The Ivy League certainly has the most elite group of Universities in the world, but in the sports marketing business, sometimes “elite” is not the word that comes up when talking brand sponsorships. “Creative” yes, “innovative” maybe. “Entreprenurial” for sure. Even with the successful intercollegiate hoops runs of Harvard and Cornell, and the consistent play over the years of Penn and Princeton, Ivy Sports overall might not be the first choice of the biggest and the brightest brands. Football has actually produced its share of NFL players, but even the annual Harvard-Yale game does not draw the mega-crowds and media exposure that it used to.
So if the brightest of lights still don’t shine consistently on the Ivy athletic elite, what does a school like Columbia do when looking for brand sponsors? Improvise and innovate. Now the Lions have not roared in football in, well. lets say a long time. Men’s hoops is on the upswing again, but still is chasing the top echelon of Ivy basketball, which is made tougher bu the lack of a post-season tournament to garner hope for those not at the top. Still, the Lions are situated as the only Division I athletic program in Manhattan, have a strong alumni base, and a student body that may not be totally engaged in athletics but surely is supportive. They also have the crowded New York marketplace to deal with, so what’s the answer to have brands engaged and create effective promotions? Find a unique balance.
This year Columbia will again go out to find brands that may offset hard costs that the University has to outlay for its teams while using both high volume trade opportunities and cold hard cash. It is a balance that gives Columbia the chance to bring new brands into sports marketing who may not get the dollars or huge exposure at other schools, but brands that are quality (s0metime startups) and are looking to engage with a young, eclectic and athletic audience.
The latest example was announced this week with a brand called Rockin’ Refuel. Owned by Shamrock Farms, Rockin’ Refuel became the “Preferred Protein Drink of Columbia.” The company got to test market the brand last year with Columbia athletes, who chose the product over other bigger names in the category. As a result of the buy-in from athletes and trainers, and the fact that the product is NCAA complaint, Columbia came up with a hybrid deal for exposure, promotion and dollars that would offset a huge outlay the school would have to make in the product category for 2012-13. The result is a platform for unique promotion (Rockin’ Refuel is a GNC Store featured product) as well as an amazing test market for the product with an engaged audience, in a controlled sample of probably several thousand students and student-athletes.
Now is it a sampling of 100,000 at Michigan Stadium or 50,000 at Yankee Stadium? No. But it is a great micro-test of a brand looking to break through, with a case study at an Ivy League institution that could lead to bigger deals down the line. Could Columbia have taken the easy road in the category and just accepted product from a larger brand in exchange for some coolers and exposure as others do? Sure. However it would not have been as worthwhile for the program or for the brand. ow all is not done in Lion-land. Athletics will look to find other alternative brand categories in the coming weeks, each with a bit of an edge and a different story to tell in a world where traditional sports marketing was never in vogue, but innovation and ROI is.
Twenty five years ago, July 1, 1987, I was in my office at SportsChannel in Woodbury, N.Y. (where I was Assistant Director for Marketing and Public Relations) with a group of people listening to a new venture in sport, all-sports radio. Just after 3:00, the signal at 1050 AM changed from WHN, a country station which had a smattering of sports, to WFAN, the first-all sports radio station. The first voice we heard, one who is very familiar to baseball fans these days at one of the voices of the Yankees, Suzyn Waldman, led to other notable hosts, from Jim Lampley to Art Shamsky to Ann Ligouri to Pete Franklin to Bill Mazer to Ed Coleman and Dave Sims later on, but all-sports radio was born.
Now there were several sports talk shows before…notably Art Rust Jr. on WABC Radio in New York, Franklin in Cleveland, even a very young Christopher Russo on WMCA in New York (not to mention what is still the longest-running sports talkshow, “One on One,” on WFUV Radio in New York), but never was “sportstalk” a genre. It certainly is now.
Like other ventures, sports talk 24/7 was seen as the latest sign of the apocalypse. it could not sell as a stand-alone, it wasn’t like an ESPN because there was not that much to do with audio, but WFAN grew, and grew, moved down the dial to replace WNBC Radio at the powerful 660 spot, and now the audio side of sports, with over 300 sports talk radio stations across the country, countless blogtalk opportunities, college and high school sports radio and podcasts, have made sports audio bigger as a genre than ever before. Now the ability to record and download interviews or shows tailored to our niche listening preferences makes sports audio in North America more valuable than ever before as a tool. If you miss NPR’s great “Only A Game” show on Saturday mornings at 7 don’t worry, download it and listen later. President Obama wants to reach a diverse male audience, go on a podcast with Bill Simmons. You want to get all-MMA all the time, try “Fight Club” on Sirius. All Fantasy Sports? There are many stops to listen to that as well.
