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NFL Players Association members, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (second from right) make their way into talks with the NFL in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
While the sport last Thursday night appeared on the brink of returning to the days of grim labor strife, a federal mediator won at least a 24-hour reprieve for the league and players to continue talking.
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It was unclear at press time whether another, longer extension to the expiration of the collective-bargaining agreement would be secured, but both sides were scrambling to avoid the litigation and potential work stoppages that would follow an expiration.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello (left); Jeff Pash (center), league general counsel and chief labor negotiator; and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, co-chairman of the owners’ labor committee
Meanwhile, a source said that the Reggie White v. NFL 1993 settlement, which governs the expiring CBA, had also been extended. That meant the NFLPA could file an antitrust lawsuit in the courtroom of Minnesota federal Judge David Doty.
If the two sides, after the extended talks, cannot reach a deal, the path seemed clear as of Thursday night: The union seemingly would decertify, the league would lock out the players, and the new players trade association would file an injunction seeking to block a lockout. An antitrust lawsuit would follow.
Sources said the NFLPA had already prepared the lawsuit and that star quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees were among about 10 NFL players who are named as plaintiffs in that case.
Earlier last week, developments looked particularly grim, with a two-day owners meeting shaved to just more than two hours. Owners traveled to Chantilly, Va., just outside Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, with the possibility of being there for two days to vote on a new labor deal. Instead, they were told when they got there they were going home that night, so little progress had been made. Even league titans like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who with eight of their colleagues had met with the union earlier that day, were sent packing.
“We have been very clear the TV money was a loan. It’s not a payment; it was not anything we were counting on,” said an exhausted-looking Jeff Pash, the NFL’s chief labor negotiator. “It doesn’t alter our planning one iota.”
Indeed, on the day of the extension, Fitch Ratings wrote that the league could survive for
AP IMAGES (2)
Top photo: Players Mike Vrabel and Domonique Foxworth. Above: New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.
But beyond the blocking of the fees, something else Doty wrote in his decision might have served as an alarm for the league as the week progressed. In the opinion issued last Tuesday, Doty wrote in a footnote, “The facts underlying this proceeding illustrate another abuse of that market power wherein various broadcasters of NFL games were ‘convinced’ to grant lucrative work-stoppage payments to the NFL if the NFL decides to institute a lockout. … Whether the contract insuring these payments might ultimately be deemed unenforceable because of their potentially collusive nature is not an issue before this court, but the court does consider the abuse of the NFL’s market power when finding that it did not act in good faith to benefit both itself and the Players, as required by the [CBA].”
There was certainly concern within NFL circles that any new antitrust lawsuit filed by a decertified union could end up in Doty’s court, sources said.
The path to last week’s deadline drama began in earnest in May 2008. That’s when the league exercised its option to opt out early from the deal the league and players had agreed to in 2006, contending it was too onerous for clubs.
Another significant event on the path to last week’s talks came on Aug. 20, 2008. Gene Upshaw, the longtime executive director of the NFLPA, died unexpectedly that day, severing the longstanding ties that the union and leaguehad enjoyed. Several ownership sources have said since then that the league
Top photo: Houston Texans owner Bob McNair (in blue). Above: Judge David Doty.
While many of the economic issues have received the majority of the attention in the dispute, and clearly they are key, the new league and union leadership is trying to forge a new working relationship.
DeMaurice Smith, Upshaw’s successor, did not have any of the longstanding relationships in the NFL and certainly didn’t share the same relationship with the commissioner that Upshaw had with Goodell’s predecessor, Tagliabue. The NFL has criticized Smith for going to the courts and the government instead of the bargaining table to get things done. Smith formerly worked for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and perhaps it was no coincidence that while the two sides were negotiating Thursday, President Obama at a press conference made reference to the talks that were ongoing that day.
Smith’s insistence throughout the talks that the league open all of its financial books to prove its profit margins are shrinking has caused fierce resistance within the league. While it may have added to the level of distrust between Smith and the league, it has won him the allegiance of players throughout the league, who say that they are more informed about their union than they have ever been, under Smith’s leadership.
