NHL | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

What’s Next In The U.S., “Brand Soccer”?

It’s kind of an interesting juxtaposition for team sports. As the four biggest American leagues all look to be more global, Major League Soccer looks to continue to better establish a global game in the United States, and their leverage continues to increase daily as not just the U.S. Men’s National Team continues its good work, but casual fans become more attuned to the ebb and flow of the global game of soccer through the World Cup.

Leveraging a global phenomenon in sports is certainly not new; women’s soccer tried with their success in the women’s World Cup, and Olympians big and small do the same to various degrees of success every two years, and other sports like Formula 1, Indy Car, America’s Cup even Beach Volleyball and now rugby and even cricket, try to take those unique windows where the consumer is entranced and stretch that window as wide as possible. Usually it ebbs and flows away, with few long term consistent results. Sometimes the telegenic break through; Michael Phelps, Brandi Chastain, Alex Morgan, Lolo Jones,  Keri Walsh; but often times it’s here today and on to the next thing tomorrow.

Soccer obviously is different for many reasons. It has built from the ground up over a long period of time for sport. It has had the unique opportunity to have its biggest global clubs infiltrate the US media market with brand activation and fan education platforms (which will continue this summer) and now it has success in front of an audience that is more primed for the game and more educated than ever before. It also has the benefit for the most part of being the sport of choice for the new immigrant, all of which helps rise the tide.

So when the sun sets on the American World Cup, or if the US goes through an improbable but still possible run through the knockout round now in Brazil, what’s next?  Sometimes athletes, sports, brands build to the moment or the key event, the event comes, and that is the pinnacle of exposure. For soccer in the US, the next step is even more important than the ones in the past or the ones now, and that’s where MLS seems to be best set up.

The league can certainly take a page from the NHL and its partners, who rode post-Olympic notoriety to solid numbers and brand exposure again this past winter. Stars were built, global stars, as they went back to their markets and all of hockey benefitted. Brands got more engaged, teams used social platforms to expand their reach, and NBC’s investment across all platforms made hockey overall more relevant in the casual sports landscape than it has ever been before.

Soccer, and MLS in particular, has used this quiet league time to be great ambassadors for the sport. Instead of spending all his time in Brazil, Commissioner Don Garber beat the media bushes here in the States, talking growth, partnerships and business with everyone who would listen. Bring scarves to Morning Joe? There was the comish. A late night talk? The comish was there. Leveraging ESPN (even though it is their last World Cup they are still invested in the game with partners) to the hilt, MLS officials are there. All smart ways to make sure the conversation is driven back to what could happen and what people will look to when the World Cup ends and discretionary dollars get allocated again. A lull in an MLS season did not mean a lull in brand activity; it has been just the opposite.

So coming out of Brazil, how does MLS keep the buzz going? Well it has the league and all its partner cities to make sure the flavor and the pageantry of what was seen by casual fans can be amplified to some extent. It has friendlies with some of the biggest clubs in the world coming to selected markets to again amplify the soccer experience and bring global soccer back to the US in some form. It has VERY eager brand partners to activate with who now see the engagement possibilities, and it has new potential partners who looked at World Cup and see potential in the States they may not have seen before.

Are there challenges? Absolutely. Hockey had the advantage of having most Olympic stars coming back to North America to play in the NHL. MLS does not have that, as even many of the most recognizable Americans re still pulling in big bucks abroad. That is changing, but it is a challenge. It is still very much an experiential sport and a sport of tradition vs a sport that is consistently strong in broadcast numbers in the US, but like hockey, the overall engagement across all platforms, especially for a younger soccer fan in the States, is more important than a Nielsen number. There is also the continuing challenge of converting the global fan of soccer to a fan of the American game and its MLS teams. That is a slow but evolving process, and one which the popularity of this World Cup will not change.

