NCAA | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

As Spring Slowly Arrives, There Is No LAX Of Interest In Lacrosse Again

Every year around this time lacrosse enthusiasts start the drum beat that this is the year lacrosse crosses into the mainstream of acceptance, branding and dollars. Yet by June, a successful NCAA tournament is complete, thousands of young people have enjoyed playing the game, and the sport beats a hasty retreat, save for the outdoor professional league that holds its own but still has not gotten the exposure that all had hoped. However this spring, the cause for hope may be more justified because of the ever-changing political tide of college athletics.

Two years ago the University of Michigan announced that its men’s lacrosse team would move from club to Division I status, a landmark move for the sport and for a BCS-competing University. The club, which had raised millions on its own, would be essentially self funded and go to play not with a scholarship-laden team, but with its elite club players, at least for now. Michigan’s business-like approach to club lacrosse has been followed by other schools that are looking to increase sports but not the bottom line and may signal a way for lacrosse to grow exponentially at the Division I level, especially in the midwest and the west, where the sport currently has only two elite Division I programs, at Air Force and Denver. The addition of Michigan helped the Falcons and the Pioneers (whose move to hire legendary coach Bill Tierney was a strong play in building their program) in scheduling and also set a tone for further potential expansion of the sport in major markets in the region. The more schools can use a self-sustaining model, the easier a move to D-1 it will be, which leads to easier scheduling.

The second shift in the lacrosse landscape came when Syracuse shifted all its sports from the Big East, not a lacrosse powerhouse, to the ACC, the standardbearer for the sport across the southern Atlantic states. The Orange presence strengthens the ACC position and give more of a consistent presence of quality play in upstate New York.

With those moves brings more eyeballs, larger crowds and a more effective geographic footprint to continue to grow the game, without sacrificing the core of the sport in the States from the Carolinas through New England, where it flourishes at all levels. That larger footprint, now expanding west into larger collegiate settings, will naturally expose more casual fans to the sport, helping to build the fanbase. With that growth comes more media opportunities and more chances for new brands to engage with both the core and the casual followers. That translates into more dollars and more media and more potential.

Now the growth of lacrosse will probably continue to be steady, not meteoric. The spring landscape in collegiate athletics is not as cluttered as the spring, so a window of opportunity exists, especially as baseball struggles to keep its hold at the collegiate level. It also does not mean that the sport will take off at the professional level, with game that is still run by different groups for its indoor and outdoor seasons. TV has shown more interest in professional lacrosse, but the jury still remains out on its overall effectiveness as a property. However the shift and expansion with effective and efficient cost programs seems to have given those who love LAX more hope than before, if not for a Super Bowl than for a super spring every year. Whether brands, crowds and TV follow is TBD. Whether a stronger college game and buoy its professional counterpart is still a mystery. But the window of opportunity appears to be wider than before, and that is good news for those who play and follow lacrosse at all levels

UConn, Chevy Score With Quick and Fun “Final Four” Promo…

In college hoops, especially at this time of year for those schools left playing, timing is everything. Schools like Kentucky and Connecticut, on life support for an NCAA run just a few weeks ago, found a way to regroup and focus and make it to Dallas for this weekend’s Final Four, something that probably would have been unthinkable when Selection Sunday rolled around just a few weeks ago.

However with the improbable run, especially for the Huskies, came opportunity off the court as well in the form of a quick and cool activation with a long-time brand partner. Now it helped that UConn’s run last weekend happened not so far from home, at Madison Square Garden in New York. It also helped that UConn has always had a knack for innovative activation programs involving their loyal legions of supporters, and hence a new, easy and fun digital promotion was born, with the help of their partners at IMG College.

As part of the Huskies’ “Road Warriors” promotion with official partner Chevrolet, (the official vehicle of UConn Basketball for the past two years) a Chevy Sonic quickly painted with the school’s colors will make the trek from Connecticut to North Arlington, site of the Final Four this week. Alternating behind the wheel will be Erik Antico and Brett Greenfield, serving as the Chevy “Road Warriors” as they take Jonathan the Husky Dog and the Sonic cross country, covering a distance of 1,698 miles. They will be making the stops along the way and handing out UConn gear, and posting photos on social media. 

Fans are following on the official UConn Athletics Facebook (facebook.com/UConnHuskies) and Twitter (@UConnHuskies) accounts, and have been encouraged to share their favorite Road Warrior moments with the hashtags #UConn and #BleedBlue.

