 and soon rugby as well) have changed viewing habits and grown the footprint of casual fans who now follow and watch at off-hours where sports was not normally seen on the east coast and Midwest. Then there is a digital engagement for sport that never existed, where fans anywhere can engage and interact with their clubs or athletes without having to be in stadium or even in country. That timeless involvement has helped bring the world together for sport 24/7, and has grown sports brands and athletes that were once regional into international powerhouses.

Then there are the brands themselves doing promotions. Years ago Emirates Airways or TATA (title sponsor of the NYC Marathon) would have been an outlier partnering with American sport. Same with American brands like Subway or even Chevrolet spending big dollars on European soccer. Now they are happenstance and growing, as non-American companies figure out how to activate with US fans, and American brands use sports and its global reach to engage more and more with fans around the world. Brands understand now more than ever how to think globally but activate locally and fit into the way local fans engage. The missteps of American brands doing a cookie cutter approach to working with fans in Tallahassee the same way as they would in Monaco are gone. It is now a stylized approach that brings ROI to all, using a combination of traditional media (since there are American fans now watching global sport, TV is still king), as well as digital and grassroots activation to make it all work.

So what does it all mean? Does it mean that suddenly somewhere we well have New York playing Moscow in some regular league in basketball or hockey or even rugby or soccer or cricket? Will The Jacksonville Jaguars work in London lead to an NFL team there? Still very hard to say if that will ever work, as time, tax laws, workman’s compensation and other factors still are big challenges. However the days of soccer friendlies in the States being a spectacle are more and more in the rear view mirror, and the same with US football in the UK or even baseball or hoops in the Far reaches of the globe. They are still special events locally, but are more happenstance on a global sports scale. That doesn’t mean they are less important, and there are still parts of the world for sport to still engage as a “first” (who gets India first from an American sport perspective; will Africa play host to baseball down the line are still areas to be explored).

However because of new media, aggressive marketing, and the ways we now engage sport is coming together nicely as a 24/7 live occurrence. We are becoming more one as a business, and that’s good news for all.

We are them, and they are us.

It’s Early On A Weekend Morning, And The Peacock Couldn’t Be Prouder…

There is no doubt that the power NBC has in the world of sports broadcasting these days. From the Olympics to Sunday Night Football to golf and the NHL the Peacock has maybe never been prouder for what it stands for in sports and sports business, across both of tis networks and into its digital platforms.

However another area where its niche has grown, and where it continues to push new properties is not in prime time but in the early hours on the weekends. An area once seen as the home of cartoons and talk shows and more than a few infomercials, NBC has looked at the space and seen sports; global sports. Much like they did with the little used time in late, late night, the powers that be have sliced up morning on the east coast to bring you Formula 1 and the Barclays Premier League, and have so far splashed in some tennis like the French Open as well, all live and catering on the network to an audience that is more and more in focus with global sport. In late night, the network found a home for Poker After Dark and several MMA franchises and brought new value to a time that was almost a throwaway. That same formula has been amped up for the weekend mornings, with identifiable global athletes and lots of star power and buzz.

Is it easy to grow a live TV platform early in the morning? Probably not, unless you have the right content, and NBC seems to have found some great critical mass. Soccer, especially the Barclays Premier League, has become a hot property not just with expats and niche club fans, but with some other early risers, kids who because of the digital world they are now in, know as much about Manchester United and Arsenal than they do in some cases about their hometown teams. NBC saw the opportunity and fed the audience, and as a result the audience has grown, and the sponsor value with it. The same with Formula 1, arguably the biggest sport on the planet the US has never fully understood or embraced. Americans love stars, fast cars and big names, and Formula 1, when marketed correctly has all of those. Drop in a race in Texas and potentially another in the States and you have a growth platform that can make its own space on select Sunday mornings.

Now of course none of this happens in a vacuum. There is ample support on NBC Sports Network and marketing across all the Comcast platforms for all of the live programming, assets which didn’t exist years ago if such a thing was tried. There is also more awareness of elite global events than there has ever been before, and all of that awareness builds into seeding a core fan base while also pulling in casual fans for a look-see, many of whom return time and again.

The plan for early morning live sports isn’t fool proof in any way. It still has to stay novel and innovative to keep the casual and compel the die hard to watch. It also has to overcome the wee hours that you get when you venture west on the North American continent. Fans in LA may tune in at eight for live soccer, but at six AM as well? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Still for a way to build a stake in the ground, NBC Sports seems to have found a spot. So what’s next as we head towards the Olympics in 2016 for early morning viewing? Cricket? Rugby (a sport which NBC has invested in)?  NFL overseas? Would some American sports move to a breakfast time occasionally to grab a showcase? College hoops maybe? All to be determined.

