SBJ/October 17-23, 2011/Opinion

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  • Mastering illusion, and promotions

    British tabloid sportswriter Bill “Don’t call me William” Shakespeare stirred up the debate on the value of sports promotion when he wrote, “The Play’s the Thing.” He was sent over to the States to cover Bill Veeck’s midget caper with the Chicago White Sox in August 1951, and the world of sports promotion was never the same.

    Veeck, the godfather of major league baseball promotion, said: “It isn’t enough for a sports promotion to be entertaining or even amusing; it must create conversation. When the fan goes home and talks about what he has seen, he is getting an additional kick out of being able to say he was there. We are trying to get the whole city in a frame of mind where they are asking, ‘What’s that screwball going to do next?’ A promoter deals with illusion, and illusion is a distorted mirror, which can throw back your own reflection.”

    Promotion is a state of mind in the creator long before it becomes a state of mind in the fans or media.

    I worked for the team with the worst record in the history of the NBA (1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers who went 9-73). In our “Year of the Uniform” youth promotion, we gave out a facsimile of the team’s uniform (jerseys, shorts, jacket, socks, gym bag and sneakers) over the course of the season. Promotions are inexpensive thank-yous for your most loyal fans and build bridges to future season-ticket holders.

    What works best and why

    Baseball is the Mount Everest of promotions. Entertaining the home fans for 81 games demands that marketers spice up games with more than runs, hits and errors. Baseball depends on walk-ups and group sales because of smaller season-ticket bases and long home stands. Research and development is done through minor league teams that are always experimenting with how zany their promotions can be.

    The NBA game is focused on sizzle. Much of the league’s marketing and promotional foundation is based on its superstar players. The NBA pours resources into dance teams, video board features and professional entertainment at halftimes. Merchandise giveaways are an important tool for a number of NBA franchises struggling at the gate. Fans dressed as empty seats are toxic. If you can change fans’ apathy through free T-shirts or caps, you are increasing food and beverage sales and creating hundreds of walking billboards for your team throughout the market.

    Hockey is a problem for promotional events. In many NHL arenas, the No. 1 promotion is watching the Zamboni clean the ice. Hockey is a traditional sport with incredibly loyal fans that doesn’t require much promotional gimmickry.

    Pro football is where every game matters. Halftimes are for the fans to visit the concession stands and the facilities so as not to miss the action. This is the No. 1 sport relying on TV to carry its promotional message. Tailgating is football’s most cherished promotional vehicle.

    Everything in moderation

    Fans come to see the greatest athletes in the world do their thing in an unscripted setting. When teams overload those fans with insipid play, intruding promos, ear-splitting non-stop noise, mascot mania, useless free merchandise and Big Brother directions for cheering, they can damage their fan base for years to come.

    And not everyone is a fan of in-game entertainment. Terry Francona, former manager of the Boston Red Sox, had this to say on the Washington Nationals’ Racing Presidents: “We don’t need to have [inflatable] president races or [bottles of] mustard racing ketchup. Our fans like our baseball, and I actually really think that’s cool. Nothing against mustard.”

    What the future holds

    It has been said that the past is prologue. Consider that one of baseball’s first giveaways was an ashtray in the shape of Wrigley Field by the Chicago Cubs. It won’t be long before holograms will be sent by teams containing highlights, merchandise items and player avatars.

    And the rise of social media provides a perfect vehicle for promotions as teams search for that balance.

    Andy Dolich (andy.dolich@gmail.com) has more than four decades of experience in professional sports, including executive positions in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.

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  • Cartoon: Don't play it again

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  • Ideas, insights on sports marketing

    Easily the most pervasive topic at our Sports Marketing Symposium earlier this month in New York City was social media. One could argue it was a “Social Media Conference.” What stood out to me over the two days was that social media is a part, not a panacea, of a sports marketing strategy. Other insights I liked:

    A SOCIAL STATE: American Express is well-respected for its ability to create exclusive experiences for its card holders, but ALEX CHANG, vice president of sports marketing, access strategy and planning, noted the difficultly in doing that online. Chang: “We’re always about creating a differentiated experience. … In the digital space, though, it is harder, and creating a ‘velvet rope’ is definitely more difficult, particularly given how information is so abundant.”

    GM LIKES BIG AIR: STEVE TIHANYI, General Motors’ director of branded entertainment marketing alliances, wasn’t ready to dimiss the impact of big TV ad buys when he outlined GM’s marketing spend. “We will always have an interest in being on air in what are called the more traditional manners,” he said, “because at the end of the day, it still hits an incredible amount of people, a lot of eyeballs, creates a lot of awareness, it can help change opinion and do certain things that are very important to us.” He said radio and print have suffered with money moving into the digital space.

    PUPPY LOVE: ESPN Chief Marketing Officer CAROL KRUSE had a great analogy comparing the current love for social media to getting — and caring for — a puppy. Everyone adores their puppy and gives it love and a lot of time. Puppies grow and still need love and time. For marketers, social media is still in the puppy stage: It needs a lot of time and attention that marketers aren’t used to giving. Kruse: “We’re used to launching something and then moving on. We’re not used to that constant care and feeding that comes with a Facebook page or a Twitter feed or a YouTube channel.”

