“Geekfest” No More; Thoughts On Why MIT Sloan Is A Winner…

It was once rightfully so called  “Geekfest,” a small to medium size gathering of young men looking to figure out how to make statistical analysis more relevant. However the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as a brand has now grown into an event that has probably even surpassed the vision of what its founders, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Kraft Sports VP of Consumer Marketing and Strategy Jessica Gelman could have ever imagined; a gathering not just of several thousand general manager  wanna-be’s, but a place where those largely behind the scenes in professional sports come to listen to learn and to discuss the business of how to make sport better.

While some bemoaned the fact that the event has gotten too big, many others felt that this year’s event had listened to its critics and actually become more open in topics, ideas and speakers. ESPN has played a key role in driving topics and speakers in the past few years as the event expanded its footprint to the point where many others doing great work in the space who were not aligned with “The Worldwide Leader” were driven away or excluded from the conversation during the two day event. This year, rightfully so, panel discussions were left to those who know the space best; the popular baseball analytics panel was run by The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and included speakers from MLB Network, Bloomberg Sports and elsewhere, and showed that the conference was not just an ESPN “love fest” as had happened in recent years as the conference expanded its audience.

The vibe of the conference is different from most other “industry” events, because of its academic nature and its audience. Hours before the first Friday session, several hundred industry wanna-be’s buzzed around the lobby of the Westin Hotel, wearing their Sunday best and gleefully discussing which panels and speakers they wanted to see. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross sat among the throngs of young people listening to the discussion of building a culture with a franchise between Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, while later NBA D-league president Dan Reed, Utah Jazz assistant GM Scott Layden, Washington Wizards assistant GM Tommy Sheppard, and others sat in to discuss the making of a champion with Malcolm Gladwell and “Sports Gene” author David Epstein. Former Calgary Flames president Brian Burke hovered with the NBA’s Kiki Vanderweighe as Gladwell and new NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked about potential changes to the draft and the playoff system rarely heard before, while scores of MLB and NFL assistant GM’s and player personnel and development folks mixed with high school and job seekers to hear adidas talk about the future of wearable tech and its impact on developing players and maintaining careers. The Celtics Brad Stevens walked the hall almost unbothered as he entered a session on using data in college and now in the NBA, while Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was asked for nary an autograph while posing for a selfie or two after his panel on player performance.

Discussions about the hair choices of Glad well and fivethirtyeight founder Nate Silver were as prominent as the talks between soccer officials on which panel on leadership they should attend.  

This year there was even breaking news this year when former Toronto Raptors head Bryan Colangelo candidly and openly discussed the fact that he had wanted the team to dump games during part of his run there to better improve their draft position in seasons deemed hopeless. Although Colangelo was quick to say he never discussed the push to lose with coaches and players, it was something that the wide ranging amount of media as well as those engaged in live conversations in social media quickly turned into news well beyond the walls of the Hynes Convention Center.  Tyler Hamilton had his first face to face discussion with USADA’s Travis Tygart on the debilitating and damaging use of steroids and other PED’s in cycling.  Rarely would those types of unfiltered conversations take place at industry events where the audience is more corporate, and the networking and news is done more in hushed tones away from the bright lights of the speakers stage.

 Oh there were the stats, with panels like Baseball Analytics, Coaching Analytics etc etc. But there were also first rate panels on Social Media Marketing, International Expansion and the Future of Sports Media and sales, with industry leaders like Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Fanatics founder Michael Rubin debating the future of the apparel market, while AS Roma head Jim Pallotta, Octagon President Phil de Piciotto, Celtics owner Wync Grosbeck and MLB.com head Bob Bowman all voiced their open opinions about the global nature of sport, the need for innovation and the value of having sound business functions to parallel an entrepreneurial spirit.

