NFL Should Look Within To Expand Fan Base

Nike signing Jets QB Mark Sanchez to a 4-year deal is only be a footnote this week, but years down the road it may become a seminal moment in NFL marketing, the first deal for someone that could become its most marketable player. The teams threw the league a bone with this one, putting a star QB of Hispanic decent with a polished personality, good looks, and on field potential into the biggest market in the country, on a team about to move into a world class stadium. All the stars are aligned.

It was obvious to everyone in sports that Sanchez holds tremendous marketing potential from the day he left USC because of his heritage and pedigree, and that potential only increased when you add NY to the mix. However, this opportunity transcends any one athlete. It’s represents a chance for the NFL to penetrate an entirely new demographic. One the league has struggled to gain traction with, and thus far the one battle it’s lost with soccer.

The Hispanic population is the fastest growing of any ethnic group in the US, and they will represent a significant portion of the growth in spending power over the next few decades. Saying the NFL needs more Hispanic fans to remain the number one sport for the next half century may not be an overstatement.

Though the NFL already commits community and youth initiatives to this effort, developing a more thorough strategy to market to Hispanics in the US would benefit the league more than its efforts to put a Super Bowl in London. Why bring the fight overseas to foreign soil, in a place where you can’t deliver consistent content when you still have not conquered the home land. In addition, the US Hispanics, the entire country of Mexico is a potential extended market, one that may be as interested as the country north of the border the NFL is so desperately trying to win over.

Of course, the chips need to fall into place on the field for Sanchez to become the face of the league, but if they do he will be the successor to Favre, Brady, and Manning as the NFL poster child. Instead of playing games in London, perhaps the NFL will decide to play games in LA again and just maybe a franchise will wind up there again. Sanchez could help make all this happen.

If the player succeeds, its up to his advisors and the league to shift its focus away from Europe and back to its growing its core fan base in the US.

NBA Draft Picks Should Temper Marketing Expectations

The Washington Post reports Ty Lawson is preparing to embark on a marketing program to generate awareness and eventually lead to sponsorship deals. It actually sounds as though Lawson and his team have put together a thorough, well thought out personal marketing plan for the former UNC point guard that involves a logo, social network strategy, a blog, and what amounts to a brand message – speed.

It all sounds great, until you realize Lawson is projected to go in the second half of the first-round, likely pick 15 or higher. He was not the most noteworthy player on his college team, and he is unlikely to start next year for the team that lands him. His chances for any significant endorsements, outside of the standard shoe deal, are highly unlikely.

College players with big aspirations for off the court dollars need a reality check when they enter the league. Only major superstars are individually marketable. Many All-Stars don’t have significant endorsement deals. Remember any noteworthy commercials starring Chauncey Billups recently or Chris Bosh. Pau Gasol, Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen ? And these are all among the highest paid players in the look, the most talked about players in the league, and for the most part play on high-profile teams. They make their money on the court, not off it.

Most rookies will get shoe deals, though likely at lower prices than in recent years. Otherwise, given the lack of depth in this year’s draft, Blake Griffin may be the only rookie to snag non-endemic deals, already associated with Subway and EA Sports. Ricky Rubio has a uniqueness about him – his look, his heritage, and the hype – that differentiates him from the field and it could help land a deal. Stephen Curry has a similar aura surrounding him, but few other players have the immediate playing potential or infectious personality to move the needle for a brand.

Add in the additional scrutiny any sponsorship deal faces during this recession and era of TARP funds, and the player needs to be that much more of a sure fire bet to even get a look. Should a company who risks scrutiny for any endorsement deal, choose an individual – always riskier than a team or league – without untested playing ability, low public awareness, and unproven public image. Sounds risky.

Lawson’s game does have flash and he should continue to create his brand, leverage social networks, generate awareness, get involved with the community, and display his personality. If done right, it can only help. His advisors should focus on local products in the market that drafts him, his hometown, and in North Carolina, where he starred in basketball. They know him well there, and its an easier sell given his relative fame in the local areas. Use that as a building block for bigger and better in the future.

Meantime, if Lawson wants to earn marketing dollars his primary focus should be on his game. Nothing can raise awareness more than performing well on the big stage.

Bills Toronto Deal Makes Sense Despite Preseason Problem

If this was any other sport, the Bills would already be playing in another city in a new stadium, or finish near last place each year. The best revenue sharing deal of the four major leagues keeps teams like Buffalo financially afloat, while preventing a Pittsburgh Pirates or Kansas City Royals situation. However, in a bad economy, a small city especially hit hard by the recession, Buffalo ownership and the NFL made the right move partnering with Toronto.

Buffalo fans are angry and worried about losing the team. Luke Russert wrote an inspiring piece in ESPN magazine that demonstrates the passion of Buffalo fans. His ideas are creative, but unlikely. Remember there are 29 other owners that probably don’t care for that type of risk.

