SBJ/Dec. 14, 2009/This Week's News

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  • AF1 gets Arena Football League assets for $6.1M, plans to start playing in April

    The newly created AF1 won a court order to buy the assets of the shuttered AFL on Dec. 7, clearing the way for a relaunch of arena football in the spring of 2010.

    AF1 paid $6.1 million in a bankruptcy auction for the rights to the AFL’s intellectual property, including the names and logos of the league and all of its teams. The deal is set to close on Friday.

    Tulsa, Okla.-based AF1 is planning to kick off its inaugural season during the first weekend of April. AF1 announced plans to play in 15 markets, including Chicago, Dallas, Orlando, Tampa, Phoenix, Cleveland and Salt Lake City, all of which are former AFL markets. Other teams will be located in Huntsville, Ala.; Bossier City-Shreveport, La.; Des Moines, Iowa; Jacksonville; Milwaukee; Oklahoma City; Spokane, Wash.; and Tulsa.

    The league will be structured as a single entity, with players’ and coaches’ salaries paid by the league. Teams will sell their own tickets, local sponsorships and local media deals.

    Each team will play a 16-game schedule during a season that will run from early April to late August. Jerry Kurz, an investor in the original AFL, is the commissioner of AF1.

    “A single entity gives us the economic model that gives us buying power on behalf of the league, with so much savings to be realized,” Kurz said.

    The league does not yet have a television partner to replace the AFL’s deal with ESPN, which also owned a minority share in the league, but AF1 has hired television consultant Neal Pilson to develop a national media strategy.

    AF1 is owned equally by the league’s 15 team owners. The league plans to hire a 15-member staff to work out of its Tulsa office.

    “Each team is an equal member,” Kurz said. “We have a good group of owners who stepped up to launch the game.”

    The deal’s closing marks the official end of the Arena Football League, which shut down in 2009 after 22 seasons.

    The league was sent into forced Chapter 7 bankruptcy and then, in late August, it successfully filed to move into Chapter 11 protection.

    Proceeds of the $6.1 million sale are earmarked for Fifth Third Bank, which is owed $7.7 million and is the largest secured creditor named in the AFL’s Chapter 11 filing.

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  • British Airways account shifts to IMG Consulting

    IMG Consulting is finishing the year strong, winning the assignment as British Airways’ sponsorship agency of record in a review that took most of 2009.

    Sebastian Smith, vice president of consulting at IMG’s London offices, cited IMG’s creative ideas, global capabilities and Olympic experience as determining factors in securing the account. With the win, IMG adds an important Olympic client in the host city of London for 2012 to a roster that already includes 24 Hour Fitness, General Electric, Wrigley Canada, Cadbury in the United Kingdom and some work for LOCOG, the 2012 Games’ organizing group.

    “[British Airways now has] a global agenda in sponsorship and they want us to assist them in making sponsorship a worldwide global marketing discipline,” Smith said. Key markets for British Airways outside of the U.K. are the United States, India, South Africa and Japan.

    U.K. sponsorship agency Synergy was the incumbent and last week still had the airline listed on its Web site as a client. However, David Abrutyn, senior vice president and global managing director for IMG Consulting, confirmed that IMG has won the account.

    “This was a challenging year for every company in consulting,” he said, “but the foundation of our business has never been better, especially considering the upcoming Olympic and World Cup activation in 2010.”

    Abrutyn added that in addition to the British Airways business, IMG Consulting won Amway’s global sponsorship account a few months back. IMG Consulting is also working with McDonald’s on some of that company’s global sports properties, which include next year’s FIFA World Cup and Winter Olympics. Additionally, IMG Consulting has hired Tim McGhee, former AT&T executive director of corporate sponsorships, as senior vice president, based in New York. McGhee last worked for IMG Consulting from 2002 to 2005, when he was a group account director.

    British Airways will look to further integrate its sponsorship efforts within its “Great Britons” talent search, which seeks to reward those in fashion, the performing arts, sports, and art and design, with flights to places that could help advance their careers. IMG will also design programs to get British Airways employees involved in the 2012 Olympics.

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  • Danica + Junior = opportunities

    Danica Patrick’s representatives at IMG will soon be talking to the brands endorsed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. as both camps seek opportunities to combine the star power of the two drivers.

    Even though Patrick’s move to NASCAR has been in the works since the summer, she just last week signed to drive a dozen or so Nationwide Series races for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports, a team he co-owns with Rick Hendrick. She’ll continue to drive a full Izod IndyCar Series schedule for Andretti Autosport.

    “Now that there’s something real to talk about, we can sit with (Earnhardt’s) partners to find the right opportunities for both of them,” said Mark Dyer, senior vice president, strategic planning and development at IMG, the agency that represents Patrick and engineered her move to NASCAR. Dyer is part of an IMG team that includes Alan Zucker, Patrick’s agent from the client representation group, Tom Worcester from business development and Tom Knox from motorsports business development.

    GoDaddy.com will be the primary sponsor on Patrick’s No. 7 Chevrolet at JRM, and two other associate sponsorships are close. Primary, full-season sponsorships in the Nationwide Series run anywhere from $5 million to $7 million a year for the top teams.

    GoDaddy also sponsors Patrick in IndyCar, so the potential for sponsor conflict has been limited so far. IndyCar primary sponsorships run about the same as Nationwide team deals, in the mid-to-high seven figures.

    Additionally, GoDaddy is spending well into eight figures to sponsor Mark Martin’s No. 5 Sprint Cup car for a majority of the 36 races next year, bringing the total sponsorship spend for the domain name provider to more than $20 million. That doesn’t include GoDaddy’s significant media buy, which will include two spots for Patrick ads in the Super Bowl.

    GoDaddy also sponsored a JRM car last season and is expected to have a relationship with Earnhardt this season.

    Danica Patrick poses with her No. 7 GoDaddy
    Nationwide Series entry for next season.

    As IMG and JRM work together to fill out the sponsorship on her Nationwide Series car, the more compelling possibilities are how Patrick might work together with Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver for seven straight seasons. Earnhardt’s co-primary sponsors are Pepsi’s Amp Energy and National Guard, while he also endorses Nationwide Insurance, the title sponsor of NASCAR’s No. 2 series. John Aman, associate vice president of sponsorships for Nationwide, has said that the insurance giant is studying endorsement opportunities, which could play off Patrick’s participation in the series or her ties with Earnhardt.

    “Absolutely” there will be opportunities, Dyer said, for Patrick and Earnhardt to work together. “There are a lot of brands within Pepsi, and Dale has his own affiliation with GoDaddy and Nationwide as well.”

    Just as interesting is the potential for a brand to pair Patrick and Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley, the president of JRM who negotiated the deal with IMG to bring Patrick to the team. Kelley Earnhardt, like Patrick, is blazing trails as a woman in a profession dominated by men.

