SBJ/October 22 - 28, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

New on the trend list: Outdoor hockey games and naming-rights feuds

In an industry where good ideas get copied as fast as some teams change quarterbacks, it doesn't take much to start a trend. Once an idea has been successful with one sports property, it's picked up quickly and repeated across the country.

Here are two recent newsworthy items to put on the sports business copy machine.

ORIGINAL IDEA: Michigan State staged an outdoor hockey game in Spartan Stadium and drew a Saturday night crowd of 74,554.

WHY IT WILL BE COPIED: Logistics of playing outdoor hockey in October aside, this type of staging could help hockey reach new fans at every level.

It has long been observed that the most compelling advertisement for hockey is seeing a live game. Unlike other sports that translate well for television, hockey is best appreciated not at home but rather in an arena where the speed and the skill of the sport are more evident.

Demonstrating the appeal of a live game, however, is a challenge. Tickets for NHL games are expensive and in many cities difficult to obtain. While some NHL clubs are fortunate to play to near-capacity crowds, it makes it difficult to expose the game to new fans.

The success of the MSU hockey game was due in small part to the novelty of outdoor hockey and the appeal of the opponent, the University of Michigan. But what made this idea a resounding success was that it allowed access to the game. There are many serious hockey fans in East Lansing who cannot get tickets to see the Spartans play in 6,470-seat Munn Ice Arena, where a sellout streak dates from 1985. And newer fans who were curious about the sport could attend the outdoor game at a small cost (tickets cost as little as $10).

It's not surprising that a Detroit Red Wings executive commented soon after the game that his team would look into playing games in the capacious Ford Field when it opens in 2002.

ORIGINAL IDEA: Lowe's Motor Speedway president threatens to tow NBC/TNT broadcast vehicles from the Charlotte-area track unless Lowe's name is included in on-air references.

WHY IT WILL BE COPIED: While future showdowns between venues and broadcasters probably won't involve tow trucks, this confrontation will likely be a seminal event in the wording of future naming-rights and broadcast contracts.

The conflict was settled before track President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler towed the network trucks when Lowe's shifted enough advertising dollars to NBC sports programming to ensure on-air references to the track's full name. It is interesting to note that the pressure on NBC didn't come from Lowe's but from Wheeler, who brokered the naming-rights deal a few years ago.

The situation in Charlotte will serve as a case study that will make venues, sponsors and broadcasters even more careful of the wording in contracts.

Wheeler's position could certainly be understood. He was fighting for exposure that was a big part of what Lowe's expected when it signed the deal. In the past, broadcasters wouldn't quibble about mentioning the full name of a corporate-named venue, but the extremely tight advertising climate has put broadcasters in a less-than-generous mood.

As networks struggle to bring in ad dollars, they won't be too pleased with giving free mentions to companies that don't make ad buys during the broadcasts. The conflict in Charlotte will make all parties take another look at their contracts and assess their positions. With the future for ad spending looking bleak at best, this type of confrontation will undoubtedly occur again.

Alan Friedman (alanf100@excite.com) is the founder of Team Marketing Report.

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