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The Boston Celtics, one of the NBA’s storied franchises, are finalizing a lucrative media rights package with Comcast SportsNet New England that will extend their current deal by 20 years with a big jump in its annual rights fee, as well as give the team a stake in the network.
Multiple sources said that the Celtics and Comcast are close to a long-term media rights deal despite the NBA lockout that has thrown the league into economic uncertainty.
The pact would continue the trend of big market teams securing significant increases in media rights fees that double or triple the payout from existing deals. The deal is also another example of professional sports teams making deeper inroads into the media ownership business.
The NBA lockout, now in its third week, has not slowed progress of the expected agreement so far, though it could cause the league to hold off on a formal announcement until a labor deal is reached.
Once the Celtics and CSN agree to the deal, it will move to the NBA for formal approval. As it has in past local media deals, the NBA most likely will demand a “re-set” after the deal’s first 10 years.
The proposed deal, which could be finalized in the next few weeks, would extend the Celtics’ media deal to 2038 from the current agreement that runs through 2017. In addition, the team would take up to a 20 percent equity stake in the regional sports network and receive a healthy increase in its annual rights fee. The Celtics currently get between $15 million and $20 million annually, which is considered below market for such a strong franchise.
Neither Comcast SportsNet nor the Celtics would comment for this story.
Comcast SportsNet President Jon Litner is the architect of the deal, which will give the Celtics a sizable signing bonus and steep increases in the first few years of the deal, though specific terms are not yet known. The rights fees increases will level off throughout the length of the agreement.
The Celtics and Comcast SportsNet have been partners since Comcast bought the RSN from Cablevision in 2007. Celtics games have been part of the RSN’s lineup since 1981, when it launched as Prism New England. The Celtics clearly provide the most valuable programming on the RSN, which competes in the Boston market with NESN, an RSN owned in part by the Red Sox and Bruins.
The two sides first started talking about a long-term deal a year ago. Sources said that talks heated up just before the Los Angeles Lakers blockbuster 25-year RSN deal with Time Warner Cable was announced in February. That deal averages $200 million per year. Serious negotiations between the Celtics and Comcast then ensued this spring under the shadow of the league’s labor uncertainty.
The Celtics’ new RSN deal follows Comcast’s strategy of giving equity stakes in its RSNs to local teams. Comcast pursues this strategy as a way to stay in the profitable RSN business while keeping teams from launching their own channels. The Houston Astros and Rockets own a combined 80 percent of CSN Houston, while the San Francisco Giants hold a 30 percent stake in CSN Bay Area. In Chicago, the White Sox, Cubs, Bulls and Blackhawks hold a combined 70 percent stake of CSN Chicago.
The expected Celtics-CSN New England deal comes as the NBA works to overhaul its revenue-sharing system, an effort led by Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, chairman of the NBA’s planning committee.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said recently he expects the league to triple the amount of revenue sharing among NBA teams and depending on the structure of the new revenue-sharing system, the Celtics could end up sharing proceeds of their increased rights fees from a new local television deal with other NBA clubs.
The Celtics this past season on CSN New England generated the fifth highest RSN ratings in the NBA. Its 4.73 average rating is up 53 percent from the 2009-2010 season. The 116,000 homes that tuned in to each game was the league’s fourth highest.
The Celtics hired Evolution Media Capital to advise them on this deal.
If the NFL resolves its more than four-month-old lockout this week, players will earn between 46.5 percent and 48 percent of league revenue as part of a labor contract of up to 10 years, with some stadium cost credits depressing that share, sources said.
The core 2011 salary cap under discussion, before benefits, is about $120 million, with the grand total around $141 million, sources said, or the same amount the league proposed on March 11 when the players union decertified and then funded an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and its 32 clubs.
“We’ve taken a significant setback as far as overall revenue,” New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, one of the named plaintiffs in the antitrust case, Brady v. NFL, pending against the NFL, told a San Diego radio station last week. The union in early March proposed a $151 million cap.
Enough progress occurred last week that owners may vote Thursday on the emerging deal. "I hope we are getting near the end," Patriots owner Robert Kraft (above) said last week.
“I hope we are getting near the end,” said Patriots owner Robert Kraft, unprompted, last Thursday as he stepped out of a black town car in front of the New York offices of league adviser Proskauer, where negotiations occurred.
The NFLPA did not respond for comment for this story and the NFL declined to comment.
Before the players decertified, the NFLPA offered a 50-50 division of revenue, which is approaching $10 billion and is expected to grow substantially in coming years. The players were receiving in the low 50 percent range of revenue. The league originally proposed in late 2009 significant cuts that lowered the share into the low 40 percent level, though the NFL had sweetened its offer by March. The percent in the potential new CBA fluctuates between 46.5 percent and 48 percent based on the league’s revenue in a particular year, the sources said.
The potential deal also includes some credits for pre-existing stadium debt costs that the NFLPA had previously approved as part of the league’s venue financing program, the sources said. And the league going forward could propose new offsets, such as exempting from revenue personal seat license income that finances a new stadium, but the NFLPA could veto each proposal, the sources said.
