USTA | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

USTA Makes A Splash With A Unique Challenge Of Its Own…

There is no doubt the simple act of the Ice Bucket Challenge surpassed the imagination and expectations of those golfers who originally launched the idea on July  15 to benefit ALS  (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  From kids to heads of state to celebrities to athletes, the challenge is still going strong with groups large and small. While some have said enough is enough and others have questioned the need for funds just to ALS for such a wide promo, the fact remains that the simplicity of the message made it a phenomenon unlike anything else the philanthropic world has seen since pink became the call to action for breast cancer.

The challenge certainly wasn’t lost in the tennis world, and now with the US Open in full swing the list of participants in grassroots challenge to the most elite players continues to grow. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, John McEnroe, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki are some of the pro stars who have shared videos, and even the USTA Florida Section got in on the action  challenging former Florida junior phenoms and now-retired pros Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick.

So is there a what’s next or a one up or another challenge with the bucket that might be noteworthy on a mass scale? Surely some organization will go for the world’s largest group or the world’s largest bucket at some point soon to try and cut through the clutter. However one of the most creative challenges has not come from a group or an individual, it came from, well, a bucket sort of. The day of the US Open draw last week, the USTA staff decided to make the trophy itself the challenge, dousing the Tiffany Silver Cup with ice and cold water of its own. The challenge was issued to? Other trophies, ranging from the Stanley Cup to the NASCAR Sprint Cup, The World Series Trophy and, of course, the smallest with the largest following, The World Cup.

While so far none of those organizations have taken the challenge to their respective hardware, it was a nice and fun attention grabber to change it up a little and give some buzz to a challenge that is, well, becoming a bit of a challenge to gain notoriety.  Hopefully some of the other sports and their large budgets take note and douse their trophies soon, it is all for a worthy cause and could get the Ice Bucket Challenge another jump start as the summer winds down, and the Open heats up.

Golf, Tennis Take Their Annual Bite Of The Apple…

The perception is, if you want to succeed on Madison Avenue fully, then you need to bring the game to those making the decision. Every team sport, as well as air racing, triathlons, hot dog eating, even surfing, have tried to show the value of their product by coming as perilously close to Gotham as possible at least every few years. Formula 1 will try it again in a few years…NASCAR, for its mega success, still scratches its head with the closest race a few hours away at “The Tricky Triangle” at Pocono, and the same goes for Indy Car. You can bring the personalities, the drivers, the noise for special events, but to experience the event, you still have to go just that much further, and that much further makes a big difference for a distracted media and advertising and brand activation business that sometimes doesn’t like to leave the confines of the Big Apple. We really like you, but until you can come to our house we can’t really have a full relationship.

That’s why tennis’ biggest event, The US Open, with its most widespread brand activation platform, kicks off within eyeshot of Broadway, at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. Meanwhile a huge event for golf, the annual Barclays, took its turn this past weekend with Manhattan as the backdrop at Ridgewood Country Club in nearby Paramus.  Ridgewood served as a not too subtle reminder for the PGA that big brands and even bigger dollars lurk just across the Hudson, and it is a very easy ride to bring those who spend the dollars of brands to see the stars.

For sure, elite courses like Trump National and Bethpage Black and Winged Foot have served golf very well from a business perspective. It is a once a year stop that can bring golf close to the office, and while decision makers visit over the weekend, can serve as a reminder to how close all the activation opportunities that come with the golfing clientele can come to Manhattan. It is a strategy that can and will work well as a marketing tool for the sport; one that other sports who aren’t so close to New York City can try to replicate, but still may fall short. Yes you can do junkets to close in and far off events to capture the experience of the live event but having the event so close to home makes it just that more memorable, and provides just that more of an opportunity for brands to cozy up and spend those large discretionary dollars.