The promo, created on the fly and with little lead time, was a great extra for the Chevy/UConn partnership. It showed innovation, a smart use of social media and a solid use of available time with little hard costs. It effectively conveys the largesse of the Huskies brands literally beyond its borders and will make for a great rallying point for all the UConn fans enjoying the ride to the Final Four. In an age where augment and virtual reality get a lot of the buzz, UConn, IMG College and Chevy should get points for a quick promo that was a little bit of a throwback but scored on many fronts.

“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.

Can Those “Other” Hoops Tournaments Find Their Niche?

The world of the haves and the have nots in college athletics ebbs and flows in any given year, and this time of year the hope for Cinderella trying on the glass slipper in March Madness is what keeps fans up at night.  However this year, perhaps more than ever, Cinderella seems to have gone home early, as only Dayton from the Atlantic 10 remains in The NCAA Sweet 16 as the lone survivor not tied to major college football. The little guys it seems, have gone home early this year. Still that doesn’t mean that the NCAA Tournament is any less interesting, fun or compelling to watch. It also doesn’t mean that March madness ends with the regionals going on this weekend.

For someone cruising the dial on a Monday night, a hoops fan might have wandered on to the mayhem going on in Moody Coliseum on the campus of SMU. A raucous crowd was there to cheer on Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs against a young SEC team from LSU, playing in the second round of the NIT. The game had all the feel of an NCAA matchup, and for these schools even more at stake perhaps; something to prove as teams that missed the field of 64. Brown’s squad especially is playing for pride, to return the coach to New York perhaps next week for another trip to Madison Square Garden. The NIT after all has value.

Now the second tournament is not without its issues. While it provides those who win regular season conference championships but miss out on their tournament title a guarantee of playing on, like a Robert Morris, it also has its failures. Because of the quick turnaround for arena space and TV time, a first round matchup by the Colonials at St. John’s drew barely 1,000 people, and took some creative camera work to keep the focus on the court and not on the acres of empty seats in Carnessecca Arena. However that issue appears to be less so this year, as a very balanced top 100 in college hoops, combined with some strong local support in places like SMU and Clemson, have turned the NIT into a better consolation trip than perhaps in years past.

However what keeps many coaches and administrators up at night is what happens when you are a good mid-major or even a rebuilding school in a major conference and the Big Dance, or even the little dance, the NIT, don’t come calling. The answer for some is to go and try another tournament or another… two to choose from ….The College Basketball Invitational and the CollegeInsider.com.

Unlike the CBI, which has the value of TV (CBS College Network) and a unique but curious best 2 of 3 final and seems to focus on bigger name schools willing to burn a pretty hefty fee to play on (and drew criticism from several schools who chose not to fork up the extra dollars this year, Indiana being one), the CIT is a play for mid-majors only at a much smaller fee with a traditional one and done format, and has actually gained more mainstream traction than originally thought possible by many critics who through post season hoops was already NCAA or nothing.   The 32 schools invited to the CIT bracket seem to be excited to be playing on, with a chance to build toward the NCAA or other success in future years. Schools like Columbia for example, have found a way to draw fans (over 2,500 packed Levein Gym to see a win vs. Eastern Michigan) and get a chance to take on archrival Yale in the semifinals of the CIT, an extra perk for a pair of schools not used to post-season play and looking to build a program to match up with Harvard, which has been not just the kings of Ivy hoops but a national power to be reckoned with as well.

There is probably more room, at least in the short term for the CBI and the CIT than in recent years. The power shift to the larger conferences has made a long advance into March for mid-major schools more difficult, while the issue of players leaving schools early at large schools has created more parity overall than ever before. Good schools with sold seasons, often young programs, still will get squeezed out of NCAA play, and need a place to build brand and legacy. These three tournaments to varying degrees help do that.  

 In the end, the CBI and the CIT have a ways to go to see if that are totally viable for casual fans and brands. Can they build equity, increase their content potential and add sponsors who can’t crash The Big Dance? Maybe. Can they bring in some revenue for the home school in these troubled times through ticket sales and sponsor value? Great. Can they find a way to decrease costs to get away from the pay for play stigma? Perhaps.  If the games save the jobs of some deserving and pressured coaches and gives the athletes one more shot at glory, great. Nether, nor will the NIT ever replace the dollars or bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, but if they can continue to sustain and enhance their reputations maybe they can carve their own necessary and meaningful niche in the complex web of big time college hoops.

