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Damani Leech bounced out of a CrossFit gym last week and drove his rented car across Omaha, Neb., to the Hilton, the NCAA’s headquarters for the College World Series.
Refreshed from his 6 a.m. workout, Leech, a former football player at Princeton and now a 15-year NCAA executive who oversees the CWS, looked ahead to a Tuesday doubleheader of baseball at TD Ameritrade Park on a 90-plus-degree day.
Longtime NCAA exec Damani Leech is in charge of the College World Series for the first time this month.
In the hours between that day, Leech encountered the full range of issues that often
The College World Series has been an Omaha staple since 1950.
“We’ve had monthly conference calls leading up, so all that’s left to do by the time we get here is play the games,” said Leech, the NCAA’s managing director of championships, who supervises a staff of two dozen in Omaha for one of the NCAA’s most revered events, and certainly its most charming.
“But — extra innings, weather — it seldom seems to work out the way you think.”
Most NCAA championships rotate annually from city to city, but the CWS, an eight-team showdown to determine baseball’s national champion, is one of the exceptions. It’s been in Omaha since 1950. There’s a relationship between the event and the community that both sides cherish unlike any other championship.
More than 60 percent of the 300,000-plus fans who will attend over 10 or 11 days of the championship are locals. The CWS boasts a 98 percent renewal rate this year for its season-ticket holders — again, mostly from locals.
The current deal with the NCAA guarantees that the CWS will remain in Omaha through 2030. While some of the fans who return each year lament the move out of historic Rosenblatt Stadium four years ago, they understand how the event needed a bigger home with more modern amenities, like the distributed antenna system that was installed this year to improve cell signals for crowds that normally surpass 20,000 per game.
“The College World Series isn’t just a championship, it’s a relationship with a city and its people,” Leech said. “They don’t come to the games necessarily because they’re big baseball fans. They come because they want to be part of a cultural happening.”
■ ■ ■
The CWS crowd has a little bit of everything.
It’s part minor league baseball because of the local fan base.
It’s part festival because of the abundance of food vendors and the cornucopia of smells that accompany them inside and outside the stadium.
And it’s part bowl game because of the atmosphere created by dueling college fan bases in one venue.
The two-week event draws more than 300,000 fans to TD Ameritrade Park.
Photo by:AP IMAGES
One thing it’s not is corporate.
But there are secrets of the Omaha experience that the NCAA and its rights holders, Turner and CBS, want to share with the corporate community. To that end, the NCAA, Turner and CBS threw their 17 corporate partners a curve ball by holding their annual partner summit in Omaha last week.
The summit typically has been later in the summer or the fall in large markets. Often, those markets are in the rotation to host the Final Four. But last year, the NCAA commissioned former Visa marketing chief Michael Lynch to review its partnership practices. One of his suggestions was to move the two-day summit to a date earlier in the year, so that partners could have more planning time between the summit and the next Final Four.
The idea to move the summit to June triggered another idea: Let’s get the partners out to Omaha for one of the NCAA’s most treasured events.
“We have several partners who activate in Omaha, and there are several more we’d like to see activate,” said Keith Martin, the NCAA’s managing director of marketing and broadcast. “As we’re starting to see a lot more college baseball on TV, we think we’ll see more partners invest in activation and advertising opportunities. That, to us, was a good reason to bring the summit here, so people can see it and feel it.”
Capital One (presenting sponsor of the CWS coverage on ESPN), Northwestern Mutual, Allstate and Buick have been among the biggest investors in the CWS, both in advertising with ESPN and activation at the CWS Fan Fest just outside the gates of TD Ameritrade. Enterprise Rent-A-Car also stepped up this year to sponsor a stage at the fan fest, providing the space with live music for large chunks of game day.
Turner Live Events manages the fan fest, just as it does ancillary events at other NCAA championships. The NCAA and Turner/CBS share profits from the fan fest 50/50.
Turner’s Will Funk and CBS’s Chris Simko, the two executives who oversee the partner program and sales efforts, opened the summit by welcoming close to 150 people, including partners and their agencies. Northwestern Mutual and Allstate presented case studies.