While the players look set to be earning no more than the sum that was on the table on March 11, there are elements that are more favorable to them in the potential deal. Teams must pay to at least 95 percent of the cap, sources said, whereas under the old CBA the floor was 85 percent. In the deal the players spurned on March 11, the proposed floor was 90 percent of the cap.
And the March 11 offer also blocked the players from sharing in excess revenue, perhaps the factor that most sparked the decertification and likely caused NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith to declare the NFL’s offer to be the worst in the history of pro sports.
The NFL structured the March 11 offer with predetermined caps calculated on projected revenue, with any excess revenue flowing wholly to the owners. The players insisted they should also share in excess revenue. The league contended the March 11 offer was negotiable, though the players viewed it is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition because the owners extended the terms 12 hours before the CBA expired and five hours before the union’s deadline to decertify.
The possible new deal is a simple split of revenue, so the players’ share automatically rises along with revenue. The old CBA shaved $1 billion in league revenue, with the remainder shared with players. The league then wanted more credits for costs such as stadium investment.
The NFL sought the givebacks to counter what it maintains are declining profit margins that endanger the owners’ wherewithal to invest in future growth.
So does this deal, if it passes, solve that issue?
To some extent, experts said, though low-revenue teams may still feel squeezed.
“If they move forward on this agreement it reverses the trend on profitability, but it does not get them back to where they were before 2006 [when the last CBA was extended],” said Marc Ganis, a sports consultant with close ties to NFL ownership. “They didn’t get their way.”
As a result, Ganis predicted low-revenue clubs will demand further supplemental revenue sharing. Many of these clubs spend under the cap, so while the overall cap declines with the new potential deal, they still might incur higher costs. The cap in 2009, the last year with one, hit $128 million per club, so the 85 percent floor lay at $110 million. If the 2011 cap is $120 million, and the new floor is 95 percent of the cap, that would set it at $114 million, an overall increase.
If the sides sign a deal, it’s unclear how some of the non-economic issues shake out. The league anticipates terminating federal judicial oversight of the league’s labor deal, in place since 1993, and it wants the antitrust case dropped immediately.
Counsel for the players want the lockout lifted while the antitrust case is class certified and then unwound over a period of months. That could then protect the right of players to decertify and file antitrust cases in the future.
There is also the matter of the looming decision from U.S. District Judge David Doty on how much to penalize the NFL for violating the old CBA in requiring broadcasters to pay their fees even in a lockout. The league contested his finding that the lockout fees violated the CBA. It is expected the players would drop that case as part of the potential umbrella settlement of the disputes.
The rookie wage scale also late last week remained an obstacle. While the sides agree the amount of money paid to rookies should decrease and the savings be passed on to veterans, the owners wanted rookie deals to stretch five years and the players wanted four. And the sides disagreed on how to fund increases in payments to retirees.
The 2011 MLB All-Star Game became as much defined by who wasn’t there as who was, creating headaches for Major League Baseball officials and sponsors and likely rule changes in future years.
A league-record 84 players were named either an All-Star initially or later as a roster replacement.
“To say the players don’t care is absolute nonsense,” said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who in particular came to the defense of Jeter.
Still, several prominent and popular American League pitchers such as Sabathia, Detroit’s Justin Verlander and reigning Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez of Seattle were declared ineligible to play due to a new league rule prohibiting pitchers throwing on the Sunday before the All-Star Game from being in the game. Both Selig and Michael Weiner said last week that that provision will likely be revisited.
Ratings for the vital and baseball-crazed New York TV market, in particular, dropped 18 percent from a year ago to a local mark of 10.0, undoubtedly driven primarily by the absence of Jeter, the game’s most marketable star and fresh off his 3,000th career hit, and Rodriguez. Each had been elected by fans to start for the American League.
“If you are directly tied to balloting in whatever form, players pulling a no-show has to leave you somewhere between frustration and anger,” said one marketer with strong MLB ties.
But Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president of business, said he did not hear appreciable grumbling on the topic from league partners, and Firestone, sponsor of the in-stadium portion of All-Star Game fan balloting, had no complaints.
“Sure, you want to have the best players there, but we were happy and the customers we were entertaining in Phoenix were thrilled,” said Phil Pacsi, Bridgestone/Firestone vice president of consumer tire marketing. “No one in our circle felt cheated.”
■ ACTIVATION ACTIVITY: MLB’s revamped sponsorship department has completed a spate of renewals, including a one-year “placeholder” extension of Bank of America’s rights, which date to 2004. Given the dramatic changes in the banking business set in motion by the recession, the TARP bailouts of financial institutions, including BofA, and new regulation that inevitably followed, it will be interesting to see what kind of deal it will take to bring the company back on more than an interim basis.
“With all the changes we’ve had from the regulatory standpoint, it is harder than ever to zero in on [return-on-investment],” said Charles Greenstein, BofA senior vice president of sponsorship marketing. “We expect to have something done [with MLB] by year’s end, but it has to be the right mix of assets to reflect how much has changed.”
TERRY LEFTON / STAFF (2)
Chevy owned the Phoenix streets, while Coke machines (right) became Pepsi banners.
“We weathered a storm with Chevy, gave them a break when they needed it, and they have come roaring back,” Brosnan said.
