Science, Strategy Bridge The Gap Between Sports Of Mind And Body

Last Saturday the gym at Mt. Olive High School in Flanders, New jersey was filled to capacity. Mascots roamed the floor, music blared, cheerleaders encouraged little children and parents alike to rise to their feet and cheer, and schools from across the state waged battle against each other for an elusive state title.

It wasn’t hoops or football or wrestling, it was robotics, and judging by the size of the crowd and the over 40 schools that participated in the state final from Marlton to Jersey City, the idea of healthy mind, healthy body os alive and well in the Garden State. The day long event was the culmination of work by middle school students from across New Jersey, each team of whom had to first score well in a country tournament to move on to the state event, with the winner moving on to the World Championships in St. Louis next spring.

The competition was not your father’s Erector Set version of building a robot. Each team had trained for weeks using the LEGO Mind Storm system to have its robot perform a series of complex tasks in 2:30 seconds against another table of robots. The tension was palpable and the sense of team was very, very apparent. The final result saw the Cyber Hawks from River Vale, New Jersey perform the most flawless of tasks throughout the day, earning the state title and moving on to the worlds.

However what is more amazing is the sense of fun, competition and creativity that each of the teams took on throughout the event. From posters to mascots to elongated signs, the students and their supporters cheered with a fervor that would match any athletic event. Everyone who came saw the best of what New Jersey has to offer…healthy competition with a mosaic of children from every ethnic and social background in a healthy competition devoid of many of the trappings that childhood events have these days. There may have been some uber parents in the crowd, but most were there for good natured support both moral and emotional.

The rise of competitive robotics is not just limited to New Jersey. Club robotic competitions have propped up all around the country and are growing with each passing semester, from sixth grade through high school. There was also no “Revenge of the Nerds” feeling at all. Many of the kids looked fit, coordinated and ready to do battle in every form of athletics as well as a competition of the mind. Indeed, mind sports, from robotics to other activities like chess, bridge and even poker, are being seen more and more by organizations like the International Olympic Committee as a way to teach strategy that applies to traditional athletics and help grow the whole young person, combining a healthy mind with a healthy body. Also the rise of “Money Ball” in traditional athletics, where front office positions are being taken up by young people who understand business and strategy as well as athletic fundamentals, is also spurring a new generation where young people will take academics and team activities in the lab or the classroom as seriously as many take athletics. For a rising immigrant population that is more focused in many ways on academics but who is still trying to assimilate to American culture through athletics, activities like robotics provide a great balance. For young people who like athletics but are not into the ultras competitive areas of Little League or Gymnastics, robotics and mind sports can also provide a balance, instilling that sense of team and competition while sating the mind and the skills they excel at as well.

For brands looking to activate against an audience that understands both team competition and gaming, robotics is also a unique answer for engagement. Now it is not to say that analytics and team competitions like robotics should be at the detriment of traditional sports. There is a place for both, and the two actually compliment each other very well. However in a society today where young people are getting more and more technologically savvy, competitions like mind sports and robotics can fill a growing need, keeping young people active and involved and finding ways to stimulate the mind as well as the body.

Is it the start of a long term trend of cyber warriors, or a fad like crystal radios and rocketry was in the 1960’s or 1970’s? The jury bis still out, but judging from the crowds, the engagement and the spirit of competition, the “sport” of competitive robotics is here to stay, and that is not a bad thing for a young group who wants to grow into a well rounded and healthy adult.

Congrats competitors, on to the worlds!

New Jersey Hedges Its Bets…

Lost on the national sports scene Tuesday night, amidst the rising scandal at Penn State and the NBA lockout non-news, was the vote by Garden Staters to legalize sports betting in the State if the Federal Ban on such activities can be overturned. Right now Nevada and its casinos remain king of legal sports books, with New Jersey and other states where other forms of casino gambling are legal remain on the outside. While it remains a long road to legalization, the overwhelming vote by the citizens of the state, a state with more professional teams in the area than any other place in the country, if not the world, could be a boon to a struggling state infrastructure which once relied heavily on the casino and racing industries for a large share of the tax dollars. With the economy changing, the emergence of casinos in other states, the change and decline in horse racing and the advances in multiple state lottery systems, those large scale streams of income have gone the way of the dinosaur.

