Can “Black Fives” Score As A Great Marketing/History Platform?

There has been a big push in recent years for professional sports in the United States to return to their roots and honor those who came first. MLB has done a tremendous job in and around all things Jackie Robinson and has worked to raise the profile of the Negro Leagues; the NFL recently helped honor their trailblazers with the film “Forgotten Four.” But what about basketball? While there are constant efforts by the NBA to look back at those who told the early stories of integration with the league, some feel the NBA has not fully embraced this history of players of color in the early stages of the sport.
One of those people pushing for more recognition is Claude Johnson, President and Executive Director of Black Fives. Johnson has worked tirelessly over the years to tell the story of some of the original, and most colorful (no pun intended) athletes in the early stages of when hoops became popular. (Claude’s bio follows the q and a)
We caught up with Claude to talk about those characters, his plans, and if the NBA can mix those great retro uniforms of clubs gone by into their marketing plans soon.
How did Black Fives come about as a property and what have you seen as your biggest success?
Our mission is to showcase and teach the pre-NBA history of African Americans in basketball, a period known as the Black Fives Era, as well as to honor those pioneers and their accomplishments. What started as a hobby that into a commercial business, Black Fives, Inc., which at first developed trademarks, then produced wholesale apparel including throwback jerseys, and finally sought licensing revenue from intellectual property and content. All the while, I spent a huge amount of time researching, documenting, and sharing this history with schools, descendants, and a growing number of online followers. This “side” activity is what I enjoyed the most, it was the most rewarding, and I felt it was making the biggest difference to others.
So in early 2013, I organized a public not-for-profit charity, the Black Fives Foundation to replace the old company, which I dissolved, and then donated all of its assets to the new foundation, including its entire portfolio of IP and its archive of historical artifacts. We got our tax exempt 501-c-3 status in August 2014, so we’re still fresh. Now there’s a better alignment between our org structure, our efforts, and our passion. I didn’t mind selling tee shirts, but dedication to a cause definitely resonates better with me.

For example, we believe we’re making the subject of history more interesting to certain students, which in its own small way helps close our country’s persistent academic achievement gap. We also include content and messaging that’s relevant today, in areas like leadership, teamwork, inclusion, business, problem solving, and finding common ground. Our slogan is “Make History Now.”

When reaching out to people to tell the story of the teams, what do you find most surprising that people don’t know?

People are probably most surprised to learn that dozens of African American basketball teams were playing well over 100 years ago. Those same people wonder– and some are even upset about it–why it’s taken so long for this history to “come out” … and conversely, why it was “kept hidden” for so long. All-black teams were playing all-white teams before 1910. The ball had laces. The basket was closed at the bottom. African American barnstorming teams had lucrative operations even during the Great Depression. There were 10 world championships in professional basketball before the NBA even began, with two all-black teams–the New York Rens and the Washington Bears–winning the first two titles. That’s just the beginning.

MLB and the NFL have done a great job of embracing their long-ago history. How do you feel the NBA has done in that regard?

The NBA has not done much if anything with this history. Yet. When the Barclays Center celebrated its opening by permanently installing a compilation of six mural-sized vintage Brooklyn-related African American basketball images that we provided to them, when the Mayor’s Office declared February 10, 2013, as “Black Fives Day” for the City of New York with a special proclamation, and when this year the New-York Historical Society borrowed over 200 artifacts from our historical archive to stage the first-ever Black Fives museum exhibition in their Civil Rights Gallery, with the tremendous media coverage that these milestones received, it truly made this history come to life. The NBA and its licensees now have a great opportunity to capitalize on this new virtually untapped vintage sports genre. I hope they consider it. The timing seems to be right.

Has there been any talk of the teams being recognized with throwback jerseys during NBA games?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told me that he went to see the Black Fives exhibit at New-York Historical and that it was terrific, which was profound considering this was right after the Donald Sterling drama. I expressed to Adam how great it would be if the Knicks wore Rens jerseys one day, to commemorate this history, and for other NBA teams to follow suit with the jerseys of Black Fives Era teams that overlapped in their cities. He said that that was a wonderful idea. Of course the Knicks would have to agree. And so would Adidas, which makes the official NBA uniforms. We see this starting off as perhaps a small, organic initiative that focuses on students, educational achievement, and community building in local NBA markets.

One of the most unique partnerships could be between the New York Rens and the Knicks or the Nets, especially with the Renaissance Ballroom now slated for destruction. Have either team embraced the idea recently?