It is a model the USTA has played so well for years, using their two week window to raise millions to fund the game across the country at the grassroots level, and although this short week at The Barclays won’t be the huge windfall that the US Open is for tennis in the same location every year, it sure goes a long way in helping grow the game of golf on the corporate level, and with that growth comes a spillover to help the game expand. That is smart business, and why The Barclays gives golf a strategic advantage that didn’t exist just a few years ago, bringing the game as close to the seat of business as it ever has been.  That value, in a time when ROI is placed at a higher value than ever before, is immeasurable, and helps the perception of success for the business of golf, become much more of a reality for all involved.

Tennis Talk: Skip Gilbert and the US Open

With Wimbledon here we dip into the tennis q and a archives with Tanner Simkins and his “Full Court Press” profiles. this one is with Skip Gilbert of the USTA talking tennis as the US hardcourt season approaches after the grasscourt season ends with the Hall of Fame event in Newport, Rhode Island after Wimbledon finishes…

We caught up with Skip Gilbert, US Open Tournament Manager, and Managing Director of Professional Tennis Operations for the USTA.  Gilbert has left a lasting impact on every organization he has been a part of.  Whether as a NCAA first team All American soccer goalkeeper, a professional athlete, or his time in executive roles with US Soccer, USA Swimming, USA Triathlon, the Arena League and more, we learned Gilbert is on a similar trajectory of growth and success with the USTA and the US Open. A detailed biography for Skip Gilbert is provided after the Q&A. Connect with Skip on LinkedIn.

 Full Court Press: “Nothing beats being here”, a very appropriate slogan for the US Open – what does it mean, as tournament manager, to be involved in such a marquee international event?

Skip Gilbert: Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of sport properties that create events, large and small.  Each has in common a passionate fan base, unbelievable competitors and a unique environment to that respective sport which makes it special.  The US Open is similar to those other events with the exception that it is the world’s largest sporting event being showcased on the world’s largest stage, New York.  So you have fans, athletes, officials, media, staff, medical and other critical groups that are all integrated throughout the footprint of the venue.  Of course there are many, many more of them to handle.  When you do it well at the US Open, there is simply a sense of pride of accomplishment unlike any other annual event.

 FCP: Walk us through the week leading up to the Open? Chaotic or finalized?

SG: The week before the US Open brings to close a year of solid planning.  At the end of every tournament we ask each member of our team: full-time, seasonal and volunteers, to complete a comprehensive after-action report.  We add to it player and partner surveys.  A good part of the year is developing solutions to all of the issues raised to help make the subsequent US Open even better than the last.

FCP: How do you effectively bring together so many areas of the tournament – facilities, marketing, ticket sales, PR, hospitality, etc, to lead a successful event?

SG: Communication is critical.  Nobody likes surprises so we bring all of the departments together on a regular basis starting months before the tournament to provide status reports, share ideas and concerns and basically put everything on the table.  They are large, time consuming meetings but worth it

 FCP: What is the most satisfying part of your role with USTA and specifically with the Open?

SG: David Baker, my former Commissioner at the Arena Football League, used to say that those of us who had the privilege of working in sport are in the business of “making dreams come true”.  You can’t find a bigger canvas to paint those dreams than the US Open.  So when it’s over and you think about the impact you helped to have on so many different people that underscores why we do these jobs and why they bring such an immense level of satisfaction.

FCP: What initiatives do you lead through the Open to push the USTA’s not-for profit mission?

SG: The mission of the USTA is to promote and develop the game of tennis.  So we push that through everything we do.  Offering free admission to watch our US Open qualification tournament provides people the opportunity to experience world-class tennis.  Arthur Ashe Kids Day (Saturday before the US Open start) opens our facility to twenty thousand kids (and their parents) to enjoy the largest single-day, grassroots tennis and entertainment event in the world.  The US Open, the world’s largest annual sporting event, allows us to continue to develop the best American tennis player and promote the game to millions of people in the US alone.  And finally, adding the Junior and Wheelchair competitions within the US Open shows the width and depth of our efforts to push our mission.

