NFL | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

High School Media Day Scores In Concept

The overall potential for high school sports properties regionally and nationally remains a hot button for media and marketers, with many bullish on the future as national brands seek hyper local activity, cash strapped school districts look for ways to bring in revenue and media use cost-efficient tools to tell very worthy stories and capture the drama of high school athletics both on a local and national stage. While some have criticized the commercialization and added media attention for national elite high school programs, the fact remains that local media coverage and brand engagement for programs has existed for as long as high school sports have been around. The local hero and legendary coach have always been there; there is more of a means to tell the story to a larger audience now.

A good example of the power and reach of the high school platform took place this past week in Seattle. MaxPreps, along with USA Football and the Seattle Seahawks, hosted the inaugural High School Media Day, inviting some of the area’s elite athletes and coaches to the practice facility of the reigning Super Bowl champs for a day of interaction amongst themselves and assembled media from across the region. It also served as a great opportunity for USA Football to unveil its latest best practice programs for proper helmet and shoulder pad fitting and to introduce to Heads Up Football® tackling fundamentals to both the athletes and to the media in attendance.

The concept served many purposes and will probably be set forth as a best practice for areas where football especially is king, and basketball is a close second . The event gave a wide swath of media a chance to talk to coaches and players they will be covering in an efficient time window, as opposed to the usual practice of tracking down coaches one at a time on the phone for several weeks. It also gave media the opportunity to learn more some additional coaches and student-athletes they might not get a chance to interact with once practice starts and schedules tighten, and exposed all more to the human side of sport rather than just the numbers or the video media may see during a hectic fall season. For MaxPreps, the day was also a great opportunity to gather regional content and place their brand front and center as one of the key sources for creative coverage of high school football.

For the coaches and student-athletes, the day served as an opportunity for them to get a feel for what the limelight can possibly be like going forward, when college or other opportunities come calling for many of the participants. For some it may be the only time they ever see such bright lights as well, and gives them an interesting time getting some deserved recognition.  The Seahawks media team stepped in prior to the sessions to do some prep work with the students and the coaches, face time that can be invaluable going forward when media come calling and there is no seasoned communications professional around to lend an opinion or assist in making sure an interview goes well.

Is there any downside to such an event on a regional level? Some may say doing this in July again increases the window for student-athletes when they should be away from the spotlight, but in reality it actually lessens distractions when camp starts and gives the coaches a chance to get comfortable with the media before the pressure of winning is out on more squarely.  Some may say casting the national shadow of MaxPreps on more local kids is undue pressure, but in reality the exposure with social and digital media is there regardless of this type of event, and the media day streamlines and organizes the process and makes it more well-rounded for all the schools in the area.  The cooperation of the local NFL team also creates even additional goodwill in the region, not to mention some memories for the athletes that will last a lifetime.

In the end, the high school media day really served as proof  concept for MaxPreps and for USA Football, and can probably be a revenue generator in partnership for the local district going forward should a sponsor be found that makes sense. It is an event that can be replicated in key geographic areas, and brings a level of professionalism (in a good way) to the media process surrounding high school athletics. It looks good, it sounds good and it takes pressure off of student-athletes and coaches which would have been applied once practice starts. The day was a help to the media in advancing and telling stories, and was a strong-cost efficient best practice for the coverage of high school sports, a hot platform that is growing by the week.

As Training Camp Opens, Giants Others Start Their “Quest” At Home…

It used to be a rite of summer as the local NFL team headed off to some far-off  college for several weeks of hardnosed, secretive out of the way training camp that as conducted without distractions. Fans had to travel to find you, media was restricted, and the business of football went on its merry way.

Today, only 12 of the NFL clubs venture beyond their home boundaries, and with millions spent on practice facilities and brands partners looking for more ROI, the home-grown training camp makes more and more sense, although it is still left up to the football side to determine what is best to set the tone for the season. Still, as teams sell their naming rights and try to find more ways to engage high end season subscribers, turning to home to get things started is becoming more the norm than traditions of the past.

One such team is the New York Giants, who will mark the first full year of a new title sponsorship for their training facility later this month, and will be home hard by Route 3 in east Rutherford as opposed to following their stadium partner, the New York Jets, out of town for training camp this week.

The new naming rights partner is Quest Diagnostics, the biggest provider of diagnostic information services in the world with $7.4 billion in revenue in 2013. Quest became the partner not just of the 20-acre facility late last summer. They will  work with the team in an effort to expand its new sports diagnostic business. The goal in year one has been simple; to become the leader in developing tests related to sports. This could lead to new information on how performance is affected by variables such as diet and hydration, led not just by Quest, but with the teams’ medical and training staff, led Ronnie Barnes, the team’s senior vice president of medical services.