    “There are some great story lines there about Danica coming to NASCAR and the female executive who helped bring her into the sport,” Dyer said.

    Other entities can’t wait to put Patrick’s star power to use as well, given her perceived ability to drive ticket sales and TV ratings, two areas that have slumped in recent years. Chris Powell, president at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, is already devising promotional possibilities that would incorporate Patrick in a ticket-selling plan.

    Patrick has not yet committed to a race schedule, but with the Feb. 27 Las Vegas race the third event on the Nationwide Series schedule — well before the March 14 season opener in IndyCar — she is expected to include Vegas on her calendar.

    “It’s a breath of fresh air for the sport,” Powell said. “We’re hoping to create a promotion around her appearance that will be exciting for fans and potentially rewarding. What we hope is that a fan or fans will win something based on where Danica finishes. Ever since there’s been talk about her coming into NASCAR, we’ve been talking about ways to leverage her presence and profile.”

    Patrick, likewise, will figure heavily into ESPN’s promotion of the Nationwide Series, which typically begins with a brand campaign around late January, about three weeks before the start of the season. ESPN2 carries most of the Nationwide Series races, with some bouncing over to ESPN or ABC. Viewership for NASCAR’s No. 2 series was down 12.7 percent in 2009, averaging 1.8 million viewers for 35 races.

    “Danica is one of the drivers who has proven she can move the meter,” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s vice president, programming and acquisitions. “In 2005, we saw significant increases in the Indy 500 when she was a rookie. She’s a story that transcends the sport and has the power to bring in different viewers. Casual fans will gravitate to this story line. We see advantages across both of the series, Nationwide and IndyCar.”

    Dyer said the strategy with Patrick has been to position her as a NASCAR driver, not solely a Nationwide Series driver. And despite her partial schedule in NASCAR as she continues to compete full time in IndyCar, “there will be the ability to market with her yearlong,” Dyer said.

    It remains to be seen where Peak, one of Patrick’s longest-running partners, will fit in on her Nationwide or IndyCar car, but that relationship is expected to continue.

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  • ESPN sells out Christmas Day NBA games, paces well ahead for season

    ESPN essentially has sold out of its Christmas Day inventory for its five-game slate of NBA games and is pacing a double-digit percentage ahead of last year for the entire NBA season, said the network’s head of ad sales, Ed Erhardt.

    The network’s ad sales story underscores the ad sales strength of the sports marketplace.

    “The NBA is a strong media vehicle in today’s overall marketplace, not just today’s sports marketplace,” Erhardt said. “This continues to demonstrate that sports is performing very well in this marketplace.”

    ESPN would not comment on pricing. But sources said rates have increased on average by a high single-digit percentage.

    The strong ad sales also validate the NBA’s tradition of playing high-profile games on Dec. 25.

    The NBA has played games on Christmas Day since 1947, and has had games nationally televised every year since 1982.

    “We’ve built a long-standing tradition of having these Christmas Day games,” said Mark Tatum, NBA executive vice president of marketing partnerships. “Fans have come to expect these kinds of marquee matchups.”

    Tatum said many of the NBA’s marketing partners are heavily involved in the Christmas broadcasts, citing T-Mobile’s sponsorship of a halftime feature as an example. T-Mobile, which is in the second year of a three-year ad deal, will produce a “100% You” feature that will have NBA players discuss passions they have.

    Larry Novenstern, Optimedia executive vice president director of national electronic media, who represents T-Mobile, is attracted by the marketing ESPN does around its NBA Christmas telecasts, saying that it helps give the games a big-event feel.

    “It’s a destination for us,” Novenstern said. “People travel less on Christmas. The matchups are generally compelling. We think it’s a great launching pad.”

    Part of that marketing occurs on Christmas Eve, when another NBA marketing partner, Nike, is presenting sponsor of a show called “Twas the Night Before an NBA Christmas,” which previews the next day’s games.

    The marquee matchup of the day will be at 5 p.m. ET, when LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers play Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers on ABC. The broadcast network also will carry the Boston-Orlando game at 2:30 p.m. ET.

    ESPN will carry the other three games, starting with Miami-New York at noon; the Los Angels Clippers-Phoenix at 8 p.m.; and Denver-Portland at 10:30 p.m.

    Unique sponsorships include NBA partner Sprite, which signed on as presenting sponsor of the Christmas Day games.

    ESPN signed a co-branded marketing deal with 20th Century Fox, which is pushing its movie “Percy Jackson.” The two developed a co-branded spot to drive fans to the Christmas Day games.

    Other sponsorships include Orbitz, which signed as a presenting sponsor for NBA Wednesday and NBA Friday in the week leading up to Christmas; GM, which renewed its GMC NBA Countdown, which starts Christmas on ABC; LG, which will sponsor the Gametrack feature in all five Christmas games; and Flo TV, which will sponsor a “Flow of the Game” feature.

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  • First acquisition for Horne’s firm is in MMA

    Madison Avenue Sports & Entertainment, the agency started by former NHL executive Ed Horne and defense attorney Joe Tacopina, made its first acquisition two weeks ago, buying a mixed martial arts agency that represents six fighters.

    The acquisition of New York-based agency Maxum Royalty was a mix of cash and equity. Under terms of the deal, Maxum founder Jim Barry becomes a partner in Madison Avenue Sports and will work with agency partner Stuart Kudman, a transactional attorney, on the agency’s mixed martial arts business.

    “The growth of that sport is nothing short of phenomenal,” Horne said. “This is a sport we see real opportunity in.”

    Tacopina added, “It’s the wild west. It’s chaos, and chaos breeds opportunity for guys who are organized and can be trailblazers. This (acquisition) gave us entree into the business.”

    Maxum represents six fighters headlined by lightweight Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro. Ribeiro signed a multifight contract with Strikeforce and will be on a card with former football star Herschel Walker at the BankAtlantic Center on Jan. 30.

    Barry said that he chose to sell the business to Madison Avenue Sports because of the “brand credibility,” resources and support the agency offered. He will work out of the agency’s New York office on Madison Avenue.

    The mixed martial arts business is only the latest addition to Madison Avenue Sports, which began operations in early October. It also opened an office in Montreal and expanded its staff from two to 12 employees.

    “Clearly, we’re going to look to expand the business as necessary and as opportunities come about,” Horne said. “We want to make sure we grow it properly and with some strategy behind it.”

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  • FoxSports.com sports a redesign

    FoxSports.com on Tuesday plans to introduce a substantial redesign of its site, the first such move since the network’s digital sports operations were shifted earlier this year from Fox Interactive Media to the Fox Broadcasting Group.