So while all about World Cup has been great for American partners in soccer, the biggest evolution and step is yet to come. The challenges exist, but the opportunity is great, and the MLS leadership, and the leadership of USA Soccer, looks from their actions ready to keep the buzz going and the brand building once the sun sets in Brazil, and rises to a bold “what’s next” back in the States.

What Next, Clippers?

The speed and price of the Los Angeles Clippers potential sale this week pointed two key facts; there are more billionaires in the world than there are sports franchises for sale, and the most important part of any transaction is not a valuation or a sticker, tis what someone in the market will pay for the asset. Steve Ballmer’s speed to beat others to become an NBA owner this time around proved that point.

Earlier in the week a lot of the talk had been about the potential brand damage the entire Sterling mess had brought to the franchise. However even before the sale there was little evidence that the madness had actually brought more value to the Clippers brand off the court than ever before, should the right owner be found and a sale go through. Sponsors who threatened to walk came back in the door, upper management was stabilized with the help of the NBA, and the support of the players and the coaching staff following Adam silver’s moves had given all a sense that justice in some form was being meted out, and the business of the LA Clippers was as sound, if not sounder, than ever before.  Now the a $2 billion price tag where exactly is the Clippers brand going forward, especially given the flux of their co-tenants the Los Angeles Lakers, and the ever-fluid state of the NBA from a personnel standpoint.

On the court the franchise obviously has some of the most marketable stars in North American sport in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They have paid handsomely for a coach in Doc Rivers and have added the pieces they saw as needed to move the club to one level for now, but it is a level still short of an NBA title. They sell tickets in a building where they are a tenant, they bring in brands which are solid but not overly cutting edge, they draw a bit of a national audience but still not a massive one, and their presence outside the US in the scope of the NBA is still behind that of brands like the Knicks, the Lakers, the Bulls, the Heat and even teams like the Rockets, the Nets and the Mavericks. They are not currently, but will soon, be in a position to set up a better structured and more lucrative TV deal, but that is still a bit off in the distance.

The big question from a brand standpoint right now can be addressed in the time and effort Ballmer as an owner will put in to changing a culture even further. Many have said the organization outside of ownership was progressing into being more aggressive and cutting edge, but will more changes be coming as the former Microsoft head now evaluates staff and brings in new and different faces to continue to accelerate the face of the Clippers?

There has even been some talk of the new life the team has received, coupled with the new name recognition amongst casual fans because if the issues with ownership and the marketable stars they have may even push the longstanding but in flux Lakers brand as the most marketable in Southern California. That really, really remains to be seen. Fans are loyal and tribal and won’t jump ship that fast, and the market certainly is big enough for both clubs to survive and thrive. One looks to new York, where the Nets have certainly grown as a brand in Brooklyn, but the Knicks from a business perspective have not suffered in any substantial way yet, and have generated even more offseason buzz than Brooklyn with all the talk of what Phil Jackson may be doing for the long term. Now none of that talk has translated into anything substantial in terms of wins and losses for the Knicks, who missed the playoffs and are still coachless, but it has continued to keep them well in a basketball conversation throughout the spring, and the revamped Madison square Garden remains a prime destination for hoops fans from around the world, despite the rise of the Barclays Center and tis main tenant a river away.

The interesting question around LA may be more of what the Lakers can do to right their ship than what the Clippers are doing to ramp up theirs. LA has a solid business and marketing mind in Jeannie Buss, but who ultimately makes the business calls may not be in her capable hands right now, although it would be a solid move forward for the team. The brand is certainly not suffering in terms of sales or recognition yet, and it takes several bad years, not one, for loyalty to wane. The vastness of the market can certainly support both teams having filled buildings and viable brands, and a little extended completion on the business side is certainly not a bad thing.

In the end the real intriguing part of the Clippers sale if and when it goes through to be final, will be to see how innovative, fresh and forward-thinking the team will be. What will brands put a value on when they are looking to gain entry into the NBA, and what will the team do to continue to now accelerate the buzz not just in the marketplace but nationally. The new owner has said he will stay in LA, but does that mean the Staple Center? Does Anaheim come back into the mix as it has before? And what happens with TV rights and other manageable assets? All will be interesting to watch as yet another successful business man enters the field of pro sports looking to make his mark and rearrange the furniture in a house that was recently shaken to its core, but one with a very solid foundation.

