Olympics | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

As A Property, Competitive Robotics Continues To Grow…

This weekend in St, Louis at the Edward Jones Dome over 30,000 students, parents and coaches will gather for one of the most inspiring, creative and interactive team events that will be held in the Dome all year. It isn’t football or soccer, lacrosse or cricket or rugby. It is competitive robotics.  The U.S. FIRST is back for the fourth straight year, and is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing co-ed competitions of any “sport” out there.   It is entitled FIRST, standing for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and was the brainchild of Segway PT inventor Dean Kamen 25 years ago with the goal of boosting science in the way that high schools glorify sports.

This past week President Obama got to see the interactive robots shoot hoops as he talked about science and sport growing with Americas children. Several thousand people showed up at New York’s Javitz Convention Center to see that City’s finals, replete with cheerleaders and blaring music.

The weekend long event is the culmination of work by middle and high school students from across the country, each team of whom had to first score well in regional tournaments to move on to the state events, with the winners moving on to the World Championships in St. Louis.

The competition is not your father’s Erector Set version of building a robot. Each team trains for weeks many using the LEGO Mind Storm system to have its robot perform a series of complex tasks in 2:30  against another table of robots. The tension will be palpable and the sense of team  very, very apparent.

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

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

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

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

Most importantly robotics takes kids interested in science, gaming and technology as well as sport, and puts them into a public setting where they have to actually interact with each other, a revolutionary idea in a world where “interaction” is done more by thumbs and keystrokes not by spoken words and actions as a group.

While not replacing traditional athletics in any way, robotics is becoming more and more intriguing, a well-intentioned and healthy type of “sport” whose time is definitely coming.

Brazil Takes Small Step, Speaks Loudly With World Cup Teeshirt Ban…

Last year the newly minted Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League created a stir when their wildly popular launch T-Shirts, “Feeling Thorny?”  were deemed too sexist and were pulled from the shelves, but not before creating buzz for the team and quite a black market cottage industry for the suddenly scarce and more in demand than ever shirts. Some groups claimed the shirts sexist, the team, which had vetted the phrase before selling, considered the play good natured. Nonetheless, the Thorns, like their MLS counterparts The Timbers, fully respectful of all fans, removed the controversy by removing the inventory, but not before generating some national buzz and a little edge.

This week the question of objectionable and probably well intentioned soccer t-shirts again rose up in the news, when World Cup partner adidas on Tuesday agreed to a request from Brazil’s tourism board to stop selling two T-Shirts made in the US for US consumers, that were meant to be good natured but were thought to encourage sexual tourism, something which Brazil is fighting and monitoring very closely.

The two shirts, one showing  a bikini-clad woman with open arms on a sunny Rio de Janeiro beach under the word-play “Looking to Score, ” while the other had an “I love Brazil” heart resembling the upside-down butt of a woman wearing a thong bikini bottom.   Neither obviously were directed at the beauty of World Cup, which starts June 12. They played off a global perception that Brazilians are about sensuality and regularly use bikini clad women on their beaches as a way to promote tourism, not inspire sexual trafficking or exploitation. One would be hard pressed to find a Brazilian tourism which didn’t feature beautiful women on the countries beaches as a matter of fact. In talking to several Brazilians  who heard of the shirts, few found them offensive when first discussed.

However we are now in a world where the global awareness of human trafficking especially in BRIC countries is growing very quickly. It was a huge issue that was addressed during the Olympics and even during the Super Bowl, and nations rightfully so have taken a stance of zero tolerance. There is little doubt adidas, as a great global ambassador for soccer and for its brand and the World Cup, created the shorts in a vacuum. They used the marks of World Cup so there had to be an approval process. Whether that approval was in the US, since the shirts were only sold at this point in the US, and it showed insensitivity by an American audience to the problem in Brazil and elsewhere is up for debate. What was clear on adidas’ side is that there was no room for questioning the issue once it was brought to the attention of the media; they reacted quickly and effectively to fix the situation.  

Some may say this is window dressing by the Brazilian government to take what is a relatively minor incident, one which may have gone unnoticed by most of the world given the few shirts that were in circulation, to make a grandstand play against a global sports brand.  However it was an interesting pre-emptive strike that showed two things: officials are doing their best to watch everything, no matter how small, and that they will not tolerate even those spending huge sums of money in Brazil around World Cup trivializing what is a very serious issue. It also gave the government a platform to state their case at a time when the sports business world, especially in the US, is coming off an Olympic hangover and is more focused on other things than large-scale social issues around Brazil and World Cup.