    The new look was developed in-house with the aid of New York-based design and software development outfit Code And Theory. The redesign has been in the works for months and features an increased focus on video, improved site navigation and a dramatically redesigned scorebar compared with the current site. The customizable scorebar, rather than sitting at the top of the page as is customary for mainstream sports sites, will be placed at the bottom of each page and move with the users as they scroll down an individual page on the site.

    Site improvements include easier navigation.

    Jeep has signed on as a rebranding partner for the effort, and the redesign created some additional advertising slots on the site, as well. Also included in the new-look site is a deepened operational link between FoxSports.com and Fox Sports Radio.

    “We think we’ve gone a long way to improving the user experience and content discovery on the site, and reducing the clutter that was present in our prior look,” said Jeff Husvar, Fox Sports Interactive senior vice president of operations. “[Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill said he wanted this new site to pop, and we think we’ve done that.”

    The redesign continues an active year for FoxSports.com. Earlier this fall, the site deepened its existing content syndication and advertising sales partnership with independent blog aggregator Yardbarker. It also launched a noontime suite of weekday online programming called “Lunch With Benefits.” In July, Fox Sports struck a multiyear deal with Open Sports to have the Mike Levy-led startup create and manage the network’s fantasy sports games.

    Husvar said the redesign would not necessarily increase the traffic to FoxSports.com in the short run. Rather, the move is more directly aimed at improving engagement and overall content consumption on the site, metrics becoming increasingly important to advertisers.

    The work with Code And Theory also yielded a new senior executive for FoxSports.com. As part of the redesign, Husvar hired Code And Theory managing director Matt Calos to become the new chief product officer for FoxSports.com.

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  • Golf Channel’s new studio: Just add the sand

    Golf Channel will kick off the new year by introducing a fully overhauled studio complete with high-definition cameras, a host of new technology and one feature that network executives believe cannot be found on any other studio show in the world.

    “We’ve even got a sand trap,” said Dan Overleese, vice president of operations at Golf Channel.

    New technology includes the addition of an AboutGolf brand simulator and a 23-by-13-foot video screen that will expand the capability of golf instruction shows and analysis shots made during PGA Tour and LPGA tournaments. AboutGolf has image rights to six courses on the 2010 PGA Tour schedule, including Pebble Beach and St. Andrews.

    A big video screen works as part of a shot
    simulator. A corner of the sand trap is at
    lower right.

    Golf Channel has long-term exclusive cable deals with the PGA Tour and LPGA.

    The new studio also includes upgrades from SportsMedia Technology, including interactive touchpoint screens, telestrators and update scrolls linked to scoring programs operated by the different golf tours.

    There were three news and interview sets built into the 4,700-square-foot studio during its last overhaul in 2003. “The Golf Fix,” the network’s lead instructional show, was shot on a portable set that was wheeled in front of a small projector covered by a net.

    The studio now has what Overleese calls four “environments.” The shot demonstration area has a putting green, sand trap, tee box, fairway and two cuts of rough. There is also an analysis area in front of the touch screens and a new interview set. The anchor desk used for the network’s “Golf Central” news show pivots 180 degrees to provide different background looks and more depth of field.

    Other updates include overall design, lighting and other infrastructure. 

    The changes are part of a facilitywide upgrade to high-definition. Previously, only live coverage of events and nonstudio original programming aired in HD.

    Golf Channel declined to disclose the price of the upgrade, but said a wider variety of sponsored elements should help offset the costs.

    The design was completed by Jack Morton/PDG, which has worked on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” the NBA on TNT, MLB Network, Showtime and NBA TV. Construction was handled by Massachusetts-based Mystic Scenic Studios, which has built sets for ESPN, NESN and CN8.

    Comcast-owned Golf Channel launched its own HD network in November 2008 and is now in 26 million homes. The new studio will debut on Jan. 4 with “Golf Central.”

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  • Knight on Tiger: Endorsements come with risk

    Nike chairman and co-founder Phil Knight has long been regarded as one of the sports industry’s leading innovators, his influence stretching across the entire sports landscape. He was in New York last week being honored as the National Football Foundation’s 2009 Gold Medal recipient, the organization’s highest award. Before the ceremony, Knight, who wore blue jeans, a sport coat and black tennis shoes, spoke to SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Tripp Mickle at the Waldorf-Astoria.

    How would you characterize the state of athlete endorsements right now?
    Knight:
    It’s a market like other things and the market like other markets has gone down. When the economy comes back up, they’ll go back up.

    Knight

    When?
    Knight:
    You tell me when the economy is going to get better and I’ll tell you right about that same time.

    You look at someone like Tiger Woods and this episode of infidelity. Does this change the concept of building brands around athletes?
    Knight:
    Not for us. It’s part of the game.

    Does a company like Nike or another company run a risk in building brands around athletes?
    Knight:
    There’s always a risk. One of the things we always try to do when we have a big endorsement is check out the character and the pattern of the individual. But you’re not going to get it right all the time, and if you’re going to be in the business you have to recognize that.

    With Tiger, a person who was believed to be of more upstanding character beforehand, is it possible to check for everything?
    Knight:
    Obviously, he was one we checked out and he came out clean, and I think he’s been really great. When his career is over, you’ll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip, but the media is making a big deal out of it right now.

    How has the business really changed with the arrival of a new competitor like Under Armour?
    Knight:
    That’s always been part of the game. Even when we were a footwear business — now, we’re footwear, clothes and equipment — but in footwear we had 50 competitors every year and two or three of them would drop off and two or three of them would come in. There’s always someone like Reebok or Under Armour who can come in and make a big splash. It’s a very competitive business.

    What’s the sports business story you’re watching most right now?
    Knight:
    We’re looking at all sports all the time. I think the thing you’re looking at going into the new year is the World Cup.

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  • MLBPA warns NCAA on player questionnaires

    MLB Players Association Executive Director Michael Weiner criticized as unfair the NCAA’s recent inquiries into negotiations between MLB clubs and college-eligible baseball players who turned down pro contracts, warning that it could spur further legal action against the NCAA.

    Weiner

    “This is an area of concern for the union,” Weiner said. Asked whether the MLBPA could take action over the matter, Weiner said, “We will consider our legal options.”

    The NCAA sent out questionnaires in August to student athletes who were drafted by MLB clubs in June but did not sign contracts, according to multiple sources. The questions included whether their advisers had direct communication with MLB clubs — a violation of an NCAA regulation but a common practice, according to agents and other industry sources.

    “I am getting calls from parents all over the country, saying, ‘Our kid is being called in to be questioned about this questionnaire our kid filled out,’” said Richard Johnson, attorney for former Oklahoma State pitcher Andy Oliver, who won a $750,000 settlement from the NCAA regarding the regulation.

