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  • After six years of tape delay, ESPYs returning to live

    ESPN will air its annual awards show, the ESPYs, live this year for the first time in seven years.

    The move comes after a ratings drop that saw the program post its second lowest rating ever last year. Its 1.5 U.S. household rating was down significantly from 2008’s 2.3, and the 1.705 million homes that tuned in marked just the second time in six years that the show attracted fewer than 2 million homes.

    For the last six years, the show has aired four days after the live show, while winners have been made public and highlights shown on the network. ESPN officials said that the four-day lag between the event and the telecast proved to be too long.

    This year’s show will be held July 14 in the Nokia Theater at L.A. Live. Actor Samuel L. Jackson and singer Justin Timberlake have hosted the past two editions of the show. A source said ESPN is negotiating with a member of the “Saturday Night Live” cast to host this year’s version.

    This year, ESPN will use a delay during its telecast, but does not know how long it will be. Typically, ESPN uses a seven-second delay for live events such as this.

    “Our taste meter will be the same as it was during the edited telecast,” said Maura Mandt, an executive producer with ESPN. “There hasn’t been that many times that we took out scenes because we didn’t want it to happen.”

    “Nothing will significantly change with the show,” Mandt said. “In today’s world, immediacy is so much more important. We’re not in a 24-hour news cycle anymore. We’re in a 20-minute news cycle.”

    The ESPYs launched in 1993 as a live event that was held in New York for the first seven years. It eventually moved to Las Vegas, then Los Angeles.

    The show moved to a tape-delay in 2004 in hopes that it would get more viewers and allow for more backstage moments to be telecast.

    This year’s edition plans to use social networks during the telecast. ESPN plans to have athletes and presenters tweet and post Facebook updates during the show.

    Mandt said a live fan vote will be used for one category, though organizers have not figured out which category yet.

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  • Athletes seeing strength in Hope

    They lined up for autographs and photos like grade-schoolers, eager to meet their hero. At the San Diego Padres’ fan-friendly training complex in Peoria, Ariz., such sessions are hardly a rare occurrence. Except that this time the major leaguers were the ones waiting patiently, chatting nervously, paper or baseballs in hand. And at the end of the line sat Muhammad Ali.

    Ali and his wife, Lonnie, visited the Padres camp earlier this month on behalf of the nonprofit organization Athletes for Hope. Founded three years ago by former SFX executive Ivan Blumberg and a group of highly visible current and former athletes that included Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong, Mia Hamm, Tony Hawk, Jeff Gordon, Mario Lemieux and Cal Ripken Jr., Athletes for Hope aims to help individuals and teams make a positive contribution to their communities, and to society at large.

    “You’d be surprised how many want to do good but don’t necessarily have the vehicle,” Blumberg said.

    It seemed critical to include Ali. He constructed the template for social involvement by an athlete by refusing to serve in the Army during the Vietnam War, though it meant the loss of his heavyweight title and his license to box, and has spent the last two decades championing social causes. Fortunately, he agreed. “We didn’t have time to do this,” Lonnie said. “But it was too important not to.”

    Athletes for Hope’s Ivan Blumberg joined
    Muhammad Ali and wife Lonnie at
    a recent gathering.

    Athletes for Hope has 1,000 members across 50 sports, but the Padres presentation was the first time it had met with a Major League Baseball team. Ali was on hand to give it credibility, to capture the attention of players early on a chilly morning, and to provide an object lesson in what it can feel like for an ordinary fan to gain access to a favorite athlete.

    When he entered the room, helped by Lonnie and an aide, the entire team stood and applauded. For the hour they spent in his presence, at least, none of these millionaire ballplayers seemed the slightest bit jaded or cynical. Instead, it was as though they were 9 years old again.

    “It’s such a thrill,” said pitcher Mike Adams, who stood in line for 10 minutes for a photo with The Champ.

    Ali is one of the tools that Blumberg uses to get athletes to engage with the idea of philanthropy. Another is an audience-participation exercise that has them move around the room in response to questions. Do you think that giving back to the community is an obligation for a major leaguer? If so, stand over here. Or is it merely an opportunity? Fine, stand over there. Can a rookie make as big an impact as a superstar? Is time less important, as important, or more important than writing a check?

    “There are no right answers,” Blumberg would say later. “The beauty of the interaction is that the athletes come to their own conclusions. It’s not a workshop, it’s a conversation.”

    Athletes for Hope’s immediate goal is to get athletes more involved in community service and charity work. Occasionally, it happens through their own foundations, though Blumberg discourages that. “The leagues would tell you that too many professional athletes have foundations but don’t operate them efficiently,” he said. “For 98 percent of the athletes out there, it’s a bad idea.”

    Instead, he tries to match players with existing organizations in hopes of finding one that inspires a lasting relationship. “Most of our guys definitely want to do something,” said Bud Black, the Padres manager and a 15-year big leaguer. “I think finding that niche, something they feel passionate about, is the challenge.”

    Athletes for Hope is fully funded by five revenue streams, including private and corporate donations and the seed money from the founding athletes. All Blumberg asks from a player is permission to have a staffer make a 15-minute follow-up call in order to create a database of his interests, as well as ways in which he feels comfortable contributing. After that, the organization will work — in conjunction with each team’s community relations staff, in the case of team sports — to unite him with an appropriate charity.

    Padres players and staff were all smiles with The
    Champ in attendence at training camp.

    It isn’t always easy. Etan Thomas of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder started with a personal appearance on behalf of Kaboom!, which builds playgrounds in his native Harlem. Then he did poetry readings with kids and worked in prisons in Washington, D.C., where he was playing for the Wizards. All of those were fulfilling, but they still felt like obligations. It was only after Thomas underwent surgery to repair a leak in his aortic valve that he developed a strong interest in the American Heart Association. Athletes for Hope facilitated the match, Thomas filmed a public service announcement, and has since helped with fundraisers. If asked, he says he’d agree to be a national spokesman.

    “I’ve worked for Athletes for Hope now with a lot of different things, and they’ve been able to make connections for me,” Thomas said. “It’s definitely not all talk. I would recommend them to anybody.”

    In a few small but tangible ways, Athletes for Hope appears to be changing the culture of sports philanthropy. Soon after it launched, the organization pitched the U.S. national women’s soccer team. Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and the team’s few other celebrity names had long since retired, and the players who remained figured they weren’t famous enough to make much of a difference. Perhaps individually they weren’t, but Blumberg sold them on the value of the national team brand and the concept of doing charity work together.

    Now each time the team travels, someone calls the Athletes for Hope staff asking to be paired with a needy local charity. That validates Blumberg’s contention that it isn’t just superstars who can aid a cause.

    “Over time, we’ll have the ability to mobilize thousands of athletes,” he said. “The next time there’s a Hurricane Katrina or a catastrophe in a place like Haiti, the ability to communicate with and mobilize thousands of athletes will make a difference.”

    His long-term goal is even more ambitious: to weave a sense of community responsibility into the fabric of youth sports. He’d like every Little League or Pop Warner season to include some service component, and for high school teams to volunteer regularly. That program is being rolled out this summer in six markets in anticipation of a national launch in 2011.

    If it works, the next generation of major leaguers won’t need to see Muhammad Ali — or even Ivan Blumberg — to understand and appreciate the opportunities they have to make a positive impact on ordinary lives; they’ll have been doing it since childhood. “We believe that within a decade we’ll have moved the needle on that significantly,” Blumberg said. “Ultimately, we hope, it will be part of every sports team’s DNA.”

    Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado.

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  • CAA and SUM partner to get U.S. ManU tour

    A year after running competing soccer tours in the U.S., CAA Sports and Soccer United Marketing are partnering in an effort to bring the world’s biggest club — Manchester United — to North America this summer.

    The two sports marketing companies are attempting to bring Manchester United over for what would be a multi-city tour that would be headlined by the MLS All-Star Game at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Sources familiar with the deal say Manchester United tentatively agreed to a four-stop tour that also would include Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto.

    Terms of the agreement between CAA and SUM were not available. Both organizations declined to comment.

    Manchester United last toured the U.S. in 2004 as part of the Champions World Series, which also featured Celtic, Liverpool, AC Milan and others. The club brought mostly reserve and youth players for exhibition games that year in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Average attendance over the three games was 62,684.