Did the fervor and attention maybe create a new market for risqué knockoff tees around World Cup now?  Probably. Was it an overreaction by officials? At first blush maybe, especially given the way the country does flaunt its beauty and beaches, but it sent a pretty clear message not just for Word Cup, but for the 2016 Olympics and other events that will occur, that this is a serious topic that won’t be trivialized.  Will the halting of selling two tee shirts in the US mean that human trafficking will not be an issue during World Cup? Of course not, but it gave the government some leverage that it did not have before, and it also sent a message that global brands looking to market around World Cup need to take a string look at what is really acceptable and what is perceived as acceptable when understanding the culture. It is a mistake, especially with American brands, that is made time and again. Slapping “Los” and playing mariachi music does not mean you are marketing to “Latinos,” and serving Chinese food does not mean you are marketing to “Asians.” If you are going to play internationally, you have to understand and integrate unto the culture, something that adidas as a global brand usually does well, but seems to have missed on this time.

From Portland to Rio, small actions can still have global implications, and Brazil took an interesting stance over what some may see as a small, playful marketing ploy which now addressed a bigger issue.

College Baseball/Softball Openers Remain A Missed Oppt. For Brands…

It came and went again this week buried amongst the large piles of snow in the Midwest and the Northeast and without any  fanfare, the official start of college baseball season. While most media outlets are closely following every pitch and move prior to the official opening of spring training next week, and others are focused on the Olympics, the start of college play went by the boards without much of a flurry of activity. While most eastern teams will head to Florida and Arizona for short trips over the next few weeks, the opportunity for brands looking to embrace or at least try and get a feel for activation in college athletics through baseball remains very high.

The spring for the college market is devoid of football and hoops after March Madness subsides, and is a time of year which is crying out for a way to activate with the audience as students head back home for the summer and have time on their hands as they prep for exams and have less classes. The weather is nicer, more students are outside, so why has no one embraced the opportunity for college baseball. Some may say that the weather is a hindrance in the Northeast and that schools outside of the Sun Belt put little to no marketing and sales time behind baseball. Games are played in afternoons and crowds and facilities are sparse. Yet the interest in baseball overall at this time of year is at its highest, and the amount of schools that do play baseball on all level, junior colleges included, is still very high in comparison to other spectator sports. Could a brand find a way to create a college opening day and activate around that program on campuses around the country or maybe a college baseball opening weekend? Maybe the program is tied to telling the stories of the student-athletes and encompasses college softball as well. The activation could also be less about attendance at games and more of an experiential event on campus which keeps even casual sports fans engaged through the baseball program. Maybe the program can also tie to an overall opening day with Little League and softball in a community, and rally the sport itself through the college experience. Colleges put a great deal of time through to drive revenue through football in the fall and basketball through the winter, it would make sense to tie and give added values to brands with a spring activation as well. College baseball is competitive, provides a good wrap-up to a marketing plan, and is extremely affordable for brands to activate against with athletes that would welcome the exposure. There is also a great opportunity for charities or philanthropic efforts to tie to college baseball in the spring, much like programs are laid out for other sports in other seasons. Also keep in mind that most programs now play extensive fall ball seasons, so there is no reason why an activation program could now also have some ties into the next semester as well.

Also with the buzz of baseball/softball re-entering the Olympics for Tokyo 2020, the  ability for time guerilla campaigns to build brand awareness around some future stars who would play (since MLB won’t shut down during the Games) has never been higher.

College baseball is in no way the activation giant that football and hoops is, even at its highest levels in the south and the west. Lacrosse seems to have become the favored nation outdoor sport of the spring, but MLB has the marketing ability to help propel one of its prime sources for talent forward. College baseball is a large scale activity that fans can identify with, a breeding ground for the future of the sport. and if marketed properly and cost efficiently remains one of the few mainstream spectator sports on the collegiate level with little barrier to entry.

There are ongoing efforts with MLB that will connect with the NCAA to give college baseball a boost, helping with much needed equipment changes that would put wood bats back in the hands of those players getting ready to make the jump to the minors, looking to help with marketing and even boosting interest between baseball’s draft and the NCAA tournament in the late spring. However all of that is still yet to be hashed out. In the meantime, pitchers and catchers in gyms and on fields at hundreds of schools have taken to the diamond, with hundreds of games to come. For brands looking to boost their intercollegiate activation they need to look no further than the diamond. The balls are in the air.

Can Rugby Get Its Kicks In In The States?

