Prudential Center | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

The Power Of The Special Olympics Can Transform, Enrich Brands, Careers…

The last year has seen its own set of drama good and bad in sport across The Garden State. From the excitement of The Super Bowl to the craziness surrounding the issues of Rutgers basketball, from the new ownership of the Devils to the disappointment of the Jets and Giants, from the return of the post-Sandy New Jersey Marathon to the Shore, to the folding of the Newark Bears, the Garden State fan has been on quite the roller coaster ride from 2013 to 2014. A long cold winter seems to finally be giving way to a slightly warmer spring, and with spring comes renewed hope that better things are on the horizon. The Red Bulls have started a new season, the state’s five remaining minor league baseball teams are ready to draw, and Rutgers is readying itself to make the jump to the Big Ten, all full of endless possibilities.   

However come June, perhaps the biggest event full of possibilities, and one perhaps with the greatest impact for thousands, will finally make its way to the State. From Trenton to Newark, more than 3,500 Special Olympics athletes from throughout the United States will come to compete in 16 sports, before tens of thousands of spectators and volunteers in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games for the first time.  

It is the largest and most diverse of its kind ever, showcasing the athletes competing, but will also serving as a platform to expose to the largest media and brand audience possible all that Special Olympics does for the loves of thousands…programs  in education, health and community building that have had transformative powers not just to those competing but to their families and friends and millions who know of the movement from what they have seen, heard and witnessed over the years.

From the Opening Ceremony at Prudential Center, through the Closing Ceremony at Sun National Bank Center, from a board-walk themed Olympic Town, a Special Olympics Unified Sports® Festival and  competitions at venues throughout Mercer County, New Jersey, including Princeton University, Rider University, The College of New Jersey, Mercer County Park and several area private schools the event will help transform sport in the state, and hopefully make long-time supporters out of all who will be touched by the events.

The games continue to gain steam every week, with a never-ending stream of brands that are not just investing chartable and promotional dollars for the cause, but are also looking to leverage media and good will to grow consumer loyalty and maximize ROI. The latest will take place this Wednesday in Hamilton, when Special Olympics athletes, along with representatives from the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, and partners ShopRite and General Mills to unveil a customized Wheaties box featuring a Special Olympics New Jersey athlete. The box will be sold exclusively at Shop Rite, and will serve as a great reminder to consumers that the games are coming and that these athletes represent much more than the sports they are playing. They represent hope, good will and the power of spirit.

There have been no shortage of partners coming to support the Games and their massive undertaking. Founding Partners like Prudential, Barnabas Health, Hess, PSE&G, Toys“R”Us and the WWE, along with ShopRite, PS E and G and 20th Century Fox have all stepped up to both engage and activate in various ways both locally and nationally. Broadcast and digital support has never been more diverse, and the use of social media will take the moments of these Special Olympics well beyond the playing fields and the stands, with a wide-spread infrastructure in place to serve the families and their legions of supporters around the world.  

However even with all the corporate support, the Games are still in need of volunteers. Hopefully they will continue to come from thousands of young people looking to get involved in the global business of sport, who can gain some first-hand knowledge and do some amazing community service as volunteers in all areas of Games operations. So many young people now taking countless programs in sports management, marketing, journalism and communications from schools in the northern, central and southern parts of the state, as well as those in New York and Philly, can hopefully jump on a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only give of their time, but to be involved in a life changing work experience that can help define a career just starting out 

Most importantly, the Special Olympics USA Games will be an amazing platform for the participants to enjoy and experience a global sporting event the likes of which are rarely seen here in our backyard. It will be a celebration of life whose impact will probably transcend anything that has gone on at Met Life Stadium or the Prudential Center or the RAC this past year, and will hopefully inject some much needed mojo into what has been a long, cold stretch for brand sport in many ways across The Garden State.

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.

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 Challenges of An Indy Ball Brand: Are Bears Extinct Or Hibernating?