On the other hand, the CFL is concerned about an NFL invasion. They have cause for concern. The CFL is a minor league compared to the NFL. If Toronto wants the NFL, if the fans would rather watch the NFL than the CFL and prove that in the box office, that’s the CFL’s problem. Instead of trying to protect their ground, the league should propose to partner with the NFL. Perhaps an opportunity exists to become the training ground NFL Europe never became, or the minor leagues the NFL lacks. Bottom line competition benefits the consumers and the product. If the CFL is worried about the NFL instead of complaining improve the product and make it more appealing than the NFL. It’s possible without changing the personnel on the field, look at the success of minor league baseball.

Critics point to the lack of ticket sales for the initial preseason game as a sign the deal may fail. Preseason games are preseason games for a reason. When the Meadowlands is half empty for a Jet or Giant preseason game does anyone worry about having a sell-out on opening day? Of course not. Who wants to pay an exorbitant fee to see the stars play one quarter and a glorified tryout for three quarters? Especially with the high prics Rogers charged in Toronto the preseason game did not sell out. The Bills added preseason games into the deal to save money, just like teams force fans to buy preseason tickets if they want regular season tickets. Either way, Buffalo gets its money no matter how the tickets sell.

Almost $80M over five years catapults Buffalo into new revenue territory. They risked alienating fans and potentially damaging the brand value locally, however fans forgive teams. Similar to when teams raise ticket prices or move season ticket holders to bad seats in the playoffs or eliminate parking spots, eventually the new way becomes status quo. Fans will grow accustomed to one game in Toronto. When Buffalo uses their new revenue infusion to sign a big free agent, fans will really love Toronto.

The deal is risky for Rogers, who brings the sport to unchartered territory. How many Bills fans are in the Toronto area and just how much do Canadiens love the NFL? Interesting questions, yet to be answered. Rogers is relying on tremendous fan interest to pay ridiculously high ticket prices to make the deal financially worthwhile. That business model remains questionable, especially in years 3-5 when the game is no longer a novelty. If Buffalo is not competitive will fans turn out at those prices?

Buffalo fans should rejoice because this deal may prevent the franchise from moving. Who cares about losing preseason games? Watching a Bills home game on television may sting a bit, but realize it makes the other seven games possible. In addition to the fee from Rogers, Buffalo also opens the door for countless new sponsors for the Toronto series, a new line of merchandise and logo to sell, additional media exposure, and potentially new fans. The team needs to present the issue to fans as a positive to preserve loyalty and be smart about how the Toronto games are handled – make it an enjoyable experience for the fans, make it feel like any other pro football game, while staying true to their Buffalo roots.

Favre Pushing the Limits of Overconsumption

Will he play or stay retired? Will Favre report to Green Bay or wait out a trade? He’s flying on his private jet from Mississippi. Wait, no, he’s go back home. For weeks the American public was inundated with Brett Favre news, even when there was none. ESPN staked out Packers camp just to say we’re here waiting for Favre. Then the bally-hooed trade to the Jets, which made things even bigger because, well everything in NY is bigger. Now his every move and every word leads the sports news. When is enough enough?

Actually, it might be too much already. While awareness of who Favre is jumped this summer (according to the Davey Brown Index), his trust and endorsement power took a hit. Favre put himself in the middle of a controversy. It’s disguised because they were no arrests or late night incidents, but it was a full blown controversy. Fans take sides, and many felt Favre was wrong in how he retracted his retirement and tried to force the Packers hand.

Further, Favre is testing the limits of overexposure. At some point public awareness reaches the point of diminishing returns. America had Favre shoved down their throats for weeks. It took weeks for the snail-like story to unfold, so many days he was the news because of no news. At what point do people get sick of him and tune out? Favre put himself into choppy waters. Sure, his Jets jersey set records for single day sales. Chalk that up to the NY factor, and a team with passionate fans desperate for a winner and a superstar. If any other NFL MVP was traded to the Jets, fans would buy that jersey at the same rate. The Jets have not had a superstar for years and are looking for someone to latch onto.

Living in NYC, it’s hard to take the pulse of the rest of the country, but will anyone in LA or Chicago care in October when the Jets are 3-3 playing in mid-October? CBS plans to continue the overexposure and put Favre’s Jets on at every opportunity possible. The story can go two ways from here: Favre plays great, the team makes a surprising run, plays competitively every week, and all hail Favre the savior; or Favre plays average, the team flops, and the fans turn on him quick. Think those Jet fans bought his jersey fast, watch how long it takes to boo him off the field after 4 interceptions against New England. The public will be left with the image of an aging player who didn’t respect the game and got what he deserves, not the star player who made one last run in Green Bay last season.

CNBC’s Darren Rovell reports his marketing clout took a hit because of his indecisiveness and unreliable comments. We’ll monitor his sponsorships as the season approaches and plays hit. If Favre wants to cash in, now is the time. He’s still a hero in NY without taking a snap. The TV and radio appearance deals are certainly on the table, and any Jet sponsor would love to use Favre as the front man. Meanwhile, back in Green Bay local TV should take advantage of the Favre love affair and get his face on the screen whenever possible. If Aaron Rodgers falters, the affection for Favre in Green Bay will multiply. He’s still a valuable commodity in that market, and will only get bigger if the team struggles.

