Earlier this year we noted the innovative and fun way the Chicago Fire of MLS launched their partnership with Quaker Oats…by sending media a customized media kit in the classic Quaker Oats round container. Very smart, very memorable great partnership launch between the team and the brand…one which does not do a huge amount in sports but clearly is up for fresh ideas.
So it was with great excitement Monday that another box arrived from the Fire…this one containing a custom box of Life Cereal. This was a team branding exercise, it was a classic push for post-season awards…for University of Louisville product and standout rookie defender Austin Berry. The box, like any iconic cereal box that trumpets a champion athlete, had Berry’s stats on it and a full slate of products and notes inside, carefully explaining why he could and should be the choices of media voting for the award. The box also included a call to action with upcoming games and his twitter handle (#Berry4ROY)
The promotion is a great example of old school grassroots outreach, smart and effective partner activation, and a hook with social media. It is a great visual and a potential keepsake that will resonate with both younger media and some who have been around a while, whether they like soccer or The Fire or not. A real nice opportunity to cut through the clutter not just in Chicago but nationally, and a great gauntlet to be thrown down for MLS best practices.
The original Oats box and now the cereal followup will leave people wondering what is next for the Fire. here’s a guess…the new show “Chicago Fire,” about Chicago’s Bravest will debut in a few weeks on NBC, also an MLS partner. Lots of great crossover promotional oppts there as the playoffs approach and into the offseason for a franchise that clearly gets the way to stand out from the crowd, box by box.
Just to be clear, there is little good that can come from an extended lockout for the NHL for those involved in the business of hockey. It comes at a time when the NHL and “brand hockey” has perhaps never been stronger in the eyes of a global public who have re-engaged or discovered the sport for the first time. While the clutter of the early fall may keep the lockout out of the minds of many casual sports fans in the United States for a few weeks, the dark clouds and loss of equity that can follow for both sides, especially with the NBA now back stronger than ever, the NFL going strong again and even college sports gaining equity, can be devastating for all involved in the game going forward.
So if the lockout continues and games are lost, is there any entity that could benefit in any way? Perhaps it could be in the minors. Unlike the two most recent lockouts, the NBA and the NFL, minor league hockey is a wide scale fallback for some looking for a hockey fix. While the NBA did have the D-League, the minor tiered minor league hockey system across North America is still pretty vast, with outposts from small markets in the south to emerging cities and even major cities like Chicago. It has many of the characteristics of minor league baseball as affordable fun and the affiliated leagues do hold the future stars of the game in their midst, all of which will be playing regardless of the NHL lockout. Their games can provide filler for regional networks, and their marketing partners could expand a bit wider if the NHL stays silent. Their are also a slew of very low minor league groups, some of which in places like Brooklyn for example, that could also get a little word of mouth bump for people needing a hockey fix.
Now in many ways minor league hockey and baseball couldn’t be father apart. Minor league baseball is an outdoor fun shared family experience. Minor league hockey is obviously indoors and is sometimes played in arenas which do not have the amenities or the charm of their minor league baseball compatriots. The game is still bred a bit more on violence in the minors, sometimes more akin to professional wrestling than the ebb and flow of a summer evening spent outside watching the local ball club. The budgets for many minor league hockey teams for promotion may also be much less than the best minor league baseball teams, creating a less than complete fan experience in some cases. Still even with the drawbacks, minor league hockey may be able to take advantage of a lack of NHL play to build its brand and its fan base. Many affiliated clubs are not that far from the parent teams…Hartford, Albany and Bridgeport to the New York area, Providence to Boston, Hershey and Scranton to Philly etc., so the travel time for a weekend game in the winter is not that far out of the question. The rising execs in the minors for hockey are much like those in other sports…young people trying to be innovative and creative to move up the professional ladder, and the ability to stretch awareness using social media to a wanton fan base exists now more than ever.
Of course the best solution is for the NHL and the NHLPA to settle, the league to continue its growth and the halo effect from that growth trickles down to the minors as well. A rising tide floats all ships. However if the worst happens and the NHL does stay idle, the minor league clubs could benefit be added promotion, added eyeballs, added brand integration and maybe some additional fans, all looking for some fun entertainment on the ice while their primary source of hockey remains at the bargaining table. It is a tricky slope not to bite the hands that feed you for the minor league teams, but an opportunity of necessity, not of choice, could exist for some exposure in the short term.
