Category Archives: sports business

Not So Great Expectations

The gasoline that keeps a good portion of the sports machine running is sponsorship. I’m using the gasoline analogy today because there has been a high profile sponsorship dispute going on in the world of auto racing and I think it’s instructive to any of us who sell or buy pretty much anything.

You’ve probably heard of Danica Patrick, NASCAR‘s only female driver in its top-level series, The Monster Energy Cup. She drives for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), who sold the rights to sponsor her car in 2016 for several years. Somewhere along the line things went south and Nature’s Bakery terminated what was a three-year deal after the first year, claiming that SHR “did nothing other than collect Nature Bakery’s money”. An additional issue was that Danica personally endorsed a competing product (albeit one with no visibility on the car or around the races). SHR sued to recover the agreed-upon payments. As it turns out, Nature’s Bakery will sponsor four cars during this season, split between SHR’s drivers, as part of a settlement.

I spent a lot of years selling sports sponsorships and I know first-hand how hard it is sometimes not to over promise in your zealous pursuit of the sale. In this case,  Nature’s Bakery was told to expect a 4-to-1 return on investment. The reality was there was no significant increase in sales. That could have been due to any number of reasons, including some that had to do with logistics and not with awareness, but it points to a core issue.

When you’re selling anything, setting expectations and agreeing on how performance is going to be measured is key. In this case, many of the measures of awareness did rise significantly, but if the client’s goal was sales then the buyer and seller seem misaligned. Keeping expectations of both parties on the same page and in alignment must be the goal of all parties, and the documents shouldn’t be signed until that goal is reached.

There also seems to be some inexperience in sports sponsorship at work here. A team that has Coke as a sponsor might very well have athletes who endorse Pepsi. An arena with Mastercard as a building sponsor might see an athlete who plays in that building in an American Express commercial. Danica is one of NASCAR’s most visible drivers and her personal endorsements should have been identified to the buyers (even though anyone could find them easily on her personal website). Always remember that a good seller sits on the same side of the desk (figuratively speaking) as their buyer since you’re both trying to accomplish the same thing.

Aligned expectations, appropriate measures of reaching goals, and transparency are how sports sponsorships (and others too!) get done and stay on track. You with me?

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Is The End Near For Sports?

I know you might be thinking that my headline is just some outrageous form of click bait and that I can’t seriously think that big time professional sports are heading down the same path as traditional big media. Let me throw a few recent articles at you and maybe you’ll come to a different conclusion (which I do hope you’ll post in the comments).

The sports business is based on a few large revenue streams. One is income from the games themselves: ticket sales, concessions, merchandise, etc. What makes many of those things possible is a nice facility – an arena or stadium. We’ve seen franchises move (and piss off their fans) over the stadium issue, sometimes even before the bonds on the last stadium built for the team are paid off. I urge you to watch the John Oliver piece on the relationship between teams and towns but here is why I suddenly think there is an issue. As reported by Mondaq:

bill has been introduced that would eliminate the availability of federal tax-exempt bonds for stadium financing… The bill would amend the Internal Revenue Code to treat bonds used to finance a “professional sports stadium” as automatically meeting the “private security or payment” test, thus rendering any such bonds taxable irrespective of the source of payment.

In other words, it will make public spending on a private facility way more difficult. That will lead to fewer new facilities and a much harder path to growing that revenue stream. Strike 1.

Then there is the largest revenue stream for most big leagues: TV. Kagen recently reported that the U.S.pay-TV industry will lose 10.8 million subscribers through 2021, according to their latest forecast. You might already know that ESPN has been losing subscribers – May 2017 estimates were 3.3% lower than the year before. For every million subs lost, ESPN takes in roughly $7.75 million less PER MONTH – or $93 million a year, and they have already lost multiple millions of subscribers. Yes, some are being replaced via the sale of OTT services, but that requires spending to sign customers, something ESPN hasn’t had to do before. The same subscriber loss issue is true of every other sports network albeit to a lesser degree since their monthly fees are less than ESPN’s. Smaller subscriber fees mean a diminished ability to pay those large rights fees. Sure, other channels (some would say suckers) will step up – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. But my guess is that the outrageous increases many entities have secured over the last few rights cycles are gone for good. Strike 2.