CBS broadcaster Jack Ford delivered the keynote, in part, by describing an NCAA under siege, and then he told his story of playing football for Yale.
“I’m the poster child,” Ford told his audience. “I directly attribute anything I’ve achieved to college athletics.”
Leech, wearing one of his many hats, joined the group for lunch before he set off for the ballpark.
■ ■ ■
Leech’s 18-hour day includes (from left) a CrossFit workout; talking with local radio …
Photo by:MICHAEL SMITH (2)
Leech’s typical game day in Omaha begins at sunrise with a trip to Fit Farm, a CrossFit gym he discovered last year on Google. He’s been to the gym, a former bakery with exposed brick walls, often enough that the trainers know him by name.
… spending a few innings with NCAA Baseball Committee members; and doing on-field presentations.
Photo by:NCAA (2)
It was shortly after 8 a.m. last Tuesday when he returned to the Hilton from Fit Farm. That’s when he learned the sobering news of two fatalities from a tornado that ravaged a Nebraska town 60 miles north of Omaha the night before.
Making the news hit even closer to home, one of the victims was the father of a security guard at TD Ameritrade Park.
In a midmorning conversation with MECA, the local entity that runs the stadium, Leech asked about the mood of the city and whether a pregame moment of silence would be appropriate. They agreed that it would be.
Leech also worked with local officials to contact the Red Cross and within hours collection areas were established at the stadium. Money from the collection will be funneled through the Red Cross to parts of the state most affected by the overnight tornados.
Leech mostly listened, but he was curious about whether misting stations could be created in the fan fest adjacent to the stadium because of the 90-degree temperatures. Officials told him the city requires a certain grade of potable water and it couldn’t be done last week, but misting stations will be added to the to-do list for 2015.
Over the course of the afternoon, Leech dealt with health hazards being created by pigeon droppings; local street vendors outside the stadium who physically hold and threaten shoplifters for money; and Twitter geeks who solicit new followers by saying they’ll streak onto the baseball field if they get enough.
As day turned into evening and the Virginia-TCU nightcap began, Leech greeted several corporate partners at the park and hosted them in the NCAA’s suite, along with officials from Turner and CBS, the NCAA’s rights holders.
“It was good,” Leech said. “So many of the partners are aware of the College World Series, but they’ve never been. To have the chance for them to experience the event and see the stadium was really good.”
■ ■ ■
This is the first year the buck stops with Leech. In his 15 years with the NCAA, he has gradually taken on more responsibility, to the point that he essentially ran the CWS the last few years.
But during that time, Dennis Poppe, the longtime administrative face of the CWS, still was the ultimate authority. After 26 straight College World Series, Poppe became a godfatherly figure over the event.
Poppe retired after last year’s CWS, handing over the reins full time to Leech.
“I never knew that he did so many interviews about the weather,” Leech said with a laugh. “We talk about the weather more than we do
Adjacent to the ballpark is the CWS Fan Fest, with numerous merchandise and food vendors; Leech’s day ends with Virginia’s 15-inning victory.
Photo by:AP IMAGES (2)
The complexities of the job extend well beyond the weather, though. Because the event is such a fixture in Omaha, the city takes on more ownership than most hosts of NCAA championships. In fact, a local business — College World Series of Omaha Inc. — was established to be the year-round contact for Leech, and it employs six employees throughout the year.
Now that Leech is the full-time point person for the CWS, he’s learning just how many stakeholders rely on him, from ESPN, to marketing partners, emergency services, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, MECA, local host Creighton and other media.
“When we go to meetings, I’ve always been impressed with Damani’s presence,” said Poppe, who watched the CWS from the NCAA’s suite last week, this time as a guest.
“We work with athletic directors, commissioners, coaches, a lot of very strong-willed people. And you know how people are in meetings, reading their email, looking at their phones. But when Damani begins a presentation, they always look up and pay attention. That told me that these people respect him, and they respond to him. With all of the relationships you have to have, that’s important.”