“Beats By Dre” Scores With NCAA Seeding…

The high end audio business tied to sport continues to boom, no pun intended, one of the  brands that continues to make noise in the space is still Beats By Dre.  From their launch that organically dropped LeBron James into the mix as a fan to their attempts at Olympic ambush with athletes to their high end product handed out to the Seahawks and Broncos during the Super Bowl, Beats continues to find ways into the conversation with product seeding and very little in terms of traditional ad buys.

While their biggest coups came with the unique creative they had with Colin Kaepernick and Richard Sherman around the NFL Playoffs and then into the Super Bowl, with Sherman’s post-game rant after the NFC Championship Game coming on the heels of his second half debut commercial, the brand continued to score during NCAA Championship Week as well.  Some of their branding came from traditional buys on-air on ESPN and the networks, but some other great opportunities came through their gifting project with no less than six league tournaments.  

Now it wasn’t the normal headsets in a bag that Beats offered up. What they did was drop different product for each league; a wireless Bluetooth for members of the ACC; in-ear headphones for the Atlantic 10; Dr. Dre pill for the Big 12; different headphones for the Colonial; wireless headphones for the SEC; and a pill for the Pac 12.  Strategically seeding different product amongst a national core of elite basketball student-athletes shows the breadth and depth of Beats accessories and also gives those athletes a chance to share a product conversation down the line. All those athletes then become ambassadors of their brand; loud and large influential ambassadors not just when they return to school but throughout the post-season and the viral pictures of players wearing Beats accessories as they get on and off buses, in locker rooms, in meals etc. will get pickup both by broadcast media and in the social space. Young people love new, so engaging these guys while they are on the road at a tournament gives Beats the best chance at viral exposure without being an NCAA partner.

For sure Beats wasn’t the only audio brand to offer up gift items during conference tournaments. Skull Candy had some ties and Bose even found a spot or two, but no brand had such wide ranging product or such mass offerings as Beats did this past week.

Does the viral seeding with elite athletes work? Their brand studies shows it is successful both subtly and in social media  in what is an ultra-competitive and very crowded space and a quick look around most locker rooms, from high school to the pros, see the simple Beats logo being worn by more and more athletes. Does that translate down into sales? Their records show it has in the past few years, but what is most important is that Beats is seeding the growing market of influencers by building affinity with top college players before they make their big splash, either in March Madness or on the professional side. They have cast a wide net with the conferences, but it is a net that could score some big catches in affinity down the line.

The viral influencer market is not always the easiest to identify, but by being strategic with their choices and knowing their market, Beats by Dre, looks to have scored as college hoops really takes center stage.

Will Championship Week Move More To Gotham?

As we move through Championship Week and fully into March Madness, the sense of underdog success permeates the air. It is totally unlike the big-time sports business feel of college football, which generates millions for select schools competing at the highest levels, but has little of the mystery and mystique of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

The pre-amble to that drama are the conference tournaments, now spread across several rights-holding networks (NBC, Fox, CBS and ESPN) and held in tourist locales like Las Vegas (which the legal gambling-averse allows without issue) as well as longtime like St. Louis (for the Missouri Valley’s “Arch Madness” and Greensboro for the ACC Tournament on a semi-annual basis). However the one tournament to consistently call the media and sales capital of the world home, The Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, is undergoing a transformation of its own. While still billed as a sellout, the conference and its new TV partner in Fox has taken to the subways and the busses with ad campaigns explaining the members and the event to its casual fans, something unneeded and unheard of in previous years.  It is smart to do so; the league should take nothing for granted, especially with some of its newer members from cities like Omaha and Indianapolis, with far smaller alumni groups within driving distance like former members Notre Dame, Syracuse and Connecticut. Still the Big East calls MSG home, and will use the event to showcase its brands and its high quality hoops to both existing and new potential partners who may never get to go an experience the home court at Hinkle Fieldhouse or even The Bradley Center in Milwaukee, let alone Xavier’s Cintas Center or the new future downtown home of the DePaul Blue Demons. It is a great showcase and celebration for a college sports brand in transition. Change as we have seen on college sports is constant.

