SBJ/January 24 - 30, 2005/Opinion

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  • My old school is back in session

    I have been told a number of times in the past year that I am old school. That was said both as a compliment and in a less-than-favorable context.

    In my definition, old school adheres to the values, considerations and social contracts that have been at the core of civilized society. Events that have transpired in the world of sport over the past month have me thinking that perhaps the business of sport could use a little more old school.

    How can we improve sports in such a way that our business remains moving in a positive direction? In 2005, let’s resolve to:

    1. Restore integrity to the playing fields and arenas.
    We all know what constitutes cheating, and steroids certainly fit that definition. Spectator sports are dependent upon sportsmanship, fair play and the unpredictable nature of competition, which ensures an opportunity for any team to win on any given day.

    Fans have too many other entertainment options to settle for anything less, and fan retention has never been more important than it is today. So, regardless of who has cheated, let’s move ahead and clean it up.

    Old School Award: To the rank and file of the MLBPA (not its leadership). They recognized the disconnect cheating causes on and off the field and pushed their leadership to negotiate a strict drug-testing policy to restore integrity to the game and preserve fan interest.

    2. Establish safer facility experiences for fans and players.
    Without dredging up the incidents that occurred last year in professional baseball and basketball, we must work to ensure that the fan’s biggest decision at a sporting event is what to purchase at the concession stand, not where the safest place is to sit.

    Perhaps the ancient Romans had it right by designing a stadium where the fans had no access to the gladiators. But is this what we want?

    Professional sports franchises, particularly those in the NBA, have worked hard to cultivate a player-fan connection and provide opportunities for interaction. Such relationships are built upon mutual appreciation and respect.

    For the fans, opposing players are competitors and worthy adversaries. Abusive player-baiting behavior has no place in sports at any level. The players must be less concerned about being “disrespected” and more concerned about playing hard and competing as a team.

    Old School Award: To NBA Commissioner David Stern for his quick and decisive action in disciplining his players.

    3. Emphasize values that the fans identify with and appreciate.
    One of the biggest complaints I hear from fans who have defected from particular teams or, in some cases, from a sport in general is, “I can’t identify with the way they play the game today.”

    Another refrain often heard is, “It’s a team game. The players today don’t appreciate that. They put themselves above the team.”

    Oftentimes the sport played at the highest levels doesn’t resemble the sport that fans once played. Values that are ingrained in many fans are not apparent in today’s grab-the-cell-phone-and-dance, score-25-points-on-10-for-35-shooting, and charge-the-pitcher’s-mound world of professional sport.

    Players, coaches and general managers need to understand that there is a rapidly growing disconnect between them and the ticket-buying public that supports them and address that gap before it becomes a chasm.

    Old School Award: Orlando Magic GM John Weisbrod, who is overseeing a team resurgence on and off the court. His philosophy is that the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back.

    4. Make affordable family entertainment a priority.
    Attending a sporting event should be something that can be enjoyed by the entire family more than once a year.

    All professional sports offer discounted or specially priced ticketing packages. Some even offer Family Night packages that include food and game tickets for one fee.

    I just wish it were available on a more frequent and widespread basis. Attending a sporting event has to be an entertaining and ultimately memorable experience. After all, outside of a few souvenirs and some occasional heartburn, all the fan leaves with is a memory.

    Old School Award: To Mike Veeck and all the other owner-operators of minor league baseball franchises who live this on a daily basis.

    Why did I single out Veeck? Because his motto is “Fun is good.” Who can argue with that?

    You might ask if there are any opportunities in professional sports to witness old school behavior and values. The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

    Everything I have described is readily available at any WNBA game or LPGA event. Values, respect, safety, affordability, reciprocity, player-fan interaction, teamwork and fun are commonly found in women’s professional sporting events. But they should be integral to all sporting experiences for players and spectators alike.

    So, sports marketers and managers, if you want to be a little more old school in 2005, go for it. Your fans and your bottom line will appreciate it.

