Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Beginnings, Real and Imagined

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where grand slams off Mariano Rivera happen more than once every decade.

First off, a sincere apology is necessary. It's been WAY too long since my last post. In the last five months, my job has required much more time, travel, etc., and I have another child due any day. It's been absolutely crazy, yet completely exhilarating and exhausting. But for you, it's no excuse.

Speaking of our impending arrival, it's gotten me thinking a bit about sports stars and their kids. You've read all about Shawn Kemp, Travis Henry and the other guys with tons of kids by tons of women. Their shenanigans are well documented. But what about the other extreme - the incredibly talented athletes who have built legend-like status without so much as a peep about their family lives? Granted, they have a right to their privacy, and more power to them for keeping things quiet. But who would you like to see have a child, or add that family angle to their public persona/image? Who would benefit most from a PR/marketing angle from doing so? An interesting question...

Here are a few people I've thought of:
--Peyton Manning. He's almost assuredly a Hall of Famer, and does a lot of great charity work, but he and his wife do not have kids. Couldn't you see this great QB with a little one? A great, battle-decorated gridiron warrior cradling a newborn? He's already pitching so many products - I have to imagine Huggies and Gerber would be knocking down his door if that were to ever happen. The legend would only grow.
--Joe Mauer. Being a native Minnesotan, like Joe, I know well how he's already a god-like figure locally with one of the richest contracts in sports history and a squeaky-clean image. And having spent some time with him, I can say he's just as down to earth and cool in real life as he might seem. But as a bachelor, he hasn't yet had the opportunity to start his own family. If/when he does, I think his star will only rise even more, especially around this state we both call home.
--Tim Tebow. With all the attention he gets for his personal nature, we all forget he's a two-time Heisman winner, one of the most decorated collegiate athletes of all time and a proven winner. Still, let's be honest with ourselves - he's going to always be a media darling because of his personal decisions. And when he has a wife and kids, the topic of the discussion will merely change - it won't go away.

And an honorable mention: Albert Pujols. The guy is one of the true good guys in sports, and does a ton for charity, including running an organization to benefit children with Downs Syndrome and their families, yet he's so darn good at baseball that he doesn't always get the credit he deserves. This guy is an all-around, well-rounded Hall of Famer.

Who else do you think belongs?

I'm out like the Atlanta Hawks. (then again, being out requires "being there" in the first place...which the Hawks weren't in any way, shape or form against the Magic)
(photo credit to Cosmos Magazine)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Just in Time - Sports PR/Mktg Predictions for 2010

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where tanking games at the end of the football season – especially when you’re 14-0 – is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

By now, the “prediction for 2010” buzz has pretty much faded, which means it’s the perfect time for me to join the fray and suggest some things I think will dominate the year ahead. Enjoy.

--Teams on Twitter
You might think that this is obvious and has no place in a prediction post. After all, there surely are teams that have done a good job of activating Twitter, Facebook and other sites to engage their fan bases. But if it’s so obvious, then why hasn’t everyone adopted these practices? It seems to me that a definite majority of teams are still trying to figure it all out – all the way from defining how their athletes use the tools to hiring staff devoted solely to the effort. This will change in 2010…I think this is the year when the tides turn and sports organizations and leagues everywhere really embrace social media.

--Breaking News
Already, we’ve started to see individual athletes taking matters into their own hands when it comes to news announcements, spreading the word themselves through social media tools instead of feeding reporters and the news machine at large. As the landscape of media continues to change, and reporters are more taxed and the news hole continues to shrink, I think athletes will do more and more of this in 2010 so that they guarantee themselves their share of ink and buzz and manage and motivate their individual fan bases. In a world where star power adds dollars to contracts and leads to endorsement deals, and athletes are looking out for “number one” more and more, this makes incredible sense. Plus, let’s admit it, athletes have huge egos. Spreading the word themselves allows them to control the message and hoard the attention…really, it’s PR 101. Think of it this way, and it’s a wonder this hasn’t been done more already.

--ESPN Will Dominate. Even More.
You’ve heard about ESPN Boston and Los Angeles. There’s a simple model at play here: leverage the Worldwide Leader’s brand and existing/growing resources and infrastructure to provide sports content on the local level. As papers and TV stations continue to tighten their belts, sports coverage already has suffered to some extent. So enter ESPN, with a growing brand and more money to spend than the local guys. If they can come in and cover the teams well, and maybe even syndicate content to the local media, they might just have a winner. Meanwhile, visitors to the ESPN sites benefit from all the other content on there too – it’s an infrastructure much more built out than any newspaper site I’ve seen. I expect to see ESPN New York, ESPN San Francisco, ESPN Atlanta and others sooner than later.

--Team Naming Rights
We saw a couple of WNBA teams sell their jersey space, and essentially their nicknames, to corporate sponsors in 2009. Soccer teams around the world (and NASCAR) have done this for years…might a major American brand make a move into a major American sport in 2010? It wouldn’t shock me.

