Friday, May 31, 2013

Beyond Sponsorship: Forging Partnerships that Advance a Business

Sponsorship is a cash and/or in-kind fee paid to a property (typically sports, entertainment, non-profit event or organization) in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that property.
- International Events Group

The IEG definition of sponsorship has been around since 1982 but is as relevant as ever. Three words pop out of the definition and hold more significance for sponsors today than when first developed 30 years ago: "Exploitable commercial potential." This term distinguishes sponsorship from philanthropy and serves as motivation to marketers looking for brand building opportunities by linking their brand with an entity in order to gain access to its audience. Sponsorship's definition is timeless; what has evolved is how sponsors set out to exploit the commercial potential of their partnerships.

Traditional Sponsorship: Low Level Impact
In the first two decades following IEG's defining sponsorship as a platform for exploiting the commercial potential of a sport league, team, event, or athlete, a focal point of sponsorship activity was impacting lower levels of consumer information processing. Numerous scholarly studies during the 1990s and early 2000s surveyed sponsors to determine their objectives for using sponsorship. The findings were nearly universal as two objectives rose above the rest: Create brand awareness and build a desired brand image. Certain contributing factors can be cited for the interest in awareness and image as sponsorship objectives. One factor is that as media clutter increased across traditional channels, sponsorship offered a refreshing alternative to get brand exposure via a message that differed from typical "buy now" calls to action. Another factor is that sponsors realized brand image could be influenced by associating their brands with sports properties whose image was desirable. The often cited example is Mtn Dew's strategy to sponsor action sports events and athletes. Associations that are held for action sports like "edgy" and "exciting" effectively transferred to become associations held for Mtn Dew.

The Future of Sponsorship: Build Businesses and Brands
As we move into the fourth decade of using sponsorship to access the exploitable commercial potential of sport properties, a noticeable shift has occurred in what sponsors are seeking to gain from their partnerships. Sure, awareness and image are as valuable as always as influencing consumers to know a brand and hold certain associations for it are instrumental in moving them through the hierarchy of effects (thinking-feeling-doing). Today, sponsors are very interested in how their partnerships can be integrated into their business. It is not enough to receive assets like signage and brand mentions; sponsors want to showcase their products to their target market and be a resource for their partners to help deliver great customer experiences. Here are three examples:

  • Microsoft has teamed up with MLS to develop the MatchDay app that showcases Windows 8. The sponsorship aids MLS in its desire to position itself as the "smartest" league.
  • The Kansas National Guard's partnership with Kansas Speedway includes holding a swear-in ceremony for newly enlisted soldiers. This element is consistent with military branches using sport sponsorship for recruitment purposes but also publicly celebrates the decision of young people to enlist. The ceremony brings to life the culmination of recruiting efforts.
  • Sony will partner with the San Francisco 49ers in development of Levi's Stadium, its new home beginning in 2014. Sony televisions and cameras will play a prominent role in delivering a fan experience throughout the venue.
What is the common thread for these partnerships? They go beyond awareness and image to strategically integrate the sponsor's business into its association with the property. The Microsoft and Sony partnerships create rather evident opportunities to feature their products via their sponsee partners. The Kansas National Guard partnership with Kansas Speedway is an example of how sponsor and property can collaborate to create meaningful activation that enhances the value of the sponsorship.

Sponsorship is viewed by many marketers as an alternative to traditional advertising. In some respects, sponsorship will always possess that characteristic. But unlike traditional advertising, sponsorship goes beyond paid message placement by being a partnership in which both parties should strive to make the most of the exploitable commercial potential of the joint venture.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is the End Near for WNBA?

"The thing about quotes on the Internet is that you can never confirm their validity."
- Abraham Lincoln

If Mr. Lincoln was alive today, he very likely would have made this observation. The Internet is a treasure trove of information- some true, some false, and some falling in between. And, he may have applied his "quote" to evaluate information in a report published on 24/7 Wall St that predicted the demise of 10 brands in 2014. Some of the brands on the list may indeed be in late decline such as Nook and LivingSocial, but one brand on the list that surely raises eyebrows in the sports industry is the WNBA. The league just began its 17th season; are we to believe it is also the last one?

"3 to See"
The prediction of the WNBA's demise is strange given a noticeable uptick in excitement around this season. A big reason (no pun intended) for the excitement is the debut of Brittney Griner, the 6'8" center that dominated women's college basketball at Baylor the past two seasons and drafted first overall by the Phoenix Mercury. Along with Elena Delle Donne (Chicago Sky) and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock), the WNBA features a draft class upon which great expectations have been placed. These "3 to see" are being looked to do more than make their teams competitive on the court; they are marketing assets that should have an impact beyond their local markets and be key elements of the face of the WNBA.