For Quest, a publicly traded but conservative company, the move was a bold one. They are not a commercial  brand, so now one driving down Route 3 is going to run to a store and ask to buy Quest products, In many ways the consumer only knows the company when they have to take a medical procedure, and the doctor or health worker gives them a quest kit for some kind of test, so the relationship to consumer may even be an unpleasant one at first thought. There are benefits for Quest clients for sure, like hospitality and ticketing, and the association with an elite franchise like the Giants is a plus when discussing  business with salespeople and doctors. Maybe that gets Quest some added sales and visibility in a crowded medical marketplace, but the real benefit, if done right, is not now, but in the future.

Teams are constantly looking for more ROI on their dollar investment in their players, and a living and breathing partnership with Quest in athlete care and development puts the brand at the forefront of a very hot topic.  Breakthroughs with elite athletes can also morph into the private sector in healthcare as well. There is also an education factor involved with the consumer on health and well-being,  so clinics and other programs that Quest can partner with using Giants current and former players and staff to talk health and wellness in the community also makes great sense, and can have ancillary benefits as well.

In the end, the move seems to have been gradually fruitful in year one, with the most public-facing part of the partnership just starting with this training camp where thousands will flock to watch Big Blue practice and see those big Quest logos all around the field and the training center. While that decision to support a large partner was not the only one that factors into where a team does their preseason, it certainly doesn’t hurt a fledgling partnership, and is another example of why teams are increasingly staying home to get things started, as opposed to venturing out to places like Cortland, NY and Latrobe, Pa., settings which in the past made good football and business sense, but in today’s environment are becoming less of a necessity and more of a niche in the big business of the NFL.

Investing In a Heartbeat; q and a with Fantex

The latest in Tanner Simkins sitdowns with key executives is with Fantex CEO Buck French and their unique, and controversial, approach to literally investing in athletes…

Buck French is Co-Founder and CEO of Fantex Holdings, a company that offers investable securities linked to the performance of athlete entertainer brands. French, who holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS from West Point, has been building successful businesses for nearly 20 years.  We recently caught up with French for a discussion on Fantex and more. A brief bio of French follows the Q&A.

 Full Court Press: For those who may be unfamiliar tell us a little about yourself and Fantex Holdings.

Buck French: I am cofounder and CEO of Fantex. I’ve spent close to 20 years as entrepreneur building tech companies. I built a tech company called OnLink Technology and sold that for $609M to Siebel Systems. I then built a $200M side of Siebel Systems into the largest eCommerce business in the world at the time. I built a network security turnaround company called build Securify which turned into Secure Computing. Basically, I’ve been building companies for 20 years.  The idea behind Fantex was to change the approach of building an athlete entertainer brand [in two main ways].  One, You can apply additional brand marketing techniques to athletes entertainer. And two, you have the ability to develop a security linked to the value and performance of the athlete brand. [The idea is] that these would lead to a level of advocacy out in the marketplace. If you were able to sell a security to the general public and they had an ownership interest…we felt one day that would marry well with social media and advocacy to help build the brands into the post-career.

FCP: How did the idea originate?

BF: Dave Bur, my fellow cofounder, came up with original idea. He was working with john Elway, Michael Jordan, and Wayne Gretsky on a company called MVP.com. Dave, also was one of the leading partners at Benchmark Capital, a leading silicon valley VC firm. [Benchmark Capital] was involved with eBay and companies like that. Dave noticed that these athlete brands had unique attributes. And it wasn’t that they were the greatest to have ever played the position. That didn’t mean you had a consumable brand like Elway, Jordan, Gretsky.  [Identifying those that do] really became the nexus to start investigating this concept.  Again maybe you do not obtain this level of brand status as a Jordan or Elway but [brands] are about creating audiences of various sizes. Dave felt there was an approach where we could ultimately do that. That was really the genesis. [Prior] Dave brought me into Securify where he was on the board. After we sold that company he approached me and said ‘are you interested in building this company [Fantex]?’ That was the start.

FCP: Tell us about the business model

BF: Our business model is to increase the branding associated with athlete entertainers. Ultimately everyone’s interests are aligned. If we can generate awareness and interest with the brand then the brand can activate on that awareness.  This turns into income, which then flows into Fantex. This is all positive for everyone.

FCP: Thus far, what is the greatest success at Fantex?

BF: Milestone is better word in my opinion. The best milestone is happening right now: our ability to actually offer shares in an IPO to the general public.  This security is linked to the value and performance of the athlete’s brand. This is a tremendous milestone that we worked 2 years to achieve.