Like every other medium, social media tools like Twitter today, the mainstream thought all sports radio would come and go as a fad. Instead, it adapted, grew, became both sellable and scalable, and is now an essential part of any media plan. “Heard you on the radio” may not always be “radio” as it was once known, but it is being heard, and heard in more places and by more people in the medium of their choosing, than probably ever before.
Now sports talk radio is still not the rage away from North America as it is here. Other than ESPN and some ventures like sports radio in Israel, all fans, all the time hasn’t yet worked. The culture is different, and the interest in all sports is just not that strong. However the digital world has probably also helped change that, as anyone who has access to the media anywhere can still download and stream shows if they want a slice of American sport. Maybe it will happen down the line, a version of Mike and Mike in Bahrain or Moscow, but not yet. With NBC now re-entering the all-sports audio world, the signs are that the genre is growing again and for marketers and sports literally looking for a voice, thats a great thing.
Twenty five years ago that first voice, Ms. Waldman, may not have known where this sports radio stuff was going, but many are glad she was heard then and that many more are heard more now than ever before. We will all keep listening, hopefully for a long time to come.
There are few brands in the Northeast that use sports more as a platform for awareness than Amtrak. From New York to Boston to Philly to Washington, fans cannot watch a broadcast or attend a game without some kind of call to action by America’s premier national train service. It is with that in mind that a fun opportunity exists for those sports brands to activate with an active demo in May. That platform is Amtrak’s National Train Day, which will be held on May 12 not just in the Northeast but in cities across the country to build awareness and loyalty for rail service as the summer approaches.
Now what can teams do to activate in a fun way with their partner? Well there are a host of digital activities already in place, from Facebook posts to photo contests and beyond. Several teams like the New Jersey devils have already encouraged fans to upload photos wearing gear while on Amtrak, to win prizes from the team and the brand. Maybe there is a “training” component that plays off the physical kind of training and the actual riding of the rails, where fans are rewarded not just for being green and taking public transportation, but for being fit and leading an active lifestyle as well. If you are any one of a hist of MLB teams that have Amtrak as a partner, maybe its time for a “Spring Training” event, where kids online get to do a series of contests related to the rails and are rewarded with tickets and other opportunities by the teams. A number of celebrities are involved in the program, most notably actress Rosario Dawson. Finding some players or coaches with a passion for trains, from model trains to conventional travel, might also be in the offing for a promotion.
As a service, Amtrak remains vital to this country’s infrastructure. As a brand, few are more dedicated with their spending in sports than Amtrak.Therefore, combining their national activation with some fun call to action platforms for the sports demo makes good sense. Yes there will be the awareness messages at stadia and on air for the program. However going that extra mile would give fans added value, create a series of fun programs that can be done both in stadium and well away from a game that day, and raise awareness for a vital and effective business entity, all in the name of good fun and effective travel. Hopefully some proactive brands jump on the train, and have some fun.
While the beginning of March brings together thoughts of both college hoops and spring training, baseball in another prime area of interest officially got started this past weekend as well. College baseball quietly began its official season of spring play, with amazing weather continuing in the Northeast and with little fanfare on the sports schedule. 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 include.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 wrapup 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.
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.
The hoopla and hype over Tim Tebow mania came to an end for the short term on Saturday night with the expected loss to the New England Patriots. More importantly, the game itself showed the gap between the steak (Tom Brady and the Patriots) and the sizzle (Tebow and the Broncos) in the very unforgiving team sport of professional football. That being said, the Tebow mystique and his rise over the last few months was certainly fun, noteworthy, impactful and full of potential. So what’s next? Some thoughts.
The Broncos Decision: For all the fun that the late season run was, the Denver Broncos were still only a .500 football team running a very unconventional system that will be hard to replicate for the long term or of their current starting quarterback was to get hurt. For all the brand value Tebow brought to the team for the short term, the ling term value is in winning in the NFL, so the team needs to decide if Tebow is their future and then market accordingly. If he is not, offseason hype can lead to unrealistic expectations, and all that good will built up can be for nothing. It is a very fine line Denver must walk in promoting team vs. individual in a sport where it is as much about all the players and coaches vs. just one.
