SBJ/20101129/This Week's Issue

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  • Customer-service magic


    WAYNE EBINGER

    Training with the Orlando Magic included how to
    handle shoppers at the team’s souvenir shop.

    “See that?” Tom Thomson said. He gestured toward the ticket-taker, who was pointing with two fingers to direct a fan. “That’s us,” he said. “That’s Disney.”

    An executive with Disney Institute, Thomson was standing inside the doorway of Orlando’s Amway Center on a warm October evening, watching fans arrive at the first basketball game in the new building. Because it had only opened the week before, the layout was a mystery to many fans, who weren’t sure quite where to go. But the ticket-taker, an upbeat, middle-aged woman, was answering questions with a smile, then using the Disney two-finger point — adopted companywide because a one-finger gesture can seem rude — to send them off in the correct direction. “Feels good to see that,” Thomson said.

    In the weeks leading up to the opening of the arena, nearly all of its game-day workers, from part-time food-service employees to the Magic’s assistant coaches, had participated in a multisession training workshop held — no, staged — over several weeks by Disney Institute, a wholly owned arm of the parent company. The result, at least on that first evening, was a family-friendly, feel-good air that seemed unusual for a big league sports event, even the inauguration of a new facility. “The building is getting a lot of accolades, and I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘What did you do with your employees?’” said Magic President Alex Martins. “It’s ground-breaking for our industry, but clearly we’ve already seen that it makes a difference.”

    Disney Institute has been helping companies institute Disney’s best practices since 1986, but only in the past year did it start actively pursuing sports franchises and other sports entities. “We’ve come to understand that the sports world is a natural for us,” said Jeff James, a Disney vice president who leads the business. “So many parallels can be drawn between the world of Disney and a sports team.”

    James ticked off some of them: loyal fans, big events, the sale of food and souvenirs, the existence of premium customers who’ve paid for an enhanced experience, even third-party vendors who aren’t employees but can go a long way toward aiding — or hindering — customer satisfaction. The Arizona Cardinals were DI’s first major league client, in July 2009, followed by the Magic. The University of Tennessee recently signed on. The South African government brought in DI to help train service workers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, among others, have done one-day seminars. Several more are on the horizon, James said, from NFL teams to small- and big-time college programs. The contracts vary based on need and logistics, but the costs range anywhere from $10,000 to more than $50,000 for a fully customized program.

    What clients have learned, through tailor-made programs for each, is the Disney way of motivating employees to create singular customer experiences: the equivalent of Mickey Mouse kneeling down to sign an autograph, or a dropped ice cream cone getting replaced before the first tear has been shed. Those experiences, Disney believes, have the potential to be as memorable as any slam-dunk or touchdown pass. “What makes people come back is not the big stuff,” contends Dennis Frare, one of DI’s presenters, or “facilitators.” “It’s about lots and lots of small, seemingly insignificant things that we do.”

    As Thomson watched the pregame activity around the new arena, he spotted additional evidence of that attitude in action. A dropped credit card provided the impetus for an usher to hustle down the concourse to return it. At the Magic’s souvenir shop, where an 8-year-old buying a hat had handed over a handful of crumpled dollars, the clerk completed the interaction with the child, not the parent, to the point of giving the little girl the receipt. “That shows that everyone is an individual, especially children,” Thomson said, watching as the clerk then gave directions, complete with the requisite two-finger point.


    GETTY IMAGES

    “It was about being the best we
    can be in every area. That’s why
    you bring in a company like
    Disney.”


    Michael Bidwill
    Arizona Cardinals CEO and owner

    And when a customer approached security guard Linda Berkely asking where to find veggie burgers, Berkely recalled noticing a stand during a scavenger hunt that DI had held inside the arena. She immediately consulted the handbook that DI suggests all employees carry. “We will find you a veggie burger,” she said as Thomson beamed. Once the customer was on her way, Thomson stepped in and acknowledged Berkely’s work, letting her know that someone had noticed and appreciated her actions. That, too, is a Disney dictum. As Frare puts it, “Great leaders are willing to go out and catch people doing things right.”

    If such gooey, emotional tactics seems a far turn from the autocratic, often macho culture that permeates sports and sports business … well, it is. “It’s not commonplace, for sure,” Martins said. Despite the inherent connections, many sports executives still aren’t entirely comfortable treating football or basketball fans like theme-park customers — or acknowledging that replacing that ice cream cone is, in its way, as important as that new point guard. That defines Disney’s challenge.

    “We strongly believe that if you take care of the guest in the proper manner, your financial results will come,” DI’s James said. “The sports world is so far behind, they’re just beginning to understand that. They’re just learning that they need us.”

    More and more, they do. They need capacity crowds to drive the different on-site revenue streams that now contribute to each franchise’s bottom line, which in turn requires motivation for fans that transcends their team’s performance. “At some point for every team, there’s a downturn,” Martins said. “With a consumer product, you’ll always get the same quality, but a sports team is variable. It’s the other factors that will secure the longevity of our patrons.”

    “I think,” added Audra Hollifield, the team’s vice president of human resources, “that people around sports are going to start paying a lot of attention to how this works out for us. I actually think that this is going to change some minds.”


    WAYNE EBINGER

    Martins credits Disney training for the
    positive feedback on employee interaction
    with fans.

    At this month’s International Crowd Management Conference in Kansas City, sports executives from various sectors of the industry — the Minnesota Twins, University of Texas, Arkansas State, the New Orleans Convention Center, and so on — filled the room. These were the men and women who run many of America’s stadiums and arenas, from Madison Square Garden to small local and collegiate facilities. They’d come to network, to get a three-day snapshot of the state of their industry, and maybe even learn something in the process.

    It was toward that end that Antony Bonavita — who volunteers as the vice chairman and program director of the convention when he isn’t serving as vice president of facility operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers — had booked DI for a one-day seminar. He’d been talking about hiring the company when he worked in San Antonio for the Spurs, but left for the Cleveland job before he could. “To be honest, this conference was at a point where it was very status quo,” Bonavita said. “We wanted to get people to pay attention. Last year we had 83 attendees, this year 141. I absolutely know that Disney is the difference. People are intrigued.”

    Intrigued, perhaps, but also skeptical. “I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing here,” one manager of a Midwestern facility said before the program started. Within minutes, Frare had made it clear. “We can all agree that we’re in the entertainment industry,” he said. “If 1 percent of our guest population doesn’t show up, that means millions of dollars lost from the bottom line. Conversely, if we do the right things and attract 1 percent more, it means millions of dollars added.”

    Frare’s content had been culled from four different seminar templates, then tweaked for the arena-management industry. It was actionable knowledge, but a sales pitch, too. In that room, he hoped, were some number of executives — five, 10, maybe even more — with the wherewithal and the budget to initiate a long-term relationship with DI. Bonavita was one of them. This was his chance to see the DI team in action, glean some tips and — if all went well — come away with enough ammunition to convince his bosses.

    Frare started by asking questions of the audience. As he got the first few tepid responses, he rewarded participation with little figurines of Mickey, Goofy, Minnie and the rest. Before long, the room was filled with raised hands and shouted answers, and Frare had proved a point. Give even the most jaded audience a vested interest in paying attention, even one as seemingly silly as a figurine, and it will.

    To show how difficult it can be to unlearn behavior, he asked everyone to interlace their hands. Either the right or left thumb is on top, he said, but now undo them and put them back together the other way. See how uncomfortable it is? Finally, undo them, and now put them back together one more time. “What did each of us do? We went back to the way that’s comfortable for us,” he said. The message was, change comes only if we make a concerted effort over time to keep doing something a new way, no matter how hard it might seem at first.

    DI has been teaching such lessons for a quarter century. In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. co-wrote “In Search of Excellence,” a book on business principles that used Disney as an example of superior customer service. “Companies started calling and saying, ‘I want some of that,’” Thomson said. “Our first instinct was to tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t.’ But then we started thinking, ‘Why not?’”

