Tim Pernetti | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

Big Ten, New Schools Win The Day, Look To The Future

The day came and went with fireworks and fanfare, music and lots of Scarlet and Terp Pride. Rutgers and the Big 10. Maryland and the Big 10. For the casual fan it had a bit of a wow factor, for the ardent supporter it had a bigger wow factor. For those selling the brand to the business and media world, it was a day of cautious optimism. Of you are counting dollars in the halls of the athletic department; it was a day of cautious optimism.

If you are the Big 10, you are officially, at least in name, slotted in the Capitol District and at least near Madison Avenue to do business every day.  If you are in the halls of academia, you hope that the promises and the flood of long term positive cash flows, as well as the chance to maybe partner with elite institutions on programs well beyond a playing field, makes your job more interesting and perhaps your research better funded. And somewhere in new Jersey as the World Cup is going on, if you are former Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, now watching over another transitional franchise, this one coming into Major League Soccer in New York City Football Club, you are probably smiling at a job well done steering the Scarlet Knights into a Power Five conference against some steep odds.

So when the bands went away, the mascots went home and the smoke from the fireworks blew away, who won?  The jury for both schools is still out and will be for some time, but from a strategic position the real winner right now is the Big 10 itself. While it is easy to “say” you are part of the New  York business marketplace or the fabric of DC, as entities like NASCAR or even the Pac 12 have said for years with media events, sponsor activations or TV buys, having a physical presence where brand and media buyers can actually experience the look and feel of what you are selling 24/7 is required. You can talk and then fly someone to an event; NASCAR at Pocono for example, or taking brands on a junket to a football weekend in Tuscaloosa, but to be able to say on a Tuesday, hey come and see Michigan play Rutgers, or Ohio State is visiting College Park tomorrow bring your family, is a big difference. That experience is amplified even more because New York, and Washington to a large extent, are really professional sports towns by nature.  Yes there are thousands of fans and alumni from colleges who live and congregate for games on their own, but for the large part the media, especially in New York, and most of the population, live and die with those in the pros.  The massive offerings of the Big 10 as a whole and its member schools individually, now get tot take advantage of a regular physical presence in two major markets they have never had before, and that means a great deal when battling with brands for discretionary dollars. It’s not like the Big 10 is hurting in any way for dollars and exposure on a national level, but having those two schools as an entertainment and activation hub in those markets makes the business of college sports just that much easier.

So what does it mean for Rutgers especially? Maryland has never been a stranger to big time athletics with its presence in the ACC. But Rutgers has ebbed and flowed for years into the national conversation through its relationships in the American Athletic, the Big East and before that the Atlantic 10. Pernetti when he was at the Scarlet Knights helm, fought and won a steep stealth battle to get the school into the Big Ten, arguing the upgrade in the long run would change every piece of the University for the better. He succeeded, and despite his controversial departure from the school, has left a mark that current AD Julie Hermann and her staff will have to evolve with going forward, with cautious optimism. The argument is that win or lose, Rutgers will now be able to grab part of that Big Ten national spotlight for themselves, and will be able to cash in literally on the bigger crowds of say, Michigan State coming to Piscataway for football or hoops than  a Cincinnati or a Seton Hall would ever bring. The naysayers bring up the fact that the Big ten schools are better built and supported than what Rutgers has experienced, and the competitive climb for all sports will be very steep and may never be realized.  Those on the positive side say the ancillary sales aspects of having larger profile schools involved can bring bigger sponsor dollars even for individual events, while those on the negative side say that Rutgers is not New York, that the professional sports will still get the larger flow of cash.  The argument for looks at the massive revenue share that the schools will get from playing in a college football championship pool, the argument against says it’s nice to think that all will be equal but in reality the culture of big time athletics is ingrained and managed at schools like Ohio State and Indiana, and it is not part of the culture at a school lie Rutgers. Some academics see the switch as another huge dupe of the public, with dollars spent better going towards world class programs in chemistry or mathematics or communications, all of which have suffered in a challenged environment, while those for say that the association with Big 10 schools can further grant money and in the long run will raise the tide across the University.