FCP: What is one challenge you had to overcome?  What have you learned from that?

BF: To generate enough awareness and education where someone feels comfortable investing dollars into Fantex. Approximately 10 shares of Fantex Vernon Davis cost the same as a jersey; but there is a mental barrier. It is crucial to build up the level of trust and awareness and that’s what are building right now

FCP: What qualities do you look for with the athletes?

BF: We have a defined methodology for the athlete brands that we are interested in working in. They have to have a high degree of character, and their brand has to be multidimensional. They’re not just great athletes because you can’t really build a sustainable brand on that. Therefore, we look for multidimensional aspects that many of these athletes and entertainers do have, but we as the general public aren’t exposed to this. We look for character, a multidimensional aspect, interesting, articulate; those are the key big bucket items. We are not looking to work with everyone – it doesn’t fit everyone. But there is a large pool out there where this does fit, and we want to work with as many of them as possible.

FCP: Where do you see Fantex in 5 years?

BF: Today’s the first step and the process of getting the first offering out the door. In 5 years, hopefully there’s a lot [Fantex users] across the world of sport and entertainment. Its been tried before in different flavors people have not been able to achieve it. At the end the day competitors just tell you have a good idea. I welcome it I jump on in and the waters warm

FCP: Are you working on any other projects we should know about?

BF: No, all I work on is Fantex.  If you’ve never done an early stage business, if you get distracted on iota, you have it give it your all everything you got. And that’s what I’m doing. That’s paid good dividends in the past and I expect it to do so in the future. Everyone here, the entire team, is focused on building a great company that helps build great brands out in the marketplace. Hopefully, the plan is to make everyone successful. That’s the only thing I’m doing. [laughs] And occasionally I see my family, that’s my hobby.

FCP: What are some industry trends or developments that you are closely following?  

BF: The major one is what we are partaking in, the ongoing development of athlete brands beyond just there on field performance. I think Fantex is just the next step on what social media started, which was giving the athlete brand a voice. That was step 1. This next step is the brand development that Fantex is providing. I think that is a natural trend. The team brands will always sustain and be out there. But as you see this fragmentation of media, which we are living through, pools of hyper localized audiences will be created. Athlete entertainer brands will be much more granularly applied to that audience. We’re just one piece of what a larger overall trend of athlete brands that can potentially drive an audience. 

FCP: What is your favorite book?

BF: Unbroken.  If you are going to be an entrepreneur read that book. Its not about being an entrepreneur. It’s about perseverance, strength of will, dedication, never giving up, and belief, all core attributes you need to be successful as an entrepreneur. Its an amazing story.

FCP: Lastly, do you have advice or tips for young people? This could be general or related to finance, sports business, etc

BF: The best tip I can give anyone is to know your passion.  Don’t follow the paycheck. That will come if you follow your passion and what you are really truly deep down in your core interested in. Don’t say I got to pay my student loan or pay my bill; those are short term. If you go after what you are passionate about, whatever it is, you will be great at it because you will love it.  If you are great at it you will be paid for it. …I love what I do every day its awesome. I get to build a company and work with great people. …You got to love it or you will be average and who wants to be average. I don’t.

Buck serves as our Chief Executive Officer and a Co-Founder of Fantex Holdings. Buck brings to Fantex Holdings his extensive management, business development, financial and strategic planning experience. Previously, Buck founded and served as CEO of OnLink, which sold to Siebel systems. He then built and ran Siebel Systems eCommerce business unit. He was also CEO & Chairman of Securify and led its sale to Secure Computing. Buck holds an MBA from Harvard University and a BS in Economics and General Engineering from West Point.

 

It’s Early On A Weekend Morning, And The Peacock Couldn’t Be Prouder…

There is no doubt that the power NBC has in the world of sports broadcasting these days. From the Olympics to Sunday Night Football to golf and the NHL the Peacock has maybe never been prouder for what it stands for in sports and sports business, across both of tis networks and into its digital platforms.

However another area where its niche has grown, and where it continues to push new properties is not in prime time but in the early hours on the weekends. An area once seen as the home of cartoons and talk shows and more than a few infomercials, NBC has looked at the space and seen sports; global sports. Much like they did with the little used time in late, late night, the powers that be have sliced up morning on the east coast to bring you Formula 1 and the Barclays Premier League, and have so far splashed in some tennis like the French Open as well, all live and catering on the network to an audience that is more and more in focus with global sport. In late night, the network found a home for Poker After Dark and several MMA franchises and brought new value to a time that was almost a throwaway. That same formula has been amped up for the weekend mornings, with identifiable global athletes and lots of star power and buzz.

