USOC | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

Yogurt Takes A Dip Into Colleges; Hummus Next?

Hummus and Yogurt, smart brand fits for the college marketplace, and both now have really started their engagement through athletic branding.

This week, Chobani announced a 17 school partnership through IMG College to engage with colleges through athletics on a broad platform; from digital and game promotions to health awareness campaigns, sampling and access to athletes. The launch schools include Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Oregon, Texas, UCLA and several others, and more comes at a great time since the NCAA’s rule change allowing universities to serve student-athletes unlimited meals.  Yogurt as a healthy choice makes great sense, and Chobani taking the broadest activation platform with some large programs is a great next step. It certainly won’t be the mega-deal for income that beer will be as more schools start opening up the taps at games, but from a messaging and branding standpoint the yogurt play hits on many levels.

Then there is  hummus, growing as fast as any in the snack food category. Major brands are investing millions in the chick pea snack, combined with their own crackers and pretzel brands that fans are accustomed to, and dropping in various flavors to make hummus as appealing and healthier than your standard nachos or other dips on game day.  The growth at retail in large ethnically diverse metropolitan areas has been tremendous, and now the key hummus brands are looking to extend more into sport by dipping crackers into various partnerships. Last winter Olympian Tim Morehouse and his quest to bring of all sports, worked with the Sabra brand to create a “Fencing In The Cities” program as a way to promote active lives for young people in urban areas, and Sabra was a great fit. The brand has also partnered with the NFL to be the official dip of the league, but investing and activating at the level to break through with one of the most elite platforms on the planet can have its challenges. So how about hummus on the college level?

Like yogurt, hummus plays well on college campuses as a snack alternative. It can fit really well with student-athletes at the training table and can have much more of a cost-effective activation at mid-major schools. Maybe not Michigan, but how about Harvard-Yale to start?  For schools looking for great messaging and healthy lifestyles with brands looking to break through in snacks, hummus could match yogurt as a great fit.

Let the healthy dipping begin.

One Theme, Two Events, Three Million Dollars Raised; Sports As A Metaphor For Social Change

Many times we in this business get caught up in the hype, the ROI, the buzz and sometimes the routine that we forget about the amazing power that sport has to change lives. Each week my colleague Sab Singh puts out his Sports Doing Good newsletter, which highlights events from around the world and serves as a great reminder of what athletes, leagues, teams and brands are doing that can help move the needle in terms of good will, and how sport can find ways to be a motivator for social change where governments, religion and race cannot.

This past 10 days I have been lucky enough to work with not one, but two organizations that are all about the inspiration to use sport as a motivator for social change, and along the way use the power of the athlete…in both cases the Olympic athlete…to raise funds for the cause.

The first was Right To Play USA and their “Big Red Ball” which was held near Wall Street in Manhattan last week. The semi-annual event is usually held just after the Olympic Games, and celebrates the success the athletic endeavors of Olympians recent and past, who all come together to raise awareness and funds for the organization started 20 years ago by Gold medal speed skater Johan Olav Koss to harness the power of athletics as a motivator for education and getting young people, especially in impoverished environments, involved and active in their daily lives. The event drew over 25 Olympians from Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen and Summer Sanders to newer faces like Tim Morehouse, Jazmine Fenlator and Kaitlyn Farrington and a full house to meet their supporters and most importantly, to raise money for the cause.   It was grassroots, albeit deep roots, fundraising and schmoozing, no huge corporate campaigns or silent auctions of memorabilia, but in three hours the event put $1.5 million into the coffers of Right to Play, a great haul considering the post-Olympic hangover still in the air and the crowded sports schedule in New York that week, which would draw the attention of many passionate high end donors.