    So Disney did what Disney does. It surrounded the idea, building a campus, and started holding seminars on site, addressing core topics such as leadership, people management, and brand loyalty. Those topics are still DI’s centerpiece, but these days nearly all of its business is done where its customers are, so that a wide range of employees — not merely top executives — can be addressed. “We flipped the model,” James said. “We took the product on the road. That made all the difference.”

    When Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, saw DI’s presentation at a meeting of Olympic governing bodies earlier this year, he booked a seminar for representatives of his member organizations. He wanted the owners or managers of as many as possible of his 2,000 member clubs to hear Disney’s ideas about thinking like a customer. “Not-for-profits tend to live a little bit in isolation,” Penny explained. “For us, the most important thing was to remember that we’re a customer-service organization. We have as many retailers in America as McDonald’s has franchises or Chevy has car dealerships. And the same people who are taking their kids to Disneyland are the people who are coming to gymnastics clubs every day.”


    DISNEY INSTITUTE

    Disney still brings clients to
    its home turf, but it also has
    taken its product on the road.

    And when the USTA wanted to bring in DI before this year’s U.S. Open to talk with the 1,000 or so of its employees who only work for the USTA for three weeks every summer, the organization’s executives asked to share the stage with Disney’s presenters. “We had some material of our own that we wanted to cover,” said Chris Studley, the senior coordinator for guest services at the National Tennis Center. “The Disney name gave us credibility.” The presentation made an immediate difference, Studley believes. “Our people interacted more personally with the attendees this year,” he said. “They were willing to take those extra few minutes to explain the options in the food court, not just say ‘the food court is over there.’”

    Disney owns television networks (including ESPN), sports facilities, magazines, hotels and conference facilities. But the lessons that DI teaches originate with its core business, with Mickey and Goofy. So when outside decision-makers, such as Cardinals CEO Michael Bidwill or the Magic’s Hollifield, express interest in the process, they’re invited to Disney World in Orlando for a backstage tour. The subterranean tunnels that run beneath the massive park feel like the dressing rooms at a Broadway show, and that’s no accident. When Disney employees are on duty, they’re performing like actors on stage. Instead of uniforms, they wear costumes. And their job consists of creating memorable experiences — “wow” moments — that will keep customers coming back.

    Much of that comes from employee empowerment. At the theme park, cast members are encouraged to stop whatever they’re doing if a guest wants a picture taken, or needs a question answered. Employees get recognition, in newsletters and e-mails, but also from executives who prowl the park looking for praiseworthy acts. Interaction with guests is encouraged. Employees are sent out into the park with metal pins to trade with anyone who approaches them. The idea isn’t to get customers to buy more pins — though, admittedly, that’s a positive side effect — but to create yet another potentially memorable moment.

    “We look for as many ways as possible to turn our cast members into heroes,” said DI facilitator Sara Jones. “That makes them feel good. And it keeps our guests coming back.”



    “We strongly believe that if
    you take care of the guest in
    the proper manner, your
    financial results will come.
    The sports world is so far
    behind, they’re just
    beginning to understand
    that.”

    Jeff James
    Disney Institute

    Just because a team, organization or facility hires DI and attends a seminar doesn’t mean change inside its organization is a foregone conclusion. The temptation to relink the hands in the easy, comfortable fashion is a strong one. “All the ushers at my arena have been there 20, 30 years,” said Glenn Walinski of the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa, over lunch at the crowd management conference. Walinski liked the DI message, sure. But he seemed to feel that implementing it would be close to impossible. Even Frare concedes that for most organizations, a full year is necessary for any kind of shift in the corporate culture to take hold.

    Often, an external marker — a change in ownership, a new facility — is needed as the catalyst. “We would never have been able to do it without the new building,” said the Magic’s Hollifield. “It would have been tremendously difficult. There were people who’d been with us for 21 years, doing things a certain way. It took the move to give us a fresh start.”

    The Arizona Cardinals didn’t seem to have any of that. Their new stadium was already several seasons old, and the same family had owned the team since 1932. But the Cardinals had experienced a sudden reversal of fortune, from one of the NFL’s most downtrodden franchises to a Super Bowl team. And when a Cardinals employee saw DI give a presentation and booked it for a one-day seminar with game-day staff, it went so well that Bidwill decided to do something organizationwide. When DI’s facilitators arrived, “some of the people in our organization didn’t understand what they were doing here,” Bidwill says. “People in our finance department, some of our coaches, people who take care of our sports turf. ‘How does this affect me?’ I heard that a lot.”

    With DI’s help, the sense that the franchise had turned itself around on the field was transplanted to the front office — and beyond. “It was about being the best we can be in every area,” Bidwill said. “That’s why you bring in a company like Disney. And when they saw me going through the training, too, it made a big impact.” After half a season, the response from Cardinals fans has been strong enough that DI will return for a second session in February. “We’re going to continue to make sure we keep our service standards at a very high level,” Bidwill said. “It’s exciting. I think it’s something that will set us a little bit apart.”

    If that’s what DI can accomplish with a major league team after only a brief interaction, it’s tempting to wonder what would happen to sports’ existing sense of customer service if the company owned teams of its own. But, of course, Disney did own its own teams: hockey’s Mighty Ducks from 1993 to 2005 and baseball’s Angels from 1996 to 2003. And while both franchises were known for perfectly fine customer service, it fell within the range of what others were doing. There were no epiphanies learned, no new standards set.

    Maybe the message hadn’t yet been calibrated to fit a sports franchise. At the time, DI was focused on health care, retail goods and education, and hadn’t yet worked with a pro or college team. But while Disney explored many synergies involving TV, branding, even the name of the hockey team, game-day experience — beyond the use of entertainment acts and the “cast member” and “guests” terminology — wasn’t among them.

    “There wasn’t as much interaction with Disney as one would have thought,” said Tim Mead, the Angels’ vice president of communications, who recently completed his 31st season with the team. “We were really seen as a separate business.” As former Disney CEO Michael Eisner said to Mead about the Angels at the time, “You’re a unique animal.”

    Perhaps if Disney owned the teams today, a stronger attempt might be made to integrate the ideas that originate at the theme park. “There’s no doubt that by the end of their ownership you could feel the philosophical impact of the Disney influence much more than at the beginning,” Mead said. But part of why DI’s seminars work is that they’re getting sports teams to see customer service through outside eyes. For that, the external perspective is not only helpful, it’s imperative. “Bringing them in is the ultimate tune-up,” Penny said. “It helped remind me to listen better, to really be keen on the needs of our members versus thinking that we have all the answers. It reminded me to think like our customers.”

    The Magic, Hollifield notes, had never met at the same time with all the various entities that make up their game-day experience. They’d have separate sessions with security staff, caterers, their own ushers and other employees, but there was no common template, no consistent theme. DI’s methodology brought everyone together, taught them the same lessons, and tried to instill the same mind-set. “In the past,” she said, “every vendor had a different name tag. It was new for us to sit down with everyone and say, ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to do things.’”

    And for all its bells and whistles and the half-century of received wisdom, that in itself may be the best “best practice” DI has to offer. Simply paying enough attention to customer satisfaction to bother to hire Disney is a paradigm shift in itself for many entities, and an indication that minds are open enough to consider serving fans in a different way.

    “I feel like customer service and enhancing the fan experience is sports’ next frontier,” Bidwill said. “Disney doesn’t say, ‘Look, you’ve got to do it exactly the way we do it.’ But they give you the tools to start developing your own kind of leadership style for addressing this. Why come to the game when you can stay home and see it? To answer that, we need to focus on making the experience better and better. And that’s what bringing in Disney does. It makes us focus.”

    Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado. He can be reached at Bruce@bruceschoenfeld.com

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  • ESPN negotiating for Pac-10 title game

    Just a week after losing the Big Ten’s football championship to Fox, ESPN is deep into a 30-day exclusive negotiating window to secure rights to the Pac-10’s football championship game.

    The exclusive window ends early next month, according to several sources. ESPN is negotiating to pick up the game for just one year, in 2011.

    Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott confirmed that talks have begun and that ESPN was granted the exclusive window per the broadcast contract between the conference and ESPN that went into effect in 2007.