In Leech’s 10 years of working on the College World Series, it has turned a profit each year. Its net revenue increases have been 3 to 5 percent each year, except in 2011, the first year in TD Ameritrade Park. Net revenue jumped more than 50 percent that year. New premium areas, including suites and club seats, which weren’t in abundance at Rosenblatt, buoyed the profits more than usual.
But general-admission seats in the outfield still go for $9 apiece. Reserved seats range from $37 to $45 per game.
And Leech isn’t inclined to raise prices, at least not now.
He’s especially sensitive to the local fans, who make up the majority of the ticket buyers. Affordable tickets, after all, are one of the many things that make the CWS a cultural happening in Omaha.
“That’s part of the beauty of it,” Leech said. “The biggest chunks of fans are not fans from a particular school. If it’s 90 degrees outside and people bought a ticket to go on that night, they’re going to go.
“It’s that kind of event.”
From his suite at the College World Series, Texas Athletic Director Steve Patterson wondered aloud last week how many college baseball programs would survive if antitrust lawsuits ultimately reinvent the college model and create an open market for schools to pay athletes and treat them as employees.
Texas, which generates more than $160 million a year in athletic revenue, more than any other school, would be fine in such a new world. Most others probably would not, he said.
“The bottom line is that, as successful as the University of Texas has been, as good as this baseball team is, we average less than one [new] Major League Baseball player a year,” Patterson said. “I’m talking about guys that just have a cup of coffee [in the major leagues]. We average less than four professional football players a year making their way into the NFL. So out of all those student athletes, we’re talking about five to 10 kids a year that would truly benefit the most [from an open-market system]. And we’re talking about professional careers that span four years or less [on average]. Then they’ve got a half-century of their life, at least, where they’ve got to figure out how to work in the world.
Texas’ Steve Patterson (right) takes in the College World Series with Roger Clemens.
Photo:COURTESY OF TEXAS ATHLETICS
The climate for change in college athletics dominated a 30-minute conversation between Patterson and SportsBusiness Journal last week at the CWS in Omaha, Neb. Standing next to Roger Clemens and a handful of baseball parents in his suite, an animated Patterson said the current litigation is about agents and trial lawyers who are trying to benefit while “ruining” the collegiate model.
What’s clear is that Patterson, who was named AD at his alma mater in November and has spent more than two decades as an executive in pro sports, is tired of college athletics losing the public relations battle, and he isn’t afraid to go on the offensive. Among his views: More autonomy for the five power conferences within the NCAA is mandatory, or else they should leave.
Here are Patterson’s views on:
■ Pending NCAA changes that would grant the five power leagues more autonomy: “It’s a part of the everyday business right now. There’s five conferences that want to do the best they can for their student athletes and provide them with the best outcomes. There’s a bunch of other schools that are fairly atavistic in their viewpoints and want to take the rules back to 1950. That’s not going to happen. They need to let the more well-resourced conferences operate, or these five conferences need to leave. It’s that simple. We’ve waited far too long and we’ve been far too accommodating. … I think there’s a harder and harder resolve as each day goes by for the institutions in higher-profile conferences to take the necessary moves.”
■ The potential competitive imbalance that could result for conferences not in the power five: “There’s nothing wrong with having different kinds of programs at different schools. The Ivy League does a great job. They have different kinds of athletic programs than we do and they haven’t dried up and blown away. They’re wonderful institutions and well-supported. We’re in a different position. We ought to be able to respect our differences.”
■ Providing additional student services, such as a cost-of-attendance stipend, longer scholarships and post-graduate health insurance: “We’re self-supported at UT. I recognize that many others are not. But it’s incumbent on us to provide the kind of student services that we do. When you look at the issues raised at Northwestern, we do all of the things they’re talking about, except for one — allowing them to monetize their likeness. If you’re a baseball player and you decide after your junior year that you want to go pro, and you follow the rules, we’ll help you come back and finish. If you get hurt and you can’t play, we don’t take your scholarship away. A lot of these claims, at least as they apply at Texas, are specious. What you’ve got are a bunch of trial lawyers and agents who can’t find any more clients in the NBA or NFL. That’s what this is about.”