To say the mood of Steve Tihanyi, General Motors general director of marketing services, is improved is perhaps the ultimate understatement. Two years ago, GM was in bankruptcy and “we were focused on which of 8,000 sponsorships we were going to cut,” Tihanyi said. “The good news is we cut 60 percent and our product mix is very strong.”
Pepsi launched an extension of its “Field of Dreams” creative for the second half of the season, in which an entrant can win the right to play a team of MLB legends. Local Pepsi marketers reported strong retail results from a “Power of One” Frito-Lay/Pepsi tie-in with Phoenix-area locations of Fry’s, Safeway, Albertson’s, Bashas’, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and CVS.
Surprisingly, the Downtown Phoenix Partnership distributed free water in the stadium area from secondary brands such as Crystal Geyser and Sparkletts as opposed to league sponsor Pepsi’s Aquafina brand, especially since Aquafina produced more than 100,000 All-Star Game-branded bottles. A Pepsi official said the partnership had the budget to distribute only 10,000 bottles.
Meanwhile, Coke versus Pepsi battles played out again in amusing fashion. A complex ownership arrangement in and around Chase Field has Pepsi and Coke vending machines next to each other, but during the All-Star Game festivities, the Coke machines were covered up with Pepsi branding.
■ NORTH OF THE BORDER: Defending MLB home run champ Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays entered the All-Star break again leading the league in homers. The former 20th-round draft pick from the Dominican Republic has gone from a record-setting five MLB team rosters in 2004 to garnering a record 7.45 million All-Star Game votes this year. Yet because Bautista plays in Canada, his endorsement opportunities have not grown in accordance with his on-field stature or contract, which reached new heights with a five-year, $65 million extension signed last winter.
But now that’s beginning to change, too.
Bautista’s on-field representation, Richmond, Va.-based Proformance, has two marketing agents touting the slugger: Alex Radetsky of Radegen Sports Management and Reed Bergman of Playbook Inc. So far, there are a pair of new six-figure deals: an exclusive memorabilia deal with Toronto-based AJ Sports World, which normally focuses on NHL players, and a three-year pact with Booster Juice, a Blue Jays sponsor that is the Canadian equivalent of Jamba Juice. MLB and ad agency Hill Holliday are also said to be prepping a new Bautista ad, as part of MLB’s Epic series, that is set to debut in the season’s second half.
On the equipment side, Bautista is with New Balance for footwear, Franklin for batting gloves, Wilson for fielding gloves and Marucci for bats, but those rights are up after this year, so a head-to-toe equipment and apparel deal seems likely. Bergman said he’s also exploring a media deal while Radetsky is pursuing key auto, financial and video game categories.
Bautista was eliminated in the first round of the Home Run Derby, but he made the defensive play of the night in the All-Star Game, a catch of a liner off the bat of Atlanta’s Brian McCann that ended with Bautista sliding into the right-field wall.
“Jose has put himself in a position where off-field matters have to be addressed, and he’s let us know that,” said Proformance managing partner Jeff Beck with a laugh.
■ KANSAS CITY ON THE CLOCK: The Kansas City Royals took their turn as next year’s All-Star Game host club, sending a 48-person contingent to Phoenix to shadow Arizona Diamondbacks and MLB staffers, a group that included a mix of team, political and economic development officials.
The All-Star Game is a big deal for any small-market MLB club, but perhaps no more so than in Kansas City. The Royals have had just one winning season in the last 17 years, and with the neighboring NFL Chiefs without a playoff win since 1993, Royals officials called the All-Star Game perhaps the biggest national sports event to ever hit town. An early hub of the NCAA men’s basketball national championship, Kansas City has not hosted a Final Four since 1988 and does not have an indoor facility large enough to bring that event back.
“I don’t think there’s been a sports event in Kansas City that has had as much media attention as the All-Star Game will get,” said Kevin Uhlich, Royals senior vice president of business operations. “And when you also think about the international exposure the All-Star Game now gets, this will be a massive deal for us. It will totally take over the city.”
With Kauffman Stadium separated by several miles from downtown Kansas City, the layout of All-Star Game events will somewhat resemble Anaheim last year. And to that end, the Royals want to revive the All-Star charity run successfully operated in Anaheim and in St. Louis in 2009, but shelved this year in part because of the extreme Arizona summertime heat. Also possibly revived is the outdoor charity concert staged in St. Louis and the year before in New York.
“The run, I think, is a natural to bring back in our town,” Uhlich said. “And I have to admit, I’m really looking forward to the Home Run Derby and seeing balls going out into the fountains.”
The logo for the 2012 All-Star Game will be introduced Aug. 2 in Kansas City.
■ RAWLINGS RETURN: Wilson has held rights as MLB’s official fielding glove for years, but the industry standard for fielding excellence is the 54-year-old Gold Glove Award, owned by rival sporting goods brand Rawlings, which in turn markets MLB’s official ball and helmet. Having failed to wrest glove rights from Wilson this past offseason, Rawlings instead is funding a seven-figure revival of its famed Gold Glove award dinner. In recent years, the 18 winners (one for each position in each league, voted by managers and coaches) have been presented their award in short, on-field ceremonies. In hopes of elevating brand equity, the first Gold Glove award show since 1993 will be held Nov. 11 in New York.