 FCP: What is your fondest US Open memory as a fan and now as tournament manager?

SG: I spent almost twelve years with The Sporting News and each year we had series packages to entertain our advertisers at the US Open.  So I saw many great matches, but the one that stands out is the 1991 Semi-Final match with Jimmy Connors.  His run that year at 39 (his last) ended in the Semis, but he put on a great show, even in defeat.

 FCP: Any negative experiences or extenuating circumstances surrounding your time with the Open?  How did you overcome or deal with it?

SG: With only one Open under my belt, there really aren’t any negative experiences of note to date.  Perhaps the only real negative experience has been when it rains.  We’ll overcome it in the future by building a roof on Arthur Ashe.

 FCP: How has your past experiences either at the AFL, Times-7 or elsewhere, helped with managing the US Open?

SG: That sounds like an interview question!  Every step throughout my career has provided a tremendous base to be able to step in help manage the US Open and oversee Professional Tennis Operations throughout the US.  Having an experience mix of advertising/sponsorship sales, organizational marketing and being a CEO of a growing NGB has given me a wide background to handle almost any issue.

 FCP: In addition to the Open, you manage the Cincinnati, New Haven, and Atlanta tournaments –how does your approach change when overseeing these other tournaments?

SG: We are a majority owner in Cincinnati, a minority owner in Atlanta and a partner in New Haven.  With those tournaments, the staffs in place each are incredible and do amazing things to showcase tennis within their community.  So the major difference is that instead of being hands-on as with the US Open, we become a source of information, a supportive resource for the Tournament Director and staff in each city.

 FCP: Any creative packages you sell to tournament sponsors?

SG: Our sponsorship platforms are unique to each company given the size and scope of the US Open.  Each of our partners brings a unique program to the tournament that helps to drive awareness and relevance to our fans.  We have a very talented partnership team that spends the year working with each sponsor to map out what they want to accomplish and how they can do that on our grounds. For example, American Express has an interactive Pavilion that allows Cardmembers to literally “touch” the game while also providing devices so fans can listen to the radio broadcasts of the matches.

FCP: What are some innovative ways you embrace new media and the digital realm?

SG: Our New Media team has created a Social Media Wall, a 50’ x 8’ video wall, which will display social feeds from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  This is just one example of many different initiatives to integrate the wonders of the digital world into the sport of tennis.

FCP: What are some industry trends or developments that you are closely following?

SG: The issue of childhood obesity is a significant one that every National Governing Body (NGB) should be monitoring.  If the pool of tennis players gets smaller due to fewer kids playing the sport, the number of competitive players will ultimately decrease.  This would hurt our ability to develop world class champions.  With childhood obesity, this is not just a tennis problem but an overall sport and society issue.

 FCP: What’s the future hold for the US Open? For the USTA?

SG: The future for the USTA and the US Open is incredibly bright.  The major news impacting the US Open is the $550m renovation of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.  The design calls for two new stadium courts, better public access to our five practice courts, increased fan capacity with our field courts and we will install a roof on Arthur Ashe, the world’s large tennis stadium.

 FCP: What’s your favorite book, sports business or otherwise?

SG: “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.   It really has been a valuable resource for me. It shows how great companies are run by leaders who are humble, but driven to do what’s best for the organization.  I’ve used often throughout my career his bus theory.  Get the right people on the bus, then figure out where to go.

FCP: Any tips for aspiring sports professionals who may be reading this?

SG: The level of business professionalism throughout the sports industry has grown significantly stronger over the years.  So for anyone really interested in working in the sports industry, the best advice is to come to the interview prepared.  Do your homework about the organizations strengths and weaknesses.  Show how you will have a positive impact by utilizing your unique skills and/or experience.  And finally, don’t say you are a “fan”.  Most of us could care less if you are a fan.  Ultimately that’s nice but it won’t help you do your job.