    It’s not known whether ESPN is negotiating to put the game on ABC, but if ESPN wins the rights, it likely will schedule the game to compete head to head with the Big Ten’s game on Fox in prime time.

    The Pac-10’s overall media rights are up after the 2011 season, and future championship games will be part of that package, Scott said. The league’s current contract with ABC/ESPN is valued at $125 million over five years.

    ESPN, Fox and Comcast have expressed interest in picking up those rights, which could include helping the conference launch a Big Ten Network-style cable channel.

    For the championship game, ESPN is negotiating directly with the Pac-10, though Scott is using CAA Sports as an adviser. If ESPN and the conference cannot reach an agreement by early December, the Pac-10 will take the championship game’s rights to the open market.

    Deal terms for the Pac-10’s game will be different from the Big Ten’s. All in, the Big Ten’s negotiations with Fox amounted to an average of $30 million of new money annually for the conference’s schools to share from 2011 to 2016. That includes the rights fee for the championship game and additional revenue to account for the inclusion of Nebraska.

    Because the Pac-10 is negotiating a single game in 2011, its rights fee is not expected to be nearly that high.

    In its deal for the championship game, Fox agreed to pay the Big Ten an escalating fee of between $20 million and $25 million a year over the course of the six-year deal. The contract includes the marketing rights to the game and the ability to sell the title sponsorship and other sponsorships. Title sponsors for conference title games typically pay in the low to mid-seven figures.

    Dr Pepper title sponsors the championship games in the Big 12 and ACC this year, although the Big 12 will not have a title game in the future as it shrinks from 12 teams to 10. The SEC does not have a title sponsor, but Dr Pepper has the title sponsorship of the Fanfare event. ESPN televises the Big 12 and ACC championship games, while CBS shows the SEC championship.

    During the title game talks, Fox also reopened its Big Ten Network contract to account for the addition of Nebraska, which is leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten next year. Fox agreed to pay the conference an additional $7 million a year and extend the Big Ten Network’s rights deal with the conference by an extra year, sources said.

    That would take the Big Ten Network’s 25-year rights deal through 2033, including all options. Fox owns 49 percent of the network, and the conference owns 51 percent.

    The Pac-10, meanwhile, is not including sponsorship rights in its broadcast deal. Pac-10 Properties, which is managed by Fox, will sell the title sponsorship and any other sponsorships associated with the game.

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  • Florida Panthers hire Fanvibe for loyalty program

    San Francisco social media outfit Fanvibe Inc. has struck a deal with the Florida Panthers to build the hockey team a check-in platform and fan loyalty rewards program.

    Designed to spur ticket sales and fan engagement for one of the NHL’s attendance laggards, the Fanvibe-built program will involve fans being able to “check in” to Panthers games through Facebook, Twitter, Fanvibe.com or Fanvibe’s iPhone application. Once checked in, other fan activities, such as sharing Panthers affinity on a social network, sending pictures to Fanvibe and participating in interactive contests, will enable fans to earn loyalty points.

    Points will be redeemable for prizes such as ticket and merchandise discounts, exclusive autographed merchandise and trips to Panthers away games.

    “We’re always looking for creative ways to sell tickets and deepen our [public relations] roots, and this is definitely a unique opportunity we’re pursuing,” said Steve Ziff, Panthers vice president of marketing and brand activation. “We’re very much in test-and-measure mode right now, but we think this could be a home run.”

    The deal extends through the rest of the season. Financial terms were not disclosed. On top of the major social media platforms, Panthers.nhl.com and Fanvibe.com, the alliance will be promoted in-venue at the BankAtlantic Center and during game broadcasts on Fox Sports Florida and WQAM Sports Radio.

    For Fanvibe, the Panthers alignment continues an acceleration of new business that in recent months has included the NBA and Turner Sports, CSN Bay Area and the Golden State Warriors.

    “Our technology is designed to support precisely this kind of loyalty program connected with real-world rewards, and it’s something we’re very excited about,” said Vishwas Prabhakara, Fanvibe founder and chief executive. “It’s something we’re also contemplating inside of our NBA deal, and we definitely foresee doing more of this on a one-off basis with other teams, too.”

    Aiding Fanvibe on the effort will be the Panthers’ agency of record, Zimmerman Advertising. The agency is owned by Panthers minority owner Jordan Zimmerman.

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  • Gulati: We’ll show FIFA ‘our passion to stage a great World Cup’


    GETTY IMAGES

    Gulati said the bid will point to
    numbers showing the popularity
    of the sport in the U.S.

    On Wednesday, the U.S. Bid Delegation will go before the FIFA Executive Committee in Zurich, Switzerland, to try to bring the World Cup to the States in 2022. The delegation has 30 minutes — and not a minute more — to persuade FIFA to choose the U.S. over Australia, South Korea, Qatar and Japan.

    Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, is chairman of the bid committee, and will lead the U.S. delegation, along with former President Bill Clinton. Gulati answered questions from staff writer Fred Dreier over e-mail from Europe last week about the coming vote.

    SBJ: What is the No. 1 point you will have to prove/show in order for the U.S. to clinch the votes needed to win?

    Gulati: I don’t think it is something we need to prove so much as we need to illustrate and make clear, and that is the passion we have in the U.S. for the game and our passion to stage a great World Cup. To an extent, the numbers tell one story, whether they are the 4 million registered players, World Cup television ratings, tickets purchased for the South Africa World Cup, our record attendance and revenues for the tournament in 1994, and so on.

    About The Presentation

    The U.S. presentation details are confidential, although Sunil Gulati confirmed they will present a video. The format is a straight presentation, and does not include questions from the floor.

    All delegations are limited to 30 people in the room. Of those, five people make up the presentation team.

    Gulati would not comment on the exact number of U.S. Bid Committee board members present, but said that Casey Wasserman, Mia Hamm, Tim Leiweke, Landon Donovan, Dan Flynn, Carlos Cordeiro, Doug Band and Don Garber would be present. President Clinton will be part of the presentation team.

    The U.S. will be the fourth presenting group on Wednesday, Dec. 1, after Australia, South Korea and Qatar, and before Japan.
     
     

    Now, how do we tell the other story, the one that strikes a chord toward how a World Cup in the U.S. can take those numbers and increase them dramatically? How can a U.S.-hosted World Cup make a difference for FIFA, its member associations and people from around the world, well beyond those numbers? How has the World Cup we had here in 1994 closed the gap between cultures and people from all walks of life, and how would that continue in 2022?

    SBJ: Have you ever considered a joint bid with either Canada or Mexico?

    GULATI: The idea of a joint bid between nations makes sense if you need the strengths of each to put forth the most complete and compelling bid. It’s under those circumstances that FIFA allows a joint bid. In the United States, however, we actually had to make difficult decisions to trim our host cities from 27 to 18 for our bid, and if we are fortunate to be named the host in 2022, we will have to reduce our field even further. We have an abundance of stadiums, services and much more within our borders. However, Canada and Mexico are each outstanding partners of ours in CONCACAF — indeed both federations have been extremely supportive of our campaign — and their citizens and fans would feel right at home in a U.S.-hosted World Cup.

    SBJ: How will you and President Clinton collaborate on the presentation?

    Gulati: We’re very much in sync, so you could say we’ve been collaborating on our presentation for months. President Clinton has been very accessible and we have also been working closely on the presentation itself with his team, including his chief of staff Doug Band, who is also a member of our Board of Directors. It’s been a rewarding experience for us and we’re very grateful for the time and attention President Clinton has given to all aspects of our bid.

    SBJ: How many times will you have practiced it before giving the presentation live?

    GULATI: Let’s just say we will not lack for preparation.

    SBJ: And your pre-bid dinner meal?

    Gulati: I’m not sure we’ll have time for carbo loading the night before the presentation but we’ll get together to have a final discussion over dinner.

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  • Lightning in negotiations to buy AFL’s Storm


    NEWSCOM

    A deal would give Jeff Vinik another team at
    St. Pete Times Forum

    The Arena Football League may soon have an NHL investor as the Tampa Bay Lightning negotiates a deal to buy the indoor league’s Tampa Bay Storm.