The games off the field in LA will be just as interesting as the ones on the court.       

Sixers To Camden, Sorta, It Almost Happened Before…

This almost sorta happened once before, in 1993. The Philadelphia 76ers and their owner Harold Katz were embroiled in a dispute with their arena partners, the Philadelphia Flyers and their owner Ed Snider. The battle was over the new home of the teams, as the CoreStates Spectrum was quickly running out of its once very useful life. A state of the art facility was needed, the question was, would it be one or two? For years, the Sixers had played second fiddle to the Flyers in their shared home, with the offices staying in the bowels of Veterans Stadium. Priority dates, media and fan events always went to the Flyers. Now the Sixers wanted equal time.

When deadlines came and past, Katz had had enough. His brand, he felt, was damaged as being second fiddle, so the two teams would go their own ways.  A partnership was formed to bring the Sixers probably about six miles, across the Delaware River into their own facility right by the new amphitheater and close to a to be built minor league ballpark as part of a massive revitalization of the Camden waterfront. Governor Jim Florio, up for re-election, was a big backer of the plan, and off the owner would go, breaking ties with the Flyers and the city for a new state-of-the-art basketball specific facility just north of the Walt Whitman Bridge. The logic was that thousands of sports fans commuted from new Jersey every day, an those who were on the Pennsylvania side knew their way past Camden to get to the Jersey Shore, so the Sixers would not be leaving, and in many ways they would be a little closer to an affluent New Jersey fan base. The owner would have what he wanted and what he felt was needed for a brand; a home they could control of their very own.

It never happened.

Katz picked the wrong face in Trenton to support, as Christie Todd Whitman bounced Florio, denounced the plan as a tax payer burden, the team when back to the negotiating table and hatched a better deal than they had with the Flyers, and shortly after that Katz surprisingly sold the team to a group that included Comcast and Snider and the current massive South Philly sports complex that now exists had the anchor tenants it has today, albeit with the Sixers now back under different ownership and headed on the business side by Scott O’Neil. The minor league stadium, Campbell’s Field, was built and has housed the Atlantic League Riversharks for over a decade with some level of success and the New Jersey Aquarium was added as well, but the NBA in downtrodden Camden? No way.

So this week the Sixers to Camden talk perked up again, albeit on a different level. With the team having their D-league team in Delaware, a spot to anchor and build from in South Jersey could be a good fit.  It would not be a new arena, but a practice facility which would be a potential great new draw for recruiting players as well as doing entertaining for legions of fans on non-game days in New Jersey

After years practicing at St. Joe’s Fieldhouse, the team began to practice in rented space at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in West Philadelphia in 1999. The possible move comes after plans to construct a training center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, fell through in April, and left the team looking for alternative sites that made sense.

From a brand standpoint, the move could be a good one; a controlled multi-use facility that expands the marketing reach of the team just a bit farther into New Jersey, a state without an NBA franchise since the Nets bolted across two other rivers to Brooklyn. It helps also forge some additional cross-promotional ties potentially between the Sixers and the Devils, New Jersey’s NHL franchise (although the Flyers do train in New Jersey as well, in Voorhees), which is also owned by Josh Harris and overseen by O’Neil. The days of having a gym with a few weights to placate your athletes are long gone. Training facilities are now multi-use, multi-media hubs and home away from homes with little expense spared to keep athletes happy, trained and treated well.

Is all this just posturing and more importantly who fits the bill for the new facility, which would join Campbell’s Field between the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges? It would seem to be very much a privately-funded project with a break on land that is unused and some great tax breaks, but it would probably not be a mega-moneymaker for the cash strapped and crime ridden city. It would be an emotional boost, and hopefully help seed some small jobs for residents and get young people involved more in basketball and education-related programs in the city, which could have a nice long-tail effect for some of the kids and the families in the community.