However one thing is sure. Like they did in late night, and even with such programming as dog shows, NBC Sports looked  not to the unusual but to the compelling to find ways to grab live content and give it a home on their network. It has worked for soccer and F1, and it may work for others. We get little sleep as it is, so why not watch some sports?

Can California Chrome Help Racing Strike Gold?

At long last maybe, just maybe horse racing has positioned itself to take a long overdue ride, thanks to the people and the personalities in and around California Chrome and the industry itself. Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, none of the 12 horses who have taken the first two legs has gone on to make history in the Belmont Stakes. On June 7, California Chrome will be the next to attempt to join horse racing’s elite fraternity, can 13 be the lucky number not just for colorful co-owners Art Sherman and Steve Coburn, but for the industry as well?

We shall see.

One thing that is for sure is that unlike in many years past, most of the industry stakeholders and their partners seem to be ready to seize this moment. In the past three years the NTRA and The Jockey Club, through their vibrant platform America’s Best Racing, have unceasingly tried to find stories and personalities and numbers that will appeal to a casual fan. From film to long-form stories to embracing celebrities, ABR has churned out story after story, info graph after info graph, to try and explain and embrace the beauty of the sport, from the glory of the Kentucky Derby to the majesty of Saratoga through the mega-size and value of the Breeder’s Cup. While doing all this promo they have noticed a trend that may seem to turn the tide, and the perception of horse racing as an aging, old man sport in dark tracks on the fringes of society; Nearly 50% of America’s Best Racing web traffic is female; 40% under age 34 and 60% under age 55. That shows progress at a time when a horse has come along to bolster this casual numbers with the biggest and longest run of his life on June 7 at Belmont Park.

Now ABR has not done the work alone. NBC has stepped up to create a more consistent, in-depth and robust viewing and engagement package for horse racing year round across all its platforms, so that fans have one destination to go for the biggest races. The Breeder’s Cup has invested in explaining and making their offering more consistent to fans, with a series that links many of the lead-in races to the year-end event better than ever before. Many of the elite tracks around the country have expanded their use of the digital space, while also making the tracks more fan and family friendly than ever before. All can capitalize on the next three weeks as a springboard to future success, much like the NHL has leveraged the success of their outdoor games and the Olympics to bigger numbers this spring, showcasing the personalities of their sport (another good job by NBC in leveraging that property as well by the way).

Are there brands that will now emerge from the sidelines and try and jump on board for the long term as well as the short? In years past Visa saw an opportunity to sponsor The Triple Crown, but the fractious nature of horse racing at the time, along with races on multiple networks, didn’t lead to a strong or consistent ROI. When Big Brown made its run for the Crown, UPS came forward to take advantage of that short window with a unique partnership. The difference now is that there is a more consistent package and platform for brands to activate against. You can see the TV strategy, the brand strategy and the engagement possibilities more clearly than ever before. It may not be one stop shopping for someone looking to engage, but it is certainly easier and more robust than ever before.

This past weekend we continued to see some newer brands testing the waters. Some spirit brands, appealing even to women, showed up during the Preakness broadcast and will probably do the same now that there is great excitement for the Belmont.

Of course all the issues of horse racing aren’t solved with one glowing potential champion. The marketplace for the casual fan is more crowded than ever, with a robust NHL and NBA Playoffs coming to a head, not to mention the World Cup on the horizon and the added competition from virtually every sport imaginable in the next few weeks, from the NCAA Lacrosse Championships to the Indy 500, and the constant beat of baseball. The issues of abuse of horses, the viability of tracks and the increased attention on a daily basis for the sport remain problems that are being dealt with, but horse racing overall is stronger in leadership and vision than it was even a year ago, and that can help lift the ship when the tide comes in, in the form of more casual viewers for a Triple Crown Saturday. There is better promotion of personalities like jockeys, trainers and horses than ever before and a unified platform like ABR can now be a driver and a resource for many.

Will 13 be a lucky number for the business of horse racing in a few weeks, a new chance to push the sport further? While sometimes it’s better to be more lucky than good, the good business sense now in place in the sport should be a plus in taking advantage of the skilled, and lucky emergence of America’s latest potential hero, California Chrome.  The race for growth is on.