What am I missing?

Have a terrific New Year. I’m out like the New England Patriots.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy (Sports Thanksgiving) New Year!

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we always have a feast of football, basketball, hockey, new Xmas presents and yummy eats to keep us company.

New Years Day is one of my favorite days of the year. Sure, it's great for all the usual reasons...we're off from work, we spend the time with friends/family and it's a day that represents the hopes and dreams of everyone. If you're not using at least some of the time to reflect on who you are and what you want to be, you should. It's a wonderful, healthy exercise.

But the icing on the cake (and much of the rest of the cake, actually) for me is the incredible slate of sports action. Here's just a little bit of what's really got me excited today:

--The Rose Bowl. Really, this alone could make my day. Having grown up in Minnesota, and being a Gopher letterwinner, this is the game that never fails to give me goosebumps. I watch the Rose Parade, dreaming of what it would have been like to participate in it. I look at the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs duke it out, hoping that someday in my lifetime I'll get the chance to see the Gophers play in Pasadena. The pageantry, the passion, the really is the Granddaddy of Them All. Just for today, Go Buckeyes.

--The Winter Classic. I hope the NHL dude who thought of this got a promotion and a huge raise. I'm not sure anything else has done more for pro hockey in the USA the past few years than this great annual event. And this year, it's at storied Fenway Park...and it features one of the league's top rivalries. Great stuff...makes me wish I was making my Monday flight to Boston a few days early. Only thing: just stop talking about how great the ice is. Seemed pretty obvious to me from that first period like it's not exactly ideal out there. But hey, it's outdoor hockey...I'm not exactly complaining.

--Big Ten Bowls. The Rose, the Outback (and what a great game it is), the Capital's a great day for a Big Ten football fan. Besides, anytime you get to see JoePa on the sideline in a rainstorm, life is good. Now let's go win some games and silence those stupid talking heads who think our conference can't compete.

--Purdue/West Virginia. Can't forget about basketball today...this could be a Final Four preview, and it features another Big Ten team. Can't wait to see my Gophers beat the Boilers next week.

Enjoy the action, everyone. What's getting you psyched up today?

That's all for now. I'm out like Bobby Bowden.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Tiger Saga: What He Could Learn from Michael Phelps

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the Vikings just keep on winning... :)

You've all heard by now about the Tiger Woods kerfuffle, so I'll spare you the recap. A lot has already been said about how Tiger and his PR team have blown this one...I would agree with that sentiment. None of us know the truth, and it's possible the guy is just trying to protect his family - or that he just doesn't care. Still, he owes the world, the sponsors and the legion of fans responsible for his incredible wealth an explanation. So now, being that Tiger's puckering up tighter than a snare drum and pulling his version of a "no comment" response, what's the best course of action for him to take?

We need look no further than the Michael Phelps situation a few short months ago for guidance. You'll remember he was caught on camera having a little too much fun at a house party, and it turned into a full-fledged PR crisis. And when the photos went public...he came out, ate crow, offered an honest explanation, took all questions and sincerely apologized. And...if you haven't noticed (and you probably haven't, because this crisis was handled very well), Phelps has moved on, and he's pretty much been forgiven for his mistake in the vicious court of public opinion. Crisis PR at its finest.

So what did Phelps do well that Tiger can do?

1. Stop avoiding the spotlight, call a presser and answer some questions. Yesterday. It doesn't matter quite as much what he says - although the truth would be great. It matters more that he faces the music, allows people to connect with him and offers an honest account of the situation and his feelings.

2. Let the media in...a little bit. Tiger has been known for keeping his personal affairs completely to himself, and that's surely his right. But in a situation like this, it gives the public no basis for comparison when judging his character. It might be a strong play for him to give ESPN, 60 Minutes or somebody else an exclusive interview filmed inside his house, with video of his family. Let people see the man behind the domination. I'm not saying he has to become Terrell Owens. But Phelps? Alex Rodriguez? Andre Agassi? When they faced trouble, they went out and did interviews with the big dogs and told their story.

3. Audit (and maybe tweak) your TSR (Tiger Social Responsibility) activities. Taken from the popular corporate PR term corporate social responsibility, this refers to the work Tiger does in the community and the good work he does with his wealth for those less fortunate. Of course, Tiger has his own Foundation, and he's struck partnerships with companies who sponsor events, golf tournaments, etc. Tiger shows up, says all the right things, etc. But lately it's starting to come out that he doesn't exactly go to the lengths that others with his stature do - or that other legends of golf have gone. And when he does, he doesn't always project the right attitude. It couldn't hurt to do more for kids to learn and experience the game of golf, and do it with a smile on his face.

These all would be helpful to Tiger as he goes forward in this accident mess. But I think most people would agree that he simply needs to do something...and fast. What do you think?