To that end, NFLPA members were ecstatic last week when Smith’s strategies led to the significant win in Doty’s court.
But both before and after that decision, much of the chatter last week leading up to the events of Thursday was not whether the sides would settle, but rather when announcements would be coming about decertification and lockouts.
The dour mood was a stark change from the sentiments that had been felt by many for months. Despite the long-established threat of a lockout that had been hanging over the NFL business, many of the people who make their living in pro football were sanguine. That had changed by last week.
“There was always optimism, even in the league offices. People thought they would get this thing done,” said one NFL insider last week. “This week, it’s like it’s sinking in. It is like a pall over the business. It’s depressing.”
Said one longtime agent of the mood, “You know what it feels like? It feels like ’87, right before the strike.”
That 24-day work stoppage resulted in one game being missed and three games being played with replacement players.
Anxiety was high last week among many people who feared losing their jobs or taking pay cuts.
“I have never seen coaches as anxious and mad in all the years I have been doing this,” said Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, a trade association that represents assistant coaches throughout the NFL. “In 95 percent of the contracts, they say you are going to take a cut in pay [with a work stoppage].”
But as some felt dread last week, others still clung to hope in the last hours before the expiration of the CBA.
“The majority of people I have talked to, from players to front-office people to coaches, they are optimistic that people are, at the end of the day, going to put their differences aside,” said Peter Schaffer, co-owner of All Pro Sports & Entertainment and who has been an NFL agent since 1989. “We are all hoping and truly believe at the end of the day we are going to resolve this.”
Everyone knows that nothing beats the Super Bowl when it comes to the intersection of sports, advertising and TV. That makes this year’s star of Super Sunday advertisers — car companies — all the more compelling.
A record 17 brands from eight auto manufacturers bought up 12 1/2 minutes of ad time, establishing new precedents across the board, according to research by Kantar Media. That the spike in ad buying happened just two years removed from the teeth of a severe recession made it all the more remarkable.
The main message from Motown and beyond: Eminem and Chrysler aren’t the only ones enjoying major comebacks these days. So is the rest of the car industry, with banks and other financial services firms riding shotgun.
Hyundai agreed to put its name on the PGA Tour's season-opening Kapalua, Hawaii, event through 2013.
“As Mark Twain once said, ‘Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,’” said David Abrutyn, managing director, senior vice president and head of global consulting for IMG. “The same can be said about banks and cars.”
Indeed, in recent months companies in the banking and automotive sectors have closed on a string of deals. Among them:
• JPMorgan Chase investing an estimated $300 million or more over the next decade as the lead sponsor at the soon-to-be revamped Madison Square Garden.
• A slew of smaller but significant sponsorships and ad buys, from General Motors’ Cadillac brand taking on title sponsorship of the World Golf Championships to TD Ameritrade agreeing to spend an estimated $20 million as part of a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsorship and related advertising during NBC’s coverage of the 2012 Games in London.
Discover put its name on a BCS game.
• Hyundai Kia Automotive Group signing a three-year extension with the NBA and a four-year deal for title rights to the Sun Bowl. Also, Hyundai agreeing to put its name on the season-opening Kapalua PGA Tour event through 2013 and extending a long-running agreement with FIFA through the 2022 World Cup.
Plenty of companies shed or reduced commitments during the recession — GM, by some estimates, slashed spending by 60 percent — but, as the recent moves noted above make clear, the rebound is well under way.
Recent spending numbers prove the theory true.
During the first three quarters of 2009, sports advertising among automakers totaled $912 million. In 2010, it jumped 47 percent to $1.3 billion, according to research by Kantar Media (see chart, Page 16).
Financial firms spent less on sports ads than car companies, but with greater gains. For the same period — the first nine months of 2010 versus 2009 — sports advertising from banks and related financial companies zoomed 69 percent to $617 million.
Reasons for optimism
Optimism runs high for both sectors, although significant questions loom in the financial services category, experts say.
Auto prospects burn brighter for several reasons, starting with industry forecasts for continuing strong growth in sales as well as anticipated increases in the number of new product launches and redesigns, which necessitate aggressive advertising and promotion.