“Beach Games” Drift Closer To Reality…

Two things the world has enough of are sand and water, and more than enough resorts and beaches to try and lure tourists. So it was with great interest that this week SportAccord announced that the World Beach Games are inching closer to happening, although maybe not at the robust pace announced last fall.  Just to revisit the idea, especially for those in the Northeast still hoping for a bit more spring;

Sand castle building? Not quite. What the WBG could be is the X Games of the water, with some of the most popular existing Olympic sports like beach volleyball, and one popular Olympic wannabe, beach soccer, thrown in (along with beach tennis and some other hybrids). 

Now the concept is not altogether new, as  Asia has been hosting Beach Games since 2008, the last of which took place in Chinese resort Haiyang in 2012. The initial contests were a great success and incorporated events like wakeboarding and dragon boat racing which have long tried for Olympic inclusion but could never find success. They are not huge on attendance numbers, do not need large stadia, and fit a demo that Olympic sports crave (young and athletic) and are ripe for made for TV and digital, in the same way that the America’s Cup captured the tech space with their innovative broadcasts this past September.

Events like these are also a great draw for off-season resort locations which maybe could never attract world class international events before. The Bahamas, for example has made a big push into college sports with basketball and football, and a Beach games international competition in months where the resorts need to draw attention are a great fit.

Now there are some natural drawbacks. Even temporary stadia and facilities are costly, as organizations like the AVP found out when running their tour. You can’t just use any sand for high level beach competition; it needs to be pristine, and in many instances had to be trucked in from other locales. Building even temporary venues can also be a logistical nightmare, and you are also subject to the unpredictable wind, rain and currents that will crop up, not to mention having to stage many of the events at a time when there is daylight, as night or twilight competitions may look beautiful but can be very challenging. There is also a limitation on venues, but even staging games on massive lakes are an option (Chicago or Lake Victoria anyone?)

The opportunities far outweigh the drawbacks though. The IOC has long wanted to bring in new sports, and the ones on the water pose an opportunity, one that is lower cost than most large scale team events. The water and sand, albeit pricey to set up in some cases, is still a natural existing setting, and the ability for new sponsor dollars to flow in, as well as countries looking to host, are very wide. New faces, in many cases with lots of athletic skin to show, can present a very enticing package for broadcasters and corporations looking to find a breakthrough niche in global sport at a reasonable cost could gravitate to a competition that is sure to draw both core fans and a solid casual audience.

If you had to draw a line in the sand on whether the Beach games will succeed as an emerging, hip, fan friendly property, now with an international backing, it would be fair to give it a fighting chance, much in the way the “Combat Games” have worked for fight sports and the “Urban Games” can work for the innercity.

 Sand and water can bring lots of fun and new stars to global sport, making The Beach Games experiment one to follow.

MLS Kicks Off, Is Their Next Stage of Brand Arrival Here?

For years Major League Soccer screamed and kicked as a brand to get noticed as a growing property. Expansion, grassroots growth, television deals, celebrity owners, recognizable mainstream athletes, integration in broadcast television, brand partnerships with companies engaging in sport for first time, wide-ranging multicultural marketing, unique team names, embracing of social media and aggressive and continued calls to action on every level were part of the mix. Now as their 19th season kicks off, some question whether MLS has arrived, and what is next, no longer as the newer kid on the block, but as a viable sports business property mentioned in the same breath in the American landscape with the four traditional “team” sports; NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB; as well as probably NASCAR and in some cases even the PGA.  Has MLS arrived to be a regular partner in that space, from a business perspective?

In most ways it would be hard to say that at least “brand soccer” has not entered into the mix.  The massive expansion of broadcast and digital coverage of the world’s elite clubs, as well as an increased marketing push into the United States, makes it just as easy to see young kids wearing a Real Madrid jersey in most major cities as it does to see a Yankees or Cubs jersey. Elite clubs continue to target their offseason…the late spring and early summer…for “friendlies” in cities across North America, matches used as much as marketing tools as shows of high level of play. More American sports businessmen than ever are involved in ownership positions in clubs big and small across Europe, giving a duality to the marketing of clubs on both sides of the Atlantic than ever before. A host of clubs, from Chelsea to Bayern Munich to Boca Juniors, have also set up either full scale or satellite offices designed to market their clubs in the U.S., and several are developing “academies” not just to sell apparel, create broadcast product and better ingrain their brands into American sport but to develop youth talent for export overseas when the time comes, with their system of training already intact.   With the Brazil World Cup now in full view for June, the marketing of “soccer” in the United States has never been more prominent.

