SBJ/April 3 - 9, 2006/Opinion

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  • Mystery mentor steps in for baseball

    I stumbled into a bar last week and settled on a stool with perfect sight lines to the spring training game on the tube. Two guys on the stools to my right were engaged in a serious conversation about baseball. It was my third bar of the evening and, to be honest, I had a couple of drinks … ah hell, maybe seven, but I swear no more than that. So, what I’m about to tell you is truth as I remember it, but it may be a little fuzzy around the edges.

    Baseball is my first love and being a social sort, especially when drinking, I wanted to join the conversation. But something about their demeanor shouted: This is between pitcher and coach. No umpire needed. So I kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the game, pretending not to listen.

    That was tricky because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The younger guy, manicured and polished, his teeth whiter than a baseball, was some sort of MLB marketing executive. There he was in his custom-made pinstriped suit and a tie worth more than my whole outfit, motorcycle jacket and boots included, and he was whining about some midcareer crisis.

    (Can you imagine that? This guy’s probably pulling down mid-six figures as a baseball honcho — the major leagues! — and he has the balls to whine. I wanted to kick the crap outta him.)

    It seems that Joe Baseball’s pitching was erratic and he wanted the coach to fix his delivery. “Baseball is a tough sell,” he said. “Most teams don’t have a chance. How can you sell in those markets?”

    The coach, I gathered, had been Joe’s marketing mentor at one time. In a jacket and open collar, he was affable and more patient than I could be. He didn’t tell Joe to put a sock in it. Instead, he said, “Sell hope.” At this time, every team has a perfect record and fans can dream.

    Joe: You can’t sell dreams.

    Coach: That’s the only thing worth selling, my friend, and sports has plenty. It never loses its ability to surprise and delight. Giacomo, a 50-to-1 shot. The Steelers, a wild card. And George Mason. George Mason!

    Joe: That’s not baseball.

    Coach: OK. The White Sox. Japan losing two games in Round 2 and winning the World Baseball Classic.

    Joe: But that’s just it. We named a world champion before the season. And not even Americans.

    Man, this guy was getting under my skin.

    Coach: The WBC created excitement around the world and finally a baseball leader. It was Bud Selig’s moment.

    Joe: Steroids.

    Coach: They don’t seem to bother the fans as much as you baseball guys.

    While Joe went on complaining about the graying of baseball, and ratings, I wedged a dozen matchsticks in his shiny Ferragamos.

    Coach: All television ratings are down, but the average number of baseball viewers over the last 10 years went from 2.58 million to 2.85 million. That’s up more than a 10 percent.

    Joe: But baseball has lost its relevance to young people.

    Coach: Baseball is gaining relevance among all people. Four years ago, MLB sold 55 percent of the seats. Last year 68 percent, while last year alone the average ticket price went up 6.4 percent.

    Joe: But the average ticket price was only $21.14, less than half of an average NBA ticket and less than a third of an NFL ticket.

    Coach: That’s a bad thing?

    Joe: But there are no new hooks.

    Coach: That’s just it, Joe. Baseball renews itself. Always has. There’ll always be a natural tension between progress and tradition. Baseball has withstood the test under fire …

    But I don’t think Joe heard that because as the coach said “fire” I touched off the matches.

    It’s gonna be OK, though. The trial doesn’t start until after the World Series.

    John Genzale (johngenzale@gmail.com) is founding editor of SportsBusiness Journal.

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  • Player compensation left out of equation

    In the Feb. 13-19 issue of SportsBusiness Journal, NCAA staff member Wally Renfro presents a case why there should not be salary caps for college coaches. I completely agree with his arguments, but find it fascinating that the points he eloquently makes to support the rights of university faculty and staff members to pursue outside compensation are completely forgotten when player compensation is discussed.

    Renfro notes, “Head coaches — like everyone else in America — are paid on the basis of the perceived value they bring.” However, the NCAA takes great pride in preventing “student athletes” from having the same rights as everyone else in America. Even though faculty, staff, research assistants and even prominent students in the performing arts can seek increased compensation by brokering their services to different colleges or outside agencies, students who are successful at athletics can only receive a grant-in-aid that covers room, board, tuition and books. They are not allowed to profit from their name or their abilities. In addition, unlike other university employees, athletes in Division I basketball and football must seek permission to leave the university to compete for a different school. Even if the leave is granted, the athlete must not compete for one year.