Is it easy to grow a live TV platform early in the morning? Probably not, unless you have the right content, and NBC seems to have found some great critical mass. Soccer, especially the Barclays Premier League, has become a hot property not just with expats and niche club fans, but with some other early risers, kids who because of the digital world they are now in, know as much about Manchester United and Arsenal than they do in some cases about their hometown teams. NBC saw the opportunity and fed the audience, and as a result the audience has grown, and the sponsor value with it. The same with Formula 1, arguably the biggest sport on the planet the US has never fully understood or embraced. Americans love stars, fast cars and big names, and Formula 1, when marketed correctly has all of those. Drop in a race in Texas and potentially another in the States and you have a growth platform that can make its own space on select Sunday mornings.

Now of course none of this happens in a vacuum. There is ample support on NBC Sports Network and marketing across all the Comcast platforms for all of the live programming, assets which didn’t exist years ago if such a thing was tried. There is also more awareness of elite global events than there has ever been before, and all of that awareness builds into seeding a core fan base while also pulling in casual fans for a look-see, many of whom return time and again.

The plan for early morning live sports isn’t fool proof in any way. It still has to stay novel and innovative to keep the casual and compel the die hard to watch. It also has to overcome the wee hours that you get when you venture west on the North American continent. Fans in LA may tune in at eight for live soccer, but at six AM as well? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Still for a way to build a stake in the ground, NBC Sports seems to have found a spot. So what’s next as we head towards the Olympics in 2016 for early morning viewing? Cricket? Rugby (a sport which NBC has invested in)?  NFL overseas? Would some American sports move to a breakfast time occasionally to grab a showcase? College hoops maybe? All to be determined.

However one thing is sure. Like they did in late night, and even with such programming as dog shows, NBC Sports looked  not to the unusual but to the compelling to find ways to grab live content and give it a home on their network. It has worked for soccer and F1, and it may work for others. We get little sleep as it is, so why not watch some sports?

Why The NFL Draft Delivers…

It’s not the most compelling TV for those looking for fast action, and some media folks have criticized it for being too over the top with hype, but as a platform it is hard to argue that the NFL Draft as it stands today does not deliver for brand partners, fans, buzz and media content.

Perhaps this year was a bit of an outlier, because of the added hype of Johnny Manziel on round one and then Michael Sam on Saturday, and the event was bolstered in advance by the buzz and marketing around the film “Draft Day” that hit theaters less than three weeks before. However by doing all the “little things,” this year’s Draft had something for everyone by telling so many of the stories across so many outlets behind the scenes.

Want to know about how the names now get sewn on uniforms as players are picked and come to the podium? There was a story for that. What music to the draftees prefer? The NFL let players do their walkout music and then made sure the list was circulated (great artist hype and something the NBA will probably glean off of). Who dresses the athletes? More than one outlet brought us the story of the tailors to the stars. Want to connect with the history of the league, let’s bring in NFL Legends on Day Two to announce the picks and then let them speak about the glory of the game. How about some celebrity splash? There is the red carpet at Radio City filled with entertainment press.  In market buzz? How about live drop in’s from mega- parties conducted by teams all weekend long in each of their markets. Make the event a travelling road show beyond just New York? Let’s have other cities talk about hosting the draft going forward.

That is all in addition to key sponsor events by Budweiser, Verizon and many others where clients can be engaged leading up to the draft and fans can experience the elongated show by getting free tickets to sit in the audience at Radio City as the event goes on.

The result? A huge win weekend during a time when games are months away, now netter placed strategically between the Super Bowl and the start of training camp, with equal time on both sides. Record buzz, record social media attention, and the building of new stars underway.  Is there too much hype placed on all the trappings of The Draft? While some say yes, the career of the non-guaranteed contract in the salary capped NFL of today provides a limited window for some talent to shine, so giving everyone drafted the chance for some exposure is a valuable service provided to all the young players who walk through the door. It is much more enhanced than years before, but it is a great example of a property effectively taking advantage of a window in time to tell its story in unison to an audience that is both deeply engaged and one that may just be passing by for a look.

There were certainly best practices that the NBA, which has a similar format, can pull in for their draft, and perhaps event then NHL, MLS and MLB can also grab on to, although the development of stars for those three is a much more elongated process in most cases than hoops and football. Now all of the extras were certainly not just invented; many come from the hype and buzz surrounding the yearly entertainment show gatherings, like the Oscars or the Grammy’s or the Tony’s or even the MTV Music Awards.  However the big difference is the honoring of young people here really BEFORE they achieve greatness, not after their career success is cast in stone.

