Gambling In Sport: Will Fantasy Bring Reality Soon?

Toward the end of the series finale of Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson, played so well be the actor Steve Buscemi for these past few years, turns to a young man in his employ and makes a reference about sweeping the sand off the front porch. Thompson knows from his work as a youth in the hotel business that the sweeping is the same as trying to battle against the tide, inevitably you lose, as wind and sane and nature will have their way.

While not exactly the same, it is becoming more and more apparent that the fight for legalized sports betting in some way, shape or form, not just in New Jersey but across the country, is a battle that eventually will be regulated and won out, and will be a major, major revenue stream for sports teams and leagues down the line.

For now, State legislators continue to battle the Federal law prohibiting sports betting while states far and near grandfathered into the system, find ways to make a solid profit. This past week John Brennan, perhaps the best authority in the media on the sports betting fight, had an extensive piece on how Delaware has used its loophole to create a profitable sports wagering system that has boosted the coffers of small business that have worked the lottery system for years. One part of the story has stores setting up kiosks and tents OUTSIDE their stores on Sunday mornings to take advantage of blue laws prohibiting them to open before noon, because the demand for NFL (called “pro football” to get around an NFL trademark issue) is so high. Nevada continues to thrive on their sports betting operations, and other states have quietly assembled “gambling czars to work on horse racing, casino and other currently legal forms of sports gambling, while keeping an eye out for best practices that states can take advantage of as loopholes and opportunities open up for sports wagering. Be in position to strike quickly, the theory is.

Every week that passes there is another chink in the armor in the fight that states, especially New Jersey, are making in this battle for a revenue stream that is very fertile around the world. Two years ago the NCAA banned New Jersey colleges and university from hosting post-season events because of the State’s challenge to legalized sports betting, and that banishment was overturned last year. The New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers had two firsts in the space, first with an online poker sponsorship and then last month the Devils struck a first-ever team deal with New Jersey based Hot Box Sports to create a team pay fantasy game for the first time. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been the most vocal and bullish of all the major sports heads on the subject, stating in September that he supported legalized gambling and stating time and again that it will be inevitable and a big source of income for the leagues and the clubs if and when it does happen…with more stress on the when than the if.

This week a good amount of focus fell on the political front, where pundits weighed in on whether the shift in power from the Republicans to the democrats in the Senate could affect the viability of the anti-sports betting lobby outside of Nevada. Senator-elect Cory Booker of New Jersey, a former football player himself, has yet to formally and fully engage in the subject, but his input now that he has a six year term could be very important as the issue grows more and more from a New Jersey issue to a national issue.

Is sports wagering inevitable, and is it the cash cow many predict? In a state like New Jersey it’s hard to say, but it does present great opportunity not as much for casinos but for the income a lottery-style taxed game can bring in to the state coffers. The loopholes with programs like pay fantasy football are becoming stronger and stronger and teams and leagues are seeing income from those streams become more and more a reality. The Brooklyn Nets just became the latest team to add a fantasy sports partner, and more will follow. The leagues and the NCAA will continue to monitor and keep the engine revving should laws change and continue to adjust. The NFL’s announcement this week of an expansion even more to games in London, along with the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady signing a sponsorship deal for a company called FantasyMVP, raise more questions about the validity of legalized gambling in sport. London has long carried NFL gaming lines, and there is no issue with patrons of legal betting parlours wagering on the games there, although the NFL has no affiliation and doesn’t yet profit in the take.

But why wouldn’t or shouldn’t the league profit from an industry that is global and currently unchecked in many places. The theory is that the leagues would make the money not on running betting entities but on the licensing and use of data and on each transaction. Given the fact that mobile usage and connectivity is growing daily in stadia, the amount of revenue leagues and teams could make…think of the amount of activity in a baseball game where every pitch, every swing could be a transaction…is something that could dwarf almost all other sources, except maybe live broadcast rights.

Other “vices,” lottery, hard liquor and spirits, casino advertising, fantasy sports, once taboo are now accepted by professional leagues as legitimate sources of income. Sports gambling will be the next, and maybe the greatest hurdle with the most upside. As the consumer clamors for more access and affordable prices, teams and leagues need to find new revenue sources, and gaming is the biggest one sitting out there to be had.