Auto and finance on the rebound
The following chart shows how sports television advertising by companies in the auto and financial categories has risen sharply since the early days of the recession.
CATEGORY JAN. 2009-SEPT. 2009
JAN. 2010-SEPT. 2010
CHANGE Automakers $912,247 $1,342,534 +47% Financial services $365,446 $616,720 +69% Total sports advertising $2,120,271 $2,869,107 +35.3%
Source: Kantar Media
Beyond that, two major automakers — GM and Chrysler — shed enormous debt and unsavory union contracts by seeking bankruptcy protection in 2009. Both have since re-emerged stronger. In February, GM reported its first annual profit in seven years while making a strong run at once again becoming the world’s top-selling car company. Across the board, most carmakers have been able to improve their balance sheets while weaker dealerships closed. Pent-up demand is also playing a part, as beleaguered consumers who have delayed buying cars in recent years are now more likely to consider an upgrade.
Winning over those prospective buyers calls for a proven method to connect with them. “Automotive and sports have been like soup and sandwich for years,” said Jan Thompson, vice president of the automotive group at The Marketing Arm. “[During the recession] everybody got burned and everybody got scared. Now everybody’s a lot smarter going into it.”
Tom McGovern, managing director at Optimum Sports, sees similar cause for optimism with the car companies. His clients include Nissan, a major advertiser in college football.
“Things have been cleaned up in automotive, with the balance sheets,” McGovern said. “The problems run deeper in financial services. Major firms are nowhere near what they looked like before. It’s more challenging and there are lingering effects.”
Driving sales with the Super Bowl
The 2011 Super Bowl ad roster included a record number of auto manufacturers running commercials.
YEAR TOTAL AUTO AD
TOTAL AUTO AD
# OF AUTO
# OF AUTO
2011 NA 12:30 8 17 2010 $29.7 5:30 4 6 2009 $18.0 3:00 3 3 2008 $21.6 4:00 4 4 2007 $21.5 3:50 3 4 2006 $20.0 4:00 4 5 2005 $26.4 5:30 4 5 2004 $20.7 4:30 4 5 2003 $12.9 3:00 2 3 2002 $8.8 2:00 2 2 2001 $8.8 2:00 1 1
Source: Kantar Media data
Still, it’s a long way from the early days of 2009, when U.S. Rep. Barney Frank ripped Northern Trust for hosting performances by Sheryl Crow and others as part of its PGA Tour sponsorship in California. ABC News and others spotlighted Bank of America’s backing of the fan festival at the Super Bowl that year, while companies such as Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley took their names off golf title sponsorships while continuing to pay for those rights. In sudden fashion, amid spiraling debt and soaring unemployment, sponsorship became a scarlet letter.
Golf, a sport forever linked with affluent audiences and generous corporate hospitality packages, suffered as much as any sport, if not more. While some companies sought shelter from the golf contracts they had in place, others took on a more dramatic bunker mentality and left altogether. Among the departures: Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group (FBR) and US Bank.
Fast forward to 2011. This spring, Wells Fargo, in yet another demonstration of shifting attitudes, plans to put its name on the PGA Tour stop in Charlotte after two years without a corporate title on the event. Wells Fargo inherited the tournament’s naming rights when it bought Wachovia but decided against keeping a company name on the tournament amid a national furor over sports spending by companies that received bailout money.
“The reason [companies] are coming back is very simple: It works,” said Mike Reisman, principal at Team Epic. “They got bullied and spooked by politicians who were trying to capitalize on the fact that a populist sentiment would be, ‘Companies shouldn’t spend on frivolous activities like sports,’ when in fact, companies spend on very strong, proven marketing methods, which are sponsorships. Big difference.”
Despite that sentiment, not everyone is comfortable discussing marketing and sponsorship spending just yet. A number of companies SportsBusiness Journal attempted to speak with for this story didn’t respond, while others — including Bank of America, Wells Fargo and MasterCard — declined to participate.