    If the club returns this summer, it’s unlikely that it will bring its first team and star players like English forward Wayne Rooney and Brazilian midfielder Anderson because many of those players will have World Cup commitments. Even without its biggest stars, though, the Glazer-owned soccer club has the power to draw spectators.

    “Manchester United is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, brands on the planet,” said John Guppy, founder of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing. “It’s a challenging year with player availability after the World Cup and it remains to be seen what squad they will bring over, but it’s still exciting that they want to come back to the U.S. market.”

    The partnership CAA and SUM established in an effort to bring Manchester United to the U.S. marks the first time the two organizations have worked together since competing against each other last summer.

    In 2009, CAA organized a six-game exhibition tour featuring AC Milan, Inter Milan, Chelsea FC and Club America. The CAA tour, which was known as the World Football Challenge, posed a threat to SUM’s position as the exclusive event marketer and organizer for U.S. soccer tours. It also threatened to detract from SUM’s 2009 soccer events, the Gold Cup and an FC Barcelona tour.

    Ultimately, both groups were able to pull off their respective events without damaging each other, leading soccer stakeholders to name last year “The Summer of Soccer.” CAA’s World Football Challenge averaged 56,136 spectators over six games and 152,000 Hispanic households on ESPN Deportes for six matches. Meanwhile, the Gold Cup final drew close to 80,000 fans at Meadowlands Stadium, following a quarterfinal doubleheader at Cowboys Stadium that attracted 85,000. FC Barcelona drew a crowd of 61,572 fans for a game against Chivas de Guadalajara at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.

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  • Citizen Sports deal came after SI took a pass on company

    Citizen Sports Network is set to become a part of Yahoo!, with the closing of the high-profile acquisition slated to occur as soon as this week. But that deal came about in part because minority owner Sports Illustrated passed last year on purchasing majority control of the company.

    SI struck a sales and content relationship with the venture in May 2008, representing the former ProTrade for ad sales and using Citizen Sports Network’s Facebook-oriented fantasy games to re-establish a presence in that burgeoning space. SI then quietly acquired a minority stake in Citizen Sports Network, estimated by industry sources at 18 percent, later that year. But Jeff Price, president of SI Digital until April 2009, said he could not get approval from SI parent Time Inc. on a third deal he had begun to work out early last year to purchase the remaining equity.

    “I am thrilled for Citizen Sports, am a very big believer in their model, and this is a great pickup for Yahoo!,” Price said. “In fact, this is basically the same deal I tried to do.”

    Price resigned from SI shortly after his Citizen Sports Network purchase attempt fizzled amid heavy staff cutbacks throughout Time Inc. He is now president and publisher of Sporting News, owned by SportsBusiness Journal parent American City Business Journals.

    Executives for both Citizen Sports Network and SI declined to comment. Industry sources said SI will be treated like any other Citizen Sports Network investor in terms of recouping funds at closing from the sale of the company. It is not yet determined whether Yahoo! will maintain any sales or operational tie with SI for the venture after the deal closes.

    “It’s premature to say what will happen there,” said Jimmy Pitaro, Yahoo! vice president of media, upon the announcement of the purchase earlier this month. “We’ve had no conversations with SI yet, but we’ll take a fresh perspective, and we’d love to work something out.”

    Financial terms for Yahoo!’s purchase of Citizen Sports Network have not been disclosed. Unofficial estimates from industry observers have ranged between $30 million and nearly $50 million, veering more toward the lower figure.

    The deal will be used to strengthen Yahoo!’s presence within Facebook and on mobile platforms. Those are core areas for Citizen Sports Network and key elements for its rapid audience growth while being relatively weaker areas for Yahoo!.

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  • Disney steps to the plate with MLB

    Disney and Major League Baseball are combining for a cross-licensing deal that will mix the marks of two of the biggest names in sports and entertainment merchandising.

    The retail licensing program is one MLB has pursued for a decade and expands the business relationship between the two companies, giving MLB ties to Disney’s youth marketing empire, while global merchandise king Disney gets distribution within MLB’s established channels for licensed sports products.

    The licensing program will include caps, apparel, novelties and possibly children’s footwear. While some limited product combining Mickey Mouse and other classic Disney cartoon characters with MLB logos could be at retail as soon as next month, the program will officially launch at retail in and around the July 13 All-Star Game being held in Disney’s hometown of Anaheim.

    Another part of the agreement will see Mickey Mouse/MLB statues placed throughout Anaheim during All-Star Week, similar to the Gateway Arch models scattered around St. Louis last July and the Statue of Liberty/MLB-logoed replicas around New York City during the 2008 All-Star Game. About 67,000 10-inch-tall replicas of those MLB Statues of Liberty were sold. Given the power of Mickey Mouse and other venerable Disney cartoon characters at retail, MLB hopes that 100,000 of those replica statues will be purchased this year.

    Because of Disney’s enormous power at retail globally, MLB has been seeking an alliance for about a decade. “Kids are always a major focus as baseball, or any sports property, looks to bring more fans under its umbrella and into its park,“ said one senior licensing executive with knowledge of the deal. “That’s why this works so well for them.”

    Sources pointed to Stephen Teglas, vice president and general manager of Fashion & Home for Disney Consumer Products, and Howard Smith, MLB senior vice president of licensing, as the principal architects of the deal.

    Disney’s $30 billion in annual global consumer products sales is nine to 10 times that of MLB’s. Baseball and its licensees should get a huge boost from sales generated by All-Star Game-related merchandise, but the program is designed to last longer than that. For example, there has already been talk of spring training-themed products for next year’s Grapefruit League season.

    Mickey Mouse/MLB statues
    will be placed throughout
    Anaheim during All-Star
    Week, similar to the replicas
    of the Statue of Liberty used
    in New York City for the
    2008 event.

    Some of MLB’s largest licensees have signed on, including on-field cap rights holder New Era, as well as VF, whose Majestic Athletic brand holds exclusive MLB uniform rights. Also in the mix is New Era’s 5th & Ocean apparel brand, along with novelty/accessory licensee Team Beans/Forever Collectibles, which will make the Mickey Mouse/MLB statues. There will also be cross-licensed pins and plush.

    Aside from sales gained by combining some of the most powerful logos in licensed products, the deal should increase distribution for each licensor. It will push sales of Disney product into the sporting goods specialty channel, where MLB has a strong presence. The Disney-MLB merchandise will also be sold in MLB parks and team stores. Conversely, the cross-licensed merchandise will also be sold in Disney parks, through the hundreds of Disney-branded mall-based stores and possibly in Disney’s department store distribution channels, an area where MLB licenses are weak.

    “The game being in Anaheim means there will be a good market for event-based merchandise, and beyond that, nothing’s more apple pie and America than baseball and Disney,” said Gene Goldberg, former NFL consumer products vice president and now an independent consultant. Goldberg recalled the NFL doing some limited-event merchandise with Disney, but never a full-blown program. “One of the problems [Disney] had with the NFL was that we were doing cross-licenses with quite a few characters, so as long as they keep it special, it should work.”

    Cross-licensing is not new, but Disney is as protective of its marks as any big merchandiser, so any deal is significant. Cross-licensing for large sports properties was a byproduct of the 1990s licensing boom. MLB cross-licensed with Snoopy and Peanuts, Looney Tunes and Betty Boop. The NHL had a kids line with the Muppets, while the NFL combined its intellectual property with classic cartoons such as The Flintstones, Looney Tunes, Garfield and The Pink Panther.

    “Both companies have to back down a little on their normal percentages to make these deals work, but it’s also important for them to use what is essentially a new brand [combined] on new products to further extend the cachet,” said independent licensing consultant David Schreff, who marshaled similar deals while serving as president of the NBA’s media and marketing group and president and COO of Marvel Entertainment, now owned by Disney. “If the license extends that far, there should also be a real opportunity in baseball-Disney premiums.”

    The licensing relationship with Disney is the latest evolution of what appears to be swelling business ties with MLB. Disney’s ESPN unit is a longtime MLB rights holder, and last year, the two parties staged an All-Star Game promotion around Disney’s “G-Force” movie.

    The MLB-Disney licensing alliance follows a small run of cross-licensed NBA-Disney licensed T-shirts sold during last year’s Orlando Magic-Los Angeles Lakers Finals.

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  • DuPont races back to offer more NASCAR hospitality

    DuPont’s once-robust NASCAR hospitality program suffered enormous cuts last year, but the longtime Jeff Gordon sponsor is back in 2010 with more guests and events at each track.