I'm out like Lawrence Frank.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Soccer in America

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where Brett Favre beating the packers as a member of the Vikings will go down as one of the seminal Minnesota sports moments of this generation.

Thanks to Jackie Adkins (@JackieAdkins) for the inspiration for this post. He is a recent grad of the University of North Carolina, and a sharp young sports/marketing mind. The content here is based on a presentation he wrote entitled "Soccer: The Rest of the World's Game," which he so generously sent to me to write about.

Now, it's no shock that soccer is not as mainstream in America as other sports. Many people think it's a boring sport to watch, that there aren't many goals scored and that it's played sloppily in general (with phenomena like "flopping"). Plus, traditionally, the USA hasn't been a strong soccer nation in major competitions. We all know how we Americans love to rally around a winner...we simply haven't had that chance very often with the national soccer teams.

There are signs, though, that the sport is gaining a foothold in America and could be on the verge of explosion into the mainstream. Here are some proof points:

--Soccer is America's #1 youth game today. Yes, more kids play soccer here today than any other sport. No lie. And as these kids grow up, they'll bring their affinity for the sport into their homes, their decisions and (critical to the growth of soccer) their purchases.

--The USA National Teams are starting to enjoy some success. The Mens' National Team hosted the 1994 World Cup, had a strong showing in 2002 and recently played in the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup, considered a top prep tourney for the World Cup. And you know that the Women's Team has been a dynamo, winning in 1999 and playing well ever since.

--Soccer is the Hispanic world's #1 sport, and as more Hispanics become Americans, they naturally bring the game to the nation.

--Major League Soccer, and women's leagues, are taking off and growing. It took a while, but the fans are coming - and sponsors are buying into it.

All of these bode well for the sport, but what does soccer need to do to continue and stimulate this growth in America?

First, broader exposure to the game would help. For example, currently, not even all of the Mens' National Team games are on ESPN or other forms of cable or network national television. How can Americans rally behind the team and sport if they can't watch their premier teams compete? And this isn't the time to ask for more beat reporters, but even local soccer teams don't currently receive the level of coverage as other local squads - despite the increasing demographic interest noted above.

Second, continue to build slowly but surely. Those looking to turn a quick profit in soccer probably won't do it, and momentum could be lost along the way. Building an empire and a movement takes time - you can't do it overnight. It takes years. Keep taking steps forward, and eventually your journey will be complete. For example, it seems like the MLS has this figured out - as much as they'd like to be a 30-team league, and others want them to be that large, they've been very methodical in expansion and have picked their franchise cities carefully.

Third, soccer's fans in America have to evangelize. New fans have to be won with passion, not with scoring. So, just like with any other branding effort, people need to experience the game in ways they haven't before - that is how they will see the light. And in lieu of broadcast access and other barriers to entry, the sport's ardent fans have got to carry the torch on this one.

Fourth, the Men's National Team needs to do well in South Africa in the 2010 World Cup. In most of the world, this is considered the biggest sports event in the world - bigger than the Olympics, the Super Bowl, etc. And the USA has qualified as the winner of their region...there's nothing that would do more for soccer in America than a deep run in The Big One next summer.

Personally, I really like soccer. I've watched it, played it and announced it. Sure, there isn't as much scoring as other sports, but there's just as much (or more) strategy, talent, rivalry, passion, etc. on the pitch as any other sport. That's the real beauty of the game - just like with a great work of art, you just have to look a little harder to see it. And for those of you who have never played - try it. You might just experience for yourself what so many others have experienced. If soccer were to become a mainstream sport in this nation, awesome. I'm all for it, and I hope this post is in some small way a contribution to that effort.

That's all for now. I'm out like MLB umpires' eyesight this postseason.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sports Journalism at its Finest...Or Not

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where my fantasy football teams (all four of them) are 3-0 instead of the other records they currently have.

I must apologize for my absence. In the last month, I've celebrated a birthday with my son and an anniversary with my wife. I've had one PR project after another at work, keeping me busier than normal. I've helped some family and friends through some tougher-than-normal times. And the real kicker - I and my family packed up our lives and moved into a new house. This insane level of real-life business - which always comes first in my book - has kept me offline for quite some time. So I apologize to all of you. Hopefully now I'll be better about blogging again...I've got a lot to say.

So...I bet you've seen the Terrell Owens interview/presser after the Bills' loss this past weekend. If not, here's a clip:

To reset the situation: Owens' streak of more than 180 straight games with a catch came to an end in the loss, and the media in the room were trying to get his reaction to that. If that's what you call that kind of shenanigans they were pulling in that room.

I've worked in sports journalism, and I know for a fact that sports are maybe the most formulaic subjects to cover in the journalism world. The elements of the different stories you write and people you cover are essentially the same. The features you produce on the players are all basically the same. The feel-good, human interest stories you look for are roughly the same. Before and after the game, from one game to the next, the questions media ask players and coaches are pretty much the same. This isn't to say that it isn't challenging or difficult work (actually, keeping it fresh and looking for new angles can be one of the hardest parts), and that sports journalism doesn't have its share of incredibly talented professionals. All I'm saying is...well...reporters and situations have a tendency to default to the routine.

