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Even Commissioner Gary Bettman’s apology on Jan. 9 suggested the league understood it had once again harmed the game and there was unfortunate work to do.
“To the players who were very clear they wanted to be on the ice and not negotiating labor contracts, to our partners who support the league financially and personally, and most importantly to our fans, who love and have missed NHL hockey, I’m sorry,” Bettman said. “I know that an explanation or an apology will not erase the hard feelings that have built up over the past few months, but I owe you an apology nevertheless.”
It’s February, and we’d like to know where things stand now. From a sports perspective, the NHL’s players have come home, teams are fully staffed, and the compressed 48-game schedule is under way. The season even started off with record TV ratings and sellouts across the board. Attention has moved from collective bargaining to expansion and the 2014 Olympic Games.
So, everybody’s good, right?
Not so fast. Modern sports business is largely about media and marketing, and the marketing reality of the NHL’s new situation remains patently unclear. How is the NHL’s marketing going? What would you do if you were the NHL’s commissioner or CMO?
Do you think every NHL sponsor jumped back in with a full activation plan, or do you suspect some sponsors moved away from the NHL for 2013? If their contract didn’t let them, are they considering not renewing once their contract is up? Have some of those newer fans from the NHL’s recent growth years found alternative interests? Could the NHL’s efforts fail to bring them back?
NHL fans have returned to arenas with enthusiasm. Will sponsors do the same?
But professional sports does not even remotely resemble the factory worker or coal miner of the early 1900s nor the retail service worker of 2013. Fans tend to be less sympathetic, particularly the second or third time around. History has shown fans are particularly disappointed when a champion is not awarded (see MLB 1994 and NHL 2005). Fortunately, this won’t be the case for the NHL in 2013.
More importantly, we know people quickly discover they can do other things than watch hockey games … like working on company reports, downloading music or watching back episodes of “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead” by way of iTunes or Netflix.
So we should ask the following:
■ Will we get a repeat of last year’s NBA, when fans were thrilled by the high-intensity, shortened-schedule?
Many casual NBA fans can’t even remember there was a lockout in 2011.
■ Will the NHL get that same forgiveness, or has the third lockout in two decades left a permanent mark?
For the moment, it looks like forgiveness is still in vogue. NHL attendance is solid, and the media isn’t taking pot shots at the NHL for having too many empty seats. In fact, ratings are hot.
■ What about the details of the deal? Is an eight- to 10-year deal long enough for sponsors to feel assured nothing will disrupt the game for another decade?
Absolutely. Many marriages don’t last that long, so getting a guarantee of eight years should be more than enough.
■ But what about the sponsors? Sponsors haven’t said much on this topic perhaps because they couldn’t hope to turn around in 10 days the way the teams and players did. Does that mean sponsors are still analyzing and pondering their future commitments this late into the season?
We sense that the NHL has worked hard to keep these relationships solid and probably offered tasty make-goods for the damage done. And, logically, for many of these sponsors, this was not their first lockout/strike rodeo. Like the fans, we believe they’re pleased to see a saved season.
“There’s no question the NHL has to ramp up its efforts to appeal not only to its hard-core fan base but also to the casual ticket buyer or TV viewer,” said Howard Dolgon, owner of the AHL Syracuse Crunch and a co-founder and former president of Alan Taylor Communications. “Activities over the past several months left a bad taste in the mouths of fans pertaining to both the NHL and the players. There were no winners in this battle, and the league, teams and players will need to put into place a long-term marketing/PR plan to clean up the damage caused by the lockout. It will take time and be no easy task, but I believe a unified effort from all interested parties will accomplish the goal over time.”
As we roar through the first quarter of 2013, there remain numerous questions related to sponsorship. Which NHL players and clubs will best take advantage of the 48-game season for sponsorship/endorsement purposes? Which sponsorship sales strategies worked best to overcome CBA negativity? How will the NHL strategize to drive new sponsorship sales?
When the going gets tough, the tough skate extra shifts, work harder on their backhand and stay late after practice. We’d expect the same from all the champions in this league. n
Rick Burton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (email@example.com) is a professor of sport business at the University of Ottawa.
While in New Orleans, I spent some time with Al Kelly, who has the task of leading the NY/NJ Super Bowl Host Committee and preparing for virtually every contingency that could come up during next year’s event. As many of you know, Kelly is the longtime American Express executive who worked at AmEx for 23 years before leaving in 2010. As the oldest of seven kids in a tight Catholic family, Kelly surely knows the qualities of forgiveness, patience, perseverance, working hard and working together. He is going to need these qualities, and more, over the next year.
Kelly is a realist: He is fully aware of the tremendous challenge ahead of him. I liked his friendly, kind manner that begat an organized and analytical style. He was blunt about the issues, from transportation to weather. He wants to make this the first mass-transit Super Bowl, which will be difficult for so many of us who appreciate a central, urban location for the big game. He was bullish on the volunteer base and meeting his budget. He talked optimistically of the novel Super Bowl Boulevard along Broadway between 34th to 44th streets that will feature fan events and attractions. But Kelly’s optimism is countered by many people’s pessimism.
In most of the discussions I had with sources, fewer than 20 percent sounded excited about the prospects of a cold-weather Super Bowl. All agreed it will be the most amplified event in the game’s history — from fan interest, to ticket prices, to sponsor activation, to media attention, and not just from U.S. media, but by the large number of media around the world that is based in New York City, providing far greater coverage. But, as can be expected, there are a litany of concerns.