Are there issues and concerns about game fixing or an illegal element that could go on? Yes. But those concerns have been weighed and dealt with for every other questionable revenue stream, and federal acceptance and legislation can and will be a big step in legitimizing what will come. It will be smart, calculated, engaging and very profitable.

So as New Jersey politicians and track operators continue to wage a battle in the courts against the anti-sports gaming lobby, other states and companies who have found a way make their money; some boldly, some quietly. Many businesses small and large are following and hoping that the gamble The Garden State is taking will be an economic win for all in the long run.
Until that happens, all bets, legal ones outside of Nevada anyway, are off.

Devils Go All In…

They lost their most marketable, albeit aging star; the cornerstone of their franchise to free agency. They are in an ultracompetitive marketplace which now includes the defending conference championships, a young rising team with new owners about to move into a building whose penchant is to tell stories very loudly, and to the south, a stalwart franchise that has owned a good part of the state for years and shows little signs of letting up. So if you are the New Jersey Devils what do you do? Everything you can, and that starts with finding every way to tie the community of both hockey fans and citizens of their state to the team, and find very way to tie the team to the community. Build the narrative, and there comes the loyalty.

Under their new ownership team and led by CEO Scott O’Neil, New Jersey made some of those strides last year. They went to great lengths to bring communities, whole towns and their leaders, to the Prudential center for themed nights which looked at everything from civic and academic involvement to athletic success, little of which had to do with hockey. Make the towns part of the fabric of the team, and loyalty will grow. This year, as training camp starts, the team is taking the other approach to compete the circle.

Their new campaign  “We’re All Devils Inside,” will showcase a season of Devils’ narratives on and off the ice that shine a light on the many faces that comprise the Devils family. Featuring players, season ticket holders, fans, Devils and Prudential Center employees, as well as those communities throughout New Jersey, the campaign reveals how the Devils inhabit everyday situations. The campaign will live throughout Devils and Prudential Center assets, including Devils in-game presentation, arena branding, web and mobile, and will be featured on game tickets and promotional materials, as well as television, print and out-of-home creative.

The campaign is smart as it links the personal stories of everyone around the club to a particular town or neighborhood, and makes that connection more hyper-local than ever before. All of this is in addition to the massive digital affinity programs the club has built throughout the years, and will hopefully strengthen the ties and the reach of the Devils brand as really the only professional team that now calls the State home and uses just “New Jersey” in its name. As the team builds new and marketable stars off the ice, making communities feel a part of that growth is key, and the clear communication that we are all in this together should give fans with some disposable income an opportunity to venture to Newark and enjoy their hometown team.

Of course winning helps, but the use of this inward and outward affinity to the Devils brand is a smart way to manage the controllable assets and keep the interest alive and growing regardless of the results on the ice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devils, Sixers Hedge Their Bets…For The Better and The Bettor

A little over a month ago we noticed the huge amount of exposure new legalized online gambling sites were getting in New Jersey. You could not go a few miles on a major highway without seeing something for Betfair or any of a number of other sites, and given the fact that sports teams in Canada…the Raptors, the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens…were already calling Poker a partner with prominent advertising, it seemed like just a matter of time before a franchise like the Devils started to cash in…literally…with one of the online sites now legal in the market. What we didn’t realize at the time was that it didn’t have to be a team that was located in the State, one that televised into the market was also OK to partner with, so the opportunities for the deep pockets of the online sites expanded exponentially across the Hudson and the Delaware at least.

On Thursday at the Prudential Center, the convergence of team ownership on both sides of the border river to the South of the State, Josh Harris’ tandem of the Devils and the Sixers spearheaded by President Scott O’Neil, broke the logjam and announced what was billed, and truly is, a historic partnership between partypoker, run by the UK gambling house Betwin, and the two teams, making  partypoker the Official Online Gaming partner of the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center. This multi-year deal in the online gaming category is the first of its kind for US-based sports organizations and signals a continued commitment by both franchises to create and foster partnerships with the world’s best brands. Welcome to the billion dollar sponsorship world of online gaming and gambling in the US…a world which will grow exponentially in the coming years.