“Everyone knows about the Gold Glove. We’re trying to make sure they think of Rawlings along with that,” said Michael Thompson, Rawlings senior vice president of marketing.
Rawlings, looking to ensure as many of the 18 winners attend as possible, will have Jerry Seinfeld as the featured entertainment, and the players’ wives and girlfriends have been promised a “fashion experience” with designer Tory Burch on the afternoon of the event. Gold Sport Collectibles is the presenting sponsor. Jamie Robinson’s Alliance Marketing Partners of Conshohocken, Pa., is helping manage the event and sell sponsorships. Both a media partner and a charitable tie are pending.
The vice president of corporate marketing for Spanish-language media giant Univision was leading a focus group of young adult viewers in New York this month when she met an intriguing 21-year-old college student.
He began by speaking to her in clear, crisp English. When she shifted to Spanish, she suspected the student would reply in English again, as many young bilinguals might when speaking with their parents.
“Much to my surprise, he was so Mexican you wouldn’t believe it,” said Chiqui Cartagena, who joined the network in April after 25 years working with agencies and brands.
When she asked about his viewing habits, he told her that, like many U.S. Hispanics, he was glued to Univision when the network aired soccer.
“I won’t watch soccer unless it’s in Spanish,” he told her. “It’s not the same experience for me, as a Latino, to watch it in English.”
Much has been made of the latest U.S. census, which confirmed what demographers predicted through the better part of the last decade. In 2010, there were 50.5 million U.S. Hispanics, up 43 percent from the previous census. In the last 10 years, Hispanics accounted for 56 percent of U.S. growth. Those numbers have gotten the attention of the marketing and advertising community.
Many of the Hispanics living in the U.S. are bilingual and bicultural.
And yet despite that — or some would say because of it — on the final Saturday of June an average of 8 million viewers tuned in to Univision to watch the Spanish-language telecast of Mexico’s come-from-behind Gold Cup victory against the United States, making it the most watched program of the night among all age groups and the No. 1 program of the week among viewers ages 18-34, regardless of language.
More U.S. viewers watched Mexico beat the U.S. in Spanish than watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in English, ballyhooed as the NHL’s highest-rated telecast since 1974.
This is not a story contained to soccer, or even sports.
It is about language and culture, and the death-do-us-part marriage between the two.
It is about béisbol, but also baseball. Soccer, but also fútbol. The NBA, but also Éne Bé A.
It is about the well-documented, frequently discussed, wildfire growth of the Hispanic segment of the U.S. population, but more importantly about the less readily understood makeup of that population: increasingly U.S. born, bilingual and bicultural.
Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than in the continued swell of viewership for Univision, which has delivered year-over-year ratings growth of 8 percent among adults 18-49 in prime time while the four traditional networks have fallen by 5 to 12 percent. Since the close of the NFL season, Univision has beaten NBC on about two-thirds of the nights among 18-34s and on half the nights with 18-49s.
“English-language options have been around for Latinos for 50 years,” Cartagena said. “So why aren’t Latinos
An average of 8 million viewers tuned in to Univision to watch the Spanish language telecast of Mexico's Gold Cup victory over the United States.
“The reality is that acculturation is an individual process that very much keeps alive both cultures, both languages. And people make their choice with the remote control.”
For decades, the assumption was that as Latinos spent more time in the U.S., they and then their children would cast aside their native culture and language, becoming more like everyone else. That assumption was only half right. Hispanic viewers are choosing Univision, and to a lesser extent other Spanish-language programming, not because they need to but because they want to.
This is not about language alone. If it were, they would tap the SAP button, which provides Spanish audio for most prime-time programming, including major network sports. Turns out this is also about culture, about the passion points of growing up Latino: food and music and family and, yes, sports.
“It’s the challenge that stands before us all, because this is the new American mainstream,” said Juan Martinez, director of multicultural marketing for the Florida Marlins, who next year will christen a new ballpark in a county that is 65 percent Hispanic. “Our country will become a bicultural nation in the next 10 years. It’s on us to figure out how best to communicate to these bilingual and bicultural individuals who can consume in both languages, and can go back and forth at will.”
Leveraging the language
ESPN’s research and analytics department recently studied the habits of Hispanic viewers, breaking down all the national sports telecasts they watched and segmenting them by language preference.
Those who spoke only Spanish looked nothing like those who spoke only English, the latter of whom nearly mirrored the general market.
Viewers who spoke only Spanish spent 49.6 percent of their sports viewing time watching soccer, which dwarfed all other sports. Wrestling/MMA finished second at 6.8 percent, MLB third at 4.0 percent, and the NFL fourth at 2.2 percent. For those bilingual Hispanics who spoke mostly English, the swing was dramatic. The NFL replaced soccer as the dominant No. 1, at 21.6 percent, followed by the NBA at 8.5 percent. Soccer failed to make the top five. The shift came in stages for bilinguals, coinciding with the transition of language.