Finally, costs are not going to go down, at least not without major disruptions such as the two recent NHL lockouts. Players aren’t going to make less (the downside of the salary cap), team personnel probably won’t, at least not without a lot of turnover, and many of the other costs are either already low (minimum wages) or difficult to cut (food costs in the concessions, etc.).  In an effort to mitigate some of the lower revenue and growing costs, some of the entities involved in sports are beginning to do what the airlines have done and make what was once part of the deal (in-flight meals, free bag check) part of an a la carte menu to grow revenue. Specifically, look, for example, at what NBC has done with their Premier League package. They are doing away in part with their NBC Sports Live streaming coverage in favor of a new premium streaming service called “Premier League Pass” that will be in addition to the matches that are already broadcast on live TV. The stand-alone streaming service will cost $50 in addition to whatever you’re paying for your cable subscription. That will bring in more dough but it will also anger fans. Strike 3?

Don’t misunderstand me. I think interest in sports generally has never been higher, and I think any sports entity that doesn’t rely on a big TV contract and employs athletes as independent contractors (I’m looking at you, LPGA) will be in good shape. I just think there is a major disruption coming in the next few years as we’ve seen in the TV and music businesses. Watch out as the next cycle of TV deals begins and if this bill is passed. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, don’t you think?

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A Lesson From Junior

I’m a fan of NASCAR, specifically of its top tier, now called the Monster Cup Series. For my non-gearhead friends and readers, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, preferably in person (bring earplugs!).

      NASCAR.com

Some big news came out of the NASCAR world yesterday and it prompted a thought that is applicable to any of us in business. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring after this season. Only 42, he’s been NASCAR’s most popular driver ever since his dad died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 and leads an enormous fan base known as Junior Nation. Full disclosure: I’m a member. He’s really the spiritual leader and one of the last remnants of the NASCAR of old. As a USA Today article on his retirement stated:

A kid of means sent to work in an auto dealership by his father until he began racing, Earnhardt Jr. spoke the language of the fan, in a Carolina accent pleasing to the grassroots folks, was sponsored by a beer company and projected enough hell-raiser vibe to endear himself to the masses. A historian of the sport, he cited the exploits of Cale Yarborough or Richard Petty or Darrell Waltrip with a sharp recollection of fan and provided a generational and cultural bridge for NASCAR.

In other words, Junior isn’t corporate, is authentic, and because of that, is beloved. That’s really a lesson for any of us. Consumers adore personalities but only if they believe that what they’re seeing isn’t an act. Any of Junior’s interviews will show you that he’s real. His language is sometimes salty, often grammatically incorrect, and is definitely not the creation of some media trainer’s badgering. Consumers can tell when a brand is inauthentic just as any of us can see it in a person.

This is why I rant sometimes about engaging in conversations with and not in advertising to our consumers. It doesn’t mean boasting about how “real” you are but it does mean defining what your brand means and sticking to it. The definition should be expressed in the language of your consumer and be relevant to why they’d engage with you in the first place. It means participating in social interactions with your fans, not in demanding or leading them.

I guess I’ll need to figure out where my driver loyalty heads next. It seems that NASCAR needs to figure that out as well. As a long-time fan, I’ve watched them migrate from their Southern roots and identity to something much more vanilla, at least that’s how I see it. Junior is the last bastion of the old, authentic NASCAR. Wherever they go next, I hope it at least half as real as he is. Now ask yourself if you’re “being real” too.

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Set, Forget, Fail

You probably didn’t know that we take requests here on the screed. Today’s post is by request and is sort of a joint effort with my friend and former co-worker Russ. He and I are both fans of Michigan football and we ran into one another at the game in New Jersey last Saturday. “Game” may be an overstatement since Michigan blew out Rutgers 78-0. The first half of the game was played in the rain, making sitting through the one-sided contest even less appealing. Needless to say, the stadium was half empty after halftime (the student section was empty, as were most seats on the home side of the field). No, this isn’t a rant about fickle fans.