    Just a few years ago, DuPont had the largest hospitality program in NASCAR, hosting 20,000 people a year at every race on the Sprint Cup circuit. Their guests ranged from body shop owners who used DuPont paint to building contractors who bought the Tyvek brand of house wrap. The company would bring as many as 1,000 people to a race, and virtually the entire focus of the sponsorship was based on creating business-to-business activity.

    DuPont entertained customers with meals, question-and-answer sessions with Gordon and bags of swag, all the while making new relationships or deepening existing ones.

    But DuPont hospitality was largely a casualty of the recession in 2009. Instead of entertaining at all 36 Cup events as it had done in the past, DuPont cut back to six races and just 2,000 guests, 10 percent of what it used to do. DuPont wasn’t the only corporate entity slashing its spend. Tracks reported that revenue from hospitality was down 20 to 25 percent last year.

    DuPont, No. 75 on the Fortune 500 list with more than $30 billion in annual revenue, said the cuts last year were reflective of cost-cutting measures companywide.

    The Jeff Gordon sponsor realized the importance
    of hospitality to its sales.

    What DuPont discovered, though, was how important the hospitality program was to its sales. So in 2010, it’s back with hospitality events at 23 races and it’ll entertain about 4,000 to 5,000 guests.

    “It’s really a reflection of the value we place on our clients and customers,” said Larry Deas, DuPont’s motorsports manager. “It’s something that we absolutely missed last year. … But the cutbacks in 2009 weren’t necessarily supposed to be the new reality, it was just something we had to do for our current situation.”

    DuPont’s revival in 2010 comes at a pivotal time in its sponsorship, having renewed its league deal as the official auto finish, a distinction it has had since 2003.

    The team deal with Gordon and No. 24 car owner Hendrick Motorsports expires at the end of this year and renewal discussions are ongoing, although it’s uncertain if DuPont will maintain its current commitment level as the primary sponsor for 75 percent of Gordon’s Sprint Cup races. National Guard and Pepsi are the other sponsors on Gordon’s car.

    DuPont owns the longest-running driver-sponsor-owner relationship in NASCAR, having sponsored Gordon since he first started driving the No. 24 in 1992. The hospitality piece has been a staple of the program since it began.

    “We look at DuPont as a great indicator of what’s happening on the corporate side,” said Jerry Caldwell, vice president of sales and marketing at Bristol Motor Speedway. DuPont did not buy hospitality at Bristol’s race earlier this month, but will be entertaining at Bristol for the August race.

    “When DuPont pulled back, we all saw that as a sign of things to come in 2009,” Caldwell said. “Even though they’re not back to where they were, they’re coming back and that’s the important thing. They know the value and they know it’s important to their business. It is an indicator that the economy is slowly turning around.”

    Even though hospitality took a 20 percent to 25 percent hit at most tracks in 2009, Deas said he has not found a significant reduction in rates. It can often cost as much as $5,000 to $10,000 to rent a tent, which is just the start of hospitality costs. Bristol’s Caldwell said that tracks are focusing on different ways to add value rather than slashing prices to lure sponsors back.

    Deas said he didn’t find the tracks any more flexible with pricing this year than in previous years.

    “The initial proposals from the tracks were consistent with the past,” he said. “We work with a lot of tracks and certain folks are more understanding of our situation than others, but there wasn’t a lot of difference.”

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  • Ebersol: Players should do TV interviews

    With ESPN having cleaned up the language in its broadcast contract with the NFL to ensure that payments to the league continue even during a possible lockout next year, every football broadcaster is fully in that camp.

    This angers the union, which maintains that the networks are siding with management and financing the NFL’s ability to lock out the players next year when the collective-bargaining agreement expires. As such, the NFL Players Association last week suggested it might withhold players from pre-production meetings for broadcasts.

    “If Fox and CBS and NBC, for instance, are going to finance the lockout, why should we give them free access to our players?” Mawae asked in an interview with SI.com. “We are taking a hard look at our players’ availability for the networks that choose to pay the league in the event of a lockout.”

    NBC Universal Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol, whose network broadcasts “Sunday Night Football,” said he is surprised by the players’ stance.

    “The only people who would be harmed by this are the players,” Ebersol said in a brief interview last week in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, site of the NFL owners meeting. “In many cases, this is the way the public gets to know them, whether it is in a pregame show or the shoulder programming.”

    — Daniel Kaplan

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  • ESPN to land more NFL rights

    ESPN and the NFL are close to an agreement to give the media company a much larger bundle of the league’s broadband, mobile and international rights, including the ability to stream “Monday Night Football” games on broadband and wireless platforms.

    The digital deal will certainly grab the full attention of the NFL’s other network partners, who could be looking to further their digital and mobile rights with NFL content. CBS and Fox have looked into streaming at least one of their Sunday afternoon games but have no concrete plans to follow through with that yet.

    ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys confirmed the talks late last week, saying the two sides were “finalizing a deal for significantly expanded U.S. digital and international rights.”

    The pending deal developed as the league opened ESPN’s $1.1 billion annual contract to insert language that outlined payment terms in the event of a lockout. The contract already called for ESPN to make such payments, but the NFL wanted its language to mirror previously agreed to contracts with CBS, Fox and NBC.

    The digital deal will give the Bristol, Conn.-based network the right to stream “MNF” games via broadband, sources said. ESPN executives aren’t certain whether they would exercise those rights, even on its broadband site ESPN360. ESPN makes more than $4 per subscriber per month from cable and satellite operators, and ESPN is reluctant to put its highest-rated content on broadband and risk devaluing its linear TV deals with MSOs.

    For the past two seasons NBC Sports and the NFL have streamed the “Sunday Night Football” game on NBCSports.com and NFL.com. The online feed has had limited success, while offering a different viewing experience featuring multiple camera angles and interactivity.

    ESPN will also stake a big claim to the mobile area, though several questions remain about the offer. It’s unclear whether the NFL would allow ESPN to stream its NFL content via a wireless carrier other than Verizon Wireless, which signed an extensive mobile content deal just two weeks ago that did not include rights to “MNF.”

    “It might not be fully cooked,” said Dallas Cowboys owner and NFL broadcast committee member Jerry Jones in response to a question about whether ESPN would be allowed to stream “MNF” to Verizon or other carriers. “I am not really sure that I want to answer that right now.”

    Even with ESPN as the intermediary, it’s hard to believe the “MNF” rights won’t end up on a Verizon platform. “They are our rights to sell,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

    The cash bonanza the NFL recently realized by selling rights to Verizon in a $720 million deal shows there’s increasing value in mobile content.

    “After a deal of this magnitude gets done, every rights holder is looking closely to see if they can drive more revenue from their content,” said Chris Russo, chief executive of Fantasy Sports Ventures and the former top media executive at the NFL.

    The proposed deal also gives ESPN much broader highlight rights, both online and mobile. ESPN’s original deal gave the media company limited highlight rights, as the NFL has sought to make NFL.com the major online destination for such clips.

    The new deal would allow ESPN to use highlights on its ESPN.com home page, its local Web sites and to stream them to mobile devices. It also will be able to stream games, though that part is still is taking shape.

    One of the biggest parts of the deal is internationally, where ESPN will gain the rights to televise its “MNF” game and “Monday Night Countdown” pregame show in the United Kingdom via its newly launched British cable channel, ESPN UK.

    “MNF” has not been telecast in Britain for the past several years. This deal, however, marks the first time in more than a decade that a TV network other than Sky Sports will carry live NFL programming in Britain.

    Since 2006, the league has streamed games overseas via “NFL Game Pass,” a Sunday Ticket-style service that streams all games for around $240 per season.

    ESPN and the NFL negotiated their digital deal at the same time as they both reworked the network’s “MNF” contract. The NFL looked to insert language into the deal to ensure payments continue in the event of a lockout.

    Sources have said that the two sets of talks were separate and are not related.

    The networks have said that they consider the payments loans that will be paid back by the league if games aren’t played. At an industry conference earlier this month, Fox Sports’ Ed Goren said, “It’s not as if we are running a charity. We give every year. That money comes back.”

    When asked if it was a loan, Goren replied emphatically, “With interest.”

    NBC Universal Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol also said that the relevant language in the new TV contracts signed last year by NBC, Fox, DirecTV and CBS was no different than what’s been in past contracts, questioning the furor over the networks guaranteeing payments.