Professional sports leagues will continue to lobby against a New Jersey sports book. Nevada, with no professional teams, is seen in many circles as almost a safe haven for sports betting. New Jersey, with not just the Jets, Giants, Nets and Devils but with all the Philly and New York teams in close proximity, could be seen by many as wrought with issues and potential corruption. Those on the ‘pro’ side of the gambling issue see those teams in proximity as a huge plus for dollars spent, hotels used, and taxes earned. There is also the issue of college sports gambling. Again Nevada, with the University of Nevada (in Reno) and UNLV as the state’s only Division I programs, has a small percentage of local college action that is not on the official sports book. New Jersey, between Rutgers, Monmouth, Seton Hall, St. Peter’s, even NJIT, and all the New York and Philly area schools, could again pose a larger issue for regulators. Boxing, king in Las Vegas, along with MMA, pull in large dollars. New Jersey could look to also re-raise that tide and appeal with large scale fight cards more than ever. So the debate will rage in, with lobbysts on both sides pleading their case.

From a sports branding standpoint, the dollars that could flow into the State, along with jobs and technology opportunities could be a windfall. Simulcasting has tried to keep race tracks moving along when meets have been shortened, in an attempt to bring more dollars in. a sports book at places like the Meadowlands and Monmouth would boost attendance, dollars and jobs. The flailing casinos in Atlantic City would get more interest, the ones doing well would drive their dollars upward. More dollars and more people mean larger brand spends and promotions in and around the tracks and casinos, which also lifts the bottom line. The casual dollars going elsewhere could now flow into a suffering local economy.

Would the worry of a criminal element or corruption come to be real for professional and collegiate sports? Nevada seems to have faired well with an increasing number of collegiate events, and the NBA All-Star Game did OK in the city. The biggest issue with Las Vegas not getting a team these days seems to be more economic than because of gambling…the base economy of tourism may not have the solid corporate base to support large numbers of suites that would need to be sold for large revenue. Yes, casinos would provide some of the seats to be filled, but in the end casinos want people in their casinos, not watching hoops or hockey. Rest assured, any sports book in New Jersey would be heavily scrutinized and regulated, with the leagues, especially the NFL, watching every step of the way.

New Jersey is not Nevada, and the lessons learned in the rise and fall of the casino industry has shown that. Las Vegas has re-invented itself time and again as a travel destination city, with gambling as the backdrop. Atlantic City has not. Would the sports book be the catch for all that ails the State? No. Would it be an intriguing partial answer for tourism and revenue? Probably. Would it cause more headaches to a state already with enough issues with corruption? Hard to tell. What about all those pro and college games in such proximity, would they all be off the board, which could curtail interest greatly? To Be Determined. One thing is clear though. The citizens of the state spoke pretty loudly Tuesday night, and they would like to place their bet on sports books to help raise revenue. If it can clear the federal hurdle, not an easy one by any stretch, it will certainly be an interesting sports business study to see how new age technology and old school sports wagering can re-invent themselves together in the Garden State, a bet that not too long ago continued to be a long shot, but one whose odds suddenly improved this week.

Row. Row, Row Your Brand…

This coming Sunday, thousands of runners will take to the streets of New York for the ING New York City Marathon. It is a spectacle like no other, one that celebrates the triumph of the human mind and spirit as much as it sends a message to all watching that health and fitness is a key part of the American way.

That same morning, about 90 minutes southwest of the starting line on Staten Island, another group of athletes will be pushing themselves towards their own triumph of spirit, albeit in relative anonymity for now, and with a goal that is certainly marathon-like, but it still several months away. They are the steadfast, resolute, entrepreneurial and enthusiastic hopefuls for the United States Women’s Rowing Team, working in and around their federation training site and headquarters in Princeton.