This was inspired by my colleague Vince Wladika…we don’t agree on everything but when the moon and the stars are right… It has the best elements of soccer and basketball…it has contact…it is fast paced and highs scoring…it is measured in a manageable quarters with universal rules…it is arguably the most widely used training sport on the planet and by some accounts is the second-biggest team sport in the world, yet ask most Americans about Team Handball and they think of middle aged men hitting a spaldeen against the wall. Why?
I was introduced to Team Handball by coincidence vs. choice. I was assigned to be the venue coordinator in what was then The Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis for the 1987 Pan Am Games, and the sport was Team Handball. It was a first-time opportunity for the sport, which i knew little about but picked up quickly. The U.S. as the host nation was grandfathered in. So off we went to try and drum up support. The Federation was headquartered in New Jersey. The Americans were made up of former Ivy and Academy athletes and there was a rivalry with Cuba to deal with. So many elements were in place to at least get some support while USA Baseball was out pounding its Latin neighbors.
The Americans took on the vaunted Cubans in round robin competition and low and behold, a full scale brawl erupted. The Americans lost, created an international incident and the sport took off. As the medal round dawned, word spread of the controversy rising and low and behold US faced Cuba for the Gold. Over 6,000 curious and patriotic soles showed up, and in some kind of “Miracle on Ice” redux, the U.S. avenged the loss and beat Cuba…in overtime! Writers from the Newark Star Ledger’s Chris Thorne to AP said team handball had arrived…and then it was gone.
The U.S. men again failed to qualify for London, a victim I heard of a federation short on dollars, interest and promotion for a game well known to any professional in hockey, soccer or even hoops. Could Team handball grow again in the States? Sure. What does it need?
Some basic things…more exposure and centralized organization by its NGB…an extensive education program designed to show the interest in the sport to casual fans…a strong social media push designed around education for those who play and with some slick highlights promoting the action that the sport has…as well as outreach to a growing audience of immigrants who know the game from their youth…immigrants from around the world who understand the game at its core and can expose it to a mainstream American audience. Heck, Slamball once had a home…handball is legit and just as full of action. It is a simple, inexpensive team game with a solid history and a long following, even as a training sport. It probably has some amazing player stories. I am not saying we need to launch the International Team Handball League tomorrow, but for a country always looking for whats next in fast pace action with a good mix it up spirit, not to mention global routes and infinite sponsorship and media avenues, Team Handball could be a quick and dedicated sell.
Try and find it during London 2012 for yourself…you may be surprised and impressed, even without American males in the mix.
There was a time not too long ago where some in the sports and entertainment industry thought the sun had set on NBC Sports as a property. No NFL, Olympics in question, not a lot of forward movement, Comcast rumors of a takeover and on and on. Looking at NBC Sports as a property today that seems hard to imagine, and probably for brands and for casual fans the fact that those rumors were greatly exaggerated is a very good thing.
As Mike Emerick called the overtime on NBC Sports Network on Friday night for the Devils-Rangers, the promos and cross-promos that came across the screen showed how far brand NBC Sports has come. There was a robust MLS offering, the Stanley Cup Final, the potential of a Triple Crown, the Olympics, the Olympic trials, and lots of NBC Sports Talk. Factor in some poker, golf, Indy Car, the French Open, and the fact that Football Night in America transplanted American Idol in the TV ratings, nit to mention all the Comcast Sports-related assets down the line, and one sees a healthy, vibrant brand which runs from cable to broadcast and is growing its web presence as well. Maybe somewhere down the line a print presence and even more robust web-only elements complete the picture, but even without those tied in, it seems like a great time to be in and around 30 Rock if you like games these days.
Now of course none of this was done overnight, the executive team over the years looked at how to cultivate emerging sports like the Dew Tour and Poker After Dark and even developed a dog show stand-alone property. They forged a landmark relationship with the NHL that made the two true partners with incentives to grow together (along with a new tentpole event in The Winter Classic), and of course the rebranding of and reprogramming of VERSUS made the causal fan aware even more of what an NBC Sports offering looked and felt like.
Are there more mountains to climb for the brand? Sure. Ironing out whatever comes next with Comcast Sports and their regionals, looking at the ever-growing market of college football, integrating with a robust entertainment side and evolving even more with a web and mobile presence are all in the mix. However to watch where the brand is today and how it has evolved beyond “just” a programming channel is impressive, and is a credit to those with the vision and the ability to fight off the naysayers and create a proactive media brand.