    “I have been around longer than anybody else, and I don’t remember a deal, certainly all the way back to the early 1980s, that this wasn’t in,” he said. “This is not a new development.”

    The broadcasters do get their money back with interest if games aren’t played. The one exception is DirecTV, which would not get all of its money back for games lost, with the reasoning being that the network is able to secure subscribers because of the NFL, and the loss of a few games would not materially harm that income.

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  • Half-price season-ticket offer produces results for Wolves

    The Minnesota Timberwolves’ eye-opening strategy to slash next year’s season-ticket prices by 50 percent during the month of March has jump-started sales for the hapless franchise.

    The team has surpassed last year’s paltry 825 total for new full-season-ticket sales and expects to sell more than 1,000 new full-season packages when the discount promotion ends on Wednesday. The team this year has a season-ticket base of 6,000, a number that also includes full-season equivalent packages.

    The team also has increased its expected season-ticket renewal rate to more than 80 percent, up from a 65 percent projected renewal rate before the team implemented its drastic season-ticket discount.

    Minnesota expects to sell more than 1,000 new
    full-season tickets with its half-price promotion.

    “The body play has worked,” said Timberwolves President Chris Wright. “We realize that we have to build back [fans in] our lower level and move the market.”

    The Timberwolves’ decision to halve the price of season tickets comes against daunting competition. As of March 24, the team had a woeful 14-47 record and must market itself against the Minnesota Twins as they open their new downtown ballpark this spring, the NFL’s Vikings, and the University of Minnesota, which last fall opened a new football stadium.

    “With all the competition, we had to find a value proposition,” Wright said.

    The discount strategy also comes as the NBA looks to boost the league’s paid gate next year after most teams cut or held prices this season.

    “It is a real bold move, but it makes sense because the Timberwolves are trying to become relevant to a new group of buyers,” said Bill Sutton, president of Bill Sutton & Associates, a sports consultancy that counts NBA teams as clients. “The team is trying to find fans who have never gone to a game before. But they are going to have to work hard to make fans out of them.”

    Wright would not disclose how much the team will raise season-ticket prices on April 1. “The increase will be substantial enough that people who committed to us in March will be pleased that they have when they see the price increase,” Wright said.

    The Timberwolves, through March 23, had an average attendance of 14,785, up 3.7 percent compared with last season. The team ranked 25th out of the NBA’s 30 teams in average attendance.

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  • HBO Sports, NFL Films to co-produce project

    HBO Sports and NFL Films will co-produce a documentary on legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, marking the first time HBO has entered into a full 50-50 co-production with one of the leagues.

    HBO will premiere the still-to-be-named documentary in December.

    The premium cable network has had cooperation from the major U.S. sports leagues to produce documentaries. For example, HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg pointed to the NBA, which opened its archives for the “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals” documentary that premiered last month.

    But this marks the biggest co-production undertaken by the HBO Sports division.

    HBO’s Ross Greenburg is working on
    a documentary about Vince Lombardi.

    “It’s a first for us,” Greenburg said. “Some leagues are resistant to go into a pure co-production. With us and NFL Films, we can’t wait to work together. [NFL Films President] Steve Sabol and I have known each other for 33 years. It took about five seconds for me to convince him to do this.”

    The documentary is in production, interviewing several retired NFL players who played for Lombardi, like Frank Gifford, Bart Starr and Jerry Kramer. Producers also have interviewed Lombardi’s brother and children.

    Greenburg said the documentary will have no connection to the planned feature film from ESPN Films. Robert DeNiro has agreed to star as the coach. But the movie does not have a director or a script as of yet.

    Greenburg suggested that his documentary could help shape the movie script. “This film could be a wonderful blueprint for them.”

    The Lombardi story is also headed to Broadway, as former Anheuser-Busch marketing executive Tony Ponturo and Broadway producer Fran Kirmser will produce a play about the former coach. “Lombardi” should open in New York City next year.

    HBO also has picked a date for its next documentary, “Broad Street Bullies,” which will premiere May 4.

    The network already screened it for some of the NHL’s top brass, including Commissioner Gary Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and COO John Collins. Bettman also screened the show at a recent general managers’ meeting, and some of those general managers screened it for their teams.

    “This documentary doesn’t have the power of recognition of ‘Magic & Bird,’” Greenburg said. “But baby boomers remember the ‘Broad Street Bullies.’ When they came to town, you had to lock up your children.”

    Greenburg said he didn’t feel any extra pressure given the success of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series.

    “ESPN is using great filmmakers doing a lot of passion projects,” Greenburg said. “We’re going to keep our eye on the ball and go after subjects that make dramatic stories. Our stories impact people’s hearts and minds.”

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  • League: Make some noise!

    The NFL last week dropped its 21-year-old prohibition against home teams using video boards to encourage fans to make noise, the latest development in the league’s initiative to improve the in-stadium fan experience.

    Teams were prohibited from flashing on video boards phrases like “Noise,” “Raise the Roof,” “Pump It Up,” “Let’s Hear It!” and “12th Man,” or from creating visual noise meters. Teams are no longer so constrained but must cease these messages 15 seconds before the ball is snapped.

    “We probably would have wanted to be more aggressive, but it is a step,” said Stephen Jones, the Dallas Cowboys’ chief operating officer. “We want to make it a fun place for the fans to be, and [Commissioner] Roger [Goodell] pushed this, and we will see how it works.”

    Jones said he would have preferred the video messages be allowed to run up to the snap.

    Teams will have more options to encourage their
    fans to pump up the volume.

    The new rules, which the eight-member competition committee unanimously approved, did not affect the league’s noise prohibitions. Teams still cannot pipe in artificial noise.

    The video restrictions were designed to prevent home teams from gaining an unfair competitive advantage. High-decibel crowds make it difficult for a visiting team’s offense to hear the calls at the line of scrimmage. But Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, said coach-to-quarterback electronic communications, in place since 1994, have largely negated that issue.

    “Some of the noise rules we have had kind of stopped the crowd getting as energetically engaged as we want them to be,” Waller said.

    The new rules do include some prohibitions, including videos showing opposing team huddles, opponent conferences in the bench area, or the opposing quarterback at the line of scrimmage. Previously, teams could show this footage. Also, public address announcements must now stop when the opposing team breaks its huddle, or if it’s a no-huddle offense, when the team approaches the line of scrimmage.

    Goodell identified improving the in-stadium experience as one of three league priorities last week during the league’s annual meeting, the other two being player safety and the ongoing labor talks. With advanced in-home entertainment systems keeping more fans in the comfort of their homes, the NFL is creating incentives for consumers to come to stadiums.

    In 2007, the league instituted a fan code of conduct, which led to teams implementing in-stadium text-messaging systems allowing spectators to alert stadium authorities about misbehavior. Research the league conducted demonstrates that over the last few years there has been a low double-digit percentage increase in fan comfort in this regard, Waller said.

    This year, the league will encourage teams to offer more stats, replays and highlights of other games in the stadium, Waller said. An effort being led by the Miami Dolphins involves promoting handheld mobile devices that let fans watch highlights and other games.

    But the most immediate change is the lifting of the ban on video-board messages promoting noise.

    “I am sure it will create a little more in-stadium excitement,” said Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

    The change did not require an owners vote because it did not change in the rules of the game. It puts the NFL more in line with how the other three top sports leagues — MLB, NHL and the NBA — allow video boards to be used for fan prompts.

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  • Michigan expected to name Sodexo as concessions vendor

    Michigan and Ohio State have something else in common beyond one of college football’s most storied rivalries — they will soon share a sports food vendor.

    Michigan athletic officials have selected Sodexo to operate general concessions and premium dining at Michigan Stadium, Crisler Arena, Yost Ice Arena and several other sports venues on campus, according to industry sources.

    Sodexo, the biggest player in college sports food service, is also the concessionaire at Ohio Stadium and Schottenstein Center’s Value City Arena in Columbus. In Ann Arbor, Sodexo held Michigan’s contract from 1989 to ’99 and replaces V/Gladieux Enterprises after that firm’s 11-year run.

    A major focus of Sodexo’s business will be on
    108,000-seat Michigan Stadium.

    Jason Winters, Michigan athletics’ chief financial officer, said last week that the school is negotiating a five- to seven-year deal with one firm from among those it short-listed — Sodexo, Aramark and Centerplate — but would not confirm that it had chosen Sodexo.