Virtually every morning, the team members, supported by some funds from the USOC and the National Rowing Foundation, but largely on their own dime from around the country, hit the water at Lake Carnegie and Mercer County Lake for endless sessions of training as they prepare for their moment in the sun, next summer in London. Training requires 45+ hours per week of dedication, three times a day by rowing, erging, running, biking, yoga and weight lifting.

Most of the women on the team work part-time to try and make ends meet, but it is a struggle. Only one has a “fulltime” job other than training at this point, but that one is helping the entire team in the drive for marketing gold away from whatever may happen on the rivers of London next summer. She is Ali Cox, a former IMG marketing executive who now runs her own Princeton-based company, and the leader behind an entrepreneurial effort to help her teammates maintain a normal lifestyle outside their training, while still being able to focus on the skills needed to make the team and represent the United States.

Cox and her teammates have come up with a formula to create, market and sell a new calendar, “Power and Grace,” with the goal of raising both awareness and funds for the team, funds distributed equally to all of the female team members. While not a cheesecake calendar, the images, taken by esteemed photographers Jordan Matter and Jeremy Saladyga at no cost to the team, portray the members in poses and styles that the women say will give even the casual fan a little more insight, and certainly a more provocative look, at the women of USRowing.

The team set a goal of $100,000 as a benchmark to fundraise through the calendar, and devised the look, the printing, the design, the sales and the marketing all on their own, an entrepreneurial project straight from the grassroots. They haul the calendars around to key events, sell to friends and use social media to get the word out not just to the rowing community, but throughout the Olympic and athletic community. The results thus far? Over 3,000 sold, with the fundraising goal not just a pipedream, and although the finish line is still a bit far off, it is in sight. But why a calendar in an age when the whole world is going less to paper and more to digital?

What they are also doing well with is success in rowing. At the 2011 World Rowing Championships this past fall, the team had four medals, including a sixth consecutive world title in the women’s eight. While the overall team won’t be chosen for London until June 25, the effort, and the marketing experience, will help give all the candidates not only a chance to be successful athletically, but in the business world as well.

So while thousands this Sunday take to the streets of New York in a one day marathon, the New Jersey based women of USRowing will continue their marathon toward success, albeit with a goal of Olympic glory in the distance. Bolstering that effort is an entrepreneurial spirit, in the form of a calendar, that may, just may, help these amazing athletes cross that finish line in London next summer with gold around their necks, and a few more photos on the walls of their supporters.

For a look at the 2012 Power and Grace Calendar go to

A Self-Made “Brand,” Dick Vitale, Reaches Higher…

While he may not be Jon Bon Jovi or Bill Bradley or Joyce Kilmer or even Bruce Springsteen, there are few pop cultural icons from New Jersey who are more recognizable to the general public that ESPN personality Dick Vitale. The basketball Hall of Fame member and former Rutgers and East Rutherford High School coach has really been a pioneer in sports broadcasting, inflicting his opinion, style and flamboyancy on millions of college basketball fans and consumers for decades. There is not a sports bar or campus in America where Vitale would not just e recognized, he would be mobbed by adoring fans and supporters who either love him or love to hate his style. He is a new jersey media success story for the long term that makes the infamous faces of “Real Housewives” or “Jersey Shore” look like what they are…a short term group of personalities long on flamboyance but way short on substance.

So there will be some who say Vitale is short on substance as well. He boats, he mispronounces, he exploits an opinion, and he moves on to the next college sports event. Nothing could e further from the truth. Those who know the Jersey native talk about his endless sense of giving back, his loyalty to friends who knew him “when,” and his unfailing devotion to family. Now, as he enters the latest stage of his career, Vitale has included ill children in that mix, and has made it his latest quest to help raise large amounts of funds to assist in eradicating pediatric cancer.

