NBA Superstars Talk Euroleague, Send Message To Stern

Josh Childress is one thing, LeBron James is a completely different story. Following Childress’ unprecedented move for an American player in his prime years signing to play in Europe, James and fellow current NBA royalty Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony openly welcomed the possibility of playing in Europe when they become free agents.

All three players were quoted saying it would be difficult to turn down a salary as high as $50 million per season. Hint to David Stern, that’s obviously a league with no salary cap. Realistically, take the comments for what they’re worth. It’s unlikely to see a mega NBA star walk to Europe in his prime, leaving the endorsements, the life, and the chance for a championship. But, in no uncertain terms, the players sound prepared to fight for removing the maximum salary.

Whether James and Kobe speak in jest or not, Commissioner Stern can’t be happy. His two biggest meal tickets for the next decade overtly speaking out against the league during the Olympics, with the whole world listening. Second, the league can interpre the comments as a threat to remove the maximum player salary and team salary cap in the next CBA or face potential consequences. Responding to the Childress situation was easy, this response requires thought, but Stern must respond in some way. Since most of these players spoke about going to Europe in the future, expect the issue to blow into the background when the season starts. However, it’s not going away, and has the potential to become a big story as 2010 approaches.

James remarked how playing in Europe would transform Lebron into a global brand. AN interesting question, how valuable as an endorser is an NBA star playing in Europe? It’s a win-loss situation. Global companies and sponsors local to the area will salivate, while US companies unable to exploit the athlete to the same level nationally may step back. Superstars are superstars, but how valuable is Kobe if he plays and lives in Italy all season. His Q-rating in the country will likely decrease by virtue of the cameras not being on him day in and day out. Sponsors would lose the high recognition rate and association with players that are not playing domestically. In the end it might be a wash, Lebron and Kobe could conquer Europe, but take a step back in the US.

On the court, the NBA clearly needs James and Bryant more than they need the league. Basketball has always been a star-driven game, more so than any other major sport. Losing either of the two would be a serious blow in popularity and revenue. It also could start a mass exodus. If they can do it, why can’t others. On the other hand, removing the salary cap or maximum salary has numerous other ramifications. Either way, Europe is now a serious NBA competitor. If the NBA takes care of its stars, the large middle class of the league, like Childress, stand to earn substantially more in Europe than here, while if the league dismisses its superstars threats, Euroleague can make someone an offer they can’t refuse.

Stern needs to play his cards right. He has time, but should not try to avoid it. Meantime, many fans and players will keep an eye on Childress throughout the season to see how the experiment goes.

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Criticism of Nike Unjustified

Nike responded to public outcry about homophobic undertones in its recent ad campaign for Hyperdunk shoe, by pulling a series of ads posted around New York that show a player’s head between a dunker’s legs as he leaps over the player with the new Nike shoes. It’s the latest episode in an overly public correct world.

No matter if its gay rights, womens rights, or any other rights, I’m in favor of exercising them when appropriate, not in this matter. Wieden and Kennedy, the ad firm, and Nike, clearly had no intention of making light of homophobia in sports. The message was how these shoes can make your opponent look silly while you leap over them, or outrebound them, as other ads in the campaign showed. Attacking innocent parties is not the way to defend your rights and build credibility.

Typically, Nike would deserve criticism for pushing the envelope enough for societal questions to even come up, but they don’t deserve fault in this case. When you heard Imus’ comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team last, his defamation was clear. When I saw this Nike ad, infringing on gay rights did not immediately come to mind, though I did cringe because it does look awkward.

Could and should Nike do a better job, yes. Even if undeserved, the publicity is never good. Pulling ads early never looks good. I commend them for acting quickly to defuse the situation, minimizing the public outcry. In the future, Nike, and any companies, are advised to avoid anything that is borderline controversial. But haven’t they already received enough warnings, yet it still keeps happening. Because it’s not blatant, perhaps gay rights organizations could have approached Nike in a more direct, less public manner to advise about the ad, and allow Nike to react before creating a media blitz.

By walking the line of political correctness, whether they planned to or not, Nike drew buzz for the new sneaker. By defusing the controversy before it snow balled, most of the public is now just left with the sneaker on their mind. WIll it translate to sales? Remains to be seen.

WNBA Outdoor Game: A Missed Opportunity

When the WNBA planned an outdoor game, only days after the NBA solidified an outdoor game for their pre-season, the league had big exposure and big sponsorship dollars on its mind. Staging these events is part of marketing the league – build brand awareness, generate revenue. Did you even know the game was held yesterday?