It has been a slow and steady climb back for the BP brand since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Little by little the company leadership has been working to find ways to look forward and positively to what the company has done as the images of the tragedy in the Gulf fade slowly and the brand rebounds.
Of course one of the greatest areas where comebacks are adored is in sport, and BP, recognizing that opportunity and the drawing power of diverse athletes, recently released their latest far-reaching campaign to again help restore the positive sides of the brand and its thousands of employees to an always cynical public.
The latest campaign is a forward-thinking look at the London Olympics, also a key part of the BP brand reclamation project, although it involves American athletes as opposed to those on the continent. As part of their USOC sponsorship, BP selected a wide swath of Olympians and Paralympians, nine in all, to be part of their proactive ambassador team. The team, from
decathlete medalist Bryan Clay and world-class hurdler Lolo Jones to Paralympic standout and medalist Rudy Garcia-Tolson, will do all the usual messaging and appearance and endorsement obligations that comes with such a partnership.
Their launch through social media and the use of augmented reality to promote their personalities is a great new twist, and one which can be altered and downloaded as the game approach. Held up to any sort of computer or Smartphone camera, the printed cards will come to life as the athletes digitally appear in front of the user sharing exclusive training tips and information about themselves and the sports they love.
Again while all that is a cool twist, what is even better is the potential brand adoption for a younger audience that can come with an augmented reality and/or mobile push for BP. While an older consumer may quickly forget the damage the BP brand did to the environment while he or she is filling up at the pump, a younger consumer is still skeptical about companies that do damage to the environment, so going to a more virtual platform may help engage and message that younger consumer just a bit more. BP is in the mega-business of selling products in a very crowded environment, and the use of Smartphone technology to communicate with that discerning consumer is just one more way they can step outside the crowd.
The other interesting adaption that comes with the use of the smart phone will be how those augmented reality platforms can be used for promotional opportunities. Does a Bryan Clay follower down the line get an opportunity to purchase products at a discount at selected stores, can a Lolo Jones follower be prompted into a sweepstakes for autographed merch or a meet and greet or some sort of Town hall event online with Jones herself. Tracking the spending and download habits and serving the consumer even more is key to such a launch with a digital offering.
Then there is the tie to the USOC and its athletes themselves. Even with all the big business of Olympic sport, the tinge of nostalgia tied to Olympians, especially those not in the high net worth sports of basketball or even swimming, is still very high among the average consumer. BP has tied themselves to successful athletes, but not to LeBron James or Michael Phelps. The stories they selected appeal to a wide range of athletes, and are of athletes with chances for huge success in London. They are established but still have upside, and with that growth BP gets to grow as well.
Yes it is only a piece of their sports engagement, but to combine solid backstories, technology, and the Olympic movement, BP has again picked a spot to find ways to continue to heal and to grow in the mind of an active audience who still needs to know that the company is not done with their recovery efforts, but is understanding the consumer and his or her needs more and more and is communicating to that consumer in the environment…sport…where a comeback and hard work is rewarded regularly.
The sport of professional hockey has seen landmark growth in recent years. From successful Olympic events to the growth of the KHL to the NHL’s resurgence on all fronts, brand hockey is probably as strong as a global platform now than ever. However this past summer, the untimely and shocking deaths of several players, from accidents to suicide, and then the tragedy of the Russian plane crash that took the lives of a majority of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team has cast a pall on the sport, just as all hockey was looking forward to more on-ice business growth in 2011-2012.
In other years, such crisis would slow down and distract the sport. However in the face of such horrible loses this summer, hockey has acted with a unified voice, one of general concern, consistent action and forward thinking, and as a result has probably grown in professionalism and learned from the tragedy more than at any point in the history. The responses to each tragedy this past summer was unified, from the Commissioner’s office to the Player’s Association, and in the case of the plane crash, the IHL and the KHL as well. There were no mixed messages and no indecisiveness. The leadership spoke clearly and with determination to find out the causes of such tragedies and how to assist those effected. There was no misunderstanding, no ambiguidy and no agenda. The agenda was about healing and answers, with each side putting the resources needed to assist. Politics disappeared in each case, and the family atmosphere that pervades the sport more than any other came to the surface.