    A deal could be completed by early December and the AFL’s board of directors already has approved the potential sale.

    “A purchase is being considered,” said Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett. “The AFL team has some tangible assets and it only makes sense to keep the Storm playing in the market. [The AFL’s] season is basically in the NHL offseason and it keeps the building busy.”

    The purchase price is estimated to range between $2 million and $3 million, sources said.

    The Lightning is owned by Jeff Vinik, who bought the NHL team in March for $110 million. A deal would give Vinik control of an additional franchise that plays in the 19,758-seat St. Pete Times Forum. The AFL’s season runs from mid-March through August.

    The Storm currently is owned by a group led by Todd Boren, who bought the team last year for an undisclosed amount after the AFL was bought out of bankruptcy and relaunched as a single-entity. Last year, the Storm ran the team’s football operations while giving the Lightning control of its ticketing, sponsorship and broadcast business in return for an undisclosed per game fee. The Storm led the AFL in average attendance in 2010 by drawing 15,237 fans per game, nearly double the league’s 8,154 average attendance.

    AFL Commissioner Jerry Kurz would not comment on the negotiations and Storm officials did not return calls for comment.

    The fledgling AFL continues to try to bolster its ownership, with the league expanding during its offseason to 18 teams from 15. The league has added teams this year in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and San Jose while shuttering the Oklahoma City franchise.

    “We are moving out of small markets to large markets and after our hiatus, I am pleased with our progress, but we have a long way to go,” Kurz said.

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  • Magic signs SAS for both biz, basketball operations

    The Orlando Magic has signed a three-year deal with SAS Sports & Entertainment to implement an integrated analytics solution for both its business and basketball operations.

    Marking a somewhat rare blending of analytics products for a team front office, the Magic has begun to use SAS analytics for ticketing, merchandise, food and beverage, sponsorship, customer relationship management and other game-day operations at the new Amway Center, with an inclusion of the basketball operations planned for late in the current 2010-11 season.

    The most dramatic and immediate manifestation of the pact will be a heightened use of dynamic ticket pricing by the Magic. The team has begun to adjust single-game ticket prices based on a wide range of factors such as secondary market dynamics, day of the week, and opponent, with the process soon to become more automated.

    “The ticketing is a big piece of this, and we talked with all the big players out there in that [dynamic ticketing] space, including Qcue, Digonex and StratBridge,” said Anthony Perez, Magic director of business strategy. “But where we saw the real value of this with SAS is that for not much more in terms of spend, we could get a system that also could be applied to all these other areas.”

    Financial terms were not disclosed. The Magic previously had been using Spotfire Analytics, owned by TIBCO Software Inc., for its basketball operations, and the IBM-owned SPSS Inc., for its business-side analytics work.

    The Magic deal adds to a developing SAS sports practice that also includes pacts with the San Antonio Spurs, San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Hurricanes, among others.

    “There is still a lot of siloed technology in most organizations, and being able to apply high-end analytics in one integrated solution across an entire organization like we are in Orlando is a big step forward,” said Craig Duncan, manager of SAS Sports & Entertainment.

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  • Marlins seek match between sponsors, park’s palette


    ROBERT VIGON / MARLINS

    The $515M ballpark is separated by color: home
    plate (blue), first base (yellow), third base (red)
    and outfield (green).

    The Florida Marlins are marketing four founding partnerships for their new ballpark with a twist — each sponsor’s brand must match the stadium’s primary colors.

    Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, a New York art dealer specializing in 20th-century masters, is developing a 37,000-seat facility themed after the works of Spanish artist Joan Miró. The phrase “Miro’s palette” refers to the colors of red, yellow, green and blue he often used in his paintings.

    Separating the $515 million facility in Little Havana by color, from home plate (blue), to first base (yellow), to third base (red), to the outfield (green) will also help fans easily find their way around the park, team President David Samson said.

    To keep the theme consistent as it relates to sponsorship revenue, the Marlins are doing something unusual, using color as their guide to pitching seven-figure agreements with potential founding partners instead of targeting them by business category, Samson confirmed.

    The Marlins are marketing those deals in-house without using a consultant. They are also selling the ballpark’s naming rights on their own, a deal that has nothing to do with the color scheme, Samson said. He expects naming rights and two of the four quads to be sold by April.

    A group that includes Loria, Samson, vice chairman Joel Mael and vice president of sales Brendan Cunningham has met with prospects in the team’s sales headquarters adjacent to the ballpark site, where all four color palettes are on display.

    “These [four] colors are universal in every brand,” Samson said. “It is a great way to get everybody focused and a great way to start the conversation for companies that want to have their brands associated with one of our quads.”

    Naming-rights brokers Randy Bernstein and Jeff Knapple commended the Marlins for their creativity, but both questioned whether the team had limited its opportunities. “That leads me to believe they have already pre-sold these deals, or should have,” Bernstein said.

    Claude Delorme, the Marlins’ executive vice president of ballpark development, said the plan has not hindered the club’s ability to market founding sponsor deals. Team officials have identified 12 prospects and have had five to six discussions with each company.

    The categories include cellular, banking, beer, soda and consumer electronics, Samson said. Budweiser and Coca-Cola are both existing team sponsors whose primary color is red. In that case, he said, should both be interested, only one brand would stake ownership to the third-base-line quad.

    Each quad is designed with glazed block walls and acrylic floors accentuating those four hues. As fans walk the park, one color flows into the next, forming a watercolor canvas of sorts that “starts to take on a life of its own,” Delorme said.

    The four color-coded spaces extend from the ground floor to the top of the park, and range from about 50,000 square feet to the outfield, where a sponsor with green as its dominant color could have an estimated 100,000 square feet to work with to activate its brand, Delorme said.

    As such, the outfield could command a higher price, he said, based on the television exposure for a vast amount of real estate containing 116 all-inclusive seats tied to La Playa, a beach-themed area with a swimming pool and large bar in left field.

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  • NASCAR’s slide on TV continues


    GETTY IMAGES

    NASCAR has seen its fans skew older as its
    numbers among young males decline.

    Four years after signing a record $4.48 billion media deal with Fox, ESPN and Turner, NASCAR has lost nearly a quarter of its TV viewership base, a four-year trend of massive viewer defections that has been punctuated by the erosion of the young male demographic.

    This year’s TV numbers were down for 26 out of 34 races (two Monday races weren’t included), extending the sport’s viewership free fall and separating it further from other sports leagues, which have seen viewership remain relatively resilient in recent years.

    Unlike past years, however, NASCAR executives and their media partners are not considering major changes designed  to boost TV ratings. Rather, they are preaching patience.

    The sport’s leaders say that the changes they’ve already made to competition — from introducing new cars to allowing for more open racing — have resulted in much more exciting races. They point to the fact that viewers who tuned into ESPN over the latter part of the season watched races longer than a year ago and believe TV ratings will catch up with the exciting racing that delivered this season’s hotly contested Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    “With the racing where it is now, I have no doubt it’s going to take hold, and the excitement we’ve built coming out of this season will build into next season,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer.

    But as a mark of how far NASCAR’s TV ratings have fallen, even as the Chase came down to the final race this season, ratings for that race (Homestead) were down 8 percent compared with last year (3.3 versus a 3.6). Viewership was flat.

    “The younger demos are not watching, and that’s the No. 1 trouble spot,” said Mike Boykin, GMR executive vice president of sports marketing. “Are races too long? Is there enough emphasis on winning? Is timing of races working against the NFL juggernaut? Do they need a different format to attract a younger audience? Is there enough editorial and promotional support? Do they have enough personalities? They’re going to have to make some bold moves, and they’ll have to make several to get back to where they were.”

    In 2006, after NASCAR finalized its current media deal, it was averaging 7.855 million viewers per race on Fox, FX, TNT and NBC. By this season, the fourth of its eight-year deal with Fox, ESPN and Turner, NASCAR races averaged 5.992 million viewers over 34 races across all the networks.

    Median viewer ages
    for major sports leagues

    That means that NASCAR has lost nearly 2 million viewers in the past four years, or 23.7 percent of its viewing audience.