And while government scrutiny may be at greatly reduced levels, it hasn’t disappeared. In recent weeks, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum made waves by calling for an end to Pentagon-related sponsorship of NASCAR drivers, including the team of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While some companies are ramping back up, others are taking advantage of the economic carnage to get in the game for the first time.
“As others fled sponsorship, we jumped in,” said Jim Little, chief brand and communications officer at RBC. “There was great value, there were fewer people doing it, and all the media that we were buying around sponsorships was more valuable because there were fewer competitive things for people to look at.”
RBC has nine pro golfers as endorsers and has naming rights to the PGA Tour's Canadian Open.
The bank already had its name on the home of the NHL Carolina Hurricanes, tying into its U.S. hub in Raleigh. Those hockey ties have been strengthened with the recent launch of a community hockey program aimed at increasing youth participation in the sport. Spokesmen include current and former NHL players.
As much as anything, RBC likes the economic reset’s price-is-right effect.
“We are very value-conscious bankers,” Little said. “And I would even say Canadian bankers, so there’s no question that the context of tougher times helped us go from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes.’”
Sun Life Financial took a similar approach. Amid the scrutiny over financial services companies receiving bailout funds and sponsoring sports teams and events, the timing was perfect for finding an advertising niche in what is usually crowded territory, said Bill Webster, Sun Life vice president of brand strategy and development.
Less than a month before the 2010 Super Bowl, Sun Life signed a five-year, $37.5 million deal to name the game’s host stadium, which is also home of the Miami Dolphins. Other deals of late include an online and arena sponsorship with the Boston Celtics and backing PGA Tour golfer Hunter Mahan.
Webster echoes many car and banking executives negotiating sports deals when he points to the crucial tie-in elements of Sun Life’s recent deals: social media, heavy online elements and dovetailing philanthropy campaigns tying the organizations together. The latter serves to cement the ties between a sponsor and a team or venue, giving each side a feel-good community element that experts say is needed now more than ever with trust in the corporate world tainted by the litany of financial scandals and layoffs roiling Wall Street and beyond in recent years.
Sponsorships tend to work in incremental steps, with a gradual progression toward larger commitments, said Team Epic’s Reisman.
“Money seems to be coming back faster into traditional media and advertising,” he said. “People are going for the more tried and true.”
That is the sentiment at the networks (ask Fox after its Super Bowl haul of auto ads) and the regional sports networks.
“Our business is up; cars are leading the league,” said Ray Warren, executive vice president and chief revenue officer at Comcast Sports Group. “Banks are back and insurance companies never went away.”
Collaboration with properties
GM embodies all of the shifts in recent years, from financial mayhem (bankruptcy filing and a $50 billion bailout) to cutbacks (golf tournaments and Tiger Woods, among others) and into the current, much-ballyhooed new reality (dropping the U.S. Olympic Committee but committing to a hefty ad package on NBC for the 2012 Games).
The Detroit automaker is slimmer not just in sports, but all the way around. GM today has four brands of cars, compared with eight pre-bankruptcy.
The biggest difference GM sees is how leagues and others in sports have become much more willing to collaborate, ensuring success for both sides.
“I think everybody was shocked into a little bit different behavior and expectations,” said Steve Tihanyi, GM’s general director of marketing alliances, services and branded entertainment. “My hope is people don’t ever forget that.”
Chevrolet was front and center when Aaron Rodgers was named Super Bowl MVP.
Tihanyi said the company was featured for all the right reasons: “We had a lot to talk about.”
Now the talk among companies, leagues and the marketing agencies is about renewed discipline and focus for making sponsorships more effective since the recession. As Tihanyi and others point out, the key is to remember the lessons learned during the pain of the past few years. After all, sports retain the power of persuasion like few other things in a world of DVRs, iPhones, iPads and all the other distractions of wired life. That explains why TD Ameritrade made its decision to back the U.S. Olympic effort in less than a day.
“You do marketing for two reasons,” said Peter Sidebottom, executive vice president of product strategy and marketing at TD Ameritrade. “One is to win awards and the other is to win business. We do it entirely for the second reason.”
