SBJ/May 28-June 3, 2012/Opinion

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  • Cartoon: Makin' tracks

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  • Competitor to 'SportsCenter' is out there

    News broke recently that Fox executives were considering a plan to launch a national sports network to compete with ESPN. The media largely focused on the impact of another deep-pocketed player in the lucrative sports rights marketplace.

    No doubt, live events are the core of the business, attracting large audiences and driving big ad and distribution dollars. The potential to launch a regional sports network in the Los Angeles market drove the $2.15 billion sale price of the Dodgers. The NFL dominates television because of its incomparable ability to consistently deliver large audiences.

    Yet we overlook a huge story in all the talk about sports rights bidding and ESPN’s dominant position in live events: After more than 30 years “SportsCenter,” ESPN’s signature show, remains the only television program distributed nationally dedicated to sports news.

    Can you think of another major programming category ceded to one network exclusively? “The Today Show,” “60 Minutes,” “The Tonight Show,” “American Idol” all were first movers in their respective genres and established dominant positions among audiences and advertisers, yet that did not stop networks from creating similar, profitable programs.

    RSNs and league networks operate successful news franchises but they tend to be sport-specific or locally focused. Fox and CNN made fleeting attempts nationally in the past. Versus never really tried to compete with “SportsCenter.” NBC Sports Network, the rebranded Versus, airs “NBC Sports Talk” at 6 p.m. daily, head-to-head with “SportsCenter,” but its core is discussion and analysis, not news and highlights.

    Television is a copycat business. The failure to mount a sustained challenge to “SportsCenter” in 30 years must rank as one of the industry’s greatest historical anomalies.

    While live events are a must, fans will watch games wherever they’re aired. The differences in network event productions have little, if any, impact on ratings. Therefore, it’s extraordinarily difficult to build a brand with leased content. General sports news gives fans a reason to tune in daily, indeed multiple times a day. Without an alternative to “SportsCenter,” it’s difficult to imagine any network establishing a competitive brand.

    The NFL’s impact on ESPN’s affiliate fees is well-chronicled, yet over the years the network’s sales teams have wisely emphasized the power of the brand in pitches to advertisers and affiliates. The heart and soul of ESPN’s brand is not “Monday Night Football” — it’s “SportsCenter.”

    There is ample economic justification for other networks to make a challenge. The sports news marketplace drives hundreds of millions of dollars annually for ESPN. The show’s success allows ESPN to monetize all events, even ones it doesn’t air.

    “SportsCenter” remains a phenomenal, ubiquitous product. Some argue that trying to compete with such a juggernaut would be foolhardy. Between the highlight licenses and production costs, it wouldn’t be cheap. There is no question, however, that NBC Sports Group, CBS and Fox possess the resources and skills to do it. Frankly, it might be a wiser investment than some sports properties. From a marketplace standpoint, there’s little doubt that marketers and media buyers would embrace, and perhaps disproportionately reward, a credible challenge to “SportsCenter.”

    Moreover, creating a sports news media franchise optimized for a four-screen, socially connected world presents an extraordinary opportunity to redefine the industry. It might be intriguing enough to entice cash-rich, nontraditional media players like Apple, Facebook or Google to mount a challenge.

    It will take time, but perhaps the mountain isn’t as high as we think. Remember, “American Idol” seemed unstoppable in 2010. Now, it’s chasing “The Voice.”

    Fred Bucher (fredbucher@transaction-sports.com) leads Transaction Sports, a new sports marketing company owned by Ryan Partnership and WSM Communications.


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  • Merchandise a powerful activation tool for teams, sponsors

    The value of sports sponsorships is rooted in the strong emotional attachments fans develop with their favorite leagues, teams and athletes. It’s our job as marketers to create lasting promotional ties that inspire the consumer to transfer some of that loyalty over to the sponsor.

    The influx of sponsorship dollars isn’t expected to slow in the foreseeable future. In its December 2011 forecast “Changing the Game,” PricewaterhouseCoopers projected global revenue from sponsorships will account for the largest share of the sports market’s $146 billion estimated revenue in 2014. Sponsorship is the fastest-growing sector in the sports market, with an expected global compound annual growth rate of 5.3 percent from 2011 to 2015.

    Nowhere is this growth more evident than with branded merchandise, an advertising medium that’s steadily gaining traction among sports entities and the world’s most iconic corporate brands. While network television, radio, magazine and newspaper ad spending all decreased last year, according to Kantar Media, the Advertising Specialty Institute reported sales growth of 6.2 percent in 2011 to more than $18.5 billion. That’s on the heels of a 9 percent increase.

    Photo by: OAKLAND ATHLETICS
    Branded merchandise giveaways are three-dimensional ads that go home with the fan.
    Photo by: MLB NETWORK
    Merchandise provides both teams and sponsors a powerful activation vehicle because it brings their brands to life. It works in concert with a sponsor’s stadium signage, TV spots and print campaigns. It lets people see, touch, feel, own and interact with a brand in a way no other medium permits. Gifted campaign strategists realize that with merchandise, the brand messaging doesn’t turn off — and it can drive fan behavior and activation.

    Of course, there are critics of merchandise because it’s so pervasive in our society. The easy label is tchotchke, trinket or trash. But smart teams and sponsors understand product placement doesn’t get more personal than branded merchandise. It’s three-dimensional advertising that goes home with the fan.

    You’ll see it play out all summer long in MLB ballparks. Looking at the promotional schedules of 29 of the 30 MLB teams (the Boston Red Sox don’t release one), there are more than 700 merchandise giveaways slated for the 2012 season. The Pittsburgh Pirates lead the way, with merchandise activations attached to 43 of their 81 home games, while another 13 teams have 25 or more giveaways on tap. Only three clubs (Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres) show fewer than 12 giveaways on their published schedules.