How to Avoid Extinction
No marketing executive wants to read an article predicting the death of his or her brand. The question is how do you keep your brand off such a list? The answer is relatively simple in concept yet complex in execution: Stay relevant. Brands like Nook and LivingSocial are vulnerable because their competitors have succeeded in taking much of the mind share and market share in their respective categories. The brands do not stand out as offering distinctive benefits that other brands in the category cannot deliver. A multitude of reasons could explain why a product fails, but the one reason that tends to surface more than any other is a perceived lack of a clear value proposition.

So, what is the WNBA's value proposition? If it is simply basketball to fill the void of the NBA off-season, I think we know where the brand would end up- on a list of brands that did indeed die. Fortunately, the WNBA has more to offer if it can persuade entertainment seekers:

  • Value- The cost of an outing to take in a WNBA game is a fraction of the cost to go to an NBA game. For example, season tickets for 16 Atlanta Spirit games start at $160 compared to $599 for 41 Atlanta Hawks games. Granted, the per game price ($10 versus $14) is not substantial, but the differences in number of games and price over the course of a season represents substantial savings for fans.
  • Stories- Great brands usually tell compelling stories. The WNBA must tap the unique stories of its players, going beyond the "3 to see" rookies. Social media offers a platform for engaging fans off-site to share with them the backgrounds of WNBA players.
  • Lifestyle- Promoting the off-the-court lives of WNBA players as a hook to interest casual fans and non-fans may be more controversial as there is a fine line between selling the sport and selling physical attractiveness. The LPGA has tried this approach with mixed results. It could be a component of a broader marketing strategy but not necessarily something upon which to place all hope.

Time Will Tell
Do you agree with the 24/7 Wall St. opinion that the WNBA is in hopeless decline? When next year's list comes out and the current predictions are reviewed, will we be laughing or thinking "they nailed it when it came to the WNBA?" There are legitimate concerns- average attendance in 2012 was lowest in the league's history. And, despite interest in the collegiate women's game, professional women's basketball has not built a growing fan base over the past 16 years. Time will tell what will happen, but it looks as if the WNBA is ready to mount a spirited fight to stave off elimination.

Adweek - JCPenney One of Ten Brands Predicted to Die in Next Year

Friday, May 24, 2013

Microsoft Steps Up Sponsorship Game with New NFL Deal

As an observer of the sponsorship industry for the past 17 years, I have seen many changes and innovations. Price tags have ballooned to sponsor marquee sport properties, technology has added new sponsorship inventory via digital and virtual signage, and social media enables sponsors to communicate their association with a sports brand on any screen used by their target market. These three developments are noteworthy, but they are secondary to what I see as the most significant development in sponsorship practice: A more strategic focus on selecting and activating sponsorship. The days when many decisions on sponsoring a sports property were influenced by the personal preferences of the decision maker are largely a fond memory. Today, the financial stakes of sponsorship deals and the urgency to demonstrate return on investment call for viewing sponsorship as a vehicle to drive business growth.

The Future of Sponsorship
The agreement announced this week between Microsoft and the National Football League is a great example of what the future of sponsorship will look like. Microsoft has extended the association of its Xbox brand with the NFL and created a new association for its Surface tablets. Of course, the standard rights we expect with a sponsorship deal are present:
  • Xbox remains "The Official Game Console of the NFL" and will also become "The Official Interactive Video Entertainment Console."
  • Microsoft is "The Official Sideline Technology Sponsor of the NFL."
  • Surface by Microsoft and Windows are "The Official Tablet and PC Operating System of the NFL."
These official partner designations would have been the crown jewels of this kind of deal in 10-15 years ago. Then, the sponsor would have begun the process of figuring out what to do with the exclusive partner designations they had bought. That process is increasingly playing out before sponsorship deals are signed.

Sponsorship as Business Strategy
The future of sponsorship will be deploying it as a vehicle in support of business strategy, which is a far more significant role than sponsorship being viewed primarily as a communications channel. Two products that are critical to Microsoft's success, Xbox and Surface, are centerpieces of the relationship. These products are at two very competitive positions in their respective categories- Xbox is established as the market leader in the video game console category. But, Microsoft is keen on developing new consumption options that go beyond the video game. The partnership coincides with Microsoft's unveiling of the next generation of Xbox: The Xbox One. Users will have be able to have interactive experiences that brings exclusive NFL content to their consoles, offers an enhanced fantasy football experience, and offers personalized options for getting content on games, teams, and players fans care about most. 

In contrast, the Surface tablet is a distant third in tablet market share. Its 7.5 percent share at the end of Q1 2013 is not bad considering it was not even on the market at the same time last year. But, its market position is overshadowed by Apple (48 percent) and Android (43 percent). The Surface is a big gamble by Microsoft in that its strength historically has been developing software, not hardware (remember the Zune music player?). A sponsorship in which the Surface brand was merely featured on signage and some unimaginative marketing promotions devised would do little to help the product compete. The NFL sponsorship calls for Surface tablets to be used by coaches and players on the sidelines. Say goodbye to seeing coaches and players viewing paper photos of formations- they will now be using Surface to analyze information. NFL fans seeing Surface being used in this way may develop new beliefs about the brand and its capabilities, not to mention increasing brand awareness and recall by its presence on the sidelines.