There are 14 minor league baseball clubs within a 90 minute drive of anywhere in the New York area, all with various promises of affordable family fun and entertainment. However according to an announcement that came very quietly  on the day after Thanksgiving, that total for 2014 at least will only be 13 with the demise of one of the clubs that started the buzz for minor league baseball in the area, the Newark Bears.

The Bears, with a myriad of ownership groups and affiliations over the years, brought great promise to a city with a long baseball tradition, and helped re-energize  and relaunch the careers of a host of former MLB players, along with giving work experience to scores of young people entering the growing sports business field from sales to marketing to game operations throughout their history.  They were seen by some as a unique mix in a triangle of sports and entertainment possibilities in Brick City, with the Prudential Center off to the right of Bears and Eagles Stadium and Red Bull Arena across the Passaic River in the distance. The Stadium, when it first opened, could also be an entertainment compliment, some thought, to the revitalized New Jersey Performing Arts Center right down the street, helping bring families and fans back to merchants who had long struggled for business.  All of those plans, along with a stadium in need of repairs, appear to be gone for the summer now, along with some jobs and opportunities for young people looking to carve their own niche in sport.

Now it is not the first time that the Bears have been left for dead. Debt-ridden former ownership groups have looked to pull the plug before, only to have a savior with great intentions come along to re-start the club again. However this time without any ties in either the Minor League Baseball affiliated system or with any of the struggling independent leagues (The four team Can-Am league has merged with the Midwestern American Association to keep all their clubs still functioning) the outlook for baseball in Newark appears to be bleak once again.

The demise of the Bears appears to once again call in to question how much is enough in minor league baseball in a major market. Affiliated teams like the Lakewood Blue Claws, the Trenton Thunder, the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Staten Island Yankees do well because of the bottom line support of their parent clubs. They also have consistency of brand and a steady flow of professional staff to keep the books balanced and find every way to effectively sell and market what essentially is a small to medium size business year-round. Their facilities are pristine, the talent level on the field is professional and developing, and the best practices off the field help define success for the industry.  The independent clubs in the area, from those in the Atlantic league to the Can Am, have much bigger challenges. They don’t have the marketing or financial support of Major League Baseball, so they go it alone. Some, like the Somerset Patriots, have found a strong and consistent ownership group who support the community and have a solid enough sponsor and fan base to continue to move along. Others like the Jersey Jackals, have the benefit of playing in a college-run facility at Montclair State University that help offset some bottom line costs and provides entertainment to a diverse community.  The Rockland Boulders, just north of the New Jersey state line, have tried to position themselves as a comer, with a state of the art facility close by a vibrant and affluent Bergen County fan base while serving what is the smallest and in some ways most underserved, county in New York State, with another affluent community in Westchester County not far on the other side of the Hudson River. The Indy teams also point to the fact that their level of play on the field is higher than any of the affiliated teams in the area, whose players are under very tight controls from the MLB parent clubs. Only  in Indy ball, they maintain, can you see a former MLB name, like a Bartolo Colon or even a Rickey Henderson, given a shot at returning to the majors late in a career.  So in addition to the promotions you get an occasional falling or shooting star. The Indy teams also maintain an ability to bring back local heroes, ones who excelled in college or high school but never got that shot at the majors, and they maintain, that their proximity to the bright lights of New York make them more of a draw for those former stars whose agents can remind teams from New York and Philly where they can watch those players a bit more closely.

Still even with all that promise, Indy teams continue to struggle with both identity and dollars. The advent of social media and digital technology, not to mention the growth of marketing savvy, has given the affiliated teams a chance to expand their borders virtually, reaching fans of their parent teams and drawing them just a bit further than usual to come to games in gleaming ballparks with slick promotions.   Fans can follow minor league clubs online much easier than ever before, and the parent clubs are now using partnerships to better connect the dots between the minors and the majors than ever before. The Yankees for example, expanded their popular “Hope Week” program to include all their affiliates in 2013, reminding not just fans, but local brands, that they not only support Trenton and Staten Island and Scranton-Wilkes Barre, they support and are part of the big team in The Bronx as well. That type of subtle reminder is invaluable, and something which Indy teams lack, despite their promises of quality value. That is not to say Indy teams do not have their place, as the successful Somerset team and others like the Long Island Ducks have proven with promotions that are maybe a little more edgy, or game innovations like quicker innings (tried by the Atlantic League last year) a little more progressive than what affiliated leagues and teams can do as well.  The question is how much, or how many, are enough for the consumer and for supporting brand partners?