So will the Big East, now in transition with new geographic faces, stay in Gotham, and should it? All last fall, conference like the Big Ten and the ACC constantly visit New York and all its business trappings, talking about the power of the college football brand to a city and a fan base that remains basketball centric. Yes thousands flock to pubs and houses to watch college football at the highest level, but it has nowhere near the street cred, and the longstanding ties to casual fans, that basketball has. The distant allure of Rutgers, the pageantry of Army, even the claims by Syracuse of being “New York’s College Team,” are still gridiron stretches, and very hard to consistently maintain. Yes brands love college football, as do millions of fans, but in New York it is still second fiddle to hoops.

What does that mean for the marketing opportunities of the ACC and The Big Ten, or heck maybe even the SEC down the road? Could they use their postseason college basketball tournaments as a lure to further infiltrate Madison Avenue year round? Absolutely, and that day will probably come sooner rather than later. Despite all the genteel agreements college sports we know is big business, and to consistently showcase your best of the best in New York is critical to get to the next level. The ACC now probably has more big ticket sellers in basketball in New York…Syracuse, Duke, Notre dame, North Carolina, even Pittsburgh and on a good year Boston College…than any league including The Big East, and that flow of cash is what makes MSG shine, much more than tradition than ever before. Those football schools also bring a carryover to brands for college basketball, something which the non-football playing Big East schools struggle to do, and that year-round presence with an active college community is a brand’s golden ticket. The Big Ten is not that far behind, and with large fan bases from schools like Michigan and Wisconsin in the New York area, laying an occasional claim to Gotham also makes great sense for an occasional March rotation.

So where does that leave the Big East of the future?  That remains to be seen. Does the move of the tournament occasionally to a market like basketball-crazed Indianapolis or even Washington, DC or make more sense for the new geography? Would “tradition” go by the wayside without the call to MSG every early March? Would new brands in other locales embrace the change as progressive thinking instead of a kick in the pants out of town? All of those options are in the offing, along with the ancillary possibility of the nearby Barclays Center or even the state of the art Prudential Center getting in the mix, much like Barclays has tried with the Atlantic 10 Tournament with some degree of success. Still for all its internal and media issues, Madison Square Garden is still the Holy Grail, one which the private schools of the Big East have fought to hold on to for now.  It is the brightest light, the biggest stage, and one, as the business of college basketball continues to bounce, will get even more alluring and more coveted for others as dollar and brand value rise on a national scale. New York may not be the home of big time college football all the time, but for big time college sports business having that center stake in the ground to market and entertain and activate around is perhaps more valuable than ever.

Who will win out? Can all of the leagues win out by rotating? Remains to be seen but as we have understood all too well in recent years, dollars rule the big campuses more than ever, whether that is in September or March.

Building An Accepting Culture Goes Beyond The Game…

The talk of gay male athletes coming out continued this week as Jason Collins joined the Nets, Michael Sam went through the NFL Combine, and closer to home, Drew University catcher Matt Kaplon revealed to his team that he was gay. As someone who went to an all-boys Catholic high school and had classmates and teammates who were gay, went to a Jesuit University where two of my roommates at different times were gay, and have been in and around sports of all kinds where athletes admitted to the world they were gay (as was the case in tennis with Amelie Mauresmo) or there was no secret amongst people on teams or leagues that certain athletes were gay but they did not want to be public about it, this news neither shocks nor offends me in any way. What matters, and should matter from a business and social perspective, is that they are quality athletes, quality people and good brand ambassadors no matter what their private lives are. Period.

Now I realize this is not the case for some others, and maybe it’s because I was raised in an atmosphere that was a little more welcoming and understanding than some, but  the fact that athletes reveal their private lives should hopefully become less and less of a factor in the coming months, not years. In all the instances that I have personally seen on every level going back over 30 years, most people cared more about what the character was of the person, male or female, than their choice of a partner. If they could play, that’s what was remembered in the heat of competition. If they couldn’t then you move on.  Live and let live.