All of the above is up for debate at this point. The one certainty is that change in college athletics seems to be constant, and if the current environment does not work for the five big conferences now, that more change may be in the offing, especially for those leagues that DO NOT now have solid boots on the ground in markets like New York and Washington and may need to change yet again. For Rutgers, from an athletic brand standpoint, the association with the Big 10 was an immediate buzz generator, and that buzz will continue into the fall. Success on the field will certainly raise the level of exposure and with it the dollars that can flow in.  Will either matter to a casual fan in the New York area? Maybe. But how far Rutgers can insert itself into a sports culture that is purely professional is still up for debate. Maryland has a better chance in the Washington area, but for the Scarlet Knights to be in the conversation consistently will take a great, great deal of time and effort and success. What is more important for bath is the internal sell. The convincing of alumni, passionate local supporters, brands and administrators and students that this move is consistent, positive and for the better for all. That won’t happen for everyone with a few football games. It will take a constant reinforcement with hard numbers and data and interest, and that sell is much more important than the one to those listening to ESPN radio in DC or WFAN in New York.

In the end who won with the conference shifts this week? Certainly the Big Ten did, as their schools and their sales and marketing forces now have a place to call home in addition to a satellite office near Madison Avenue.  If you believe change is good then Rutgers and Maryland also are winners right now, with the potential for bigger wins on the bottom line down the road. Nine of that is guaranteed for the long term and there will be some painful days and decisions coming as that transition occurs, but if you were betting on longer term health, it seems like being with the have’s if you are in those athletic administrations, projects better than being on the outside trying to climb in.

July 2014 certainly brought optimism and buzz across two campuses, especially the one in New Jersey. Maintaining that buzz and pulling in the dollars will be the tough task at hand, and certainly one to watch as the leaves turn not just this fall, but for years to come as college sports continues its evolutionary dance into the sports business stratosphere.

A Year In, A Year Away, NYCFC Keeps Building…

A year ago this coming week the New York soccer world was all abuzz with the announcement of the latest entry into Major League Soccer, and arguably the last startup sports team New York will ever see in New York City Football Club.  Manchester City, Major League Soccer and the New York Yankees announced a long rumored deal to bring the 20th MLS franchise to New York City. The deal pushed soccer to the front pages of every newspaper and broadcast outlet, created buzz and excitement in the New York City area that hasn’t been seen for soccer really since the original Cosmos…the ones that played games vs. the team out there now in the lower tier NASL later this summer…last took the turf at Giants Stadium.

Part of the excitement was that interesting mix of timing…the announcement fell miraculously at a point on the sports calendar where hoops was finished with the Knicks exit from the playoffs over the weekend, the Jets and Giants in a lull before offseason workouts begin, the Yankees on the road, two of the three NHL teams done and the Rangers coming close to ending the season, and no extraordinary other sports events, to contend with. The Red Bulls were even quiet, having played a marquee matchup with the LA Galaxy over the weekend, and even fans of global soccer were waiting for that weekend’s Champions League matchup. It was a rare spot where crickets could be heard through the usual noise of a spring sports week in Gotham, and fit well with Man City’s exhibition which was to be played that Saturday against rival Chelsea at Yankee Stadium already on the calendar. A better stage could not have been set from a timing perspective.

So a year in and less than a year to go before kickoff, how is NYCFC doing? By most  accounts pretty well. The club has the deep pockets of Barclays Premier League champion Manchester City and the New York Yankees, as well as their two iconic brand names, to bolster support. They built a strong social campaign to find a badge created by their interested fans and have used their time expanding grassroots support with every soccer club that will hear them speak and be part of their launch. They sent clear messages about culture by sending their soccer heads, Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis, to learn the system they will use by embedding themselves in Man City football. They have secured local TV and even radio deals well in advance of their start, and they take every second they can to engage fans on all things football in the digital space. They sell tickets without players, sponsorship without star value. The star right now is the idea of bring in on the ground floor of something special. When talk of a training facility in the City of New York fell apart, they looked to the affluent community just to the north of the Bronx and finally found a willing partner in Manhattanville College, where they can cultivate an additional fan base who is used to having the elite call their county home. When plans for a stadium became (and remain) taxing, they returned to their co-owner and devised a glitzy plan to use the Yankees assets, and their stadium for now, to have a home. The announcement came replete with technological talk of keeping the grass new and vibrant and moving the pitchers mound in and out. Even the shining star of Mariano Rivera signed on symbolically for the first few season tickets. Yankees pinstripes lifted the new blue brand in town.

Best of all NYCFC has sold hype, the hype of an event that everyone will want to be part of. Their ads are about the brand, not the coaches. There is a slight mention of Man City and the Yankees (and a lot of their marketing muscle), bit no real allusions that the players from “over there,” some of the biggest names in soccer, will be the ones here all the time. For a visit now and again sure, but this team, right now faceless, will be one that will be home grown, with an identity born of two brands, created into one. Like a good wedding, NYCFC thus far has something old (the tradition of Man City), something new (expansion in NY), something norrowed (Yankee Stadium), and something blue (its colors).