We previously had reached out to Knicks and Adidas execs, as well as to the Brooklyn Nets, but that was prior to the foundation and these new developments. What is so interesting in life is that sometimes everything could be right about a situation, but the timing so wrong. Or vice versa. When it all comes together, that’s a beautiful thing. We’ve since reached out again, because we feel these ideas are at least worth a discussion to explore the what-ifs, to see if the timing is right, and to consider possible next steps.

What organizations or brands have been most supportive of your work?

In 2006, we had a solid but very short-lived licensing partnership with Nike and Converse. That’s how they roll and we were happy to partner with them. More recently, Barclays Center has been tremendously supportive with their murals and coverage. The New-York Historical Society with their unprecedented exhibition of our artifacts, for which I was invited be their guest curator. Now the Brooklyn Nets have asked us to develop an educational program for them, which will take a graphic panel version of our museum exhibition into some of their local schools, along with a short film, actual artifacts for show & tell, and a presentation followed by discussion. Another development, so recent it’s not yet formally announced, is that we have joined into a long term licensing partnership with the popular youth-oriented lifestyle apparel company ’47 Brand, f.k.a. Twins. They are an existing NBA licensee, which indirectly brings us closer to the league, and their first collections of team-identified merchandise will drop at retail in May 2015. Although there is so much room to expand in this landscape, our DNA as a brand right now is to proceed always in an organic, authentic way.

Hollywood has embraced the stories of pioneers like Jackie Robinson, have there been any plans to tell the stories of the teams and their personalities?

None yet, partly because our bandwidth is so full. But as you can imagine there are vast numbers of stories from which to choose … a quick look at the array of articles in our blog will illustrate that.

What is the next big step your forsee for Black Fives as a business/foundation?

We see the Brooklyn Nets educational program as pilot that might expand into more Brooklyn schools next year as well as potentially to schools in other NBA cities. Adding an academic curriculum would be logical, and would give a generous underwriting corporate sponsor some very meaningful community visibility.

Another big project for us is that we are planning to launch a community-based campaign in Pittsburgh seeking to enshrine local native Cumberland Posey, Jr. in the Basketball Hall of Fame. During the 1910s he was one of the greatest basketball players of his time, black or white, and he later owned the Homestead Grays baseball team, perennial Negro National League champions, earning him a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. We believe he would be the first individual enshrined in both Cooperstown and Springfield. Depending on how it goes, we hope to apply that same grass roots model to other Black Fives Era pioneers who are deserving candidates for enshrinement.

We just got our official tax exemption in August 2014, so we will be applying to grant-making institutions for funding for the first time, which if successful will allow us to add much-needed basic staffing, such as more interns, an administrative assistant, and a development resource.

Finally, next week we will be launching our first-ever annual fundraising campaign! Anyone wishing to contribute could visit

Claude Johnson, an author and a historian, is President & Executive Director of the Black Fives Foundation, a public 501(c)3 charity whose mission is to use the pre-1950 history of African-American basketball to engage, teach, and inspire youth, while honoring its pioneers and their descendants.

Claude enjoyed a 20-year corporate career with best-in-class brands including IBM, American Express, NBA Properties, Nike, Phat Farm, and Benetton Sportsystem, gaining extensive experience in sports marketing, sports licensing, and apparel merchandising, before launching Black Fives, Inc., the commercial predecessor to the Foundation.

He is the author of “Black Fives: The Alpha Physical Culture Club,” the history of a pioneering early 20th century all-black basketball team, and is working on his second book. Editorial coverage of Claude and the Black Fives Foundation includes The New York Times, AP News, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, Jay Z’s Life+Times, The Root, The New York Daily News, New York Newsday, Sports Illustrated, Sports Illustrated for Kids, ESPN, and in many others. A former regular columnist with the Greenwich (CT) Post, he also has been published in SLAM Magazine, Bounce Magazine, and on

Claude was born in Vienna, Austria. His father is African American, from the South Side of Chicago, and his mother was German, from the Römerstadt section of Frankfurt am Main. He lived in the Republic of the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) before moving to the USA with his parents at age six, attending public schools outside Boston and then in Cincinnati. Claude has a BS in Civil Engineering and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, and an MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University.

He is a former trustee of the Greenwich Public Library, a former candidate for the Connecticut State House of Representatives, a hobby photographer, and a volunteer youth football coach.

Claude lives with his wife and their three boys in Greenwich, Connecticut.

