SBJ/Dec. 16-22, 2013/Opinion

Let’s hang it up and see what tomorrow brings

This is our final issue of the year, so a few closing thoughts as I clean out the notebook.

A couple of comments got my attention at our recent Motorsports Marketing Forum.

> WHAT YOU ARE, WHAT YOU’RE MEANT TO BE: The ballad of Jimmie Johnson has always had the story line of his inability to break through to the mainstream like many other top sports superstars. In 2008, after his third NASCAR championship, he embarked on a search for an agency, and the feeling when he selected CAA Sports was that it would be able to land major endorsements deals that would make him a top corporate spokesman. But save for a role in HBO’s “24/7,” little came of it. He left CAA Sports in 2012 and signed with Octagon, with similar results.

Johnson’s answer to a question about his success as an endorser struck me, because it exemplifies the confusion and challenge of brand building. “For the longest time I was focused on [building a brand],” he said. “Now, I’m just focused on doing what feels right and letting that lead the branding. For years, I’ve had big agencies representing us, brought in agencies. The toughest thing for me is to sit down in a meeting and tell them what my brand is. I don’t know what it is. It’s so hard to drive that and start a conversation about what avenues you’re going to pursue. The brand is important, but the brand to me that’s most important is hoisting those trophies.”

A great answer. I admire the fact that he may not want to “package himself” as a brand, and the key are his words that he’s “focused on doing what feels right and letting that lead the branding.” Everything that he does on the track works toward defining his brand — high performance, consistent, competitive, dependable, etc. Edgy and dynamic? Maybe not. But by winning six championships, he is defining his brand by just being who he is and performing on track. It’s clear that for a while he focused on building the “brand” and hired agencies. Now the tone sounds of someone just wanting to be Jimmie Johnson on and off the track. That still makes him a brand — a strong one, in my opinion. It’s not his “job” to define what he wants his brand to be. He’s just going to be himself and share his story. Then it’s up to a marketer to synthesize that information, define the brand on paper and take it to market. The question then becomes, who’s buying?

> ONCE IN A WHILE YOU GET SHOWN THE LIGHT IN THE STRANGEST OF PLACES IF YOU LOOK AT IT RIGHT: I was also struck by IndyCar CEO Mark Miles talking about the personalities that are in his sport. As many know, Miles has a diverse sports background with 15 years at the ATP, so yes, he’s been around some global athletes with big personalities. While I certainly didn’t expect him to say that IndyCar didn’t have the level of personality appeal of international tennis players, I was impressed by his response on the differences between the two sports and his thoughts behind it.

“I spent 15 years in men’s professional tennis,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade the personalities in the IndyCar paddock for the tennis world, period. There’s probably a lot of self-selection that goes on in motorsports where if you can’t meet people, walk and talk and go to a cocktail party, present yourself to sponsors, then you probably don’t get a ride to some extent. That’s just not the case in tennis. You come up because you’re better at hitting the ball and nothing else is required. And you work for yourself and you hire and fire your coach and you are very independent in a way that I think is not so true in [IndyCar]. IndyCar has very attractive athletes, and we’ve just got to do a better job of getting on the same page with them about how they want to be seen. I’ve just been delighted about how our athletes want to be accessible, and they’re really good at it. I’m very bullish about that part of our product.”

He’ll have to get those personalities to tell their stories if he wants to move the ball forward on IndyCar.