Other than the Ivy Sports Symposium (founded at Princeton by grad Chris Chaney and now rotating among several Ivy League schools), which in many ways has become the fall sister to MIT’s late winter event, the MIT Sloan Event is more about those looking to engage and get into the field of sports business and analytics, combined with people actively engaged in the onfield business of sports. While the highly successful events run by the Sports Business Journal deal with those off the field topics (as does the growing annual Bloomberg Business of Sports event, much more of a C Suite gathering with its own unique focus) , MIT and Ivy take a different approach to audience and structure. Many times the value in conferences is less what is said on stage than what is said in the hallways and over lunch. If you missed a session at MIT and were out kibitzing in the hallways, you missed real learning experience and thought that you might not have heard before, and you might not hear again because of the rare collection of leaders from varied places.  

Geekfest? Maybe. As someone who was once accused of being part of the “lunatic fringe of sport” there is something to be said for a bit of Geekiness. However as someone who also attends multiple events, it was still a very entertaining few days that industry leaders others can learn from and build upon. After all, isn’t that what colleges and universities are really supposed to do for all of us? Find ways to inform and inspire and get us out of thinking what we do every day is the best way to do it.

Congrats to all those like-minded dudes. See you next March with an even bigger crowd.

The Second Screen Evolves…

It is the buzzword of the year like “plastics” was in the movie “The Graduate,” or “Social Media” was last year or “3D TV” was three years ago. Now it’s all about the second screen…or the third…or the fourth.  And while a study this week in the Sports Business Journal showed that usage and adaptation of a second screen during broadcasts is still small, it is growing, and brands and properties are scrambling for when to take advantage in a cost efficient and meaningful consumer engagement experience.

Now the second screen of today can be as simple as using a platform like twitter to engage fans and monitor the buzz in and around an event. The latest example took place during the NBA Finals,  with NBA Partner Sprint leveraging twitter’s new TV ad targeting tool, in conjunction with the Minnesota Timberwolves Kevin Love, to create an added experience for fans.  Live tweets, video links, even Vine feeds, all tied to a  Show The Love With Kevin Love Show. Fans asked questions and got reaction from Love, as well as the ability to interact with each other. Sprint sweetened the pot with some text and win and favorite following tweets to build more interest as well. Simple, clean, not huge investment and a way to see if fans would engage with Sprint, an official NBA partner and with Love in an environment away from the game.

The contest gave fans an opportunity to respond and engage in the medium of their choice, from laptop to tablet to mobile device, and was agnostic of carrier, although the goal for Sprint would be to align and then convert users down the line with special offers.

Now while that type of second screen experience is a clean and easy one, the opportunities that exist with opportunities like streaming video or advanced and enhanced analytics are also intriguing. Rights holders or teams or leagues can created enhanced experiences that complement the broadcast for fans willing to delve deeper, especially in sports where there are longer breaks like golf, football and baseball.  Deeper explanations of the goings on, as well as fan reactions, all tied to video replays can make the controversial less controversial and five an insider’s view of what is going on while those in the broadcast booth tend to the action. Brands can also get bigger ROI be driving fans to the second screen for added value promotions that can get lost in a traditional action packed broadcast.

Now for those non-rights holders, the opportunity to engage in a second screen experience is also intriguing. Since one does not necessarily need rights or likenesses or even video to create an experience away from the broadcast, a team or a local host can be agnostic to broadcasters and maybe even be more edgy or true or even controversial in content.  There is also the ambush possibility with a second screen partner, where a brand locked out of the rights can create an experience to drive interest and ROI, although that type of ambush would take large dollars and lots of potential ill will, to create and pull off effectively.

The other beauty of the second screen experience is its mobility…it can be done on site or a thousand miles away, depending on the level of engagement.  The rights holder or the team or league could launch the experience just inches from play or in a studio getting immediate feedback, or it could be an interaction in a person’s house or living room or studio miles away.  Location can be a great enhancement, nut the most important thing is the uniqueness of content and the immediacy of reaction.