In Owens' case, the routine for him is complaining incessantly about his plight in life, or that he isn't catching enough balls, or that his teams don't have what it takes. So, naturally, when a long games-with-catches streak ends, the post-game presser will be full of ranting and raving, right?

Wrong. Owens, in a rare show of humility, answered every question straight as an arrow. He didn't raise his voice or insult anyone. He stuck to the company line. And, in this case, I'm going to give him an A. Why?

Because the reporters in the room also defaulted to routine, and put on one of the worst displays of journalism I've ever seen. They expected him to be a brat, and they acted like it. Can you even count the number of leading questions they asked him? Did you see how they baited Owens to get him to snap? And then, when he didn't play the game, how they didn't let up? You can't blame a reporter for trying to dig deep and unearth a story. But there's a difference between approaching a source with a researched, informed, objective, intelligent line of questioning and this nonsense. This was unethical, shoddy and just plain bad journalism. As a reporter, you don't make the report it. Simple as that. You just can't say that for those folks in that room who clearly were trying to do the former.

Sports journalism is a noble trade, and a great passion of mine and many others. I like to see it done well, with sound principle and ethics, and not like this. Here's hoping we see fewer incidents like this in the future.

I'm out like the Washington Redskins.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gopher Football: The Experience

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where Little Leaguers who stand, watch and showboat after hitting home runs get benched. And then suspended. No matter what game or tournament they're playing in. (we need to teach kids today to Respect The Game!)

It won't come as a surprise to most of my readers that my beloved Minnesota Golden Gophers are opening a new stadium this fall, back on campus. It's a rare thing these days: a brand new college football stadium. And, as a season ticket holder (and former letterwinner), September 12 will be a happy, happy day indeed.

But why am I most excited about this? Well, it's all about the experience...the ability to be on campus, tailgating, going to pep rallies and parades, hanging out with fellow rubes, being outdoors, establishing new traditions and adapting old ones, etc. If you've been in the Metrodome for a college football game, well, you know what I mean. I marched in the band, and we had to bus it over to the Dome from campus. Talk about an atmosphere killer..."Hey, let's get on the bus!" And even being on the field playing pregame and halftime shows, I could barely hear myself say nothing at all for the people in the seats. Damn those acoustics.

But, thinking about this a bit broader, there is a lesson here that all of us professional marketers (and beyond) need to keep in mind. These days, when word-of-mouth marketing is even more the gold standard than it's ever been, is there a better way to promote/advance your company, product or brand than to get people excited about it through a positive experience? I dare you to find one. An advocate's endorsement carries more weight with a prospective buyer than anything else in their buying decisions. And first-hand knowledge/experience of a product/company/brand will deliver more return business than any other interaction with that product/company/brand.

Congrats to the University on this seminal moment in its history. Ski-U-Mah indeed. And congrats to those who figured out that the continued success of the Gopher football program depended on a common, shared, positive experience with the team...and then did what they needed to do to ensure that experience would take place every fall Saturday at home for the foreseeable future. Let this be a turning point for Gopher Nation, not only on the field but for the good of the University and the state she serves.

I'm out like Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Breaking News on Twitter

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where Erin Andrews and everyone else can live their lives without fear of being videotaped through a peephole. Seriously, throw the book at that sicko(s).'s all the rage these days. Mark Madsen of the Timberwolves told the world he was getting traded. Mark Cuban said goodbye to a player today via Twitter. Ocho Cinco...well, he's being himself. And Drew Rosenhaus incurred the wrath of the Vikings today by Tweeting that Aundrae Allison, a WR (and his client), would be released by 5 p.m. today if not traded before then. Of course, with the Tweet going out, his trade value evaporated and the Vikings had to release him.

For better or worse (I think it's for the better), Twitter and other social media are here to stay in the sports world. Athletes, teams and leagues have unprecedented opportunity to engage their fans and build communities around their teams. And lately, sports figures of all kinds have been using Twitter like in the above examples to break news. What are we to make of this, and what implications does this have on the news cycle of the sports world.

First, now the people doing the Tweeting have the opportunity to break their own news. Basically, this gives them the power to shape the message exactly how they want it to come across, which in the case of some of these examples could be quite helpful/valuable. For example, Drew Rosenhaus, in screwing over the Vikings, protected his client's interests...he did his job. And Mark Madsen was able to break the news of his trade to his fans and thank them for their support. This messenger role has typically been reserved for the media, but technology has enabled these sorts of direct correspondences. As Twitter becomes more mainstream, one has to wonder if these examples could usher in a powerful change in the role of all types of sports media...will their roles change significantly, and - maybe even - will they be needed at all?