There is talk of the Draft going to four days as well. Too much too long? Maybe. But if the content, the brands and the fans say go, why not? If you are the NFL or any of its partners you want feel good stories to be told year round, and the controlled environment and drama of The Draft presents the perfect launch pad for those stories to begin, and then to be extended throughout years and careers.

It’s a great celebration of a property in a very controlled environment with all the trappings, with the games still way off in the distance.  

Coming To A Theater Near You; Hollywood and Sport Mix Continues To Grow…

In recent months we have continued to see the crossover of sport and entertainment, be it Drake playing a bigger role with the Toronto Raptors brand management, or Hollywood movers and shakers like Peter Guber and Thomas Tull taking more active roles in areas on the business side of sport. While certainly not new in many ways; Bob Hope once owned part of the Cleveland Indians, CBS controlled the Yankees for Years, Fox the Dodgers etc., the move of real-life drama to the big screen appears to be happening with more frequency now than ever before. One of the reasons is that sport, perhaps more than any other area of life, has all the great elements that makes movies successful; heroes and villains, agony and ecstasy, real life success and failure, beauty and ugliness, truth and myth. Guber, who now is part of the ownership group of the Dodgers, the Golden State Warriors, and Mandalay Sports, has been a longtime believer in the art of storytelling in business, and has used that narrative to great success in entertainment and sports business, in addition to his teaching. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern has long said that sports was the first and ultimate reality TV show, before the genre really took off, so it shouldn’t come as that great a surprise to see the genre of “sports entertainment” taking off on a new level in Hollywood.

The question is will it work, and will sports as entertainment cross over to bring more sports fans to the box office, and more casual fans to follow sport? We will soon find out.

The latest two experiments open last weekend, with Lionsgate’s “Draft Day” and “50 to 1,” an independently-produced film about 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.  The NFL invested heavily, maybe not in dollars but in authentic brand exposure, to help push “Draft Day” along. Like “42” was for Major League Baseball last summer, “Draft day” became an amazing marketing tool for the league. The coverage of the making of the film was on par with any other Hollywood offering in recent years, with business and entertainment stories running as far as 18 months before the premiere. All that ancillary exposure was something the league could never actually purchase, but is invaluable in growing the brand. I had a first-hand account of that exposure recently when in a meeting, a young woman who was decidedly not a sports fan said she had been following the development of the movie for over a year and actually watched the NFL Combine this year, and was very intrigued by all the testing and skill that these future NFL players were involved with. That type of casual crossover may be extreme, but it the type of halo effect that a big-budget film can bring to sport, and vice versa.  “50 to 1” on the other hand, was small budget but effective in its own way to again expose new audiences to the drama of horse racing at a time of year when the Kentucky Derby is coming into focus. It certainly wasn’t the mega-marketing tool that “Draft Day” was for the NFL, but it was a solid entrée for a sport that is really pushing to get its footing back in the mainstream.

These two releases are not outliers either. There is a full slate of films either in production or on the horizon where sport and entertainment will mix. “Million Dollar Arm,” the Disney-led story of two Indian boys who learn the game of baseball, will be out in May, “When The Game Stands Tall,” the amazing story of deLasalle High School in California follows this summer, “Foxcatcher,” a wrestling themed real life story of murder and intrigued will hit Cannes and be out in the fall, while films about Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (with Will Farrell on board to play the hustling and aging Riggs), and Vince Lombardi all are also slated for 2015 and beyond.

Do these projects actually work? Depends on how you view the end game. There have been crossover hits in the genre, “Moneyball,” “Seabiscuit,” “The Blind Side,” “Talladega Nights,” “Rush,” that have gotten the full buy in and marketing support of the leagues they represent. Those films draw interest from the most talented of writers, directors and stars interested in not just sport but the narrative as well, and as a result, no matter what the box office dollars end up being, they become massive marketing opportunities for the brands involved at really minimal cost to the NFL, NASCAR, MLB etc. The best of worlds has these films translating into the massive box office success outside the States for the company releasing the film, an “Invictus,” for example, which a film about soccer or racing or rugby can do much better than say, “42” which could have limited appeal in places like Asia or the Baltic States where baseball and the Jackie Robinson story are not as interesting or well known. Then you also have the films that can do well because they push the controlled reality of the leagues and can pain a little harsher or edgier angle that the marketing groups may not want to help with, such as Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” A mega-hit at the box office about football, but not an NFL mark or logo anywhere in sight. There is still an argument to be made that any well done, well marketed film about sport raises the buzz level, and that too helps.