    It’s widely accepted around the league that teams should expect a jolt in ticket sales from a well-executed giveaway of high-perceived value. More importantly, these fans are taking home a souvenir with a sponsor’s logo they’ll either wear, display or put to use in their daily lives — driving additional brand impressions and loyalty.

    We heard firsthand accounts of the impact a merchandise activation can have on attendance and the overall game-day experience from team officials during our 17th annual Baseball Think Tank this past offseason. BDA brings together the top marketing minds from MLB each November to share best practices; discuss product trends for in-stadium giveaways and ticket renewal premiums; review the latest importing, safety testing and compliance standards; and strategize ways to continually improve fan experiences.

    Gregg Greene, the Seattle Mariners’ director of marketing, put it best.

    “A great giveaway can create lines at the ballpark as well as added value and affinity with the Mariners brand,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Little Leaguer or a CEO. The right collectible or gear creates that moment at the ballpark when the fan thinks, ‘Wow, this is really cool. I want to put this in my office. I want to wear this.’ That’s something that no other form of advertising can offer. Sports is about creating moments, and I think giveaways help fans celebrate those moments well beyond the event they attended.”

    The San Francisco Giants are a team that sees how a merchandise activation can help bridge the gap between a casual fan and an avid fan. With every person who comes out to AT&T Park as part of a community group or due to a specific promotion, there’s an opportunity to make a lasting impression. Handing out Gigantes T-shirts during Hispanic Heritage Month or neon orange snap watches to the younger set is a simple first step in building a connection between the fan, team and sponsor — not to mention the brand exposure generated every time those fans wear their new favorite shirt or wristwatch.

    MLB Network also recognizes there’s considerable ROI to gain from merchandise. The 3-year-old network is giving away 685,000 drawstring sports bags featuring its logo in 27 ballparks this season. Mary Beck, senior vice president of marketing and promotion for MLB Network, lobbied for a leaguewide merchandise activation from the early days of the network.

    “Merchandise is an important component of MLB Network’s marketing efforts as it makes our brand tangible and promotes awareness to baseball fans — the largest push this year being an MLB Network Giveaway Day,” she said. “We view this as a great way to increase recognition of the network among avid baseball fans.”

    For good reason.

    Today’s consumer pays close attention to who’s behind a giveaway. In a survey commissioned by ASI, 83 percent of U.S. respondents indicated they could identify the advertiser on a promotional item they owned, and 41 percent said their opinion of the advertiser was more favorable after receiving a promotional product.

    Add in the fact that avid sports fans are supportive to brands associated with their favorite leagues and teams. Advertisers capitalize on this loyalty by giving fans merchandise that lets them show off their team pride, and sponsors are part of this equation in a very visible, tangible way. When branding is done well, it is seamless and well-received by fans of all demographics.

    Whether it’s custom earrings for every mom on Mother’s Day, kid-friendly collectibles, or 40,000 rally towels waving like crazy down to the final out of the playoffs, merchandise activations help expand the fan experience. The right piece of merchandise turns spectators into lifelong brand ambassadors. It extends brand messaging beyond any single game, event or venue — directly into people’s hearts and homes.

    Jay Deutsch is co-founder and CEO of Bensussen Deutsch & Associates. BDA is the preferred premium supplier of MLB Properties and holds licensing agreements with the NCAA, NFL, NHL, NASCAR and U.S. Olympic Committee.


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  • A haven for families dealing with autism

    Autism has become a household word in America, in part due to extensive awareness efforts over the past several years, and mainly because of the sheer magnitude of the autism health crisis in this country. According to data released by the CDC, one in every 88 children is now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. If you don’t personally know someone affected by autism yet, you probably will soon.

    All of this awareness has been helpful in spurring research, focusing public attention on the need for greater resources and services for people with autism and also helping to end the stigma long associated with this disorder.

    Yet families affected by autism are still often left feeling like they are not truly part of their communities. Part of that isolation comes from the fact that it can be challenging — if not outright impossible — for families like mine to take part in activities that most take for granted. Whether it’s going to a movie, taking the family out for a pancake breakfast, catching a baseball game or attending a town barbecue, we often decide it’s ultimately not worth taking the risk that what should be a fun outing will turn into a fiasco.

    Fortunately, there is a growing movement to develop events — or modify existing ones — that take the unique needs of people with autism into consideration and create marvelous experiences for them. Broadway theaters have started hosting special performances for families with autism, featuring toned-down lighting, sound and special effects, as well as quiet rooms for kids who need some time away from the action. Movie theater chains host autism-only screenings, where parents don’t have to worry if their child screams or otherwise acts out.

    I am proud to be involved with a new effort that will hopefully inspire others to follow suit. Dover International Speedway, NASCAR, FedEx and the national advocacy organization Autism Speaks are partnering to create the first autism-friendly NASCAR race experience for families. At the June 3 FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks race, families with autism can attend the “Autism Speaks Day at the Races,” which will feature pre-race presentations by advocates and experts. During the race, a dedicated quiet zone in the grandstand will allow parents to bring their kids to a sensory-friendly place to get away from the crowd and noise and take in the action.

    It is not realistic to expect every entertainment venue to accommodate families in this way, but it is important for organizations like NASCAR, movie theater chains and restaurants to know that doing so isn’t just a good deed — it’s also good business. Like all families, we vote with our wallets and spend our limited entertainment dollars where they will bring us the best experiences. Autism-friendly events are business-savvy, and they help develop communities that are inclusive and welcoming for all.

    Artie Kempner
    Wilmington, Del.

    Kempner is the lead director for NASCAR on Fox and a member of the Autism Speaks board of directors.

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