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.

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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.

Inject Interest Back Into The Derby: Integrate Community and Sponsors

News circulated late this week that batches of empty seats remain on sale for Monday’s Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, despite baseball stating that the event is sold out. Especially with the ultra-inflated prices of this year’s All-Star week festivities, why would 55,000 people want to buy through the roof to watch a handful of players the casual fan needs an introduction to.

Star players shun the Derby, of the 7 confirmed participants only two are repeat All-Stars. What happened to the days when the stars came out, Junior Griffey off the warehouse in Baltimore, McGwire bombing away at Fenway, Bonds with his walk-off win, Giambi back in his hay day. All memorable moments. ESPN says its the highest rated event of the year outside football season. Ratings aside, the event needs fresh blood or it’s at risk of hitting a downslide.

State Farm currently sponsors the entire event, however with 8 individual players hitting, additional marketing and sponsorship opportunities exist. One idea that may entice more players to participate is allow them to play for their chosen charities. Most players already work with a charity or run a foundation, the opportunity to publicize their message and earn corporate dollars could bring more stars to the table.

Taken a step further, get a sponsor for each player. Talk about valuable marketing. The five or ten minutes that a player bats, then gets interviewed, is valuable advertising time. SInce most players already have marketing deals, using one of their pre-existing sponsors would make the most sense, and an arrangement must be made with State Farm to not infringe on their sponsorship of the event.

Tying the two ideas together, the sponsor for each player can donate a set amount of money per homerun to the selected charity or foundation. Another twist on this is to select a team from 8 local Little Leagues to be on the field, each supporting one of the players. That player could play for the Little League supporting him. A great community outreach opportunity. Baseball can’t provide on-field incentives for home run derby, as they do for the actual game to entice players to play hard, however a few other ideas could help generate interest.

My mantra with sports is always interactivity. Fantasy games are everywhere else, why not integrate the in-stadium and home viewers with the event. Start fantasy homerun derby game, pick the winners, pick a team with the most home runs given a set salary cap (obviously each player will have a fictious salary number attached based on home run prowess). Play against your friends, play against all fans, or play against other All-Stars not participating. They always sit on the field and cheer for fellow All-Stars, have them involved online with the fans. Perhaps even a live blog by a player sitting on the field.

A lottery promotion could be interesting. Fans submit a set of numbers as their guess for either the home runs by round of the champion, or total home runs hit in each round, or most home runs hit by an individual in each round, possibilities are countless. Of the winners, pick a grand prize winner to get a signed bat from the champion and a promotional gift from one of the sponsors.

Home run derby needs an infusion of energy. While it’s great to introduce Evan Longoria and Ryna Braun to the world, the fans want to see A-Rod go head to head with Pujols, get Ryan Howard against Prince Fielder in a heavyweight battle – that brings up another point, throw out the rule that only All-Stars can participate. If the big names don’t want in, open it up to the best home run hitters period. Fielder and Howard are names that draw interest.

Now that I think of it, one-on-one matches, like the old school home run derby show from the ’50’s and ’60’s would add spice to the event. Set it up tournament-style, AL players face off against each other, NL players likewise, then winner of each league in the Derby Series. It opens a whole new world of outside interest. Heck, Vegas can even put a line on each matchup – not that gambling spurs any interest.

Nets Trade Opens Doors

When New Jersey acquired Yi Jianlian from Milwaukee (with Bobby Simmons) for franchise stalwart Richard Jefferson last week, the trade achieved a lot more than clear up cap space for the Lebron chase in 2010. Yi becomes the first Chinese born NBA player in the heavily Chinese populated New York City area. If Yi can deliver on the court the Nets have opened up a new “world” of business opportunities.

A team that has long struggled to sell tickets, even with playoff caliber teams, in the dark, dank, Izod Center now has an entirely new demographic to tap into. As proven by Yao, Matsui, and other prominent Asian athletes playing in major American leagues, locals of the same nationality will flock to see their fellow countryman. The Nets may also benefit from the wave of momentum built by the Olympics, where Yi will not only play but which will be held in his native China.

Along with increased attendance, the Nets have an opportunity to increase sales of corporate suites by tapping on Chinese-owned companies with New York offices. An opportunity to entertain businessmen traveling from China – the perfect selling point.

Never at a loss for marketing creativity, Brett Yorkmark, who seems to have every piece of the Izod Center and ever possible event sponsored, now has a major asset to market to a new clientele. Expect Yorkmark to leverage Yi’s presence to add major Chinese corporations into the Barclay’s Center sponsorship portfolio, quickly becoming one of the most internationally oriented sports buildings in North America.

Indirectly the Nets just added over 1 billion potential viewers without signing a TV contract. With the unprecedented exposure in China that Yi’s presence will bring, Nets mercandise sales and sponsorships in China will soar. Case in point, last year the highest selling NBA jersey in China: Tracy McGrady, Yao’s teammate. Vince Carter, Devin Harris, Brook Lopez – Hello, World!

Merchandise should pick up steam closer to home, both due to Yi’s popularity among Chinese-Americans, and the increased exposure the Nets will receive within the basketball community. Sponsorships, marketing opportunities (local and abroad), ticket sales, merchandise sales – the Nets and their players have an opportunity to significantly jolt revenue…and maybe even improve on the court.