So where does this leave MLS as the season kicks off this weekend? The issues of a failed effort with Chivas USA and the struggles of some clubs to fill distressed seats is offset by the successful launches of clubs in the Pacific Northwest and the growing excitement of new clubs in Orlando and New York (which will be the interesting experiment to see how two mega-brands, the Yankees and Manchester City FC, combine to build a successful MLS team on and off the pitch). A new stadium in San Jose and the continued innovation by clubs like Sporting Kansas City make more noise than the issue of a referees strike to open the season. David Beckham’s interest in ownership in South Florida creates more casual buzz than DC United’s struggles to find a proper home in the soccer-crazed Capitol District. Chipoltle coming on board with their grandest sports activation platform to date gets more interest than Volkswagen’s exit, and all hopes for “arrival” of MLS can be hinged to World Cup, not just in the success of the U.S. Men’s National team, but in the proper leverage of the excitement of all things soccer back to MLS clubs once the World Cup winner is crowned.  It is a similar challenge/opportunity that the NHL has faced coming off the 2014 Sochi Olympics; how to bring all that casual interest back to the arenas when the regular season starts again. The buzz was about the game as much as the individuals, and that is what MLS needs to grab on to and maximize in the lead up and then through the season that ends in the fall. Pivoting off that success on every level is going to be key, and then maintaining that success with stars not yet known for future growth will be a massive challenge.

In many ways MLS has used its relatively blank canvas as a best case scenario for innovation. Leagues with long legacies and “traditions” have habits good and bad that are hard to break. Creating new ticketing and activation patterns in the NFL is not easy with owners are used to doing things successfully for decades. Getting million dollar players to buy in to challenging marketing programs is not that simple in the NBA or MLB all the time. For MLS, a sport hungry for growth, the barriers for change are much lower, and because of that, more projects can be tested. Some fail and are forgotten, but the triumphs are trumpeted to a large degree, such as jersey sponsorship or marketing to a devout Latino population. Broadcast ratings, a staple for support in almost every sport, are downplayed in favor of grassroots and digital integration and “forward thinking” programs for brands.  Would larger TV numbers for MLS be welcomed in a heartbeat? Sure. However with numbers not really there, the experience of MLS is what is trumpeted, all leading again to world Cup and the global celebration of soccer.

Is MLS, as some critics say, more sizzle than steak or is it ready to take a bold next step in the sports conversation in the U.S.? There is steady growth, innovation and a constant beating of the drum by all involved that the path taken is the right one. These past few weeks, from the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference to South by Southwest, you will not find a group gathering of sports, tech or business leaders in the country where an MLS leader is not present, talking about their brand and what is coming. Winning hearts and minds as well as dollars and eyeballs is really key for this year and beyond for the brand, and the league is leaving no stone unturned when looking for ways to tell its story to influencers, fans and innovators.  In reality, if there was an alternative way to build a professional sports league  in the 21st century in North America, no one has presented it.  Many other sports; spring football, lacrosse, bowling, basketball, rugby, cricket and on and on; have tried or are about to try, to find a secret sauce for brand launch and have struggled to get traction in any way. MLS is the only one that seems to have not just cracked the code, but has redefined it. 

Is there a big enough market in the States for MLS to continue to grow? What about the push of the NASL? Is there some mix of a global city by city franchise of elite clubs that could be in the offing in the future? Would an elite and established  European league try and pout roots down in the States offering a best in class lineup that MLS is still striving to offer to fans? Is the real appetite for soccer one which watches the world’s current elite clubs on TV and in digital and then gets to see them in person during the offseason?  One thing is for sure, soccer, from a talent level, from a grassroots level and from an awareness level, has never been more visible in North America than it is today.  MLS has positioned itself to be the brand of choice for fans wishing to engage in every level year-round, and now has the global excitement of World Cup to leverage off of. Will it be successful in its boldest stage of growth as a brand? The pieces are in place, now we watch and see what the marketplace has to say.  

Hockey Poised For An Olympic-Sized Run After The Games…

While Sochi 2014 continues to march on into its second week, its stars, especially the American stars, are coming into focus in some of the larger platform events that casual fans love. The misses of Shani Davis and Shaun White continue to leave new openings for bobsled, figure skating and perhaps even more than ever before, for hockey.