 Skip Gilbert brings over 25-years of sales, marketing and managerial experience from various sport organizations to his role as the Managing Director of Professional Tennis Operations and US Open Tournament Manager with the United States Tennis Association.  Previous to the USTA, Skip joined USA Triathlon (USAT) as its CEO and guided that governing body through one of its most explosive periods of growth in its 30-year history.  USAT under his leadership grew membership from 52,000 members to over 135,000, increased the organizational budget from $5.5m to over $11.5m per year and elevated their investment account from $1.5m to over $6.5m in just six years. 

 

While at USAT, Skip was elected Chairman of the NGB Council, comprised of CEO’s and volunteer Presidents representing the interests of the 47 sport governing bodies within the Olympic Family and Chairman of the Association of the Chief Executives of Sport, membership trade association for 65 National Governing Bodies in and outside of the Olympic Movement.  Prior to USAT, Skip worked in various sales and marketing roles for USA Swimming, US Soccer, the Arena Football League as well as with sport publications such as the Sporting News, Outside and Tennis magazines.

 

Skip graduated from the University of Vermont, attended the prestigious Lawrenceville School and was a soccer goalkeeper for the Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) before joining the business community.

 

Skip currently lives in Ridgefield, CT with his wife Jenifer and their three children Fritz, Austin and Greta.

 

Set The Ground Rules, Save The Aggravation…

A little over 10 years ago, during a Davis Cup trip to Zimbabwe, the U.S. team passed a street in front of Robert Mugabe’s palace. In big letters there was a warning; “If you take a photo on this street you will be shot.” No one took pictures. Yes that is extreme, but it is a pretty clear way to set ground rules that all understood.

A few weeks ago one of our Columbia classes taught by Neal Pilson had an open invite for staff, alumni, current students and potential students to come in and listen to a q and a with ESPN President John Skipper. The room was filled to listen to Skipper talk about his days in publishing, the challenges of having launched ESPN.com, and a host of anecdotes about life, sports business, broadcasting and the like. Lots of little tidbits that could have made their way out of the room. Nothing overtly controversial, but very insightful from a man who is usually frank and direct but willing to give of his time. As the room filled to capacity, several young socially engaged students prepped their mobile devices for a tweet or two. After all, this is the era of information, and Skipper and Pilson were ready to share. However to the disappointment of some at least, the ground rules were very carefully planned out. No tweeting, posting or recording could take place, in order to keep the session for those invited guests. The result? An open, frank discussion that respected the speakers wishes and a solid time was had by all. The ground rules were set, and the respect was in place.

Juxtapose that discussion, where the rules were set, to a pair of other recent incidents, one involving the Boston Red Sox and President Barack Obama and the other involving Rutgers Athletic Director Julie Hermann. In the first case, POTUS and David Ortiz willingly posed for a selfie that one of Ortiz’s sponsors, Samsung, turned into a marketing push without the consent of the President in any way. Then the Newark Star Ledger broke a story where Hermann was quoted while speaking to a student group at Rutgers as saying she hoped the paper, which had just gone through massive layoffs and is perhaps the media outlet that covers activities on the campus, would essentially go out of business. Whether it was meant sarcastically, or was even taken slightly out of context, it created a firestorm again with the media around the Scarlet Knights. The result? More brand damage and distraction for Rutgers.