Then this past Wednesday in Times Square was the annual “Beat The Streets” gala and wrestling event. While the “Big Red Ball’ was a pretty straightforward fundraiser set in an elegant ballroom; “Beat the Streets” is all about the buzz. For the fifth straight year organizer Mike Novogratz and the folks at BTS and USA Wrestling assemble the greatest American names in wrestling and pair them against some of the elite from around the world in a setting that is second to none; three times it has literally been in Times Square, once in Grand Central Terminal and once on the deck of the USS Intrepid, always followed  by a dinner which salutes the young people who benefit from the program. However the night is usually much more than wrestling in a unique location. With each passing year it has become one of the best events on the calendar to show how sport can bridge the gap between countries that have deep differences. Last year “Rumble on the Rails” pulled together teams from the US, Russia and Iran at a time when political tensions were aiming the highest, and set a great example of how the mission of sport  can inspire and rally thousands to overcome their differences. This year, a US vs the World format has 11 American elite wrestlers competing against a team from countries like Spain and Canada, but also Kazakhstan, Russia, Venezuela and the Ukraine, nations which don’t usually share a positive spotlight with the U.S. in day to day media coverage. The result again, was peace through sport, with only cheers for all the competitors and a new level of good will achieved.

As for the night, “Beat The Streets” raised over $1.6 million for its grassroots programs, which fund inner-city education and wrestling programs in cash-strapped school districts, again giving young people a chance to excel through sport.

The cynical may say that the two NY-centric events are just a small drop in the bucket, and that Wall Street execs can easily absorb the donations for either. However, the crowds were diverse, entertaining and certainly engaged. Was there a hard sell for cash? Of course, but it was done in such a way that one felt that a greater good was being served through the work of all these elite athletes and their supporters, a refreshing change from what many see as the overhyped and glitzy misogynistic world of professional sports today. Both events highlighted the highest levels of success as a way to reward those less fortunate, making for a great forum to inspire those in the room to do more.

Two nights, less than seven hours, over three million dollars raised for two sports philanthropic endeavors that put their time and effort in for the greater good. Sports as a metaphor for change? We got to see it first hand, times two.     

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.

“Beach Games” Drift Closer To Reality…

Two things the world has enough of are sand and water, and more than enough resorts and beaches to try and lure tourists. So it was with great interest that this week SportAccord announced that the World Beach Games are inching closer to happening, although maybe not at the robust pace announced last fall.  Just to revisit the idea, especially for those in the Northeast still hoping for a bit more spring;

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

Now the concept is not altogether new, as  Asia has been hosting Beach Games since 2008, the last of which took place in Chinese resort Haiyang in 2012. The initial contests were a great success and incorporated events like wakeboarding and dragon boat racing which have long tried for Olympic inclusion but could never find success. They are not huge on attendance numbers, do not need large stadia, and fit a demo that Olympic sports crave (young and athletic) and are ripe for made for TV and digital, in the same way that the America’s Cup captured the tech space with their innovative broadcasts this past September.

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

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

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

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

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

A Sport Curls Its Way To Relevance…

The greatest element of the Olympics are the unique stories that are told through elite athletes casual fans don’t get to meet in their everyday sports and business encounters. The Games creates those rare windows to expose to the pubic the passion and drive to success, and failure, of faces and events we rarely think about in our day to day dealings. The beauty of social media does give those athletes a better chance to embrace their fame and connect with fans for a longer period, and some smart brands have looked to the digital space to create a tail for engagement that can continue well beyond the games themselves, but for the most part the rising tide crests for many Olympians during and just after the Olympics and then slides back for several years to come. There are the rare faces that can cross from winter to summer Games, like a Lolo Jones, or professional athletes like those of the NHL or KHL who can use their large window to grow their sport when the Games end, but for the most part the moment is now, and figuring out how to leverage that window for long-term growth is a challenge.