D-League Grows At Tip Off…

Next week the NBA season will tip off, with LeBron’s return to Cleveland, Phil Jackson reshaping New York, Miami revamping itself, Kobe coming back to action in LA and the Spurs looking to defend. However shortly after the NBA gets rolling, the NBA D-League will kick off its season, with perhaps the best strategic positioning the league has ever had.
D-League as a viable business platform? A few years ago the thought of a D-League franchise sent marketers and owners running for cover. The League was a business loss leader, with no real hope of marketing or business success. However under then-commissioner Dan Reed, and with a new approach and additional time investment by clubs, the D-League changed and has transformed more into what was the original vision of then-Commissioner David Stern; to be a great testing and proving ground both national for basketball and locally for clubs. A growing number of teams now have used their own partially or wholly owned D-League clubs not just to develop and mold their on-court talent, but to grow their sports business and media groups as well, and along the way have increased their fan development side like baseball, and in some ways hockey have done for years. Teams like the Golden State Warriors have a D-League club in Santa Cruz that has the look and feel of their parent club, while at the same time bringing in several million dollars in sponsorship and promotional dollars. The Sixers have their team in nearby Wilmington, using those assets for fan development in an area where the assets of the parent club could not always focus. The Detroit Pistons are making a bigger effort to market to a wider audience through their new affiliation with the Grand Rapids Drive, once a hotbed of minor league hoops. The Knicks will use their new White Plains-based team to test new marketing initiatives and bring a little more of their team-branded feel back to the county where so many fans reside but may not make it into the City for games all the time, in an area not far from their practice facility in Greenburgh. All of the parent teams can use these D-League clubs as a way to hone new programs with brands that may not be able to engage with the lofty dollars associated with an NBA partnership but still crave an association with pro hoops.
For the NBA itself, the D-League becomes a great test market for new rules, coaching changes and even sponsorship with things like branded patches on uniforms and ways to engage in wearable tech devices, all of which can be tried out in real time in solid markets without infringing on the sanctity of the NBA. It also makes more sense for the teams themselves to have more control of D-League franchises from a personnel standpoint, using their D-League to craft and mold players not yet ready while keeping them close to home to watch that development in person. The Lakers D-League team for example, plays and practices in their practice facility, a model which Phil Jackson will have with his club now in New York (although their games will be not that far away at the Westchester County Center).
So what does this mean for other markets, even a state like New Jersey? With Philly and the Knicks having much closer relationships, the once-New Jersey and now Brooklyn Nets have aligned themselves with a team in Springfield, Mass for now. Wouldn’t it make sense, given the affluent and basketball-crazed environment in The Garden State, to pursue a relationship closer by to develop and rekindle some marketing and brand affiliation in New Jersey? While the Prudential and Izod Centers are too big for a D-League budget, college arenas like the one at Monmouth University on the affluent and commuter-friendly Jersey Shore could make sense, along with a place like Jersey City, which has the Yanitelli Center at St. Peter’s College not that far from the Barclays Center. The Nets organization also has an ongoing relationship with Nassau Coliseum which will now be targeted for redevelopment, but their focus for Long Island is to rope fans into Brooklyn more. New Jersey as a state has found become very fertile ground during the summer months for minor league baseball, with clubs like the Lakewood Blue Claws doing very well as businesses. The winter months, not so great these days, with no minor league hockey anywhere in the State today. So why not the D-League? It has become a burgeoning business, and the state has the facilities and the fan base, not to mention the local businesses who love to engage in sport.
It is an interesting proposition to look at as fans try and find affordable spends for their discretionary dollars across a long winter.

Oyo Boyo, A Simple Idea Keeps Getting Bigger…

Several years ago when I was with the New York Knicks we were planning a promotion around Allan Houston, and as part of the plan, were going to send out to interested media the LEGO figure that had been made of our-then star, as a way to keep him top of mind when award voting season came along. It was quick, easy to mail and very unique amongst collectables. Did it really look like Allan? Not really but it was official and had his number, so it made sense. We found a way through the NBA to get 50 little Allan’s and off they went. As a collector of the unique, as well as a longtime supporter of LEGO, I had been interested in the possibilities of the product to engage sports kids, and somewhere in our basement, not passed on to my son Andrew, a master builder if there ever was one, are the original NBA-licensed sets as well as some hockey and extreme sports sets as well. They are now all collectors’ items, as the patients, and LEGO’s interest in sports, stagnated after a few years and the patents lapsed.

The problem then was that the Danish company didn’t really “get” the sports market in the States, and the risk of getting the wrong LEGO figures to market, they could not produce every player, far outweighed the rewards. In an era before short form video, 3D printing, and high speed molds, let alone self-generated content, LEGO was probably ahead of its time.

That was then, and to the delight of millions, another US-based company has taken LEGO’s seed, and their lapsed patents, and injected digital media and state of the art engineering into and opportunity. Welcome OYO Toys.