A New Sponsorship Game
We should expect to see more sponsorship deals like the Microsoft-NFL partnership in the future. Sponsors must broaden traditional views of sponsorship as a communications platform. A sponsorship ideally is a business platform- associating with a sports brand should present opportunities to achieve business objectives. Sports properties must rethink what they have to offer to their corporate partners, too. Selling the idea that 18,000 people will see your logo on signage every time the arena doors open may be ego boosting, but that will do little to acquire customers, sell products, and build relationships. The next post will continue on this topic of the future of sponsorship.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

If You Want Something Done, Do It Yourself?

You have heard the saying "if you want something done, you have to do it yourself." I subscribe to that thinking... sometimes. The reality is no individual or organization has all the capabilities and know how to accomplish every task or pursue all opportunities. Limitations in skill sets and resources lead sometimes to an inevitable conclusion that tapping the strengths of others is the best way to move forward.

It's OK to Need Help

Relating this saying to the marketing function, an example of addressing this issue is the decision of whether certain tasks should be outsourced (e.g., sponsorship sales, ticket sales, and e-commerce operations). There is no shame in acknowledging the benefits of bringing in a marketing partner. On the contrary, forming partnerships with other firms reflects management's recognition of how to best leverage the organization's strengths. This issue came to mind when learning that Major League Soccer had announced its 20th team, New York City Football Club, will begin play in 2015. The club will be the second in the New York metro market, joining the New York Red Bulls (that actually play in New Jersey).

A Beautiful Match

 What is particularly noteworthy about NYCFC is its ownership. The expansion club will be a partnership between Manchester City of the English Premier League and the New York Yankees. The pairing of one of the EPL's highest profile and wealthiest clubs with one of America's most prominent pro sports franchises brings instant credibility to a club that will not play its first match for nearly two more years. The synergy of the partnership was summed up nicely by Yankees president Randy Levine who said "They'll be running all the soccer. We know our way around New York, how to get things done." This statement speaks to the benefits of forming partnerships; while Manchester City and the New York Yankees are strong brands, their chances of profitably succeeding in launching a new MLS franchise are increased by the partnership as opposed to going it alone. 

Soccer is known as "the beautiful game." The Manchester City-New York Yankees venture can be described as a beautiful match. If you want something done, first ask if it makes sense to do it yourself. If yes, go for it. But, if partnering with another firm brings more resources to the table while reducing risk, then entering into a joint venture is a viable option. In this situation, both organizations are branching out into new markets (geographic growth for Manchester City, product growth for NY Yankees). Include the possibility of joint ventures with like-minded partners when evaluating growth options.

ESPN FC - N.Y. to Get 2nd MLS Club in 2015

Monday, May 20, 2013

IndyCar: A Case Study in Brand Positioning

One of the most important strategic decisions a marketer must make is how to position a brand. Simply put, brand position is consumers' perceptions of the point of difference a brand possesses relative to competition. Positioning is such a critical decision because it permeates all marketing communications. It serves to reinforce the brand's value proposition in the target market's mind. Besides, it is unrealistic to expect customers to remember everything about your brand; what is the one thing about your brand with which they should immediately associate? The answer to that question likely yields the answer of how to position your brand.

Why Positioning Matters
Brands that struggle often can trace at least part of their problems to lack of a distinctive brand position. If we look outside of sports, two brands that exhibit what can happen when lacking a distinctive position are Kmart and J.C. Penney. For years, Kmart languished while its mass merchandise competitors Walmart (low price) and Target (trendy image) have thrived. Kmart lacked that "one thing" for which it is known as being superior to competition. More recently, J.C. Penney has fallen on hard times as the company's efforts to reposition its brand as a unique shopping experience met with resistance from customers who prefer JCP's frequent sales.

The seminal book on brand positioning is Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. While this book is more than 30 years old, the core message is as strong today as ever: Differentiate your brand or it is doomed to mediocrity at best (more likely failure). The struggles of Kmart and JCP are evidence of what can happen when positioning strategy is not clearly articulated.

The Perils of a Weak Position
IndyCar is in an interesting situation in that it has options for positioning its brand to compete domestically against NASCAR and globally against Formula 1. Once a strong American motorsports property, IndyCar is the survivor of a devastating split in open-wheel racing in the late 1990s. In the years that open-wheel racing interests (as driver talent, sponsors, and fans) were divided between the Indy Racing League and CART (later Champ Car), NASCAR established itself as the dominant racing circuit in the US. The two factions reunited in 2008, but the damage had been done. Open-wheel racing was essentially irrelevant compared to NASCAR. One piece of evidence is TV ratings- IndyCar races on NBC Sports Network averaged about 292,000 viewers in 2012 compared to more than 5 million viewers for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.