What do all four anecdotes show? Pretty simple. We live in an age where media of all kinds is available for consumption willingly or unwillingly, and unless one takes the proper steps to guard against public-facing statements or information, as Skipper did, then anyone is fair game. Was the selfie with Ortiz innocent on the part of the President and Big Papi? Probably. Was there someone on the savvy marketing side waiting or planning to take advantage of the innocent moment? Seems so. In Hermann’s case, was she trying to make news in a frank discussion with students? Probably not. Did she set herself up for an issue by not setting ground rules prior, as happened at Columbia. Looks like that is the case. Now this is not to say setting ground rules can always lead to people acting honorably or responsibly. The thought of embargoes on news stories seem to be more and more a thing of the past, with media outlets scrambling to break news on any platform willing to sometimes ask forgiveness now more than permission, and a tweet, no matter how innocent, just seconds before a story breaks can have career implications for all involved.  Does the Ortiz incident mean that events at White House or other official gatherings will now be like some elite weddings or courtrooms, where any mobile devices need to be confiscated to avoid potential conflict? Could be. We did live in a world not too long ago where images were not captured on phones, they were done by cameras on film and then shared by those who wanted those images distributed and we all seemed fine with it. Taking temptation away can have its benefits in such cases, as can very clear ground rules. The more you think and know your audience, the better off all will be. Image creation and media consumption are great, and by no means should the free flow of ideas be curtailed in most cases. However the higher the image the higher the risk, as we saw again this week, both in DC and New Brunswick. Without setting the rules going in, all bets are off coming out and a news cycle, no matter how innocent or unintentional begins and creates even more distractions for the parties involved.  

The Real Super Bowl Winner? Madison Avenue and Wall Street

As we reach pre-Super Bowl weekend the debate rages on as to why a cold weather game vs. the warm weather locations, and it could this game ever happen again? After all, some say, it’s being played between two teams from thousands of miles away, local fans can’t get tickets, it will clog restaurants and highways, and then there is the weather. So who wins other than the Broncos or Seahawks and the select few who can afford to be involved?

The answer really is much broader, and it will probably get a New York game a second consideration down the line should there not be some logistical disaster like the one that happened with bad weather in Dallas a few years ago. Former President Calvin Coolidge once said “The Business of America is Business,” and that couldn’t be more true for the reason this year’s Super Bowl will be a success for being in the New York area.

Aside from the fact that thousands of hotel rooms on both sides of the river will make more money in a week than some will in a typical six month period, or limo drivers will rake in large sums at a time of year that is pretty quiet, or restaurants during the slowest time of the year will be fully booked, or even the millions that will be part of the legacy of the Snowflake Youth Foundation which will help young people and others for years to come with added resources, the business done away from the game will be unparalleled.

Over 500 events, both public  and private, are already underway as everyone from Wall Street executives to advertising agencies to the window dressers at Macy’s get some part of the Super Bowl business experience.  Those who work with hundreds of current and former players, coaches and even announcers who have some distant relationship to the Super Bowl have had a never-ending stream of requests for appearances, from intimate gatherings for clients to shopping mall appearances.  Companies big and small who have never had a chance to logistically experience even part of the world’s largest sports and entertainment event can sample some of what it is like to be in and around the game for the first time, all because of location.

Yes, for every Super Bowl there is a great amount of travel and entertainment. Annual parties like the one Maxim does, are annual “must visits” for the rich and famous. However by having the event in the center of the advertising and business world, the New York area, corporations can amplify their involvement with clients and employees because there is no cost prohibitive travel involved to get people to the events around the game. That means more business can be done face to face over a longer period of time, and more money can be spent actually entertaining and engaging than travelling.  Maybe it doesn’t have the “escape” feel of getting from cold and snowy New York or New Jersey to golf or sit poolside, but the area has ample spaces to keep people warm, engaged and involved, and for those wanting an outdoor experience, there are plenty of cold weather activities at least for short periods of time.

No matter where the Super Bowl is played, it is big business. However when you can bring an event like this to the place where big business takes place, it amplifies the opportunities. That certainly is not lost on the NFL or other mega-event hosts which want to engage a large public audience but also make sure the long and short term business needs of the entity are being  addressed.  It is why NASCAR, the Barclays Premier League, Formula One and every other global sporting event looks to engage in New York no matter what the cost. It is why tennis keeps the US Open in New York every year, and why broadcasters and business partners spend millions to engage with the USTA whether they use tennis as a tool the rest of the year or not.  It is a business and entertainment destination, and until you can bring an event to Madison Avenue, at least once, you are selling yourself short.