And that, to TD Ameritrade and plenty of others at the moment, means sports.
Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.
A groggy Gene Smith quietly saunters down the steps to his basement, flips on the TV and climbs aboard his treadmill.
It’s 5 a.m., and the thump, thump, thump of his feet on the treadmill nearly drown out the volume on the huge, 60-inch projection-screen TV. He watches intently as two basketball teams unwittingly vie to gain his favor.
By day, Smith is the athletic director at Ohio State. By night, early morning and whenever else he can find a free minute, he also serves as the chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball committee, a group of 10 college administrators who will determine which teams are in the tournament and which ones don’t make the cut on Selection Sunday.
The responsibility for choosing the best 68 teams out of 334 eligible Division I schools is one each committee member takes to heart. They talk about the tournament with such reverence that you’d think they teach classes in bracketology. But that’s the degree to which college basketball dominates their lives from mid-November through March.
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO
Committee member Lynn Hickey, athletic director at Texas-San Antonio, studies a game on her office TV.
“For me as an AD, I’ve got 36 sports and I try to have a presence at many of them,” Smith said. “I end up missing a lot of those events because I’ve got to be back home watching games. There’s a lot of studying to be done. Some Saturdays, I’ll watch bits and pieces of anywhere from 12 to 20 games.”
On this early morning, Smith, a former football player at Notre Dame, watches portions of three basketball games while he sweats off a few pounds. New players emerge, others get hurt. Teams go on winning streaks and losing streaks. It’s vital to stay in touch with them all.
“It’s a lot to keep up with, but we all understand how important this is to all of the schools involved,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get it right.”
Disruptive due diligence
Basketball junkie doesn’t begin to aptly describe the ADs and commissioners who accept five-year terms on the selection committee. We’re not talking about catching a few games on Saturday and the nightly doubleheaders from Big Monday through the week.
Not only do the 10 committee members see those games, they also have access to every game through ESPN’s Full Court package, every cable station that carries games and any school or conference website that streams games. Schools and conferences also burn games on DVDs and send them to the committee members. Most committee members record games via DVR or TiVo, which allows them to fast forward through everything but the game action, and watch them when they have free time at home or the office.
For the most part, the committee members said they knew what they were getting into. Before they’re selected for the committee, they must first be nominated to the NCAA, either by themselves or by another administrator. Anywhere from eight to 12 people are nominated each year and the NCAA picks two. At the end of this academic year, for example, Smith and California-Riverside AD Stan Morrison will cycle off and two more, West Coast Conference Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich and LSU AD Joe Alleva, come aboard.
When the members join the selection team, the NCAA pays to have DirecTV installed in their home. The NCAA also pays for the ESPN premium package and the full sports tier with all of the regional networks. If there’s a game on, the committee members have access to it. Conferences also provide passwords and waive fees so that members can view their games online. They want as many of their schools to make the tournament as possible, so they make it easy for the committee to see their teams.
OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY
Smith fits in his duties while overseeing Ohio State’s huge athletic program.
“We provide a secure website just for the members of the committee with as much information as possible,” said David Worlock, the NCAA’s associate director for the tournament. He’s one of 15 NCAA staffers who have some responsibility for the tournament.
“Our broadcast staff collects TV schedules and also any games on the Internet, which are more popular with the conferences that don’t have as many games on regular TV. The committee has to follow 334 Division I teams that are eligible for the tournament, so we try to provide them with as much information as possible.”
In addition to the TV listings, the NCAA provides enough statistical analysis to forecast the next lunar eclipse. Turnover margin, rebounding, points per possession, offensive and defensive efficiency, performance home vs. road — it’s all available on the NCAA’s site.
That minutiae is provided to the committee for their consideration, but they’re not required to study it all. Members create their own methods for evaluating teams, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some focus more on the stats, while others prefer to go to games in person, if they have time. Smith, as the chairman, is responsible for keeping tabs on each of the committee members to make sure they’re keeping up.