Boston based and now Boston-area manufactured, OYO has taken the old LEGO-licensed idea and brought it into the next decade. They have licenses to manufacture products for MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS, with more coming not just in the US, but internationally as well (how many kids in the States will now buy Messi figures who would not have a few years ago, thanks to soccer’s expansion in the media here?). Their system allows for custom printing and design of almost ANY player they have a license for that people can order, with delivery taking only a few days.

More importantly, OYO has used video, data and technology to bring the figures to life in short form video with self-created “stadia,” which thousands of young people with an interest in sport AND film (along with their dads and older siblings) can have fun with in re0creation scenarios, much like LEGO has done with the Star Wars themes line.  Even better, the figures are compatible with LEGO blocks, so parents don’t have to discard those mounds of blocks sitting around the basement. The kids can build stadia, or other scenarios, and use the OYO sports figurines as well.

The best part about OYO’s potential is that it again seeks to marry what were once divergent worlds for young people. Like robotics, LEGO were once thought to be nerdy and not for “sports” kids. Same with film and full motion video, or even photography. Now OYO can help merge those world’s, and make the arts and building good for “sports” kids, especially on rainy days, and can probably help the kids once thought to be a bit “nerdy” and not engaged in sports find a common ground as well. That merging doesn’t just help at home, it will help in the classroom, as suddenly science and technology, and even engineering, may seem just a bit more cooler to kids who might have been bored with sports. It also doesn’t hurt that media companies like Nickelodeon and Marvel are looking to find ways to pull sports into entertainment, and OYO’s analytics, video, and interchangeable parts can also play right into their plans as well.

Are there some limitations? Sure. Making the figures as life-like as possible is a challenge, and there is probably a limit as to how many figures the company can customize for now. However the upside and potential for OYO in any host of sports, even on the NCAA level, is very bright, and certainly makes their business one to watch. The Boston Globe had a piece the last few days on how the company came about and its new infusion of cash from Mandalay Entertainment, which is certainly worth a read.

Keep building OYO, and we will keep watching. What was a rare fail for LEGO is an opportunity for you.

Father’s Day Promo: The Simpler Are Sometimes The Best

A couple of years ago on a  Sunday morning  I was going to get bagels I heard New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan on “Ed Randall’s Talking Baseball” show on WFAN in New York talking about how the simplest of actions with his father, playing catch after work, were some of his brightest memories. Often times in big time sports and promotions it is the simple ideas that get lost as not glitzy or glammery enough, but with the right platform, can be the most effecting. Dolan’s thoughts thatmorning spurred one of those ideas.

 Several years ago I was approached by a colleague, Lance Laifer, to see if there was a way to create awareness for an anti-Malaria campaign he had organized, and do it through sport. The idea was simple, take a nerf basketball hoop and pass it around with a ball through Madison Square Garden, letting each person in the arena dunk the ball, and with each dunk a dollar would be donated to charity. At some point it was going to become a logistical nightmare, setting the world’s largest dunk record, but the event worked. It got exposure for the charity, and as the ball and hoop were passed around the lower seats, several NBA officials and even some players took notice. One was Dikembe Mutombo, who used the idea and the platform to continue to grow his own initiative to eradicate malaria in his native Congo by purchasing bedding nets. The link between the basketball net and the mosquito net was simple, and eventually led Laifer’s group to an association with the NBA, national exposure and fundraising, and a leadership position which has helped eradicate the problem of mosquito-born malaria in Congo and other parts of Africa. All from a simple, cost efficient plan to dunk a nerf basketball. But timing, part passion, part simplicity helped a small idea contribute in a big way.

Laifer has gone on to now solving pneumonia issues for kids in a big way, and is also helping scores of big name folks negotiate twitter through his company, all through looking at big issues and creating simple solutions one step at a time.

So now back to playing catch. Every year the Northern League St. Paul Saints hold the “World’s Largest Game of Catch” to kick off their promotional season. A simple act connects fans of all ages in a communal and promotable activity that links young and old, boy and girl, dad and son, mom and daughter. Timeless, simple, easy. So with all the charities, initiatives and campaigns out there, why hasn’t anyone latched on to a “Simple Game of Catch” as an easy promotion at the Major League level? Lots of teams do runs around the bases, sleepovers and giveaways, but a linked, simple game of catch can be an amazing communal experience either as a fund raiser or as a stand-alone promotion. problems with liability if Johnny gets hit in the head? Use a soft ball. Problems in moving it along? Like Laifer’s idea make it a nerf promotion that goes around the stands and finishes on the field. If the simple act of dunking a nerf hoop literally helped to change lives, then a simple game of catch could as well. Just an idea.