    NASCAR’s steep decline flies in the face of a real renaissance of sports ratings numbers. For example, the NFL’s two national packages have seen significant increases since 2006. “Sunday Night Football” viewership is up nearly 4 million viewers from 2006, while “Monday Night Football” is up 2.4 million. The NBA’s regular-season Thursday night package on TNT is up 240,000 viewers from the 2005-06 season, and MLB’s Sunday night package has lost just 173,000 viewers since 2006.

    For NASCAR, this season showed drops on all of its networks — Fox down 6 percent, TNT down 9 percent and ESPN/ABC down 14 percent. The sport averaged a 3.6 U.S. rating over 34 races, making it still the No. 2 sport in all key demographic groups, according to The Nielsen Co..

    This year’s declines seeped into press reports throughout the year and popped up everywhere from national publications like Sports Illustrated to regional papers like The Charlotte Observer. Media questions about viewership declines were pervasive enough that NASCAR CEO Brian France addressed ratings declines at the outset of his final press conference of the season.

    As recently as last month, NASCAR and ESPN executives were searching for answers as to why viewership was down. Over the years declines have been blamed on a range of issues, from heavy driver criticism of NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow,” which debuted in 2007, to the challenges of competing against the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the NFL season.

    But the biggest driver of the drop may be the erosion of the young male demographic. This year, Fox saw a 29 percent decline in 18- to 34-year-old male viewers, while ESPN/ABC saw an 18 percent decline.

    As it does every season, NASCAR will look to make some minor adjustments designed to boost ratings. Over the last few years it has tried everything from new start times and less on-track regulation to network cross-promotion and encouraging drivers to show more personality.

    Currently, everyone associated with the sport is happy with the quality of the racing and does not believe significant changes are necessary to stop the ratings slide. That means, for example, standard 1 p.m. start times may extend into a second year, once again putting them up against the NFL, which has seen its ratings increase this year in the same television window.

    “The last few years we’ve done a really good job of listening to the fans and what they’re interested in seeing from a racing standpoint,” Phelps said. “The ratings will take care of themselves in the near term.”

    League viewership trends
    Data is from each league’s regularly scheduled, national television packages

    The problem is that the ratings are down so much from 2006, after the current deal was negotiated, that sources say all of the networks are losing money on the deal.

    “The cost of [advertising] entry has been recalibrated,” said Sam Sussman, senior vice president and director at Starcom USA, which buys media for clients such as Best Buy and Allstate. “Demand has been trending down at the pace of the ratings decline, if not more. Things picked up a bit this year, and hopefully that will help Fox next year. NASCAR still delivers strong ratings.”

    The ratings declines are affecting media buys by corporate partners. Nationwide executives said the insurer plans to pull its ad buy on Fox’s national broadcast of the 2011 Sprint Cup Series because its buy on Fox this year wasn’t as effective as hoped. It will buy time for Nationwide’s NASCAR-themed ads on ESPN during races and other programming as well as non-racing programming on networks like USA and TNT.

    Other sponsors are monitoring ratings closely as they make similar advertising decisions.

    “For all of NASCAR it’s a concern, and it’s a concern for all of its sponsors,” said Suzanne Beaudoin, vice president of sponsorship and sports marketing at Mars Chocolate, which sponsors Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 car driven by Kyle Busch.

    Despite that, Fox Sports President Eric Shanks said he’s seeing signs that the NASCAR market will open up.

    “From a business standpoint, we’re cautiously optimistic,” he said. “[2011] is a turnaround year. Generally, we’re seeing more demand in the marketplace than we have the last two years. We’re cautiously optimistic that the increased demand in the overall sports market will hit NASCAR, too.”

    Shanks praised the on-track racing, saying the racing was tighter and the lead changed hands more frequently.

    “From a viewership perspective, it was mediocre,” Shanks said. “The successes NASCAR has had on the track have to be amplified by the media partners so fans can better appreciate it.”

    Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions, said that the network sees this year’s dramatic championship as a catalyst for ratings growth in 2011. The network was encouraged that heavy promotion and a much-hyped finale meant that — despite an 8 percent decrease in ratings — total viewership was flat and young male viewership increased for the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

    “Fans clearly found the race, and the younger demos were there in significant numbers,” Sobieski said. “If we could have that type of championship every year, that would be excellent.”

    As it looks to increase ratings in 2011, one change ESPN won’t consider is moving races back from ESPN, which is in 99 million homes, to ABC, which is in 115 million homes. Sobieski said the network believes ESPN remains the right home for NASCAR.

    That means marketing and promotional adjustments will be the primary tool of NASCAR and its broadcast partners in 2011 as they attempt to reverse the declines. NASCAR plans to increase its marketing spend in 2011 and develop targeted promotions designed to encourage tune-in by young males and other target demographics.

    “We’re going to use every resource available to us,” Phelps said. “We have to expose the sport to as many people as we can wherever they are, whether that is on a computer screen or mobile device or television.”

    NASCAR and its network partners hope that those efforts help reverse the dismal four-year viewership trend.

    “The goal is to continually move in a positive direction, whether that means stabilizing [ratings] in 2011 or continually growing in [future] years,” Sobieski said. “We’d never be happy with flat as a long-term strategy.”

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

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  • NFL’s Pash: ‘We are going to have a deal’

    The NFL is willing to consider alternatives to the core economic proposal it made to the players’ union, but wants the pace of talks to quicken, the league’s top internal negotiator, Jeff Pash, said.

    With less than 100 days remaining until the expiration of the collective-bargaining agreement March 3, the NFL is publicly suggesting for the first time that it is not wed to its core demand of holding back 18 percent more in league revenue from the players in order to pay for costs like stadiums, NFL Network and team stores. The league made that proposal in December 2009, and while it has been mischaracterized as an 18 percent pay cut, it would have the effect of decreasing player pay until revenue accelerated.

    The NFLPA said it did not have enough time to immediately respond to Pash’s comments.

    The league remains firm, Pash said, that any proposal must address the balance between the risks and rewards of generating revenue. Pash responded to questions from SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Daniel Kaplan last Wednesday, and the NFL executive’s answers are excerpted below.




    The NFLPA executive director last week was quoted in this magazine expressing gloominess about the state of the labor talks. What’s your attitude?

    PASH:
    Characterizing on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis, as though you are doing a weather forecast or a weather report doesn’t accomplish anything.




    Is that what you feel the union has been doing?

    PASH:
    I don’t worry about that. It is of no consequence, because I know we are going to have a deal; I know we are going to have an agreement.


    GETTY IMAGES


    GETTY IMAGES


    NEWSCOM

    In identifying key owners in the
    negotiations, Pash mentioned
    Packers President Mark Murphy
    (bottom) and Giants co-owner
    John Mara (center) as having
    attended “basically all of
    meetings.” He also referred to
    Panthers owner Jerry
    Richardson, one of the chairmen
    of the labor committee.




    By March 3?

    PASH:
    Well, there is no reason we can’t have a deal by March 3. … What we need is to have sustained engagement. We need to be meeting regularly, we need to leave meetings not worried about how we are going to characterize meetings, whether we are gloomy, whether we’re upbeat, whether we are excited, whether we are exhausted. We need to get past that. … But it has got to be a shared commitment. One side cannot do it alone.




    You seem to be saying it’s their fault there have not been enough meetings.

    PASH:
    I am not, I am not blaming people. I am saying you asked the question “Do I have any reason to think we can have an agreement by March 3?” and I am saying there is no reason we can’t have an agreement by March 3.




    Do you have a meeting scheduled?

    PASH:
    We just finished two days of meetings. And so we don’t have specific dates on the calendar, but we will probably meet with them next week and hopefully continue meeting with them.




    Was there any progress made this week?

    PASH:
    Again, again, I am not going to characterize the discussions, whether there was progress.




    The union has asked for the audited financial books of NFL teams, which the league rejects. Has the union made this an issue in the negotiations?