Friday Vitale will be honored at the Brownstone in Paterson, New Jersey to raise money for The V Foundation. The “Welcome Home Dick Vitale” will unite all the Garden State faces of his past with his new focus, with the dollars going to the most critical of causes for the 72 year old. The dinner will be hosted by ESPN’s Bob Ley, with Notre Dame coach Mike Brey as the guest speaker, and it will be the next step in Vitale’s crusade against the ills affecting children..

“I am obsessed with helping battle pediatric cancer. My life has been so blessed. I have five grand kids of my own. We have gone and done so many children’s hospital visits and you see the parents and these kids facing such terrible illnesses and your heart goes out,” he said on a call last month. “We need more research, so that maybe there is one young person, one family, whose lives are made easier not just now but forever. That is part of what we all have to do, give back to help kids and that next generation. It’s our legacy. For all the talking we do and the impact we want to make, there is nothing better than seeing the smile on a child’s face. You can’t measure that in any way possible.”

In addition to the scores who will come to fete the native son tonight and raise awareness, thousands of other will assist the cause by purchasing Vitales’s latest book, a kids book called Dickie V’s ABCs and 1-2-3’s. Unlike his previous published works, this is geared to ages 2-6 to encourage reading and learning, with some audio (of course) from Vitale himself. Every dollar Vitale receives from the book will also go to fight Pediatric Cancer. The book can be found at Amazon, in bookstores and at, and photos of the kids he has helped are posted at

He is not the prettiest, the smartest, or even the noblest representative of New Jersey. But few can match the passion, the excitement and the commitment to purpose of Vitale, a self-made brand ambassador now aspiring to a higher good almost fulltime for those around him. The life lessons he is teaching, no matter how brash, are great examples of what a life in the limelight can lead to for the greater good. It is a cause that those others in fame can learn from, and one that in his own words is “Just Awesome Baby”!

Racing To Find A Brand In The New York Area…

The history of auto racing in various forms in New Jersey is a long one. From road races that cross-crossed the state to Atlantic City to raceway park and the Marlboro Grand Prix at the Meadowlands, the Garden State has found its way, even without the power of NASCAR, to come up when organizers look to the New york metro area. The streets of New York are a nightmare, as was Staten island, where NASCAR’s ill-fated bid for a track came and went. Pocono Raceway, not that far from the state borders, and upstate New York Watkins glen remain the spots where racing fans outside of the funny car circuit or the dirt tracks at Wall Speedway need to go to satsify their racing jones.

However this week the trial balloon was again floated to bring big time racing back to the area, this time in the form of a road race in Weehawken and West New York for Formula One. A similar idea came and went last year for Jersey City, because of the lack of political backing and the issues effectively securing Liberty State Park. However this latest bid appears to have governmental support, which could actually make the idea viable at some point down the line.

Formula One, a billion dollar global business, has never taken hold in the United States, and the circuit, led by Bernie Ecclestone, is now making its latest play for the country in the form of a race in Austin, Texas with other markets also in the mix. The New Jersey idea, through the streets of Weehawken and West New York, with the New York skyline as a backdrop, is the best possible option for a road race in the area, although maybe not the best option for New Jersey towns that might be taxed for resources should the race come to fruition. F1 may also not be the only option, as New York based IZOD, has also made overtures to bring Indy Car back to the area as well. Could the open and clear roads of the Meadowlands, where the Grand Prix was last held, be a better spot?

F1 has traditionally found its way to the streets, from Toronto to Monaco, negotiating tight turns and bringing large crowds to a local economy through tourism. Those races have been built over time, and expansion, especially for one race abroad, has really been cost prohibitive in the recent years, as it takes millions to import teams, build tracks and infrastructure and then make sure all is running well. Having at least two races in the U.S. would take away the team sting, but what about the shutting down of roads, and how much of those dollars would go into the cash-strapped local economy, while tourists and teams and media stay across the river in Gotham?