The drama, some expected, some surprising, that Team USA has provided fans with as they enter the Quarterfinals this week has been terrific and has given at least short justification for the NHL shutting down their business for two weeks. Would hockey even on its best regular season Sunday that wasn’t in outdoors stadiums have generated enough buzz and interest when going against the NBA All-Star game, the run-up for Daytona, and pitchers and catchers reporting? Would regular season NHL have even been able to out-draw interest in an Olympics which the elite players were not participating in? Probably not.

For all the short-term issues created by a schedule stoppage, hockey can still be the big winner coming out of Sochi, with new stars, well rested players and the prime time drama which has the potential to be played out this week.  The biggest opportunity hockey will have going forward is something that no other Olympic medalist or team will have in the months coming; its own pre-set city by city night by night tour, called the NHL regular season and playoffs. The biggest bobsledders, the greatest figure skaters, the most dynamic downhill skiers who can all claim gold this week will not have the massive pre-planned platform that hockey will have when it returns to action. Every night casual fans will tune in to see their local teams, but they will also see some newly minted Olympic heroes from countries far and wide returning home to play not just once, but time and again. There will be multiple chances for U.S. and Canadian fans to see their returning heroes and re-live the memories already forged and those still to come, an opportunity which local marketers and community programs should be jumping on, and something which any other sport will have to concoct at breakneck pace once the games are concluded.

While going into the Games the NHL and NBC had a set list of stars to promote, the early run by Team USA has brought yet two new names to the forefront in St. Louis Blues hero T.J. Oshie and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, both solid names in their own markets who now have national buzz for casual fans who until this past weekend may have never heard of them. While youth…and that’s important…youth shirts for USA Hockey with Oshie’s and Kessel’s names have been flying out the door and off sites like Fanatics.com, the more important element will how these new faces to most of the audience can be pushed forward through the rest of the winter and into the spring, when their teams are on the road, and how they can be partnered with the existing stars as the hockey tournament plays out.

Now several key places are already in the mix for “brand hockey” in the States. The grassroots push of “Hockey Weekend In America” is already set for the week following the Games, with a host of local celebrations in communities big and small to help bring the Olympic experience to many communities. College and high school games, along with the elite NHL and minor leagues, can now invest in social media sharing and re-living of Olympic moments that can be played out through on a large scale through the deep resources of the NHL-NBC relationship. Brands in various locales can also indirectly ride the Olympic crest of interest by partnering with teams and even former Olympians to help retell the stories of glory past and present, all of which can be revisited time and time again as hockey moves into the spring on various levels.

Now does all this mean that suddenly, as happened in 1980, there will be thousands of kids who never played hockey before suddenly rushing to rinks? Probably not. What it does mean is that hockey, and the NHL, have perhaps one of their best brand awareness platforms now in place to really bring in new ticketholders and consumers, and probably some additional sponsor partners. While some may say that Oshie’s success is limited in helping the Blues, it really lifts the overall hockey platform, and that rising tide can benefit everyone in the game from the grassroots to the NHL.

There will still be many skeptics as to the value of a league shutdown for several weeks, and a league like Major League Soccer is certainly watching closely how much the Olympics benefited the NHL as they go through a similar situation in some respects with World Cup this summer. Will the benefit to the NHL, which is perhaps even bigger than what the league went through following the Vancouver Olympics, be amplifies enough to  continue the partnership in 2018? Is there enough that is built for the NHL to try and do its own World Championships in the fall, like MLB has tried to do with the World Baseball Classic and soccer does with World Cup? Hard to say if that Olympic buzz would translate to a non-Olympic event away from the buzz of the Games.

What is pretty clear is that hockey is structured for a very unique test of brand growth in the coming weeks after the Games, one which any Olympic sport would love to have to keep the flames fanned for casual and brand interest, and one which could help propel interest and engagement in the game to new heights of casual interest and brand development in markets large and small.

A Sport Curls Its Way To Relevance…

The greatest element of the Olympics are the unique stories that are told through elite athletes casual fans don’t get to meet in their everyday sports and business encounters. The Games creates those rare windows to expose to the pubic the passion and drive to success, and failure, of faces and events we rarely think about in our day to day dealings. The beauty of social media does give those athletes a better chance to embrace their fame and connect with fans for a longer period, and some smart brands have looked to the digital space to create a tail for engagement that can continue well beyond the games themselves, but for the most part the rising tide crests for many Olympians during and just after the Olympics and then slides back for several years to come. There are the rare faces that can cross from winter to summer Games, like a Lolo Jones, or professional athletes like those of the NHL or KHL who can use their large window to grow their sport when the Games end, but for the most part the moment is now, and figuring out how to leverage that window for long-term growth is a challenge.

