NFL | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

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.  

“Truck Day” Grows As A Promo…

It is a tradition that has been quietly happening for years, but thanks to some opportunistic marketing folks is steadily turning into a hot stove event that could actually transcend baseball and into other sports. It is “Truck Day,” the day when MLB clubs in cold weather cities literally load up their 18 wheelers with team equipment for the long drive south or west for the start of spring training. Really energized by the folks in and around the red Sox, the day is quickly becoming another offseason call to action for baseball to remind fans of the good times ahead.

From mascots in Detroit and New York helping send off the truck to players in cities like Arlington turning out for a little more media push. At Fenway Park it has become more of a fan event, with the truck adorned outside in baseball markings and even Jet Blue signing on as a sponsor on the truck, to compliment the amazing work they are doing around the Red Sox spring training facility. It’s all really nice, but the potential for “Truck Day” becoming a bigger call to action event is even more intriguing.

The large volume of social media can give the fans the ability to track the truck, complete with photos and some surprise visits as it makes its way south or west. Video can capture the entire trip for a travel log, and maybe an enterprising intern with a mascot head goes along for the ride with some additional splash. While some moves are on weekdays right now, having select fans turn out via a contest on a Saturday or Sunday pre-trip to help load the truck, even ceremonially, could make for news and buzz, and there are probably legions of truckers who would love some small involvement in the trip. How about guessing what’s in the truck for fans, or fans on the other end helping welcome and unload the truck with a message back home. You could even name the truck, and make the truck into a season-long promotional tool, or even another sponsorable giveaway. The list is endless, and is not really confined to just Major League Baseball.

Although many NFL teams are not traveling away for training camp these days, those who do can also make “Truck Day” a tradition, as can some NHL and NBA teams. The guess is that MLS probably also does the same, since many of their training camps are in warm weather cities this time of year. Regardless whether the load is a full series of semi’s or even a small van, the idea of loading and packing and unpacking is a necessity and something which any fan can relate to. It also has great wheels for sponsors, and can even be tied into charity programs…maybe with some kids helping select some items. Social and digital media make it promotable and scalable and cost efficient, with maybe even a national sponsor sitting out there to grab hold.  It appeals to kids, collectors and traditional fans, and with some bells and whistles can pull in a casual audience as well. Once again what is a necessity can now become a revenue and media opportunity.

Are there some issues with liability? Maybe but they can be overcome. Is it a mega-promotion that every team may want to or need to do? No. But for an economy of scale, it seems like “Truck Day” is an easy one that can keep growing, another little slice of promotion that a smart marketer grabbed on to in Beantown and other places, and should continue to grow for years to come. Pitchers and catchers await.

Snowflake Foundation Sets A High Bar For Super Bowl ROI…

The snow and ice have fallen; the last fans have left Secaucus Junction; the security perimeter is down and the toboggan is gone from Times Square. So when the dust, or ice, settles, who really won the Super Bowl, other than the Seahawks, the broadcasters and those who were able to cash in on the extravaganza?

One answer for the long term is hopefully the youth of the tri-state area, who received the legacy gifts from the largest charitable endeavor ever involved with the Super Bowl, The Snowflake Youth Foundation.   The impressive endeavor raised more than $11 Million that is going to 50 projects to help not just football-playing youth, but young people of all backgrounds,  from Newark and Belmar to Paterson and Rahway.

When it was launched in April 2012 by the Super Bowl Host Committee, the goal was pretty simple, but one that raised some eyebrows among skeptics; raise money for local community projects that will leave a significant and lasting legacy in the region, long after the game ends, so that the tail from the game actually has true impact for those who never ventured anywhere near Met Life Stadium.

The effort was driven by the key members of the Host Committee…the Mara and Tisch families and Jets owner Woody Johnson…as well as by large donations big and small. The result probably didn’t get as much glitz as the game or the brands who spent millions to activate programs during Super Bowl week. However what it did was serve as a reminder to potentially millions of young people for years to come that the game made an impact on their lives through field refurbishments, gym and playground rebuilds,  youth center reconstruction, and education programs. Those are aspects of the game that will live on long after the Host Committee turns off the lines and files its last report in the coming months, and it sets a very high bar for what future mega-events can do to give back, not just in the New York area but across the country.

The idea of legacy programs with elite athletes and celebrities, as well as events, is still growing and is one that brands are looking more closely at as well. While giving a large check or doing a splashy gala gets buzz for the short term, the ROI can be fleeting. Foundations that can create a lasting gift, especially one that has a tangible return for people in need, are being viewed as more and more effective, and the implementation of social media as a driver to continue to tell the story also adds to the impact of such programs. Now sometimes it is hard to quantify the results for a board or a group looking for a quick return. However a revisit on a program in 2-3 years or even five years, to show how such projects like what the Snowflake Youth Foundation has created is one way to show continuous ROI. Those type of results will be worth watching as the seed money the Foundation put into the community bears fruit.

