SBJ/August 29-September 4, 2011/Opinion

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  • Manufacturers, leagues should take note of helmet safety bill

    Warrior mentality and team camaraderie have always been drivers for participation in football. However, the intensity of the game is taken up several notches when college scholarships and multimillion-dollar endorsements are at stake. Both the casual spectator and the most devoted fan appreciate the inevitable collisions between players, but what happens when high-speed, high-impact play goes terribly wrong?

    Recent changes in the design of football helmets have focused on protecting the bigger, stronger and faster athletes of the 21st century, both professional and youth, from the risk of concussions during the course of play. In recent years, brain and spinal cord injuries occurring during football games have repeatedly made headlines. They have also left a number of injured participants to determine who, if anyone, is to blame. Groups and individuals across the country are concerned: Congress has conducted hearings on the subject, research groups have endeavored to develop new testing standards and rating systems for football helmets, and legislators have requested that the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Product Safety Commission investigate alleged false and misleading advertising by helmet manufacturers concerning helmet protection against concussions. Most recently, and perhaps most importantly to helmet manufacturers, the Children’s Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House in March by legislators concerned with protecting young athletes from the dangers of sports-related traumatic brain injuries. The proposed legislation has already been endorsed by well-known individuals and organizations, including the NFL Players Association.

    What does it say?

    GETTY IMAGES
    A rating system for adult football helmets was released in May, but no such system exists for youth.
    Specifically, the proposed legislation attempts to adopt testing standards for youth football helmets, a segment that is not taken into account in existing testing standards. It sets a deadline of nine months post-enactment for industry groups to develop appropriate guidelines. If that deadline is not met, the legislation requires that the CPSC step in to set mandatory criteria. The bill also requires that helmet labels visibly and legibly display when the helmet was manufactured and the date it was reconditioned, if applicable, along with a warning to consumers that the helmet’s ability to protect the wearer can decline over time. Sellers providing false or misleading claims with respect to the safety benefits of sporting goods would be subject to fines imposed by the FTC.

    The bill gives both the FTC and state attorneys general enforcement rights. To date, the Senate bill has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The House version has been referred to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade.

    Why is it necessary?

    One repeated criticism of the football helmet industry is the failure of existing standards to adequately address the problem of concussion-related injuries, including those related to children 12 and younger, whose smaller head size and reduced neck strength create unique design issues. The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment is responsible for overseeing sports equipment safety standards. While the committee has stated that “more must be done to protect athletes,” passage of the legislation proposed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., will ensure that the development of youth standards is not a constant work in progress.

    Several other organizations have endeavored to create rating systems for existing adult helmet technology. In 2009, the NFL began testing helmets in order to determine what progress had been made in the area of impact technology. Since the results were released in mid-2010, a number of critics have argued that questionable methodology and perceived bias with respect to certain manufacturers make the results spotty at best. In May 2011, Virginia Tech University released the results of a new rating system for adult football helmets based on new evaluation methodology. While this was a huge step forward in terms of evaluating adult helmets, standards and rating systems for youth helmets have remained largely untouched.

    Who does it affect and how?

    While participants and their parents may be breathing a collective sigh of relief over the development of helmet safety standards specifically for youth, the passage of such legislation would just be the beginning for helmet manufacturers, reconditioners and others covered under the bill. It is well-understood that wearing a football helmet cannot prevent a concussion; it can only lower the risk. As such, brain and spinal cord injuries occurring during play will never be entirely eliminated, and the injured will continue to look to manufacturers for answers, usually in the form of litigation.

    Recent news stories concerning the legislation, as well as publication of various studies concerning the effects of concussions, will undoubtedly heighten the awareness of new statutory requirements and production standards. These factors will open the gates for increased litigation involving concussion-related injuries sustained during play.
    Passage of the bill will also likely result in an increased number of FTC and other governmental inquiries into the marketing practices of manufacturers. As new studies are completed and additional data is revealed, any claims related to a helmet’s ability to lower the risk of concussion would be reviewed with intense scrutiny. It is unclear whether a private right of action will exist should the law be passed. However, the increased power of the FTC and state attorneys general to enforce the law will remain a cause for concern.

    For coaches, school districts and athletic leagues, choosing sports equipment is often as much about economics as it is about safety. With the purchase of new or reconditioned helmets, there is a question of whether passage of the bill will result in an increased responsibility to monitor helmet labels for manufacture and reconditioning dates. Because the pending legislation does not limit the lifespan of helmets, the issue remains as to whether use of an older helmet will substantially affect the liability of the persons or the organization putting it in use. There is also a question about the applicability of the legislation where a resale of equipment exists.

    The Children’s Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act is legislation designed to protect youth as we encourage them to participate in sport and remain active in an increasingly sedentary society. The resulting legal requirements and ramifications of its passage on manufacturers, sports organizations and individuals should be observed and not taken lightly.

    Alyssa Leffall (Alyssa.Leffall@wallerlaw.com) is an attorney with Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis.

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  • Cartoon: Coming this fall ...

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  • Mitigating fan behavior

    I’ve harped on it before (see SportsBusiness Journal, April 18-24, 2011) and I hate to bring it up again, but it’s a subject back in the news: fan behavior affecting fan safety.