As part of the partnership, co-branded assets will be built for fans of the two teams. Through a new and exclusive promotion called the ‘Dream Seat Series’, fans located in New Jersey who play on will be able to compete for a number of great prizes, including regular, courtside and VIP suite seats to all Devils and Sixers home games, road trips with the teams and coveted tickets to concerts all year round including the upcoming January 22 Jay Z concert at the Prudential Center. Included in the partnership is the integration of partypoker into the Devils and 76ers web sites and social media channels, and mobile applications; tickets and hospitality; in-arena signage, including dasher boards, on-ice and on-court; and rights to broadcast television and radio advertisements during Devils and Sixers games.

For the Devils and the Sixers, two teams that are challenged in the sponsorship space, it is a jackpot that the new ownership group in New Jersey may have seen but could never have anticipated happening so soon. For partypoker it establishes a price and a beachhead for which other sites will now bid against. Strategically the deal makes sense for many reasons other than just the sponsorship. The Sixers, no longer owned by publicly traded Comcast as the rival Flyers are, have probably less investor pushback than their hockey brethren in “The City of Brotherly Love.” They have attendance issues and lots of distressed seats to fill right now, and they have a D-league team across the river in Delaware who also needs help in a state where online gaming may also soon be legal. While some questioned the synergy that could exist between the devils and Sixers when Harris’ team made their purchase in 2013, this deal, and potentially others like it, show the value. They are able to blanket not Philly, but the corridor between Philly and New York through NBA and NHL partnerships with unique deals in two arenas and in a very large geographic area. That for sure appealed to their new sponsor and may set a precedent for other deals in new categories going forward for two franchises that need to carve new roads for dollars. While it is true that franchises with distressed inventory have created “unique” partnerships before…the Islanders signing a tattoos sponsor, and the Nets when in New Jersey creating any number of unique categories, including “official tax service” for a while, this virgin category has huge potential, huge dollars and huge ramifications for sponsorship going forward.

There is no doubt that New York’s prominent franchises in the winter, the Rangers and the Knicks, who already have solid sponsors in the casino space, will find a way to engage with one of the online sites. Their broadcast partners, also looking for new revenue streams, are almost certainly in the hunt for dollars that are now free, clear and very legal as well.

The question will be if the more conservative ranks of MLB, or the deeper and somewhat more selective teams of the NFL…the Jets, Giants, and Eagles…will also find a way to engage. For New Jersey’s minor league baseball teams, as well as for the Red Bulls…the deal and the opportunity will also set a precedent for them to negotiate and engage with. It is hard to believe that the MLS club, a sport with deep relationships abroad in not only gaming but with Betwin itself, won’t find a way to exploit the new coffers. The minor league teams affiliated with MLB clubs may be a bit hesitant because of their promotion of more “family friendly” environs, but the State’s independent teams in Somerset and Montclair should be on board with creative programs before first pitch this spring. Who knows maybe there will even be hope for the recently deceased Newark Bears? And how about Pocono Raceway, tucked in the mountains with several hundred thousand NASCAR and Indy car fans coming every year? The online dollars and fan engagement that is now OK can’t be too far away.

While Thursday’s announcement was all about poker in New Jersey and online non- financial prizes in Philly, this is just the beginning for a wave that will continue to challenge the Federal statue for all sports wagering, something which new jersey has led the fight for. Already a growing number of teams are allowing “pay fantasy” programs, and now the infiltration of the online poker category will put more behind the scenes pressure, and create more sponsorship opportunities for large dollars, for professional teams already challenged with finding new revenue to offset ticket prices. That is to say nothing of the chunk of mobile revenue that can be brought in through established online wagering, as is the case in many places where sports gambling is legal around the world.

What will the leagues say if there is opposition to gambling? As has been the case, there will never be a challenge publicly by any league or team. They will abide by the Federal law and what Congress determines as fair and legal. However when the law changes or evolves, they will follow suit.