So who wins in this new genre? Do these films have to be critical successes to be successful? Again depends on what the overall goal is. If you are Hollywood you want to get ROI at the box office obviously, but you understand the landscape of the sale, and getting the exposure from all the assets a league may have to market a film offsets the dollars you would have to spend in a traditional film marketing budget. If you are the league or the athlete, you can see this as a cost and message controlled vehicle to expand the brand, without having to risk millions on self-producing. You like the partnership, you love the exposure, and you have little risk on the back end so long as the story is somewhat interesting and well marketed. You have tremendous opportunity for exposing not just your league brand, but your brand partners to a larger audience through film or other entertainment venues like Broadway. That woman in the meeting a few weeks ago, you hope, is proof that your plan has worked. Most importantly for both parties is that the story line is well maintained. If you are dealing with sport, and all of these films recently and going forward are based on actual events, you know what the outcome is, and what the response from at least the hardcore follower has been. There is little sell-in to the core audience, they get it and they loved it when it happened, now it’s time to re-tell the tale to the larger audience. It’s not “Bull Durham” or “Field of Dreams,” which had a little more risk as they were not actual events, so there is much less of a risk.

Will this genre continue to grow, and will it expand beyond the borders of great U.S. stories as well? The marketplace will certainly tell us, but for now it looks like it is telling us that the genre is working, and if that’s true there are certainly no shortage of stories that can be told to a larger audience than ever before. That’s good news for entertainment business, and even better news for great crossover storytellers like Guber, Tull, Disney and others, and its great news for sports business.

The New Sponsored Logo Game: The Battle of Consistency vs. Risky Dollars…

In the last few years sports teams in North America, from college through the pros, have forgone consistency of brand in their look for the sake of selling more diverse, quirky, unique and even outlandish jerseys, kits and other uniform pieces to an audience who want different, at least to have in their closets. With few exceptions…The New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Penn State football, the Montreal Canadiens, the Los Angeles Lakers…teams if every size and shape have taken to Day-Glo, faux flags, selfie encrusted, camo-filled looks as a way to gain attention, sell more merch and sometimes raise funds for charity, especially when apparel companies like Under Armour and Nike are always looking to engage a younger audience not thrilled with consistency and big on expressive and outlandish. Sometimes it works, sometimes it looks silly, but usually it draws attention and many times ancillary revenue.

That revenue challenge on the professional side, and maybe at some point on the college side, will soon be amplified when the four major sports leagues allow brands to advertise on uniforms at some point in the next few years. The logo’ed jerseys have long passed the sniff test in MLS, the CFL and the WNBA and on practice apparel with the NBA and the NFL, and brands on kits are the norm in sports like rugby cricket and soccer in the rest of the world, so it becomes a question of when and who, not if, the brand of choice will appear on many clubs uniforms in North America. Some still may forgo the selling of space on uniforms for the sake of purity and value of their look, but most will surely give it a try and reap the dollars.

However with the logo’ed jersey comes a unique problem, one which has arisen again with MLS as clubs like DC United switch kit sponsors; the availability of old inventory licensed out to commercial partners through television and digital still photography. Sponsors, especially new ones, will pay a high price for the ability to be seen everywhere associated with clubs, but archival footage sold and licensed, especially in transition years, could continue to show up with old and dated uniforms bearing brands that are long gone. A Volkswagen logo on a United kit for example, could continue to show up in a licensed video game or commercial or billboard or photo campaign for several years after a team makes a change, which can create problems both for the club and for the new brand, depending on how wide the usage is. Now in the still photographic world, the digitizing of shots can help alleviate that problem; lift a logo out and drop a new one in to share; but in video and even in many licensed products the logo change may be slow, which can potentially damage the brand for the short term. The problem is not a new one for clubs that have chosen to flip-flop uniforms or do specialized or throwback uniforms several times a season; you run the risk of those unfamiliar or “specialized” day glo or bright orange uniforms ending up in places where you would want your traditional and consistent look to be. Some cherish the thought of the specialized uni’s ending up in campaigns as great exposure, some go to great lengths to limit the accessibility of shots and video from special nights so the brand can stay consistent for the long term. However with a branded uniform work for the long term, that issue of inconsistency rises dramatically. The goal is to overachieve for a brand partner, especially one that is new or one that has plunked down millions for an affiliation, so consistency, and consistent policing of what footage is going where, is going to become even more critical when logos start appearing in prime time for the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB at some point.

Now brands who chose to forgo the branded bucks for their clean look may run the risk of less upfront sponsor dollars than those who chose to bring a sponsor in; but they run much less of a risk in achieving ROI for that sponsor by simply saying no to jersey signage. In many ways, their clean look is exposure for the team unto itself; it is what they are known for in the sports marketplace. However for most, the dollars to earn by dropping a carefully placed and sized logo will be too much to pass up.