China is clearly one of the NBA’s top initiatives. In recent years, the league hired a top executive to run NBA China and is partnering with AEG to build 12 new arenas in China. Now the Nets are deftly positioned to capitalize as the league expands the game within the world’s most populated country. When partnership opportunities arise with Chinese businesses, or a chance to play an exhibition game in the country, with Yi on the roster the Nets move to the front of the list – not a bad place to be with the potential revenue at stake.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, one small prerequisite exists. Yi needs to become a star. Averaging eight points a game coming off the bench will not cut it, he needs to elevate his game, become an All-Star. If not, he’ll go the way of Wang Zhizhi, the bally-hooed Chinese star who became the first Chinese player in the NBA. He never lived up to the hype, became an NBA journeyman, and disappeared into oblivion, never capitalizing on his on-court or off-court potential. In the next two or three seasons Yi will either go the way of Yao and star in commercials, or the way of Zhizhi and disappear. The Nets will be right there riding his coattails.

On-Field Sponsorships Not The Answer For Major Sports

Four years after Major League Baseball launched an ill-conceived plan with Paramount to promote the Spiderman movie by putting the movie logo on the three bases of each major league stadium for an entire that almost gave baseball purists a coronary before it was canceled, MLB found a new, creative way to integrate a sponsor. MLB teamed with Paramount to promote the upcoming Indiana Jones movie by putting a picture of Indiana Jones on May 22nd, the movie’s premiere date, of each team’s schedule on MLB.com. The promotion works on many levels, its creative, non-intrusive, and will draw eyeballs and get attention of the target demographic, who constantly check team schedules.

However, it raises the question on where to draw the line with sponsorships in sports. MLS allows teams to sell uniform space, the NHL tested virtual ads transposed on the ice during the playoffs, baseball stadium outfield walls, yet the public outcry when baseball even considered a logo on the bases was enormous. That promotion would have created a major backlash against both the league and the product.

In the constant quest for additional revenue, leagues, teams, and networks continue to push the envelope, each league brings different parameters to the table. MLS, and all the individual sports (golf, tennis, etc.) can get away with uniform ads, however, we are far from the day when fans will accept a Visa credit card ad on an NBA jersey, NFL uniform, or baseball uniform. Its a lucrative concept – DC United recently signed Volkswagen for 5 years, $14 million so imagine what real estate on the Lakers or Celtics uniform would yield. But it invades tradition, creating the potential negative backlash I mentioned earlier.

On field advertisements are different, I think basketball courts and football fields are already littered with enough graphics – be it the league or team logo, field name, or end zone design – that an advertisement on the hash marks is not a far reach. The NBA and NFL should carefully seek sponsorship deals for various parts of the field that have excessive exposure. Football teams could seek sponsors for goal posts or the padding under the posts and the play clock, while the NBA has the shot clock, the post holding the basket up, and the scorers table. From there, sponsorships can migrate onto the playing field without too many arguments. Basketball arenas are already testing technology systems that can display ads on the background during stoppages in play. Baseball is the only field still treated as sacred to this day, though the outfield walls and foul poles are already fair game.

Before moving to the field, sports entities should maximize in-game TV sponsorships. For instance, almost every sport leaves a basic score graphic up the entire game that includes the network’s logo, occasionally expanding it to show a stat, such as a basketball team’s shooting percentage, or a batter’s career against a certain pitcher. Network’s can replace their logo with a sponsor’s logo for a temporary amount of time, allowing them to sponsor this portion of the game. Or, rather than a pop-up that shows Derek Jeter has three home runs in his last ten at-bats, flash a small ad graphic each time Jeter gets up. Sell a sponsorship for his at-bats all season. On screen exposure during the most watched points of the game is invaluable to a sponsor.

These ideas only scrape the surface of what’s possible. It goes without saying networks must diligently avoid clutter, and be careful to make the ad’s too intrusive. The key is creativity and subtlety, or again that backlash and failure risk comes into play.

Putting my digital hat on for a second, more leeway exists in new media because the viewers it caters to are of the less traditional, younger demo, and because new media itself is less traditional. Content owners can leverage that opportunity to maximize revenue. Moving beyond the normal pre-roll and overlay advertising using in online video, arguably more effective than TV advertising because its time-shift proof, the surrounding screen that houses the embedded player can be sponsored. Add a social networking component to engage viewers during the game. Fans will debate that pitching move in the eighth inning somewhere, give them the forum to do it right online with everyone else watching the game. Fantasy games, product placement within broadband only telecasts, mobile, the list is endless for new sponsorship revenue opportunities, albeit none reaching the masses as traditional television does at this point.

Before one of the major sports cannibalizes the purity of the game by invading uniform space, or plastering logos on balls, many creative ways exist to generate additional revenue that are not currently used. Each sport has a different threshold that it can push without alienating fans and challenging the establishment. Uniform advertising is accepted in soccer because fans are accustomed to seeing it in Europe. Hockey may get away with it, the major league most in need of new revenue and attention, fans tolerate change more than in other sports. Football and basketball have to avoid the uniforms, but should investigate on-field advertising, with care to avoid clutter and overwhelming fans, while baseball needs to steer clear of the field altogether, outside of virtual signage. However, baseball has the most in stadium, off field sponsorship opportunities because of the unique nature of each stadium, and interactive fan opportunities it presents. Before broaching that topic teams and networks still have creative leeway with their telecasts.