Favre will serve as an interesting case study on where the line is for too much exposure. Marketing firms walk the fine line with their stars, and the news coverage, much of which Favre brought upon himself, was clearly too much. The best way to measure the impact is the fan reaction he receives on the road, the national ratings Jet games receive, and how many marketing opportunities come his way.

Nets Continue Innovative Marketing at Izod Center

Arguably the worst professional sports arena today, the Izod Center at the New Jersey Meadowlands, continues to lure sponsors with creative sponsorship packages from NJ Nets Sports and Entertainment. Brett Yormark, marketing wiz of the New Jersey Nets, who secured a post-season sponsor for a team that failed to make the playoffs, now introduces highway signage to his latest marketing deal.

In signing Vonage as the first legacy partner for the Izod Center, the deal includes highway advertising on two prominent routes leading to the Meadowlands complex. Nets Sports and Entertainment teamed with NJ Sports and Expo Authority on the deal. Legacy partners essentially have control of a concourse in the arena, in addition to heavy signage around the arena.

It’s the latest creative in a series of creative contracts arhitected by Yormark, who somehow manages to sell against an outdated arena that can’t draw fans and is on the brink of extinction if the Nets execute their planned move to Brooklyn, and with a team that operates in the background, a distant second to the Knicks even with all the problems they have had.

Highway signage is an interesting value add for potential sponsors, extending the sponsorship outside the stadium. Companies get exposure everyday and from potential customers that may not attend games. It’s a great bargaining tool for a team, since it extends the sponsorship into a high traffic area, not just a sports arena. Further, it integrates more parties into the marketing play, the NJSEA in this case. Another scenario would include local merchants within a certain radius of the arena, or colloborating with local transit for signage on buses and trains that passengers take to the arena.

Besides sweetening the marketing deal for all parties involved, outdoor advertising, particularly alternative outdoor advertising (digital, for example) is a growing business with innovation and growing revenues. The team could also try for a power-play by involving local TV and radio partners in sponsorship contracts to make the total value of the deal even bigger. Other teams should follow the Nets lead in marketing, especially smaller markets with less to work with. Somehow, though, the team continues to bleed, losing over $40 M last year. Imagine if they didn’t have almost every inch of the Izod Center sponsored.

A More Effective Ticket Promotion Than Giveaways

Research shows that not even new ballparks can sell tickets after a year or two if team’s don’t perform. Winning sells tickets, which makes the marketing and ticket sales jobs at the Pirates, Royals, Reds, and other perennial non-playoff contenders, among the most difficult in sports. Filling up Yankee Stadium in its final season with a World Series contender on the field is one thing, drawing 40,000 for a mid-August game at PNC Park when the Pirates are 15 games out of first is another story.

Earlier this season I read an article that Pittsburgh had scheduled over 70 promotion nights this season. ALmost every night for the enitre season the Pirates gave something away. Sports Business Journal reports that 111 cap days are scheduled across all MLB teams this season, 95 shirt giveaways, and 94 bobblehead nights at the stadium. Checking the attendance, we find no outliers in the winning is the only predictor for ticket sales theory, so are these giveaways worth it?

The short answer, no. At least not this many. If teams giveaway items a few times a week it devalues the effect of a promotional night, a simple supply and demand concept – saturate the market with product and demand will decrease because consumers can get the product whenever they want. Translate, more promotional nights removes the fan urgency to attend Cap Day or Bat Night because any time they show up its likely to be fill in the blank night. Besides the over saturation, the more giveaways, the more likely the giveaways become cheaper and less valuable to the fans. SBJ references “Jar Gripper Night” at Yankee Stadium, sure to have the throngs running.

While teams have become creative and thoughtful, using gas and concession promotions to provide value for the customer, more teams should institute frequent buyer programs. Baseball games might not compare to selling coffee, but ticket departments can take that get 10th coffee free concept and apply it to games. If implemented successfully, the concept will bring more repeat customers, and build loyalty that one-time promotions fail to do.

Each buyer create an account online with the team, which they use to make purchases. Each ticket purchase credits their account with points. When the account reaches a certain point value fans can redeem the points for tickets. Teams can apply the usual game and seat location restrictions, but the program works like a frequent flyer program. Throw in an added-twist, assign different point values to different games. Coming to a game against the the Mariners is worth more points than a Yankees or Red Sox game since those teams will draw big crowds anyway. Build in the incentives to see the lesser teams by giving the customer value.

Taken a step further, following the frequent flyer model, allow fans to redeem points for other non-ticket prizes. One idea is to hold an after-season camp for kids and a dinner with the players for fans of all ages. Assign point values to each prize. Sell any remaining tickets after the season.

On the concession side, values meals are the current trend. For teams with a digital or wireless POP system, where users have accounts, give discounts out after purchases. Credit the account with coupons for each game they reach a pre-set spending level.

Finally, cut back the promotional giveaways. Revert to the days when Bat Day was special. Fans don’t need to open their own Bobblehead museums, one a year, or a small series of at most three, is sufficient. Use the giveaways to appeal more to the kids, while creating value that adults and families can appreciate. Better value will lead to repeat customers. As teams move to fully digital systems, it opens the door for more cross-promotions with sponsors, such as gas vendors and retail outlets, because its easier to track than handing out paper vouchers.

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.