So who wins and loses in the new sponsored logo world? The leagues and teams for the most part will see a win, as will many specialty sales spots who can offer up the new looks, much like they do with the “specialized” jerseys being done ad nauseum today in college and the pros. Brick and mortar apparel sales shops, who have to take the risk on dated material with old logos will have the same issue they have when a marquee player gets traded these days, getting stuck with inventory now deemed for the scrap heap, but online e-tailers who have less inventory and can shift quickly to a new look will also benefit.

For sure none of this is being done in a vacuum at the highest level. The risks and rewards and issues are being played out time and again in the elite leagues, each watching as minor league sports and others take the first steps. However once the step is made for logo’ed apparel, consistency and control may have an even bigger premium. It is one thing to have a special jersey from a few years ago showing up in an ad campaign or in printed material by a third party; it is something else when the ad contains a brand whose contract has long since expired. That can do damage not just to the authenticity of the ad, it can hurt the new sponsor relationship with the team and with the league itself.

Consistency of brand is something which seems to be a little less valuable these days, with new and flashy looks taking the place of the safe and simple. For sure there are dollars to be made with the changing times, the question remains is the risk worth the reward for the long term?  That remains to be seen, as sponsors enter the uniform game for most sports sometime soon.

Building An Accepting Culture Goes Beyond The Game…

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

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

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

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

 Winning people make for winning teams, and winning brands. 

D-League Develops Way Beyond It’s Original Plan…

It started out as an answer to the defunct Continental Basketball Association, a way to help young, and mostly young players, in the U.S. through a minor league system that could mirror what baseball had done.  Although that isn’t really where the NBA Development League is totally today, what has emerged is something perhaps more beneficial to the NBA from a business and technology standpoint than the original idea, and is one which other sports’ developmental properties should continue to watch and expand upon, as evidenced by the latest news coming out of All-Star Weekend in New Orleans .

The NBA announced that the D-League will become the latest and most prominent organization to implement wearable tech as a way to establish new baselines for player performance in live games, with the small devices, which weigh one ounce, to be worn by players under their jersey with either a small disc attached to their chest, or inside an undergarment pouch located between the shoulder blades. At least two teams; the Bakersfield Jam and Fort Wayne Mad Ants have begun outfitting their players with the performance analytic devices. The goal is to have real time data available to evaluate cardiovascular exertion, musculoskeletal intensity, fatigue, rate of acceleration and deceleration, number of jumps, and distance run and direction, among other things.  In a perfect world down the line, the data can be served in real time to trainers and coaches during games to help players make immediate adjustments to their playing style, such as stepping back to calm a bit during a free throw, or take a few extra breaths to stay less fatigued. It can also help in improving the long-term health of athletes by studying what before could only be guessed at during games; how and when a players peak performance actually occurs, with all the factors of crowd noise and competition added in.

In years past the NBA has used the D-League to help in coaching development, referee training, secondary market development, rules experimentation, and sponsorship branding (aka uniform patches), in addition to its main goal of helping create a stay at home cost controlled marketplace for players just a notch below the elite rosters of the NBA. NBA teams have also taken more and more to the MLB minor league model of keeping D-League teams close to home, such as in LA and Philadelphia, to help keep a closer watch on their young players and giving some up and coming front office talent a place to help get on the job training. However what the DLeague has never really been us the glorious and overflowing family fun entertainment that we associate with minor league baseball and to some extent, minor league hockey. The D-League has become much more of a controlled lab for the NBA, which in some ways has forgone the goal of keeping large groups of American players in the States vs. going to Europe and elsewhere to further their careers. With overall league development as a primary focus, the NBA has created a tremendous proving ground for rules and now technology to see what works and what doesn’t in bettering the consumer and the athlete experience at the highest level. There is no crapshoot in testing a new rule in exhibition games or even in the regular season, which had happened in the past. Teams can look at best practices in technology at the D-League level before deciding what to use or not use in evaluating their players, and the league can even test wireless capability in the smaller arenas of the D-League for fan engagement and technology opportunities before moving things to a higher level with larger venues of the NBA.