What that means, and whether the shift will continue if younger, U.S.-born Latinos continue to reconnect with their cultural roots, as they have of late, is a point of debate. Some believe it will spark programming like Mexican Primera Division soccer. Others say the future is in a Latino-flavored NBA or NFL. The thing most agree on is that, regardless of sport, the best way to connect with Latinos will be in a way that aligns with culture.
At its upfront presentation in May, ESPN featured its long-standing Spanish-language offering, ESPN Deportes, more prominently than ever. The message: that ESPN is the home for the suddenly front-and-center Latino sports fan, be it in English or Spanish.
The general manager of Deportes, Lino Garcia, remembers a time not long ago that those in Spanish-language television might have taken that notion as a threat.
“There was this idea that we would acculturate, or assimilate, and that there would be less of a need for Spanish television,” Garcia said. “Clearly, that hasn’t been the case. You have a viewer now who is comfortable in either English or Spanish, and we’re in a position to serve both.”
One of the more intriguing plays for the Latino fan actually will come in English. Dan LeBatard, the Miami Herald sports columnist and frequent ESPN contributor, will get his own show this year on ESPN2. Raised in Miami by Cuban-born parents, LeBatard mirrors the audience that the networks say they’re chasing, bilingual and bicultural.
There also will be a far more aggressive attempt to cross-pollinate content between Deportes and other ESPN networks, Garcia said. One of the first will come via “Sports Nation” and its Deportes counterpart, “Nación ESPN.” Once a week, each show will send one-half of its host pairing — Michelle Beadle from ESPN and Adriana Monsalve from Deportes — to the other show to discuss what their respective audiences choose during their daily “3 Cheers” highlight segments.
“It’s an opportunity to make [Hispanic] viewers of ‘Sports Nation’ aware of what we have on Deportes, and make the Deportes viewer more aware of ‘Sports Nation,’ and maybe move them back and forth,” Garcia said. “It’s difficult to truly do bilingual content within a broadcast, but you can do something like this that’s relevant to a bilingual fan.”
The crossover spot will be sponsored on both networks by Toyota, the No. 1 vehicle choice among U.S. Hispanics.
The shift toward moving viewers back and forth between languages is particularly interesting, considering the fear ESPN once had that programming Deportes too similarly to the other ESPN channels could cannibalize the audience. Instead, the network consistently has found unique audiences for shared programming, such as “Sunday Night Baseball,” “Monday Night Football” and “Friday Night Fights.” ESPN says about 20 percent of Deportes viewers don’t watch any other ESPN channels. At the same time, Hispanic viewers watch more ESPN than does the general market.
“What we’re hearing from our viewers is this dual acculturation when it comes to sports,” said Ed Gordon, senior director of distribution and audience research at ESPN. “Unlike people who have recently immigrated to the country, they’re getting a different interest in sports from their family than they are from their peers. Their family is connected with international sports. And their peers are connected with the U.S.-based sports. What that does is make them more interested in more sports.”
Univision executives say that multigenerational connection, with the television as a campfire for family and friends, has helped fuel the growth of its ratings. By next season, it will have secured rights to at least 12 of the 18 teams in the Mexican Primera Division to air on Univision, sister network Telefutura and a planned sports network scheduled to debut in the spring.
While young Mexican-Americans may follow an NFL or NBA team, Univision executives say they remain drawn to the Mexican soccer club that their parents or grandparents followed.
“It’s absolutely multigenerational,” said Carlos Deschapelles, senior vice president of sports sales and marketing for Univision. “There’s an enormous amount of family viewing that takes place. By the way, I could be talking about novellas or major tent poles like the Latin Grammys. [Primera Division] is one of the major passion points, and it is a family experience.”
At Fox Deportes, there also is a strong menu of soccer, but it aims south and east of Mexico. The centerpieces are Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana, two annual competitions featuring the best South American club teams. There also are Spanish-language broadcasts of top-shelf international soccer, which come through larger U.S. rights packages acquired by Fox.
The distinction in the way that Fox Deportes views itself is best explained through the two branding spots it cut recently. They feature the theme “Con Garra,” which it translates to “Do or Die.” Both are slick and edgy, clearly Fox. One features Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, the other UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. They close with the tag line “Esta Es Un Momento,” “It’s Our Moment.”
What is revealing here is that both Rodriguez and Velasquez were born in the U.S., Rodriguez to Dominican parents in the Bronx and Velasquez to Mexican parents in central California. A-Rod grew up in Miami and was the first high school player ever to try out for Team USA. Velasquez was a junior college All-America wrestler and earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State.
Vincent Cordero, who recently completed his first year as Fox Deportes’ executive vice president and general manager, said they were the first two athletes who came to mind when he considered who best to launch the new brand.
“I guess that’s part of my being Latino,” said Cordero, a fourth-generation Mexican-American. “Historically, media has looked at U.S. Latinos and thought Spanish. I look at U.S. Latinos and think of the new face of America, and of something that is English and Spanish.
“We’re changing the invitation from saying we’re the space for Spanish-only Latinos to we’re the space for all U.S. Latinos.”