Will there be hiccups this week? Sure. Will there be hand wringing about the weather? Of course. Will some people wish they were walking along a beach rather than chatting someone up in a ballroom? Yes. But at the end of the day the success of this experiment will be measured more on long term business relationships than on who wins on the field. The Super Bowl is here, make the most of it. President Coolidge would probably agree.

Davis Cup Served A Not So “Super” Hand…Again

There are few team sports competitions with such a long history and tradition as Davis Cup in men’s tennis. Similar to Ryder Cup in golf, Davis Cup takes usually the best of the best in an individual men’s sports and brings those players together in the rarest of rare, as a team, to play for their country  against the greatest tennis-playing nations around the globe. In many countries the interest can rival that of World Cup or the Olympics, and for many tennis federations the ability to bring the best players in the world together in some very unique venues is a great way to showcase the game, grow interest and bring in much needed revenue to fuel junior programs and keep the sport healthy. Few who have ever attended a Davis Cup tie will ever forget the experience, one which is different from anything else seen in the sport, with the exception of World Team Tennis and Fed Cup (which is the women’s equivalent). It is a loud, raucous, fan friendly event.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the event continues to be lost in the global landscape, especially in the United States. It’s annual schedule is cumbersome and not easy to understand; countries who win the title in the late fall rarely have time to enjoy their benefits, as the new schedule starts in mid-Winter, right after the Australian Open, and an early round setback kills all the equity built from the year before. The annual must-commit schedule also makes it very difficult for the best players to consistently compete, and Davis Cup suffers from some of the same things that make the World Baseball Classic just a notch below what its goal is’ in theory it is the best of the best but without all the top players committed it can become an also-ran. Yes Davis Cup is well funded globally and the International Tennis Federation outs large resources behind it. It is usually well attended locally and the potential television audience globally is considerable. But in the landscape of sport, especially in the United States, Davis Cup is continuing to fall off the map.

Now this is not to say in any way the United States Tennis Association does not do a good job of finding creative ways to promote their home events. The staff continually finds creative and enthusiastic venues, from Idaho to Jacksonville to this year’s first round in Petco Park in San Diego, California. They engage the local community, invest hard dollars into marketing and event presentation, and always deliver a top notch show with sizable crowds.  The players are treated first class, and the support they are given is reflective of their commitment to play in the event. This year’s first round matchup is even more historic than others; a meeting with Great Britain, the U.S.’ longtime rival in the Cup, and playing it outdoors, on clay, in the home of the San Diego Padres should be a treat for all involved.

So what’s the problem? Schedule. For the second year in a row the U.S. will host a first round matchup on perhaps the worst weekend of the year in the country, unless you happen to be playing American football. Super Bowl weekend. Last year a sellout crowd in Jacksonville, Florida cheered the U.S. to a stunning win over Brazil…on Super Bowl weekend. Outside of North Florida, with the exception of some tennis diehards tuning in on The Tennis Channel, who knew? Few. The crush of media attention for Super Bowl makes it a virtual impossibility to leverage the excitement of Davis Cup in the States when you go head to head with the world’s largest single day sports and entertainment spectacle. You can market locally and bring the fans in, but playing the event on the eve of Super Bowl…again…is a disservice to all involved, and certainly does not help grow the sport of tennis in its largest country or help get the committed players the exposure deserved.  What should be a huge national celebration of a great sport turns into an afterthought and is something the USTA does not have control over.