One of those sports, and its athletes, that seem to have found itself into a larger window is of all things, curling. A relatively simple game to understand, its use of stones and sweeping, not to mention some entrepreneurial athletes, has made curling in the Winter Olympics what Beach Volleyball has kind of become for the Summer Games. It is a sport that casual fans can relate to; people have an understanding of shuffleboard or bowling for example; and it has a long list of participants at the Sochi games who seem to understand better than most that they can use the social sphere in real time to get attention, whether it is by some outlandish outfits or by taking advantage of outer beauty to gain attention. Female athletes like Russia’s Anna Sidorova, Austria’s Claudia Toth, Norway’s Linn Githmark and Germany’s Kathy Selwand have even gone one step further, using their athletic builds without much on to draw a casual male audience, and get some precious pre-event coverage as well.

So with the US men’s and women’s teams close to going out in the preliminaries, how can curling, at least in the States, see if they can play a card similar to AVP to close the gap between Olympics and draw fans, participants, and most importantly sponsor dollars, broadcast time and buzz. Is it possible? Some thoughts as to why.

It is a simple game to watch and engage with. The space that is needed is pretty pristine and the idea of curling is an easy one to understand for people of all ages. It does not need a huge surface; there are many rinks which could engage in temporary surfaces for curling (Bryant Park in New York could be one or any series of temporary ice rinks in cities around the US) and there is not a huge outlay for cost to get people to try the game.

At the elite level large skill is needed, but at the grassroots it welcomes all ages. Shuffleboard, knock hockey, bowling; great games that people of all ages…even teens can engage in. Curling fits, and it plays to all sizes and shapes.

It is a relatively simple game to adapt to a mobile gaming audience. It’s not a big money player but playing some virtual curling is really easy and downloadable. It does not need great detailed graphics and it can be played in Angry Birds fashion by people of all ages.

The rules translate globally. There are no boundaries, no complex scoring system, no language issues. The game can be played the same regardless of culture.

It has a great upside for brand engagement. Mount a GoPro on a stone? Drop virtual ads along the sheets? Outfit the colorful elite participants in sponsor apparel? Maybe design custom stones for charity (where is the pink stone?). The brooms? Not a bad tie to all the Harry Potter fans of many ages who have enjoyed Quiddich. For brands looking to chance exposure riding some popularity, curling could be a nice fit.

The elite athletes appear to get it. From the provocative calendars to the fun outfits, it looks like there are ample stories to be told by the athletes away from the games, and there are probably multiple ways to engage elite athletes from other sports. The NFL’s Vernon Davis has come on board, and who is to say other athletes…like Chris Paul has done in bowling…along with celebrities, couldn’t engage.

It has a simple broadcast platform. There is no expansive space needed for broadcast, and the ability to use technology for very unique point of view broadcasts is an added plus. The combinations of simplicity plus good characters with the athletes make it possible to create good content for both a digital and a conventional broadcaster.

Now this is not to say curling is going to be the sport of the future and that it is the “fastest growing” anything, as many other sports claim. There is also little to no room or need  for a “professional curling league” as has been suggested. It is much more participatory than a spectator sport for long periods of time. However the sport does have an interesting window, especially with the US Pro Championships landing in a major market (Philadelphia) next month, to continue to expand its platform with a goal of gaining more brand exposure in 2018. It won’t be easy, but curling certainly has done some of the things to give it legs as a growing niche. How well it scores and how much it grows, remains to be seen, but at least for a snowy winter, and for an Olympics which has lacked in mega-stars thus far the stone and the broom has taken some slides forward.  

For some great insight on the sport, take a look at Hit The Broom

Can Bobsled Lift Our Olympic Interest?

Bobsled, can you make us watch the 2014 Sochi Games? With a U.S. Olympic team lacking lots of start power going into the Games, it may be bobsled, with technology on the course, and star-power off the course (on the women’s side) that may deliver the best branding stories of the Games, if all goes well.

First there is the unique work that BMW North America, a German company but a USOC sponsor, is doing to activate its partnership around Sochi. Not only are they doing many of the traditional sponsor activations, they have used their engineering expertise to re-design the American sleds to make them faster and more technologically advanced, which, if all plays out right, can help the American men capture their first gold since 1936, and help the  U.S. women advance the medal count they have had the last three Winter Games.