In the end there will be lots of questions as to whether the cold weather Super Bowl was worth the effort. The immediate words from the Host Committee was that this was not just a one shot deal; that they would look to bring a future Super Bowl back here to New Jersey. Whether that happens or not is still to be determined by economic impact studies and other reports that show the cost and the benefit to the millions of people touched by the game. However what is clear is that a not-for-profit foundation found a way through all the hype and the clutter to raise big dollars and do what these events should do more of; positively impact the lives of millions who never made it anywhere near the Meadowlands for years to come… a legacy that will mean more to people in the area than whomever won last Sunday’s game.   

Will Pro Football Ever Spring Year-Round Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfiltered Access In A Filtered World; The Phenomenon of “Radio Row”

There are few sites as unique as “Radio Row” at the Super Bowl. Once a one stop shop for the handful of diehard stations looking to promote the game, it has now evolved into a “who’s who” gathering of stars big and small, brands large and launching, pitches good and bad, and most importantly media sites of various shapes and sizes. However for all the hype and hoopla, radio row is a throwback to the era from which it started in many ways; a face to face gathering of media types, brand ambassadors  and celebrities live and in living color and for the most part, without filter.  

The site this year, in the ballroom of the Sheraton in Manhattan, was also so full that ESPN and New York’s WFAN moved elsewhere to individual sponsored sites at Bryant Park and the M and M store of all places, while keeping satellite locations in the room for individual or off-hour guests. And while it is about live audio, with a smattering of TV, “Radio Row” has also become the home for podcasters, streamers, and networked sites of all sizes from Bleacher Report to SB Nation. Throw in various media with a mic and an IPhone with day passes, and the potential for encountering someone willing to talk a topic is pretty strong.

A 20 minute afternoon window  on Friday was a great slice of what Radio Row has become.  Standing at the entrance waiting for a friend, an eclectic mix of faces; Kevin Costner, Jesse Jackson, Miss World (with tiara and everything), Jim Brown, Dennis Leary, Spike Lee, Sean Astin, Michael Vick, all wandered in and out, chatting up media members, playing to carefully orchestrated scripts, stopping for selfies, and of course talking football.  An endless stream of products from ticketing sites to e-cigarettes to personal pizzas to custom jewelry and even fashion socks, were being touted by recognizable and sometimes obscure faces, while scores of radio producers and other scoured the room to find compelling guests for a few minutes at a time to fill the hours of air from Vancouver to Caracas. Maybe because it was New York, but the vibe was really unlike anything in media; more a tribute to the value of the spoken word and the integration of new and digital media that seemed to make it all flow in a disjointed way. The Olympics has its media center, the NBA and MLB have their hubs at All-Star, the US Open for golf and tennis have massive media setups, but the confluence of people and personalities all on top of each other for “Radio Row” is unparalleled.

Now is “Radio Row” exposure for everyone? No. Thursday Aaron Paul and Kid Cudi went through four hours of live radio and TV for their upcoming film “Need For Speed,” ranging from CBS and NFL Network to all-sports radio in Baltimore, Nashville, and Philly just to name a few, crisscrossing the room to find the obscure tables of each station. They rarely complained and kept up the pace to hype the film, two guys who got the junket circuit and took the push to get the value. Friday Marlon Wayans came in to talk about his latest film “Haunted House 2,” and stayed in the top part of the room, hitting only national outlets while posing for any number of shots with other stars like Jackson, Jamie Foxx and Chris Tucker. The breakneck pace of radio row wasn’t the goal; it was only the larger outlets. Costner was there for a presser for “Draft Day,” his new film, and avoided the room altogether, doing hos media outside the craziness, but having to endure the crowd like everyone else in and out of the second floor ballroom.

For a brand or a media outlet looking for promotion, it really came down to spokesperson, advance work, and timing. Thursday’s schedule in the crowded space with two pop culture stars was hectic but worked and could have gone on for another hour with outlets far and wide. Friday the room was even more packed as the final wave of stations from across the world came in to set up shop for the weekend, and the chances of getting air time for a vague name or brand with major markets was much less.

If you were looking for volume, hitting stations earlier in the week was better, if you were looking for hyper-local, targeting key markets in advance was best; if you had a “celebrity” looking to bring an entourage or stop for lunch or hang out quietly in a green room then this was not your place; it is the melting pot of sports and entertainment  where thin skins can be exposed and everyone at every minute is on stage to countless numbers of cell phones, tweets, and text messages. There is no filter, no red carpet, and although most people are respectful and all are credentialed, the chances for even a small blow up that could become a major incident for a misplaced celebrity endorser or spokesperson is pretty high. It is certainly not a place for the uninitiated, and it is a place where the aggressive survive and thrive.