Would it be great for teams like the Newark Bears to be successful? Sure. Inner-city youth needs jobs, and the continued growth for sport for business is a natural fit for some who may not find their way elsewhere. The Stadium that now sits along McCarter Highway will serve as another dark reminder that times are still tough in many of America’s cities, and even “The National Pastime” cannot provide a respite this year for some. However the expansive growth of digital marketing combined with the fight for discretionary income, may mean that although we would like to have 13 vibrant and fun minor league teams in a certain geographic area, maybe there is not the need to run these high functioning and somewhat expensive businesses at this time. Maybe the market is 10 or 11, not 12 or 13 or even 14, and maybe those dollars, if there is a sports business interest, can go into better marketing of local colleges or even high schools or youth sports, who also have some seats to fill with affordable and fun entertainment.

There was certainly a time for the Newark Bears, and the lives the franchise impacted over the years is probably immeasurable. However for now, it seems like the idea of Indy baseball en masse in New Jersey as is the case in many regions across the country, at least seems to be on the slide.  No doubt minor league baseball continues to thrive as a business and as a fabric of hundreds of communities nationwide. Whether that number has reached a critical mass is probably up for debate, with a club and a stadium that were once seen as a harbinger of growth now gone, at least for the forseeable future.  Even in the business of baseball, sometimes the best intentions don’t make for good business.

Brands, Buzz Continue To Build For Game Changing Super Bowl…

It hasn’t been the brightest of falls for football in the tri-state area, or even down the Turnpike to Philadelphia, but this year’s Super Bowl has certainly generated more buzz, brand activation and long-term talk than probably any other, and for a league that seems like it’s under constant siege these days that’s good news for Brand NFL.

From  2014 Super Bowl Boulevard down Broadway from West 34th Street, a televised NFL Honors awards show,  media day…a ticketed event for almost 15,000 people, at Newark’s Prudential Center, the opening of “Bronx Bombers” (a play about the Yankees, the use of cruise ships as hospitality and a tailgating and pregame tailgating event at the  Meadowlands Racetrack, contacts weather discussions, the largest effort to ever raise philanthropic dollars and put money back into the economy for Super Bowl, a host of outdoor hockey games, transportation tests, security technology which will be a bellwether for future mass events and countless economic impact studies over as large a population as has ever hosted the game, the task of making all sail right (barring an ice storm) will be one for the ages, and will set the bar for a host of other cities hosting an event in cold weather, which after all, is what football is played in.

So if you are a brand why or how can Super Bowl 2014 be a differentiator for you in the biggest media market in the world?

One way is capitalizing on the location, regardless of weather. The US Open in tennis has an amazing appeal to brands not because of its great athleticism and state of the art facilities, but because it is the one and only global sports event that takes place just a few miles from Madison Avenue each and every year in the same time period. Brands can build hospitality and marketing programs that lead toward the end of the summer every year, and not have to worry if the “home team” is in the mix. In many ways the same goes for the Knicks and the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.   No matter whether the teams win or lose, the buzz of the Garden is always palpable, and it makes for a tremendous entertainment platform, with fix dates, only minutes from hundreds of brand decision makers who call New York home, either full or part-time. And if a brand is not using New York as its home base, rest assured its media company is. The old axiom for business success still holds true today… “location, location, location,” and for the 2014 Super Bowl, the location is New York, the media capital of the world.