Second, it's already starting to prompt a series of policies from teams/leagues regulating how their athletes use Twitter and other sites. If athletes have the power to correspond directly with audiences without a filter or an editor, teams/leagues then should feel the need to exercise some "quality control," for lack of a better term. So teams, just like companies everywhere, are adopting policies governing how their employees use social media, and what they can and cannot say online. The Green Bay Packers just became one of the first sports organizations to do this.

The debate has just begun over whether or not teams should have the right to do this to their players, and how media like Twitter should be integrated into the fabric of professional sports. This is a conversation I'd love to encourage here on The Sports Ace. I can see how athletes could want to use Twitter to build their own fan bases and their own personal brands, but I also don't blame teams for unveiling policies designed to keep their players focused on their jobs. One thing's for sure - it's going to be fun to watch all of this unfold.

Anyways, these are a couple of interesting talkers that I've been thinking about recently. What do you think?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Happy Blog Birthday

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the top sluggers always participate in the Home Run Derby regardless of how they feel, what it might do to their swing, etc.

Four years ago today, I started this blog. It's been a rollercoaster ride, but here we are, still having fun. And I'm really excited that today, on TSA's fourth birthday, it has the highest readership and following that it's ever had.

A sincere thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, Tweeting and everything else. It's my privilege to contribute in my own small way to the bigger conversation going on out there, and it's a real honor that you all take the time to engage with me. Here's to the next four years, and beyond!

I'm out like the National League.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Celebrity Product Social Media

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where there are still few things more enjoyable and sacred than a Fourth of July with family, friends and some good food and drink. I hope you all had a great holiday!

Shawn Johnson (the gold-medal gymnast and Dancing with the Stars champ) is one of the few celebrities I follow on Twitter (@ShawneyJ) - she's obviously an incredible athlete and person, and I think she's a lot more human in social media than most people with her level of fame. And I think it's interesting how in the past couple of days she's started Tweeting about Crest White they're helping her, how they provide value, etc. I would be shocked if she were doing this on her own...Crest probably has her inked to some sort of sponsorship deal.

This appears to be one of the first examples of a celebrity plugging a brand/product through social media, and I think this is a great case study of how it can be done well for two primary reasons. First, Johnson works in her Crest mentions smoothly, completely in her normal tone and style. It doesn't read anything like typical advertising/PR/promotional copy - it's very easy to grasp, and it seems very much like something she would have told you if you were standing two feet apart. Second, she doesn't beat you over the head with it - since starting on June 29, she's written a grand total of four Tweets mentioning White Strips. That's in between 2-3 Tweets a week. If there were too many messages, the celebrity's objectives would seem too obvious, and that might be negative for the brand and the celebrity plugger. But this frequency seems like just the right amount (or maybe just a bit more would be okay) to keep the brand and product on the top of followers' minds.

No doubt that this is the tip of the iceberg - as athletes, celebrities and brands of all kinds look to gain more mindshare in social media like Twitter, these sorts of partnerships will become much more common. I think this one is being executed well, and it should help both the celebrity and the brand/product. And it will be interesting to see how this kind of marketing takes shape in the coming months. Will Shaq get involved? Danica Patrick? Others?

What do you think? Will more of these partnerships be forged? What do marketers/celebrities need to keep in mind when plugging brands and products in social media? Comments welcome.

That's all for now. I'm out like the Marians (Gaborik and Hossa).

Twitter Counseling

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where cheaters in major sports never get to play real games - even in the minor leagues - before their suspensions are over.

So there's been a hubbub on Twitter in the past few days about people being sick and tired of reading Tweets from people about Michael Jackson's life, death and legacy. People have berated, snubbed and threatened to unfollow others over this, just because they don't want to be exposed to Jackson dialogue anymore. I might be risking a few follows with this, but to all of you who are doing that: deal with it.

Let's face it: one of Twitter's top strengths is its ability to provide a forum for people to share news and experiences with each other, regardless of geography, in real time. When President Obama was inaugurated, millions of people around the world Facebooked and Tweeted each other, sharing in the experience and the significance of the day. Just as it was a great tool for sharing and community building in a time of celebration, why should it be any different in a time of sadness? That's right, it shouldn't - in fact, it might be even more important in bad times. All people are doing on Twitter is working through their natural grief processes together, in a community of people that supports them. People shouldn't belittle or threaten others or put them down for coping with loss in any way, including this one.

And let's remember, it takes time for people to grieve. As I write this, it's been exactly one week since Jackson died. Anyone who's ever lost someone/something that's important to them knows that it can take days, weeks, months and even years to fully move on from a grief-inducing event. And we all grieve differently. Sure, Jackson isn't a member of the vast majority of our immediate families. But his music brings an entire generation of people back to their childhood, and reminds many more of other memories in their life - many of those good. It's been one week, people...there are lots of people out there still coping with Jackson's death. And that's perfectly normal and okay. It happens every time a song comes on the radio, or another news story hits the's still very fresh. Heck, people are still grieving for Elvis.