Now as we have said before this is not Armageddon or the end of sports as we know it, where the fix is in for every game, and fans are scurrying to betting parlors to bet against their hometown heroes for the sake of a buck. What it is is the evolution of sport in a category that has multi-BILLION dollar potential, and already has a well-documented illegal marketplace going on. The legal side of sports betting is well established abroad and even in Nevada, and the Caribbean, where sports gambling goes on every day without incident. Will there be hiccups and issues and adjustments? Yes. However the tide for legal wagering and gaming in the United States is rising, and Thursday’s announcement by the leadership of the Devils and Flyers is the latest, and certainly not the last, move in that lucrative evolutionary process. It will be a slow and steady test to see what the American fan base will endure, just as it was with fantasy, with cable broadcasts, with the lottery, even in some sports already with jersey advertising. Test, record, respond and see what the market will bear.

So far, all tests for the Devils and Sixers are positive.  Where will it go next? Sports gambling is still a ways away, but the other teams and their broadcast partners will clamor for their own share, and those creative promotions and big dollars will be next. All will be slick, fun, legal and highly effective for all involved.

So with the gambling vice in the mix, is there anything left for challenged sports brands to conquer, especially in and around The Garden State, the home of Big Pharma? How about condoms, an industry also with huge pockets and promotional expertise. Scott ONeil and company found a way with one gamble, maybe they can test another “first” for sport.

In either case, don’t bet against it.

The Online Games Begin…Can Pro Teams “BetFair” Soon?

The announcement in the early fall came; New Jersey was continuing ahead and would now allow online poker play in the State in their latest challenge to prove that the Federally-mandated ban could be overturned. The goal was to get consumers engaged in late November, and with that a flood of legal, monitored and secure businesses would enter the marketplace to be the mobile hub of first online poker, and then conceivably other forms of online gaming down the road.

So into that mix, six Atlantic City casinos — the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, the Tropicana Casino and Resort; Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino; the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort; Caesars Atlantic City and Bally’s Atlantic City — began offering online gambling with a seventh, the Golden Nugget Atlantic City having an Internet gambling permit but has not yet begun offering games as it works out problems with its systems.

One of the largest, PokerStars and its millions of marketing dollars, was suspended by the New jersey Commission earlier this week because of its online Federal litigation issues. Others have begun spending away to lure fans not just in Atlantic City, but everywhere and anywhere they can advertise. 888Poker is one, finding media partners to offer their product. However the one that the consumer can’t go far without seeing…newspapers, online business sites, billboards on every highway is the UK-based Betfair.  Headquartered in London, Betfair is an experienced Internet gaming operator with over four million customers worldwide, and is publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange. They also run TVG, the largest legal wagering website and horse racing network in the US, having offered online horse race wagering for 20 years. The company has  pioneered and operates the world’s leading betting exchange, in addition to a full suite of sportsbook and casino gaming products in jurisdictions where permitted to do so. For some of their online services, one of those places is now the Garden State.

While the goal of many of the brick and mortar casinos is to prove that online gaming is safe, acceptable, and a lure to draw people ostensibly to the struggling Atlantic City buildings, Belfair’s marketing strategy may be a little different. Their ties are less bright lights and more of glowing mobile devices in every corner of the state, not just for poker and other games but for the coming tide of legalized sports betting across North America. Right now outside Las Vegas legal sports books are verboten, but the tide and the economics are changing. Professional sports are, and should continue to, hold strong against the tide of opinion that would engage in legal gambling because the Federal Government has not changed the law, being challenged in many States, that would allow the type of wagering legal on sport in other parts of the world. However the pressure to reap the millions, if not billions, in dollars from legalized gambling by professional sports is growing.

So how does BetFair take advantage of the marketplace now? Well how about sports-related advertising? Companies like PokerStars have used Canadian teams like the Toronto Raptors and Montreal Canadiens to advertise their product on courts and dasher boards with no backlash. Casinos readily partner with almost every professional sports team without incident. Abroad, online casinos and other legal bookmaking entities adorn the uniforms of professional soccer clubs, and even individual athletes like Rafael Nadal have worn legalized gambling patches during some Grand Slam events.  Casinos continue to host college basketball, and in the case of Mohegan Sun the WNBA, just feet from slot machines. So if all that works, why not have the State’s two highest-profile professional teams, the Devils and Red Bulls, use Betfair and others as an entrée into a larger scale partnership? The clubs could use the new category, or enhance a casino partnership they already have, to expose their mobile activity as well as add much-needed sponsor dollars with some creative, safe, and tasteful promotions.