■ Whether other schools can provide similar services for athletes: “A lot more schools would be there if we didn’t have to keep fiddling around with the schools that don’t want to be more progressive.”
■ College athletes marketing their own rights: “We’re spending all of this time talking about one-half of 1 percent of our student athletes [who have the power to market their likeness]. Not the 99.5 percent of student athletes who are supported by these programs. What we’re giving our student athletes, in terms of academic, athletic, financial aid, support for room and board, training, mentoring, student services, tutoring, is more than the average household income. And for some of our teams, it’s pushing into $70,000 a year per student athlete, and pushes into the top third of household incomes. Tell me one guy whose likeness is worth more than the average household income. … There was one guy last year. [Patterson holds his hands up and rubs his fingers together like Johnny Manziel.]
“It’s absolutely agents and trial lawyers that are the whole reason we’re talking about this. You’ve got guys like Jay Bilas out there making the claim that scholarships aren’t worth anything, and nobody says anything to discredit that. … So who is saying with any rationality or any fact that student athletes on a full ride aren’t getting something? They’re just flat-out wrong and they’re liars. And they’re doing the bidding of agents and trial lawyers. The longer everybody waddles around acting like it’s not about agents and trial lawyers, the more silliness we’re going to have out there.”
■ The concept that an open market would kill Olympic sports: “The reality is that if we’re going to fall prey to the agents and the trial lawyers, we’re going to kill the second-largest scholarship program in the history of the country, after the GI bill. You’re going to take this money and it’s going to gravitate to a handful of guys on the football team and maybe a handful on the basketball teams. And so what’s going to happen to the budgets? It’s going to wipe out men’s sports and it’s going to wipe out women’s sports.”
■ Always finding a way to pay the football coach: “But the football coach generates the vast majority of the revenue. You’re compensating the coach based on the marketplace. Only football and men’s basketball, and just a few schools in baseball and ice hockey, can make money. Everything else operates at a deficit. So what is the model that’s going to replace that? If you take all of the money football generates and put it back into football, what’s going to pay for everything else?
“The point of paying a football coach based on the market is the hope that he generates enough revenue to support the rest of the athletic department. Now, people make mistakes on hires. But if you have a successful coach and a successful football program, you can support scores of teams. If you can’t, what happens? The same thing that happened at Arizona State before I got there. You start whacking sports. Same thing happened at Maryland. Same thing happened at Berkeley. Sports are getting whacked and that’s bad. The other way you balance the budget — you cut the number of football scholarships. You want to go down that road?”
■ On the academic piece of the scholarship being removed from the debate: “If athletes are employees, what’s the point of going to class? We spend millions and millions of dollars each year tutoring, mentoring, providing student services. We make that commitment because we should, and if we don’t, you wind up like UConn and you don’t get to play in the NCAA tournament. And at the end of four or five years, you hope that a student has graduated and something really good has happened. Generally, it does.
“Now, you can go find some jerk who was a former basketball player, who was a jerk in college and was a jerk in the pros, who decides he wants to disparage one of the best college basketball programs out there. Yeah, you can find that guy. But for every one of him, I’ll find you 500 kids who say, ‘Thank God I had a basketball scholarship or a baseball scholarship or a track scholarship. It changed my life and it changed my family’s life.’”
■ Jeffrey Kessler’s antitrust suit: “I’ve been on the other side of the table from Jeffrey Kessler for 30 years. I don’t think administrators understand what they’re getting into.”
Notre Dame has hired Legends Global Sales to market new premium seats for the school’s $400 million expansion of Notre Dame Stadium.
The seven-year deal extends to Legends selling season tickets for men’s basketball at Joyce Center and developing premium experiences for marquee ACC matchups such as North Carolina, said Rob Kelly, Notre Dame’s assistant athletic director of ticketing and technology.
Legends will market new premium seating at Notre Dame Stadium.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Legends’ relationship with Notre Dame dates to 2006 through CSL International, the market research firm it acquired in 2011. Eight years ago, CSL worked with the school on a separate stadium renovation study for a project that never happened.