One of those sports, and its athletes, that seem to have found itself into a larger window is of all things, curling. A relatively simple game to understand, its use of stones and sweeping, not to mention some entrepreneurial athletes, has made curling in the Winter Olympics what Beach Volleyball has kind of become for the Summer Games. It is a sport that casual fans can relate to; people have an understanding of shuffleboard or bowling for example; and it has a long list of participants at the Sochi games who seem to understand better than most that they can use the social sphere in real time to get attention, whether it is by some outlandish outfits or by taking advantage of outer beauty to gain attention. Female athletes like Russia’s Anna Sidorova, Austria’s Claudia Toth, Norway’s Linn Githmark and Germany’s Kathy Selwand have even gone one step further, using their athletic builds without much on to draw a casual male audience, and get some precious pre-event coverage as well.

So with the US men’s and women’s teams close to going out in the preliminaries, how can curling, at least in the States, see if they can play a card similar to AVP to close the gap between Olympics and draw fans, participants, and most importantly sponsor dollars, broadcast time and buzz. Is it possible? Some thoughts as to why.

It is a simple game to watch and engage with. The space that is needed is pretty pristine and the idea of curling is an easy one to understand for people of all ages. It does not need a huge surface; there are many rinks which could engage in temporary surfaces for curling (Bryant Park in New York could be one or any series of temporary ice rinks in cities around the US) and there is not a huge outlay for cost to get people to try the game.

At the elite level large skill is needed, but at the grassroots it welcomes all ages. Shuffleboard, knock hockey, bowling; great games that people of all ages…even teens can engage in. Curling fits, and it plays to all sizes and shapes.

It is a relatively simple game to adapt to a mobile gaming audience. It’s not a big money player but playing some virtual curling is really easy and downloadable. It does not need great detailed graphics and it can be played in Angry Birds fashion by people of all ages.

The rules translate globally. There are no boundaries, no complex scoring system, no language issues. The game can be played the same regardless of culture.

It has a great upside for brand engagement. Mount a GoPro on a stone? Drop virtual ads along the sheets? Outfit the colorful elite participants in sponsor apparel? Maybe design custom stones for charity (where is the pink stone?). The brooms? Not a bad tie to all the Harry Potter fans of many ages who have enjoyed Quiddich. For brands looking to chance exposure riding some popularity, curling could be a nice fit.

The elite athletes appear to get it. From the provocative calendars to the fun outfits, it looks like there are ample stories to be told by the athletes away from the games, and there are probably multiple ways to engage elite athletes from other sports. The NFL’s Vernon Davis has come on board, and who is to say other athletes…like Chris Paul has done in bowling…along with celebrities, couldn’t engage.

It has a simple broadcast platform. There is no expansive space needed for broadcast, and the ability to use technology for very unique point of view broadcasts is an added plus. The combinations of simplicity plus good characters with the athletes make it possible to create good content for both a digital and a conventional broadcaster.

Now this is not to say curling is going to be the sport of the future and that it is the “fastest growing” anything, as many other sports claim. There is also little to no room or need  for a “professional curling league” as has been suggested. It is much more participatory than a spectator sport for long periods of time. However the sport does have an interesting window, especially with the US Pro Championships landing in a major market (Philadelphia) next month, to continue to expand its platform with a goal of gaining more brand exposure in 2018. It won’t be easy, but curling certainly has done some of the things to give it legs as a growing niche. How well it scores and how much it grows, remains to be seen, but at least for a snowy winter, and for an Olympics which has lacked in mega-stars thus far the stone and the broom has taken some slides forward.  

For some great insight on the sport, take a look at Hit The Broom

“Rivalry On Ice” Scored For “Brand Hockey”

One of the great growth opportunities that appears to be occurring in conjunction with the rise of hockey interest in North America this winter is the expansion of interest in the college game. Whether its the effort of NBC Sports to expand its weekly coverage, the halo effect that the NHL’s added buzz from the Bridgestone Winter Classic and the other outdoor games, the Sochi Olympics, the endless showings of “Miracle” on cable TV the past few weeks or the polar vortex driving people to frozen ponds and rinks, the interest in the college game is markedly changed as a property.