    PASH:
    Not really with us. … We have said all along we are prepared to make disclosures that document and justify what our bargaining proposals are. I think you don’t have to look any further than the basketball negotiations, where they did produce, as I understand it, all of their financial statements, that document losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the union’s response was quote, it’s baloney, close quote.




    This is not something that the NFLPA brings up in negotiations?

    PASH:
    We are not hearing, “If you don’t do this, we will not sign an agreement.”




    Your core proposal remains the 18 percent cost credit?

    PASH:
    Our proposal that we made was an 18 percent cost credit. Now what we have said to the union is that we are prepared to look at alternatives that would address the issues our owners have raised and the issues they have identified to us as being important in a new agreement. If the union has an alternative that it would like to propose we will look at it, we would analyze it. We are not so wed to a single approach or to a single proposal we would say we are not prepared to consider anything else. The question to us is … how does it address what is the central issue, which is having a relationship between financial risk and rewards that will encourage growth.




    A cost credit does not necessarily always mean revenues rise. Can you guarantee that if the union accedes to a credit?

    PASH:
    Probably the most obvious area for cost credits we have talked about is stadium construction. If the stadiums don’t get built you are not giving us any credit. On the other hand once the stadiums are built they are significant drivers of revenues. … We are not asking them to buy a pig in a poke here.




    Can an 18-game season solve the issues by creating more revenue?

    PASH:
    The deal realistically is an easier one to make in the context of 18 games.  




    There was a story in the WSJ last month that quoted league officials saying the NFL would lose $1 billion by next season if a deal is not done, and so the union needed to get a good deal done now. Is that fair to the union, because it was the owners who opted out of the CBA a year early?

    PASH:
    Well, first of all I don’t think anyone is putting any onus on the union. It is our loss too. If there are revenue losses, we are going to experience them too.




    Was the $1 billion figure a loose estimate, a hard figure?

    PASH:
    I would say it was not a loose estimate and not a hard figure, but it represented a realistic and documentable estimate of what would be lost if we didn’t start until sometime in September.




    Who are the key owners at the negotiating table?

    PASH:
    [New York Giants co-owner] John Mara and [Green Bay Packers President] Mark Murphy have attended — I would say — basically all the meetings, and they are both members of our [labor committee]. Jerry Richardson, as one of our two chairmen of the committee, has attended some meetings.




    One often hears the real issue is revenue sharing among the teams.  How do you respond?

    PASH:
    First of all, we have more revenue sharing in our league than any other league. Eighty percent of our revenue. … I frankly think that it is a misconception that the issue is between the high- and low-revenue teams. In the 30 years I have been associated with the National Football League, I have never seen our owners more unified.

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  • O’Reilly, MetroPCS use bout to try boxing

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

    Top Rank’s coming pay-per-view featuring Mexican legacy Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. against Pawel Wolek attracted a pair of new sponsors sampling the sport: O’Reilly Auto Parts, which is running an in-store pay-per-view rebate at 728 locations, and MetroPCS, which will give away fight tickets with purchase in its Southern California stores.

    Both bought packages that include advertising positions on the ring mat and in the broadcast of the Saturday night card from the Honda Center in Anaheim. Both will have billboard ads during the broadcast. O’Reilly also bought placement on the round clock and final punch stats.

    New York-based Leverage Agency, which Top Rank hired to build a roster of multifight sponsors, sold the packages.

    Top Rank and Leverage would not reveal financials. O’Reilly executives would not discuss the sponsorship. But the positions O’Reilly took for a pay-per-view this size typically would fetch about $100,000 when packaged together. Chavez’s pay-per-views typically have generated 50,000 to 75,000 buys.

    “It’s the right demo and the right market and the right fight for them,” said Keith Wan, director of sports and athlete marketing at Leverage. “It gives them a good test and entry point, as opposed to a fight where they’d have to spend more to take a look.”

    The major auto parts chains all are active sponsors in motorsports and make spot plays in college sports and minor league baseball. O’Reilly is the first to take a crack at boxing in recent years. It sees the fight as both a play to attract Hispanics and to build visibility in California, where it hopes to expand. The half-off PPV rebate, tied to the purchase of five quarts of Royal Purple motor oil, is running in top U.S. Hispanic markets, supported by radio ads.

    Chavez was scheduled to make an in-store appearance at O’Reilly in east Los Angeles on Friday and at a MetroPCS in Anaheim today.

    “It’s one thing for somebody to make a deal to get some exposure and another thing entirely when they activate like this in-store,” said Todd duBoef, president of Top Rank. “This is like the pace car for a category that boxing makes sense for. I’m willing to walk down the road with them and see what we can come up with together.”

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  • Sprint, Nationwide increase traffic at tracks




    PAUL NOLASCO / JHE PRODUCTION GROUP

    The Sprint Experience (above) drew more than
    550,000 fans in 2010. Nationwide increased visits
    despite cutting back on races and display size.

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

    Track attendance may have been down in 2010, but two of NASCAR’s biggest partners, Sprint and Nationwide, hardly noticed.

    Sprint, the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series, and Nationwide, title sponsor of its secondary series, both posted record attendance at their at-track displays. Sprint reported more than a 10 percent increase in attendance from 2009, and Nationwide captured twice as much contact information from visitors as it did a year ago.

    Those increases came despite International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc., the two biggest track promoters, reporting declines in ticket revenue of 18 percent and 15.6 percent this year, respectively.

    Executives at Sprint and Nationwide pointed to improved activation and fewer partners activating at tracks as the primary drivers in the increases.

    Sprint erected a 14,400-square-foot display in the midway area at all 36 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races in 2010. The Sprint Experience, as the area was known, offered driver appearances, interactive games and giveaways for Sprint customers. More than 550,000 fans visited in 2010, bringing the total number of visitors to more than 2.5 million since 2004.

    “We faced two headwinds this year,” said Tim Considine, Sprint’s director of sports marketing. “The earlier start times created 15 percent fewer hours (to engage with fans), and obviously, attendance was down, so we’re thrilled, and we think it’s a testament to the entertainment we’re offering.”

    Nationwide cut the total number of races it activated at from 17 to 15 for the 2010 season, reduced the size of its display and shifted a portion of its savings into a media buy with Turner on NASCAR.com. Its display included photo opportunities with the Nationwide Series trophy, a customized Nationwide motorcycle and a race simulator.

    Despite reducing the number of tracks and size of display, the insurer increased not only the number of visitors to its display but also the percentage of leads for new business from 25 to 34 percent in 2010. Jim McCoy, Nationwide’s director of strategic sponsorships, said activating at night races in Charlotte and Bristol, Tenn., played a major role in those increases.

    “We had more hours to be open and the lead percentages were particularly high,” he said. “There’s a little less competition in the midway, and that helps, too.”

    McCoy said Nationwide plans to increase its spending modestly in 2011 in order to activate at Talladega for the first time and increase the number of races it visits from 15 back to 17.

    JHE manages Sprint's at-track display, while JKS Marketing manages Nationwide’s activation. Octagon is Sprint’s sports agency, while Wasserman Media Group is Nationwide’s agency.



    NO MORE FANVIEW? The NASCAR Sprint FanView handsets may have worked their last race. The contract between Sprint, ISC, NASCAR and Kangaroo.tv to provide the handsets is up at the end of the year, and it’s unclear if the parties will renew or extend it. The agreement, which was announced in 2006, allowed the parties to provide $49.99 rentals of a hand-held scanner that included video, audio and data capabilities.

    The deal initially was signed so that Sprint (then Nextel) could provide advanced technology to fans at the track. But as cell phone technology has developed and allowed Sprint to turn phones into scanners, there is less of a need for the FanView system, Considine said.

    “The fan experience with FanView may change next year,” he said, “but our belief and hope is it will be around for years to come. It just may be a different device.”

    Sprint is considering everything from exclusively providing a FanView-style experience on phones to partnering with another company that offers similar in-venue technology. Whatever it does, Considine said that fans who bought a FanView device in the past four years will still be able to use it at tracks in 2011.

    “We hope to bring a more enhanced device and technology [to tracks],” Considine said. “It will be a better experience for fans.”