Hosted on the biggest stage in the world, New York City, the game between the New York Liberty and Indiana Fever failed to generate any buzz. I live in New York and did not see one promotion in recent weeks, not reminded of the game until the last day or two before they played.

A special event needs national television exposure. League broadcast partners ABC and ESPN did not cover the event because they held it on a day no part of their weekly WNBA coverage cycle. The league needed this game on national television with an ad campaign leading in. Outdoor professional basketball is unique. It appeals to all the kids who grow up playing in the school yards around the country. Instead, ESPN will play the usual Tuesday and Thursday night games on ESPN 2. With a little effort one of three accomodations should have taken place: ABC accomodate an evening start time (maybe 6 PM) on Saturday, ESPN move off its WNBA cycle to televise the Saturday night game, or the league move the game to a weeknight for ESPN exposure.

New York’s big stage actually had the reverse effect on the WNBA event. Because so many events happen here, the Liberty game was swept under the rug thanks to the lingering All-Star game effect, and the Yanks and Mets. On the national landscape the sports headlines are never barren – Favre, British Open, baseball’s second half, a NASCAR event, NBA free agency – it all pushed the WNBA to the background, a place the league has lived since inception.

Overall, the league missed an opportunity to grab new fans. It was buried locally and nationally. Outside of grassroots outreach achieved through a fanfest and local basketball players (David Lee, Allan Houston) helping get tickets to kids in the area, this event failed its marketing mission. I can’t name one sponsor. Despite announced attendance of over 19,000, an overhead shot unveiled thousands of empty seats, potentially as much as 40% of Arthur Ashe Stadium. It also failed to capitalize on playing at a historic place in women’s sports history – Billie Jean King Tennis Center.

Gaffes like this will prevent the upstart league from ever reaching its goal.

Poor Timing for IU

Scout.com reports that Indiana University reached an eight year extension with adidas for $21M to remain the official outfitter for all teams and coaches at the school. At $2.6M per year, the contract is an annual increase of $500k over the previous four year deal.

While lucrative, the deal comes on the heels of the Kelvin Sampson scandal, which is still sure to garner negative attention when the NCAA convenes in June, or if Sampson makes headline by accepting an NCAA job. Tom Crean takes over a decimated roster, losing its two star players, and multiple other contributors to graduation, the NBA, transfer, and discipline. With the school’s most valuable athletic asset reeling, destined for at least a year or two of rebuilding, how much, if anything, did that cost IU at the negotiating table?

Michigan garnered about $8M per year, if you include its signing bonus, Notre Dame rakes in $6M per year from adidas. IU is considered one of college basketball’s crown jewels because of its rich history, but its recent struggles on the court and controversies with each of its last two coaches have tainted the program, knocking it down in popularity and national prominence. Instead of basketball’s version of Notre Dame, a great name struggling on the field, Indiana’s contract closely matches Nebraska, a former powerhouse struggling on and off the field. Ironically, both schools bring new coaches, and renewed hope to their cornerstone programs this year. Unfortunately, it will not recover the few million Indiana may have left at the table.

Advertisers Follow Viewers to the Web

Friday the Washington Post reports earned $4.83 in advertising per online viewer for the recently completed NCAA basketball tournament, compared to $4.12 for each television viewer during the tournament. This  revelation should calm broadcasters who have struggled with putting their most valuable television properties online, either live or in close proximity to debuting on the tube (for sitcoms), in fear of cannibalizing the viewership without receiving equal value.

By no means has digital usurped traditional media in the revenue department, the extra 71 cents per viewer not compensating for 132 million to 4.8 million advantage television owned in viewership. It signals the start of a trend. Networks and advertisers finally are starting to get it – digital media has a market, a potentially valuable one at that.

Time-shifting technology has rendered television advertising less valuable in the past few years. More viewers prefer to use a DVR to fast-forward through commercials, than watch an event live. Online advertising is one option to guarantee your message reaches the viewer. Many video applications, Hulu and Joost for example, build commercials into the shows that viewers can’t skip, a particularly valuable tool for advertisers that grab the promotional spot before the show starts.

Television suffers from “one and done” syndrome. Once a commercial airs, its over with, you reached who your going to reach for that spot. Digital thrives in on-demand video and archived video. So an advertisement lives beyond the moment, each time a user calls up that video they see the ad. It may not reach as many viewers on aggregate, but has a longer lasting effect.

Advertising online also has more reach than television. The Internet has no boundaries. Users could send links to friends in other parts of the country, younger and older, even overseas. International exposure is an interesting concept to watch for broadcasters and advertisers alike – a new, expanded market previously unreachable.

Networks need to lead the way, advertisers will follow. Consumers are out there waiting for you.