What Should IndyCar Ride?
IndyCar has positioning options as it continues to rebuild. Among the strengths of the brand are:

  • IndyCar's mix of street races, road courses, and oval tracks offers variety and challenges drivers
  • IndyCar's driver roster has a distinctive global flavor as more than a dozen countries are represented by drivers currently competing in the Izod IndyCar Series 
  • IndyCar makes drivers accessible to fans, holding autograph signing sessions regularly at racing events
  • IndyCar Fan Village, an interactive fan experience at race events, excels in engaging fans
  • Indianapolis 500 is a crown jewel of American sporting events
Some sports industry observers questioned whether the post-unification IndyCar brand could regain relevance. And, those concerns are legitimate given the puny TV ratings IndyCar generated last year. In the end, the success of IndyCar will depend on the same variable that holds the fate for virtually all brands: A distinctive brand position. Can IndyCar cultivate a point of difference that matters to the marketplace and build its marketing efforts on that position? If yes, IndyCar can carve a niche in the North American sports market. If no, well just ask management at Kmart and J.C. Penney about that.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Encourage Graduates to be Tremendous

College graduation season is upon us. It is an exciting time as students and their families celebrate the culmination of a journey that entailed hours of attending classes, engaging in studying, taking exams, and writing papers. Graduation closes one chapter and serves as a bridge to the next- the launch of one's professional career. This year, that bridge has the stability of a monkey bridge as competition is stout for entry level opportunities. The National Association of Colleges and Employers projects that 1,791,000 students will graduate college in 2013, and the employment outlook for new college graduates is not very promising. One estimate puts the number of new graduates being hired this year at 2.1 percent higher than 2012 but far short of an earlier projection of a 13 percent rise. The realities of the current labor market require new grads to think about how to best position their personal brand to stand out.

My advice to this year's college graduates (and anyone else working on their personal brand) is simply "Be Tremendous." The inspiration for this advice is Charlie "Tremendous" Jones. He was a top insurance salesman before beginning his own personal development company. He also was an author; his book Life is Tremendous has sold nearly 2 million copies since its release in 1968. Jones was a voracious reader and encouraged others to do the same to build knowledge and expand thinking. He pointed out that the average American reads one or two books a year, so if we read one book a month we put ourselves far ahead the norm.

Quotes are a form of "mind candy." They provide quick bursts of energy and focus that can help shake us from the doldrums. For me, Charlie "Tremendous" Jones is the source of one of the most powerful quotes I have ever come across:

 "You are the same today as you'll be in five years except for two things: The books you read and the people you meet."

College graduates working on launching their professional career will be well served to follow Jones's advice. While one's college career might signal the conclusion of formal education, we should never cease in our quest to learn. Reading books is crucial to broadening our horizons. Yes, we want to expand our knowledge in our chosen field, but reading in general is beneficial to furthering intellectual development.

When it comes to the people you meet, students aspiring to become sports business professionals are well versed in the importance of networking to make contacts that can lead to an entry level opportunity. Social networking sites such as LinkedIn expand the geographic reach and ease of connecting with others. At the same time, face-to-face networking remains a powerful connector. Expanding your network is vital, but keep in mind the important outcome is now who you know, but who knows you. Go beyond a commitment to meet people and strive to add value to the people you meet.

Best wishes to the Class of 2013. You have worked hard and now your time has come... your time to Be Tremendous, that is.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dynamic Pricing as a Market Segmentation Strategy

Rising costs to attend sporting events have been a concern among team marketers in recent years. Fans dealing with strained finances may be left with little choice but to pass on discretionary spending like buying tickets to a game. It is unfortunate that ticket prices are non-negotiable, that a system akin to Priceline's name your own price model is not available to fans so that they can decide to spend based on their ability to buy. Ah, but there is a model that does give buyers flexibility: Dynamic pricing. This relatively new pricing method is often viewed as a boon to sellers, but what really makes dynamic pricing effective is that it can be framed as a customer-centered pricing model.

Demand is the Driver
The secret to success for dynamic pricing is rooted in traditional economics: Buyer demand. Dynamic pricing and its sister tactic variable pricing are based on the fact that not all products (i.e., sporting events) are valued in the same way. Given the variability in the value judgment made on each sporting event that comprises a team's home schedule, it is logical that pricing for each game and seat locations within the venue should be adjustable depending on perceived value. Intangible products like live sporting events benefit from utilizing a demand-driven pricing model because unlike tangible goods they cannot be inventoried and sold later. For live sporting events, key demand factors include:

  • Opponent -Brand equity of visiting team and rivals influence impact of opponent on demand
  • Day of week - Weekend games might have higher demand, especially for longer seasons like MLB
  • Time of year - MLB games in April or September might hold less appeal than games played in summer (correlated with day of week).