> WHILE THE STORYTELLER SPEAKS: I watch a fair share of football, and there is so much quality NFL programming out there today across all the league’s partners. But NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood does one of the best jobs of putting together an NFL show with “Football Night in America.” He has the advantage of having all the day’s highlights to present, but it’s the show’s talent, pacing, energy and eloquence that stand out. There is no forced laughter, shouting over each other or analysts feeling the need to one-up each other. It’s a smart, clever show that is successful because of the quality of the talent involved. It opens with Bob Costas and the astute duo of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth at the game site, then goes to the New York studio, where the impeccable Dan Patrick quarterbacks the action with the likable twosome of Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison. Those three are fun, knowledgeable and aren’t afraid to call each other out. Recently, when the hot Carolina Panthers were visiting the New Orleans Saints, Patrick didn’t hesitate to call out Harrison’s comments from earlier this season when he said the Panthers should bench QB Cam Newton when he was struggling. NBC replayed that video and had Harrison answer for it. I learn from both analysts, and their game-strategy breakdown is excellent and should be used more frequently during the show. Maybe it’s because Flood keeps his group small: It’s only three at the highlight desk, and not five or more analysts talking over each other. The only times I feel the show slows down is when they bring Hines Ward on the set, and while Peter King is very solid, the depth of quality NFL “insiders” across all the networks makes it hard for him to stand out. Finally, Scott Pioli is a surprisingly good addition in the studio; I knew he was articulate but he offers a team perspective and is fairly frank considering his history of being so guarded with the media. At times, I wish the show would take more chances and have talent be a bit more outspoken. But under Flood’s guidance, I find it’s among the best 75 minutes of NFL news and information I get all week.

> DON’T TELL ME THIS TOWN AIN’T GOT NO HEART. JUST GOT TO POKE AROUND: The New York Times has ramped up its coverage of college athletics. We’ve seen the provocative op-ed columns by Joe Nocera, who for more than a year has frequently taken on the NCAA, but I’ve noticed that in the last six months there has been more enterprise work focused on the business side of college sports. Some examples: A main thread of The New York Times’ three-part series on ESPN in late August dealt with the amount of influence ESPN has in the college scene. In October, there was a piece by freelancer Ben Strauss on powerful University of Tennessee booster Roy Adams, followed later that month by a look at the issues surrounding Grambling’s athletic department. On Nov. 30, Greg Bishop took an extensive look at how TV revenue was “fueling a construction boom” in the Pac-12 and two days later, the Sunday Business section had a front-page profile of Jim Delany’s effort behind the Big Ten Network. Long-form stories about big, macro issues are coming with greater frequency on college sports than on the big four sports from the Times, similar to what I’ve seen at The Wall Street Journal under Rachel Bachman. I got a gauge of the newsroom’s thinking in talking with Sports Editor Jason Stallman. “It is a conscious decision,” he said of the coverage. “We don’t have the army of people to cover college sports in a way that ESPN might, where they fan out to every big game and have beat writers for every conference. So that is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in that it can be frustrating, but it’s a blessing because it allows us to pick our spots.”

Look for more coverage on college sports business from the Times. “It’s become painfully clear each week that these college athletic programs are no different than the companies we cover on Wall Street,” Stallman said.

> THE WORLD IS YOURS: Growing up a fan of Al Pacino, I took my father to the film “Scarface” when we were visiting New York City in 1983. I absolutely loved it; he couldn’t believe he sat through the expletive-laden 170-minute film with his 15-year-old. The film wasn’t a hit and reviews were poor, but over the years it has become a major cult classic. So I found this story in Hollywood Reporter about the film and ESPN’s influence on pop culture amusing. Actor Steven Bauer, who played Tony Montana’s sidekick Manolo, was reminiscing about the film on the 30-year anniversary of its release. He remembers the film getting awful reviews and not part of the conversation of great films for years. But as the article states, “The first time he realized it was making a comeback was in the early 1990s, when he was watching ESPN and heard sportscaster Chris Berman yell, ‘Say hello to my little friend!’ after someone hit a home run. ‘I was amazed,’ Bauer recalls.” Classic lines from the Oliver Stone script continue to be dropped in sports highlights today.

> LET THE WORDS BE YOURS, I’M DONE WITH MINE: It’s our last issue of the year and we will be riding out the final two weeks of 2013 with SportsBusiness Daily/Global, so check us out there. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. We’ll see you in the New Year with a promise to continue to bring you all the news you can use for the next year. Thanks for reading.

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

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