The Tebow Decision: For the short term, Tebow and his management team maximized what opportunities they could. Jockey was able to launch and build an effective campaign, his energy drink sponsor FRS, got huge props on his post-game hat, and of course his support of his values and Christian faith led to an almost unprecedented ad buy during Saturday night’s game by Focus on Family. Now Tebow and team have to decide if they want to diversify with offers or stick to some key brands with a little more short term dollars. The choice he will have to make is with regard to time…how much time will he devote to building his brand vs. doing what needs to be done with regard to football success. There are only so many hours in a day, and both take time to be successful. Will he grab the window now and be all Tebow all the time, or will he scale back and let the football lead to other oppts down the line? It will be interesting to follow.
Which Brands Make Tebow Time Successful? We saw Jockey come along, so will we see other sides of Tim Tebow emerge? Will it be very serious and conservative, or will he take a shot at having some fun with a few edgy brands that may change the opinion of people who were not on the bandwagon? Now we won’t see spirits and condoms and can’t see gambling, but could we see some fun brands like Axe Body Wash do a campaign? How about a dating service? maybe GoDaddy or a digital company? It will again be an interesting follow.
Winning Makes the Next Difference: Now that we have seen the short term wins and all the hype and discussion, the next level of wide sponsorship will be tied to long term on field success. That is what makes Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Aaron Rogers and Drew Brees the next level of athlete brand…they won, then they got the bigger dollars. Tebow grabbed the spotlight first, with the long term winning at the NFL level still to come. Can he improve his game to get to the Super Bowl and can the Broncos improve around him? Or will he end up elsewhere in a system that benefits from him best? That winning on the field is the best way to keep his brand top of mind off the field.
The Christian Right: Say what you want, love them or hate them, but as a block the Christian Right can influence eyeballs, brands, and opinions, especially in an election year. They have found an impassioned spokesperson in Tebow who will try and balance his faith-based opinions with the brands that will pay him big dollars. While much was made about his prayerful stance, athletes invoke The Almighty every day, from prayer circles in the NBA and NFL to players crossing themselves after a goal or touchdown or before an at bat. It’s not new at all. What is different is Tebow’s unique way of presenting and marketing his faith, from his Tebow stance to the phrases he had on his eyeblack in college. He gets the power he has, and the Christian Right has found ways to invoke his power with their messages. If that helps or hurts him or is a non-factor with brands will depend on how he does on the field and how strongly he and his team pushes those messages to an audience which may be religious averse on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood.
What If He Strays? Tebow is all about a squeaky clean public image. What if he goes on a bender or blows off some kids or gets caught by a cell phone cam doing something he shouldn’t be doing, even innocently? It will be interesting to see. He doesn’t have the million dollar offers yet that could make that straying a big factor, but it could effect some of the cult-like following he has developed. Then again, America loves a comeback, so a little off-color issues may actually make him even more appealing if he is successful on the field as well. To date, every move is carefully crafted and he has been pretty well protected despite the bright lights he has played under in both the NFL and at Florida. He is not naive with regard to the cameras and his image, and his team has done a great job of message control to date.
So is Tim Tebow someone like Doug Flutie, a great marketer who took advantage of a limited spotlight for great off field success? Or will he be like a Manning or somewhere in between. It will be a crowded year for brands looking for ROI, with the London Olympics on the horizon. As we pause to see whats next in the offseason and focus on the onfield winners, the next steps for Team Tebow will be crucial and interesting to watch, maybe even more from a business story than the ones we have seen so far.
Christmas Day marked the beginning of the season for many of the NBA’s “A list” teams for the 2011-12 66 game sprint to the title. The day after marks the beginning for the rest of the league, including the transitioning still New Jersey Nets, in their final season at the Prudential Center in Newark. While the team tries to come together without its injured young star Brook Lopez and tries to find pieces to build around Deron Williams they will always find other ways to be relevant. Make no mistake about it, few teams in sport generate more buzz away from the win column than New Jersey does, especially will eyes pointing toward the Barclay’s Center opening next September.
With a lame duck season at the Pru on hand, and the Knicks grabbing the interest of the casual fan in the area again, here is a fun promo thought, which has probably already crossed the mind of CEO Brett Yormark. Almost 1/3 of the teams opening night roster has the last name Williams. Deron, Jordan Williams, Shelden Williams and newly signed Shawne Williams. While three are forwards and one is an All-Star guard, finding a time at some point to have all four on the floor will be worth watching. Furthermore, with the Nets always looking for ancillary publicity, could a fun contest amongst fans to find a fifth Williams, albeit in an unofficial role, be far away. How about a Will, Willy, Bill or even another with a last name Williams (where is former Maryland star Walt Williams these days?) be found to complete a Nets Williams five, at least for a photo?