How long will the Honeymoon go on? Well for now it will be quite a while. Viewing parties in the boroughs will probably go on through World Cup, visits of elite celebrities and big name soccer stars will traverse through, and the constant buzz of interest will continue to build. Somewhere down the road there will even be players and uniforms and new brands on board, and eventually a match or two next spring that will have solid numbers in the house. However that’s not what all this buzz is really about, the opening day. It is to build community, build affinity and build loyalty for the days after the opener, the dreary spring nights when fans will question whether to bring their discretionary dollars for another night of MLS action or stay home to watch “Modern Family.” It will be for those days when the spring sports calendar is cluttered with baseball, postseason hockey and hoops and even the NF Draft a time when media will have to cover because of demand and interest rather than the need. That will be the true test of how strong the foundation being built for NYCFC will be.

We all like new, like hype and like being a part of something special. Is that what NYCFC will be? So far, even with their warts, they seem to be playing the role as well as can be expected with the payoff still a year away

Best Practices: Pole sitting, Chiefs score for fans, Rutgers scores for Sandy

Time for a little best practices roundup from the past few days…from Arizona to New Jersey…

Stunts Gone Wrong Still Pay Off: There is the adage that any publicity is good publicity, so the Arizona Sundogs of the Central Hockey League should take note. The minor league team sent its captain and three members of the front office staff aloft on a scissor lift with a vow not to come down until they sold 300 season tickets. Trouble is season subs for hockey are hard to find in the desert, and five days layer they hadn’t hit their goal.

With a small ad budget the hope was that the stunt would go viral and drive sales, and after a slow start they came close without ever coming down. While the team didn’t hit their number they did get the exposure they were looking for, with Fox Sports and Deadspin, grabbing the story, which made for a PR coups for the Phoenix Coyotes affiliate. Viral as many have learned doesn’t equate into dollars right away usually, but it put their brand forward and may lead to more creativity and a bigger payoff down the line. Maybe they won’t get full season subs, bit the creativity led to casual exposure and maybe an additional sponsor or two, as well as individual game sales as well. Bottom line, while some may deem the promo a failure, it was un reality a great success on many levels…with over 200 season subs during a week when the team would have been an afterthought, as well as some great viral and local press, play on Sundogs, great example of spinning a negative into a plus.

 Chiefs Go To The Fans: One of the positives if having the first pick in the NFL Draft is the ability to plan outreach a little better than those picking behind you. You also are usually the worst team in the league from the year before, so there is a lot of work to be done with casual fans and brand restoration. The Kansas City Chiefs found another way to go one step farther in grabbing some props with fans and also getting some additional national exposure.

Moments after the team selected offensive lineman Eric Fisher as the top puck in the draft they made him available first…to their fans instead of the local media. Ten season-ticket holders entered a makeshift studio at the team’s training complex to ask Fisher questions via a Google Plus Hangout, one of several platforms the property had created with the NFL and the NFLPA this past week…

The fans from as far away as Wisconsin and Iowa, lined up, slipped on headsets, stared into a laptop and found Fisher staring one on one with them.  The questions ranged from his interest in the city to his knowledge of Chiefs history. Not hard hitting journalism but a nice perk for those who may need a little more ROI and TLC from the downtrodden team.

 Maybe a few years ago this type of access to fans first would have been pooh pooed by the local media on deadline. Now it was accepted. It took less than 10 minutes, didn’t slow down the access to media by a great amount of time, was not done behind closed doors and was a feel good for all. Media got all the access needed after the brief interlude, which other years could have been done in a back room at Radio City Music Hall before Fisher entered a spot to do his first presser, so it was all transparent, and it sent the message that the team is liking to perk their fans, and that they understand the need for more access.

 Little damage, good upside and another innovation dropped into play through technology. A winning move by a team that needs more wins on the field and off.

 Rutgers Wins For Sandy:  The past winter has not been overly kind to Rutgers athletes on a national scale. However on Saturday the football team scored some much needed points with its community, wearing jerseys with the names of all the towns affected by Super Storm Sandy on player’s uniforms for their annual spring game. The team also dropped a “B” on their helmets for the tragedy in Boston, and carried out a series of recognition programs to raise money and awareness for the victims in their state still struggling to recover from the devastating storm. New Jersey seems to be all about recovery from tragedy of all kinds this spring, and the Scarlet Knights, in a time where it seems college athletic uniforms are all about bold and silly fashion statements, took the time to make a statement of their own for the people of their state. Good messaging and effective promotion, a nice legacy statement crated by former Athletic Director Tim Pernetti.

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.