Will online gaming be allowed as a sponsor for professional sports teams in New Jersey, or even in markets across the rivers like Philadelphia and New York which are televised into the state? The precedent is clearly there in other markets north of the border. The challenge will be if leagues and other entities worry that companies like Betfair can use what’s legal as a marketing wedge for future business in sports gambling. Then again, casinos, which are already all over professional sports marketing, will do the same thing, so there should not be an issue. If you work in sales or marketing for pro sports, quietly you watch and welcome these new mega-million marketing partners, like your predecessors did with the lottery and then casinos. You play by the rules and when a door opens you walk through with creative and competitive opportunities that pass the smell test of your wide-ranging fan base. Test, approve and move forward. 

Betfair dollars and access, along with other super-competitive gaming companies looking to engage with sports fans, await the next steps.

Like Rivera, Brand Brodeur One To Appreciate…

Watching the amazingly eloquent tributes done for Mariano Rivera these past few weeks has New Jersey Devils fans, and for that matter most of hockey at least pondering for a second, what will the sport do for Martin Brodeur when he makes his exit. While the Yankees future hall of famer is certainly beyond reproach in so many ways, including the fact that he is the last Major Leaguer ever to wear the famed 42 of Jackie Robinson and clearly defined a position and a legacy both on and off the diamond, the imprint that Brodeur has had upon his sport, and certainly is franchise, is probably a close second.

While the image of the Devils in the eye of the casual fan lags far behind that of the Yankees, the impact Brodeur has had on the team certainly does not. During their long championship-caliber run, New Jersey operated in general anonymity, putting the indelible mark of team way ahead of individual accomplishments, but Brodeur was the one constant that even the most distant of hockey fans could identify with for Lou Lamoriello’s club. He was the stalwart, the last line of defense and a consistent symbol of class and quiet success both on and off the ice. You may have hated the Devils, but it was hard to hate Marty. Even in recent years, as the club made a more concerted and effective effort to grow its brand off the ice, pioneering cutting edge digital fan engagement programs that were best in class not just in the NHL bit in professional sport, the player of choice for the fan remained Brodeur, and he rarely disappointed with his performance on the ice as well, leading New jersey to an unexpected strike-shortened run to the NHL Finals just a few years ago. When there were opportunities to go elsewhere,  better hockey markets that were less crowded, maybe even ones where one more championship ring could be had, Brodeur and team chose to stand pat, hopefully finishing out a legendary run in Devils colors, where it started, a rarity among professional athletes these days.

Yes the Brodeur run has had its blemishes both personally and professionally, but like Rivera’s occasional shortfalls, those should make him even more special to a New York area sports fan that is all about getting it done today. He is one of us, and one of use with amazing ability, longevity, consistency and an amazing legacy. Had Martin Brodeur played across the river, maybe traded places with the equally effervescent, slightly younger and slightly more outwardly marketable Henrik Lundquist (one who has no Stanley Cup rings to his credit yet), maybe there would be a coronation starting already, like the one Rivera went through across the league and in The Bronx. Maybe there would be billboards and ads and marketing deals lined up for a once in a lifetime star reaching his end somewhere in the not too distant future. However this is New Jersey, and marketing success is not as bright for those who call The Pru home just yet. Maybe in the future as new ownership picks up on the push the Jeff Vanderbeek  ownership started but not just yet.

In the end, as hockey starts the 2013-14 season, fans not just in New Jersey should pause to appreciated the legacy, and the grandeur of the resume Martin Brodeur has amassed, not just as a Devil but as an elite athlete in the most competitive marketplace in the world. Leadership by quiet example and loyalty probably has lost some luster in the bright lights and get it done today world we live in today, but Mariano Rivera’s curtain call of excellence reminded us that those qualities still have great value and marketability, whether they are on the diamond or the ice.  No the Brodeur era is not yet in its final hours, but it is in the foreseeable future, and there is no time to start appreciating and planning not just as a team, but as a league and as a sport, than now.