It is the third most popular sport in the world according to some numbers…its World Cup Final brings the largest audience and the most sponsorship of any event short of the Super Bowl…it has amended its rules, added fan and sponsor friendly events and carved out a faster version of the sport so popular that it will be part of the Olympic Games in 2016 and beyond…it has had a growing grassroots and collegiate following in North America…and by many accounts it was the first large scale male team sport to accept an elite athlete as being gay. So can rugby make a foothold in areas where it is not yet popular, namely the United States as a professional sport or at least an elite one-off event? Maybe.

The business changes made to the sport to speed it up, simplify it, and even remove some of the violence of “American football without pads” has certainly helped mainstream the game, and the participation of NBC in helping push the Olympic-style game of Rugby 7?s, while also televising the World Cup, has certainly been a huge pop for a sport that for years has been a great club sport on college and high school campuses. The Olympic acceptance for the game was also a huge boost in both awareness and potential funding for a team sport that was an afterthought in this country for many years. The ability for elite clubs to also add additional sponsor dollars by traveling and staging large scale events in and around the United States has also been a big plus. The sport has embraced digital and social media as a key way to grow the personalities of the game around the world, and the business opportunities for sponsorship and brand engagement amongst a young and active audience increased greatly with Olympic acceptance. But do we need another professional sport in the crowded U.S. landscape? While it is true that lacrosse has been clamoring for years to get its professional side growing to a level of the college game in interest, it has not happened. Popular Olympic sports like beach volleyball have withered on the professional side as well. So why rugby?

First, the Olympic involvement gives the game a leg up on niche sports that miss that cache, and that funding and that four year opportunity to capture the casual fan. The grassroots support, and now the added television exposure of a college and national team competition give the sport a consistent presence that some Olympic sports don’t get, so rugby now has the best of both worlds. Now any effort on a professional level in the States would have to be gradual. MLS’ took over years to build from the grassroots up to make itself a solid professional entity, and a rush to pro rugby would be foolhardy. Cost control could work. So also could a match with football fans clamoring for a spring sport that is definitely football-like, and in Rugby 7?s and the more streamlined and TV friendly version of the traditional game is more action and easier to follow. While the lack of equipment may lead to more injury from time to time, the unencumbered look of athletes will also have a plus in growing personalities from all walks of life. It is also a game that most of the world plays and understands, so the new immigrant to the country can assimilate pretty easily. Can you grow quality talent to fill the league, and then build that talent level up to world-class quality? Time will tell, but that’s where elite training, and taking from other sports, can come in.

It certainly won’t happen overnight, but suddenly the interest in rugby in the States seems to be taking hold and growing, from a grassroots, television and sponsor perspective. Making the jump to a new level of engagement is a big one, but one which today seems more plausible than ever before, and one certainly worth watching as we head into another Olympic cycle.

Beach Games A New One To Watch…

Two things the world has enough of are sand and water, and more than enough resorts and beaches to try and lure tourists. So it was not a great deal of surprise that this week SportAccord announced that it will be the creator of the World Beach Games at a predetermined location starting in 2015.

Sand castle building? Not quite. What the WBG could be is the X Games of the water, with some of the most popular existing Olympic sports like beach volleyball, and one popular Olympic wannabe, beach soccer, thrown in (along with beach tennis and some other hybrids).  

Now the concept is not altogether new, as  Asia has been hosting Beach Games since 2008, the last of which took place in Chinese resort Haiyang last year. The initial contests were a great success and incorporated events like wakeboarding and dragon boat racing which have long tried for Olympic inclusion but could never find success. They are not huge on attendance numbers, do not need large stadia, and fit a demo that Olympic sports crave (young and athletic) and are ripe for made for TV and digital, in the same way that the America’s Cup captured the tech space with their innovative broadcasts this past September.

Events like these are also a great draw for off-season resort locations which maybe could never attract world class international events before. The Bahamas, for example has made a big push into college sports with basketball and football, and a Beach games international competition in months where the resorts need to draw attention are a great fit.

Now there are some natural drawbacks. Even temporary stadia and facilities are costly, as organizations like the AVP found out when running their tour. You can’t just use any sand for high level beach competition; it needs to be pristine, and in many instances had to be trucked in from other locales. Building even temporary venues can also be a logistical nightmare, and you are also subject to the unpredictable wind, rain and currents that will crop up, not to mention having to stage many of the events at a time when there is daylight, as night or twilight competitions may look beautiful but can be very challenging. There is also a limitation on venues, but even staging games on massive lakes are an option (Chicago or Lake Victoria anyone?)