The two-man sleds are shorter and have different weight distribution, whose design dated to 1992. BMW moved weight from the front to the center of the sleds to improve handling and to help maintain momentum during the directional changes on the track and helped driver  Steven Holcomb of the U.S. win the World Cup title, with Elana Meyers  finishing second overall among the women. It is a unique way in which a sponsorship can be tailored to actual performance, which if played out correctly can open additional commercial research categories for sponsors going forward. While much of the focus for USOC sponsors goes to amassing dollars to help athletes train, the BMW deal uses the engineers the company has to actually help craft a better vehicle. While Speedo can certainly design a better swimsuit, it is pretty rare that a brand can take invested dollars and turn it into a tangible advantage such as a sled, and the story that can be told can assist BMW grow not just as an Olympic sponsor, but in technology and in the consumer space away from Sochi, where there need for speed and safety is what their brand confidence is all about.

Then there are the personalities of bobsled. While Holcomb and Meters are among the bobsled lifers on the team and prime for medals, other newer team members like Jazmine Fenlator and Lolo Jones can really help lift the sport away from the track. Jones is a lightning rod for brands and attention from her days during and prior to the London Olympics, where her personality drew almost as much attention as her performance, and she brings that telegenic base, along with some controversy real or contrived, to Sochi. Last week the talk centered around whether she made the team as a way for NBC to drive ratings, something denied by all involved, but even the accusation, as well as the unveiling of the teams sleek body suits, drew new light to bobsled at a time when most Americans were thinking Super Bowl. Fellator, another track star turned bobsledder, may end up being Jones’ sled partner, and brings another great story to the Games, coming from an All-American track family who lost their house in Superstorm Sandy while she was off training.  As a pair of powerful African American women (Fellator being not far from New York helps drive the story as well) they can transcend the die-hard Olympic following with their style and their athleticism and even with a bit of an edge, something that these Games seem to lack going into the opening ceremonies.  More importantly they stir debate, and come into the Games with tremendous marketing potential to help lift the profile of all in the sport well past the final medal ceremonies, if they are successful on the track.

Some may say the glitz and glamour doesn’t help the Games; that the traditional will help raise the sport. Not in the least in an environment today where you need both steak and sizzle to be successful and cut through the clutter. Jones’ name on her own will turn heads, and her performance will draw new eyeballs who may look elsewhere when she is not on. It also will not erode a core following that is distinctly female and is also looking for the best story lines, which Jones and Fellator can provide.

So figure skating and hockey will bring the safest bets for good numbers during the Games, with the hope that some of the newer events will pull in a younger audience. Who knows, curling may also provide some unique opportunities as well. But going into the Games with a proven name in Lolo Jones helps get interest moving much faster for NBC and for all with a casual interest, and that interest can open doors for others. It’s not to say that suddenly all race fans will switch off the Daytona 500 to go and watch bobsled every week. But in a world where speed is king, fast sleds built by an elite name brand, with some non-traditional athletes at the helm can certainly lift bobsled, and there is no downside to the extra exposure for the brand, the USOC and an Olympics that has been more about angst and caution than athletic performance during its lead up.    Welcome bobsled, take us along for the ride.

Reward for Work Well Done: Tony Hawk, The 49ers, and the 1984 Olympics

What do Tony Hawk, the San Francisco 49ers, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the State of New Jersey have in common? Philanthropy. While the quartet have probably never come up in casual conversation before, they did this past week when The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation bestowed the Stave Patterson Award on its three winners here in the Garden State.