The NBA reported its best ever season in terms of gate revenue per game, and dynamic pricing played a significant role in that success. The beauty of dynamic pricing is that gives buyers greater choice in exercising discretion to consume sports entertainment. For buyers who are price conscious, dynamic pricing's sliding scale creates opportunities to take in games at lower than average prices. It is not going to be the Miami Heat and it probably will not be on Saturday night, but attending the game is within their reach because demand variables make purchasing tickets more favorable. For high involvement fans, their decision to attend games in which demand drives prices up in a dynamic pricing model is less dependent on ticket price and influenced more by their identification with a team. Are these fans happy that prices are higher for "must see" games? Probably not, but they will be unlikely to stay away as long as ticket price does not become prohibitive.

It's All About Segmentation
In the end, dynamic pricing circles back to the fundamental concept of market segmentation. A one-price method for sports tickets is bad practice when there is excess capacity. Setting single price points on tickets is flawed because it neglects the fact that buyers do not hold similar value judgments. Dynamic pricing offers lower prices for a segment of the market that places greater importance on price in the buying decision. And, dynamic pricing slides the price scale upward when demand is high for certain events.

Despite the temptation to aggressively tweak prices to maximize revenue, there is one other customer segment that must be managed within the framework of dynamic pricing: loyal customers. Season ticket customers are a committed customer segment that cannot be undercut by dynamic pricing models. In fact, many teams using dynamic pricing have a policy of setting a price floor that will not allow tickets to be sold at a price less than what season ticket holders paid. Criteria that influence value judgments made by season ticket customers likely differ from the single-game buyer who is reached via dynamic pricing. Thus, pricing must protect their loyalty while appealing to other fan segments.

Forbes - "NBA Slam Dunks Gate Revenue Record Thanks to Variable/Dynamic Ticket Pricing"

Monday, May 13, 2013

Zaxby's Uses Do-It-Yourself Approach to Sponsorship

When a company explores sports sponsorship opportunities, the logical starting point is to "kick the tires" of available sponsorship inventory. Leagues, teams, events, and athletes that have developed a sponsorship platform to attract corporate partners offers a turnkey-like system for brands to form partnerships as sponsors. Thus, the task of the buyer is to sift through available sponsorship opportunities to identify options that are the best fit with the brand's values, target market, and marketing objectives.

Off the Shelf vs. Do It Yourself
The typical approach to identifying sponsorship opportunities is like buying Nike shoes at a store- you look at the different styles to find one that meets your specific need (e.g., running, training, or basketball), has desirable attributes (e.g., color and style), and fits within an acceptable price range. If all these criteria are met and the style is available in your size, you have yourself a new pair of shoes, er I mean new sponsorship. Unfortunately, not all sponsorship opportunities can be secured by purchasing off the shelf; one or more variables unique to the buyer's situation makes ready-made sponsorship deals an awkward fit. When this occurs, a company does not have to abandon sponsorship, but it has to take a different approach to securing partnerships.

An example of how to take a do-it-yourself approach to creating sponsorship opportunities is the recent deal announced by Zaxby's. The Athens, Georgia-based chicken restaurant has more than 500 locations, primarily in the southeastern United States. Zaxby's has tapped the emotional appeal of college sports in a creative way that allowed it to achieve a good geographic fit between universities sponsored and markets with Zaxby's locations. A recent deal with 25 universities made up of schools in the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Conference USA, and Sun Belt Conference includes Zaxby's being dubbed "The Official Chicken of College Sports." This designation is creative... literally. Such a sponsorship category does not exist in terms of being sold by the NCAA or any other body. But, it exists now because Zaxby's has declared its brand the Official Chicken of College Sports. Returning to the shoe analogy, Zaxby's has done the equivalent of visiting to craft a product that best fits its needs and wants.

Zaxby's Deal Scores
The Zaxby's deal is beneficial in multiple ways. First, Zaxby's was able to be selective about which schools it partnered with in this deal. The collection of 25 universities is strategic not only as the markets where they are located match up well with Zaxby's footprint, but two major universities in each state are included in the deal for all states except one (South Carolina). This approach is preferred to buying official conference sponsorship deals because Zaxby's had more control over which markets it could impact with this deal. Second, pinpointing specific universities can be better than blanket league or conference deals in that if there are no Zaxby's restaurants in markets where a conference university is located there is little chance to influence consumers- they would have a hard time eating at a Zaxby's even if they wanted! Third, Zaxby's gets around the clutter created when a sports property has an inventory of sponsorship categories to sell. Rather than being a corporate name on a sponsor roster, Zaxby's bought independence by forging its own deal to be the Official Chicken of College Sports.

For a regional brand like Zaxby's, a selective market approach to entering into sponsorship deals is an effective strategy. A customized product, one tailored to meet the specific criteria of an individual customer, potentially delivers greater value than a standardized product made for multiple customers. The Zaxby's sponsorship deal with 25 universities might inspire other brands to forge a unique position with college athletics, one that does not require buying off the shelf from the NCAA or a conference.