The committee also has regularly scheduled meetings, both in person and via conference call, where they share their opinions on the different teams. Each committee member is the primary contact for three to four conferences and a secondary contact on three to four more leagues. When they meet early in the season and again in February, the primary contact delivers a report on the teams in those leagues. They meet face-to-face five times during the course of the year.
Sometimes, they want more, so they go to the games in person. They want to see how the players and coaches interact, how the team responds to adversity, how they react to a hostile crowd and whether the perceived leaders on the team step up or shrink in the big moments.
Some travel more than others, depending on their geographic location. Smith said he has attended 12 to 14 games a year in the past, not including his Buckeyes. From Columbus, it’s a reasonable 3 1/2-hour drive to Lexington, Ky., or Louisville. But this year, he hasn’t traveled as much because of scheduling conflicts. He’s seen just three games not involving Ohio State in person.
Lynn Hickey, a self-described basketball junkie, was a women’s basketball coach at Texas A&M and Kansas State before she became AD at Texas-San Antonio. When she joined the committee in 2007, Hickey became just the second woman ever on the men’s basketball committee. At the same time, all she’s trying to do is raise $100 million for a new stadium at UTSA and start a football program from scratch, which keeps her pretty busy.
But with her basketball background, she prefers to see as many games in person as possible. She’s about 80 miles from Austin and 170 miles to College Station, where she can catch Texas and Texas A&M against several of the opponents that she needs to study. So when she has a little time in the evening, Hickey hops in her car and drives to a game.
“I wish people could understand how importantly and how seriously the members of the committee take this job,” Hickey said. “We work really hard and it’s out of a concern that we be as absolutely fair as we can be. It’s something that is pretty disruptive to your life, but everyone on the committee does their due diligence.”
Paradise in the cave
During a committee meeting last month, Hickey slipped away from the other members during a break and phoned her husband, who is a former baseball coach. She left him instructions on which games needed to be recorded on DVR that night while she was out of town.
The committee is full of administrators from a variety of backgrounds, but no one challenges Hickey for basketball junkie supremacy. She swears that watching the game never gets old and her fellow committee members believe her. Her team reports at committee meetings are legendary for the amount of detail she includes, both statistically and from observations. When she joined the committee four years ago, Hickey had a TV installed in her office at Texas-San Antonio so that she could record games at home and at school.
“There are so many good games on at the same time,” she said enthusiastically.
Hickey’s main TV at home is in the great room, which is visible from the kitchen, so she can watch games while she cooks. But when there’s competition for the TV, she’s also been known to slip off to her daughter’s room with a notepad to catch a game or two.
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO
Texas-San Antonio’s Hickey is legendary for the detail in her team reports.
What spells disaster when you’re a basketball committee member?
“When you have games that you recorded and they disappear,” Hickey said. “I’ve had that happen. I still don’t know where they went. But the conferences are very good about burning a game on a DVD and shipping it to you.”
Bobinski, the AD at Xavier, refers to his basement as the cave.
“It’s a completely separate area where nobody bothers me and I don’t bother anybody,” he said.
At night and on weekends, Bobinski retires to his dark brown leather recliner in the basement and flips on his 50-inch TV and puts the legal pad in his lap. His only regret is that he doesn’t have a refrigerator down there.
Bobinski is a prodigious note-taker and he likes to compare his team notes from November to February to see how a team has progressed or regressed.
Big 12 Conference
Big Sky Conference
Like Hickey, he fancies himself as a basketball guy. Xavier doesn’t play football.
“There was one Saturday with wall-to-wall basketball,” he said. “A lot of potential at-large teams. Just all-day basketball. A smorgasbord of games. Man, it was a great day.”
When Ohio State’s Smith isn’t in the basement watching the projection TV, he’s in the den in front of a 50-inch flat-panel TV with a smaller 26-inch TV to the side. Want to see a basketball committee member get excited? Put on two games at once.
In front of the dual TVs are his-and-her recliners separated by a small coffee table. Smith’s wife, Sheila, is a former basketball player for the 1976 Canadian Olympic team who also coached at Oregon and UNLV.
“Sometimes she’ll sit and watch with me. Sometimes she disappears,” Smith said with a laugh.