Now we are seeing brands get out in front with innovative programs…philanthropic events like playground builds and restoration events for victims of Hurricane Sandy, volunteer rewards programs for all the workers that will be needed around all the events,  legacy school programs that can enhance learning, consumer activation programs that can give fans special access to a series of events leading toward the game, getting a much needed edge as well, something that will be tested this year and probably engaged on larger scales beyond this year.

Jaguar, a new Super Bowl partner unveiled an ad during broadcasts of NFL football and on BBC America that tipped some of its hand for its strategy, while Intuit, another first year brand, has launched a contest in which it’s giving away the actual ad to a winning small business. The financial-software brand has set the stage where a winning small company will be the subject of their ad.  A story this past week also said that U2 is searching for a partner to introduce their next album live during Super Bowl. Not at halftime but during a spot or a series, with the requisite social media to follow, which would be a first for a music entity.  That type of offer is not just because of the game itself, but because of all the scrutiny that has come through the NFL stage that has been created for a “first,” this outdoor in the elements event.

While in past years Super Bowl engagement was about the one-time buzz, the implement of social media and the long tail this game has will actually give brands and businesses who have invested in the game a much longer window not just for success, but for correcting some issues that can come up during the lead up. If someone sees that an ad or a platform is slow to respond around the game now, they can adjust to make sure the message is properly delivered. It’s not all one and done as it has been in the past.

The great irony about the “outdoor” game is that every other sport, even baseball, has dealt with cold in their own ways before, and football last time we looked, is more a game about the elements than any other. However the game here is not for the players, the game of the elements is for the marketers and those who need this event to go well and garner the audience and market share so that others can benefit in similar climates going forward, roof be damned. Super Bowl or NFL in Europe is great to talk about, but a success in New York in February will be a huge push for a mature, business savvy and forward thinking brand like the NFL. Let the Super Bowl business games continue to grow.  

Devils Brand Better Than Where It Was…

Thursday brought a sigh of relief at the NHL offices as the sale of the New jersey devils were announced. The league would not have to go through the pain and brand stagnation that was experienced when no buyer could be found for the Phoenix Coyotes, and some new, enthusiastic blood was being brought into league ownership. That’s the good news. The sad news was closing  of a chapter in the history of the  Devils with the sale of the team to Philadelphia 76ers owner and investment moguls Josh Harris and his group, because Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, from a marketing standpoint was a plus for the league as well.

From a brand standpoint it should read well for the outgoing owner  in many aspects. While the short-term financial status of the club is what brought about the sale, Vanderbeek’s passion to build and invest in the franchise on the business side, in many ways matched the building that Lou Lamoriello had created on the on-ice side. The two built an overall competitive brand in a major market that many thought could never support a viable NHL team, and in an arena that is state-of-the art and in many ways is still in its initial stages of helping lead a resurgence of business in Newark.

Now the story of the Devils as a brand today is certainly not without its large financial warts, and it is because of the financial burden now upon the team that Thursday’s announcement came along, but there is no doubt that the franchise of today is more established and has more potential for success than the one that Vanderbeek purchased in 2004.

Those Devils of old were highly successful on the ice, but were a large group of faceless players not known in any way by the casual fan in the New York area, playing in an arena (what started as Brendan Byrne, changed to Continental Airlines, and ended as the Izod Center) that was devoid of personality and amenities needed to help make the team more viable from a business perspective. They won on the ice but continually lost at the box office, in broadcast ratings and in the business battle with all the other franchises in the tri-state area.

Vanderbeek, a success on Wall Street with a passion for hockey, saw an opportunity to grow the Devils brand beyond the 14,000 fans it had, and give the team its own home, which ended up being the Prudential Center in Newark, the first completed arena in the building renaissance that has gone on in the region in the last 10 years. The team made the move, created a showplace that was fan-friendly, respective of tradition and encompassed all that was good- not about hockey- but about New Jersey. It certainly was not easy, and many scoffed at the idea of hockey in an urban environment like Newark, but the organization made sure that every experience for fans was a positive one, and the franchise took more shape than ever before.