Atlanta Business Chronicle - "Zaxby's Gets Sponsorship Deal with 25 Universities"

Friday, May 10, 2013

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People: The Tale of the Miami Marlins

Partnering with a sports brand (league, team, event, or athlete) via sponsorship is an attractive marketing vehicle. One of the primary benefits of engaging in sponsorship is a theorized image transfer that occurs between sponsored property (sponsee) and sponsoring brand (sponsor), Associations or thoughts people have about the sports brand become part of their mental associations with brands that are sponsors. These secondary brand associations, thoughts about a brand anchored to another object, can be influential in shaping a brand's image. Mtn Dew  is held up as the ultimate in creating secondary brand associations through its long time connection with action sports. Associations people hold for action sports events and athletes have transferred to their thoughts about Mtn Dew, helping create a distinctive brand position.

It is important to note that transfer of associations from a brand to something else linked to it is all-inclusive; both favorable and unfavorable associations potentially transfer. Thus, the decision to enter into a marketing relationship with another firm entails accepting risk that brand associations flow between partners- good, bad, and otherwise. In the context of sports sponsorship, one brand that offers a stark reminder of the perils of image transfer is the Miami Marlins. The MLB franchise struggled to build a fan base in south Florida for the better part of 20 years despite winning two World Series (1997 and 2003). The missing link supposedly was a baseball-only stadium. The franchise lobbied for years until it got its new $500 million dollar ballpark for the 2012 season on the site of the old Orange Bowl stadium. A new stadium, a rebrand from Florida Marlins to Miami Marlin, a new manager, and a splash in the free agent market set the stage for a new chapter in pro baseball in South Florida.

Oh, it's been a new chapter alright, one filled with more horror than Stephen King could have written. Manager Ozzie Guillen was fired after one season, star players were traded away after the 2012 season, and  a full-fledged fire sale was underway. So far this season, average attendance at Marlins Park is down 31% compared to last year's average, and it is expected that not a single game will sell out this season. Ticket sales are so weak that the team will cover upper level seats for weeknight games during an upcoming homestand. A brand that held such great promise 18 months ago has sunk to new lows.

The mess that is the Miami Marlins is not lost on prospective marketing partners. Some businesses that were eager to open in retail space adjacent to Marlins Park backed out when they realized the damage the Marlins were inflicting on their own brand. Not only would partnering with the Miami Marlins be unappealing in terms of diminished market interest in the brand, but the greater risk is that negative associations about the Marlins would transfer to brands that choose to sponsor or do business with the club.

One of the best reads of all time for business people (or anyone else) is Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People. To build relationships, a following, or a business one must focus on establishing trust and demonstrating concern for others. The Miami Marlins have unwittingly parodied this classic; a book could be written titled How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. Team management's actions have eroded fan interest and sponsor confidence. It is hard to imagine a brand would deliberately set out to create the negative associations on the scale of those elicited by the Miami Marlins. Damage has been done; now it is up to the Marlins to write a new chapter, one that has more desirable brand associations.

The Biz of Baseball: "Marlins Tarp Upper Section of New Ballpark Due to Low Attendance"

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

TV + Social Media = The New Water Cooler

Remember when screen-in-screen was introduced as a feature on televisions? It seemed like sports fan heaven- channel surfing could be reduced or even eliminated by being able to watch two games at once. But, for many people the excitement of watching two games at once gave way to the reality that it was more difficult to be fully engaged in either screen as they both competed for our attention.

Fast forward to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. We now have the next generation of split screen sport consumption (actually dual screen). The experience of watching live sporting events on TV is enhanced by using social media to interact with others who are also following the event. Sports is one of the most social of TV viewing experiences; the same product that is viewed live by thousands can be viewed in living rooms or in sports bars. Person-to-person "water cooler" talk about sports has been transformed into real-time conversations on social media as fans interact with fellow supporters of their favorite team and partake in banter with opposing fans.

Estimates of social media activity occurring while watching television ranges from one-third to one-half of TV viewers taking to Facebook, Twitter, or other sites. Some concern exists that consumption of sporting events via social media will overtake time spent watching the event on television. However, unlike screen-in-screen TV viewing that unintentionally divides attention and interest, the new "split screen" of sports consumption has the potential to make TV viewing more engaging.

One example of how a sports property has brought digital social experiences to game telecasts is the NBA. As the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs began, the NBA sought to engage TV viewers in an online social experience through a check-in and loyalty program powered by Viggle. Viewers can chat with other fans and are offered an incentive to stay tuned in the form of points that can be redeemed for rewards such as Best Buy and Starbucks gift cards. The Viggle campaign is a good move by the NBA as it leverages interest that already exists for playoff games and gives fans an outlet to discuss games with friends in real time. Physical proximity of friends is no longer a limitation on interaction.