After the game, I’ll let Russ (well, Russ’ post on Facebook) explain what happened next:

I root for Rutgers when they’re not playing Michigan. I want the program to be good. But you can’t send this automated email with the game score and line score attached to a survey asking fans to rate their experience at a game you lost 78-0. You just can’t.

That’s the email, and Russ’ point is a very good one. Many marketing programs have become “set it and forget it.” I applaud the folks in the Rutgers athletics department for surveying fans to find out how to make the game experience worth every penny. But this comes across like the old joke about the evening at Ford’s theater: “So other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

We can never set and forget anything in business. As Russ so aptly posted in a comment: “I knew my buddies with e-marketing experience would understand how bad it was. “Our solution is fully automated!” Automation is great. You have to be able to defeat it with human sensibility when needed.” Exactly.

Had someone been paying attention the copy could have been modified to remind fans that winning (or losing) is just part of why fans attend sporting events. Sitting with friends and family, tailgating, or any of the other myriad components of game day could have been mentioned since Rutgers’ football team just isn’t that good.

I suspect most of the feedback on this survey involved firing the coaching staff. That’s not particularly helpful information. While the football team can’t win them all, the marketing team can if someone would pay attention and get beyond setting and forgetting. Make sense?

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Sport At The Service of Humanity

I’ve spent many years in the sports business. Having grown up playing many sports and spending many hours watching them when I wasn’t playing, working in the business was a dream come true. As with many businesses, however, I and many of my colleagues sometimes lost sight of the basic appeal of the product. It’s taken the Pope to help remind me, and hopefully many others, of that. Let me explain.

Any product needs to solve a basic need. Identifying that need and building products that serve it are the basis for any business. What often happens, however, is that we get focused on our own needs and not those of the customer. We worry about profits and supply chains and staffing, and we’d be insane not to focus on those things too. We can’t, however, let them blind us to the fundamental purpose of solving the problem and servicing the need of the customer.

What does the Pope have to do with this? He is running a conference which began today called Sport At The Service of Humanity. It’s billed as the first global conference on faith and sport. No, it’s not about getting every player to thank some higher power every time they score. It’s intended to launch a “movement” to develop ­­life skills through sports ­­ and characteristics across six principles: compassion, respect, love, enlightenment, balance and joy. You should check out the conference’s website here.

There are a couple of things stated in the “declaration of principles” that resonated:

  • Sport has the power to teach positive values and enrich lives. Every one of us, who plays, organises and supports sport, has the opportunity to be transformed by it and to transform others.
  • Sport challenges us to stretch ourselves further than we thought possible.

I liked to hire people who were athletes, and not just because it was the sports business. It was precisely for the reasons stated above. Moreover, ex-athletes “got it.” They understood the sheer joy of sports, and that joy is a big part of the reason why fans watch them.

The Pope’s conference is about using sports to make us better human beings, but I think it can also serve to remind us of a fundamental business principle too. Your product needs to serve people and not just investors. Using your product to make people’s lives better – in this case, to teach life skills – is really the goal of business in my mind. Yours?

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The King Is Dead

It would be impossible for me to let the passing of Arnold Palmer go by without comment. This isn’t another golf screed. It’s some thinking on a great businessman who used golf as a jumping off point to demonstrate some behaviors all of us ought to try to emulate as we go through our business lives.

English: Arnold Palmer, taken by Hospital staf...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arnold Palmer passed last night at 87. A lot of what you need to know about him was captured in something Time Magazine wrote in 1962:

“When God created Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer,” it wrote, “He turned to Nicklaus and said, ‘You will be the greatest the game has ever seen.’ Then He turned to Palmer, adding, ‘But they will love you more.’ ”

Palmer’s achievements on the course were substantial. He won 62 times on the PGA Tour and those wins included 7 major championships. He did so with an “everyman” swagger, a swing that was uniquely his (and was far from classic), and an attitude of going for broke on every shot. But it was off the course where Mr. Palmer’s lessons for all of us begin.