    Chuck Wynne, NCAA director of communication strategy, declined to comment on Weiner’s statements. “We don’t comment on current, pending or potential investigations,” he said.

    The questionnaire, sent out by the NCAA Eligibility Center, included a release for players to sign that would allow MLB and its clubs to provide the NCAA with information regarding negotiations by them or their representatives with clubs.

    It is unclear whether MLB or its clubs are cooperating with NCAA inquiries. Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president of labor, said in an e-mail, “I don’t intend to comment on the NCAA issue.”

    In the Oliver case, an Ohio state judge found the regulation “arbitrary and capricious” and said it violated the public policy of the state of Ohio and every state in the union. But that ruling was vacated when Oliver — who agreed to a contract with the Detroit Tigers in August — agreed to settle the case.

    Now agents are concerned that the NCAA’s inquiries could decrease MLB draftees’ market value. Some players could be suspended and miss college playing time, while others may not hire an experienced adviser to help them determine their fair-market value, agents said.

    Agents requested anonymity for fear of becoming targets of NCAA investigators.

    Weiner, in a telephone conversation last week, said the MLBPA was aware of the questionnaire and the release form. “As you would expect, we think that athletes, when they are deciding to sign a professional contract, should have representation,” Weiner said. “They should be able to obtain the best professional advice available. That advice should include, in our view, the ability to have their representative communicate directly with the professional club that drafted them.

    “What the NCAA did, one, we think is unfair and, two, is likely to lead to more disputes along the lines of some of the disputes that have already arisen.”

    In addition to the Oliver case, University of Kentucky pitcher James Paxton is seeking a court order preventing the school from requiring him to submit to an NCAA interview. Johnson, who is also the attorney for Paxton, said the university has failed to notify Paxton of what rule he is being accused of violating.

    Paxton returned to Kentucky for his senior year after turning down an offer from the Toronto Blue Jays, who drafted him this summer. He is suing the university, but the NCAA is not named as a defendant in that case, filed earlier this month.

    In its response to the lawsuit, the University of Kentucky said that Paxton was told that an Aug. 18, 2009, article published in The (Toronto) Globe and Mail prompted the NCAA to request an interview.

    In that story, Toronto Blue Jays President and CEO Paul Beeston indicated that he never spoke to Paxton or his family but dealt directly with Paxton adviser Scott Boras, who rejected the team’s signing bonus offer. “Because it was Scott, the way that you deal you deal through him. You don’t deal through the family,” Beeston was quoted as saying.

    Beeston did not respond to an e-mail. A Blue Jays spokesman did not return a phone call or reply to an e-mail. Boras’ agency said in an e-mail that it does not comment on pending litigation.

    Meanwhile, players are confused as to how to deal with the NCAA’s questionnaire and release form. The form states that if the student does not provide accurate information to the NCAA Eligibility Center, his eligibility to play college ball could be negatively affected.

    The NCAA’s Wynne, asked what would happen to students who didn’t fill out the questionnaire or sign the release, said, “To tell you in a straight-forward manner what we would do, there are so many nuances, I can’t do that,” Wynne said.

    One agent said he was advising athletes to tell the NCAA Eligibility Center that the information they were seeking was protected by attorney-client privilege.

    “If every NCAA athlete responded the same way to the questionnaire, what is the NCAA going to do?” the agent said. “We are not going to have NCAA baseball next year?”

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  • NBA launches India site with live games, highlights

    The NBA is rolling out its first digital effort in India with the launch of NBA.com/India, another step in the league’s quest to build its international fan base.

    The site, to be launched today, is sponsored by NBA partners HP and Reebok.

    “Our fan base is growing in India, and with half of the population under age 25, digital media will be an important way for us to engage our fans,” said Heidi Ueberroth, president of NBA International. “Not only will NBA.com/India provide fans with direct access to NBA games and unique content, it’s also a key vehicle for our partners.”

    HP and Reebok are sponsoring the site.

    The Web site will include weekly live game broadcasts, video highlights, columns from two India-based NBA reporters and blogs from Los Angeles Clippers guard Baron Davis and Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash. NBA.com/India will also promote weekly live telecasts of NBA games, which are available on ESPN and Star Sports on Friday and Saturday mornings in India, and make available subscriptions to up to 40 games each week on the NBA’s League Pass Broadband.

    The new site is an effort to tap into India’s growing interest in basketball.

    Since 2008, the NBA has been raising its profile in India with a variety of events, including its Basketball Without Borders initiative, youth clinics, court refurbishments and player visits. The league is planning to open an office in New Delhi sometime next year as it works with the Basketball Federation of India on a grassroots level to expose the game to fans in India.

    “India is an important market for the NBA and one where we see significant growth potential for basketball,” Ueberroth said. “The new destination will provide Indian fans a comprehensive experience and keep them informed about their favorite players and teams. In addition, fans will be able to get instructional information about the game on the site.”

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  • NBA launches India site with live games, highlights

    The NBA is rolling out its first digital effort in India with the launch of NBA.com/India, another step in the league’s quest to build its international fan base.

    The site, to be launched today, is sponsored by NBA partners HP and Reebok.

    “Our fan base is growing in India, and with half of the population under age 25, digital media will be an important way for us to engage our fans,” said Heidi Ueberroth, president of NBA International. “Not only will NBA.com/India provide fans with direct access to NBA games and unique content, it’s also a key vehicle for our partners.”

    HP and Reebok are sponsoring the site.

    The Web site will include weekly live game broadcasts, video highlights, columns from two India-based NBA reporters and blogs from Los Angeles Clippers guard Baron Davis and Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash. NBA.com/India will also promote weekly live telecasts of NBA games, which are available on ESPN and Star Sports on Friday and Saturday mornings in India, and make available subscriptions to up to 40 games each week on the NBA’s League Pass Broadband.

    The new site is an effort to tap into India’s growing interest in basketball.

    Since 2008, the NBA has been raising its profile in India with a variety of events, including its Basketball Without Borders initiative, youth clinics, court refurbishments and player visits. The league is planning to open an office in New Delhi sometime next year as it works with the Basketball Federation of India on a grassroots level to expose the game to fans in India.

    “India is an important market for the NBA and one where we see significant growth potential for basketball,” Ueberroth said. “The new destination will provide Indian fans a comprehensive experience and keep them informed about their favorite players and teams. In addition, fans will be able to get instructional information about the game on the site.”

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  • Nets eye pricing on bonds for new arena

    The New Jersey Nets this week are expected to complete pricing of $500 million in tax-exempt bonds to help finance construction of the Barclays Center, one of the last steps needed before the beleaguered franchise can begin building a new arena in Brooklyn.