In the end it is always hard to figure out the real economic effect new stadia, let alone practice facilities, can have on a community. However by engaging Camden, the Sixers are showing smart marketing and good community responsibility as they work hard to re-build and re-brand a franchise that has been on the downswing and is now looking to fight its way back up, just like that city across the river.

Five Years In, Beard-A-Thon Still Growing For The NHL

While it may not work at Yankee Stadium, where rules against facial hair are still in place a bit (it did work for the Red Sox last year, and a “growing” legion of MLB clubs again in 2014), but in the NHL, the fifth year of Beard-A-Thon continues to be one of the most unique fan engagement activation events in any sport. The brainchild of East Aurora, New York based Cenergy, Beard-A-Thon encourages fans (mostly male we hope) fans in each NHL playoff city to not shave during their team’s playoff run. Fans who don’t shave are encouraged to find pledge support, with monies going to local charities. The idea started in 2009, with over $350,000 dollars going to local charities. Since then, over $2.5 million has been raised for all participating NHL team foundations. These include the Garden of Dreams for the New York Rangers and the Kings Care Foundation for the Los Angeles Kings. As fans pledge to grow a playoff beard during the duration of their team’s run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Beard?A?Thon® continues to grow.

King of Shaves, a longtime supporter of the St. Baldrick’s charity events where people shave their head for cancer, was a supporting sponsor of the hockey-based tradition early on, where players show support and superstition by not shaving during the playoffs. The program has picked up more social support every year, with the increased viral play adding to the popularity. Of course the best is yet to come, as teams move on and the facial hair grows over the next month. Could there be a locks of love element added to the end of the promotion, where a brand comes on to do the shaving of the losing team’s fans during the final. Maybe throw in a head shaving element for charity as well? And what about the ladies? As hockey grows in popularity amongst women, and even with kids, what additional elements can be added in. There is no doubt that the communal bond amongst hockey fans is really encapsulated in Beard-A-Thon. Like the Winter Classic, it has a cache that can be NHL-specific and can grow (no pun intended) over time, with maybe even adding in virtual beards for more involvement.

As in many cases, it’s the simple ideas that sometimes can have the greatest impact, and Beard-A-Thon is certainly one that can reach that potential.

An Opportunity Still To Be Had; Grabbing More “Senior Moments”

As we reach Opening Day of the MLB season the annual lament about baseball needing to attract a younger audience starts again. While there is no doubt that every sport wants to grab younger folks and engage more with every medium possible with its fans, the pact is that we as a society are still getting older, and those older fans do remain as an audience that has disposable income, time on their hands and are becoming more and more engaged in a digital environment. So with that in mind, here is a quick thought again on the value of having more senior moments…you cannot watch a game without ads for Pharma, so they realize that older fans are embracing sport like never before; why don’t teams to more. The older audience is what has held live theater together; it is embraced by movies, yet sports seems to stay away…time for a re-think on how to engage more over 21 in promotions, while in no way slacking off on engaging the younger audience as well.

It is the fastest growing segment of the population in North America…a segment that has vast consumer experience, knows how to activate in groups, has defined spending habits and in many cases a large amount of disposable time and purchases more high ticket items, like cars, more than any other segment of the population. They influence spending habits, young people, voting patterns and public policy. Yet for all the time sports looks to engage the young and the first adopter, the larger group (albeit sometimes with less disposable income) still goes largely ignored. They are the Baby Boomers and the seniors, a group which until recently was put aside as a group sales opportunity and little else, while teams and brands concentrated on developing new fans. New fans used to mean younger, however with an aging and more active population, it is probably time for those engaging in brand building to start courting the audience more.