For the most part there was nary an attempt to use the media for political gain by any party around any of the tragedies this summer as well. That lack of backroom politics is rare in the high stakes game of professional sport, and should be an added plus for when other issues arise at any point that are less life and death. Any issue of tragedies that could be tied to issues like concussions were addressed clearly and succinctly, with the welfare of the player and the sport clearly the first priority. In previous years and even in other sports, that may not have been the cases. Professionalism ruled from the highest level, and the public got a clear sense of the general caring nature that leadership has both for its sport and for its players and families.
While no good can always come of tragedy such as what hockey has seen this summer, the losses, especially those by the KHL this week, served as a string reminder for the character of all those involved in hockey. The game and the people are first, and the politics are second. Going into a winter where the NHL may be the only show in town, that is a strong message to send to business and to the fans, and while it may seem simple, it is not all the time. Sometimes, especially in the 24/7 media world we deal with today, politics and personal agendas rule. That was not the case for hockey this summer on some very dark and tragic days and as a result the sport, and brand hockey, are stronger going forward. Sometimes the simplest, most common sensical ideas are the most effective, and hockey showed its common sense this summer. Well done with great respct by the leadership on all front.
Sean Gleason has been a key member of the leadership team for the PBR, helping lead the circuit into a more, aggressive, positive and mainstream era for the sport. He has been key in having the PBR enter new markets, grow its corporate base and find ways to engage with new fans while not alienating the core. So it should come as no surprise that Gleason frequently scans the social media scene for ways to engage and grow, and encourages others in the organization to do the same. The last few weeks Gleason noticed social media hound Chad Ocho Cinco posting information about PBR, interest and his upcoming travels, so through twitter Gleason reached out and challenged the wide receiver to come join the PBR in suburban Atlanta and try out a ride on a bull, complete with dollars and some other prizes if he can stay on. The result has been a homer for the PBR in their quest to draw new eyeballs, especially in a time of year that has every distraction imaginable in sport, from the coming Indy 500 centennial to the NBA and NHL Playoffs, MLB, and the impending NFL lockout etc etc. Not exactly a time of year for PBR to rise up on a national level. However by effectively mining and then using social media, the PBR took a chance and came through for the sport, and for the effective of a PR stunt. MLS grabbed some space when Ocho Cinco showed interest in giving soccer a tryout, and he has drawn requests from leagues, brands and other areas looking to grab on to his social status and buzz factor. Most have failed, but PBR did not. They were sincere, timed it right, came up with the right pitch and made the pitch work. Best of all it was lead not by someone looking just to exploit, it was led by an organization leader, which gave it credibility both in the business world and in the sport itself. Here’s hoping Ty Murray’s coaching works, and Chad doesn’t break anything.
On the other side you have another group that has done really well activating its fans in the social media space, the UFC, which according to some reports, will now create a competition for its fighters to use twitter effectively. There is no brand that probably does the male demo activation better than the UFC, and no better leader of manipulation of the space and spectacle than their head Dana White. He says what he wants, worries little about consequence, and their fans enjoy the banter. It is great that their athletes have been given the ability to effectively use all areas of media, and hopefully that will continue to open doors for sponsors, fan engagement, and for their stories, which for the most part are pretty interesting. Whether incenting people to use social media in a competition is worthwhile remains to be seen. What it will do is create a cottage industry for guys to glam on to followers and engage friends, publicists etc. to tweet for them. It also will create some additional buzz for the brand overall. Does size matter? Does it make sense for guys who should be worrying about training to be worrying about how many followers or likes they have? Like the rest of the population, social media isn’t for everyone, so why add the extra pressure for those who just shouldn’t engage? Will inappropriate or off color comments that could create distractions be worth the time and effort? Will the UFC care? Probably not. The athletes are indy contractors, there is no collective bargaining and they don’t have to participate. The edginess adds to the spectacle, and the UFC is all about spectacle. It will be fun for the fans and fun for the media to see what develops, so that’s probably worthwhile. Some fighters, like George St-Pierre, have found and used the digital space very effectively. But it is not for everyone, and by placing a dollar based incentive on creativity on any level problems could arise. It is an interesting incentive, but whether it works for the whole remains to be seen. Regardless, the UFC again found a way to engage and motivate its fans in a way other sports and even entertainment brands have not.
End of the day, both the UFC and the PBR leadership found a way to generate interest in the new media space that may not have been there before. The PBR’s was through outreach targeted at one event and with someone who already had a following, the UFC’s is more internal, long term and designed to generate buzz and new characters amongst its own core of athletes. Whether both or either will be successful is TBD, but both are certainly worth of note this week.