The annual award, which celebrates and promotes those in the sports world who are improving lives by leveraging the unique influence of sports reads like a who’s who of sporting pioneers, all of whom are unwavering in their commitment to give back to their communities. It was established in 2005 in memory of Steve Patterson, the UCLA basketball star, NBA player, and college coach who became known for his belief in and practice of using the power of sports philanthropy to make a difference. Patterson died of cancer in July 2004 at the age of 56.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation opened the doors of its Princeton, N.J. headquarters to the sports philanthropy community Wednesday for an event that featured the award ceremony, educational roundtables, and networking. In the end it was a day of celebration for all good in sports, from the work the 49ers do in The Bay Area to the legacy events and programs still being funded by those who created one of the most successful Olympic Games in history to a pioneer in skateboarding whose work now goes to help others enjoy his sport and learn from those around them in the community.

In a time when so much of sport is about failure and corruption, the RWJF continues to find ways to celebrate the positive aspects of sport, whether they are in our backyard or around the world.

“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Steve Patterson Award embody what we strive for at the 49ers Foundation, and that’s to improve our community by using sports as a platform to connect with other things that make the Bay Area a better place,” said John York, chairman of the 49ers Foundation and co-chairman of the 49ers. “To be recognized for the difference we make in the community, through the interactions and connections of our players, coaches, family and fans, is truly an honor.”

For Hawk, the award held even greater meaning for a young man still near the top of his game who has taken the time to use his skill, and his influence the way he knows best; by empowering young people through the Tony Hawk Foundation…the ONLY national organization focused solely on assisting at-risk youth and improving disadvantaged communities through the development of public skateboard parks. Since 2002, THF has implemented youth development and leadership training, resulting in the creation of 537 public skate parks in all 50 states. These skate parks collectively service more than 4.6 million youth annually and represent $91 million in leveraged parks-and-recreation community improvements across the United States.

“Creating this type of program is something that growing up I never dreamed of,” Hawk added. “There were no examples of skateboarders giving back because the sport was so relatively new; we had to go out and build the sport and then find ways to make sure that we sustained it and then used all we had done to help young people so that they would have a positive model to follow. So far it appears to be working, and we are elated to receive this award.”

It is a unique mix, from skateboarding to successful franchises to a legacy created almost 30 years ago, but the ties are clear. Use sport as a tool to better society, no matter what the price tag. That message is amplified even more by the dollars that RWJF puts behind the program annually, a key part of giving back not just to sport but to the positive messages it sends across the state in calls home. After all that is probably the best way philanthropy can be used tied to sport, an overlay of international, national and local partnerships, marrying legacy programs to those that youth can relate to today. All those efforts were summed up on a nice September day in the heart of Big Pharma country, with the results resonating far beyond Princeton. Beautiful program, beautiful effort, beautiful rewards, and a beautiful legacy for all involved to show how winning in sport goes way beyond the playing field. Role models like these are the ones we need.

Is Volunteerism About To Have A Pricetag?

Some of the most successful people in the sports and entertainment fields all started at the same place…the bottom; as volunteers, freelancers, and interns trying to get some experience and learn on the job. It was rarely about the money; it was about following your passion and being part of the experience. The value that these volunteers have brought to massive events can’t be quantified, and many times the value of the exposure that volunteers get, or the memories they have or the contacts made, can’t have a dollar value either. It is a business of networking and climbing the ladder and many times some of those best experiences aren’t done for the love of the dollar, they are done for the love of the game or the event.

That’s not to say that there isn’t abuse by organizations who willfully take advantage of passionate volunteers for personal gain, or use hordes of volunteers for menial and mundane tasks without any thought of the person.  There are also those volunteers whose expectations may be set too high and don’t have a positive experience, that can happen anywhere, or those who try something and realize it’s not for them. It’s all part of the experience, and that experience both good and bad, is invaluable.