Getting to Selection Sunday
Nearly 40 years ago, when former NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt began running the tournament, the selection committee got together just once, on a conference call that lasted anywhere from four to six hours. That’s how long it took to put together the 25-team bracket, which expanded to 32 in 1975 and eventually to 64 teams in 1985.
“It was a six-person committee and they looked at won-loss records, who they played, and the scores,” Jernstedt said. “That’s it.”
Of course, most of the teams at that time made their way into the tournament by winning their conference, so there were very few at-large berths.
Former NCAA exec Jernstedt recalls the days of VCRs, Velcro and six-person committees.
Rather than writing out all of the brackets by hand in the days before laptops, each team name was attached to Velcro and placed on a line in the bracket, which made it easier to make adjustments. Seemed like a fine idea until they left for dinner one night after completing the brackets, only to find that someone had rearranged all of the team names on the big Velcro board while they were gone.
The selection committee back then saw most of the games on old VHS tapes that were mailed from conference offices. The conferences became so aggressive in sending out tapes and politicking for their teams that Jernstedt had to limit the number that could be sent to committee members from each league.
Now, each selection committee member is assigned as the primary contact for three to four conferences and they stay in touch throughout the season. Whenever a conference sends out a game on DVD, it goes to that conference contact rather than every committee member. That prevents the members from being inundated with video and stats from each of the 31 Division I conferences.
“The amount of data we have access to is enormous,” UConn’s Hathaway said. “Each morning, we log onto our secure site and you see all of these categories of information. You can do direct comparisons of one team against another.”
The sacrifices for living the life of a basketball junkie are significant. ADs accustomed to seeing most or all of the games at their own school miss out. Family time, which is limited anyway, becomes basketball time.
By the time selection committee members convene on the 15th floor of the Indianapolis Westin to make the final picks during conference tournament weekend, they’ve already had mock selections, juggled their seedings and shared their opinions on each at-large candidate several times. This week, they’ll arrive on Tuesday and begin their all-day meetings on Wednesday. Those sessions typically begin at 8 a.m. and last 12 to 13 hours, with a handful of breaks built in. They continuously debate teams through the week, watch conference tournament games and consider seedings right up to Selection Sunday, when the brackets are finalized.
“What I really miss is not being able to go to our conference tournament,” Hathaway said. “Anybody who wants to be a committee member has to understand that something’s got to give and it’s usually whatever free time we ever have, and that’s family time.”
It’s that level of commitment and the overwhelming amount of data that has to be digested by each committee member that concerns Jernstedt, who ran the tournament beginning in 1973 before he left the NCAA last year. There is such pressure and scrutiny on the selection committee to be experts on every team — ESPN updates the “Who’s in, who’s out” graphic with the completion of nearly every game — that they can’t afford an oversight. With all of the additional data to consume and games to watch, the demands on the committee member are like taking on another full-time job from November to March.
“It’s become more and more consuming, and these people have real jobs, very demanding real jobs,” Jernstedt said. “I’m concerned about finding qualified people to serve for this very reason. I know several people who just can’t do it because of the pressures they face in their own jobs.
“And you don’t see the elite coaches moving into administration anymore. The pool of available talent with a basketball background is not what it used to be.”
So the Gene Smiths and the Jeff Hathaways adapt. They call on basketball caretakers like former coach C.M. Newton and former committee members to gauge their opinions. The NCAA also appoints a regional advisory committee of 31 coaches — one coach from each conference — to provide monthly feedback on teams in their region.
It’s just one more piece of information for the committee members to consider when they gather this week to select the top 68 teams.
“There’s a lot of studying to be done,” Smith said. “Rebounding, shooting percentages, fouls, turnovers, efficiency, it’s all available to you. The schedule … it can get kind of crazy.”
ESPN’s communications department is launching a sports media blog that will focus on issues and stories related to the Disney-owned company.
ESPNFrontRow.com will launch March 30 with an experienced journalist, Sheldon Spencer, as its primary writer and editor. A former staff writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Spencer, 49, most recently was an NFL editor on ESPN.com, working with NFL blogs.