Pharma spends huge amounts on sports, yet most programs for activation are still targeted at the younger audience. Giveaways at games are always geared towards those 21 and younger. Yet seniors buy in blocks, bring those younger to games and can help motivate others to come. There has probably always been a reticence to court seniors as a quiet or graying crowd, one that would be averse to young and hip. Yet many teams and properties regularly run Throwback Nights to try and get the arena going, featuring music and clothes for a bygone era. Those who lived in that era, no thanks…those who like the music and are younger, cmon in. Even tennis and golf, two sports which play to an older demo, constantly fight to get younger, but why? We are getting older, living longer, getting healthier and spending more money as we get there if we have it, so why not actively pursue the group with viable promotions, targeted sponsor activation and even specific digital campaigns more, just like brands are doing?  Seniors are engaged and online and have great word of mouth activation, so the time has come to make them a target as much as the young or the families. They spend, they enjoy events, they get around and they purchase, it makes good business sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In either case, don’t bet against it.

The Winter Classic Wins Are Just Beginning…

The Bridgestone Winter Classic on New Year’s Day is being touted as the best ever and impossible to top. True? Depends on your perspective, but for “brand hockey” this year’s New Year’s Day Game is even more potentially impactful than all the games held before as it becomes the launch point for the sport as we head toward not just the Winter Olympics but the outdoor games coming up across North America, all of which should help elevate the sport, not drag it down from what happened for over 100,000 frozen fans in The Big House Wednesday.

While some will say the hockey wasn’t great or that the rest of the outdoor series will play second fiddle to what is the signature game on the first of the year every year, the truth is that all of the games, collectively, nationally and regionally, have the NHL in the bigger media conversation in key markets, and each will have their own appeal and as a whole, can help stir buzz, brand interest and the bottom line for all things hockey, especially for casual fans. Are two games at Yankee Stadium, involving the Rangers, Devils and Islanders, too much? Not if the ticket sales and media coverage say they are not. Is there a need for a game at Dodger Stadium? If there is brand support and media coverage that will easily trump what the game would get at The Staples Center or in Anaheim so what’s the downside? Does a game in Vancouver cause a problem? The Canucks sell out anyway, all of Canada will watch regardless…moving the game to an unusual, throwback location again enhances what would have just been another day in the NHL regular season.  All these events become not just destination viewing, but they become sponsor enhancements, merchandising opportunities, fan engagement points, and most importantly, a vehicle to showcase the sport to a casual lineup who may now use discretionary dollars to come see another game inside.

Then there are the Olympics. Again USA Hockey was met with some criticism by latching the Team USA announcement on the back of the Winter Classic, and doing it live vs. doing it as a stand-alone event? Standalone event when and where and for who? You have your signature event and the biggest audience you will find, why not showcase on the network who will be carrying you, who the faces that they will be seeing (at least the Americans) will be?  The NHL, just like the Olympics, is built on personalities as well as stellar athleticism, and bringing the faces of Team USA to the audience…the casual audience was a good move not just for the day, but to create a bridge that can run all the way to Sochi.

Next up are the brands that connected through NBC and the NHL. The ones that delivered customized programs…like Enterprise and Bridgestone…probably id the most to maximize their spend and tie directly to the game and its pageantry. For others, the association is solid but is not as impactful, and having that leverage…with a payoff somewhere (in game, online etc.) is becoming more and more invaluable for brands and ROI.

On the NBC side, the flow of programming in and around not just the game but leading up to, and now through the next few months across all NBC platforms is invaluable to the NHL. Naysayers will still point to Nielsen numbers and say hockey draws what hockey draws, but what Olympic sport would not want the advance exposure that hockey received and will continue to receive going towards the Games in Sochi and beyond. On the digital side, the ancillary programming created around hockey lifts not only the Olympic effort but the reach of individual teams as well, and the Ross Bernstein-led creative effort to take fans in and around all the events of hockey in the coming months (which will air across the NBC Networks and look much like 24/7 does for HBO) will only enhance the fan, the brand and the team experience for the sport.