Properties learn to evolve
The NBA was testing the name of its Spanish-language website with bilingual, bicultural fans a few years ago when it came upon the first of several unexpected discoveries. Asking fans whether they might prefer the more en vogue sounding NBA Latino moniker to the NBA En Español name that the site had carried for a decade, they found bilingual fans didn’t relate to either.
When speaking Spanish, they typically called it “Éne Bé A.” Most of the Spanish-language radio crews called it “Éne Bé A.” So did the international crews who called games that aired throughout Central America and South America.
It’s an interesting quirk of language, in that a fan would never write out the phonetic sounds of the Spanish alphabet.
Still, the NBA chose it as the name not only for its website but also for a new, more bilingual and bicultural Hispanic brand.
“It’s almost tongue in cheek,” said Saskia Sorrosa, the NBA’s senior director of multicultural marketing, who was born and raised in Ecuador. “They don’t write ‘Éne Bé A.’ That’s how they pronounce it. So it’s like a wink. We get you and this is for you.”
The same batch of research that led to the rebranding also persuaded the league to reconsider the way it had looked at language previously, both across its website and in its promotional content. After a decade of doing all Hispanic Web content in Spanish, the league now leaves its videos in English. The NBA knows from its ratings and failed attempts on Spanish language television that most Hispanic fans are content with watching games in English, so it follows that they’d accept the highlights in English.
Instead, Enebea.com saves its Spanish for written content, such as blogs by Spanish-speaking players, along with the occasional video interview or feature on a Latino player. There also is translated content from NBA.com. The idea is that since the bilingual fan can work comfortably on either site, the most valuable use of the Spanish site is for unique content that is culturally relevant for them and, more importantly, would be far less relevant for them in English.
“They’re comfortable navigating both cultures,” Sorrosa said. “They switch back and forth between their languages, depending on what they’re consuming or what they’re talking about. We’re really trying to cater to that.”
Two of the NBA’s Hispanic brand spots speak to precisely that. In one, Puerto Rican-born player Carlos Arroyo teaches another player how to properly pronounce Éne Bé A. When Arroyo speaks Spanish, it is subtitled in English. When he switches to English, it is subtitled in Spanish.
In another spot, a man and a woman part at a bus station. She embraces him, but he doesn’t return the hug, appearing sad, but stoic. The next time viewers see him, he is at an NBA game, celebrating a great play wildly, hugging and then kissing a friend on the cheek. The tag line: “Guarda Tu Pasión” or “Save Your Passion.”
A series of NBA ads encourage Hispanics to “Save Your Passion” for the game.
While some worried that catering to bilinguals might leave out recent immigrants, the league bet that its target’s history as an aspirational group for other Hispanics would turn them into ambassadors, haloing out to others who remained more deeply rooted in their native language and culture. The results seem to indicate it’s working. The NBA’s ratings among Hispanic viewers jumped 50 percent last season, Sorrosa said. Sales of Spanish-language jerseys — Los Suns, Los Heat, etc. — doubled this year at NBA.com.
The NFL, which already has a firm hold on Hispanics who speak mostly or only English, has chosen to make those who lean toward the Spanish side of bicultural the focus of their Hispanic marketing efforts. It divides the Hispanic market into five segments. The largest group is the bicultural bilingual who views the game as a bridge between the two cultures, Saralegui said. Those fans are generally casual, rather than avid, and are best reached by invitation — such as a game broadcast in Spanish or a promotion that brings an All-Star flag football team from Mexico to play a team from a U.S. city.
“A lot of these guys are still very close to their Hispanic culture, sort of torn between the two,” Saralegui said. “Their identity is really one foot in both societies. What we want to do is make it easy for them to participate in our game. That might mean speaking Spanish, where that bilingual fan can watch with all his friends and show off what he knows.
“That soccer-centric sports fan may be more on the Spanish side of the divide, but they love soccer for the same reasons as the guys who love the NFL. They like watching games together. If you substitute NFL for soccer, these guys are just like NFL fans.”
Offering a broader menu
This past TV season, Univision debuted its version of “So You Think You Can Dance,” featuring 10 Latino celebrities paired with contestants who auditioned for the show. Among the 9.5 million viewers who watched some or all of the three-hour season finale was Martinez, the director of multicultural marketing for the Marlins.
“As a bilingual, bicultural Hispanic, I can consume good entertainment in either language,” Martinez said. “It puts an extra onus on providers of entertainment to take that into account. It makes it somewhat more challenging, because you no longer can apply the same static rules and say, ‘This is the programming I offer on the general side and this is the programming I offer on the Hispanic side, and everyone will continue to exist on their own side.’ Now, you have a lot of folks crossing over.”
The Marlins have gone further than any other team in creating broadcasts that appeal to both ends of the spectrum of language and culture. Most teams offer viewers a bilingual option, piping their Spanish-language radio broadcast out via the SAP button on viewers’ remote controls. The Marlins take it a step further, offering a full Spanish TV broadcast for about 60 home games, with separate announcers and graphics in Spanish. Sponsors have embraced the telecast, Martinez said, as a way to more deeply connect with Latino consumers.
The Marlins and their TV partners, Fox Sports Net, know that most fans watching the Spanish telecast could understand the English version or press the SAP. Yet, like the many bilingual viewers of Univision, they choose something more closely aligned with their culture.