    “I, I, E” ON AGENCIES: The agency world was out in force at the symposium, and many audience questions focused on the role agencies should play with brands and partners. Samsung CMO RALPH SANTANA nailed it for me, saying, “Three criteria: it’s insights, ideas and executions. So can you deliver the insights? If you can, then you’re a valued agency. Can you translate that into an idea? Then ultimately, how do you execute it?” He’s right: Insights bring intellectual value. You then need to translate insights into amazing creative activation ideas, which is also not easy. The third part is execution. It’s important — it’s not intellectual nor creative — but it must be done well. Santana boiled it down in three easy terms, but not all are easy to do well.

    STRONGEST COMMENT: Longtime sports business executive/current NASL Commissioner DAVID DOWNS didn’t flinch when asked about the prospects of pro women’s soccer, saying, “I’m somewhat skeptical that the United States can support a women’s professional soccer league at the economics it’s going to take to keep the players gainfully employed. I think it is a truism that sports fans tend to be male and not female.”
    For full coverage of the Sports Marketing Symposium, including videos and full panel discussions, visit www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/blogs/sms2011.aspx.

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

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  • Broadcast 90 years ago was first to help listeners ‘see’ Series

    This fall marks 90 years since America first “saw” the World Series on radio. “I watch a lot of baseball on the radio,” Gerald Ford once observed, a poignant nod to radio as perhaps the most visual of all the electronic media, its word pictures luring our imaginations into the game itself.

    Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice took the microphone for Game 1 on Oct. 5, 1921, and the World Series would never be the same. Neither would America. Most early broadcasters were print journalists, purists who refrained from speaking unless there was action on the field, so they generated a lot of dead air until radio caught on. Baseball, after all, is a game of deliberate action and strategic intervals, the perfect game for the talking box.

    The 1921 Series featured the New York Giants against Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees, the very first subway Series — without the subway, since both teams played their home games in the cavernous Polo Grounds. This was also the first World Series the Yankees ever played. They lost to the Giants that year and again the next, but by 1923, playing in their own newly built Yankee Stadium, they would finally take the Series title. And radio was there.

    The history of baseball broadcasting began, in part, as the result of a bet. In 1912, a young Westinghouse assistant engineer named Frank Conrad built a crude operating receiver in his garage, then won a $5 wager by intercepting signals from the U.S. Navy. Conrad then built a transmitter and turned his garage into a virtual radio station that in 1916 would be assigned the call letters 8XK and would become Pittsburgh’s KDKA in 1920.

    AP IMAGES
    Grantland Rice (right, with Amos Alonzo Stagg) manned the microphone for a groundbreaking broadcast 90 years ago.
    In 1921, a curious engineer named Harold Arlin wandered into the fledgling KDKA studios and emerged as the world’s first baseball broadcaster. On Aug. 5, 1921, Arlin took a seat at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, plopped a crude microphone onto the makeshift board across his lap, and began relaying the Pirates-Phillies game back to the studio where the game’s events could be retransmitted.

    The 1921 World Series was a groundbreaking broadcast experiment covered by two radio stations. Game accounts were relayed back to KDKA, where results were broadcast to a handful of East Coast listeners. New Jersey station WJZ did the same thing, utilizing Sandy Hunt from the Newark Sunday Call newspaper. No one paid any rights fees for the privilege. Within one year there were 30 radio stations operating in the U.S.; by 1923 the total had multiplied to 556; and by 1934, Ford Motor Co. had agreed to pay $100,000 a year for four years of sponsorship rights to the World Series on radio.

    Radio exploded across America, transmitting the first radio commercial in 1922, the 1925 Cubs-Pirates season opener, the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, and in 1927 alone the Charles Lindbergh Paris landing, the Jack Dempsey “long count fight,” and the first national broadcast of the World Series via the newly formed National Broadcasting Co.

    The World Series audience mushroomed from a handful in 1921 to 5 million listeners in 1922. Rice was the first Series announcer, sort of, since the first transmission was technically a recreated relay system. Rice was a prolific sportswriter who penned 22,000 columns and christened the famous “Four Horsemen” moniker for Notre Dame football’s 1924 backfield. It may be his typewriter that is in the Hall of Fame, but it was his voice that helped launch baseball broadcasting and the voices to follow — from Graham McNamee to Red Barber, Mel Allen, Bob Elson, Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully, and all the rest.

    Many owners originally feared that radio would ruin the game’s gate receipts, and the three New York teams conspired to ban regular-season baseball from the airwaves from 1934 to 1939. But in 1925, the marketing genius William Wrigley saw the billboard potential of radio as a means to generate interest and build even more fans. He was right. Soon after Wrigley began broadcasting Chicago Cubs games in 1925, attendance increased by 117 percent. Nationally, total radio advertising jumped to $40.5 million from 1927 to 1930, almost a tenfold increase.

    The World Series immediately embraced radio, and so the talking box has delivered some of the great fall images of baseball on the air, such as Kirk Gibson’s stirring limp-off home run in 1988, a miracle “seen” on the radio by many courtesy of the exuberant Jack Buck. “I don’t believe what I just saw. I don’t BELIEVE what I just saw!” Indeed.

    Eldon L. Ham (elhlaw1@aol.com) is the author of “Broadcasting Baseball: A History of the National Pastime on Radio and Television” (McFarland & Co., 2011). He is a professor of sports, law and society at Chicago-Kent College of Law and sports legal analyst for WSCR sports radio in Chicago.

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