    Bill Sutton ( is a professor at the DeVos Sports Business program at the University of Central Florida.

    Print | Tags: Baseball, Basketball, LPGA, MLB, NBA, Opinion, Orlando Magic, WNBA
  • Serve honey, or stick ’em with a pitchfork?

    Pitchfork and honey. In Asia, is Nike using one, the other, or both at the same time? It’s an intriguing situation offering lessons for aspiring multicultural marketers.

    China’s State Administration for Radio, Film and Television recently banned a Nike TV commercial featuring LeBron James in a battle with a cartoon kung fu master. Some Chinese consumers viewed Nike as offending the nation’s dignity. According to The Wall Street Journal, some Chinese complained on Internet bulletin boards that “All Chinese were defeated in the end, even China’s totem dragon.” Another said, “This is hurting China, showing Chinese people are incapable.”

    No doubt Nike and celebrated agency Wieden & Kennedy did their due diligence before releasing the spot. In fact, the company’s marketing director in China said: “We were encouraging the idea that players can overcome their fear internally … to improve themselves. We believe that this kind of approach is very Asia-relevant.”

    If Nike did stub its toe, the company should heed the sage advice of a sales trainer from my past who said, “The most important thing is not what you say, it’s what the listener hears.”

    However, it is too quick to suggest Nike blew it; the opposite may eventually prove true. We are watching a high-stakes wager that being provocative will sell more shoes than being courteous. Consider that not too long ago Nike offended sensibilities in Singapore, a city known for its tidiness, by plastering ads on bus shelters. Perhaps corporate imperialist arrogance will still rule the day.

    Was Nike’s banned TV ad a cultural blunder? Maybe not. This is a high-stakes wager that being provocative sells more shoes than being polite.
    Think about it: Who are Nike’s potential customers, Deng Xiaoping contemporaries or the sons of Tiananmen protesters? In the 1950s the establishment equated rock ’n’ roll with acts of Satan long before Mick Jagger requested Sympathy for the Devil. Pioneer rock promoters were censored — and subject to witch hunts, too — but rock ’n’ roll is now still alive and regularly featured during Super Bowl halftimes.

    Not that long ago the NBA solidified its comeback with street-talking, smash-mouth basketball. It’s hard to fathom that well-heeled fans and corporate season-ticket holders would stand for gangsta rap at quarter breaks, yet David Stern’s posse balanced it with the awesome talents of NBA athletes.

    So then how do you, the well-intentioned team marketing director, approach the mysterious cultural divide and sell more stuff while avoiding embarrassment (and getting fired)? Should you introduce your property with a provocation?

    Probably not. In most situations your best chances for success lie in a culture-centric approach with depth, texture and liberal doses of respect.

    Your first duty is determining exactly who your potential customer is, who influences and who makes the purchasing decision. You will see dynamics in traditional Latino households where machismo (Dad is king) still exists, but the strong influence of Mom has emerged from obscurity.

    Find out what’s going on by engaging professional social scientists to perform clear-headed research. Refresh it periodically since multicultural audiences are rapidly changing. Rarely does one size does fit all. Not only are there considerations such as country of origin, language and cross-generational acclimation levels, but all the while the acculturation factor is stirring the melting pot of American culture.

    Coke smartly demonstrated an understanding of its audience years ago by playing not only to youths, but also to Moms who made the actual purchases in the grocery store. Together with the Houston Rockets they created the BasKIDball Promotion that staged basketball clinics on Saturday mornings in the parking lots of retail grocery partners. Coke paralleled the fundamentals of basketball with those of good nutrition. This promotion nicely crossed ethnic lines. Radio messages combining good eating and playing lessons ran throughout the season on English and Spanish language radio stations. And clinics were held in a variety of ethnic neighborhoods within the largest city in the South.