On the sponsorship side, the D-League provides a great test environment for new branding, digital and social media and sponsor categories that can be perfected before reaching the bright lights of the NBA. The league’s television relationship also provides for a great platform to test new broadcast angles and other consumer data interaction before it has to go live across the much larger broadcast environment of the NBA teams as well. In other sports the ability to test and grow at the minor league level is not as robust. Baseball’s tight restrictions on players development, as well as the entrepreneurial ownership spirit of minor league clubs, makes rules testing much less of a possibility today, and the experimental pieces of the game largely fall to the independent leagues, which can try things because of their lack of affiliation with MLB clubs. The NFL’s developmental systems have never really come full circle, with rule adaptations and real-time player data programs now going more to the independent Arena league, although whispers of a fall or spring developmental league continue to surface. Much like baseball, hockey’s minor league system is also more stringent on innovation, although a more loosely affiliated league like the Central Hockey League continues to look to ways to better innovate and engage. Soccer, like the NBA probably has the most room for innovation amongst its lower levels these days, and can probably look to the hardwood for the best ways to engage and test before projects get to the MLS level.

So maybe the D-League has not come through as the full-blown minor league structure that was originally talked about. However what has emerged is probably much more valuable for the business of basketball and the future of the NBA as a robust and forward-thinking sports and entertainment property. There is still plenty of talent that is engaged in playing in the D-League, and in addition the test cases that can be built to improve the quality and the experience of the game can go on unabated, a best of both world’s scenario in a cost controlled environment for new commissioner Adam Silver to continue to grow as his term begins in full force this weekend.

Timing Is Everything; Beckham Boosts American Soccer Again…

The past week after the Super Bowl, the Today Show, in the midst of its Olympic buzz, welcomed a global star to its air. It wasn’t Russell Wilson and his freshly minted NFL title; it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin, headed for Sochi and the homestanding Russian team; it wasn’t Lindsay Vonn, readying for her on-air role for Sochi. It was David Beckham and he was talking not Barclays Premier League or World Cup, he wasn’t talking Super Bowl underwear ads. He was talking Major League Soccer, on a dreary morning where most of the Northeast was longing for pitchers and catchers in sports and most MLS teams were off in some warm clients training for a season still to come in most home markets.

The timing was great, and the announcement was simple; the global star was bringing his brand back to help the league jump once again in another warm weather location, this time Miami, as the new “owner” of the latest MLS expansion franchise. They don’t have financing or a stadium, the announcement was  to let the world know Beckham had exercised his expiring option to own a team, and that choice would be Miami, a city where if you aren’t the Heat on a title run you have a tough time filling seats and capturing the attention of sports fans. Regardless of the obstacles, the day was a great one for MLS, which used the Beckham celebrity to inject itself into the global sports and business conversation at a time where they were a distant afterthought even in the soccer world which past midseason across Europe and is starting to ramp up for Brazil World Cup later this year.

The announcement was full of what MLS sells best; future hope combined with lots of buzz as it continues to build the quality of its play and the value of its franchises.  It had all the right trappings; mentions of celebrity owners coming in, a call to action for the Latino audience dominant in South Florida to embrace a professional soccer franchise, a that an elite former player was now focused on creating a new legacy off the field in the game he loves, and a that a market where MLS had died years ago was now mature and ready to grow again, not unlike cities like Washington have done with baseball and Sacramento in some ways is going through with basketball. Miami is now a welcomed and potential great success story for soccer in America.

Now when the sizzle clears there is lots to be done and many questions to be raised; where does the money come from, who builds the stadium, can Beckham, with no managerial experience and lots of business initiatives, spend the time and hire all the right people to make the franchise a success as a business and as a soccer club, and even if he does, will the fickle Miami audience turn out?  While a big announcement for sure, others questioned why the next franchise wouldn’t be in a more mature soccer city like Atlanta, San Antonio or Austin, vs. the risky move back to South Beach. However for today, having Beckham back in the fold was great news for MLS, and helps jump start a series of events for 2014 that can continue to propel the business of soccer in the States forward. It follows the popular partnership between the New York Yankees and Manchester City Football Club to add an expansion franchise to New York, and the string announcement to bring Central Florida, a very solid soccer market already, a club in Orlando all of which sounded good and brought buzz and like Miami, are still off in the distance as to what level of actual success can be achieved with such high expectations.

We all know in sport nothing is easy, and when dealing with real life drama on and off the field even the best plans and biggest dreams can go awry. However for MLS to cut through a cluttered February landscape already filled with Olympics, the Super Bowl business hangover, the coming NBA All-Star game and more than enough exciting college sports (not to mention Daytona for NASCAR and Pebble Beach in golf), was a huge score for soccer, and a move which has set the tone once again for what can be an exciting, and definitely intriguing sports business landscape not just for 2014 but for the next few years to come as these new franchises look to emulate the success of places like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver with lots of sizzle, and hopefully a steak to go with it, the latest one in the hands of one of the world’s most recognizable faces, now settling in in South Florida.