Better yet from a ticket selling standpoint, pick a mid-January game for Williams night…anyone with the last name, or nicknamed Will or Billy, gets in for half price, or even for a ten dollar bill? Let former senator Bill Bradley tip the night off, and sponsor the night with Sherman Williams paint. In the world of professional sports it is usually the minors that come up with the fun promo ideas, yet New Jersey, in their transition from Newark to Brooklyn, has a window of opportunity to have some good natured fun, without causing distress or damage to a brand they are working hard to build.
So go at it Nets…fill the house with Williams, Wills (Will Smith, ok he is a Philly guy), Bills and Billys, and get that great ancillary coverage you enjoy. It could be another fun time for what is shaping up to be a brighter winter than some thought for the NBA as things get going on the hardwood.
The cultural and business differences in how digital sports is offered in Europe and North America is in many ways as wide a divide as well, the ocean that separates the two continents. The early growth of mobile and digital platforms by the sports consumer outside of the United States, as well as the passion and tradition of club followings, gave elite brands like those in the Premier League a decided advantage in fan engagement at an early stage.
Club followers could gain access to all sorts of content, but only for a fee. Followers of Manchester United and Arsenal would buy in for extended content and access, much of which was delivered via a mobile platform to hundreds of thousands of fans around the world. Conversely in the United States, most clubs and properties, faced with a more fickle fan base and a consumer not yet fully in tune to the mobile pace, chose to go the free route to provide content access. Volume of coverage and the ability to engage those fans was the way brands would activate digitally in sport in North America, with digital being less of a hard dollar stream than it is abroad. It was complimentary and a needed addition, but not the hard source of sponsor or fan dollars as it is in the UK and other places.
One club that has looked to buck that trend, one of many ways they are trying to change the view of sports marketing in Europe, is Manchester City. The world’s wealthiest soccer club rolled out a number of new digital initiatives to help drive support and increase fan engagement earlier this year. It was the latest step by the club, purchased by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008, to increase its casual following globally as well as find new ways to engage its traditional followers. The club became one of the first to launch a YouTube channel and cross promote the content posted through all their traditional and non-traditional media, and followed that up with free tweets and chats involving many of the club’s players and staff. While it may seem normal for American sport to do such programs, having an EPL team take that step is a departure from the norm of putting all such top content and access behind a pay wall
The latest step of giving fans a bit more engagement took place this past week, when the club announced it would start implementing tweets and Facebook posts by fans in stadium during the course of matches. The posts would be monitored as to not be offensive, and will come directly from the Manchester City sites, giving fans the ability to engage with the team and those in attendance, an immediate real-time global reaction to performance, support and buzz around one of the world’s premier sport brands. While some may say the giving away of premier content, or providing such a large forum as a stadium message board is counter to the revenue stream that existed, it may actually be the opposite that is true. The EPL teams have done a great job of monetizing content, and are well aware that there are legions of fans around the world who either can’t or won’t pay a price for the added value. Giving away snippets, creating new content platforms and reaching out to those fans to get them more engaged may actually increase the dollars coming in down the road. The casual become more engaged, and their interest grows with the potential for up-sell and engagement. The perceived “loss” is really sweat equity not hard dollars or investment, as all the tools needed for the social media “freebies” already exists, and much of the content is going to be user generated.
The move by Manchester City is also the latest by clubs to find ways to use social media even more in their real time fan engagement platforms. Hashtags have started showing up in college football stadia. Now of course most of this has to do with experimentation, building critical mass and presenting a new avenue engagement that can in turn be packaged and monetized. Broadcasters have used live feeds of fan comments to try and enhance and not distract television audiences for years to mixed reviews. Whether bringing the comments to the huge screens in stadia as an addition will be welcomed remains to be seen. Regardless it is an interesting move by one of the world’s richest clubs, who realizes that the next step of engagement needs to be to a wider audience, and hopes that the dollars that flow from that free step will far offset the gamble they will take.
A great example of best practices from both sides of the Atlantic coming together.