The team became markedly more about New Jersey, with a style and a personality that reflected a growing audience of casual fans who knew more about the players now through their work in the community than ever before. The Devils implemented digital and social media platforms to expand their footprint to the top of the NHL, and found ways to incorporate new brands into the game experience. All the while “The Pru” became more of a known and accepted destination for all events from a New Jersey suburban crowd that became used to train or car trips to Newark; something that was unheard of before the arena and the team took hold there. The building around the arena of new businesses may not be meteoric, but it is steady, with new projects expanding the arena footprint each month.

For sure the Devils are not a night in and night out sellout, especially in these challenging times and with a team that has missed the playoffs two of the last three years, with a Stanley Cup finals run sandwiched in between. However the nights of 12,000 crowds are well gone, and the amount of Devils recognition in the state is well beyond anything it was in the Meadowlands.

The new owners, who might get some backlash from their Philly ties about owning a team just up the turnpike from the rival Flyers, will have some big financial hills to climb and need to face the financial challenges over keeping an arena and a team moving upwards in a market where the landscape is more challenging from a venue perspective than ever before. However, from a brand recognition standpoint they are getting a product in more solid hands than what was there when Vanderbeek and his partners took the reins, and they have a progressive and marketing savvy organization that understands its place in the larger community in the state, playing in a solid and strong state of the art facility. It will be an intriguing new chapter to watch the sport in the Garden State, as one passionate owner exits and a new group begins for the only pro franchise that calls New Jersey…and New Jersey only…its home.

Nets Brand Now Bigger Than The Borough

Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey said that “Luck is the residue of design.” “The Mahatma “would be proud of his borough’s current tenants in professional sports then. Now there is no way, even in his wildest dreams that Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark could have foreseen a billionaire Russian owner, the failure of an NHL team to achieve a deal in the region for a new arena, or even a future Hall of fame coach and several hall of Fame players all converging within a relatively short time to make the centerpieces of his business, the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, the talk of professional sports in recent weeks.

However what Yormark and his team could have foreseen was setting up a brand that was capable of capitalizing on success should that success come along, and that’s what has happened not just for the Nets, but for Brooklyn Sport and Entertainment as a brand. The days of packaging promotions around Green initiatives, free tax return nights, and jerseys of visiting players in an outdated arena in the Meadowlands may seem like a century away for some, but those were the seeds that helped lead the brand to its success today. Hokey promotions and a thirst to keep the team relevant in any possible way despite the turmoil or inconsistency on the court made the Nets brand one to be noticed, if not valued by many. The team continued to position itself as the Barclays Center became a reality and Mikhail Prokhorov ceded the team from Forest City Ratner. That constant buzz of new ideas even made the team more relevant as it went from the Prudential Center in its transition year, wrapping up a star crossed history respectfully in New Jersey, while all the while looking ahead to Brooklyn.

By almost all accounts the first Brooklyn year was a success. Awards for innovation, a return to a borough for professional sports (although the very successful minor league Cyclones are there and remain a great draw), lots of “firsts” from college basketball to boxing, all became the mantra of year one. It was all Brooklyn all the time, and even the team performed well enough to be a draw along, with its new arena.

So now Brooklyn is set, the launch year is complete, and what’s next is now on the horizon. That horizon, through both luck and design, now includes an NHL tenant as well as possibly an additional venue to manage and sculpt should Forest City Ratner beat out Madison Square Garden for the rights to develop what is now the Nassau Coliseum. The Nets brand and its buzz and business acumen now extends to Charles Wang’s Islanders, perhaps one of the best on-ice resurrections in the NHL, and now perhaps one of the better business stories in sports which we will now hear about every day, if the Nets spin doctors have their way of building brands come true. Year two also sees a Nets team, with an owners deep pockets, be a team of stars, ones which casual fans won’t need any introduction to. From new coach Jason Kidd to the coming veterans from Boston to newest signee Andrei Kirilenko (who will help fill some additional seats from the heavy Russian area of Brighton Beach), there will be more buzz and brand interest associated with the on-court performance of the Nets than there has been in years. All of that is good business for the brand, the arena and the borough.