The opportunities far outweigh the drawbacks though. The IOC has long wanted to bring in new sports, and the ones on the water pose an opportunity, one that is lower cost than most large scale team events. The water and sand, albeit pricey to set up in some cases, is still a natural existing setting, and the ability for new sponsor dollars to flow in, as well as countries looking to host, are very wide. New faces, in many cases with lots of athletic skin to show, can present a very enticing package for broadcasters and corporations looking to find a breakthrough niche in global sport at a reasonable cost could gravitate to a competition that is sure to draw both core fans and a solid casual audience.

If you had to draw a line in the sand on whether the Beach games will succeed as an emerging, hip, fan friendly property, now with an international backing, it would be fair to give it a fighting chance, much in the way the recently staged “Combat Games” have worked for fight sports and the “Urban Games” can work for the innercity.

Sand and water can bring lots of fun and new stars to global sport, making The Beach Games experiment one to follow.

NHL Plays A Game MLB Will Not: Olympic Games

The NHL survived and thrived during after this past year’s lockout, leveraging a breakneck schedule and some new faces, as well as an ever-improving relationship with NBC, to push new interest in the sport heading into a full slate of games in 2013-14. Still with their disputes settled, there was still uncertainty if one of their greatest platforms, the Olympics, would still be on the table. Friday came the official word that yes, the NHL and the Olympic games would continue their marriage, which is great news for followers of both.

There are several risks, big ones, that kept the relationship from being a no-brainer for hockey. The shutting down of the league for three weeks, with limited use of players who are going to the Games, is a huge issue, one which Major League baseball would not even consider in order to keep their sport in the Summer Games.  However hockey has other bugger picture factors playing in its favor for inclusion in the Sochi Games.

TV:  The NHL and the Olympics share a US domestic TV partner in NBC. Leveraging that relationship to get added focus on the NHL and added focus on Olympic hockey, benefits both and in no way causes a lull in hockey coverage during the Games, it actually ramps up the casual awareness of the sport.

Nationalism: More than any other team sport, hockey players seem to be drawn more toward the Olympic movement. There is NBA interest but it varies, soccer does not use elite players in the Olympic Games, it uses younger players, and tennis, played in a team format as well as singles, doesn’t really fit the model. Hockey players LOVED the Olympic experience and the chance to represent their country, especially since most of the hockey world championships are at a time when the NHL and KHL playoffs are on-going, keeping most stars away from their national teams. Outside of the US, playing for the national team in hockey rich countries like Canada, Sweden, and Russia is seen as a priority, and this partnership goes a long way in smoothing relations between the NHL and some of its partners.

No To All-Star, Yes To Outdoors:  The Sochi Games gives the NHL an All-Star like platform without the issue of staging an All-Star weekend, which has waning interest in most sports anyway.  The timing also gives the NHL a way to keep its real showcase event, the Winter Classic, and even amplify it this year with several outdoor games as a preview to Sochi.

Casual fan Interest: the NHL is always looking to engage more casual fans. The Olympics give them a prime time global platform to do so, and the resumption of the regular season should provide a great springboard to re-engage with those casual fans who tuned in for the Olympics and are intrigued to watch a little more. The Olympic platform also gives teams a new promotional platform post-games…come and see the Olympic stars as they return home. A great halo effect for the sport as the competition turns up in North America in March, with baseball starting, the NBA rolling along, and the NCAA tournament beginning.

There are headaches that can arise from Olympic hockey. The risk of injury in mid-season, the distraction of stopping and starting a season, and the need to keep local fans engaged at a point when they are really starting to love their hometown team, are all on the table. However with a long term look, arenas can now book those three weeks with other events, and teams can plan string promotions before and after the games themselves.  Viewing parties, the use of athletes not in the Games in fan interaction programs, and even sponsor events like viewing parties market by market, can create a better ROI for teams, brands and the league than maybe even having regular season games in that window.

In the end it is a smart move for hockey overall, and a risky but hopefully effective venture for the NHL and its players.  A new and effective platform for brand hockey is off and running. At a time when the sport is again on an uptick.

 

NFL Helps Extend The Olympic Audience

The NFL and the Olympic movement have had several crossover stars throughout the years…Willie Gault, Jim Thorpe, Bob Hayes among others  have excelled in both athletics and football.