    Nets Sports& Entertainment executives have spent the last two weeks pitching the bonds to institutional investors across the country. The bonds are set to be priced sometime this week. Another $150 million worth of bonds will be issued later. If all goes accordingly, the Nets must then set a master closing date on the Barclays Center, which will be the final step in what has been a protracted and costly effort by the team to move to Brooklyn.

    The team faces a Dec. 31 deadline to begin construction
    or risk losing naming-rights sponsor Barclays.

    The team must beat a Dec. 31 deadline to begin building the arena or risk losing Barclays as the naming-rights sponsor of the nearly $800 million arena. Barclays last year gave the Nets a yearlong extension to build the arena, and the bank has the option to walk away from its naming-rights deal if the team fails to begin construction by the deadline.

    “We expect to have the master closing by the third week in December,” said Brett Yormark, president and chief executive of Nets Sports & Entertainment. “And then there will be a mobilization of heavy equipment and brand messaging with signs around the site.”

    The Nets hope to close their chapter at
    the Meadowlands and move to Brooklyn.

    Nets officials want to move into the arena sometime during the 2011-12 season, a movethat team executives hope will breathe new life into the franchise, which has been hemorrhaging cash since Bruce Ratner bought it for $300 million in 2004. Ratner is awaiting approval from the NBA to sell 80 percent of the team and 45 percent of the Barclays Center to Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov for $200 million. The Nets are considering playing next season at the Prudential Center in Newark. The decision will be finalized after the team completes its master closing on the Barclays Center.

    “The bond sale clears the path to the new arena,” said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports consultancy. “There will be some procedural steps, but it looks like, after all this time, the Nets have the green light. But if it doesn’t happen, there will be a whole host of problems, including the team sale and sponsorships deals.”

    The Nets are struggling as mightily off the court as they are on it. They recently set an NBA record by losing 18 consecutive games to start the season.

    According to a Dec. 8 report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by Forest City Enterprises, the company controlled by Ratner, Nets Sports & Entertainment saw nine-month revenue drop for the period ended Oct. 31 to $49.7 million, compared with $59.5 million for the same period a year earlier. But Nets Sports & Entertainment’s net loss for the quarter was $14 million, the same quarterly loss as last year. The nine-month loss as of Oct. 31 was $53 million, the same as for the nine-month period last year.

    “We saw [the revenue decline] coming and did some cost savings,” Yormark said. “We’ve become more efficient.”

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  • Nets eye pricing on bonds for new arena

    The New Jersey Nets this week are expected to complete pricing of $500 million in tax-exempt bonds to help finance construction of the Barclays Center, one of the last steps needed before the beleaguered franchise can begin building a new arena in Brooklyn.

    Nets Sports& Entertainment executives have spent the last two weeks pitching the bonds to institutional investors across the country. The bonds are set to be priced sometime this week. Another $150 million worth of bonds will be issued later. If all goes accordingly, the Nets must then set a master closing date on the Barclays Center, which will be the final step in what has been a protracted and costly effort by the team to move to Brooklyn.

    The team faces a Dec. 31 deadline to begin construction
    or risk losing naming-rights sponsor Barclays.

    The team must beat a Dec. 31 deadline to begin building the arena or risk losing Barclays as the naming-rights sponsor of the nearly $800 million arena. Barclays last year gave the Nets a yearlong extension to build the arena, and the bank has the option to walk away from its naming-rights deal if the team fails to begin construction by the deadline.

    “We expect to have the master closing by the third week in December,” said Brett Yormark, president and chief executive of Nets Sports & Entertainment. “And then there will be a mobilization of heavy equipment and brand messaging with signs around the site.”

    The Nets hope to close their chapter at
    the Meadowlands and move to Brooklyn.

    Nets officials want to move into the arena sometime during the 2011-12 season, a movethat team executives hope will breathe new life into the franchise, which has been hemorrhaging cash since Bruce Ratner bought it for $300 million in 2004. Ratner is awaiting approval from the NBA to sell 80 percent of the team and 45 percent of the Barclays Center to Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov for $200 million. The Nets are considering playing next season at the Prudential Center in Newark. The decision will be finalized after the team completes its master closing on the Barclays Center.

    “The bond sale clears the path to the new arena,” said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports consultancy. “There will be some procedural steps, but it looks like, after all this time, the Nets have the green light. But if it doesn’t happen, there will be a whole host of problems, including the team sale and sponsorships deals.”

    The Nets are struggling as mightily off the court as they are on it. They recently set an NBA record by losing 18 consecutive games to start the season.

    According to a Dec. 8 report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by Forest City Enterprises, the company controlled by Ratner, Nets Sports & Entertainment saw nine-month revenue drop for the period ended Oct. 31 to $49.7 million, compared with $59.5 million for the same period a year earlier. But Nets Sports & Entertainment’s net loss for the quarter was $14 million, the same quarterly loss as last year. The nine-month loss as of Oct. 31 was $53 million, the same as for the nine-month period last year.

    “We saw [the revenue decline] coming and did some cost savings,” Yormark said. “We’ve become more efficient.”

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  • Panthers talk to likely food service partners

    The Carolina Panthers are talking to three firms about taking over the food and retail operation at Bank of America Stadium as early as the 2010 season, according to team officials.

    Stadium Food and Beverage, a division of the team, has managed food service in-house for 12 years in Charlotte. Volume Services America, now Centerplate, ran concessions and premium dining during the Panthers’ first two years at their facility, before the club bought out its food and retail contract.

    The Panthers have talked with Aramark, Delaware North Sportservice and Levy Restaurants, part of Compass Group, the world’s largest food provider, whose North American headquarters is in Charlotte. Levy runs the food service at Time Warner Cable Arena, home of the Charlotte Bobcats.

    Todd Smoots, director of Stadium Food and Beverage, has been involved in the discussions and said a new deal would involve some type of partnership between the two firms. The Panthers acquired the Smoots family business, Eli’s Catering, in the late 1990s, and together they developed Stadium Food and Beverage.

    “We are obviously very happy with Stadium Food and Beverage … but there is always room to improve,” said Richard Thigpen, the Panthers’ general counsel involved in the discussions. The team expects to make a decision on a new concessions partner in the next two months, Thigpen said.

    The Panthers have managed their food service
    in-house for the past 12 years.

    Carolina is one of only three NFL teams operating concessions on their own, along with the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. The Panthers went “self-op” to gain greater control of food service, said former president of stadium operations Jon Richardson in a 2003 interview.

    But it’s a big challenge for any club due to the tremendous amount of time and money required to invest in equipment, staff and training to run a smooth operation, said Bill Caruso, a consultant the Charlotte Bobcats hired to develop their arena food operation.

    “Traditionally, NFL teams have focused on outside management professionals to provide the level of quality fans expect,” Caruso said.