Now in places where the college game has always been strong; the upper Midwest and New England, things are status quo, with 35,000 fans showing up for Notre Dame and B.C,’s “Frozen Fenway” doubleheader earlier this month, and thousands of other enjoying the high school and other college games, along with the public skating sessions, that also went on atop the covered grass of the Red Sox home. The entire event built great equity in all things hockey.

However to go beyond incremental growth there needs to be more of a breakthrough into the mainstream by creating a signature, sustainable event that marketers can activate around and the industry can use as a centerpiece to cultivate new interest. Yes there is the legendary Beanpot in Boston, and the Frozen Four has gotten legs to bring the best of elite NCAA hockey to vastly different markets, but a signature event can lift and be a showcase for all things college hockey.

In recent years promoters have brought the biggest programs to NHL rinks in Detroit and Pittsburgh, Denver and Chicago, all with their one-off variable degrees of success. Even in the New York area, the hardest of markets to crack, a Thanksgiving weekend game with Cornell as the feature has filled Madison Square Garden for several years, with minimal exposure and promotion, and this past fall the Prudential Center cane upon the unique opportunity of having Yale, the defending NCAA Champion, open its season on their ice, to some success.

However this past weekend, an attempt was made to put a classic rivalry known by both casual sports fans and the general consumers alike, front and center as the annual signature game in the largest marketplace possible. The matchup was Harvard and Yale, dubbed “Rivalry on Ice,” a chance to give both the schools with solid hockey traditions a special place on the biggest stage, the remodeled Madison Square Garden. Moving the matchup took several years and lots of scheduling fits and starts before the game and all its trimmings came together, and the result was a germ of a successful overall promotion that could be built upon as a lynchpin for college hockey’s greatest going forward.

The overall concept was wide-ranging, pulling in all sorts of events throughout the day, from an alumni game to youth promotions to traditional brand activation platforms in and around the game. The matchup played off of NBC’s expanded college platform to draw a national audience in primetime on NBC SportsNet, and had the foresight to harness the marketing and brand mojo of legendary Hall of Famer Mark Messier, who has familial ties to the Crimson (nephew Luke Esposito is on the team), to generate ancillary press (which Messier is using to also promote his-mega rink project in The Bronx with the City of New York)  and the cache of landing Secretary of State John Kerry as another ambassador through his ties to both schools. “Rivalry on Ice” also had history on its side, since the first time the two schools met in hockey was actually in 1900 at long-departed St, Nicholas Rink.  There were bands. Glee clubs, good social media banter, even a session with Messier on reditt to help promote the event and raise the causal interest in the sport.

Did it work? In many ways, especially for a trial effort, yes. The legendary schools enjoyed the exposure away from the normal areas where they would draw large crowds for such a matchup. There was tremendous goodwill generated by all the celebrity banter back and forth, the alumni associations enjoyed the chance to engage with their former students in a building and a setting that they are not normally used to use for an athletic event involving either school, and some unusual new brands…Turkish Airways, Mead Brown resorts, among others, got to mingle with both the elite schools but also with the other traditional sports sponsors you would see along the dasher boards at MSG.

Were there drawbacks? Several. While Harvard-Yale is an elite rivalry, the schools do not have the massive sports-crazed alumni following of say a Notre Dame or a Michigan, so ticket sales were a challenge when you passed a point of say, 10,000 or so. The date also ended up competing with the New England Patriots AFC Playoff game, something which could not have been predicted but probably lessened the interest in some parts of the viewing and engagement areas for casual fans. There were lots of solid players and a long history, but New York usually commands superstars, and a dominant name as a draw probably also dropped casual interest. Still even with a few wrinkles, the overall perception was that Rivalry on ice achieved its first time out of the box goals…to create a marketable concept and show a market interest that few thought existed; a viable event in a market that does not normally take to one-off successes.

So where to go from now? Is it Harvard-Yale every year? Is it other rivalries that can have the legs to fill a building at ease? Does the concept have legs to the other arenas in the area clamoring for big games and big promotions? Can it expand to a day-long celebration in the building vs. just a hockey game between to elite schools? Can a brand see the value and invest not as a one-off, but in the long term for the series because they have a substantial investment in seeing the project help grow their brand?  All to be determined.

As a concept, “Rivalry on Ice” scored for its uniqueness. Now on to see if the uniqueness can be sustained.  Regardless for 2014, the game and all its trimmings made for another nice positive statement for “Brand Hockey,” with outdoor games on the horizon, and the Olympics ready to again lift the sport in the coming weeks.