Spencer will report to two executives in the ESPN communications department: Rob Tobias, vice president, and Laurel Daggett, senior director.
The blog will serve two purposes. It will offer a behind-the-scenes look at how ESPN operates and it will address controversies that involve ESPN. Consumers will be able to access the site from a link at the bottom of ESPN.com’s home page; posts on the site also will be distributed via social media outlets like Twitter.
“This is a way for us to speak directly with consumers,” said Mike Soltys, ESPN’s vice president of communications.
The blog will give ESPN’s take on issues such as Erin Andrews’ Reebok endorsement.
The communications department site is not expected to compete with the role of the ESPN ombudsman because it’s being operated by ESPN’s PR department. ESPN’s ombudsman, which will be The Poynter Institute for the next 18 months, is set up as an independent voice.
“This will give us a platform to explain our position on ESPN’s endorsement policy,” Soltys said.
The bulk of the site will feature behind-the-scenes stories, akin to the Valentine’s Day video “Baseball Tonight” analyst Bobby Valentine shot or the promo surrounding the launch of ESPN2 in Australia.
The goal is to have about three posts per day during the week. Spencer will write most of the posts. Some ESPN executives, such as Vince Doria, senior vice president and director of news, or Norby Williamson, executive vice president of production, will byline stories that pertain to them.
Posts on the site will be open to comments, but ESPN is trying to figure out how it will monitor those comments.
Soltys believes there’s plenty of interest in this type of information, pointing to the most-read stories list on sites like SportsBusiness Daily (SBJ sister publication), which are filled with ESPN-related stories. “We’re not looking to replace the media that’s covering us,” Soltys said. “We still will make our executives available to media covering various stories.”
ESPN hired Voce Communications to design the site. The company has designed corporate blogs for companies like Disney Parks and eBay. Soltys said the site’s content will be patterned after those blogs. “The corporate sites that flounder typically are the ones that don’t post frequently enough,” he said.
Yahoo! Sports has made some management moves after the recent departure of Kyle Laughlin to the Walt Disney Internet Group. The sports division is now being co-managed by Dave Morgan, executive editor for North America, and Clifton Ma, senior manager of business operations for Yahoo! Sports and Games.
Laughlin, who was head of Yahoo! Sports and Games, followed his former boss, Jimmy Pitaro, who left Yahoo! last October, over to Disney. Yahoo! Sports has now had six operational heads since 2005.
The executive transition of Yahoo! Sports somewhat mirrors a larger shake-up within the Internet giant’s senior ranks. Pitaro’s exodus last fall coincided with several other high-profile executive departures.
Yahoo!’s entire media and advertising properties have since been reorganized under the Yahoo! Media Group umbrella and are being led by former News Corp. digital executive Ross Levinsohn, hired last October.
Morgan, a five-year veteran of Yahoo! who previously was deputy sports editor for the Los Angeles Times, will focus more on content and product initiatives. Ma, with Yahoo! since 2007, largely in a financial analyst role, will handle more of the core business-side and sales duties.
“Yes, there is transition, and transition is always difficult,” Morgan said. “But there’s no panic or concern. The core operational and editorial teams [within Yahoo! Sports] are still very much intact, and our ambition remains very strong.”
Yahoo! Sports continues to rank No. 1 each month in unique visitors among U.S. sports sites, according to third-party measurement firms such as comScore. Its January total of 49.55 million uniques beat key rival ESPN.com by nearly 10 million, a margin that by itself would have been the country’s 10th most trafficked sports site during that month. And certain content ventures such as ThePostGame.com, operated in partnership with SportsFanLive.com (see related story), continue to perform well.
Still, competitive pressures remain. Many rivals, including ESPN, boast far better marks on user engagement, which are becoming increasingly important to advertisers. Major global sporting events such as the Olympics and World Cup, a particular area of content strength for Yahoo!, will not return in full force until next year’s Summer Games in London. And CBSSports.com last month struck a deal with MLB Advanced Media to gain rights to exclusive video highlights and other content for its fantasy baseball games that previously were held by Yahoo!.
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