    The Panthers feel it makes sense to seek alternatives for concessions, Thigpen said.

    “Part of it is good practice to take a look at what other venues have done, and part of it is the economy,” he said. “Times have changed now versus five years ago. That’s why we’re taking a look.”

    In a recession that has affected most teams in pro sports, the Panthers could be seeking a cash infusion. Concessionaires have traditionally provided millions of dollars in guarantees above the normal contract terms and revenue splits, Caruso said.

    At the same time, food and merchandise vendors are also feeling the pinch, he said.

    “If the team needs money, there might be a little more leverage to the concessionaire, but in reality, the competition [for food contracts] is still great,” said Ken Young, president of Ovations Food Services. “The percentages given to the team just may not be as high.”

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  • Skin care brand agrees to sponsor USA Swimming

    At a time when many of sports’ biggest advertisers have cut back on sponsorship spending, USA Swimming has looked elsewhere and netted a sponsorship with a skin care brand called CeraVe that is new to sports.

    A subsidiary of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International and a product of Coria Laboratories, CeraVe has signed a four-year deal with USA Swimming to become an official sponsor alongside AT&T, Mutual of Omaha and others. Financial terms of the deal, which is expected to be announced today, were unavailable.

    CeraVe made its debut as a USA Swimming partner with advertising spots during NBC broadcasts of the AT&T Short Course National Championships on Saturday and will advertise again during the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool on NBC (Dec. 27, 2-4 p.m.). It also receives signage, activation and sampling rights at 6,800 sanctioned swim meets, and advertising on swimnetwork.com.

    The deal is CeraVe’s first sports sponsorship. USA Swimming approached the brand after it sponsored a recent meet in New Jersey. The CEO of its parent company Valeant, Mike Pearson, is friends with USA Swimming President Jim Wood and found swimming’s family-friendly atmosphere appealing, said USA Swimming chief marketer Matt Farrell.

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  • Skipper rallies ESPN around World Cup

    On a recent Friday in Bristol, Conn., John Skipper sunk his right hand into a white paper lunch bag at the front of ESPN’s cafeteria and skipped his fingers across a dozen blue raffle tickets. A group of approximately 35 ESPN employees looked on as the ESPN executive vice president of content made the first selection in the company’s mock World Cup draw.

    “I feel like Sepp Blatter,” Skipper said as he drew a country’s name from the bag.

    It should surprise no one these days that Skipper feels like the president of soccer’s international governing body. Over the last four years, he’s become one of the sport’s biggest advocates, and as the elaborate mock draw showed, he’s willing to go to great lengths to promote the sport as ESPN prepares to broadcast the 2010 World Cup.

    Skipper has high hopes and expectations for the World Cup, and he should.

    Around the Bristol campus, he is considered the architect of ESPN’s soccer strategy. Acquiring the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup for $100 million in 2005 was the first significant thing Skipper did after being named to
    ESPN’s top content position. The performance of next summer’s event will either validate or invalidate that move and go a long way to determining the future of ESPN’s other soccer properties, MLS, English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga.

    Soccer has seen its ups and downs on ESPN. MLS, which ESPN spends $8 million a year to broadcast, generated a modest ratings increase in 2007, David Beckham’s first year, but has failed to exceed a 0.2 cable rating on average. Broadcasts of the EPL this fall on ESPN2 have been similarly underwhelming, averaging 263,000 viewers over 19 games. But those results haven’t undermined Skipper’s conviction that soccer and the World Cup will succeed in the U.S.

    “I believe that in 2010 the U.S. sports nation will participate with the rest of the world in the world’s most glorious sporting event, the World Cup,” Skipper said. “I’m very confident the ratings will be up this year (from 2006). My only concern is how high is up.”

    During the 2006 World Cup, Soccer United Marketing owned the U.S. rights while ESPN televised the games in a partnership, averaging a 1.9 cable rating and 1,735,000 households.

    For ESPN, winning eyeballs for soccer’s signature event starts at home, where the company is attempting to convince its employees to enthusiastically embrace the World Cup. ESPN has erected a towering, 50-foot-long countdown clock at the center of its campus to remind employees how many days and hours remain until the event begins. It also assigned each employee a team to root for during next summer’s competition. (If you’re looking to cozy up to Skipper in the next six months, just ask him about his team, Cote d’Ivoire.)

    “We’re trying to rally our employee base around a great sporting event that many of them have never really connected with before,” said Russell Wolff, ESPN International’s executive vice president and managing director.

    Skipper said that most ESPN employees are more familiar with basketball, football, baseball and hockey. He added, “You can’t force things like this, so what we’ve tried to do is invite people to participate in the magic and fun (of the World Cup) by giving them entry points.”

    As important as it is to win support among employees, ESPN’s effort extends far beyond its staff. The company will promote the game across all of its platforms over the next six months with creative that features ESPN’s 2006 World Cup theme, “One Game Changes Everything.” It also plans to dedicate 24 consecutive hours to soccer ahead of the first game of the World Cup in an effort reminiscent of its recent college hoops promotion.

    The campaign was developed by Wieden & Kennedy. The first spot aired during the draw and a second will debut during the BCS championship game on ABC. ESPN executives say it’s the largest marketing investment for a single event ever undertaken on the network.

    The effort behind the marketing of the event extends to production, as well. Not only will ESPN take its signature show “SportsCenter,” on-site for a month and have 10 reporting units following teams during the event for the first time, it also plans to air 50 special segments on Africa before and during its Cup coverage and send all four of its announcing teams to call all 64 games on-site, another first for ESPN.

    “That’s what happens when you’re made a company priority,” said Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer of remote production. “Good things happen.”

    JOHN SKIPPER
    ESPN EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, CONTENT

    The effort won’t be cheap. The company plans to send more than 150 people to South Africa, an expensive proposition in itself. But the total cost of the rights fee, marketing, promotion and production remains a fraction of the more than $800 million NBC spent on the Beijing Olympics. Granted, the ratings also will be a fraction of the 16.2 average rating that the Olympics garnered for NBC in prime time.

    “Soccer works for us financially pretty easily because it’s just not that expensive,” Skipper said.

    ESPN already has signed up four major advertisers for the event and hopes to sign eight before the event begins. Skipper declined to disclose who the advertisers will be. Eight sponsors would make it 75 percent sold, and it will fill out the rest of the inventory with smaller advertisers.

    “I think we’ll end up sold out,” Skipper said, “but we’re not there yet.”

    Shortly before Skipper’s mock drawing for the World Cup, he told a story about a recent dinner he had with a player from the Nigerian national team that played in the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. The Nigerian said the team went to a mall during the tournament in their tracksuits and people assumed they played basketball.