Personally, I love how Twitter gives me a way to connect with others I respect and share really big events - both good and bad - with them in a way I couldn't before. This is the essence of how Twitter builds community, and how members of that community support and pick each other up. If Twitter can help people work through major community/national events of loss or grief, such as Michael Jackson's death, then I think it does a tremendous service to us all. We should be helping our neighbors, not tearing them down.

That's all for now. I'm out like the King of Pop himself...RIP.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

And Now...Your Phoenix Mercury, Presented by Lifelock

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we're always ready for Game 1 no matter how much time we've had off since our last series. And media discussion of teams' time off between series? Non-existent.

The WNBA's Phoenix Mercury are now presented by Lifelock. No joke (photo at right shows star player Diana Taurasi with Lifelock CEO Todd Davis).

In a first-of-its-kind corporate/sports partnership deal including a major U.S. "big four sport" team, Lifelock obtained the rights to launch the first-ever branded jersey, among other terms. So, effective immediately, you won't see "Mercury" on the front of the team's jerseys. You'll see "Lifelock" instead. There will still be a small Mercury logo on the front, but the average Joe on the street who doesn't follow the WNBA will probably think they're the Lifelocks.

These days, teams are doing just about anything to make some more money and make themselves more attractive to corporate marketers. But no team had gone to these lengths and sold the name on its jersey before this week. Will this start a domino effect - will we see other teams in the WNBA and beyond put a company name on the front of their jersey? (Editor's Note: as of June 9, the Los Angeles Sparks also inked a deal with Farmers Insurance) Or is the jersey sacred enough that this is a one-hit wonder? Time will tell. But, to me, the question now is: should teams do this or not? What decision is best for the franchise?

This issue, to me, is all about branding. Of course, brands are the sets of experiences, reputations and associations that customers have with companies, people or other entities. Any professional marketer knows that a company's brand is an incredibly important asset. It takes great amount of time and sustained effort to build a successful brand, yet brands can implode from a single event. If cash is the lifeblood of a business, the brand is definitely its face.

So how does branding enter into the world of sports? I think a team's name doubles as their brand. Sure, attributes of that brand can be a player, a style of play, a stadium/venue, etc. But ultimately, "The Yankees," "the Cowboys," "the Lakers" and "the Mercury" are brands, just like Coca-Cola, Microsoft or Disney.

Applied to this situation, the Mercury as a franchise have built an identity among a community of people according to that name/brand, as they've operated under that name for their entire existence. The team isn't changing its name in this deal, but it does now have a new name on its jersey. As a result, the team is essentially re-branding itself - or, at the very least, it risks confusing everyone about the true identity of the team and what it stands for.

Sure, maybe the team hadn't been making a lot of money before, and sure, teams have moved to new markets and changed names quite often in all leagues. But this is different - the Mercury didn't move, and its new "name" is a corporate one. Needless to say, this is a huge risk. It may work out well, and it will surely generate revenue in the short term, but my hunch is that people may backlash against a more corporate influence in professional sports. I also believe that the team's brand will suffer, and that it may go through a sort of identity crisis. Put another way, if someone looks at the Mercury on the court and thinks they're the Lifelocks, who really are they? What they're not, by name, is a professional basketball team - instead, they're a bunch of identity theft protectors playing a basketball game. As a result, my initial read on this is that it's a negative for the team and the league in the long-term.

This is why other parts of the announcement release should be concerning to fans of the WNBA. Commissioner David Stern is quoted in the Mercury/Lifelock news release as saying the partnership is " important next step in the growth of the WNBA. We are confident that [Lifelock's] alliance with the Mercury and the WNBA will accelerate LifeLock’s growth, and this deal serves as a blueprint for other associations of its kind with all our WNBA teams." This could imply that Stern wants or hopes that other franchises will adopt corporate naming deals like this. Sure, it might pump more money now into the game/league/individual franchises, but I think it would usher in a series of branding issues which would cause identity and broader marketing issues within those teams and leagues. It's the kind of stuff we've never seen before in professional sports.

It seems to me like sports teams - and the leagues and commissioners - should work to preserve their names and identities. After all, their names are their brands...sure, devoted fans will still follow them, but the rest of society will only be confused. Plus, teams and leagues have invested years and huge sums of money in marketing and establishing themselves and building their brands over time. I'd hate to see all of that get tossed out with the trash.

That's all for now. I'm out like LeBron James' sportsmanship.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What I Learned from Tom Brokaw

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we always play defense for 48 minutes.

Last week, my wife and I had the incredible honor and privilege of meeting Tom Brokaw at the annual Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Page One Awards banquet. This is always a wonderful event to attend, because I get to see lots of great friends and help honor the truly great journalism that is practiced every year in Minnesota. But this year, Minnesota SPJ really outdid itself by securing Brokaw to be the keynote speaker.