    ACTION PACKED: NASCAR executives have cozied up to action sports stars as the sport looks to generate new interest among “millennial males” during the 2011 season.

    NASCAR chief marketer Steve Phelps has worked behind the scenes over the last few months to assist former motocross stars such as Travis Pastrana, Brian Deegan and Ricky Carmichael as they look to join the Nationwide Series and eventually the Sprint Cup Series.

    “We’re thrilled Pastrana is coming to race, we’re thrilled Deegan is coming over and we’re excited they could be racing against Ricky Carmichael again,” Phelps said. “We’ll help them build a new fan base and hope they bring a new fan base to us.”

    Phelps said 18- to 34-year-old men are a major focus for the sport in 2011, and he sees the addition of action sports stars to NASCAR as one way to reach them. He said he hasn’t actively courted Pastrana or Deegan but has assisted them after being approached for help. He previously worked at Wasserman Media Group, which represents Pastrana.

    “We over-index in the 18-to-34 male segment, but it’s down,” Phelps said. “We need to be sure to stay relevant in that demographic and action sports is one way to do that. That’s why we’ve tried to help.”

    WMG principal Steve Astephen, who runs the agency’s action sports division, said that Pastrana was just the first of several of his clients who will look to transition into NASCAR. He said that skateboarding star Ryan Sheckler, who grew up racing go-karts, plans to test next year.

    “Steve Phelps and the NASCAR family have been nothing but supportive of this idea,” Astephen said. “This can be great for the sport.”

    PRODUCT HEAVY: The closest points battle in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s seven-year history meant NASCAR had to be prepared to offer one of three championship product lines at the conclusion of the season finale.

    It had 70 products designed to commemorate Jimmie Johnson’s potential fifth consecutive title, and it had 50 products ready for contenders Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

    When the race went down to the final 50 laps, NASCAR officials stacked boxes of hats, T-shirts, towels and flags commemorating a championship win for Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick on the edge of the championship stage. With two laps to go, they pushed the Hamlin and Harvick merchandise off the stage and unpacked the boxes of Johnson merchandise.

    Commemorative hats and towels were given to not only Johnson’s pit crew but also Jeff Gordon’s, which worked on Johnson’s No. 48 car during the final two races of the Chase.

    Johnson historically has been one of the best-performing drivers in merchandise sales, and his fifth title is expected to extend that streak as licensees produce a number of commemorative collectibles.


    GETTY IMAGES

    Jimmie Johnson’s close victory
    in the Chase kept NASCAR
    merchandisers on their toes.

    “There’s something about five that’s pretty intriguing, and licensees are excited about that,” said Blake Davidson, NASCAR’s managing director of licensed products. “People recognize now that you’re watching this guy make history.”

    M&M’s SPOT: After 20 years of being an active sponsor in NASCAR, Mars Chocolate has filmed its first NASCAR-themed commercial.

    The longtime sponsor shot a spot featuring Kyle Busch in Atlanta this month. Mars executives declined to share details about the ad, but Busch said it features him racing against the red M&M.

    “It’s a very M&M’s style ad,” said Suzanne Beaudoin, vice president of sponsorship and sports marketing at Mars Chocolate. “It’s fun, it’s humorous and it’s got a touch of racing.”

    Beaudoin said that Mars decided to make its first NASCAR-themed spot because Busch’s success made him more recognizable. The company also believed a NASCAR-themed spot would create a more authentic tie between the M&M’s brand and NASCAR fans.

    The spot will debut during the 2011 Daytona 500 and run throughout the NASCAR season. If it’s an effective ad, it will be used during non-race programming as well, Beaudoin said.

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  • Stats LLC taking over ICE ‘living playbook'



    Described as a “living playbook,” ICE makes
    scouting and game prep more efficient.

    Stats LLC has acquired the ICE digital coaching and personnel product from Seattle-based data visualization outfit IdentityMine Inc., expanding a partnership between the two firms struck early this year.

    Stats’ newly formed Sports Solutions Group, which provides analytics product and services to front office, coaching and scouting personnel, will take over all sales, marketing and strategic planning for ICE, co-developed by Stats and IdentityMine. The product name is an acronym for Integrated Collaboration and Evaluation. The system aggregates data from the NFL’s official Game Statistic and Information System feed, Stats’ battery of unofficial X-Info statistics, coaching evaluations and scouting reports, and ties it directly to game and scouting video. Pooled information is then displayed graphically across a wide variety of platforms.

    ICE has been described as a “living playbook” that allows coaches to perform traditional scouting and game preparation far more efficiently.

    The New Orleans Saints last year were a beta client of ICE, and Stats is preparing a broader rollout for the product across multiple sports.

    “We see a lot of synergies between this product and others that we’re working on,” said John Pollard, general manager of the Stats Sports Solutions Group. “This is going to enable us to bring more products to market and faster. We’ve lined up our core competencies appropriately.”

    Financial terms were not disclosed, but the pact is based in part upon a front-end payment from Stats for the intellectual property rights to ICE, and future revenue sharing. IdentityMine will remain a development partner to Stats.

    Pollard previously was IdentityMine director of business development before moving over to Stats in September to head the Sports Solutions Group.

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  • UFL positions itself for possible NFL stoppage

    The United Football League, seeking to capitalize on a potential NFL labor stoppage next season, has scheduled its third season to start two months early, on Aug. 7, 2011, and to play games on Sundays instead of Thursdays. Also, the league is holding back 25 games of its 65-game TV package in the event current NFL broadcasters might need replacement programming.

    “The lockout is a big deal. It is just a chance for us to generate real buzz,” said Michael Huyghue, the UFL commissioner. Discussions, he added, have begun with NFL broadcasters over using UFL games next season, but he declined to comment on how advanced those talks were.

    The UFL’s title game was scheduled for Sunday, closing the second season.

    If the NFL avoids a work stoppage, the UFL will keep its games on Sundays in August. Once the NFL regular season arrives, the UFL would then revert to Thursdays.

    The NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement expires March 3, and some insiders are expecting a protracted dispute.

    Either way, Huyghue contended the UFL has moved beyond questions about its viability, to whether the league will serve as an official or unofficial development sport for the NFL or simply be independent.

    Several players recently voiced concern about NFL teams needing to pay a transfer fee to the UFL for players moving to the larger league. But Huyghue said the UFL is not going to give away players, though he described the widely cited $150,000 fee as the cap and not the fixed amount.

    “Realistically every player is not the same value,” he said.

    The UFL lost between $30 million and $35 million in its first year and expects that figure to drop to between $15 million and $18 million this season. Year three will also show a loss, he added, unless TV money flows in from NFL broadcasters. Also, one of the teams is considering an initial public offering, Huyghue said, and fees from that could also bring the league to profitability.

    Huyghue declined to identify the team other than to say it was one of the more successful squads. Huyghue did not dispute the suggestion of the Omaha Nighthawks, who have sold out all the games of their inaugural season.

    The league has six teams and may expand by two. Expansions fees are between $20 million and $30 million apiece. The league will also move to a 10-game season next year, up from eight games this year.

    UFL investors are assigned teams and can take them public. The UFL has broadcast deals with HDNet and Versus, which has an exclusive 30-day window in December to decide whether to renew its contract.

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  • USA Cycling moving into online registration


    GETTY IMAGES

    USA Cycling will offer registration services to its
    2,800 sanctioned races starting Dec. 1.

    USA Cycling, the national governing body for professional and amateur bicycle racing, is entering the business of online race registration, which will put the NGB in competition with established registration companies such as the Active Network. USA Cycling will launch its service beginning Wednesday and will offer — but not require — registration services to its 2,800 sanctioned bicycle races.

    The move marks a new direction for the governing body, which oversees athlete development and race permitting, and has 70,000 members nationwide. Steve Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling, said the move is aimed at bringing in new revenue and streamlining the registration process for race directors.

    “We looked at our events, and most of them are using third-party registration, and from our perspective it is a complicated process,” Johnson said. “[A race director] can now activate a permit and open registration before the event is approved. We extract our costs and send the rest to the promoter. It’s seamless.”