 And with that…Happy Father’s Day To All…

D-League Test: If It Can Make It Here It Can Make It Anywhere

The two most populous counties in the United States without any professional sports franchise encircle New York City. They are Westchester County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey. That was until last week when the D-League and the New York Knicks announced they are re-locating their Erie (Pa.)Bayhawks franchise to Westchester’s County Center starting next fall. On first blush, why should anyone care that minor league basketball is coming to the suburbs. The building, once the home of the NBA’s Doral Arrowood Summer League and the home of more than a few legendary high school basketball games, usually draws its biggest crowds with antiques shows or the annual flower show.  If fans want to see the Knicks, they can jump on the train and be in Manhattan in about 20 minutes. There is little minor league about the demands of many in Westchester.

However the move has great potential value to the Knicks brand, and the the awareness factor of the D-League, which continues to serve not just as a proving ground for NBA talent, but for technology, coaching and branding options not yet ready for prime time NBA. For years there have been rumors about moving a D-league team to the New York area, much in the way the L.A. Lakers have their Defenders playing in their practice facility and now the Philadelphia 76ers have their team in nearby Wilmington. Talk of Jersey City, The Bronx, even Harlem circulated for a good amount of time with not much weight or attention, until the move was announced last week.  With the Knicks practice facility only a few miles away, the club can keep a close eye on talent and training with little extra cost, and the NBA gets a place to showcase D-league innovation with media and other partners without venturing too far outside Gotham. While the Knicks have always had string roots north of Manhattan, the location of the D-league team also gives them more assets for community development, a host of new young faces and coaches to engage not just in Westchester but in other affluent and basketball-savvy communities in the surrounding counties. The D-League team can also bring added sponsor value for brands looking to engage with things at MSG, but maybe can’t afford the hefty all-in price tag.  There is also added content for the two MSG-owned networks on nights or days when hockey or NBA hoops are not live as well, along with the ability to potentially train a growing sales and branding force who are not yet ready for work at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Now will the D-League move to a major suburb be easy to sell? No. It will take specific marketing talents and attention outside the norm of what MSG staffers are already offering up, and with those talents will come some extra costs to make sure that all goes well. Some teams looking to bring teams close in have not found a mix in past years, but if done right, a D-league showcase close to MSG can be a nice little extra to give fans an affordable “taste” of the NBA, much like the successful minor league Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten island Yankees are for the Mets and Yankees respectively. For the D-league it is an all win situation if successful, an opportunity to showcase young talent and innovation in a place where many media already call home.  For a league on the come, the timing is right, and it can set another standard for future expansion or development opportunities for markets on the fence in taking on the extra challenge of a D-league franchise.  

For a team that has been a punching bag most of the winter, bringing the D-League team close to home is a win for the Knicks, not for the short term but for the longer haul of brand, and hopefully player, development. If done right, it can score with rising fans, brands and job seekers, all looking for a breakthrough in the world’s biggest media market.

Basketball Passport Starts Its Journey…

Peter Casey is a smart, young hustler who seems to find himself ahead of the curve, sometimes too far ahead, when thinking about the intersection of digital and sport. After working at Columbia on the University’s social strategy, he saw an opportunity to effectively use twitter in its early stages to help Universities tell real-time stories and get game coverage that they were not receiving, and Mark Fratto at St. John’s University brought him on board to be the first-ever “twitter correspondent” for a college team, an idea that even a few years later now may seem like something out of the stone age but at the time it paved the way for a best practice and laid the ground for what teams and league could do with social media, especially augmenting traditional coverage.

He then went on his Pied Piper-ish tale to write about hoops for The Huffington Post when the site realized that sports was a good way to draw traffic, and advanced to helping the legendary Five Star brand relaunch itself and also grow the Knicks digital following, all the while building a sizeable twitter following amongst insiders in sports, but especially in basketball. While he maintains a smart and effective consulting business now working with some major brands in digital activation, Casey has launched another tool which is simple and makes great sense for the sport fan of all ages.

It is called Basketball Passport, and it helps basketball fans create the story of where and what they have seen in basketball throughout their lives…a digital version of a memory book, chock full of virtual old ticket stubs and programs, albeit more in the mind than in hard copy. Casey and co-founder Kyle Whelliston  created the simple and easy way for any fan not just to document their basketball present and past, but to help set their tone in fandom. It breaks down games by NBA and NCAA and lists out every arena and its history along with lots of facts and figures, from the well-known to the obscure.  The site also lists out all the schedules this year so that you can plan forward as well as looking down memory lane. It is simple, scalable and doesn’t take a great deal of time to figure out. The algorithm does a great deal of the search work for you.

The best part for Casey and friends is that it is unencumbered of license deals and pop ups for now, so that the experience for the end user is pretty pure and very customizable, and most importantly it can be done with virtually any sport over time. It is also free.