Now Sanya Richards Ross and Holly Mangold have never ventured to the NFL gridiron in recent years as players, but Brand NFL helped give both some added pop as they ventured to the Olympic stage in London this weekend. Make no mistake, Richards Ross and Mangold have certainly earned their keep and deserve all the accolades they have gotten. However their relationships with two prominent NFL stars…Ross married to two time Super Bowl champion now turned Jacksonville Jaguar Aaron Ross, Mangold the sister of New York Jets Pro Bowl offensive lineman Nick Mangold…has certainly helped draw even more casual viewers to their efforts across the pond.

Ross was in the Olympic Stadium for his wife’s  competition…prompting Jags coach Mike Mullarkey to take the team and over 1,000 fans into Stadium to watch her go for gold on the big screen at Everbank Stadium and drawing support from all around. A great shared experience between athletics and the NFL.

Now the Mangold shared experience played out for several days in the New York media as coach Rex Ryan encouraged his star to skip practice and join his sister in her special quest, one which he had resisted in doing until the last minute. Mangold went and supported his sister, much to the delight of the team and the support of the media. NFL lifts even competitive weight lifting it seems.

So what does this mean exactly? Richards Ross has garnered some great brand support on her own…especially through USOC sponsor Citi...but athletics, or track, still falls into the abyss after the Olympics every four years. maybe an extra boost from her NFL crossover attracts a joint sponsorship, or extra grassroots support, to help her gain more attention for her charitable and business endeavors after London, where she became a gold medalist. For Mangold, still maturing in her weightlifting career, maybe it means extra training dollars and more media attention which could also lead to some fun brand campaigns with her brother.

End of the day, the NFL machine helped bring more attention to a pair of very deserving athletes and may help differentiate them from others during the post-Olympic scramble for brand partners. Both are unique stories with great ties to the NFL at a time when the NFL brand is coming front and center in the spotlight. A rising tide can lift not just the NFL boat, but those for track and maybe weightlifting as well.

Men’s Pro Hoops The Latest In Olympic Migration?

FIFA has not allowed top players to play for years. Baseball, despite putting on a great front with a number of concessions, was never that upset about being pushed out the door following Beijing. Now according to a report in Yahoo Sports Wednesday, the NBA may join the team migration away from the Olympic programme  Why? For a number of reasons it makes great sense.

The Dream Team certainly had its place in Olympic lore. It helped lift the sport of basketball to new heights globally, and also helped lift the presence of the Olympics to a new level. However with professional basketball, led by the NBA, expanding on such a global scale these days, the constraints and time placed on delivering the best of the best to the Olympic games every four years, with no revenue coming back to the NBA, may have come and gone. The NBA has seen what FIFA has done with The World Cup, while still delivering young players to compete in the Olympics. They have also surely noticed the brand power and revenue the World Baseball Classic is doing for baseball, especially MLB, without all the schedule changes and restrictions that Olympic inclusion would have entailed in 2012 and 2016. Is there a place for all these sports on an Olympic programme? For sure.  Is there a way for the best athletes to compete for their country and create huge revenue streams and brand building for their individual sport outside of an Olympic window? Absolutely.

Baseball faced the biggest test for Olympic inclusion. Like the NHL (which is in its own conundrum for the Sochi Olympics, with players wanting to go and the league leaning the opposite way), MLB had to make some major concessions on scheduling, sponsorship and other issues to keep baseball in the Games. It agreed to some…most actually…but in the end the IOC voted in golf and rugby 7′s, and baseball left the Olympic fold. At the same time, MLB and the IBAF were building their own competition with the WBC, which will expand this fall and then play its third iteration next spring with many of the top MLB players representing their countries. MLB picked the sponsors, the schedule, the format, the venue and as a result has its own global sports-specific property to grow. The same goes for FIFA and soccer. Control of all of tis rights has made the World Cup into arguably the largest and most lucrative single-sport event in the world. Hoops can consider a chance to do the same now if it goes that way.

Why? In addition to total control and revenue, the schedule can be altered to best give the top players time to rest in the offseason and find ample time and places to stage a Basketball World Cup. Not every year, but surely in non-Olympic years. The Olympic opportunity would still be there for younger players from around the globe for sure, as it is with soccer, but the opportunity to have a stand-alone global basketball event could make amazing sense going forward. Could some see it as greed fueled? Maybe. However prior to the Barcelona Olympics, the NBA was not a part of the programme. It can easily be said that without the NBA, the Olympics would not be as big as it is. There is also the feeling that the Olympics still remain the best showcase for those sports that do not draw the limelight year-round, especially now with the stage for professional sports being global and 24/7.