    If this isn’t a core issue that leagues, teams and venues are working on, then the leadership of these organizations should be questioned. The incidents in San Francisco with 49ers and Raiders fans were the latest ugly examples.

    Yes, I get that these may be unique circumstances and not the norm. I know why the unruly are called an aberration. But aberrations make headlines and aberrations are on YouTube, where images of gruesome and frightening fights are played time and again and attached to one’s brand image. Can any association be more damaging?

    As someone told me last week when talking about fan behavior: “That’s the reason I stopped taking my daughter to games.” So what’s the real obstacle? Money. Any possible solutions strike directly at a team’s and venue’s bottom line. We’re talking about more alcohol control (lower per caps), far greater security and undercover patrol (more costs), less tolerance (revoking season tickets), training (educating vendors), and segmentation of fan bases (costly rebranding of seating bowls and fan relocation).

    It’s easy to ignore this one, but real leaders better lead here or risk the severe consequences.

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

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  • NCAA must accept reality if it is serious about reform

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

    The NCAA was founded in 1906 in response to 18 deaths that occurred in college football in the prior year. President Theodore Roosevelt told college presidents that college football must be “freed from brutality and foul play.” The message was clear: Implement corrective change or prepare for government intervention. The NCAA has been reforming itself ever since.

    The latest iteration started in earnest when NCAA President Mark Emmert recently gathered 54 university presidents, chancellors and conference leaders to push forward an aggressive agenda. Said Emmert, “We have reached a point where incremental change is not sufficient. … A few new tweaks of the rules won’t get the job done.”

    The NCAA has given us more than a century’s worth of mostly failed reform, so it is hard to fathom this will be any different. But college athletics appears to be coming apart at the seams. Maybe this time is for real.

    There is widespread, systematic cheating in big-time college sports that cannot be reformed with more rules — or even fewer rules, which is currently being touted. Some NCAA leaders are now advancing progressive reforms that just a few years ago got me in hot water for merely suggesting. Can the NCAA’s 1,200-plus membership find commonality among the great divide?

    With that in mind, here’s my blueprint for meaningful NCAA reform. My requirements are simple: I want better-educated athletes, I want them to be treated fairly and I want universities to grasp economic reality.

    Put athletes in the classroom

    After Emmert’s presidential retreat, the NCAA Division I board of directors voted to increase the four-year Academic Progress Rate required of teams to participate in NCAA-sponsored championships and football bowl games from 900 to 930. (The APR is an NCAA-created metric to determine academic success — or failure).

    I support efforts to address the low graduation rates. The problem with tying tournament or bowl participation to the APR is that it is not coupled with activities that support actual education, such as mandates to put student athletes in the classroom. Unfortunately, these reforms have the tendency to lead to more tutoring, which too often escalates into more cheating.

    If the NCAA really wants to address the problem organically, we would return to freshman ineligibility. Playing on a freshman team with limited practice time, limited travel and a relatively short season would put an emphasis on classrooms and academics.

    Change amateurism

    The NCAA and its members like to blame others, particularly agents, for many of the NCAA’s fundamental problems. In reality, the NCAA does not have an agent problem; it has an amateur problem. It is great that the NCAA and its members want to keep amateurs pure and free from corrupting forces, but amateur regulations, in effect, have created a booming underground economy.

    If the NCAA membership is serious about reform, it must either revamp its principle of amateurism — its most fundamental and profitable principle — or live by it. What is the NCAA principle of amateurism? The “NCAA Manual” states, “Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” Might want to add the clause, “notwithstanding the NCAA and its members.”

    Since the trend line is toward more revenue, at some point the athletes who help generate billions should get something more than a scholarship, which, as many point out, is incredibly valuable. College athletes should also be allowed to get counsel from agents (but no extra benefits). And athletes should be allowed to exploit their own marketing rights.

    Full cost of attendance

    A full athletic scholarship is a misnomer. It does not cover the full cost of attendance, which is an additional $3,000 to $5,000 per academic year.

    For the last decade, many of us have advocated increasing scholarships to close the gap. I am encouraged that many college sports leaders, including the Pac-12’s Larry Scott, the Big Ten’s Jim Delany and even Emmert, are now publicly touting an increase in athletic aid up to the full cost of attendance.

    Enhancing scholarships will not eliminate cheating, but it might stop those who accept benefits out of need.

    Addition by division

    While some decry the “arms race” as the potential ruination of college sports, I have the opposite view. Widening the gap between the haves and have-nots can create an unintended benefit.

    If the major revenue-producing schools don’t want to associate with other schools because it means giving up revenue or because they want to offer full cost of attendance scholarships, they should either disassociate or, more likely, stay in the NCAA, but form separate and unequal superconferences.

    NCAA members should stop fighting the capitalist winds generated by multibillion-dollar TV contracts. BCS schools are fighting for a bigger share, which is their right. Let them. This might force non-BCS schools to take a more realistic view of college athletics by competing without the false hope of huge paydays. Best of all, BCS schools can operate as businesses, without the image problems that come from trying to be something they are not: amateur.