The Winter Classic Wins Are Just Beginning…

The Bridgestone Winter Classic on New Year’s Day is being touted as the best ever and impossible to top. True? Depends on your perspective, but for “brand hockey” this year’s New Year’s Day Game is even more potentially impactful than all the games held before as it becomes the launch point for the sport as we head toward not just the Winter Olympics but the outdoor games coming up across North America, all of which should help elevate the sport, not drag it down from what happened for over 100,000 frozen fans in The Big House Wednesday.

While some will say the hockey wasn’t great or that the rest of the outdoor series will play second fiddle to what is the signature game on the first of the year every year, the truth is that all of the games, collectively, nationally and regionally, have the NHL in the bigger media conversation in key markets, and each will have their own appeal and as a whole, can help stir buzz, brand interest and the bottom line for all things hockey, especially for casual fans. Are two games at Yankee Stadium, involving the Rangers, Devils and Islanders, too much? Not if the ticket sales and media coverage say they are not. Is there a need for a game at Dodger Stadium? If there is brand support and media coverage that will easily trump what the game would get at The Staples Center or in Anaheim so what’s the downside? Does a game in Vancouver cause a problem? The Canucks sell out anyway, all of Canada will watch regardless…moving the game to an unusual, throwback location again enhances what would have just been another day in the NHL regular season.  All these events become not just destination viewing, but they become sponsor enhancements, merchandising opportunities, fan engagement points, and most importantly, a vehicle to showcase the sport to a casual lineup who may now use discretionary dollars to come see another game inside.

Then there are the Olympics. Again USA Hockey was met with some criticism by latching the Team USA announcement on the back of the Winter Classic, and doing it live vs. doing it as a stand-alone event? Standalone event when and where and for who? You have your signature event and the biggest audience you will find, why not showcase on the network who will be carrying you, who the faces that they will be seeing (at least the Americans) will be?  The NHL, just like the Olympics, is built on personalities as well as stellar athleticism, and bringing the faces of Team USA to the audience…the casual audience was a good move not just for the day, but to create a bridge that can run all the way to Sochi.

Next up are the brands that connected through NBC and the NHL. The ones that delivered customized programs…like Enterprise and Bridgestone…probably id the most to maximize their spend and tie directly to the game and its pageantry. For others, the association is solid but is not as impactful, and having that leverage…with a payoff somewhere (in game, online etc.) is becoming more and more invaluable for brands and ROI.

On the NBC side, the flow of programming in and around not just the game but leading up to, and now through the next few months across all NBC platforms is invaluable to the NHL. Naysayers will still point to Nielsen numbers and say hockey draws what hockey draws, but what Olympic sport would not want the advance exposure that hockey received and will continue to receive going towards the Games in Sochi and beyond. On the digital side, the ancillary programming created around hockey lifts not only the Olympic effort but the reach of individual teams as well, and the Ross Bernstein-led creative effort to take fans in and around all the events of hockey in the coming months (which will air across the NBC Networks and look much like 24/7 does for HBO) will only enhance the fan, the brand and the team experience for the sport.

The result is a strong multi-tiered platform with a signature standalone national event that brand hockey has built off of for the coming months. “Brand hockey” is not just a TV ratings driver; those double digit audiences are not what the NHL is all about. “Brand hockey” is about engagement in every way possible, and using that engagement as a selling point has made the sport stronger as all eyes look to Sochi and then hopefully a long and fruitful playoffs.

So what does all this mean for the long term? Will millions of people start wearing jerseys as a fashion statement, and will ratings start rivaling the Super Bowl? No.  Does it mean that every year we will need multiple outdoor games? If the marketplace says yes, then why not? How about an All-Star game outdoors in a large market without an NHL team, or in a place like Russia, like the KHL did in Red Square several years ago? It only loses its luster if it becomes stale, and this far the game is in no way stale.

What it means is the NHL has taken the time to find ways to seed a fertile market and understood they needed to take care of the strong fan first, then move to the casual hockey fan and then finally find ways not just to connect, but to continually engage the average guy and girl on the street. Some of it is good fortune; some of it was smart business. It really doesn’t matter which weighs more. What matters is “brand hockey” is stronger because the leadership took the time to build where their fans are, and when the snow came out they had the right pieces in place to engage not just for one event, but for the long term to make the sport and all its partners stronger for what should be a memorable run for all involved.