The social pull of chatting about games coupled with rewards based on amount of time spent watching games are ways the NBA can keep fans engaged at a critical time of the year. Playoffs are exciting, but as they progress it means that more teams are no longer playing. While engaging fans of teams still in the playoffs is a an easier task, maintaining interest among casual NBA fans or fans of teams out of the playoffs can be aided by linking TV and social media consumption. The desire to gather around the water cooler to discuss big games like the NBA Playoffs has intensified as fans have the connectivity to talk as a game unfolds. But, what has changed most is the water cooler is no longer limited to a physical gathering point. In the future, sports properties should establish a priority of exploring ways to combine TV and social media to create digital water cooler experiences.

Direct Marketing News- "NBA Goes Second Screen in the Second Round"

Monday, May 6, 2013

Does Year-Round Marketing of Sports Create Followers or Choosers?

The marketing of sports has transformed games from seasonal pursuits to year-round businesses. The concept of off-season is now limited to competition on the field. Off the field, fans, media, and sports marketers do their best to ensure the action does not end on the last day of the season. Entry drafts, free agency, training camps, and player trades are four examples of made for TV (plus social media, blogs, and discussion forums) content that keeps a sport relevant even when games are not being played.

As a sports fan, is there anything better than having the season extended so that you can consume information and entertainment whenever you want? The answer depends who you ask. An article by Jason Gay on raises the question "Do fans need an off-season?" This question was a non-issue in the past; fans got an off-season whether they wanted it or not. Today, we are constantly connected to the sports and teams we love. For highly involved fans, keeping abreast of personnel changes, scouting reports, and other news is more like work than leisure. Jason Gay quips "Sports are no longer hobbies. They've become graduate school." 

Creating Followers
Fans are encouraged to keep their consumption and following of sports ongoing, not bound by game schedules. Digital media gives sports properties and media unprecedented opportunities to re-frame their brands from seasonal offerings to year-round products. For consumers, there are benefits to marketing a sport or team year round:

  • Fulfills customer need - Not every fan wants to follow MLB news 365 days a year, but there is a segment of the customer base whose relationship is so intense that they value the always-on marketing approach that has evolved in sports.
  • Stimulates product demand - The task of whipping a fan base into a frenzy every year with a new, clever marketing campaign is not as daunting if fan connections and relationships are cultivated on an ongoing basis. 
  • Relevance essential to success - Some public relations experts contend that the only thing worse than your brand being discussed negatively is not being discussed at all. The seasonality of sports is problematic from a marketing standpoint in that it can be difficult for a brand to remain relevant in the minds of consumers when the product is out of season. The NFL has masterfully conquered this hurdle, spreading out its calendar of events so that there is a nearly continuous stream of activity throughout the year.
In short, the task of marketing a seasonal sports product is made easier when it is managed as a brand for which interest never goes away.

Creating Choosers
Positioning a seasonal sports product as a year-round brand and then designing events or sub-brands to support it is savvy marketing. But, does this practice create an unintended consequence of forcing people to choose how they allocate their limited time and attention? This issue did not really exist prior to sports being positioned as a year-round offering. When baseball season ended, many sports fans would shift attention to football. After that, basketball and hockey might draw more interest. Then, as those seasons concluded baseball began a new season... and a new cycle of sports fandom would begin. 

Now, fans that become highly involved with one sport or team might do so at the expense of other sports interests held previously. Jason Gay equates this dilemma to what he calls the specialization of youth sports. Players at a young age often are forced or feel compelled to pick one sport and focus on it. I can attest to this phenomenon. My 13-year-old began playing travel hockey at age 9. Tryouts, practices, season, spring camp, and summer camp means that virtually all of the calendar year is taken by one sport. Ethan has chosen hockey; in the process he gave up playing baseball and does not entertain the possibility of playing another sport because it will take away from his investment in hockey (his choice as much as it has been mine). As a result, he has lost touch with MLB, which he followed while playing baseball, and he has little more than casual interests in other sports because he is a "hockey guy."

It's about Market Segmentation
Going back to Jason Gay's question- Do sports fans need an off-season? The answer is no... and yes. Highly involved fans have little desire for a break- their self-identity is intertwined with a particular sport or team. Thus, being able to be a fan year round is more than a hobby, it is a means of maintaining self-harmony. Other fans have less invested in their sports relationships and will divert their leisure and entertainment interests during the off-season. Keeping fans engaged makes sense, but how can it be done in the most beneficial way for the brand? For high involvement fans, a product of which games is only one element transforms a seasonal product into a year-round one. Marketing to low involvement fans should occur year round, too, but the approach should differ. The off-season is a time to build a sports brand's presence in the local community- sponsoring arts and cultural events and engaging in strategic philanthropy (e.g., sponsoring an elementary school or local park) are two ways a team or other sports property can maintain relevance among people who may not be into mock drafts, mini camps, and the off-season rumor mill. 

Segment the market when devising strategies to market after the lights have been turned off for the season. People have different levels of connection and interest with a sports brand; off-season marketing efforts should be undertaken with those different relationship states in mind.