Let’s enjoy the time, and the season, stars like this don’t always shine as bright and for as long, especially in New Jersey.


Devils Brand Better Than Where It Was…

Thursday brought a sigh of relief at the NHL offices as the sale of the New jersey devils were announced. The league would not have to go through the pain and brand stagnation that was experienced when no buyer could be found for the Phoenix Coyotes, and some new, enthusiastic blood was being brought into league ownership. That’s the good news. The sad news was closing  of a chapter in the history of the  Devils with the sale of the team to Philadelphia 76ers owner and investment moguls Josh Harris and his group, because Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, from a marketing standpoint was a plus for the league as well.

From a brand standpoint it should read well for the outgoing owner  in many aspects. While the short-term financial status of the club is what brought about the sale, Vanderbeek’s passion to build and invest in the franchise on the business side, in many ways matched the building that Lou Lamoriello had created on the on-ice side. The two built an overall competitive brand in a major market that many thought could never support a viable NHL team, and in an arena that is state-of-the art and in many ways is still in its initial stages of helping lead a resurgence of business in Newark.

Now the story of the Devils as a brand today is certainly not without its large financial warts, and it is because of the financial burden now upon the team that Thursday’s announcement came along, but there is no doubt that the franchise of today is more established and has more potential for success than the one that Vanderbeek purchased in 2004.

Those Devils of old were highly successful on the ice, but were a large group of faceless players not known in any way by the casual fan in the New York area, playing in an arena (what started as Brendan Byrne, changed to Continental Airlines, and ended as the Izod Center) that was devoid of personality and amenities needed to help make the team more viable from a business perspective. They won on the ice but continually lost at the box office, in broadcast ratings and in the business battle with all the other franchises in the tri-state area.

Vanderbeek, a success on Wall Street with a passion for hockey, saw an opportunity to grow the Devils brand beyond the 14,000 fans it had, and give the team its own home, which ended up being the Prudential Center in Newark, the first completed arena in the building renaissance that has gone on in the region in the last 10 years. The team made the move, created a showplace that was fan-friendly, respective of tradition and encompassed all that was good- not about hockey- but about New Jersey. It certainly was not easy, and many scoffed at the idea of hockey in an urban environment like Newark, but the organization made sure that every experience for fans was a positive one, and the franchise took more shape than ever before.

The team became markedly more about New Jersey, with a style and a personality that reflected a growing audience of casual fans who knew more about the players now through their work in the community than ever before. The Devils implemented digital and social media platforms to expand their footprint to the top of the NHL, and found ways to incorporate new brands into the game experience. All the while “The Pru” became more of a known and accepted destination for all events from a New Jersey suburban crowd that became used to train or car trips to Newark; something that was unheard of before the arena and the team took hold there. The building around the arena of new businesses may not be meteoric, but it is steady, with new projects expanding the arena footprint each month.

For sure the Devils are not a night in and night out sellout, especially in these challenging times and with a team that has missed the playoffs two of the last three years, with a Stanley Cup finals run sandwiched in between. However the nights of 12,000 crowds are well gone, and the amount of Devils recognition in the state is well beyond anything it was in the Meadowlands.

The new owners, who might get some backlash from their Philly ties about owning a team just up the turnpike from the rival Flyers, will have some big financial hills to climb and need to face the financial challenges over keeping an arena and a team moving upwards in a market where the landscape is more challenging from a venue perspective than ever before. However, from a brand recognition standpoint they are getting a product in more solid hands than what was there when Vanderbeek and his partners took the reins, and they have a progressive and marketing savvy organization that understands its place in the larger community in the state, playing in a solid and strong state of the art facility. It will be an intriguing new chapter to watch the sport in the Garden State, as one passionate owner exits and a new group begins for the only pro franchise that calls New Jersey…and New Jersey only…its home.

Devils Score With College Radio Night

There was a time not too long ago when many thought that audio as a medium was almost dead. We live in a video world, we need to see things, no one has time to sit by a radio… Then along came podcasting, and itunes and digital audio and Sirius/XM and I Heart Radio and blogtalk radio and suddenly the spoken voice was transformed once again. By many accounts more people listen to broadcasts today than ever before…you can be very choosy about your interests, and if you have the means, can create your own broadcasts online for you, or whomever you want, to hear.