    A major piece of Sodexo’s business will focus on Michigan Stadium, a 108,000-seat building whose $226 million renovation with 82 new suites and 3,000 club seats opens this fall. Suite catering and club food selections, a notch above hot dogs and nachos, will be a new experience for Michigan fans.

    Last year, Michigan athletics generated $3.2 million in gross food revenue at all sports facilities, $2.5 million alone for Michigan Stadium. The previous year, the numbers were $3.7 million and $2.9 million, respectively, reflecting an additional home football game, Winters said.

    Those figures are expected to increase substantially after the stadium opens with new and upgraded food spaces. Revenue projections are still being worked out, Winters said.

    Chris Bigelow, the school’s food consultant, said, “It’s certainly one of the most prestigious accounts [Sodexo] can have between the size of the facilities and the number of events.”

    “The significance is they have a good client looking to make improvements,” he said.

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  • MiLB engineers a major relaunch

    Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

    Minor League Baseball over the next two weeks is relaunching Web pages for MiLB.com and more than 150 individual teams as well as starting new mobile sites for the clubs, marking the first major results of a new cooperative agreement with MLB Advanced Media.

    The Minor League Baseball-MLBAM pairing yielded the Baseball Internet Rights Co., a holding company owned by Minor League Baseball and operated by MLBAM. The agreement, ratified in December 2008, proved to be contentious in some corners of the game during its formation, as the disparities between the size of large, Class AAA markets and smaller markets in the Class A and Rookie leagues are quite large.

    But since that ratification, Minor League Baseball and BIRCO executives have spent the last 15 months steadily convincing teams to opt in to the voluntary agreement. The current roster of teams participating in BIRCO is now nearly twice the number of clubs whose sites were previously hosted by MLBAM on an individual basis.

    There are 160 affiliated clubs that could be tapped for the effort.

    MLBAM estimates that traffic to the new
    MiLB.com and team sites will increase.

    “We’re now at a point where we have meaningful critical mass and can really tell a big story to national advertisers,” said Frank Burke, BIRCO chairman and owner of the Class AA Chattanooga (Tenn.) Lookouts. “It’s been a long process, and for some, it’s been a little hard to imagine being part of a national network, but we can now get a vast number of eyeballs and, importantly for a lot of us, a lot of content and functionality that would have been absolutely impossible to develop on our own.”

    Burke cited as an example a mobile site for his Lookouts club as something that would not have been a fiscal priority for the team on its own.

    MiLB.com and the individual team sites that were hosted by MLBAM combined for about 7 million unique visitors and 50 million page views per month during the 2009 season, according to MLBAM estimates, numbers that are projected to rise in the new structure.

    Much of BIRCO’s development to date has been about creating an operating structure that will generate the desired efficiencies of scale while still allowing for local-market individuality and choice. The established platform will offer clubs one of three levels of operating maintenance, depending on how much they want to do themselves on a day-to-day basis.

    Within that framework, MLBAM will sell national advertising. Individual clubs will retain some local inventory both on their home pages and within their interior Web pages. Site design will have many common elements but not a fully uniform structure like the 30 MLB team sites have.

      Ticketing also will remain largely up to individual clubs, provided the team’s provider is one of several pre-approved by BIRCO and MLBAM.

    On top of the newly developed mobile sites for the clubs, minor league digital product offerings this season will again include a live game video package and live GameDay functionality for each of the Class AAA leagues and the Class AA Texas League.

    The Class AAA Round Rock (Texas) Express said that they, and perhaps some other larger minor league clubs, may not see a net increase in digital revenue right away from BIRCO. The Express has been webcasting games for the last decade. But Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner has been aggressively pushing a “Power Of One” concept since his December 2007 election, attempting to have the affiliated minors act as a more unified and powerful entity.

    “Overall, the sky’s really the limit for us now, but the big thing is we need to get out and tell our story,” said Reid Ryan, president and chief executive of Ryan Sanders Baseball, owner of the Express and the Class AA Corpus Christi (Texas) Hooks, another BIRCO member.

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  • MLS labor agreement continues league’s evolution

    Major League Soccer’s new collective-bargaining agreement — the second in the league’s 15-year history — is less revolutionary than evolutionary.

    Unlike other professional sports leagues, MLS officials didn’t ask for concessions from players. Instead, they wanted a five-year deal that preserved the league’s single-entity status and offered no free agency to players.

    The new deal the league and MLS Players Union announced last week gave the league all three things it wanted, but it also included key changes that will give players new rights, change the way MLS and its teams operate, and influence the future of MLSPU. Here’s a look at several changes and how they will affect the league and union.

    Quality of life

    Because MLS is a single-entity league, it will still book flights and hotel accommodations for all of its teams, but under the new CBA there is more language about what hotels are acceptable and how high per diems will be.

    As recently as last year, MLS players traveling to Massachusetts to play the New England Revolution stayed in the Sheraton Braintree, a hotel that Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl described in “The Beckham Experiment” as being “bathed in car-exhaust fumes.” Players visiting New England now stay at the recently built Renaissance Boston Hotel at Patriot Place. Now, comparable hotels will be standard under the new CBA.

    Players also will see their per diems rise from $50 a day to $65 plus $10 a day for incidental expenses.

    The league also will pay moving expenses for players who are traded and put those players up in a hotel for 21 days. Previously, the league only paid $5,000 toward moving expenses and were obligated to pay for a player’s hotel for 14 days.

    Coaching change

    Life just got more difficult for MLS coaches and player personnel executives.

    Under the previous CBA, the standard league contract with players typically were one-year agreements with multiple one-year options. That meant a team could sign a player for four years but drop him without affecting its salary cap after any season by declining to pick up his option.

    The new deal changes that by increasing the number of MLS players with guaranteed contracts from approximately 25 percent to 57 percent, according to league and player estimates.

    Teams can still sign players to deals with options, but under the new agreement, players whose options aren’t picked up by a team will enter a waiver draft where other teams can pick them up at their negotiated option price. That will put more pressure on teams to honor the options.

    “It’s now important for teams to focus on the negative-options salaries and overall term of the contract, given the fact that there is less flexibility with options,” said Houston Dynamo COO Chris Canetti. “We need to be smart and more effective with signings because there’s less room for error.”

    Green exhibitions

    Under the previous CBA, MLS teams could schedule as many exhibition games as they wanted, ask players to play and not pay them a dime. If a player got hurt, the team might lose his contribution on the field but the player lost the opportunity to meet performance metrics in his contract.

    In other words, the players played extra games with no upside — only consequence. But that’s going to change.

    Under the new CBA, teams have to pay players for exhibition games. The first game is free; the second is $500 per player; the third is $750 per player; and the fourth is $1,000 per player. Games against elite international teams like FC Barcelona or Club America cost even more.

    Fight another day

    The biggest issue in the MLS labor negotiations was the players’ fight for free agency. Ultimately, players worked for limited freedom of movement and opted to fight for full free agency another day.

    Taylor Twellman, the player representative for the New England Revolution, said that players knew in order to achieve free agency, they would have to strike. Though the players overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, he said they didn’t really want to strike because of the league’s economic condition and the general state of the economy.

    “I wouldn’t say one side caved in,” Twellman said. “It was really an open discussion about what is best for soccer and how can we avoid a strike.”

    Five years from now, Twellman said, MLS players may seek free agency again “if the league is cranking and the stadiums are filled.”

    Future of the union

    The future of the union’s leadership is not entirely clear given the fact that players failed to achieve the right they coveted most: free agency. However, a few player-side sources who did speak out last week voiced support for MLSPU Executive Director Bob Foose, general counsel Jon Newman, and Eddie Pope, director of player relations, praising the work the trio did during the last two years to unify players.

    Players felt prepared for every scenario that might arise during negotiations, Columbus Crew player representative William Hesmer said. For example, he said that the union had sent players an example of a letter it believed the league would send prior to a strike about cutting health insurance. As expected, the league sent a nearly identical copy of the union’s “example” letter two weeks ago.

    “They had the foresight to see exactly how the negotiations would play out and it did play out that way,” Hesmer said. “Bob Foose, Jon Newman, Eddie Pope — they all did a tremendous job.”

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  • NFL looks at creating home teams for foreign games

    The NFL is considering designating one or two teams that would regularly travel overseas for in-season games in an effort to create a hometown rooting interest in the foreign markets.