It’s not what they certainly planned to be doing in the middle of October, but New York Knicks teammates Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony certainly kept themselves busy and in the headlines this past week, without much controversy and without ever stepping on a basketball court. The duo spent the last five days visiting Duane Reade Drugstores, Modell’s Sporting Goods, and Footlocker hyping and talking up new product endorsements, which obviously will gain greater value when the NBA lockout is settled. They competed for space in the tabloids and on TV as much as they would compete for loose balls in practice at this time of year, extolling the value of new age products like Sheets Energy Strips (for Stoudemire) and Power Grip hand products (for Anthony), while talking about the labor unrest, their offseason workouts, and even Stoudemire’s vision of a potential players league should the lockout go more than a year. They also had a common ground through their Nike endorsements, but showing off their new shoes for the media and the public
The work off the court this week for these NBA superstars showed an interesting mix of what they bring to the table for hoops and what hoops can do for them away from the court, and really emphasized the need for labor peace to grow both sides of the business quickly. Anthony and Stoudemire were well versed in their product endorsement stances this week, and while many may see the idea of a “Player’s League” as far fetched, the fact that every day one or the other, or sometimes both, were able to find headlines in the crowded sports fall landscape shows the brand value of being a hoops superstar in a major market. The great thing for their brand partners is the time that the athletes have been able to give to push their products at this time of year…time which obviously would be going to play on the court, not talk off it, if the lockout was settled. The fact that it is a baseball-less October in New York also gave way to additional off-field coverage for outlets looking to fill time and space with new content. The time also gave the stars a chance to connect with a larger segment of media who would not normally get access to the players at this time of year…non-credentialed bloggers, college media types and other digital publications found their way into press availability sessions this week in addition to the usual throng of beat reporters and TV cameras, which actually played in the favor of the brands and the athletes.
Now it is true that these athletes are superstars with a legacy in the marketplace of being able to draw interest. They are the exception more than the rule for endorsement partners, and it is unlikely that rank and file NBA players could pull off such media attention in most markets during a lockout situation. What will be interesting is to see how their brand value grows or diminishes over time if the lockout continues and fans and businesses either become apathetic or indifferent to a sport which they are not watching. It will also be interesting to watch and see how teams, with no stars to market, find ways to engage their fans as we near what would have been a great start to a solid finish of a campaign for the NBA; a season which, in addition to the regular and post season drama, will lead to an Olympic window in London next summer.
The week showed the boardroom power of NBA superstars once again, power which will hopefully be amplified with on court ability again when the labor strife settles and both sides can get back to the business of basketball both on and off the court. The business off the court will only grow long term when the business on the court starts again.
It used to be a simple act of passage for families every fall. A local farm would carve a simple maze into its now depleted cornfield and charge a few bucks for kids to roam around for a few hours, then have some cider and donuts and go into a field and pick a pumpkin and head home. All on a day of fun, especially, for those urbanites looking to head to the country for a few hours.
However technology, as it has for most things in our lives that used to be simple, has changed all that, and now high tech corn mazes sprouting historical figures and even company logos have propped up across the country. The trick is that those participating in the maze have no idea what they are running through, only an aerial shot retrieves the image, and then the image gets pushed out through cyberspace as a unique “promotion.” Now of course there are clues and even some prizes for participants to enhance the experience, which is generated usually by computer technology and carved out by companies with machines to match the image, not by ma and pa farmer and the kids.
Not to be outdone, sports branding has placed its way through the corn mazes in a big way in recent years, from a LeBron and a babe Ruth maze to this year’s latest, a Kentucky maze of John Calipari and a new jersey maze of Rutgers football. It is great promotion for those involved, especially with its uniqueness and the fact that the brand involved usually doesn’t spend much with these “tribute” mazes. Of course there is the hope that the person or brand or team being idolized shows up to sample the field, say thanks and gets some added pub, but that is probably not always the case. LeBron probably didn’t show up to mug for the cameras and run through the field looking for clues sponsored by Nike, but maybe some star molded in husks will some day.
Now there haven’t been url’s or twitter handles dropped in yet to further commercialize the process, but rest assured those could be coming soon. Of course the value of the branded maze diminishes over time, as the corn stalks do eventually wither and winter still will take it’s due course, but for a last grasp of summer and an early handle of fall, the corn maze appears to have been grabbed from the ranks of simplicity and also catapulted into the realm of marketing, whether those being depicted are aware or not. It is a nice little ambush play for a brand, one that can get a splash, even if it again turns a simple right of season into yet another commercial venture. Farmers gotta pay the bills somehow.