Friday, May 3, 2013

NCAA Ban on Field-of-Play Ads is not the End of the Game

The NCAA has earned a reputation over the years as a vigilant creator and enforcer of rules. Some would say the NCAA's practices amount to selective creation and enforcement, but that is a question better left for another time (better yet for another blogger to take up). The most recent case in which the authority of the NCAA to govern the practices of its member institutions arose this week.On Wednesday, the NCAA rules committee decreed that advertising on the field of play would be prohibited. There are a few exceptions (venue naming rights sponsors' names can appear in no more than two places without logo and names/logos of title sponsors for postseason bowl games can be placed on playing surface).The prime victim or the new rule is an institution's placement of URLs and hashtags on the field or court. The practice has not gained widespread use yet (and I suppose it will not now for sure); Mississippi State was the first to paint Twitter hashtags on the field in 2011 and have also appeared on other fields including Michigan, Arkansas, and North Carolina State.

Protecting Brand Identity- But Whose?
Reaction to the NCAA's new rule has been somewhat predictable- this issue is not a priority, the rule denies institutions leeway to engage in marketing as they see fit, and it is another step toward sanitizing college football that makes it more like the NFL (aka the No Fun League). Some observers even wonder if placing restrictions on social media tactics in this way might nudge college football's elite programs closer to breaking away from the NCAA altogether. This view might be extreme, but at the very least the question raised- why did the NCAA take this action? Simply put, it is to protect brand identity. There are multiple brands that must be managed: the NCAA brand and the brands of the member institutions. One might say that the new rule is to protect institutions from themselves. The practice is relatively minor in scope now, but as budgets continue to be strained and new revenue streams are sought the temptation to sell real estate to the highest bidder might be too great to resist. Maintaining a disciplined approach to branding might erode slowly if more hashtags and URLs appear on the field of play. It was wise for the NCAA to address the issue now before it moved beyond novelty and gained traction among more schools.

Not the End of Marketing as We Know It
As a marketer, I cringe at the idea of restrictions being placed on creativity by an external body like the NCAA. But, I also cringe at marketing run amok, and I worry that creative integration of social media into the field of play would sooner or later lead to a controversial, ill conceived idea that would give a bad rap to the practice in general. It is important to remember that the NCAA did not ban the use of hashtags, only the placement of marketing messages on the field of play. Venue signage and communication are still fair game and offer ample opportunities to connect with fans. Besides, the hashtag and URL are not magical tactics whose absence on a football field or basketball court will cause irrevocable harm to an athletic program's marketing strategy. What is important is how people are engaged once they are driven to follow a Twitter hashtag or join an online community.

Chalk up the new NCAA rule prohibiting on-field advertising as an effort to control the NCAA brand and save schools from straying too far from their current brand messaging. The NCAA cannot be faulted for wanting to achieve those outcomes. Placement of hashtags and URLs was clever and refreshing while it lasted. Now, it is up to schools' sports marketing staffs to develop new ideas for bringing their digital media platforms to their fan base.

CBS - NCAA Rules Committee Bans Hash Tags, URLs from Football Fields" 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sell Your Brand, not Your Objective

Today is May 1- graduation month for thousands of college students. It is a rite of passage from being a student to embarking on a professional career. And, a time to craft one's story for prospective employers. The traditional vehicle for communicating our personal brand story is the résumé. That document forces us to reduce our education, experiences, accomplishments, and interests to a single page. It is almost scary to think about how influential one page is in deciding whether an applicant is considered or cast aside. The significance of one's résumé getting noticed is even greater for aspiring sports marketing professionals given the high number of applicants for any given open position.

It is crucial to write a résumé that sells your brand. That challenge begins with the manner in which you introduce your brand. The standard "headline" on a résumé is an objective statement. It is usually a one-sentence pronouncement of what the person seeks. And, most objective statements are boring and full of abstract language. The result? The résumé writer has succeeded in sounding like most other people but have done little to communicate their value. In fact, many career and human resources experts say leave the objective statement off the résumé because it does little to define the person.

You need a headline that introduces your brand to prospective employers, but an objective statement just does not cut it. Here is an alternative suggested by Todd Henry, a creativity expert and author of The Accidental Creative. Henry advocates writing a 7-word bio. The idea is simple: distill want you do and who you are into a 7-word description. I see it as a cross between mission and position. More importantly, it has much more potential to define who you are and how you uniquely add value than the standard objective statement. Drilling down to 7 words forces us to strip away words we likely do not use otherwise that make their way into objective statements. In other words, cut to the chase and define who you are. What is the payoff of having a 7-word bio? It provides grounding and focus that guides decisions on what you adopt as priorities and how you manage relationships.

If you know a graduate preparing to launch his or her career, please share the idea of a 7-word bio. More importantly, the 7-word bio concept is not limited in usefulness to résumés. All of us can bring clarity to our personal brand by thinking in these terms. What are your 7 words?