As mobile reception improves in stadia the second screen will also continue to grow. Promotions in lackluster games, or better explanations with team legends or officials, will hopefully help enhance and not detract from the fan experience, and not be an impediment on watching the game live.

For sure the space is ever evolving. A good tweetup or twitter chat which was thought to be easy and engaging recently or even today may be archaic tomorrow, as better reception and economies of scale, along with wider engagement come into play. There is also the risk of too much too soon and decreased value for a rush to the second screen. Dueling personalities and lots of clamor for followers can lead to turned off consumers and lots of white noise. In the end, great content will drive the day…content that is fun, clean, smooth and long on engagement for the consumer like he or she has never had before. It will not replace the live event in stadia or on broadcast, but it should continue to enhance, and is for sure a must follow trend going forward.  

Kings Prep Led To The Sunny Days Of Today…

It certainly has been a long slog for the L.A. Kings to reach the national spotlight, one that still has them battling with their Staples Center co-tenants the Lakers and the Clippers, as well as the currently struggling but still popular Angels and the newly reborn by ownership Dodgers for the attention of the sometimes fleeting and always busy casual sports fan in Southern California. For the hockey fan, except for the style of Rogie Vachon and Marcel Dionne in the 1970’s and Wayne Gretzky’s short lived but effective run later, the Kings have always been somewhat of a late night afterthought for most of North America.

However as this year’s club moves closer to the Stanley Cup Finals and a trip to either New York or close to Manhattan (New Jersey), the Kings have positioned themselves off the ice for mainstream and social success.

Off the ice, the longtime cultivation of tastemakers in Hollywood, led by producer and season ticketholder Jerry Bruckheimer has led to a passionate concentrated but solid following in entertainments influencer circle. The group, put together by Kings legend turned president of business operations Luc Robitalle several seasons ago, was made up of execs with an interest in the game who, when needed, would turn a favor for the team. Whether that was helping coax stars like Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks to the Staples Center, or providing thoughts on in-game entertainment, was determined by what was comfortable. It was not heavy handed, but it certainly became very effective as the teams on ice fortunes rose over the past few seasons, and requests from the Kings to their “friends” turned to requests from their friends to the team on how they could help. Like in New York and for the Lakers, drive-by’s for celebs on location in L.A. now included the Kings, a must-be-seen spot moving towards the level of the Knicks celebrity seats or the front row for Kobe and Company.

Also into that mix went the aggressive cultivation of local media, bloggers and others interested in getting access to the Kings, the players and their front office, all with the hope of garnering good will through access for when the sunny days on the ice matched the beautiful weather outside. While many teams still remain skittish about the blogosphere, the Kings saw an opportunity and grew a following.

The team also went to great lengths to acknowledge and then aggressively use the social media space to grow its footprint, especially as interest in the on-ice performance picked up as the 2011-12 season went along. As Chris Botta highlighted in this week’s Sports Business Journal, the team has made a sometimes edgy but always entertaining investment in engaging not just their fans, but hockey and sports fans in general, with the news and insight coming off their twitter feed and on to other areas of social media. It is not heavy on tech, it is fun, and has made the Kings grow their following to over 100,000 since the start of the playoffs.

Of course the real fruits of all this work lay ahead, with the potential of the Stanley Cup finals, an NHL title, and then increased marketing and sales opportunities for next year and beyond. L.A. also remains an uber-competitive marketplace with fickle fans being pulled in many directions, so converting the casual into the consistent is a challenge for everyone.

However what makes the opportunity of today real is the consistent legwork the team put into doing all the little things over the past few seasons. There was no instant payoff, and the cultivation had to be both strategic and consistent with no real 100 pct. Chance of an ROI. It isn’t like cultivating a sponsor who suddenly walks in with a big check. The payoff comes sometimes in immeasurable little wins. A gift to a studio head’s son here, an autographed puck or jersey to a blogger charity there, a thank you to a group of twitter followers through a promotion another time. Slow and steady is the build, but when the payoff of that work is matched on the ice, the team is in a position to reap the rewards.