From a business perspective in sports today, there is a lot of talk about whether the inclusion of openly gay athletes by brands will help or hurt.  Will religious groups and conservative groups stage quiet or possibly loud, protests that can hurt the bottom line of a brand, and damage the relationship, at least privately, with a team? Can teams market to an openly gay community with select nights, like they have with church groups or other organizations; will the money be enough to be that proactive? Will there be enough groups to make it important? The WNBA in some markets has tried to be more open about their marketing, and in some cases it has helped. Can or would male sports do the same? Can it be overt or subtle? Will an openly gay male superstar draw more eyeballs and interest from brands than he would if he were just a superstar? That still remains to be seen.  For sure it is a more intriguing question and more of a possibility today than it was ever before. However with the marketing of ANY athlete, brands have to make sure that there is both sizzle and steak. You can’t just grab an athlete because he or she is gay and hope to make hay with consumers for long term brand success. They have to be all the things you would want in a brand; good person, smart spokesperson, reflective of your company mission, and a quality athlete who can continue to deliver for the long haul. The NBA made a point this week about how fast-selling Jason Collins jerseys were. The great positive about the sale of Collins jerseys is not about the quantity, it is about awareness. Awareness that a solid, smart thinking professional athlete chose to be first, and in solidarity people are supporting him through jersey sales. Now maybe those dollars could be better targeted to donations to LGBT charities or anti-bullying programs vs. buying a jersey, but that marketing step is next in the process. What’s important for now is that there is not just support but acceptance in a widening circle for any athlete, and in the sometimes byzantine world of team sports in the US, that is certainly a positive step.

Now the Collins popularity may or may not continue should the team keep him as an athlete who can contribute, and it should not reflect poorly on the Nets should they decide to cut him. While Brooklyn, much more than the Knicks in this area, have always been about the sizzle and the sale, it is ultimately about the chemistry and the on-court performance that ultimately determines brand success, not the sale of a few extra licensed products or a group or two.  Short term is nice, long term is more important and in the case of sports branding, the healthier, more educated and more inclusive a brand is in society today, the better the culture and the better the business. What we can hope for at some point is that the issue of sexual preference becomes no issue at all, and is rarely covered by media or talked about by fans. If that is so, the steps that any host of athletes, from Martina Navratilova to Dave Kopay to John Amaeche to Greg Louganis to Michael Sam and Jason Collins on the global stage, or athletes like Kaplon at Drew should all be applauded and not forgotten. What we should applaud even more however is their overall success both on a personal and a competitive athlete level. The goal is to have complete, successful role models as smart, upstanding people regardless of color, creed, sexual orientation, ethnic background. We certainly aren’t there, but, hopefully this week was another step forward big and small, and will serve as the right example for brands to look to some pioneering new faces, should they match their courage with career success and most importantly, fit the goals the brand wants to achieve overall.

 Winning people make for winning teams, and winning brands. 

Will Pro Football Ever Spring Year-Round Again?

Wednesday, just three days removed  those fans of the gridiron reach what is an unofficial official end to all things football for a while…the media frenzy of National Signing Day. From coast to coast on every sports network and radio show, young men who are the best at their sport tell the world in choreographed press conferences, streaming video feeds and press conferences where they have decided to go to join the big business ranks of major college football. The four major sites Rivals, 247Sports, ESPN and Scout along with countless blogs and social media experts look to today as their biggest payoff; a day when all their year-round prognostications as to who is going where will come true, and for their paid subscribers, it is a day when any casual spend becomes justified or a waste of time.

From this day, booster hopes rise, coaches careers are stabilized, dreams are dashed and season tickets are sold, all on the backs of 17 and 18 year old student athletes. Ironically the day follows another American tradition that is also based on what might be…Ground Hog Day. Whether a little furry creature sees his shadow doesn’t really determine the fates of thousands, but it is just as safe a prediction as to whether those who commit to college on National Signing Day can turn the fortunes of college football.

Signing Day has turned from a clerical necessity to a media extravaganza in just a few years, but now for football it really serves as the end of a long trek that starts at the NFL Draft and marches almost unceasingly through the Super Bowl. On every level across America, the pageantry of college football starts in Radio City Music Hall in New York and goes through the day when high school players officially make their mark for where they will go. After that, the sport goes into a lull, despite the passion and yearnings for millions of fans who can’t seem to get enough.

Now there is the combine, and the revitalized Arena Football League, which is trying to make inroads through new TV and innovations such as a helmetcam. The specter of several spring leagues also sits out there (what happened to the USFL return?) as well as a quietly mentioned use of 7 on 7 football to look to replicate what 7 on 7 Rugby has done for the Olympics, starting in 2016. All are just speculation at this point, with no real financial model to justify such a jump yet. Other than that, fans have to wait for the draft, and talk about the perils and fortunes of free agency for the NFL, with maybe some spring practice banter mixed in.

So with the lull in gridiron action, is there a chance that a spring football league can fill the void? It is a sexy, intriguing idea, but can it work?