In recent years I have been lucky enough to work with Dr. Harvey Schiller. Dr. Schiller is one of the most accomplished executives in any field, having had careers in the military, as a teacher, as a television executive, as a team owner, even as commissioner of a professional wrestling organization. However his time in sport, started as a volunteer…in his 40’s. It was at the Los Angeles Olympics  working with Peter Uberroth that Dr. Schiller actually began moving quickly towards a paid career which has spanned over 30 years and included stints as SEC Commissioner,  Chairman of the USOC, President of YankeeNets, President of Turner Sports and on and on. All the while Dr. Schiller continued to volunteer for service to others as well, serving on boards and assisting young people selflessly without asking for a wage. He is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of executives who have positively come up through the system and found ways to pay that spirit forward, or give people a chance as a volunteer at an event…and he always says thank you.

The spirit and success gained through volunteerism is invaluable, especially in the challenging landscape sports and entertainment is in today. This past week there was a story in the press about a volunteer for the MLB Fan Fest in New York who sought wages in a lawsuit against Major League Baseball. The man, and thousands of others, volunteered to work at MLB Fan fest, received tickets and other opportunities, and for sure was one of thousands who were essential to the success of All-Star Week. His suit maintains that because MLB is a for-profit industry he should have been compensated more.   While not knowing all the details, it seems to fly in the face of volunteerism for any for-profit event.  The experience gained by many working such events, from the Super Bowl to the US Open to the PGA Championships, is not about a few dollars…it is about being part of the collective.  There is no doubt that MLB is a money-making organization…no professional sports entity has ever claimed to be not-for-profit…but to not understand that going into a volunteering situation seems silly from the outset. Perhaps the person filing the suit was misled or happened into a job as a volunteer that did not meet his skill set. That happens and he can gladly walk away. However to look for compensation every time one volunteers for the experience is troublesome. It should not always be about the hard dollar, many times it should be about the dollar value one gets from learning, meeting and growing oneself.

Maybe this lawsuit is proved to have merit, and that for-profit events have to compensate their volunteers, or provide more paperwork or value to those who pony up for the thrill of it. Maybe the spirit of volunteerism has died to the point where everyone needs to be paid for everything. Maybe t is just not-for-profit events like the New York City Marathon that should ask for volunteers. If that’s the case than there are many people who may not get the chance going forward to be included in gaining valuable experience firsthand, or building relationships to last a lifetime, because for-profit events cannot afford to pay thousands of volunteers.  

There are certainly two sides to every story, and there is certainly some abuse in a system where there are thousands looking for an “in” for only hundreds of spots. But there is a lot to be said about being part of an event experience that is priceless for many, and you can’t put a price on experience gained.

Volunteerism…whether it is Little League coaching or interning at a network or minor league ballpark, or helping drive athletes to and from the US Open…has value and always will. Whether that value now has a price tag will be interesting to watch and see what the courts have to say.  It could change the way the business of sport is done, maybe not for the better.

A “Special” Sports Branding Experience Begins Its Countdown

There will be many big sporting events in New Jersey in the next year. NHL Draft, Jets and Giants regular season (including a Tebow to Met Life return in Sept.), Guinness International Champions Cup Soccer, maybe a Red Bulls MLS playoff run, the return to the playoffs for the New Jersey Devils, the last run for Big East rivals Seton Hall and Rutgers, and oh yes, The Super Bowl.

However for impact, perhaps the biggest and in some ways most impactful event will take place after most of those events have been committed to memory. Next June, at sites across the State, 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.

The 2014 Special Olympics USA Games for the first time will celebrate the Special Olympics movement while promoting the ideals of acceptance and inclusion through sport and highlighting the abilities of athletes with intellectual disabilities in New Jersey. 

The event, which is being billed as the largest and most diverse of its kind ever, will not just showcase the athletes competing, but will also serve 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.

The competitions will be held 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.  In addition to the many showcased sports, Special Olympics athletes will participate in spectacular Special Events including an Opening Ceremony at Prudential Center, Closing Ceremony at Sun National Bank Center, a board-walk themed Olympic Town, a Special Olympics Unified Sports® Festival, and much more.

