SBJ/March 14-20, 2011/Opinion

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  • Watch Pegula, Brown

    • One of the best stories from the NHL this year has been the introduction of Terry Pegula as the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres. If you haven’t followed his brief stewardship of the team, you should. He offers a refreshing approach to ownership: progressive, aggressive, passionate yet human. The oil and gas executive is a lifelong Sabres fan who has been a season-ticket holder for nearly 20 years. He understands the team’s special place in upstate New York and its history, he promises to spend money, and he has a focus on winning a Stanley Cup. Sabres fans deserve this, and Pegula has them believing.

    Sports is littered with longtime fans who became ineffective owners. Pegula must bring his business discipline to team operations, but he seems the perfect fit for the NHL in such a rabid hockey market.

    • Keep an eye on newly elected California Gov. Jerry Brown, who’ll play a critical role in the future of the state’s big league franchises. As the Chargers, 49ers and others vie for new facilities and virtually no public dollars, they’re unlikely to get any help or leadership from Brown, long opposed to publicly funding such sports projects. The issue of stadium development in California has worried league leaders for years.

    Brown’s priorities and position can’t make them feel better about their prospects.

    Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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  • How NASCAR can maintain its early-season momentum

    Busch
    NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs use the phrase “dialed in” when the race car is at its optimum level of performance on the track. Much like a driver and crew chief working together to find the right adjustments, NASCAR needed to adjust to the market conditions and make modifications to get the sport turned back in the right direction.

    Through the first three races this year, there is a different vibe around the sport. The energy is back and it couldn’t have come at a better time. You saw it in the days leading up to Daytona and it has carried through the season’s first three races.

    NASCAR joined all sports properties in taking a hit during the economic recession, but when the core of a sport relies on sponsorship, the downturn takes on even greater significance. A lot of the credit for this year’s early resurgence goes to NASCAR leadership for being proactive this offseason in developing a plan to unify the sport’s various stakeholders: teams, tracks, sponsors and media partners.

    Before Daytona, NASCAR met with nearly every major organization within the sport — from the teams in and around Charlotte, to the tracks that host the events, the media partners that promote the sport, and the sponsors and agencies. In these meetings, NASCAR presented extensive research and laid out a detailed plan to solidify the core fan base, reach new fans, get younger fans and better promote the sport in 2011.

    All of this, along with perfectly timed wins by rookie Trevor Bayne at the Daytona 500 and slumping star Jeff Gordon in Phoenix, as well as the historic fourth-place finish for Danica Patrick in the Nationwide Series race in Las Vegas, certainly makes it feels like the sport is headed in a positive direction. But brands don’t make marketing decisions based on headlines, so here are some tangible reasons why NASCAR appears to be headed in the right direction.

    • Television ratings: After a steady ratings decline over the last few seasons, NASCAR rode exciting racing, the anniversary of the death of its greatest star and strong prerace promotion to a ratings rebound. Fox earned an 8.7 Nielsen rating and 15.6 million viewers for the Daytona 500, up 13 percent and 17 percent, respectively, from last year. Fox followed that up in Phoenix with a 5.9 rating, up 5 percent from last year and making it the most-watched race in Phoenix’s 23 years as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series venue. The 5.3 overnight rating in Las Vegas is up 44 percent from last year.

    • Online: NASCAR.com scored a Daytona 500 record with 1.6 million daily unique visitors, up 11 percent over last year. NASCAR.com also experienced growth in page views both on the site, with 11.2 million (up more than 8 percent), and via mobile, with 3 million page views (a whopping 169 percent increase).

    • Track attendance: With at or near-capacity crowds of more than 182,000, 75,000 and 140,000, respectively, for Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas, it’s clear that the fans are coming back to the tracks. What I hear most from fans at races is that they’re appreciative of how tracks are working hard to offer ticket promotions and new benefits for diehard fans.

    • Sponsor activation: The quantity and quality of marketing activation is also on the upswing. In Daytona, we saw an increase in at-track activation by sponsors, most of whom were engaging with race attendees and, more importantly, providing them value. There was plenty of shoulder programming at Daytona, and the midway was packed with companies reaching out to brand-loyal fans. Additionally, we saw activation from new sponsors, such as AARP, and the continued return of longtime sponsors like the automotive manufacturers. We’re also seeing more effort put into digital, mobile and social media marketing tactics to allow for continued engagement with the fans after the race.

    • Social media: NASCAR, like every other sport, is pushing social media interaction to reach fans because data suggests that the more the fans are consistently engaged in a sport, especially during the week between races, the more likely they are to tune in to broadcasts. NASCAR now has more than 1.3 million likes on Facebook and more than 80,000 followers on Twitter, both up significantly from last year. Behind-the-scenes content and other promotions have increased significantly and it’s not just from the sanctioning body. Drivers such as Michael Waltrip (@mw55), Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) and Denny Hamlin (@DennyHamlin) and even NASCAR executives like Steve O’Donnell (@odsteve), vice president of racing operations, are providing fans with compelling content and insights.