The sad thing is that the UFL could have made great brand inroads had they played in the spring in their first few years, as the NFL went through its long ago labor pains. Into the void they could have gone loudly, filling an interest for the casual and the disgruntled, testing the marketing dollars of brands who may have been worried about the NFL, and providing a great showplace for the free agents and unsigned who needed a chance to play somewhere. It would have also continued to have been a great testing ground for new rules, new styles and coaches looking for a chance to either re-engage or find a new home.

Alas we received none of that.  There remain mid-markets that love football that probably can use cost-containment professional football, and if the NFL does not grow roster size there has been proof that there is still a solid amount of talent waiting to be turned over. Would brands take an offseason Hertz to the NFL’s Avis? Would TV support a promotable spring product and not have to worry about NFL backlash when new deals come up? One thing is for sure, America is a football crazy country. The question is…is the market important enough to support year-round football? The WLAF failed with the NFL’s backing, as had other leagues. The UFL started off with the right capital infusion and found some niche’s, but at the wrong time of year for fans to get energized. The argument that you have one NBA. one MLB and one NHL is different…those seasons are very long and give fans ample opportunity to see the product. The NFL, even at 16 games, still limits the in-season experience for fans, which could create an off-season alternative.

Over a quarter century ago the USFL saw that opportunity and had some level of success, in the days before regional sports networks were en vogue. The latest version of the USFL has made some noise to grab the space again, but a 2013 launch was scrubbed and a 2014 season announcement has come and gone with little talk of capital raised, TV contracts signed or cities announced. Another spring league has proposed public funding, selling shares to raise the millions needed, but that effort is doomed before it starts, as using the public markets for sports is fraught with needs to satisfy millions of investors and pay down the large administrative costs needed to keep a business running in the public sector. If you can’t find investors in the private market, forget the dealings of a business that has to be transparent to all who come looking.

So is there a need and a void to bring football back to play in a league format in the space from say, early March to early July? The NFL could use a developmental component, especially one they would not have to fund but could look seriously at technology and enhanced player safety. The plethora of regional and now national TV networks still have time to fill, albeit not on their own dime for production. There are any number of brands which would enjoy the engagement of football but not at NFL prices, and technology partners would crave using the space as a way to test activation projects that they could then implement at the NFL level in a more refined manner. Would fans turn out in numbers to make franchises financially viable? Would TV audiences tune in to watch a product that may be quality but not at the level of the NFL, on a national level? Would the digital space provide enough of a revue stream to also offset costs of running an expensive proposition like professional football, given its size of rosters and events? Could you find stadia that would be of the right size and standard in enough markets?

We don’t know the answers yet, but the demand for more football has grown in recent years, not shrunk. There are markets that clamor for more professional sports, but whether the private sector will take such a high risk remains to be seen. Secondary leagues in an age where the primary major team sports are striving to give fans more access are not what they once were, and the launch of any league in the United States, major or minor, has not seen any level of true success since Major League Soccer.

So while we hit the football lull, the specter of a never-ending stream of live games to tide the public over is still ripe in the entrepreneurial mind. Whether that mind can bring the league to bear is a pipe dream right now, but certainly one that bears watching as the dollars and the interest in football still seem to hold strong as we head into the final phase of a winter where the gridiron falls silent, at least for 2014 again.

Little School, Big Idea: Caldwell (NJ) College

This past week at article appeared in The Record Newspaper talking about the challenges and opportunities three Division I basketball programs in the state…Fairleigh Dickinson, Rutgers and Seton Hall…face in selling tickets and building brand. However with so many other programs competing across all divisions in New Jersey, we found one that is using technology as well or better than most to speak to their key audiences. It’s not Monmouth or Rider, NJIT or Rowan. It’s Caldwell College. The Division II Cougars, who began men’s play in 1986, may not be the state’s brightest athletic program, but they may be one of the most efficient in terms of telling their story to the right audience.

Led by Mark Corino, who doubles as athletic director and head men’s basketball coach, Caldwell has used a combination of well-thought out digital infrastructure and forward thinking to build a live digital sports broadcast program for its marquee sports…men’s and women’s basketball, that is cost efficient and merchandises the school’s athletes, its academic programs and its brand, to several thousand people every time the teams take the court for a home game at the George R. Newman Recreation and Athletic Center. They provide what many other schools on any level are still struggling to do; a clean and cost effective and information filled live streaming broadcast of both audio and video. It’s not like Caldwell is a powerhouse; both teams are 9-6 and are certainly in contention for the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference titles (and they will host the men’s and women’s tournaments this year) but what they have is the ability to effectively tell their story, through the use of video, to a core audience of not millions, but several thousand people across the country each time they take the court.