    The plan is long-term and would not be implemented until a new labor deal is in place at the earliest, but the league appears ready to move beyond just staging a single regular-season game in London every year and expanding that to as many as four international contests. The league also has hosted regular-season games in Mexico and Canada in recent years.

    “[What] we learned in the U.K. and Mexico and Canada is ultimately you get fans, and to develop that into avid fans … they have to have a team to root for, a team to love, and the way you do that is to have enough games so one team can come back on a regular basis,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, who oversees the league’s international businesses. “If you only have one game and different teams every year, it’s not enough.

    “Imagine, if you had four games in the U.K., and two of those games were different each year,” Waller said, “and two featured the same teams on a repeat basis.”

    Waller presented that outline to owners last week at their annual meeting. The comments reflect statements he made last fall about the league’s international opportunities, in advance of the 2009 London game between New England and Tampa Bay. 

    Currently, the London games are governed by a five-year resolution the league agreed to in 2007 to stage up to two games a year in the city. There has been a single game each of the first three years.

    The Buffalo Bills, independent of that resolution, have played one home game in Toronto each of the last two seasons.

    To expand the overseas calendar so aggressively would almost certainly mean an addition of one or two extra games annually to the current 16-game schedule. Many teams are loath to give up home games on a regular basis, though some teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay, are struggling to sell out games. The Bucs recently warned that the team could suffer its first blackouts since opening Raymond James Stadium in 1998.

    Waller may be in front of the thinking of NFL owners, at least in some cases. Rita Benson LeBlanc, co-owner of the New Orleans Saints and a member of the owners’ international committee, said she would like to see the current setup continue before altering the model.

    Waller’s counter to that appears to be that if the league wants to grow, it can only do so much in the United States, where it already holds standing as the nation’s most popular sport.

    “There is clearly massive upside internationally,” he said.

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  • NHRA re-signs longtime partner

    The NHRA and longtime partner Auto Club of Southern California have renewed a bundle of sponsorships for nearly $5 million a year over five years.

    Auto Club, which has been with the NHRA for the past 16 years, has the naming rights to the NHRA-owned drag strip in Pomona, Calif., as well as title sponsorship of the season-ending event there in November. The largest AAA affiliate in the country, Auto Club is adding title sponsorship of the NHRA’s May race at Gateway, near St. Louis.

    Auto Club has struck those deals one by one over the years, including presenting sponsorship of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, an on-track element called Safety Safari and a series sponsorship of the NHRA Street Legal division. This latest renewal rolls all of these agreements into a single five-year contract. That doesn’t include a team sponsorship of driver Robert Hight at John Force Racing for about $3 million more.

    That combination of deals puts Auto Club in a class with the most prolific sponsors in the sport, including Coca-Cola (Full Throttle), Lucas Oil and O’Reilly Auto Parts.

    “This is a big win for us and for the sport,” said NHRA President Tom Compton. “This is a very significant relationship for us, and it’s also a long-term deal. There’s a lot of equity built into the Auto Club name and safety is certainly something that aligns us both. They’ve also found that beyond the emphasis on safety, they’ve been able to promote key services at national events and that’s a big reason they’re so deeply entrenched with us.”

    Auto Club’s renewal of NHRA sponsorships places it
    among motorsports’ most prolific sponsors.

    This latest renewal will take the Auto Club’s relationship with the NHRA to 21 years and the Auto Club’s CEO, Tom McKernan, has been around for all of them. In fact, the NHRA has the ultimate “in” with Auto Club because McKernan’s daughter races dragsters as a hobby.

    Supporting the NHRA, whose core mission has been to provide a safe environment for hot rodding, is a business decision that’s quite personal for McKernan, a 43-year veteran with the Auto Club.

    “This is a way for us to always keep our brand in front of people,” McKernan said. “Our tag line is that ‘We’re always with you’ and keeping our brand in front of people is a reinforcement of that.”

    Auto Club, which started in Southern California and still has a strong base of customers there, now counts more than 13 million members across 20 states. That accounts for nearly 30 percent of all the AAA members nationally.

    Most of those members joined AAA for the roadside assistance, McKernan said, but many of them don’t know about other services, such as auto and home insurance, and travel.

    “After roadside assistance, which everybody knows about, it kind of falls off from there,” McKernan said. “This is an excellent platform for us to build more awareness for those other services. We get information from people at our displays and we find that we’re able to sell quite a bit of business from that. … We’ve found the demo of NHRA fans to be very good, in terms of education level, income levels and just their sensitivity to all things automotive.”

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  • Owners focus on issues other than labor

    For all the hype about the NFL labor situation and the buildup to last week’s annual owners meeting with the demise of the salary cap earlier this month, the subject was hardly a major theme through the three days of discussions.

    The comments league officials did make were hardly pressing. Instead, the tenor reflected the fact that it’s nearly 12 months until the collective-bargaining agreement would expire — not until the end of the next league year — and not until September 2011 that any regular-season football games could be lost.

    Commissioner Roger Goodell described the process as being only in the first quarter, and the league even canceled a media briefing from chief labor negotiator Jeff Pash.

    “I wouldn’t confuse a lack of urgency with being cavalier and not caring,” Pash said after the meetings concluded on Wednesday. “But people understand the issues and they know there is a lot of time … so no one is panicking.”

    Pash said negotiations with the NFL Players Association would continue in April. He did not specify where or when any such meetings would occur.

    The owners spent far more time tweaking the game’s playoff overtime rules than they did on labor. While some outlets reported that the union took issue with the OT move, a union spokesman, Carl Francis, said the union had no position on the matter.

    The NFLPA did send to select reporters during the meeting a list of 10 questions to ask the commissioner during his press conferences, though the labor-related questions during these exchanges were largely about process rather than substance. This reporter did ask Goodell a variation on one of the 10, though: whether players should get a share of the proceeds from franchise sales.

    Former player Ozzie Newsome
    has joined owners in labor
    negotiating sessions.

    “They have raised that issue before, and we have discussed it for several decades, and I am sure it is not unique to the NFL either,” Goodell responded. “And we are willing to negotiate and discuss and reach a fair agreement, so I am not going to parse out the specifics of any negotiation.”

    NEWSOME JOINS OWNERS’ GROUP: When Goodell separately was asked who’s on the league’s labor team, he first mentioned the usual suspects, including Pash and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, the co-chair of the league’s labor negotiating committee. But then he mentioned a wild card: Ozzie Newsome, the former pro bowl tight end and current Baltimore Ravens general manager. Newsome has attended five negotiating sessions. In a statement through a team spokesman, Newsome said, “The commissioner wanted someone who is down in the foxhole and who can talk about OTAs [organized team activities in the offseason] and training camp. … As a former player, I can speak the same language with [NFLPA President] Kevin Mawae.” Newsome said he is on call for future meetings.

    B OF A DEAL ENDING: Bank of America’s six-year sponsorship of the NFL will expire Wednesday, said Wayne Weaver, the Jacksonville Jaguars owner and chairman of the owners’ business ventures committee. Bank of America and some NFL clubs were at loggerheads over the bank’s push for exclusive rights to all 32 teams, a practice the league has moved away from in the last decade. While the league at one point had hoped to have owners vote on a contract last October, now the deal will expire. Weaver said the league is talking to other financial service providers about the category.

    NFL PLAYS ON BROADWAY: The league will get a cut of ticket sales of the new play about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi that’s opening on Broadway later this year. The play is being produced by former Anheuser-Busch marketing chief Tony Ponturo, who also produced the hit revival of “Hair.” The league had to consent to certain licensing rights for the play, such as Packers logos, something Ponturo said recently was in negotiations. In return, the league will enjoy a portion of the gate.

    TALKS INCLUDE ON-FIELD RIGHTS: The NFL’s apparel and licensing deal with Reebok expires in March 2012, but the date is closer than it seems because a company needs about 18 months of lead time to get products to market. David Baxter, president of Reebok sports licensing unit OnField Apparel, who was at the meetings Tuesday, said either Reebok or its parent, Adidas, could take the new deal. He said he did not know if the NFL was negotiating with other parties, adding that there is no exclusive window. He predicted a new deal realistically needed to get done by late this year or early 2011.

    Sun Life Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins,
    won’t have any formal improvement plans in
    place when owners meet again in May and
    award the 2014 Super Bowl.