The games will also serve as a great cause marketing platform for bands that have committed to supporting the Games… Founding Partners Barnabas Health, Hess, PSE&G, Shop Rite, Toys“R”Us and WWE…to give back to the community and gain exposure that will resonate not just with the athletes, but with casual consumers as well. It will also present great opportunity for hundreds of young people looking to get involved in the global business of sport to gain some first-hand knowledge and do some amazing community service as volunteers to help the Games run smoothly. 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  

However 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. It will be a celebration of life whose impact will probably transcend anything that goes on at Met Life Stadium or the Prudential Center or the RAC in the coming year, at least for all those involved in any host of ways.

While it remains true that sport, especially in the New York area, is really big business, it is also nice to see such a mega-event come to the area that can help in ways beyond the bottom line.  The business of sport should always be about the triumph of the human spirit, and just about a year from now that triumph will be felt by thousands.

For more information on brand support, volunteering and other opportunities visit  www.2014specialolympics.org

Grabbing The Quietest Weekend In Sports…

A blizzard blanketed the Northeastern United States (kudos to The Weather Channel folks by the way, who took a lot of heat from The National Weather Service when they started naming winter storms like hurricanes but struck gold with Nemo!) this weekend, leaving millions with nothing to do but dig out and turn on the TV and fire up the computer. With the Super Bowl buzz a distant memory, and the NBA All-Star game a week away, there is a surprising gaping hole in the sports calendar this weekend that teams and brands may look to exploit in future years. The NHL for example, would have had its All-Star weekend the week before the Super Bowl (in Columbus, Ohio, helping a franchise…the Blue Jackets... that may be the least known of any team amongst the five major North American sports leagues), but that weekend still had the rise to Super Bowl and even the Pro Bowl. This weekend? Other than regular season NBA and NHL and college hoops? Nothing. USA Hockey has made NEXT weekend Hockey Weekend Across America, but it butts against the NBA All-Star Weekend…why not this weekend?

Now next year will be a bit different, as we will slide into the first weekend of the Sochi Olympics. But even the Winter Olympics will be six hours away from the States,  and usually the first few days do not bring the major events. Can the NHL take advantage and drop some elite early round pool matchups into those days, and in turn make the weekend in the States all about brand hockey? Peewee, minor league and college? Would be a great play. Could NASCAR  move Daytona back into the quiet week? How about a sport like lacrosse, with its indoor pro game, finding a place in the crowded schedule? Gold is tied to warm weather, tennis is indoors in Europe, but how about Davis Cup, which somehow decided to play a US-Brazil tie LAST WEEKEND in Jacksonville, Florida. Going up against the Super Bowl, even for a sport that says it is more global and doesn’t concern itself with local events, did not help the USTA or the sport, and a very exciting 3-2 result was lost amidst commercials for Super Bowl and mega pre game shows.

How about amateur and fitness sports? This past Wednesday was National Girls and  Women in Sports Day…yet it garnered little coverage and was lost in the post-Super Bowl hangover, the one year to Sochi campaigns and other mid-week happenings. How could such an important demo…from moms who are decision makers to young women who need to be active as part of a healthy lifestyle to elite and telegenic female athletes…be lost in the mix by brands and Madison Avenue. This week Sports Illustrated will unveil its swimsuit issue as part of Fashion Week in New York, and that well marketed “tribute ” to beauty and sport for sure will not get lost in the shuffle. Baseball? Pitchers and catchers have started to report and some teams will hold fan fests, but the logistic transition of most teams make this a difficult weekend to convene in most major markets, unless you are a warm weather club lie the Marlins or DBacks who don’t have to go far.

Now maybe the psyche needs a respite from the Super Bowl, and we needed a weekend of nothing. However if you are a league, a sport, a brand looking to engage and carve a niche, this weekend seems to be a good annual one. The NFL has found a great spot opening their season the Thursday after Labor Day unencumbered. The Kentucky Derby has its spot. The Masters has its own place on the calendar. The weekend after Super Bowl seems ripe for someone to claim and build upon, lets see if someone grabs it.