The idea of streaming games came to Corino following a contest a few years ago when the rarest of rare came about; a game broadcast live on television for the Cougars against Bloomfield College on CBS College Sports TV. The game became a great source of communication for the school to alumni, students and most importantly recruits, and Corino realized that there has to be a way to effectively and cleanly continue that dialogue through the use of media. It’s not like suddenly the conference or Caldwell was going to develop its own broadcast television or even radio package, but the use of the digital space could provide an answer that was both effective and cost efficient. So enter into the picture a series of low cost streaming partners, all looking to capture the space just below broadcast for colleges. The one that Caldwell eventually, and still does, work with is NMTV Sports, which provides much of the broadcast infrastructure to bring live video to the digital space for Caldwell and many other schools across the country. Suddenly, the Cougars had a platform for which to not just tell their games but merchandise their story, and Corino found students and an enterprising local resident, Jerry Milani, to help amplify and professionalize the broadcast.

The result was a live broadcast channel that speaks directly to an interested audience; the exact goal of what social and digital media is supposed to achieve. It’s not looking to reach millions or hundreds of thousands; rather the Caldwell broadcasts are designed to professionally reach a core group of intersected parties from alumni and recruits to players families and others; live and with a quality and consistent broadcast signal. It’s not CBS or NBC, but it is clean, fun and a great vehicle at a solid price investment by the school. The result is destination viewing for those interested and a growing cult following for Caldwell hoops that would have never existed even ten years ago.

Is it perfect? Of course not, but it is still light-years ahead of many “broadcasts” that were occurring only a few years ago. Caldwell has invested in state of the art high speed broadcast lines in the gym which have multiple sues when games are not being broadcast; they have a production team that uses several angles to make the broadcast look professional, and they have a voice in Milani and others who take the time to deliver a quality how to all who watch. The viewer is entertained and informed and feels like he or she is part of the experience of Caldwell hoops. The result, according to Corino, is that the program now has a national presence and there is a sense of community for athletics that didn’t exist before.

Now is what Caldwell is doing different from other high schools, let alone colleges across the country who have looked to the digital space as a form of outreach. In some ways no, as NMTV and other sites like it provide a great platform to broadcast and most Division I schools have created very cost effective platforms for their non-broadcast events like men’s basketball and football. However at the Division II and III level, especially in our state, what Caldwell has done is remarkable for brand building.

The school has put the time and the effort in to make the broadcasts seem first rate. They treat each production professionally and use it as a marketing platform for the school and as a test area for students looking to excel in the field. The difference is in the quality of the deliverable. While some schools slap up a camera in a distant corner and have anyone chime in on audio, Caldwell acts and sounds professional. Where some schools feed fades in and out, Caldwell’s remains consistent. Whereas some schools promote as an afterthought, Caldwell makes it an expandable priority, all of which are smart and consistent brand building business practices that any sports property can work from. Most importantly, the broadcast is cost efficient and timely and considered an investment in building the equity of the college and the programs, something which many of the Division I programs across the state don’t even appreciate.

Now is the live broadcast of home games going to change the course of Caldwell? No, not right now. What is does is create a differentiator for the staffs from their competitors (this year only one other conference school, Georgian Court, is streaming its games and they are only doing a select few) and it builds equity in the Caldwell brand. Those to elements, according to Corino, were worth the investment alone. They don’t have to reach millions, they have to take the time to reach the right few hundred consistently, and that connection gets amplified by social media and word of mouth. The next step will be finding other sports, especially those contained by time and space…like volleyball…to accept the platform, and then growing the sponsor base incrementally to offset the cost. College, after all, should be about the investment as much as the return, and Caldwell’s investment is one to watch, literally and figuratively.

So in the end, maybe the small Division II school doesn’t win a national title, but it educates and informs its core and helps expose the school to a wider and targeted audience. That makes for not just smart athletics and marketing, it makes for a smarter education system, and one that should be emulated by schools big and small. The outlay can justify the return, and for Caldwell that means winning not just on the court, but in the entrepreneurial space as well.

“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.