Some may think planning for a sunny day in L.A. is easy. In the Kings case it probably wasn’t that easy, but now that it is here, they can enjoy the glow.

What’s In A Stadium Name? More Than Dollars….

A few years ago the new owners of the Miami Dolphins were met with a skeptical eye when they effectively came up with a creative and short term naming rights solution for their oft-confused stadium. Land Shark Stadium, part inspired by a minority investor (Jimmy Buffett) became the temporary name of the home of the Dolphins and the Marlins. Those in the business community wondered if the short term fix for cash and publicity would become the standard and effectively devalue the naming rights deals around the country and around the world. After all, the naming rights business, like the economy, had taken a heavy hit in recent years, with corporations thinking twice and three times about spending millions to slap a name on a buildings, and owners thinking even more about the investment in branding only to have a company be sold and change its name. The always skeptical media also had their own issues, trying to figure out what to call a building once a name changes, and how far the corporate rights went into editorial.

Since the Land Shark deal, there hasn’t been a flurry of short term deals coming to the table. What we have seen is the retention of team names in lieu of short term, and then some creative naming deals that look to other assets to play with in addition to just the building names. In Kansas City the value of the newly opened and recently named Livestrong Sporting Park (profiled in SBJ this week) is not in a dollar for naming rights, it is in a community branding partnership that will make the team (Sporting Kansas City) more of a public trust than just a brand that plays in the area. That feeling of public trust, which makes the players, the logo, the coaches, a part of the community year-round was felt to be more valuable than the dollars a local company may have invested as a good buy. It is a co-investment designed to grow the Livestrong brand and the MLS franchise, while at the same time finding other like-minded paying partnerships that could capitalize on the relationship. Risky? Yes. Was there an alternative? Perhaps. Can it work? TBD.

Then there is the deal that Rutgers University cut this week to sell its football naming rights to New Jersey-based High Point Solutions
. Critics say that the deal sullies tradition and further corporatizes college sports. Proponents see it as a way for Rutgers to keep funding and growing their athletic programs without dipping into the public til, which is strapped in New Jersey for anything education related, let alone sports related. What the deal essentially does is help Rutgers, and grow a New Jersey based company’s awareness and visibility at no loss to the taxpayer. Rutgers becomes only a handful of colleges to effectively sell its naming rights at a price that the market dictated. Is Rutgers the last University to do so? No. it probably set a new standard for such deals. Those who worry about “tradition” at the birthplace of college football should be more encouraged about a new tradition that Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, and those who helped broker the deal at Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, created. One where a local or state-owned rising corporation can partner to find private sector dollars to fund public projects. An endowment it is not. But an opportunity to tie a technology company to an institute of higher learning is smart and creative and was not done in a vacuum. It is not selling scholarships, it is showing the value that Rutgers football has to the business community in New Jersey, in a way that makes sense for all involved.

Lastly, there is this feeling by some that the selling of such rights and packaging them as large scale partnerships will cheapen team brands or tradition. There are some team brands…Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Fenway Park etc…that transcend the value of corporations. Those brands are multimillion dollar investments on their own and can stand above a flood of alternative dollars. They are however, the exception and not the rule. The cash challenged environment sports works in today has created both challenges and opportunities, and the creative ways to address those concerns are showing up in many places, even in naming rights deals. Maybe in a better economy these deals would not exist. However we are challenged today to fund and grow businesses in non-traditional ways, and these are the latest examples of how to generate interest, offset cost and grow brand in a new way. It’s not easy, it may be a bit controversial, but it certainly is creative.

Horse Racing, Boxing Share A Day And The Same Crossroads…Again.

They are sports driven by gambling dollars and the big event, and they have spent years trying to reconnect with the heyday of the past. Saturday boxing, in the form of Manny Pacquaio and Shane Mosley’s title bout, and horse racing, with the Kentucky Derby, will again take center stage in sports and try and use these elite events to resurrect their businesses. Can they?