But what about beyond Brooklyn? There is where the real value lies, and that’s where the business can now expand its reach. The exciting team and its state of the art arena now extends several hundred miles east into Long Island and through Queens, drawing casual hoops fans and now hockey fans as well. The star power of the Nets team can pull fans probably from Manhattan and even from New Jersey now,  something which in year two of a launch may have been harder to do. Does it mean the mega brands of MSG and the Knicks should be shaking in their Nikes? No, there is a large enough market for hoops anyway to go around. But for ancillary brand building and getting casual dollars, the Nets brand extension, especially if they win the bid  for the Long Island arena projects, could continue to become that much more powerful in the TV world, in the digital world, in the sales world and in the event world. Brooklyn as a borough has a power all to its own, now its home standing sports brand has ratcheted up its limelight as well. Of course there remain many “ifs,” the team has to play well and win, the arena has to continue to manage costs and make it affordable, the Islanders transition has to be smooth and successful and the economy needs to stay strong. If all those go well, the brand is positioned better than it ever has been before.

So yes, many of the events that have put the Nets brand in the position today could not have been predicted. What could have been predicted is that the team and brand leadership was going to be relentless in taking advantage and telling the world about every move, and when the sun came out and opportunity arose, they could literally cash in.  They are moves that Mr. Rickey would have liked, and if he were alive today, would certainly support as the Nets become bigger than the borough.

Big Ten, ACC Take Their Bites of The Apple…

At first people seemed to be scratching their head. The ACC or the Big Ten trying to put roots down in New York, the home of the Big East?  Who would care other than some alumni? New York us not a college town, it’s a pro town.

However as seen this week, the ACC and the Big Ten from a brand standpoint do consider New York a college sports business town, and their overtures to media, to Wall Street and to Madison Avenue were made very clear as conference realignment took place this week. The ACC spent the early part of the week in and around the media capital of the world, ringing bells at Nasdaq, visiting network partners, calling on brands who want to engage in the college space, not just with marketing types but with coaches who can engage and tell stories and talk positively about the relationship the new face of the league can have. Jim Boeheim rang bells and shook hands with prominent Syracuse alums all too eager to talk about his team, now going from the snowbelt to tobacco road, and what that can mean for the school from a dollars and branding standpoint, as well as from a W and L perspective. Rutgers, now moving on from scandal du hour, is touting visits of Michigan and Ohio State and new relationships, not looking back on old ones.

The leagues themselves will leverage these relationships and now talk aggressively of bringing elite events…football, post season basketball, even other sports with large alumni followings like lacrosse and even baseball, into the market for high level  competition. No it won’t be the daily presence that a Big East will still have in New York, rather it will be the best of the best, and that’s what New York enjoys. No, the Big Ten and the ACC won’t leave their close ties in the markets they are in, rather they say they will amplify their outreach now by embracing New York and the new groups of alumni and supporters with their new members who have always been here, but have been hard to wrangle without a consistent tie. Is it a corporate wakeup call for the Big East? It sure is. Mike Krzyzewski  is now doing regular community visits in and around Gotham and rest assured Big Ten and ACC media and brand partners will be hawking all things about their new member schools regularly around the big dollars of the New York area. Conference tournaments now have the Barclays Center and the Prudential Center to call home, not just MSG, the home of The Big East for so long. Last year the Pac 12 made noise about being more east coast friendly, but the reality is with no schools close by, that is very hard to do. With a Rutgers and a Syracuse, the ACC and Big Ten have some anchor in the region to leverage. Now that is not to say suddenly everyone in New York will be on board every day. Piscataway and Syracuse are not Brooklyn and Queens, and the market is still very fragmented for the casual fan. However for those leagues now to be able to be within earshot of corporate dollars consistently means a great deal, and using those ties to propel the overall league brand is a big boost, one that probably was never adequately used when the schools were in the Big East. 