The Meadowlands might make more sense. The roadways are open and have hosted such an event before. The hotel support and other infrastructure for big events exists, given the proximity of the stadium and the arena. Traffic for crowd egress is already addressed, and you do have that skyline in the distance. Now if a promoter is taking on the full nut, and the dollars help those cities just across the river, great. If it is a multi-year commitment, with the support of big brands, even better. Frankly if it was the U.S. based Indy Car circuit, whose parent company employs many folks already in the area, versus the import of F1, even better.

For racing to grow in the Untied States it needs a New York presence. NASCAR has never solved the issue. Indy has tried and failed in earlier efforts. F1 needs that boost to compliment their Texas race and could use the support of Madison Avenue. Can the road race work in such congestion? Do we need it? Only if the dollars make sense. Then, sure thing, start those engines. The pageantry would be amazing, the media sublime, but the infusion of dollars makes it even more interesting.

Lockout Fallout…Benefits For The Locals…

In some ways maybe East Rutherford and Florham Park, New Jersey don’t compare all that well to the pristine college campuses in Albany and Cortland, but for Jets and Giants fans one of the positive pieces of the lockout will suit them just fine. Instead of the quiet getaway for training camp, the teams will stay at home when practices begin this weekend (Giants Saturday, Jets Sunday), giving more fans the opportunity to come out and fill the bleachers which will line the teams new practice facilities. It is the first time that the two facilities will be open to the public during training camp, a rare peek inside for fans that could never make the trek to Albany or Cortland during the summer.

Now for the Jets, a home training camp is not all that unusual. For years fans flocked to Hofstra University, where the team trained year round, to see workouts, and that helped actually grow the teams Long Island fan base. Since the move of facilities to New Jersey, few fans have been able to see the pristine, state of the art facility the team has built and uses during the rest of the year, so the added time will be a great benefit. The Giants have moved training camp around for years…Pace, Monmouth, FDU-Madison were some of the stops before settling on SUNY-Albany. Their opening of the Timex Center was also off limits to fans, who will get a look at the new facility a little closer than the New Jersey Turnpike for their first time as well.

Now the move back to home facilities is more the rule than the exception in this lockout shortened preseason. Teams from the Steelers to the Ravens have abandoned the annual trek to college campuses and elected to save time and money by staying home this year, and that move could signal a change for future years as well, as teams continue to build larger and more diverse training facilities year after year. While that is a great loss to the economy of towns that welcomed NFL training camps in past years, it could be a boon to local businesses around East Rutherford and Florham Park, as thousands will look for lunch spots, drinks and other activities around the open Jets and Giants practices. The added time will also get some additional exposure for the teams’ title sponsors…Timex and Atlantic Health… who will get their logo and name splashed across all kinds of media exposure during a preseason that usually included only Cortland or Albany in past years.

Now there are some downsides for the teams. Added distractions being so close to home, the fact that the facilities were not originally built to hold thousands of fans (the Giants have had to bring in bleachers to line the field adjacent to a parking lot for example) as well as added police time and traffic, especially for the good people of Florham Park.

However the positives for fan growth, additional new local sponsors and good will coming off the lockout will outweigh the negatives for both the Green and White and Big Blue. In a summer of continued staycations and alternative local planning, the lockout may have produced the best free gift for football fans…the chance to see the formation of their local squads up close, without spending big bucks on travel or PSL’s.

A Jersey Renaissance For MMA.

When the UFC waged war to bring the sport of Mixed Martial Arts back from its death sentence in the late 1990&’s, one of the key places it went to for support was New Jersey. Along with Nevada, New Jersey had staged more fights, both boxing and MMA, had a solid amateur wrestling platform, casino gambling and was wrapped by two large urban areas.

The state also had a commission that was willing to look at the cleaned up version of MMA that Dana White, a legion of new faces and the backing of Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta were putting forth as a legitimate alternative to boxing, one that was no longer “Human Cockfighting” that was banned nationally but was still a pay per view sensation.