    Unless you happen to be promoting Cheech and Chong Night at your ballpark, don’t fall prey to cultural stereotypes. For decades we have been conditioned by images like fat, sweaty Sergeant Garcia stupidly chasing Zorro. Rid your mind of these thoughts by getting the real story firsthand. Make a point of having an occasional meal in multicultural neighborhoods, or go to a movie theater, participate in a fund-raiser or attend a church service. The grocery store is the hub of social activity, so plan on checking out the scene Saturday mornings. Chances are you will see many similarities to your own families, but the differences will be distinct and instructive.

    Now, tell your story in ways that signal you understand and believe in your audience by choosing themes that resonate. Draw upon earnest emotions such as struggle, celebration of community, spirit and respect. Develop these stories beyond your advertising through strategic philanthropy throughout their communities.

    Your property has many options of good things to say to emerging audiences. Take your time and do it right. You can’t afford not to invite them to the your table and serve honey.

    Tom Cordova ( is principal of Orlando-based Cordova Marketing Group, which specializes in multicultural marketing, venue naming and marketing plans for leagues, teams and entertainment properties.

    Print | Tags: Basketball, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, NBA, Opinion, Wieden Kennedy
  • Steroid policy has promise, if MLB’s union comes along

    Baseball’s half-a-loaf steroid policy is the product of many bakers. Credit for the long-overdue change is due to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, politicians such as President Bush and Sen. John McCain, and players who see the risks that performance-enhancing drugs pose to the integrity of the game and to their own health.

    It’s significant that the steroid-testing policy was negotiated by the commissioner’s office and the players’ union outside the established collective-bargaining process. The MLBPA is the strongest and most aggressive union in U.S. sports, and for many years it was inconceivable that the union would make any concession in this style.

    That the union agreed, in effect, to reopen the contract is a reflection of player pressure on the issue. While players were leading, the union leadership seemed reluctant to go too far. Critics say the drug ban should be stronger, but union chief Don Fehr was quoted thusly: “I will be surprised if over time this [new policy] doesn’t take care of the problem virtually completely.”

    The ability of management and the union to come together on a steroid policy suggests it may be possible for the two sides to compromise on other matters for the good of the game. But the foot-dragging by the union leadership suggests it won’t be easy.

    Print | Tags: Baseball, MLB, Opinion
  • This Week's Cartoon

  • Votaw leaves gains, challenges for future

    LPGA Tour Commissioner Ty Votaw, who is stepping down at the end of the year, can be proud of what was accomplished during his seven-year tenure.

    What’s the record? Votaw scaled back the number of tour events but grew LPGA purses from an average of $840,000 per event to about $1.4 million. Total purses will reach a record $45 million in 2005. He oversaw the tour’s rebound from the post-9/11 economic downturn to become a property with a healthy sponsorship roster. The tour is more diverse and representative of the global game of golf than ever before.

    Votaw’s lasting legacy could be the Five Points of Celebrity program he has championed since 2002 to push players to be more cognizant of the way they relate to fans and to get players exposed in more entertainment and pop-culture marketing vehicles.

    Yet Votaw leaves a tour that still has plenty of question marks. Players’ purses are still far inferior to those for the men; total purse for the men’s tour is about $250 million for 48 events. Some marketing approaches have been questioned: Did sponsoring a car in last year’s Daytona 500 really resonate with NASCAR fans? Could those resources have been better allocated? Many argue that the LPGA’s players still are undermarketed on Madison Avenue. With stars like Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie, the game is brimming with personalities. Its TV ratings have failed to show the steady growth Votaw has wanted.

    The LPGA has lots of advice to consider in finding a replacement. Should it be a brand marketer? A former player? A television and new-media guru? LPGA Tour player Rosie Jones said, “It might be time for a woman commissioner.” It certainly might. The most important criterion, though, is to pick the person who will be best able to build on the progress that Votaw has made. Said Votaw recently, “I’m confident I’m leaving the organization in a better place than I found it.”

    We agree, but the work is far from done.

    Print | Tags: Golf, LPGA, NASCAR, Opinion
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