Sport is cyclical and maybe the NBA/Olympic tie has outlived its usefulness. It is a partnership that has created great theater and benefited both sides in its run, and has left both sides healthier than before. The games go on.

The Great Brand Run Of NBC Sports…

There was a time not too long ago where some in the sports and entertainment industry thought the sun had set on NBC Sports as a property. No NFL, Olympics in question, not a lot of forward movement, Comcast rumors of a takeover and on and on. Looking at NBC Sports as a property today that seems hard to imagine, and probably for brands and for casual fans the fact that those rumors were greatly exaggerated is a very good thing.

As Mike Emerick called the overtime on NBC Sports Network on Friday night for the Devils-Rangers, the promos and cross-promos that came across the screen showed how far brand NBC Sports has come. There was a robust MLS offering, the Stanley Cup Final, the potential of a Triple Crown, the Olympics, the Olympic trials, and lots of NBC Sports Talk. Factor in some poker, golf, Indy Car, the French Open, and the fact that Football Night in America transplanted American Idol in the TV ratings, nit to mention all the Comcast Sports-related assets down the line, and one sees a healthy, vibrant brand which runs from cable to broadcast and is growing its web presence as well. Maybe somewhere down the line a print presence and even more robust web-only elements complete the picture, but even without those tied in, it seems like a great time to be in and around 30 Rock if you like games these days.

Now of course none of this was done overnight, the executive team over the years looked at how to cultivate emerging sports like the Dew Tour and Poker After Dark and even developed a dog show stand-alone property. They forged a landmark relationship with the NHL that made the two true partners with incentives to grow together (along with a new tentpole event in The Winter Classic), and of course the rebranding of and reprogramming of VERSUS made the causal fan aware even more of what an NBC Sports offering looked and felt like.

Are there more mountains to climb for the brand? Sure. Ironing out whatever comes next with Comcast Sports and their regionals, looking at the ever-growing market of college football, integrating with a robust entertainment side and evolving even more with a web and mobile presence are all in the mix. However to watch where the brand is today and how it has evolved beyond “just” a programming channel is impressive, and is a credit to those with the vision and the ability to fight off the naysayers and create a proactive media brand.

Of Soccer, Meatballs, and Overtime…

As we reach Selection Sunday and heading to daylight savings, some thoughts on a few innovative ideas that have come about…

New York Life Goes OT: A few years ago the Foxwoods Casino and Resort came up with an innovative takeover of Knicks games, sponsoring the last five minutes of the fourth quarter with extra signage, promotions, giveaways etc. It was a smart, unowned territory which ironically has not really been copied or even expanded with a social media component yet. So along those lines kudos to New York Life, who, with their partner IMG, grabbed the overtime sponsorship of The Big East Tournament wall to wall. Now of course its a risk (someone should still grab rain delays in baseball and NASCAR and golf as well) but the risk turned to reward with three games heading to an extra session, and cameras and fans laser focused on the drama as it unfolded. Great way to get into a major event that works only if something unique, like an OT, happens.

Great Idea, Wrong Day: Friday was National Meatball Day, as fun a promo for brands that sell the product as there can be. Few people don’t like meatballs and everyone knows what they are, whether you are fans of Swedish or traditional Italian. Only one problem, the promoters picked a Friday in Lent, when Catholics, and some other Christian faiths, abstain from eating meat. While some who don’t observer may think it is nitpicky, it alienated a portion of those who could celebrate, which, if you are trying to drum up niche support, isn’t smart. Move to another day next time guys, support may be even bigger.

Soccer Kicks Off: This weekend MLS begins its regular season with much hype, goodwill, positive energy and a new TV deal across the board with NBC Sports. A new franchise in Montreal will look to broaden the appeal of the league and replicate the startup success in places like Portland, Philly, Vancouver and Seattle, while Sporting Kansas City’s state of the art stadium with all its tech innovations will continue to be the model for which other stadia will look to. However the deal with NBC could be crucial for the league as it grows beyond its current fan base. Like the NHL, MLS took a bit of a risk going with NBC over its former partners, but now with the rebranded VERSUS, the Olympics and the cross-marketing oppts. NBC offers its partners, the exposure and upside for brand MLS could be maximized much more. MLS also has the chance to be more of a center stage priority on NBC, who does not have the NBA and MLB this spring, a time when MLS got lost in the mix sometimes with ESPN. It will be interesting to watch as MLS puts another pedal to the floor and looks to keep all the positive going in a crowded marketplace. A worthwhile and fun brand hoping to take its next big step.