His speech centered on the dire situation the journalism industry finds itself in today, and what everyone from rank and file reporters to news executives to the general public can do to improve it. I'm sure that you, like me, have heard many people speak on this topic, but I've never heard it done like Brokaw did it.

He didn't mince words. When he talked about why the industry fell into the rut it's in, he said (summarizing): We're forgetting as a society that information isn't free.

In a short, simple sentence, there it is. All of it. Think about it for a minute.

With the Internet, it has never been easier or cheaper to read the news. The number of people in America who do not pay for their news is increasing daily - and, in particular, the youngest Americans have never known what it's like to pay for their news...they've never had to do it before. Of course, this is troubling because it takes serious financial and human resources to do journalism well. It just does. There are so many blogs and "news sites" out there, but how many of them are actually breaking real news? How many of them allocate and invest the resources it takes to do the legwork to report real, accurate, relevant stories - ones which truly make an impact on the way we live our lives, or the way our elected leaders govern, or protect the public? It's a small percentage, to be sure. Most blogs simply aggregate news from other sources, and put their own unique spin on that news. And let's be honest with ourselves and admit that most of the "news" we read on a daily basis is pop culture on a stick, whether it's sports, entertainment, etc.

Of course, we NEED trained journalists and journalism organizations to produce this kind of real, hard news, because it's incredibly important to our way of life. Journalism, after all, is the "Fourth Estate" of government; our founding fathers realized right away that an informed public was the single most important aspect of a democratic society. Why do you think they wrote the First Amendment? Freedom of speech, and the press, and assembly, etc.? Journalism has forever been regarded as a fourth branch, right up there with the executive, judicial and legislative places checks and balances on the other three, and ensures that the people have the knowledge they need to live their lives and ably elect their leaders. Imagine, for just a minute, what our society would be like if journalism wasn't done, or done well. It's not much of a stretch to say that it would be completely different...there may not even be an America to speak of.

So it is paramount to our future to understand that information isn't free, and that we need to act to invest in it and educate each other about this. Maybe if people have a true appreciation for what's at stake here, they'll be more apt to pick up a paper from the newsstand, or click through on a banner advertisement. At the same time, news executives need to take bold action soon to advance this agenda in the public discourse. Sure, it's self-serving - it's about journalism entities making enough money to survive. But it's also about ensuring that American democracy as we know it can function into the future. If they don't take up the cause, no one will.

To me, Brokaw's statement was sheer brilliance, a masterpiece of wordsmithing that could only be done by one of the greatest journalists of all time. I've literally spent hours reflecting on this since I heard his speech, and I hope you'll give this some thought as well.

What a night it was. Sure, it was an unforgettable because of the opportunity to sit down with Brokaw at the same dinner table and have a once-in-a-lifetime conversation. But I still can't believe how lucky we all were to hear honest reflection on the journalism industry from one of the greatest to ever practice the craft. If you'd like to experience the thrill for yourself, I'd encourage you to visit the Minnesota SPJ Web site at and watch the video of his keynote speech.

This Memorial Day Weekend, as we remember and honor our veterans for all they've done for us, let's not forget that they sacrificed as much to preserve our way of life as anything else. It's our time now to step up to the plate and do our part...I see this is one important way we can do just that.

That's all for now. I'm out like the Boston Celtics.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Dodgers: Marketing Through The Manny Debacle

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we always play bogey-free golf on Sundays.

You all know by now that Manny Ramirez has been suspended for 50 games by Major League Baseball for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. It's the latest black eye on a sport which has been severely battered over the last few years.

But, in this post, I'd like to focus on the Dodgers and the team's marketing. Much has been made of the team's efforts around Manny: it is a case study on how to build a local-market campaign around a superstar athlete. From Mannywood to wigs to jerseys to ticket sale promotions, the Dodgers have been very aggressive in trying to build excitement among Dodger Nation through Manny. And, by the accounts I've read, it was working remarkably well...before the suspension news came down. So, if you're the Dodgers and the centerpiece of the entire effort takes a credibility/reputation hit, what do you do now?

Well, the team seems to be moving forward on the same track, almost like nothing ever happened. Manny will be back in July, after all, and he's still a part of the team. Of course, this begs several questions. Is it smart marketing to keep going with an aggressive campaign built on an athlete with a damaged reputation? What does such an effort say about the team or organization doing the marketing? Do these athletes with damaged reputations still carry marketing weight?

To the latter, generally speaking, recent precedent would suggest that a baseball player's reputation and marketability evaporate when they're hit with steroid-related suspensions/accusations. Just look at Clemens, McGwire, Bonds, Palmeiro and the long list of others in this same situation. But Ramirez' stock - although definitely weakened - still seems to have a pulse, at least. Based on what's going on with the Dodgers, it appears that he might be the guy who breaks precedent and still have a chance to be the central figure in campaigns going forward.