    After ESPN’s production of the 2010 World Cup, Skipper said he hopes the Nigerian team and others like it won’t go unrecognized. He added, “I consider that a measure of our success this time if that doesn’t happen.”

    SportsBusiness Daily Assistant Managing Editor Austin Karp contributed to this report.

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  • Sox put cold-weather tricks to use

    There’s plenty of hot air blowing through Fenway Park right now that has nothing to do with the Red Sox-Yankees feud.

    As the Red Sox ready the 97-year-old ballpark for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, they are using lessons learned from keeping workers warm during seven years of offseason stadium renovations to help with preparations.

    In addition, Boston-based executives Kevin Haggerty and Rich Roper for the club’s food, retail and facility services provider, Aramark, have worked at Soldier Field and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Together with the NHL’s experience operating three outdoor games dating to 2003, they know what it takes to operate older facilities in the cold.

    Boston’s average New Year’s Day temperature is 31 degrees, so the three parties developed a plan to prevent water pipes from freezing and shutting down the flow of liquid required to operate 14 permanent stands and 11 portable grill carts on the main concourse, and three of the park’s largest stock rooms for vendors.

    A rendering of the Winter Classic setup at
    Fenway (top); the NHL’s Dan Craig took
    ice-making equipment to Boston last week.

    The Red Sox covered the cost to install 35 temporary wooden doors to block entries to the seating bowl, and set up three high-powered, refrigerator-size heaters to blow hot air on the now-enclosed main concourse.

    “We [focused] in on areas that are not winterized, the concourses, rest rooms and concession stands, spaces where the plumbing is normally shut off for the winter,” said Jonathan Gilula, Red Sox executive vice president of business affairs.

    The heaters have been fired up since Nov. 18 and will continue operating during the Flyers-Bruins game when a sellout crowd of 38,000 fans passes through the turnstiles.

    The heaters are expected to raise the concourse temperature to 75 to 80 degrees in the next two weeks before the doors are removed on game day, said Haggerty, Aramark’s resident district manager.

    “That will allow us to operate as if it was baseball in the summertime, so we will have all the water we need to disperse soft drinks and boil water for hot chocolate and coffee,” he said. “Water also drives the steamers to cook soups and hot dogs. We need that supply.”

    Selling food and drink in Fenway’s outfield bleachers and Green Monster seats on a winter day is a different story. Water pipes in those areas are exposed to the elements and there is no way to control the heat to keep them warm, said Don Renzulli, the NHL’s senior vice president of events and entertainment. Aramark will be limited to serving bottled and canned beverages but does have heat sources to cook hot dogs.

    Managing crowd flow at concession stands throughout the park will differ compared with baseball’s leisurely pace. Aramark’s strategy to meet the crush during two intermissions includes beefing up the number of vendors roaming the stands and adding more portable carts, Haggerty said.

    Aramark’s facility services division has a snow removal plan should it need to get rid of the white stuff on game day. The vendor bought 300 snow shovels and can bring 250 additional workers on site in the middle of the night to clear the stands and concourses, Haggerty said.

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  • Talkin’ bout my (revenue) generation

    The Who aren’t playing at halftime of Super Bowl XLIV until Feb. 7, but an expanded line of cross-licensed merchandise from the NFL and the British rock legends is on sale now.

    The NFL and the Super Bowl halftime act generally combine to license some apparel around the NFL championship. This year’s line from about 15 licensees includes non-apparel licensed goods for the first time, including NFL/Who posters, Zippo lighters, glassware from Boelter and a variety of products from hard-goods licensee WinCraft. Apparel licensees include Reebok and Junk Food, a pre-existing Who licensee that has sold its Who/NFL line to Bloomingdale’s.

    As for the traditional Super Bowl licensing program, which annually accounts for $100 million or more in retail sales, this year’s licensee list has about 95 licensees with products as diverse as USAopoly’s Super Bowl team-specific Monopoly game, Baby Fanatic’s Super Bowl sippy cups, Destination Maternity’s Super Bowl maternity apparel and Strategic Partner’s Super Bowl scrubs. New licensees include Longaberger, which makes baskets, and Tiffany & Co., the longtime manufacturer of the NFL’s Vince Lombardi championship trophy who was not a licensee until recently.

    About 15 licensees have goods tied to The Who’s
    Super Bowl appearance. The mix includes non-
    apparel items for the first time.

    “They’ll be making crystal commemorative Super Bowl products,” said Leo Kane, the NFL’s vice president of consumer products, “so don’t expect any miniature licensed Lombardi trophies.”

    New products and licensees aside, new teams or teams with championship pedigree, like the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers, are always important factors in determining how much Super Bowl licensed product sells.

    “As of today, we have eight of 12 teams that would qualify for the playoffs that haven’t won a Super Bowl or haven’t won one in 10 years or more,” Kane said recently, “so that’s something we’re looking at, not to mention the prospect of two undefeated teams meeting in the Super Bowl for the first time.”

    While that would likely generate heavy product sales, the likelihood of it happening is minimal. At press time, the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints (whose run has pushed them from 17th in sales on NFL.com to 10th) remained undefeated, but there have only been four undefeated seasons in NFL history. Of course, this is also the first time there were two 12-0 teams in the same NFL season.

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  • Tennis tours consider banning on-site betting booths

    The men’s and women’s professional tennis tours are considering banning betting booths on site at their events, the latest development in the sport’s effort to combat gambling.

    Restrictions on sports gambling in the United States means the potential ban would not affect the tours’ American events. But in Europe and Australia, where tennis is more popular, gambling on site at sporting events is common.

    The Tennis Integrity Unit, formed in May 2008 in the aftermath of a betting scandal, recommended the ban to both tours.

    “We do have a proposal on the table to explicitly prohibit betting booths on site at our events,” a WTA spokesman said. The ATP declined to comment, but a source close to the tour confirmed that the Tennis Integrity Unit had also submitted the recommendation to the men’s group’s board of directors last month.

    Davydenko retired with an
    injury from a 2007 match
    in Poland that featured
    suspicious betting patterns.

    This source said the recommendation was made in part because the move would be seen as a good symbolic gesture, but that there was a strong feeling at the tour that the booths themselves did not represent a serious problem for the game.

    Jeff Rees, who runs the Tennis Integrity Unit, which is funded in part by the tours, referred questions to the ATP and WTA.

    In the summer of 2007, betting companies halted wagering during a match in Poland between heavily favored Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello. Despite Davydenko leading in the match, bets swung heavily against him, and indeed he lost after retiring with an injury.

    Davydenko denied any wrongdoing and was cleared, but the incident exposed the access to information, such as news about injuries, that bettors can have on site at tennis events. Some players also, in the wake of the incident, noted bettors approaching them to throw matches. The ATP and WTA, and other tennis bodies, formed the Tennis Integrity Unit the following year, one of 15 recommendations the tours adopted that came from an “integrity review.”