First, many partners and sponsors were alarmed when told that there were no plans for an NFL Experience. It was the first many of them had heard of it. The lack of an Experience shouldn’t be overlooked. This is a centerpiece of the NFL’s success in drawing hundreds of thousands of fans to engage with their game leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. Sponsors love it for its personal touch points, and it’s a merchandise gold mine. Kelly told us that they searched from “Greenwich to Princeton” for a location, and I don’t doubt that. It’s also well-known that the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was not available due to industry conventions/shows that couldn’t be moved. But many sources I talked to are surprised that a bid for NY/NJ wasn’t completed with a location already nailed down. In addition, sponsors showed little excitement for the new plan of the Super Bowl Boulevard, expressing concern over the outdoor setting and square footage. I also heard multiple worries about ambush marketing. This will be a fluid, moving story. There are still a number of major events, Taste of the NFL, for example, that are looking for a suitable space to hold their events.
Kelly talked about “so many … firsts about this Super Bowl” and doing “something different.” That will be a given; this will be unlike any Super Bowl week we’ve experienced. Look no further than Kelly issuing a statement last week, a full year out, about preparing for all contingencies that could face the Super Bowl as the Northeast was dealing with a massive storm. And the only pressure organizers face is that I believe the ability of this host committee to stage a successful event will dictate the NFL’s willingness to do this in other cold-weather cities.
Patience, perseverance, forgiveness and working hard while working together. Oh, and luck. Al Kelly is going to want to draw on all those qualities over the next year.
> AN ACTIVATION THAT WORKS: Many are critical of the big auto, beer and beverage brands for having the deep pockets to spend heavily on media around their sports sponsorships while accusing them of displaying little innovation with their on-the-ground activation. I get that. Anheuser-Busch is an example of a company that spends big on sports advertising. But if you’ve had a chance to visit its Bud Light Hotel, you’d see a company extending a sponsorship in front of thousands of consumers through a unique experience. A-B once again transformed a hotel into Bud Light’s brand headquarters, this time taking a 200-room downtown New Orleans hotel, a Wyndham property, and making it one of the most sought-after tickets in town during Super Bowl week.
I toured the venue early during Super Bowl week while work was being quickly completed before a Thursday night grand opening. I’ve never experienced anything similar in terms of how a brand completely takes over a venue for days, down to the most minute details — branded hotel swipe keys, mouthwash, toiletries, elevator siding, rugs and floor mats — all with subtle branding of Bud Light.
Outside the branding, though, a couple of things stood out: the ability of the brand to integrate its sports and music platforms with concerts throughout the week; the ability to create a hip and cool consumer experience; and the opportunity for A-B to have an “oasis” for its top clients, bottlers and customers for one of the biggest events on the calendar.
I haven’t come across many consumer packaged goods brands that have sports activations like this, and it was a nice finale to A-B’s NFL programming throughout the season — right down to Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” the night before the Super Bowl, coming full circle on Bud Light’s seasonlong activation message.
> KEEPING CALM: Family and friends were eager to get my personal reaction to the power outage that hit the Superdome during Super Bowl XLVII. Full disclosure: My mind was racing through multiple disaster scenarios. But as I lament my sense of fatalism, the one thing I continually point to was how calm and collected the crowd of 80,000 remained during the uncertainty. That was easily my biggest takeaway and impression: how the audience members admirably conducted themselves.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spring training also means watching for that rookie in his first big league camp, looking to prove himself. It’s exciting to watch young talent blossom under the guidance of veteran managers, coaches and players, then getting a chance at the major league level.
The start of the baseball season parallels college students juggling plans for spring break, midterms, graduation, summer jobs and starting careers. For non-graduates, this may include preparing for summer internships. Internships are similar to “spring training invites” for emerging prospects. There are no promises, but if one performs above expectations and with maturity, there’s a good chance that a roster spot will open up somewhere down the line.
Sometimes, an employer hands off an internship responsibility to a middle manager who’s barely keeping up with his or her own workload. And sometimes, the problem is the intern who feels a sense of entitlement based on his or her pedigree and/or the glamor of working in the sports and entertainment industry.
Nonetheless, here are a few spring training tips for both employers and interns to optimize the “special invite” experience and lead to a mutually beneficial relationship.
■ Performance outweighs privilege
Brand-name colleges and/or influencers from family connections may open doors for initial sports internships. Students should take advantage of these placement connections, but with a caveat:
Results, initiative, perseverance and adaptability will be the underpinnings of their future marketability.
Hiring managers should pay close attention to how internship candidates present themselves in the interview process (e.g., cover note, or follow-up
■ Promote skill, experience and diversity
Sports business organizations continually face pressure to do more with less, as in staffing head count, marketing and travel budgets. As with rookies, it’s wise for interns to make their skill set both deep and varied to maximize their value. They never know who may be watching and what skills may be desired and/or transferable between functional areas (e.g., ticket and sponsorship sales).
■ Mentoring rewards the initiated
Seeing life through a millennial can keep “older folk” informed on how the world is and will be changing. Students are immersed in digital and social media. Similar to first-round draft picks, they are better positioned than ever before to offer employers immediate help in an area of high interest and revenue potential.
Executives should embrace the opportunity to gain knowledge from those still using a meal card. It’s an exceptional value if played right.
Every summer, students wanting to break into our industry hang their hopes on exciting internship opportunities. Though
Glenn Horine (email@example.com) is the executive director of Iona College’s Center for Sports and Entertainment Studies and is a business development consultant, industry career counselor/lecturer and entrepreneur.
Corcoran is president and owner of Shamrock Sports and Entertainment.
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