It is a smart business move to be so aggressive with their new assets by the Big Ten and the ACC and it should serve as a warning shot to those in the space who have been less aggressive and have called the area home for some time.  College athletics is big business and getting bigger, and two of its largest players have now put down roots in the Apple.  

Yes New York is a pro town. But college sports business is now more professionally orchastrated than ever before, and if this past week is any example, the ACC and Big Ten will be in the fight for attention, and dollars, in Gotham more than ever before.

Can The UFC Take A Page From The WWE For A New York Brand Win?

Two weeks ago the WWE was everywhere and anywhere in the New York Area as Wrestlemania became the lynchpin for all things about the brand. Community projects, brand partnerships, education news, appearances on Wall Street, meet and greets with celebrities, panels on broadcasting, economic viability studies…you name it the WWE rolled it out as they headed up and through their record-setting event at Met Life Stadium, with over 80,000 turning out in what was a good model for testing the limits and challenges for next year’s Super Bowl.

 This week another vibrant brand this one in a cage not a ring, will roll into the area looking to showcase all its marketing muscle and extol its virtues to Madison Avenue, Wall Street and to the seat of government in New York State in Albany. It is the UFC’s chance to sell itself even larger, with a mega-card and pay per view at the Prudential Center in Newark. Athletes, ring card girls, organizational head Dana White as well as a host of athletes talking up the brand even as the NFL Draft descends on Gotham this week as well. The challenges for both the UFC and the WWE similar in many regards…they are both testosterone driven entertainment, which use cable and broadcast TV to fuel very lucrative pay per view events. They have engaging stars and storylines and a charismatic leader as the face of the company. They have been dogged in their use of social media to engage fans, and their events have worldwide appeal especially in a demo, the young male early adopter, that many traditional sports and entertainment events find elusive. The two brands also struggle with critics who say they are too violent, too misogynistic and are part of a continued dumbing down of society. 

 There are also some distinct differences between the two. The WWE is a publicly traded company, the UFC is privately held. The UFC is real sport, the WWE is pure entertainment. And for the UFC, the WWE is allowed to hold events in the State of New York, while professional MMA remains outlawed in New York. Wrestlemania could always return to Madison Square Garden, while the UFC still awaits the day when it could call MSG or The Barclays Center or The First Niagara Center or any upstate casino home.

 New Jersey meanwhile has thrived as a focal point for legal MMA both large and small, and will welcome the UFC back this week. However in the midst of all the events, the expo of goods, the sponsor in store autograph signings will be a look by all at Albany with the continued message that the UFC and its larger competitors have done all that has been asked to make the sport OK in New York, like it is in a majority of the country and around the world. What will all that glad-handing and lobbying do for the brand? It will probably help push some consumer brands still reticent to engage off the fence and into the sport, especially if ad decision makers can go down 6th Avenue to see an event without crossing a river. It will also help open more key venues and raise competition for large scale shows, which will help the bottom line for the UFC or a promotion like Bellator, which is the industry’s number two promotion.

The drumbeat for next Saturday has already begin, with appearances UFC athletes in a number of places, including the booth for Saturday’s Mets-Nationals game on FOX. While much of that talk was about tune in for the live event that was on Fox Saturday night, the message to a national audience about the New York issue was spelled out pretty clearly and articulately be UFC fighter Uriah Hall. It was simple…we are mainstream, we are legit, we can deliver a product and we can help New York.

The lack of pushback by anyone on Wrestlemania should serve as a good template for what the UFC could do as they return to the New York area this week. It was big time glitz, big time promotion and all clear messaging. It helped lift the brand of the WWE on all fronts, and a similar effort can help float the rising tide of the UFC, one which still needs a little push to win their fight in The Big Apple.

Devils Score With College Radio Night

There was a time not too long ago when many thought that audio as a medium was almost dead. We live in a video world, we need to see things, no one has time to sit by a radio… Then along came podcasting, and itunes and digital audio and Sirius/XM and I Heart Radio and blogtalk radio and suddenly the spoken voice was transformed once again. By many accounts more people listen to broadcasts today than ever before…you can be very choosy about your interests, and if you have the means, can create your own broadcasts online for you, or whomever you want, to hear.