    As recently released tax records indicate, high-level NCAA executives receive compensation well in excess of a typical “full-ride” scholarship. Myles Brand’s $870,000 salary heads a list of nine NCAA executives making more than $250,000 a year. Brand and his staff at the NCAA deserve their compensation for their efforts, as the NCAA is a well-run organization. Brand has been applauded for increasing revenue, and he has recently noted the need to enhance income-generating opportunities in the future.

    Despite Brand’s stellar efforts, few would track the minute-by-minute details of NCAA meetings in person or on television. However, consumers will purchase thousands of tickets and watch countless hours of programming devoted to the competing athletes. But since some of those athletes have their compensation artificially restricted, they cannot reap the rewards for their efforts like every other person on campus. As Renfro noted in his article, “Sometimes, it doesn’t seem fair, or to some, make sense.”

    Mark Nagel is the sport administration director at Georgia State University.


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  • What’s in a name? A success story or cautionary tale

    Creating a great brand name should be no different for a sports franchise than it is for a product or service. It begins with a communication objective: What the brand — in this case, the team — represents and what story the name should tell.

    Oliver Luck and his Houston MLS franchise found trouble
    with the 1836 name and quickly switched to Dynamo.
    What are the challenges in developing or modifying a name for a sports brand? Does anyone know that Nike is the goddess of victory? Or that NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing? Every name tells a story.

    Powerful brand names can fire imagination, trigger an emotion and be suggestive of an experience or attitude. Though names are only one ingredient, they have significant influence over how a brand is perceived.

    Sports franchises often borrow from history. The Philadelphia 76ers are named for the year of American independence. San Francisco’s 49ers capture the pioneering spirit of the California Gold Rush. Both names leverage the historical significance of specific years and the city’s role in those events.

    Relying on history to tell a story, however, is sometimes a risky alternative, as historical figures and events can be interpreted differently.

    Take 1836. When Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Texas, the organization renamed itself the Houston 1836; soon after, it renamed itself the Dynamo.

    Why? The year 1836 is controversial. For some, it is the year Texas bravely won its independence. For others, it was the year the Mexican army lost lives and territory in a bitter war.

    The Dynamo is not the first team to experience negative reaction to a name. The New Jersey Devils, the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins have all come under criticism.

    A number of colleges have changed their team nicknames to avoid, or in response to, public criticism. St. John’s, formerly the Redmen, is now the Red Storm. Montclair State University’s Red Hawks were once the Indians.

    What are the key steps involved in the naming process?

    Step 1. Know your game and how to stand out.

    • What message are you trying to communicate?
    • What are the demographics of the fan base?
    • Who are the sponsors?
    • What are the greatest moments of excitement?
    • How have the team and the sport evolved?
    • Where are they headed?

    Those in the business will know the answers to such questions, but if you hire a naming specialist, be sure he knows, or that he asks, the right questions. Use the answers to establish creative directions for name development.

    Within your sport, several naming conventions are probably already established. Look to create a name that is different from your competitors and will resonate with fans.

    Step 2. Select the strongest names for further consideration and then assess which ones tell the most compelling stories. Any names chosen should be easy to say and have no glaring negative associations.

    Step 3. Search for legal availability.

    Trademark law protects existing brand names so that over time they become a property with value. A Google search to determine whether a name is being used by another organization is not enough.

    Leave this up to the experts. It is critical that you and your counsel find a name that is legally available for use and that you properly register an available name prior to launch.

    Step 4. Research the name candidates thoroughly.

    Fans are your most passionate audience. They will also be your harshest critics if you get the name wrong. Use them as a sounding board.

    Popular vote, however, is not the most effective way to test a name. The inherent risk is that often only a portion of those who will be affected vote. In addition, voting assumes participants understand the intended communication objective or story behind each name candidate.

    Instead, names should be researched to gauge what they mean and how they may be received. Done properly, research should identify any negative associations with the names being considered.

    Step 5. Conduct cultural and linguistic screens.

    Brand names (team names included) that will be presented to people of different origins and backgrounds need an additional level of research.

    These names need to be linguistically and culturally screened by experts to reveal any unintended meanings. As the 1836 discovered, the impact of a negative association with a name can exceed the proportional size of the group that’s affected.

    David Gaglione is associate director of strategic services for Landor Associates.

    IT'S YOUR TURN TO SPEAK OUT

    Guest columns may be sent to Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, 120 W. Morehead St., Suite 310, Charlotte, NC 28202. By fax: (704) 973-1401. For further information, please contact Betty Gomes at (704) 973-1439.

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