Audio is back.

So it is with great surprise that last year we found that October 2 was College Radio Day around the world. College and high school stations, on air, on line from no less than 25 nations and all 50 states took part in the program, which was designed to draw attention to the value of college radio as a training ground not just for DJ’s, but for engineers, writers, bloggers, vloggers and broadcasters. Today, enterprising students, especially in politics, news and sports, can find a niche that was impossible to break into in years past. Want to host a sports radio show and get guests? Be professional in your approach and just ask whoever runs the station where you are in school.  Some call letters and some informed opinions and you can build your own portfolio, and some great references. The cost of production has dropped astronomically, so the ability to record and broadcast, even live sporting events from high school games in a town to collegiate events, is more of an opportunity now than ever before. More importantly for the enterprising young man or woman, the ability to market oneself and be heard by the mainstream is easier than ever before. Educational outlets which once reached a few blocks can now be heard online around the world, and the ability to customize files and pass them along to those who may have missed a key broadcast can give anyone the ability to have an amazing career through the spoken voice.

The idea was the brainchild of William Paterson University professor  Dr. Rob Quicke, who saw the value and the opportunity in college radio both in front of and behind the mic, and built the program virally and on a shoestring. It is expected to double in size in the next few years.

Part of that viral spread found its way to Newark, where the New Jersey Devils, always looking to grow an audience, contacted Dr. Quicke about having a sports version of college radio night. The first one, hosted by Devils radio personality Matt Loughlin and others, was held last year, and the second event was scheduled for last fall. Unfortunately the NHL Lockout out a damper on all things hockey, but the team and Dr. Quicke stayed with the idea, and when the lockout was settled the idea was revisited with a target date  of April 1, a game against the rival New York Islanders at The Prudential Center.

Like year one, the students would be handpicked from stations across the region…they had to have the approval of the station and be active in broadcasting or covering college sports. It was not to be a free for all for access, they had to act, dress and report on the goings-on properly. The event, as is college radio, grew tremendously from year one, with 28 students from 13 colleges and universities attending. They were credentialed, given all access passes, watched the game, spoke to team officials and then covered the post-game press conference as members of the media. While all have had access to the college game, it was a rare firsthand look into professional sports, and will probably help launch the careers of future broadcasters and reporters.

Like all areas of college radio outreach Dr. Quicke has touched, the night has spawned inquiries from stations across the country to help arrange similar professional sports events. Baseball, with its longer season and larger media areas, is a natural fit, although the college semester may not be as easy to match to a winter night in terms of availability and access. Dr. Quicke also hinted an expansion of the program where some select students may qualify to do some mock play by play or cover a practice or two as well, all in the interest of enhancing the student experience and growing opportunities.

What’s in it for the Devils, or any professional team? Simple. It is yet another touch point both for now and for the future.  The ability for anyone to amplify their work through social media makes all of these 28 students instant ambassadors for the Devils brand. It also gives the team a chance to engage with some future members of the media at a very early stage, when they are just learning best practices for the business. That type of firsthand knowledge d and the follow-up certainly cannot hurt the coverage of the team in future years and it also provides New Jersey with an entrée into the potential future labor pool for young people who are passionate about the business of sports and media, should positions open down the line.  It did not pull from any inventory or damage the work that fulltime media or players and staff needed to do. It probably offered a bit of a respite from the breakneck pace of the season.

Even if the program stays as is, the Devils College Radio Night is hot, one that should go into the best practices file for every area organization. A team needing to grow fan base and media coverage like the Red Bulls, for example, should be next in line for the program as MLS heads into month two. It is a smart way to engage young people passionate about sports, and at the same time helping to ease open the door for quality, well informed future members of the media.

Well placed and well delivered, for both the club and a smart and fast thinking professor from William Paterson.

Devils Try To Be The Only Brand In Town…

They are the only team in major professional sports to now “officially” call New Jersey home, so welcome back New Jersey Devils. With the NHL lockout now settled, their ownership situation clarified and a fun team that mixes youth and veteran leadership (hoping that Ilya Kovalchuck returns from Russia Tuesday) the Devils brand should not miss much of beat when the season begins in a very short while.