He considered golf a personification of basic life principles. As he wrote:

“Golf resembles life in so many ways. More than any game on earth, golf depends on simple, timeless principles of courtesy and respect.”

He was legendary for taking time to sign autographs for fans. Each of those signatures was legible because he felt that he should show respect to those who asked for one. You won’t find a picture of him shaking hands where he isn’t looking the other person in the eye. In short, he was beloved because he reciprocated that love.

He was able to turn all that love into a business empire. It’s often said that Mr. Palmer didn’t invent sports marketing but that he perfected it. Endorsement deals with Pennzoil, Arizona Beverages, drug companies, and dozens of others, along with his golf course design business generated a lot of money. But he gave back, and his charity work was an important part of who he was. He also mentored younger golfers and wrote a note every week to whomever won on the Tour. He also answered all of his fan mail. In short, he was among the best on the course and unequalled off the course.

What can you learn from him? First, performance counts. The basic product needs to be among the best to make all the other activities important. Second, show respect for your customers and reciprocate their affection. We talk a lot about engagement, and Mr. Palmer engaged the fans, speaking to them directly and not through press conferences. Third, never let anything you do potentially harm your brand. If you lend your brand to another via licensing or joint venture, be sure that the end result enhances what you do and can’t possibly denigrate your good work to that point.

I know of very few people in the sports business who are universally beloved. Mr. Palmer was at the top of that very short list. Rest easy, sir, and thank you for a lifetime of excellence.

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Protecting Your Brand With Common Sense

The Olympic Games are almost upon us. Like most major sporting organizations, the Olympic Committee and the US Olympic Committee protect their commercial marks aggressively. That intellectual property is a huge piece of the value they sell to official sponsors and keeping non-sponsors from doing ambush marketing is a big part of any sports organization’s daily life. It becomes front and center during marquee events. 

Companies find ways around this enforcement, of course. You’ve probably seen dozens of ads about “The Big Game” every January. You know they reference The Super Bowl even though it’s never said, don’t you. It’s a term the NFL tried to protect but was unable to.  The USOC and IOC are just as aggressive about terminology ranging from the obvious (Olympics, Games, Medal, Rio) to the less obvious (Effort, Performance, Challenge).

Today isn’t about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Having spent much of my career selling and protecting commercial sponsorships of sporting events, you can imagine where I come out on ambushing. I do, however, have a bone to pick from the other side of my career, which is digital. I think it’s instructive for all of us.

Social media is social. Sharable. A conversation. More importantly, social media has become how many people learn and stay in touch with what’s going on in the world. Not in the USOC’s eyes, apparently. They sent a letter out last week which reinforces all of the aforementioned commercial restrictions around the upcoming games, especially with respect to athletes who may be sponsored by non-USOC or Olympic sponsors. But the letter went further.

“Commercial entities may not post about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media accounts. This restriction includes the use of USOC’s trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA.”

It doesn’t stop there. The same letter sent by the USOC reminds companies (except for those involved in news media) that they can’t reference any Olympic results or share or repost anything from the official Olympic account. I think that’s pretty far over the foul line. Social media by definition is meant to be circulated and almost any sponsor will mention “going viral” as one of their goals. How can you tweet or mention anything about the games without using a tag that’s discoverable? Why wouldn’t you want broader attention drawn to your event if it’s not otherwise a commercial message? Yes, I understand (better than most!) how sponsors try to share the brand equity of the event without authorization, but if all they’re doing is retweeting your own post, how are they sharing brand equity?

Protecting intellectual property is one of the most important things any brand or business can do. There are limits, however, and that protection should hardly ever interfere with common sense and the world of social sharing. You certainly don’t want to be seen as a bully. Do you agree with that?

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