Well the good news is that despite the alphabet soup of governance, the fractured leadership, and the migration to other sports by the casual fan, both sports remain on the edge of the public eye, and both have tremendous untold stories, especially in the markets that are growing fastest in this country, Hispanic and African American. They also both have the looming issue of gambling, both positive and negative, that can draw both ire and interest from the public and the media. Tainted sports? Yes. An upside for brands looking to engage or leadership willing to consolidate? Absolutely. Now boxing seems to be making the biggest strides towards resurrection. Promoters like Top Rank and Golden Boy have looked to professionalize their business sides, taking chances on new marketing partnerships (Top Rank’s cross promotion of the fight tonight with CBS is a great example, chronicled by the Sports Business Journal this week) and non-traditional ways to promote in an effort to use the big fight to lift the overall business. The sport’s violence and the athleticism of its elite fighters always draws a crowd and buzz, and the upsurge in interest in the UFC has actually helped pull boxing back into the brand discussions, which is counter to what many thought would happen with the rise of MMA.

Horse Racing is a different story, but one with solid potential. The horses, the jockeys, the owners, the tradition still remain largely untold outside of the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup. Online gambling and an aging population has taken its toll on the tracks, and public funding in once profitable places like New Jersey has dried up a thriving business. There is little activation in the social media space and rumors of corruption always abound. Yet the sport thrives around the world, the excitement of the race and the pageantry of race day still exists, and the upside for thoroughbred racing to combine efforts to better educate fans and capture attention consistently still is very much in play. Maybe not at hundreds of tracks 365 days a year, as happened in years past, but certainly with a focused, consistent schedule that makes sense to the casual fan.

Brands will turn out Saturday for both events, as will casual fans on site and watching on TV. NBC’s consolidation of the Triple Crown makes great sense, and a younger, more savvy group of owners in horse racing can help drive change and consistency there as well. Both sports have opportunity…again…and at their core they are understood by the casual fan. What is needed is 21st century marketing and branding on a consistent level that uses the big event to drive the growth of the sport. Will it happen? Time will tell, as will leadership. Regardless it should be a great day of viewing.

The Social Media Game On A Global Scale…

The social landscape in sports across North America is growing exponentially every day. Teams, athletes, events, brands, media companies, are all scrambling to add followers, build alliances, grow traffic and scream louder than anyone else to draw critical mass for whatever reason, from selling tickets and growing brand loyalty to giving consumers the unfettered access they crave. Yet for all the scrambling and the theories of what is brand success…is it millions of followers or the right few thousand for your audience for example…a great piece by Eric Fisher in this week’s Sports Business Journal shows that American teams are still lagging in the social media footprint to the soccer clubs of Europe, and that the recently completed cricket World Cup had more of an impact in the digital space than almost any other North American sporting event, save the Super Bowl…and that impact was not on non-American servers, it was on a well known platform in the States…ESPN digital.

This type of news may create some consternation amongst the sports social media elite in the United States, and may send some “experts” heading for cover as they advise brands. However in reality the news is a great example again of how the sports landscape is far more global than we sometimes care to admit, and taking a look at best practices of some of the world’s largest soccer clubs can continue to give North American brands insight into social media. Often what is also overlooked is the advanced use of the handheld outside of the States and in emerging companies, where landlines are not useful. Telecom companies have been using the digital space for years…the French Open and Formula One were among the first events ever, as early as the 1990’s…to use digital technology to bring fans multiple images and export data to as wide an audience as possible who were following events in their handheld devices.

The list also serves as a reminder to the tribal nature of soccer as a global brand. The largest clubs in the world have truly global followings…loyal groups who consume all things about their home club win or lose…and while American sports are king here, the amount of team-specific fans outside of this country (vs. fans of the league like the NBA or NHL) is far less than the amount of club-specific fans around the world.