    Some of the other recommendations included restricting locker room access to only players and critical personnel; a review of the accreditation process for tournaments; and creation of an anti-corruption program.

    The ATP and WTA are not obligated to accept recommendations made by the group.

    “With the commitment made by all tennis governing bodies to protect the integrity of the sport, we are all looking to take the steps required to achieve this goal,” the WTA spokesman said.

    The source close to the ATP skeptically wondered whether, if the booths were banned, those companies instead would just set up shop outside the grounds of the events. While betting on tennis is minimal in the United States, it is a major pastime in Europe and is often linked to official sponsors.

    In 2007, then Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Chief Executive Larry Scott pushed to have the booths banned, but was unsuccessful.

    “Historically, there has been a cultural divide, with Europeans … having refuted the notion that what fans can do on site could have a connection to integrity issues and the U.S. taking a more stringent approach,” said Scott, now the Pac-10 Conference commissioner, last week. “In order to convince Europeans, you would have to have some rationale to support there is a connection, that it is somehow harmful to the integrity of the sport or the image of the sport.”

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  • Versus’ renewal includes 2 UFC matches

    The UFC is coming to Versus as part of a two-year renewal that the Comcast-owned network signed with the mixed martial arts association’s parent, Zuffa.

    Versus will telecast two live UFC matches next year, in addition to seven from the WEC, MMA’s division for lighter weights, also owned by Zuffa. As part of the deal, Versus plans to stream one additional WEC fight per fight card exclusively to Versus.com.

    Versus also is planning to produce many hours of shoulder programming around its WEC fights, including previews, best knockouts and a review of the best fights.

    But the biggest part of the deal is UFC, which has produced some of the most popular programming for Spike TV, which will continue to telecast many of its fights.

    The move to Versus, though, is important as it represents the most mainstream sports outlet to carry live UFC matches. Fox Sports Net regionals carried UFC events in the past, but those were telecast on tape delay.

    Following on the ratings and ad sales success of its WEC programming, Versus didn’t hesitate to bring on the UFC.

    “We recognize that mixed martial arts is one of the fastest-growing sports genres,” said Versus President Jamie Davis.

    Davis said MMA is becoming more mainstream, saying that the sport has been sanctioned by 42 states. Earlier this month, for example, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick agreed to regulate the sport.

    Davis also pointed to mainstream advertisers that have come on board, rattling off a list that includes Bud Light, Warner Bros., Wrangler and Burger King.

    “The negative stigma is going away as these state commissions keep sanctioning it and these big advertisers keep supporting it,” Davis said.

    For Davis, the move to sign UFC was an easy one to make. Versus’ WEC fights were the network’s highest rated, and brought in significantly younger audiences. The average Versus viewer is 45 years old. The average Versus viewer during WEC telecasts is 36.

    “It’s bringing in a new audience that hasn’t watched us before,” Davis said, adding that Versus promotes its other sports, like the Tour de France, college football and the NHL, during WEC telecasts.

    Versus first signed the WEC to a deal in January 2007. After one year, it signed a two-year renewal.

    Versus has a WEC fight scheduled for Dec. 19. Its first one under the new deal is scheduled for Jan. 10 from Sacramento.

    WEC fights have brought some of the biggest audiences to the network. This year, it has averaged 637,000 viewers through seven live WEC events. Its June 7 fight between Urijah Faber and Mike Brown drew 1.248 million viewers.

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  • Winter Classic taking Luukko back to shrine of his youth

    On his first trip to Fenway Park as a 7-year-old Cub Scout, Peter Luukko’s senses were overwhelmed. Bats cracked during batting practice, the scent of warm hot dogs floated through the air and the grass glowed under the outfield sun.

    Fenway Park, he discovered, was every bit as magical a place as he’d imagined.

    “You grow up in Boston and hear about how special a place it is, then you walk in and it’s everything you thought it would be,” said Luukko, president and chief operating officer of Comcast-Spectacor, which owns the Philadelphia Flyers. “Fenway Park is a shrine.”

    Luukko, 50, looks forward to revisiting Fenway and enjoying an entirely new experience there during the NHL Winter Classic, the league’s third annual New Year’s Day outdoor game. That day, he will be pulling for his current team, the Flyers, against the one he grew up cheering and dreaming of working for, the Boston Bruins.

    Over more than two decades, Luukko has built a reputation as a hard-working arena operator and effective team president, but he traces the roots of his career in sports business beyond his first job in 1985 at Spectacor Management Group to his upbringing in Massachusetts.

    Comcast-Spectacor’s Peter
    Luukko at the Winter Classic
    announcement in July

    During his years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Luukko and a friend arranged bus trips to Fenway Park for college students. They would sell tickets that included the bus trip, bleacher seats for a Red Sox game and all-you-could-drink beer.

    “You knew that he was a special guy as soon as he came out of school and came to work for us,” said Tony Tavares, the former Anaheim Ducks executive who first hired Luukko to work for SMG. “He was bright and had a great sense of humor and a great work ethic.”

    Luukko has used the ingenuity he showed as a college student over the last four months to help the Flyers make the most of the Winter Classic even though the event is taking place in another market. The Flyers used a portion of the approximately 5,000 tickets allocated for the game to craft a special travel package. For $1,600, fans could buy a package that includes round-trip train transportation and two nights of hotel accommodations. The team sold out all 353 available packages and ran out of available space on the trains.

    The club reserved another portion of its tickets for roughly 30 key sponsors it plans to bring to the event, as well. While none of the sponsors are up for renewal this year, Luukko said the event offers the opportunity to show them the added value of being a Flyers team partner.

    Winter Classic merchandise sales have been robust in Philadelphia. The NHL expects to double sales of merchandise from the 2009 Winter Classic for this year’s game between the Flyers and Bruins. The Flyers have sold $93,592 in Winter Classic merchandise year to date. When the team played at home Nov. 27, the club had a $7 per cap in part because the Flyers’ official Winter Classic jersey debuted. The team has sold 150 jerseys, 300 knit caps and 108 Chris Pronger Winter Classic T-shirts.

    “Even though not everyone can go, they want to buy the Winter Classic hat, gloves and T-shirt because we’re in it,” Luukko said.

    Luukko’s excitement about the event rivals that of any Flyers fan. He grew up playing pond hockey and remains a Boston Red Sox fan, so to see a hockey game played at Fenway thrills him.

    “I don’t think in anyone’s wildest dreams they would see the Bruins and an NHL game at Fenway Park,” he said. “To be able to go outside like that and have a game that counts in the standings is fantastic.”

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