Where can a site like this go? Well mobile for one, which will give fans a chance to log in on their handheld as they get to a game, and even use a Foursquare-like tool to see who else is in the area. File and photo sharing and short form video is also a next, and as the site develops, it seems like a natural for geo targeting and sponsor promotions, especially for a travel or a destination site.  It has some kinks for sure, and it’s much better served on a laptop, which is counter to the culture these days, but it is a great example of a visionary young person finding a need in a niche and exploiting it.

Casey is also a young person who gets the value of telling the story, and is taking to the road this week on a cross-country journey to every NBA Arena in the next month, handing out fliers, engaging with fans and spreading the gospel of Basketball Passport. He mentioned that he is slowly gaining tickets and building friends, but it is a self-generated launch of love for an entrepreneur who is short on bombast and long on thought. Hopefully along the way our NBA and NCAA colleagues hear of and want to help Casey spread the fun and value of the tool, something which leagues and teams should see as a positive and a conversation piece, not an encumbrance on their revenue. It is a new memory and storytelling tool, and one which should grow n ports fans of all ages.

For more info and to follow Pete’s journey check out the site. You should like what you find…a simple, grassroots business opportunity coming to fruition.  

Gandolfini, “Sopranos Effect” Resonated In Sports Biz…

The passing of actor James Gandolfini on Wednesday was as widely covered as any recent news event, which brought surprise to many people, but for those in the sports business the resonance of “The Sopranos” and its lead actor from Westwood, New Jersey was felt way beyond the end of the HBO series.

The ironic thing about the ties between the series and sport were not overt. Even though gambling was a plot line, there were very few appearances by athletes or even references to live sporting events. A sports book held little or no significance in the world of the North Jersey crime family. Compared to other series which were held with great interest in sport… “Entourage” for example…the use of cameos by athletes in “The Sopranos” to draw a little extra star power was almost nil. The one exception was then Jets coach Eric Mangini, whose brief appearance, with the help of the green and white, spawned his new nickname “Mangenius” and helped elevate the quiet Jets leader to cult figure status. Granted there was lots of talk about high school football, Tony’s past athletic exploits, and an occasional game on in the background as well as a share of degenerate gamblers, but sports rarely plaid out in the episodes despite the show having a cult-like following in the sports world. Rarely was there a stadium that didn’t find a way to mix in the show thee song or license a video segment or two for it’s in arena entertainment. The Cincinnati Reds Todd Frazier, a Toms River native even used “The Sopranos” theme song as his walk up music from time to time.

 In the end, Gandolfini himself was not a huge sports fan, but he did play some key roles in the sports business world. He narrated a series of films on the Giants for NFL Films; he assisted, albeit with some backlash from some media and academics, with some recruiting and promotions for his alma mater Rutgers, and perhaps most famously lent himself to help the Knicks recruit LeBron James. He made an appearance at a game here and there, but in the end it was more about the acting than all the trappings for the 51 year old actor.

Bow the same is not to be said about the halo effect that being a Sopranos cast member has had in the sports world. Vincent Pastore and Steve Schirrippa, for example, became regulars at sports events as celebrities and guest speakers, in a good part off their roles on the show. The great character actor Dominic Chianese, once best known as Johnny Ola in “The Godfather,’ got  a chance to live out another dream by becoming a very sought after National Anthem singer , appearing everywhere from the US Open to Madison Square Garden, largely because of his “Uncle Junior” role on the show.  Others, from Vincent Curatola and Joe Gannascoli also parlayed their success on the show into roles helping lift the profiles of sports and special events…they were not B actors, they were Sopranos stars. Actor  Ray Abruzzo, who played “Little Carmine,” even ended up playing the lead role in “Lombardi” in a road version of the hit Broadway show, with the billing carefully tied to “The Sopranos.’

Now in no way was any of this attention, or the ties to sport, not deserved. All the actors had tremendous roles and played them to the hilt, and they deserved the notoriety and sport has always had a love affair with films about organized crime.   What is noteworthy is really the level to which sport, especially in the Northeast, embraced the show and its characters. Sopranos minor league baseball and hockey nights, look a like promotions, all went along with the draw, as well as the appearances big and small by cast members to help take an event to the next level, from charity bowling to the NBA. There have been few shows that have crossed so deeply from pop culture into sport like The Sopranos that were not really sports themed, and that is a credit to the cast, the writers, HBO, and most importantly to the lead actor, who brought millions on a great, often troubled ride and will be missed.


Lin and Dickey Use New York As A Rare Springboard…

Usually the New York athlete story ends ugly. Successful star comes to Gotham and ends his career in tatters, or leaves to find glory elsewhere. Rarely do you find someone like the New York Rangers Mark Messier, who came to Gotham to fulfill the dream of fans that had been harbored for over 50 years, and find the way to win and leave with his dignity and reputation still in tact.