This is also certainly not an indictment of the great innovation and brand activation programs American sport has pioneered in the digital space, and those programs are growing exponentially each day. What it is, is a great look and reminder into the potential of the global brand and the appeal of effective social media programs that are based on both content and support. Passion drives interest no matter what the platform.

We Love Team Sports…But Not Every Sport Is For Teams…

This past week the Sports Business Journal had an extensive report of the financial failure of the World Boxing League, which limped home following its first season. The WBL launched last year with city by city team boxing, hoping to pit young stars trained in cities like Los Angeles and Miami against other global cities in an effort to build new stars for boxing and also build off the concept that fans will find an allegiance not just for individuals but for some civic or ethnic pride. The result, according to the piece, saw ticket sales of less than 50 in some cities like Memphis, and the concept, which was looking for multi-million dollar investments, never really caught on.

Why? A few reasons, little of which actually have to do with any of the larger scale issues that boxing has today. First, boxing first and foremost is an individual sport, and like many other individual sports before it, the “team concept” doesn’t really work. Mixed Martial Arts has tried the team of county by country and city by city with no luck, volleyball tried city by city with no interest, and while World Team Tennis has had staying power, even Davis and Fed Cup in tennis struggle to find an audience. Individual sports are just that…fans want to see individuals rise up and win, mano a mano. They are intrigued by those from their hometown and certainly enjoy rooting for one’s county, but if there aren’t more than two people on the field at the same time the concept of team is usually hard to explain. Also in most individual sports, the athletes are a vagabond lot, often traveling a circuit and rarely compete in a given “season” in one place. The money and often the media coverage (and the fans) are at the bigger events for individual purses, and that’s where the players are best known. Maybe that changes a bit in some sports for the Olympics, where pride of nationality may take precedence, but even at the Olympics a sport like boxing is much more about the individual than the team country.

Another reason. We have more than enough team sports already. This year we have again seen second tier leagues in a challenged economy struggle to find their way, and the fan, at least the casual one, seems happy with the large scale team sports we already have. Soccer, baseball, football, hoops and hockey appear to be enough, maybe with some lacrosse thrown in from time to time. There does not seem to be clamoring for more team sports to fill the landscape. We are also in an economy where lifestyle sports are becoming more important to the consumer struggling with health issues, and action sports have filled a void for many younger enthusiasts who may have been interested in yet another team sport in the past. Chuck Norris’ departed World Combat League even showed that emerging sports like karate and tae kwon do, may be good for one person, but no one cares about teams from Austin and Houston battling it out.

One more. Any new concept takes time, and time is not an ally of large scale sports launches these days. Having to explain who the new fighters were, what the team concept did, and how winners were going to be selected takes away from what fight fans want to see…a good battle of individuals. Those who would tune in went for the fights as a one off, not to see the standings of tams that in a start up had little to no relevance. Even recently launched team sports that made sense to the public like the UFL and WPS have struggled to find their place because it takes time…years…to build alliance and change viewing patterns. Brands, media partners, and unfortunately investors, are not willing to wait that long in a 24/7 world like today.

The fact still remains that boxing still can hold its own for splash and interest when there is a big fight. There may not be many heavyweights to capture the attention of the casual fan right now, but especially among a growing Hispanic audience, big names can draw attention and eyeballs as individuals and in certain geographic areas. They fight with pride for their country and for themselves, and to try and fold them into a team isn’t a good way to try and develop an individual sport. Now maybe the WBL was before it’s time, and it is the proper way to develop young boxing talent. Boxers do train as individuals in certain geographic areas and do fill local fight cards on every level. However unfortunately the early returns on the investment appear to show that the public, at least in the U.S., does not want or need another team sport concept yet, no matter how high the level of competition. Americans do love the team sport concept, that is true. They just don’t have to love it for every sport that is out there.