“You have different levels of Hispanicity, if you will,” Rodriguez said. “They may be fully bilingual, or more English dominant, but they’re speaking Spanish to connect with their heritage and customs. So you better pay attention to that.
“How do we speak to this younger audience that came out to their first ballgame with their abuelo and their dad, and now they’re becoming young parents? They’re still connecting emotionally. They just experience the sport differently. They have the apps on the phone and they consume information a lot differently than the previous generation.
“They’re different. And that’s a challenge. But this is where our country is going. So we better figure it out.”
Kevin Johnson needed advice. As a first-term mayor with a background as a professional basketball player, he was facing the issue that was likely to define his tenure. The Sacramento Kings, his city’s only big league sports team, had just announced their intention to leave the city for Anaheim. If he couldn’t save the team, Johnson wanted to lay the groundwork for the city to get another. But how?
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (right, with Icon Venue Group’s Tim Romani, left, and Johnson's chief of staff Kunal Merchant) went to the NBA as the Kings were about to leave for Anaheim.
“I told Kevin the good, bad and ugly about the process,” he said recently. “In these tough times, mayors have to be as tough as the business leaders, and that includes the NBA commissioner. They’re running a business and you’re running a business, one called City Hall. You have to make sure ego and politics doesn’t overrule a basic business decision.”
But at the same time, McCrory said, “whether people like it to not, sports teams do represent the culture of a city. And even when you disagree with what the NBA does, you need to keep the relationship for a chance at a team.” He reiterated that to Johnson: “Build that relationship. Go see them. That’s the most important thing you can do.”
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McCrory is one of many former mayors who could commiserate with Johnson. For a mayor, interaction with a sports league and its often peripatetic franchises can lead to frustration and rancor, pain and bitterness. After all, there are always cities that want teams — and never enough teams to go around. It’s like a perpetual game of musical chairs, the chairs in this case being the newest arenas with the most favorable lease terms.
Yet few aspects of civic business resonate as deeply as the loss — or gain — of a sports team. Other companies can come and go, and make a substantial economic impact in the community in the process. But none of them wears the name of the city or the state on its shirts. “There’s an emotional attachment to a sports team, both good and bad,” McCrory said. “So people take the actions of those teams very personally. Sometimes to the detriment of both the city and the sports team, and sometimes to the benefit of both.”
Throughout the last half-century, sports franchises have hopscotched the continent, leaving cities and their disgruntled chief executives behind. “Every owner knows the threat to move is the biggest thing they have in their favor to get the deal they want, and that makes the discussion unequal,” said former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, whose father, Ernest, was running New Orleans when the NBA’s Jazz left for Utah in 1979. (Later, Marc Morial successfully lobbied the league to keep the Hornets in place after Hurricane Katrina.)
Some mayors make the decision, whether ideological or pragmatic, not to intervene. When the NBA’s SuperSonics were leaving Seattle, then-Mayor Greg Nickels did little more than round up potential buyers for the franchise should a new arena be approved, though he later sued the team’s owners in an effort to get a larger exit payment for the city. Similarly, Atlanta’s Kasim Reed pointed to the poor economic performance of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers as the reason that the city was powerless to prevent them from moving to Winnipeg last month. “The Thrashers are in an extraordinary position,” he said. “We have not seen a path … where we can reverse those losses.”
Cleveland’s Michael White famously was able to convince the NFL to let the city keep the Browns nickname for future use when the team left for Baltimore in 1995, but such a Pyrrhic victory, coupled with the vague promise of a future team, is about the best that a mayor can expect. Far more frequently, he or she is left with … nothing. “We were played by the NHL,” said Susan Thompson, who was mayor of Winnipeg when the NHL’s Jets left for Phoenix in 1996.
When the team that leaves is the only one in town, as in Winnipeg, the loss has that much more impact. “Having a team gives you a certain status level,” Thompson said. “An NHL team is a huge component of economic development. Beyond that, cities are human entities. Having a team builds pride and sense of community. And then there’s the international outreach. How many economic entities do you have in the city that give you that? I think the reach, recognition and status that a team brings to you is highly underestimated. That’s why it was such a blow.”
That her city has recently regained big league status with the relocation of the Thrashers only makes Thompson, who was in her second term as mayor when the Jets left and chose not to run again, that much more certain that she was right. “Anyone with an ounce of intelligence,” she said, “can see that this is a place that the league should have come back to. Or never left.”
NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (center) celebrated the Bobcats’ arrival with NBA Commissioner David Stern (left) and team owner Bob Johnson.
McCrory remembers the struggle to keep — or replace — the Hornets being one of the most difficult of his tenure. “The community here was very divided,” he said, and that’s never good for a mayor’s popularity. As McCrory describes it, roughly half of Charlotte wanted to save the team at all costs. The other half wanted to run team owner George Shinn out of town, and the NBA with it. Five years before, when the Hornets were still riding high, Shinn had been accused of sexual assault by a former employee. “He had disrespected many of the people in the community by his behavior and specific actions, and that was a slap in the face to the emotional investment that many of our citizens had put into the team,” he said. Yet NBA basketball clearly had a latent base of support in the city. And what mayor wants to lose a team on his watch?