Audio is back.

So it is with great surprise that last year we found that October 2 was College Radio Day around the world. College and high school stations, on air, on line from no less than 25 nations and all 50 states took part in the program, which was designed to draw attention to the value of college radio as a training ground not just for DJ’s, but for engineers, writers, bloggers, vloggers and broadcasters. Today, enterprising students, especially in politics, news and sports, can find a niche that was impossible to break into in years past. Want to host a sports radio show and get guests? Be professional in your approach and just ask whoever runs the station where you are in school.  Some call letters and some informed opinions and you can build your own portfolio, and some great references. The cost of production has dropped astronomically, so the ability to record and broadcast, even live sporting events from high school games in a town to collegiate events, is more of an opportunity now than ever before. More importantly for the enterprising young man or woman, the ability to market oneself and be heard by the mainstream is easier than ever before. Educational outlets which once reached a few blocks can now be heard online around the world, and the ability to customize files and pass them along to those who may have missed a key broadcast can give anyone the ability to have an amazing career through the spoken voice.

The idea was the brainchild of William Paterson University professor  Dr. Rob Quicke, who saw the value and the opportunity in college radio both in front of and behind the mic, and built the program virally and on a shoestring. It is expected to double in size in the next few years.

Part of that viral spread found its way to Newark, where the New Jersey Devils, always looking to grow an audience, contacted Dr. Quicke about having a sports version of college radio night. The first one, hosted by Devils radio personality Matt Loughlin and others, was held last year, and the second event was scheduled for last fall. Unfortunately the NHL Lockout out a damper on all things hockey, but the team and Dr. Quicke stayed with the idea, and when the lockout was settled the idea was revisited with a target date  of April 1, a game against the rival New York Islanders at The Prudential Center.

Like year one, the students would be handpicked from stations across the region…they had to have the approval of the station and be active in broadcasting or covering college sports. It was not to be a free for all for access, they had to act, dress and report on the goings-on properly. The event, as is college radio, grew tremendously from year one, with 28 students from 13 colleges and universities attending. They were credentialed, given all access passes, watched the game, spoke to team officials and then covered the post-game press conference as members of the media. While all have had access to the college game, it was a rare firsthand look into professional sports, and will probably help launch the careers of future broadcasters and reporters.

Like all areas of college radio outreach Dr. Quicke has touched, the night has spawned inquiries from stations across the country to help arrange similar professional sports events. Baseball, with its longer season and larger media areas, is a natural fit, although the college semester may not be as easy to match to a winter night in terms of availability and access. Dr. Quicke also hinted an expansion of the program where some select students may qualify to do some mock play by play or cover a practice or two as well, all in the interest of enhancing the student experience and growing opportunities.

What’s in it for the Devils, or any professional team? Simple. It is yet another touch point both for now and for the future.  The ability for anyone to amplify their work through social media makes all of these 28 students instant ambassadors for the Devils brand. It also gives the team a chance to engage with some future members of the media at a very early stage, when they are just learning best practices for the business. That type of firsthand knowledge d and the follow-up certainly cannot hurt the coverage of the team in future years and it also provides New Jersey with an entrée into the potential future labor pool for young people who are passionate about the business of sports and media, should positions open down the line.  It did not pull from any inventory or damage the work that fulltime media or players and staff needed to do. It probably offered a bit of a respite from the breakneck pace of the season.

Even if the program stays as is, the Devils College Radio Night is hot, one that should go into the best practices file for every area organization. A team needing to grow fan base and media coverage like the Red Bulls, for example, should be next in line for the program as MLS heads into month two. It is a smart way to engage young people passionate about sports, and at the same time helping to ease open the door for quality, well informed future members of the media.

Well placed and well delivered, for both the club and a smart and fast thinking professor from William Paterson.