For the current project, CSL founder Bill Rhoda teamed with Mike Ondrejko, Legends Global Sales’ chief operating officer, and Mike Behan, the group’s vice president of sales, to consult with Notre Dame before signing the sales agreement. As a whole, they’ve been working on the project for 14 months, Ondrejko said.
Notre Dame did extensive research on other sports marketing firms but never issued a formal proposal for the project.
“We have a track record with Legends,” Kelly said.
In addition to having a 12-person staff on campus, Legends will meet with prospective buyers in downtown Chicago. Notre Dame has academic and office space serving a large contingent of students and alumni living there, Ondrejko said.
For Notre Dame’s football program, a national brand followed by tens of thousands of school graduates living coast to coast, Legends officials see an opportunity to create a mobile tablet platform they can take on the road to pitch Campus Crossroads, the official name of the stadium renovation. This fall, Legends could potentially make presentations at MetLife Stadium, FedEx Field, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Lucas Oil Stadium, for Notre Dame games against Syracuse, Navy, USC and Purdue, respectively.
“The reach of their fan base goes well beyond South Bend,” Ondrejko said. “We’ll look at opportunities across the country that make logistical sense to engage corporations. Having the opportunity to experience ND football is an absolute dream come true for a lot of people.”
But Notre Dame must first take care of its current core of alumni, donors, trustees and season-ticket holders, and the plan is to reach out to those constituents before going public for the roughly 3,200 club seats and loge boxes, Kelly said. No suites are planned for the project.
To reach the local audience, Legends is working closely with 360 Architecture, the project’s sports consultant, to develop a sales center in an old auxiliary gym within Joyce Center. It will be called the Crossroads Experience and incorporate some of the same technology Legends used to market AT&T Stadium and Levi’s Stadium, as well as in Atlanta where the agency fills the same role for the Falcons’ new stadium, Ondrejko said. Legends employees will work out of temporary space in the stadium before moving into the Experience center in early October.
Crossroads Experience will also be open to the general public, a twist on similar marketing spaces exclusive to those intent on buying premium seats.
Over the next two to three months, Legends and 360 will identify the right mix of inventory among club seats and loge boxes across three levels on the stadium’s east and west sides (SportsBusiness Journal, Feb. 3-9).
Learfield Sports is pushing further into the digital business by acquiring Sidearm Sports, a Syracuse, N.Y., company that developed a digital platform used to power more than 500 college websites.
Financial terms of the all-cash deal weren’t available. It is the third acquisition Learfield has made since Providence Equity bought it last fall.
“Sidearm is a great company and they have a dynamic product that does a good job for partners,” said Learfield CEO Greg Brown. “This also gives us the flexibility to do things for national partners that we haven’t had the control and ability to do.”
Brown said Learfield would continue to work with platforms developed by NeuLion and other Sidearm competitors if schools choose to use those platforms. But he added that using Sidearm would give schools a “larger voice” in the development of their sites.
Sidearm, which charges $5,000 to $40,000 a year for its services, provides the platform for sites at a few large schools, such as Texas, Kansas and Syracuse, which aren’t affiliated with Learfield. It also provides the platform for nearly half of the other 1,200-plus schools across all of the NCAA’s divisions.
The company and its 60 employees will remain in Syracuse and continue to be led by founder Jeff Rubin, who will report to Learfield Chief Operating Officer Marc Jenkins. “The opportunity with Learfield gives us a chance to increase our brand and gain access to top-tier Division I schools, which we don’t have much of,” Rubin said. “We have a few, but this gives us a chance to do more.”
Brown said that Learfield will continue to look at opportunities to acquire businesses that fit with the company. It last week acquired Licensing Resource Group and in February acquired Nelligan Sports Marketing, which had the multimedia rights for 41 schools, including Louisville, Marquette and Providence.
“We are opportunistic about it,” Brown said. “The college space is robust. To the extent we can be aggressive, we want to do that.”