So what to do? The suggestions have long been in place; move the event to a World Cup or Ryder Cup format over a period of years to build equity; take notice of other global events so as not to clash; move off of a weekend-only format to capture a prime time audience in the States have all been out forward, with the argument being that internationally the U.S. is not the only country that needs to be considered. That is fine and good, but against The Super Bowl? An event which will draw millions not just in the U.S. but around the globe? It is again a bad hand tennis has been dealt in the U.S., at a time when overall professional interest in the game is at a crossroads. It certainly is not dying, but it is plateaued as the casual fan waits for the next American male star to emerge. There are lots of compelling stories for sure, but in a society that loves winners, especially home grown ones, tennis needs a U.S. face to cross-over, and playing Davis Cup on Super Bowl weekend in the U.S. certainly doesn’t help.

It’s not a new issue but it certainly is one of frustration for those who look to market not just the sport of tennis, but all the ancillary properties around the game, as an iconic platform continues to struggle find its place in an ever changing and fast-evolving global sports community. The sport in the States is again served a bad hand, and because of the schedule, few may even notice in two weeks time.

Beach Games A New One To Watch…

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 not a great deal of surprise that this week SportAccord announced that it will be the creator of the World Beach Games at a predetermined location starting in 2015.

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 last year. 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 recently staged “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.

Sport Becomes More Global: TCS and The NYC Marathon

There is no event more New York than the New York City Marathon. There is also no event in New York that annually draws a global participant base than the Marathon as well. So it should come as no surprise that the new title sponsor of the Marathon will be an Indian technology company, whose CEO is an avid runner.

What is impressive is where yet another multibillion dollar global company will go next as it enters the American sports business marketplace more formally.  Now Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS, is not a newbie in the running space. It has held a sponsorship on a lower level with the Marathon, and with the Chicago and Boston Marathons as well, developing apps for the race and engaging with the millions who have used tech to engage with friends and family around road race events.

However this move represents a bold new step for the company, one that brings added opportunity, and added attention not just in the running space but in the sports and lifestyle space for the consumer.   The $12 billion company employs 280,000 people around the world, with 50% of its business derived in the U.S. right now, and a platform like the Marathon, which will bring exposure and opportunity not just race weekend but virtually all year round with the scores of events the New York Roadrunners hold and the aggressive marketing stance the organization takes.

The running and lifestyle space is an interesting one for tech companies whose audience matches well with those who engage in participatory activities as well. It is the platform that ING Direct aggressively engaged in road running and cycling as it pushed into the crowded online banking space in the States over a decade ago, with the plan to continue to use active first adopters as their key to growth. Unfortunately the shift in the global economy along with a change in leadership wreaked havoc with that plan, and ING has gone on to focus on more traditional ad buys and sponsorship of events like Formula 1 to re-engage with high level consumers vs. those who may take time to cultivate at the grassroots though participatory sports.

So if TCS is taking the road of marathoning, will it open doors for forward-facing brands activations in the exploding endurance space, with triathlons and circuits like Tough Mudder, Muddy Buddy, Rock N Roll marathon, US Roadsports and others that are very aggressive in their growth? Cycling has also had a huge exit from brands, but it is a sport that remains key for growth amongst consumers who are active…is there a spot there for TCS as well?

Then there is the oath that other global brands have taken to engage with American consumers. Turkish Airways, Lenovo, Ethiad Airways, Emirates Airways and several others have looked to tennis, golf, even soccer and horse racing, as entry points before going into the big spend, big reward area of the professional leagues in the States. Will TCS follow those playbooks and use road running as the key way into the minds and pocketbooks of the American business consumer?

Then there is the association with a BRIC-based company and where that can go. India, like China, is a prime growth area for sports like basketball, so is there an opportunity for TCS to dance with the NBA? Maybe not in the US first but in their work in those countries as a tech partner? Also what does this mean for more established tech support companies that have been in American sports, like IBM, in the future? The scuttlebutt is that TCS spend was larger than anything else the Marathon has ever had. Does that mean that they now become a player for key events outside of running as well, like the US Open for tennis and golf, or even bowl games in college football?