    SUPER QUESTION IN MIAMI: The bidding cities for the 2014 Super Bowl, which will be awarded at the spring owners meeting in Dallas in May, are Miami, Tampa and long-discussed candidate New York, which would serve to host the first outdoor cold-weather Super Bowl. Just as intriguing, though, is Miami, which played host to this past season’s game. The NFL has said improvements to Sun Life Stadium, the Miami Dolphins’ home, are necessary to keep the venue a viable candidate for hosting the event. The Dolphins have talked with local municipal authorities about needed upgrades and how such improvements could be funded, but Dolphins President Mike Dee said no formal plan is expected to be in place in time for the owners’ May vote.

    So would awarding the game to Miami undercut the NFL’s argument about the stadium and take the pressure off the community to fund renovations? “It potentially could take away some of the leverage,” Dee said. But, he added, the renovations are not only about the 2014 game, but also about ensuring that the stadium gets 10 out of the next 44 Super Bowls, as it did with the first 44.

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  • Party City expanding sports ties

    Costume and party goods supplier Party City has signed a deal to be presenting sponsor of the Florida Panthers’ 2010-11 season and another with the New York Yankees for naming rights to seven group suites at Yankee Stadium.

    Michael Yormark, president and chief operating officer of Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, the Panthers’ owner and the operator of BankAtlantic Center, refused to disclose the value of the deal in South Florida, where Party City operates 30 of its 600 stores.

    Rockaway, N.J.-based Party City is making a bigger splash into sports marketing after completing a test program with the Denver Broncos in October 2008 in which it sponsored a tailgate zone for 2,000 fans outside Invesco Field, as well as the club’s junior cheerleading squad and a haunted house to support the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

    Moving forward, Party City, an MLB licensee that does significant business with sports-themed kids’ birthday parties, sees an opportunity to reach women and mothers ages 25-54 by exposing its brand at arenas and stadiums, said Bill Furtkevic, the company’s vice president of marketing.

    The Yankees use Party City favors for birthday
    parties at Yankee Stadium.

    “We still consider what we’re doing now pilot projects, but obviously on a much bigger scale,” Furtkevic said. “Sports is a huge category for us and a great way to build our brand.”

    In Sunrise, Fla., the working tag line, “It’s a Party Every Night at the Panthers’ Game Presented by Party City,” ties into a full-blown campaign surrounding the traditional holidays. It kicks off with a celebration of Halloween inside the arena after the NHL season starts in early October.

    Party City plans to open a temporary store and sell Halloween costumes at the arena’s team shop and activate similar themed promotions for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and spring graduation to drive fans to the company’s retail sites, Yormark said

    Customized messages on television, radio and the team’s Web site, and naming rights for party rooms at the team’s practice facility, are also part of the deal.

    In turn, Party City store employees will wear Panthers garb at their stores to raise awareness of the team’s brand, Furtkevic said.

    The deal starts at tonight’s Panthers game with Party City arena signs and media advertising for the team’s five remaining home games. Officials will then make plans for next season.

    “We talked about their products and there are certain sales periods they really promote,” Yormark said. “The plan is to activate four to five marketing platforms around a cluster of home games.”

    Some examples are Thanksgiving Feast Week, a three-game set, and Countdown to New Year’s, the last week in December, two stretches when the Panthers traditionally draw their biggest crowds for games against teams such as New York, Montreal, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

    The deal came together after Yormark met Party City CEO Jerry Rittenberg through Zimmerman and Partners, Party City’s agency of record. The Panthers invited Rittenberg to a Feb. 5 game, and they flashed Party City’s logo on their center-hung scoreboard and LED strips, in addition to decorating a suite with Party City materials. Rittenberg expressed interest in doing a deal with the Panthers that evolved into buying the exclusive rights to next season, Yormark said.

    At Yankee Stadium, the seven Party City Suites are along the first-base line on the H&R Block Suite Level. The company has a separate agreement with the Yankees to use those premium spaces to entertain clients, Furtkevic said. He would not disclose the value of that deal, and the Yankees declined to comment.

    The Yankees will book birthday parties during games and also on days when the team isn’t playing, using Party City favors inside the suites, Furtkevic said.

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  • Showtime title-sponsors Darlington race

    Showtime, which debuted its “Inside NASCAR” show last month, is climbing deeper into the sport by title-sponsoring the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

    The sponsorship is a multiyear agreement between the network and the historic track, which has been hosting NASCAR events for 60 years. GoDaddy was the race’s presenting sponsor last year. The May 8 race will be called the Showtime Southern 500.

    “Associating with the track and the history of this race was very important to us, so we wanted to keep Southern in the title,” said Ken Hershman, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. “When we started the show, we were impressed with the committed fan base and we’re looking to really deepen that connection by sponsoring the race.”

    Financial terms were not released, but title sponsorships typically sell for the high six figures to low seven figures a year. Showtime’s deal is believed to be in the mid-six figures this year because the deal was struck so close to the race date, a Saturday night event on Fox Sports. The fee for the 2011 race is expected to be closer to seven figures.

    Despite the short window, Showtime has several activation elements in the works, both online and for the event.

    Sheila Mills, director of marketing for Showtime Sports, said an online sweepstakes will launch this week at sports.sho.com, offering the winning fan a VIP trip for two to the race. Included in the prize package is a replica of the Showtime Southern 500 trophy, marking the first time the speedway has given away a copy of the real thing to a fan in victory lane. The trophy that will go to the fan is the same in every way, including the cost of more than $3,000, as the trophy that goes to the winning driver. There’s also a perpetual trophy that stays at Darlington.

    Showtime also will be on the ground at the race with promotional displays where it will distribute free DVDs of “Inside NASCAR.”

    “This show is a cornerstone of our sports programming,” which also includes boxing, mixed martial arts and football with the “Inside the NFL” show, Hershman said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to tell people this show is on and make them aware. We’re not a primary destination for NASCAR fans, so we’ve got to make that imprint in their minds.”

    The groundwork for the title sponsorship was set earlier this month when a team of close to 10 Showtime executives from marketing and public relations visited Darlington, which was the first paved superspeedway in 1950.

    Located in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, Darlington is a long way — geographically and culturally — from Showtime’s headquarters on Broadway in New York.

    What the Showtime executives found in Darlington was a track whose history runs parallel to NASCAR’s own. After a tour of the museum on the speedway’s grounds, Showtime officials walked the grounds and learned about Darlington’s charm as “The track too tough to tame.”

    “The role we’ve played in the sport, that’s something that really got their attention,” said Darlington President Chris Browning. “They really got it when it comes to who we are and what we’re about. This will be a great platform to help them promote their show and reach true race fans.”

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  • SUM boosts sponsor roster for Mexican team

    Soccer United Marketing pushed the popularity of the Mexican national team in a World Cup year to add three new Mexican soccer federation (FMF) sponsors, bringing its total roster of partners to 15 in 2010, the same as it had in 2006 during the last World Cup.

    The partners — Wrigley’s Extra gum, Cacique and Bimbo — began activating with the team in March. All three signed either one- or two-year agreements valued in the low to middle six figures annually.

    Cacique, a Mexican-style
    cheese company, is one
    of three new FMF sponsors.

    “The awareness around the Mexican national team is heightened in a World Cup year, but it’s really a 24/7, 365-day-a-year opportunity,” said Michael Gandler, vice president of business development for Soccer United Marketing. “The World Cup in South Africa is going to elevate its appeal even further.”

    The Mexican national team is enjoying one of its best-attended U.S. tours in recent years, playing its third of six exhibitions last week. Earlier this month it attracted 90,000 spectators at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for a game against New Zealand, and last Wednesday it drew 63,000 spectators to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte for a game against Iceland.

    Wrigley’s Extra gum is the first official gum partner of FMF since SUM began representing the Mexican national team in 2003, signing a one-year deal. The brand, which also sponsors the English Premier League, has made the Mexican national team the centerpiece of its “Wrigley’s Football Extra” activation program. It has brought an 18-wheeler activation stage on tour with the team, done player appearances in markets, and sampling at the exhibition games.