This year however we had a rare incident…an athlete  who captured the brighest lights of the media and then…left after opportunities to stay…times two. Jeremy Lin and RA Dickey in 2012 were the rarest of rare. They came from nowhere almost and ascended to the highest of athletic heights on the biggest of stages, only to leave before their branding cash in was complete, Lin to Houston and now Dickey to another country, Toronto. Unfulfilled potential? Nah. For both these athletes even outside of New York, the best is probably still to come.

How could that possibly be? After all they seemed to have shunned New York to try and continue their success away from the watchful eye of Madison Avenue. Well Dickey and Lin are a rare breed. They found success, sudden success for the most part and proved they could compete in front of the eat em alive fans and media of New York and they both did it with an air of dignity and humility. They absorbed early success and continued to do well without losing their heads or sacrificing their image. They also had a unique pedigree which gave them great potential away from New York…Dickey as a journeyman turned author before his breakthrough year, a man who had tremendous respect from his peers before getting the huge 20 win Cy Young season in 2012, Lin a Harvard educated, multicultural success away from the court before he took the stage with the New York Knicks and emerged last winter. They came from almost off the radar to capture the hearts and minds of both the fan and the business community, and that success played out not just locally, but nationally.

So now thy move on, Lin drawing continued interest from global brands as he evolves his game in Houston, alongside star James Harden and in front of the fastest-growing Asian community in the United States, Dickey now north of the border in a multicultural, cosmopolitan city that is bereft of its beloved NHL and is searching for winning baseball. Neither city is second tier when it comes to business opportunities locally either, and the stories of both should continue to bode well for financial success off the field.

More importantly, both left New York and its bright lights as feel-good heroes, ones who could return for a visit through an ad campaign or social media or even community efforts.  They gave even the casual fan nothing but the best, and that best should continue to resonate into the future. It sure is an anomaly to have such an athlete arrive and eave New York once in a decade. To have it happen twice in a year, and to have those athletes not skip a beat from a business perspective is even rarer still. Lots of lessons to be learned from these two rare finds, both of whom left New York on top, and will continue to rise in markets that are more than happy to h1280-jeremy-linave them.


The Battle For Gotham…NBA Style

There have been times in the past 20 years where the Nets brand has made attempts to solidly establish itself in the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of Madison Avenue. Jon Spoelstra trying to change the name of the team to The Swamp Dragons, the time when the team made their runs to the NBA Finals with mega-talent like Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, the coaching genius of Larry Brown and the late Chuck Daly, all made the Nets more of an interest and a curiosity to casual fans than a real threat to the brand of the Knicks and their seat atop Penn Station in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” The Knicks are a New York institution, the Nets are a basketball team.

In the last few years ownership change, two moves, first to Newark and now to Brooklyn, have given the Nets more substance to their bluster than before. Gradually the team would add sponsors never seen before in an NBA circle, try new “influencer” ideas, boast of “record” increases in attendance and sponsorship without really ever getting into the numbers to see what the “records” actually were. However they  did get attention. The Knicks? The continue to operate as an established brand. Never doing a constant barrage of news but ann ouncing large scale partnerships as their renovated home evolved over quiet summers, finding a more international fan base who would come to MSG at very high prices like they would go to a Broadway play, and bringing in bold face names both on and around the court to keep the franchise in the lexicon of popular culture that matches what even casual fans deems to be  interesting. Interesting like watching a train wreck or a reality TV show sometimes? Yes. But interesting enough to keep people engaged.

So while the Knicks fire back with a salvo of news every once in a while, the Nets continue to go all out in screaming about the Barclays Center, its innovative lights, its first ever in Brooklyn events, to anyone who will listen. Only now the difference is that the screaming is being heard by a more national audience, almost as if the franchise is an expansion team. Deron Williams is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Nets gear is a hot seller, the arena is state-of-the-art, and most importantly, their long-awaited new home opens at a time where Brooklyn has become the destination of more high net worth thirtysomethings who can pay premium prices than ever before.  The new arena also has had the benefit, one of the few, of being able to book a large number of events this fall while MSG (and The Prudential Center in Newark and Nassau Coliseum) continue to sit largely idle because of committed and unused dates due to the NHL Lockout. While that doesn’t directly effect the battle for hoops fans, it does give Brooklyn a boost in added interest, which ultimately leads to exposure for the Nets brand. More people in, more thoughts about Nets basketball.