At the end of the day the TCS, NYRR marriage is an interesting one for many reasons. It introduces a newer brand in American sports business, but it comes because the CEO is an engaged runner  who has sampled and enjoyed the space. It unites a solutions company with a sport that has opportunities in tech solutions, since timing and logistics in a marathon is key. It uses a b to b play that can build equity much more than a consumer play despite the impressions TCS will get. It’s not like every day someone is running out looking for a new tech solutions company, but this partnership, for those who do engage in that space, will push TCS to be more top of mind for those who run, or even the casual followers of the marathon. It also shows the continued evolution of sponsor branding for elite, high profile events. While consumer brands can use events and partnerships to directly show how their bottom line is impacted, a partnership like this will be much more of a long term fit in the overall strategy of the company, with ROI taking time to develop as people get more educated about what TCS is doing.

Regardless it’s another example of sport becoming more global, and global brands finding ways to engage with an American audience. Well times, and one worth watching for sure.

Golf, Tennis Take Manhattan…Sort Of.

The perception is, if you want to succeed on Madison Avenue fully, then you need to bring the game to those making the decision. Every team sport, as well as air racing, triathlons, hot dog eating, even surfing, have tried to show the value of their product by coming as perilously close to Gotham as possible at least every few years. Formula 1 will try it again next year…NASCAR, for its mega success, still scratches its head with the closest race a few hours away at “The Tricky Triangle” at Pocono, and the same goes for Indy Car. You can bring the personalities, the drivers, the noise for special events, but to experience the event, you still have to go just that much further, and that much further makes a big difference for a distracted media and advertising and brand activation business that sometimes doesn’t like to leave the confines of the Big Apple. We really like you, but until you can come to our house we can’t really have a full relationship.

That’s why tennis’ biggest event, The US Open, with its most widespread brand activation platform, will kick off within eyeshot of Broadway, at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. Meanwhile a huge event for golf, the annual Barclays, will have Manhattan for its backdrop at the swanky Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City. With its sweeping views of lower Manhattan in the not too long distance, Liberty National serves as a not too subtle reminder for the PGA that big brands and even bigger dollars lurk just across the Hudson, and it is a very easy ride to bring those who spend the dollars of brands to see the stars. It is not Bedminster or Montclair, it is Jersey City, a growing suburban of young urban professionals rivaled only by Brooklyn in its upward mobility, making the course, like the National Tennis Center, an easy stop for the hip, the swanky and the brands who can activate so close to the office.

For sure, elite courses like Trump National and Bethpage Black and Winged Foot have served golf very well from a business perspective, but to have such an amazing facility, with most of golf’s elite players on board, so close to the business capital of the world is invaluable to brand golf. It is a once a year stop that can bring golf close to the office, and while decision makers visit over the weekend, can serve as a reminder to how close all the activation opportunities that come with the golfing clientele can come to Manhattan. It is a strategy that can and will work well as a marketing tool for the sport; one that other sports who aren’t so close to New York City can try to replicate, but still may fall short. Yes you can do junkets to close in and far off events to capture the experience of the live event but having the event so close to home makes it just that more memorable, and provides just that more of an opportunity for brands to cozy up and spend those large discretionary dollars.

Now is that the only reason Liberty National ended up so close to Manhattan? No. It is an accessible course for millions who might want to take a shot at recreational golf, but in the end, to fund those programs, the PGA needs to raise the dollars, and having such an event so close to decision makers is key.

It is a model the USTA has played so well for years, using their two week window to raise millions to fund the game across the country at the grassroots level, and although this short week at The Barclays won’t be the huge windfall that the US Open is for tennis in the same location every year, it sure goes a long way in helping grow the game of golf on the corporate level, and with that growth comes a spillover to help the game expand. That is smart business, and why Liberty National gives golf a strategic advantage that didn’t exist just a few years ago, bringing the game as close to the seat of business as it ever has been.  That value, in a time when ROI is placed at a higher value than ever before, is immeasurable, and helps the perception of success for  he business of golf, become much more of a reality for all involved.

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.