    Setting an example

    The old comic strip Pogo had a classic line that applies to college sports reform: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” If we want to stop or curb abuse by athletes, agents and other third-party influencers, the first step is simple: Get college coaches, athletic administrators and college presidents to set an example.

    Marc Isenberg (marc.isenberg@gmail.com) is the author of “Money Players: A Guide to Success in Sports, Business & Life for Current and Future Pro Athletes” and founder of moneyplayersblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @marcisenberg.


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  • Teams can better reach fans by knowing what motivates them

    Texas A&M’s 12th man. Citizenship in Red Sox Nation. These are just two ways that sports organizations have succeeded in strengthening the connection with their fans.

    It is understood that avid fans contribute more to a team’s revenue than their less-avid counterparts. Not only do avid fans spend more money on team-related purchases, but broadcasters and advertisers pay a premium to reach these avid fans and connect them to the products and service they offer.

    According to ESPN, only 35 percent of the 222 million U.S. sports fans are considered avid, meaning that there are 144 million spending less than they could be. However, franchises are still faced with the challenge of how to develop fan avidity.

    In the past, franchises have given little thought to what internally motivates avid fan behavior. Today, though, new challenges such as increasing costs and competing entertainment options have made retaining and developing fans more difficult, so franchises need every advantage they can get. By examining the psychology driving permanent avid fan behaviors, franchises can better understand how sports fans connect to their favorite teams and use this knowledge to drive fan spending.

    Identity theories are especially applicable when it comes to understanding how fans relate to the teams they support and influencing behaviors that reinforce their relationships.

    Fans’ identities are formed through their identification with social groups and individual behavioral roles. When fans identify highly with a team-related social group, they demonstrate more loyalty to the group and immerse themselves in the group’s culture. Similarly, when fans identify highly with certain behavioral roles, they act to fulfill the expected behaviors associated with those roles. Franchises that understand and embrace the underlying psychology explaining these phenomena will have a distinct competitive advantage in cultivating fan avidity.

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    Texas A&M’s 12th man tradition has helped create a sense of inclusion among the Aggies’ football fans, and has been adopted by pro franchises.
    Two easy methods that a franchise can use to activate a fan’s identification with a team-related social group are to clearly communicate the expected behaviors associated with being a group member and to create a sense of inclusion with the team.

    Texas A&M’s 12th man tradition has been adopted by many professional franchises. The Seattle Seahawks even retired the number 12 to honor their fans. In response, the fans have prided themselves on this honor and exhibited avid fan behaviors in part to fulfill the expectations that have been set for them.

    The Boston Red Sox, meanwhile, employ several strategies to make their fans feel as if they are part of the team. Fans are offered citizenship in Red Sox Nation (for a price) and, after the team won the 2004 World Series, they were given the opportunity to purchase replica championship rings and bottles of wine so that they could celebrate like the players.

    To increase identification with the sports fan behavioral role, franchises must increase the total number of people that their fans interact with when occupying the sports fan behavior role and strengthen the relationships with these other people.

    Franchises can increase the number of people that a given fan interacts with by creating opportunities for fans to meet each other and fostering a sense of community. Though most franchises offer opportunities for interaction between fans, they have not created an environment where fans feel connected to each other. At live events, franchises should encourage fans to talk to each other, and they should host online communities where fans can continue to interact when they are not together.

    The relationships can be strengthened by promoting mutual cooperation among fans and those with whom they interact. This can be accomplished by organizing activities that require teamwork and collaboration. For example, a franchise could host a friendly competition between local schools where the children must work together to paint a mural of the team’s players.

    Motivational theories are also highly applicable to the development of fan avidity.

    One of the most widely accepted motivational theories posits that motivation is driven by the satisfaction of three innate psychological needs — autonomy, competence and relatedness.

    Autonomy is the desire for humans to have full control over their own behaviors. Although it is popular practice to offer fans incentives, such as game-day giveaways, for performing desirable behaviors, this actually decreases feelings of autonomy and can be detrimental to their long-term team-related spending. Instead, franchises can successfully motivate fans by presenting them with several appealing options and empowering them to decide on their own how they want to exercise their avidity.

    Competence is the ability to perform a task effectively. Franchises can promote feelings of competence by ensuring that fans receive positive feedback in response to their avid behaviors and by encouraging only behaviors that the fans are capable of performing. When fans perform desirable behaviors, franchises should always communicate to the fans that they are doing a great job of supporting the team.

    Lastly, relatedness is the sense that you’re cared for. Fans who feel as if the franchise they root for truly cares about and appreciates their support are much more likely to perform avid behaviors and spend more money on team-related purchases.

    It is not easy for a franchise to rethink and refine its methods for engaging and developing fans, especially when current methods seem to be working well. However, those that constantly evaluate their market and react to emerging trends — such as the need to develop fan avidity — will outperform those that do not.

    Max Wendkos (max.wendkos@gmail.com) published the thesis “Developing Sports Fan Avidity for Increased Revenue Generation” and is founder of sports startup Fanbeat. Follow him on Twitter @MaxWendkos.

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