Now none of this means the Knicks are hurting with exposure in the public eye. Their team may be older, but they have established names. Their building may not be new, but it is renovated and state of the art. They may not have an aggressive new owner but they have one with deep pockets. they may not have to boast of new fans but they have thousands lined up to purchase tickets , and have a large corporate base within minutes to draw from. They may not have new subway lines with sparkling stations, but they  sit atop one of the busiest transportation hubs in the world, which means MSG is an easy stop for high net worth commuters on their way home, or even for those coming from the north or south who are making Manhattan a destination.Whether you love or loathe the Knicks, they are still prime water cooler talk.

Sports fandom is also tribal, and those tribal loyalties just don’t turn overnight. The Nets have been courting the urban fans for several years, and can now play in front of them. However that casual courting is much different from a marriage. Sure people will come by for a visit, but will they come back again after they sample the new digs? Or will they go back to old habits in a part of New York (Manhattan) where they spend more of their waking hours? Yes the Nets will again be more affordable, but will affordable mean profitable,, or do you need mega-prices to make it in a very tough business environment? yes the Nets by default will have more people who can go to games in the urban environment that is Brooklyn…younger, hipper and more vibrant than Newark or the Meadowlands. But will those people keep coming back? Yes the Nets have brought in new sponsors looking to engage in a new building, but will all those sponsors be able to lure very busy clients away from Manhattan and into Brooklyn? They still have to cross a river, not a street.

These perceived battles have happened in other cities. The Clippers have risen up to try and challenge the Lakers in the eyes of the local fan, and the result appears to be a market which can love both at least for the short term. New York has its own caste system with Jets/Giants and Mets/Yankees, each appealing to a certain core fan. There are Cubs/White Sox loyalties that rarely change. The biggest difference here is that both the Knicks and the Nets are trying to appeal to a more elite audience with deeper pockets than probably ever before. Both like the casual fan, both both need big bucks to make this work.

Then there is also the ultimate litmus test, what happens on the court. The Knicks are older, and established at least with name players. The Nets are younger and looking to challenge with new names (which is not different from other times the team has tried to grab fans). So in order to fill the void of distressed tickets each night, the team needs to win.  The Knicks larger base means they have less tickets to sell, at least for the short term. The Nets, a smaller base which leads to larger expanses of open seats. That eats into the bottom line.

In the short term, it appears the market can bear out both efforts. Opening night will see “sellout” for both. Over time, can the Nets plan push them into new fans who will change loyalties or bring in fans who never really followed basketball? That new immigrant, one raised on soccer and cricket and rugby vs. baseball, is in full force throughout Brooklyn. He and she is prime to be converted and join their more local team from time to time. But that will not happen overnight.  the Nets have always been about the quick headline, the Knicks the slow and steady build with the brightest of lights on their side, win or lose. Which strategy, or maybe both, will ultimately win out is worth watching. It will make for interesting times for both fans and brands, as a full NBA season tips off in a few weeks.

Making A Rainbow Out Of Rain Delays…

None of the eight teams that made the MLB postseason this year played in an indoor environment, a bit of an anomaly for baseball in recent years. No Diamondbacks or Brewers, Rays or Astros to be seen. So with the elongated playoff format heading into colder and wetter weather, MLB has had to deal with a few rain delays already. Maybe more will come, or even a rain out or two. So with the chance of foul weather, how come no one has embraced the rain out or even the rain delay as a full blown sponsorship?

Now in the past teams have filled rain delays with video, giveaways, and sometimes the odd insurance sponsorship, but for a creative brand to come along…maybe a video game or video player, or even Nook or ipad…as the “sponsor” of rain delays would be an interesting twist. The sponsor provides an activity and giveaways to pass the time, and the sponsorship only kicks in during bad weather interruptions. It would have buzz and fun and give the sport something unique to sell that few other sports have (except auto racing, tennis and some golf), a weather interruption. Also the sell could be very cost efficient for a sponsor, as it would only kick in as a spend when the heavens open. For a sponsor looking for a bigger play, one could look to multiple teams or a whole division. Maybe there is even a grass company like Scott’s looking to expand its reach.

Last year the New York Knicks sold the last five minutes of every game to the Foxwoods Hotel and Casino,
the same could be done with rain delays. Heck it’s a sponsorship that many teams hope they would never use and it makes for new real estate for in-game engagement, not just for commercial spots. There are the obligatory weather reports during the game to see when the break in the gloom comes, but putting a positive and creative spin on a nasty evening may give some extra value to fans while finding another revenue stream which is still clean, creative and worthy of lots of fun and added value. Of course grabbing a rain delay sponsor has its risks, but it could be a fun and novel way  for a brand to activate, even for a few times a season. In the playoffs with some national media attention, that payoff could be even bigger.

Just a thought.