The past few years has seen the club continue to build and expand their fan engagement platforms, moving their youth and alumni outreach from just northern New Jersey to central and southern parts of the state. Their top minor league affiliate has and will continue to play several games this year in Atlantic City, and if successful, could keep their AHL team there for good, creating a very interesting New Jersey Turnpike pipeline for the Devils brand that would extend a bit into what many would have considered Philadelphia Flyers territory.

While last January was a much more crowded sports landscape, the moving of the Nets to Brooklyn and the lack of the Jets and Giants in the NFL playoffs creates a bigger window of media opportunity for the NHL, and the Devils should be able to take advantage of that. They also have the ability to re-engage and remind fans of their exciting run to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and the raising of a banner of any kind should provide another salve on the wounds of any fan that was slighted by the now settled lockout. Does the loss of a popular star like Zack Parise hurt a bit? Sure, but that is the cost of doing business in the transient world of professional sports these days. Will some people be soured by the lockout at first? Maybe, but unfortunately fans have come to expect work stoppages in the big deal world of professional sports these days, like they expect injuries and higher ticket prices from time to time. It is a cost of doing business.

The bottom line is that the NHL is back at a critical time when the casual fan thinks winter sports and would now start to really engage. The die-hard fan is also salivating for his and her NHL, and the Devils, because of all their fan interraction properties, are well suited to hopefully pick up right where they left off. Will there be somewhat of a hangover of bad feelings? Maybe but it will be quickly replaced with a break neck schedule and a race to the Stanley Cup playoffs that should be fun and very exciting for area hockey fans. The Devils have spent a great amount of quiet time figuring out ways to continue to engage their fans when the game comes back, not just at the Prudential Center but in the digital space, and although many brand partners will have to re-jig their activation because they couldn’t plan long term with the uncertainty of when the season would start, there should be more than a few fan programs to help get consumers of all ages thinking and enjoying hockey across the state once the puck drops.

Bottom line is that the Devils are now for the first time the only pro sport in town, and the curtain should rise now on what will be a fun and exciting 2013 of continued growth for New Jersey’s team. Let’s get it started.

Devils Try and Stay Relevant In A Crowded Space

Thursday night should have been a grand night at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The New Jersey Devils, fresh off their run to the finals, would have been ready to get started with their 2012-13 season with some new faces and the veteran leadership of Marty Brodeur between the pipes as an Eastern Conference banner went to the rafters. Instead, Devils leadership was in Atlantic City, announcing the playing of a series of minor league games in Boardwalk Hall. Nice news, but not what New Jersey hockey fans were hoping for at this time of year, as the lockout continues on.

Still, the announcement does send a message of hope and a good brand reminder as to the continued growth of the Devils brand throughout the state. A decade ago, the playing of Devils associated games anywhere but around the Meadowlands would have brought a yawn. Central and South Jersey were Flyers territory as the Devils struggled to find ways to reach a wider fan base. That has all changed with the aggressive and smart stance the team has taken in recent years, finding ways through digital and social media, youth programs and an ever-growing alumni presence to make the brand more valuable in far reaching parts of the area. While a team in Trenton did not work out for the franchise, the parent club has not neglected any part of the state, finding ways to connect with general hockey fans and convert them over through partner activation programs and social media.

Even with the lockout, the team has pressed ahead with a new web program “It’s The Devils Hockey Show,” with a behind the scenes look at all things New Jersey hockey. Seven web producers and a series of writers will come up with fun and offbeat ideas, with Devils followers on social media having a say in the program as well. It will bring yet more added value to the Devils brand once the team returns to the ice and the long-awaited follow-up campaign to 2011-2012 begins.

For now, officials can only plan and prepare for whenever the lockout ends. The Prudential Center learned the hard way about lockouts last fall, as the Nets farewell New Jersey season got off to a rocky start with the NBA lockout. Hopefully Devils fans won’t have to wait that long, but in the meantime the team continues to press ahead and try and beat the drum for fans who want their hockey in any form as the winter approaches.