The result is a strong multi-tiered platform with a signature standalone national event that brand hockey has built off of for the coming months. “Brand hockey” is not just a TV ratings driver; those double digit audiences are not what the NHL is all about. “Brand hockey” is about engagement in every way possible, and using that engagement as a selling point has made the sport stronger as all eyes look to Sochi and then hopefully a long and fruitful playoffs.

So what does all this mean for the long term? Will millions of people start wearing jerseys as a fashion statement, and will ratings start rivaling the Super Bowl? No.  Does it mean that every year we will need multiple outdoor games? If the marketplace says yes, then why not? How about an All-Star game outdoors in a large market without an NHL team, or in a place like Russia, like the KHL did in Red Square several years ago? It only loses its luster if it becomes stale, and this far the game is in no way stale.

What it means is the NHL has taken the time to find ways to seed a fertile market and understood they needed to take care of the strong fan first, then move to the casual hockey fan and then finally find ways not just to connect, but to continually engage the average guy and girl on the street. Some of it is good fortune; some of it was smart business. It really doesn’t matter which weighs more. What matters is “brand hockey” is stronger because the leadership took the time to build where their fans are, and when the snow came out they had the right pieces in place to engage not just for one event, but for the long term to make the sport and all its partners stronger for what should be a memorable run for all involved.

Tossin The Bear, Setting A Trend…

Only in Detroit can you throw an object on the ice during a hockey game and not be escorted from the building, in this case Joe Louis Arena. However the new en vogue toss, controlled and buzz-worthy, is the Teddy Bear toss for charity. Minor and junior hockey teams from Topeka to Portland brought in the sponsored between period and post-game event this past week, where fans came in with their own Teddy’s of all shapes and sizes, and filled the ice with bears. Saturday’s Teddy Bear Toss was 11,862 stuffed animals in sports-crazy Portland, where the Winterhawks  donated all the animals to a local children’s charity. The Topeka toss was several hundred, but also got some nice local buzz. Now the “record” of 25,921 is held by the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, with outposts like Hershey of the AHL doing their own 13,000 plus bears as well.  The Bear Toss is not new to hockey; the Kamloops Blazers of the Canadian Hockey League claim to have originated the tradition in 1993-94, and it has gone on across minor and junior league hockey clubs for years.

The advent of digital and social media his significantly amped up the exposure, and the competition of the bear toss this year, with more challenges probably coming from clubs large and small in the coming months. Is there risk from projectiles of any kind being hurled around an arena? For sure, but clubs have seen nothing but positives in the promo in recent years.

So what else can be done with bear tosses? Lots. For one, the whole event is sponsorable either in a giveaway of customized bears to toss, or in a redemption program for a sponsor like a Build-a-Bear in years to come. There is a “hidden bear” opportunity, where players select tossed bears and exchange them with fans whose names are tied to their tosses for tickets and signed items. There is the opportunity for a give back, where players can even toss their own bears back into the crowd, ala a teeshirt toss. The promo also does not have to be just at period or game end, there could be scores of back and forth promos during a game.

Want to factor in some technology into the bear toss? How about a mini camera on a bear that makes it to the ice, with a little viral video showing the life of the bear from purchase to when he or she makes it onto the ice and is retrieved by a player. The possibilities of micro cameras tied to crowd sourcing can be a nice sponsorable add-on as well.

Could the bear toss make it to the larger and more controlled arenas of the NHL or other elite minor leagues?  The possibilities for liability probably go up, but set at the right level, with the right amount of bears, or maybe other stuffed animals, the promotion has great potential for both a charity raise or for a sponsor, not to mention the viral aspect that every club craves. The toss as it currently exists is quaint in that the bears are all sizes and colors and make for an amazing panorama of colors on the ice. Could a little uniformity slow it down or diminish the tradition? Maybe but that’s certainly low risk.

So congrats Winterhawks for amping up the promo. Many families can never figure out what to do with the dust collecting dolls over time anyway, so coming up with a very unique way to clean out a closet and do good in the community is always a good thing.