At the end of the day, for a brand or an athlete or even a celebrity looking to make a dent there is probably no greater one stop shop than “Radio Row” at The Super Bowl. The well placed can get their five minutes of airtime over and over again in markets big and small and although the overt commercialism some may try would not work, the room is much more about the sound than about the visual, so delivering brand messages via radio and digital is possible, even for an ambush marketer.  You have the opportunity to go market to market even if you don’t land a quasi-name on Jim Rome or Mad Dog Radio, and then leveraging those interviews, video, and photos to tell a bigger story post-visit is the key. That type of exposure, and the quick hit photos, along with all the advance planning to know where and when to arrive, is invaluable. Radio Row isn’t the easiest place to push product or faces, but for the well-timed it can be fun, rewarding and highly effective.

Sometimes Super Bowl doesn’t live up to its hype; however the real hype is done well before kickoff and miles away from Met Life Stadium this week, on the airwaves across the world from one oversized ballroom, with hundreds telling stories to millions. That is as much the nexus of the success of the NFL as the games itself; creating a vehicle to tell stories and promote 24/7 when not a single ball has been kicked for a week. The media machine rolls on.  

Baseball’s “Hot Stove” Fuels The Grassroots Game On A Quiet Weekend…

While the NFL tries more ways to keep the Pro Bowl relevant, fun and brand-worthy during the week before the Super Bowl, the real winners of the weekend appear to be hockey and yes, baseball, in grabbing the spotlight and engaging with fans, some with a national footprint but in many instances at the grassroots. On a weekend where there is no real national broadcast focus for the casual fan, baseball and football have found their own spots to bring relevance in the long winter.

For baseball, the push of interest this weekend is not from games, but from the celebration of both the past and the future. From the Baseball Assistance Fund (BAT) Dinner to the Baseball Writers Dinner this past week, media and casual fans got a reminder of all the celebratory points of the game, brought together on one stage. The 2013 award winners, from Miguel Cabrera to Andrew McCutcheon, all shone bright on a cold winter night while luminaries of the past, like Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, also took the stage Saturday night in New York.  Ironically for such a bright night, the event is not covered by any outlets live, a lost opportunity in the digital age, but the two major January functions always get ample coverage and talk going around baseball’s hot stove.

In addition to the awards and hoopla with the game’s biggest stars, this late January weekend also saw teams and fans of baseball engaging in the grassroots across the country. Several teams, with the Detroit Tigers being one of the most prominent, hosted their annual Fan fests, to remind everyone how great baseball is, and to provide a sneak peak toward spring on a cold winter weekend. Fan fests have always provided great engagement points for baseball teams, and although some teams in major markets look at the benefits as almost being cost prohibitive, those teams in secondary or teams on the rebound effectively use the cost associated to engage at a key buying time with their partners, and with all they need to come through the gates during the long spring and summer months.  The other grassroots push unique to baseball is the annual kickoff by the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), with their SABR day. Always planned late in January, SABR Day used to be a quaint little activity which self-proclaimed “stats nerds” used to start their fantasy baseball talk. Today, with the explosion of analytics in sport, SABR Day has grown with hundreds of local events all connected through social media. From New York to Nashville, Phoenix to Florida, SABR Day serves as a great link for avid baseball fans looking to gather and discuss their favorite sport, with a host of guest speakers planned to add to the mix.

Then ironically, there is also hockey to help provide another subtle reminder that pitchers and catchers are not that far away. The Stadium Series games in New York and Los Angeles, help provide the NHL with another solid platform boost in the US as we head toward Sochi and then the playoffs in the spring. While some may say all the outdoor games are getting to be mundane, the fact that casual fans by the thousands will or did turn out in Dodgers and Yankee Stadiums for the three contests, ones which also brought in some solid brand sponsors and drew more attention to the sport with a good mix of celebrity and nostalgia, is certainly a plus for hockey, but it is also good for baseball.  Being able to showcase the two landmark facilities in the dead of winter is another nice perk for baseball, which gets its brand name out in front, and maybe helps re-engage some fans who may have not been thinking baseball in the months following the holidays and leading up to spring training.  

Does it also help that a mega-star like Masahiro Tanaka ended up signing in New York this past week to keep baseball top of mind? Sure. However the events of the weekend at the grassroots provide a very fertile ground for baseball as a brand to till the soil and start the ramp up to spring, on a weekend where most fans would naturally still think football, and thanks to the mega-events of the NHL, hockey. Strategic or lucky, baseball got a positive boost.