Not McCrory, who pushed through a new arena plan despite losing a voter referendum on the topic. And not Johnson, a political newcomer with the potential for a long career holding elective office ahead of him. “I told Kevin that he’s going to catch a lot of heat from his critics, people who say, ‘The heck with the NBA,” said McCrory, a former college basketball referee. “It wasn’t a slam dunk that he go to New York and fight for this. It was a tough call, both financially and politically. It’s a block/charge call, almost 50-50. Either way, you’re going to irritate someone. But as I learned in refereeing, you’ve got to sell your call. You have to make the case for the long-term investment. That’s what I had to do, and I still catch heat for it.”
Johnson took the advice and went to New York in April, where he presented to league owners. He brought with him $7 million in new business commitments, produced a potential buyer if the Maloofs were willing to sell, and reminded the NBA’s owners that Sacramento is a top-20 television market, one of only two in the country with just a single big league team. (Orlando is the other.) “For an elected official to take such a leadership role and, in essence, put his political future on the line was very, very impressive,” said Clay Bennett, the chairman of the NBA’s relocation committee.
But that was only half the battle. In the midst of an NBA lockout, Johnson still needs to make the case for a substantial taxpayer contribution to a new arena, and do it in the worst fiscal climate in California since the Great Depression. “Ten years ago, a mayor could say ‘I’ll raise my hotel/motel tax.’ ‘I’ll raise my rental car tax.’ ‘I’ll go to the voters,’” Morial said. “You can’t do that now. The money just isn’t there. But if you want a team, you’ve got to bite the bullet and somehow finance a facility. And then all your critics will show up at the ribbon cutting. They’ll all show up and smile.”
That’s easy enough for Morial to say from the comfort of his political retirement. But for a nascent political figure such as Johnson, asking for money for a sports facility is perilous ground. “You can’t have a conversation about subsidizing or underwriting a portion of the cost of an arena without a series of long and difficult conversations with all of the stakeholders involved,” said Sayles Belton. “And when you do that, emotions are likely to run high.”
In this discussion, too, Johnson’s NBA career is more of a liability than an asset. He needs to prove to the city that he isn’t putting his own feelings for the sport ahead of Sacramento’s interests. “If you’re out there saying ‘I want to keep my team,’ that doesn’t work,” he said. “I have to build a case in Sacramento that it’s bigger than basketball.”
The case he is building is mostly about business. If the Kings left, a study commissioned by the city shows they would take 1,000 jobs — direct and ancillary — with them. They would no longer pay the property taxes they had been paying, civic income that is deposited into Sacramento’s general fund. And he reminds constituents that the NCAA already has decided not to book future events in Power Balance Pavilion, the former Arco Arena, which it considers outdated. That move alone, one study has indicated, is costing the city as much as $5 million in annual revenue.
But Johnson also has tapped into the idea that a big league team helps define a city. Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, who played college basketball at North Carolina, had made the same case around his city when attempting to secure an NFL expansion franchise, the team that ultimately came to life as the Carolina Panthers. “I don’t think you can overestimate the value,” Vinroot said. “You’ll never get most citizens to understand why you’re doing it, why it’s worth the effort, but in the end, it is worth the effort. Look at Oklahoma City. What went on there this year during the playoffs night after night, what’s going on now in the minds of the people as they think of their city and their future — it’s not the same as it was before. The city has changed because of the team. That’s what makes them worth fighting for.”
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Yet for every Oklahoma City that gains a franchise, there’s a Seattle that loses one. And for every Sacramento, there’s an Anaheim, which — for the moment, at least — has done nothing more than put the Kings in position to get a better deal where they already are.
Johnson advised mayors to watch recent documentaries about the Colts’ departure from Baltimore and Seattle’s loss of the Sonics to underscore the message that no city is safe. “They terrified me,” Johnson said.
In the mid-1990s, Morial co-chaired a task force on that topic under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We said, ‘Look, we’re being asked to go out on a limb and build new facilities,’” Morial said. “We need to ensure that there are objective rules so some owner who might get a better deal in another city can’t just go move there with no strings attached.”
The task force made tangible gains, including convincing the NFL to revise its rules governing franchise relocation. But it didn’t — couldn’t — solve the problem. This year, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard convened a meeting to try to establish a nonprofit organization that would have a database of lease agreements around the country, and a staff to help mayors faced with the impending loss of a team figure out where to turn. Johnson spoke to the group in June, advising mayors to watch recent documentaries about the Colts’ departure from Baltimore and Seattle’s loss of the Sonics to underscore the message that no city is safe. “They terrified me,” Johnson said.
Ballard’s group is going forward. But mayors still need to pursue their constituents’ interests. It’s important to remember that, after chairing the task force on mitigating franchise relocation, Morial spent his eight years in office zealously pursuing an NBA team to replace the Jazz. As it turned out, his was a zero-sum solution. On the day in May 2002 that Pat McCrory was coming to grips with the Hornets’ departure from Charlotte, Morial and his staff were jubilantly celebrating their arrival in New Orleans.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.