But what about the fact he was busted for, essentially, cheating? Doesn't that matter at all? Shouldn't this change how the Dodgers move forward? In this case, surprisingly, the answer appears to be no. Why?

Allow me to offer a couple of reasons:
  • Marketing isn't just about the product, service or asset (in this case Manny) - it's also about the pool of buyers you're targeting. Successful marketing surely means that you enable a group of people to buy what you're selling. But that group first has to need or want - or you need to convince them they need or want - what you have to offer. So, as important as Manny is in this entire situation, the Los Angeles/Dodger Nation baseball marketplace is just as important. I'm no expert on Southern California culture, and I'm not trying to label Dodger Nation in any way, but from everything I've read Dodger Nation - for whatever reason - is still buying what the team is selling. Plain and simple. There's still a marketplace for the team, for Manny and for the campaign efforts the team has put forth. And no matter where you land on the right or wrong of the ethics/values involved with the situation, this truth validates the team's strategy.
  • Maybe this is a sign that we've reached a critical tipping point or new stage in the public's process of dealing with the Steroid Era. I think the public could very well be so burnt out on the bad news that they just don't care anymore; just like the grief process has stages, maybe the public has gone from anger and/or denial to acceptance, and fans are choosing to move on and focus again on the game itself. Let's face it: no one is shocked anymore about players testing positive for PEDs. And Americans love baseball. There hasn't been a scandal in the game's history that has kept fans away for the long-term. Even nowadays, fans are turning out in record numbers league-wide. It seems the Dodgers have recognized this, and are simply moving on along with their fans. This doesn't mean everyone's ignored what Manny did - they just aren't dwelling on it.
No matter what you think about the right vs. wrong of the situation, Dodger Nation continues to buy into the larger Mannywood concept. And the Dodgers in turn are continuing to feed the beast, using their assets (including Manny) to enable their audiences to buy what they want. After all, that's what successful marketers do, isn't it?

That's all for now. I'm out like the Vancouver Canucks and Atlanta Hawks.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Brett Favre to the Vikings?

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we always sweep our first round playoff series.

Every hour and day that passes, it seems more and more likely that Brett Favre will become a Viking. I know Favre plays this retirement game every year, and there's absolutely no guarantee of anything, but all signs and logic point to Favre wearing Purple this season. I can't tell you how excited I am about this.

Yes, I am a lifelong, die-hard Viking fan, so adding a first-ballot Hall of Famer (no matter how washed up) to a QB-needy franchise is exciting enough. But I'll take off my helmet, horns, braids and the Moss jersey I bought the day after the 1999 Falcon debacle to tell you why else I think this is a great move for my hometown team:
  • Tickets. If you're just joining us, the NFL is big business. And the Vikings, for the first time in a long time, are in serious danger of not selling out every game in the 2009 campaign. Consider that problem solved - and in no time flat - if Favre is signed. Plus, that nice new stadium Viking ownership wants to build might actually stand a chance of getting done if people were more interested in the franchise.
  • Television. The Vikings not only would feature the best storyline in the NFL, with Favre returning to the NFC North, but also would feature a roster including Favre, Adrian Peterson, Bernard Berrian, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, the Williams Wall, etc. The combination of that much drama and talent adds up to a lot of "featured game" national television time - and more revenue and general interest for the team.
  • Talent. Brett Favre, despite his age and all his supposed injury baggage, would go into training camp as the clear starter...he's surely better than Tarvaris and Sage. Favre would no doubt help Tarvaris and Sage develop and learn, no matter what roles they play in the future. And the Vikings would almost assuredly go into the season as the odds-on favorite to win the NFC and play in the Super Bowl.
  • Rivalry. The Vikings/Packers is far and away the best rivalry in the Upper Midwest in any sport, and easily one of the best in the NFL. Trash talk flies, practical jokes occur and passions run high all year round. And there are no prouder fans in the NFL than Packer fans. So imagine the best and most revered player in the history of the Packers, a guy who Packer fans absolutely went mental over for so many years, going to their archrival - and then leading them to success. It would be a seminal moment in the long, storied history of this rivalry, and take that passion and excitement to a whole new level. Plus, Packer fans have always seemed to have a good comeback for every brag point or jab that Viking fans throw at them. Favre, to the Vikings? It would be the ultimate all-time zinger to Packer Nation, one for which there can be no comeback. Viking fans are collectively licking their chops right now.

If the Vikings' front office has any sense, they'll sign Favre sooner than later, let their fan base absorb the news and get excited all summer long, let Favre get comfortable on the team and with the offense, and then sit back and watch the wins pile up in the fall. Worst case scenario, the Vikings would be more relevant and fun to watch than ever before. Good times indeed.

I'm out like anyone hitting against Zach Greinke.