The casinos of Atlantic City took interest, especially since the sport was not legal in the neighboring states of New York and Pennsylvania, and off they went. MMA did well in AC for a good while, not just for the UFC but for many smaller shows that used ballrooms and Boardwalk Hall. More gyms dotted New Jersey, from larger more commercial organizations like Tiger Schulmann (which switched from just karate to MMA) to more concentrated training centers like those run by the various members of the Gracie family.

New Jersey, like Vegas, the plains of the Quad Cities and the Pacific Northwest, became a hotbed of what was perceived as a rising sport, especially among young, first adopting males.

Then came the economic downturn, the dropping of interest and rising costs in Atlantic City, and the influx of other events into the marketplace, and professional MMA almost fell off the map entirely in New Jersey. The UFC grew exponentially as an event, but without New Jersey as a regular stop on the calendar any more. Smaller events did OK, but New Jersey, even with a steady stable of training facilities throughout the state doing well, was still not on the major professional event map. It was a similar path that boxing had taken, where AC once stood amongst the “must be” venues, now it was an afterthought.

In the past few years the tide had started to turn though. Pennsylvania’s legalization of professional MMA served as a wakeup call for New Jersey as to revenue potential and new events, while several cards from the now-defunct International fight League drew solid numbers and strong media attention at the Izod Center. Then the Prudential Center decided to put a claim in on MMA potential, hosting a series of cards for the also-defunct Pro Elite brand, but with the great cache of Showtime and CBS along for the ride.

Even though the fight cards were not the greatest, they were on network TV, and generated attention and decent gates. All that interest, as well as the continuing lobbying across the river to get MMA legalized in New York, reached critical mass for the UFC's return to New Jersey last year. Fans of the UFC experience now had a chance to see the event in Philadelphia and New Jersey in a calendar year for the first time, and brand marketers curious as to what the hype was all about would get the chance to venture out and check out the goings-on.

The success of the New Jersey events even led Madison Square Garden to join in the lobbying effort for legalization in New York, with MSG head Scott O’Neil becoming an ardent supporter of the brand.

So with New York's legalization still in flux, New Jersey has become the late winter king of mega-shows for the sport of MMA again, not in Atlantic City, but in Newark and the Meadowlands. The proximity to the bright lights and dollars of Manhattan, the interest in suburban gyms, the newly engaged and growing wrestling programs and added interest amongst the Hispanic and African American audiences have put the Prudential Center as the home of the cage for at least the next six weeks.

On Saturday, Strikeforce, easily the second best promotion in the sport, will hold a Grand Prix style event at the Izod, featuring the Russian champion Fedor Emelianenko against Antonio Silva for a Showtime TV audience and a local crowd that could pull a great deal of support from the Brazilian community just a stone's throw from the Pru. Then on March 19 UFC 128 will call the Rock home for a sellout crowd and a large pay per view audience.

In previous years such mega events would have split an audience and worked against each other for a gate and for media attention. However it appears that the market and the economy have grown enough to support two such events within six weeks. Neither is an over-the-top card, and the audience scale will be larger for UFC than this Saturday, but both should generate healthy interest and buzz. Ironically what the two cards may also do is help the lobbying event for New York, as both promotions will hold special events across the river to showcase their talent for the media and potential brand partners who still may be hesitant to embrace the sport.

Regardless of the New York legislation, the two cards do signal a rebirth of sorts for the potential of the professional MMA event on a solid scale in New Jersey, events which will bring added media attention and even another set of new eyes back to Newark. That success could also bode well for Atlantic City’s rebound should the casinos move back to the big business of big events more consistently again in the future. MMA as a sport still has issues in gaining more mainstream consistent exposure, sponsors and a solid gate.

However the elite experience of UFC surpasses many live events these days, and the Showtime experience is not that far behind in presentation and usually in quality. If the next two events are a hit, New Jersey could move back into that elite status for the sport that it enjoyed with Vegas in days gone by. Good news for the event business and for the Garden State, from the small gyms to the arenas.