    Mexican Soccer Federation Partners
    2006 2010
    Anheuser-Busch (beer) Anheuser-Busch (beer)
    AT&T (telecommunications) AT&T (telecommunications)
    Coca-Cola (carbonated soft drinks) Coca-Cola (carbonated soft drinks)
    Home Depot (home improvement) Home Depot (home improvement)
    Makita (tools) Makita (tools)
    NAPA (auto aftermarket) NAPA (auto aftermarket)
    Digame (calling cards) AT&T (expanded calling-card category)
    Chivas Regal (spirits) Cuervo (spirits)
    Doritos (salty snacks) Barcel (salty snacks)
    Kellogg’s (cereal/cookies) Bimbo (cookies/pastries)
    Lala (milks/yogurt) Cacique (yogurts/cheeses/meats)
    Western Union (financial/wire transfer) Visa (financial services)
    McDonald’s (quick-service restaurant) Degree (deodorant/antiperspirant)
    Dodge (auto) Allstate (insurance)
    Tylenol (OTC pharma) Wrigley’s Extra (gum)
    Source: Soccer United Marketing

    Cacique signed a two-year agreement to become the official cheese partner of FMF. The Mexican-style cheese company has put the FMF logo on packs of cheeses and promoted its partnership with point-of-sale advertising in important Hispanic markets nationwide. It also set up a small booth at Mexican national team exhibitions where fans can get a photo featuring the Cacique logo and the Mexican flag.

    “We have already had a great return on our investment,” said Francisco Hanon, Cacique’s advertising manager. “We are sure if we continue to connect these events to the store level it will be great for us.”

    Bimbo Bakeries, the U.S. division of food manufacturer Grupo Bimbo, plans to do a retail activation during the World Cup in June when it will use point-of-sale advertising featuring FMF imagery in an effort to distinguish itself from competitors. As part of its one-year deal, the company also activated at recent Mexican national team exhibition games, offering samples of Bimbo cakes and bread to fans before and after the competition.

    The deal with Bimbo was sold by SUM in collaboration with Sports Management Group of Mexico City.

    “This deal is part of a growing trend we expect to see more and more in the future,” Gandler said. “There are a lot of companies — Mexican ones and American ones that acquire Mexican brands — that are looking to expand their footprint in the United States and see the Mexican national team as a way to do that.”

    In addition to signing three FMF partners, SUM renewed its MLS partnership with Getty Images and signed Travelodge to a two-year deal as a partner of the CONCACAF Champions League and InterLiga tournaments.

    MLS has signed no new deals ahead of its 2010 season, but it didn’t lose any partners. Gandler said SUM is pursuing several deals for the league, which opened its season Thursday in Seattle.

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  • ‘Techno-geek’ develops tool for coaches, scouts

    Mark Swindle, a 42-year-old self-described techno-geek, has built a technology business out of his knowledge of girls volleyball.

    Swindle had noticed during a tournament that coaches and scouts spent a lot of time lugging around heavy books containing player profiles and coded, often indecipherable schedules. So seven years ago Swindle, an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy, a club director of a 200-player nonprofit volleyball organization and a coach for a New Mexico juniors team, launched  University Athlete and introduced UA Recruiter, a tool that pulls together all of that information.

    He launched his system on Palm Pilot, giving it a trial run with 50 coaches one morning at a Las Vegas tournament. By the end of the day, Palm Pilots were hard to find in Vegas, and coaches were having them overnighted from other parts of the country.

    Today, UA Recruiter boasts a database of more than 100,000 girls volleyball athletes ages 12-18. More than 1,500 clients pay $125 to $500 annually for the system, which is used at more than 25 girls volleyball tournaments a year, including all 10 of USA Volleyball’s junior qualifiers.

    The Albuquerque company has become his full-time job for eight months a year, and has three full-time programmers and about a half-dozen part-timers. University Athlete has moved from the PDA format and is accessible on BlackBerrys, iPhones, Windows Mobile and, soon, Android.

    New this year is an iPhone app that allows coaches to capture video of athletes and upload it to their notes. And what’s next? Swindle plans to enter the basketball market next year.

    — Theresa Manahan

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  • Web site to provide sports power rankings

    New York-based Web site publisher Mediaite plans next month to launch SportsGrid.com, a destination devoted to compiling power rankings of individuals, teams and companies from across the sports world.

    The new site would join sister operations Mediaite.com, GossipCop.com, Styleite.com and Geekosystem.com. The power rankings would be tabulated by using a specially developed algorithm that pools a variety of metrics, including TV ratings; Web traffic and circulation counts; attendance; number of Twitter followers; on-field performance for players and coaches; and franchise values.

    The same company produces Mediaite.com.

    Mediaite was founded and is led by Dan Abrams, former general manager of MSNBC and current chief legal analyst for NBC News. The power rankings on Mediaite.com have quickly become the most prominent element of the portfolio’s offerings and are widely cited across the media industry. The sites, combining to draw more than 5 million unique visitors per month according to internal metrics, also offer a range of news and commentary, presented in blog format, but that element will be downplayed on SportsGrid.com.

    “We’re really doubling down on our rankings element for SportsGrid, and this will provide an effective, fun way to see how somebody in one part of the sports world such as an owner or an executive stacks up against, say, a linebacker,” Abrams said. “We’ll have that master buzz ranking and also smaller ones within specific sports and segments. And we’ll be able to see movement up and down the rankings pretty close to real time as events and games happen.”

    SportsGrid.com will be a free, ad-supported venture. The effort will be aided by a partnership with Rotowire to provide statistical and news information. Microsoft’s Bing.com has signed on as a launch sponsor, and entries into that search engine will form part of the ranking algorithm.

    As part of a run-up to the new site’s launch, Mediaite.com recently published a ranking of top sports bloggers, online writers and tweeters, with ESPN’s Bill Simmons topping the list.

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  • Youth sports still in good shape, as girls volleyball qualifiers show

    When more than 10,000 teenage girls descended on Denver for two weeks this month at one of USA Volleyball’s 10 annual junior qualifiers, the event was significant for more than just the $13 million economic impact that the city credits to it. It was a sign of how the market for youth sports is holding up in a shaky economy.

    When times get tough, parents are more likely to cut back on their own expenses and keep spending on their kids, said Kay Rogness, founder and co-owner of Tournament Magic, which operates the Denver event, Colorado Crossroads, and another event in Atlanta, the Big South National Qualifier. Indeed, Colorado Crossroads, which this year hosted 10,570 girls ages 12-18 on 1,056 teams, saw attendance increase from last year, when 9,500 girls attended on 950 teams.

    Other events in the youth volleyball industry expect similar results this year, and the numbers seem to be holding up in other youth sports. Pop Warner, for example, had 281,000 athletes in 2009, an increase of 1,000 from the year before. Little League had 2.53 million players in 2009, a dip from 2.59 million in 2008.

    A USA Volleyball junior qualifier brought
    more than 10,000 girls and $13 million
    to Denver this month. The number of
    players was up more than 10 percent
    from last year’s event.

    It’s the continuation of a trend that Rogness has seen developing for years. In 1994, Colorado Crossroads drew just 1,280 players. The Big South National Qualifier run by Tournament Magic, which Rogness operates with partner Lauri Dagostino, had 8,400 attendees last year, up from 3,850 in 2000.

    That kind of steady growth has helped keep youth sports sponsors involved and host cities happy.

    The junior qualifiers, which determine which players advance to the junior national championship, each have five to 10 sponsors, ranging from title sponsors to exclusive providers. Though financial commitments can vary, Tournament Magic’s sponsors pay anywhere from the low five figures to the low six figures per year.

    Georgia-based Mizuno title sponsors the Minneapolis junior qualifier, called Mizuno Northern Lights; the Mizuno Hoosiers Mideast Qualifier, played over two weekends in St. Louis and Indianapolis; and the Mizuno Lone Star Classic in Dallas. Mizuno is the official footwear and apparel provider of USA Volleyball, a relationship that extends to being the exclusive seller of apparel and footwear products at both the girls and boys junior national championships.

    “As far as sales, our dealers will make between $30,000 to $60,000 in product sales alone,” said Emily Knight, Mizuno’s volleyball promotions coordinator. “A portion of that does come back to us, but for the most part it does go to the dealer. The branded value is hard to name as it is so important to have the brand in front of the girls.”

    And there are plenty of young eyes at these events. The Big South National Qualifier in Atlanta brought in 840 teams last year, each paying a $775 entry fee. Admission to the event is $7 for a day or $15 for the weekend. Last year, 48,000 spectators came to watch.

    The city of Atlanta estimates an economic impact of $30 million from hosting the tournament, but says the benefits of hosting youth sports go beyond the dollars.

    “This type of amateur athletic event tends to come on weekends,” said Mark Vaughan, executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, “when our convention business is not as active as it is during the week.”

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