    NASCAR’s standing may not be back to what it was pre-recession, and a trio of successful races doesn’t guarantee a successful season, but it’s clear there is a significant change in the dialogue, press coverage and vibe around the sport. Now comes the hard part: sustaining the momentum beyond the first three races. NASCAR must continue to do what it can to produce exciting racing, foster rivalries, allow drivers to show their true personalities and speak their minds without fear of penalty. It must also work with media partners to build promotions that will drive ratings and expand the fan base.

    Should each effort prevail, it will help NASCAR’s retooled communications group spread the message that stock car racing is, once again, dialed in. 

    Greg Busch (gbusch@gmrmarketing.com) is executive vice president of client management for GMR Marketing, which handles sports sponsorship strategy and/or execution for clients such as Lowe’s, Procter & Gamble, MillerCoors and Comcast.

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  • Social media at the heart of strategy to achieve fan connectivity

    At the most recent NBA Tech Summit during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, one of the dominant themes was the importance of good content and the ability of an organization to deliver that content for sharing in a variety of ways with its fan base. Mobile devices, engagement marketing (sponsor activation) and social media were all identified as crucial tools to disseminate content and encourage fans to interact in their own ways with that content.

    The question we as marketers sometimes ask ourselves is: How much interaction can we provide? More importantly, how can we let the fan base manage and direct that content?

    Managers Night
    NEWSCOM
    St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck (center) awards “coaching trophies” to two fans who participated in his Grandstand Managers Day promotional stunt on Aug. 24, 1951.
    Historically, we have been asking this question since Aug. 24, 1951, when Bill Veeck, owner of the hapless St. Louis Browns, staged Grandstand Managers Day. Veeck, former Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack and thousands of fans held placards that said “yes” on one side and “no” on the other, while publicity director Bob Fishel held up cards with proposed moves: steal, bunt, change pitchers. The grandstand managers flashed their opinions, and the Browns players complied. The result? A Browns victory, ending their four-game losing streak — and a reprimand from the commissioner’s office for making fun of and attacking the integrity of the game.
    While this example was extreme, it demonstrated the interest and willingness of the fans to become involved with the content if given the opportunity.

    Sixty years later, minor league baseball fans are still given the opportunity to make decisions, but, at least for the time being, only on parts of the game experience and not the game itself. The Bowling Green Hot Rods, a Class A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, is using Facebook and allowing the team’s fans to customize the game experience by giving them ownership of an entire game as they create the elements of the night.

    The initial step of the promotion is to increase the number of fans on the team’s Facebook page. Currently at 7,000 with a goal of reaching 10,000, the Hot Rods will reduce ticket prices on May 18 by 50 cents for every 200 new Facebook fans that register until they reach 10,000. If they do, fans could receive a discount of $7.50 on a $10 box seat.

    Content rules
    In Phase 2 of the promotion, Facebook fans will be provided the opportunity to make choices on various game-experience-related decisions. The first decision, on Feb. 21, had fans select what time the game will start on May 18. Additional elements include which uniforms the Hot Rods will wear and what food and merchandise items will be specially priced for the game. Hot Rods Facebook fans will also be incorporated into several game-day activities, such as on-field promotions, first-pitch opportunities, and meetings with Hot Rods players and coaches.

    All-Star balloting in the NBA and MLB are examples of providing an opportunity for fans to interact with the content (the All-Star Game) and influence that content by determining the starting lineups for the game. During this year’s Sprite Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Saturday Night, the fans determined the winner by texting. They also texted their votes for the All-Star Game’s MVP the following day. On the pure entertainment side, fans attending concerts by The Rolling Stones and other artists are given the opportunity to suggest songs and vote on play lists that the artists will perform during the concert.

    Content can also be created by people outside the organization and utilized for other purposes. We have all seen how influential Facebook has become in our society through the movie “The Social Network” and most recently put into practice through recent events in Egypt and the Middle East, where the power of sharing content and information has changed the course of history.

    Similar success might be found in California, where Sacramento Kings fans are trying to prevent a proposed move of the Kings franchise to Anaheim. On Feb. 22, a campaign was announced to “show community support for keeping the Kings in Sacramento.” The effort featured four traditional billboards, four electronic billboards and online social media. Kings fans launched an online campaign via Twitter, Facebook and blogs. The effort helped sell out the team’s Feb. 28 home game against the Los Angeles Clippers and demonstrated fans’ interest in the franchise and their desire to keep it in Sacramento.

    In my opinion, the key to the effective dissemination of content and the opportunity to influence that content through social media is going to be finding a balance between followers of the team and users of social media, who might not be current ticket buyers of the organization or part of the season-ticket base. We can assume that season-ticket holders would be older and less involved as a group than the typical social media user.

    If an outside group is given the opportunity to influence and manage content and chooses to do so, what will be the impact on season-ticket holders? They may feel that these decisions should be theirs and theirs alone by virtue of their financial support of the organization. We must remember that social media is a tool for communication and connectivity, and like any tool, its purpose must be well thought out. It must have a strategic core and a planned and desired outcome.

    Fan connectivity and greater involvement is the goal of all of these activities I have discussed. There are various ways to achieve them with social media being at the heart of many of them. �8;

    Bill Sutton (wsutton@bus.ucf.edu) is a professor and associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

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