    USA Cycling officials declined to reveal the value of the online registration service but said the NGB had hired two staffers and invested in new computer servers and the creation of its own software to run the program.

    Under the current system, a race promoter first pays USA Cycling a sanctioning fee, which is determined by the number of participants in the event. A third-party online registration company then collects participant entry fees, which range from $20 to $100 per event, and then subtracts a fee of its own, and sends the promoter the difference. After the event, the promoter pays USA Cycling $3 per participant for insurance fees.

    “With us [the promoter] will just have to write one check,” Johnson said.

    Other NGBs have undertaken online registration for mass-participant events in various formats, but not with the depth and breadth that USA Cycling hopes to achieve. USA Track & Field handles online registration for its national championships, but relies on third-party websites to handle its 4,500 other sanctioned events. USA Triathlon manages a calendar but not registration. USA Tennis runs its own registration by using the technology services and servers of the Active Network. USA Swimming rolled out a similar program in 2006 for its 5,000 swim meets, and between 50 and 75 meets use the service each year.

    The NGB ran a soft launch of the program this year for its amateur road, mountain bike and collegiate road events. The success persuaded Johnson to roll out the service to sanctioned events.

    The move puts USA Cycling in direct competition with local and national third-party registration websites such as SportsBaseOnline, BikeReg.com and Active.com. Steve Roszko, CEO and founder of Massachusetts-based BikeReg.com, said the launch could have a profound effect on his business. USA Cycling’s registration rates undercut those of BikeReg.com’s by between 10 to 30 cents per person.

    “They’ve gone from being a partner to now being a competitor — to me it’s a strange spot for a national governing body to be in,” said Roszko, who launched his business in 1999 and works with approximately 3,000 events. “They have a direct market to the events, so it’s obviously going to have an impact [on business].”

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  • Van Wagner gathers bowling rights to sell


    PBA

    The Pro Bowlers Association is among the properties
    represented in the integrated package.

    Van Wagner Sports is adding bowling to its roster of media and sponsorship properties it sells with a consortium of bowling industry commercial concerns.

    The agency will bring together the Pro Bowlers Association and its 21-window schedule on ESPN, which began its latest season of 1 p.m. Sunday telecasts on Nov. 28. It also gains Strike Ten Entertainment’s network of 2,100 bowling locations, the U.S. Bowling Congress grassroots sanctioning organization and the Bowling Proprietors Association of America.

    The various components of the bowling industry have been sold in tandem before, most recently by Strategic, which was then Strategic Sports Group. However, more recently, Winnercomm sold PBA rights, while Amplify sold for Strike Ten. Under Van Wagner, the rights are united and the leading proponents of bowling in the U.S. maintain that never have they offered a package with this level of value and integration.

    “We’re working under one operating agreement and it is a deeper, more defined relationship in terms of delivering sponsorship activation,” said PBA Chief Executive Officer Fred Schreyer. “We’re controlling our assets better, so we can deliver more.”

    New to the PBA season this year is a bigger focus on the major tournaments, as well as bowling’s version of the Sprint Cup, a playoff over the final four weekends that is being billed as the PBA’s “first postseason.” Van Wagner is hopeful of selling the final four weekends to a title sponsor, along the lines of FedEx for the PGA Tour. The season also opens slightly later, leaving it a few less Sundays with head-to-head competition against the NFL in the PBA’s time slot.


    PBA on ESPN

    The number of people watching ESPN’s PBA
    broadcasts has declined nearly 15 percent since
    the 2007-08 season.

    Incumbent corporate supporters include tour title sponsor Lumber Liquidators, Geico, Bayer, Barbasol and Pepsi. Categories being pursued include beer, home/hardware and garden centers, auto aftermarket and snack food.

    “We are trying to move bowling to the next level. It is a hot sport among celebrities and athletes,” insisted Scott Epstein, executive vice president of sponsorship and media sales at Van Wagner Sports.

    Other properties represented by Van Wagner include UFC, the U.S. Figure Skating Association, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and Moto GP.

    Strike Ten President Frank DeSocio said more than 70 million Americans made unique visits to bowling alleys last year, with an attractive average time of 2 1/2 hours. League bowling, the equivalent of season-ticket holders, is down about 3 percent, but overall the bowling business was up 0.5 percent last year. “Our business is solid, especially in these economic times,” DeSocio said.

    With Van Wagner’s legacy in signage, President Cliff Kaplan said elements like adding a network of static or video signage at bowling centers or events could be considered for new inventory.

    Former Strike Ten President Steve Ryan said that while the centralization made bowling an easier buy, the sport’s biggest challenge is relevance. “Bowling still attracts good traffic, especially in the Midwest,” said Ryan, now an independent consultant. “You would look at it against something like X Games in terms of cost and ratings and it compares, but it just doesn’t have a lot of buzz.”

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  • Wozniacki rapidly cashing in with sponsors


    PROACTIVE

    Wozniacki earned $9 million
    this year, including a $2
    million bonus from sponsor
    Adidas.

    When Maria Sharapova hit it big after winning Wimbledon at 17 in 2004, she quickly became the envy of the WTA Tour, regularly earning more than $25 million annually, mostly in endorsements. Now, every pretty newcomer who enters the WTA upper reaches is invariably touted in one circle or another as the next Maria, so far inaccurately.

    For the first time, one may be knocking at that door. Caroline Wozniacki, 20, earned about $9 million this year, one of the best hauls ever for a tennis player never to have won a Grand Slam. A lot of that flowed in from ending the season No. 1, including a roughly $2 million bonus from clothing sponsor Adidas. In total, about $6 million came from endorsements and appearance fees, the remainder from prize money.

    Three new deals she will unveil this week will further inflate her bank account. Her smiling face (her nickname is Sunshine) will beam down starting today from a Times Square JumboTron to promote her new endorsement of Proactiv, the acne medication hawked by the likes of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

    Wozniacki is also adding to her bulging holiday stocking deals for Turkish Airlines and Aquiss rehydration drink, which will grant her family distribution rights in their native Denmark and use the star as the center of its European expansion. A new blockbuster racket deal is also in the offing as she seems certain to trade in her old Babolat for a new brand.

    “She is a pretty girl, she speaks four languages, she has the ability to be like Sharapova if she wins a Grand Slam,” said John Tobias, her agent with Lagardère Unlimited.

    While Wozniacki might already be a legend in Scandinavia, she is hardly a household name in the United States. In fact, the Davie-Brown Index, a well-regarded service that measures athletes’ and entertainers’ popularity, had not even polled for her, though it planned to do so soon.

    Jamey Sunshine, Lagardère’s vice president of talent marketing, said the companies Wozniacki works with had not requested popularity measurements, but the agency was now developing those figures.

    Wozniacki Endorsements

    Proactiv (acne medication)
    Turkish Airlines
    Aquiss (rehydration drink)
    Sony Ericsson
    Adidas
    Babolat*
    E-Boks (Danish Internet
    provider)
    Rolex


    * Expires next month
    Source: Lagardère
     

    European athletes traditionally have a tough time breaking through in the United States. Sharapova is an exception, but she’s lived in the U.S. since the age of 6 and has residences in Los Angeles and Florida. With Sharapova’s game in question and some of the top WTA stars’ commitment to the sport in doubt, the Madison Avenue path might be open for someone like Wozniacki, who reached the U.S. Open finals in 2009 and the semifinals in September.

    Wozniacki is also a test case for Lagardère Unlimited, which plowed into the athlete representation business earlier this year by buying BEST, the agency that represented her. Lagardère is well-known for its fashion and entertainment magazines, as well as book publishing, so part of the rationale behind the acquisition was to use those resources for athletes. To date that’s not happened with Wozniacki, Tobias said, though he said having someone at Lagardère focus full time on off-court marketing deals would have been difficult at BEST.

    The three new deals for Wozniacki should add several million more dollars to her purse annually, assuming she maintains her current range of ranking. She is also playing a New Year’s Day exhibition outside Bangkok with Kim Clijsters that will serve as the birthday party for the king of Thailand. Each will take in several hundred thousand dollars for the effort.

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