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Volume 21 No. 2


A few weeks ago, I praised parts of CBS’s “NFL Today” pregame show, but during that write-up, I noted how the show treated certain things clumsily. One such area is sponsor and commercial integration. They do it often, not unlike other shows, but their scripts feel terribly forced and presented. This season, they’ve featured scenes from new film releases like “Immortals” and “The Three Musketeers,” where they weave content and characters into NFL story lines. Film integrations are natural but never easy; they always seem one-dimensional. To preview “Immortals,” the show intermixed film scenes with NFL footage narrated by actor Mickey Rourke, but what left me cringing was the script. It was hard not to feel sorry for consummate pro James Brown, who had to begin the broadcast by noting when the film opened and added, “That provides a nice segue to this: Are there any ‘immortal’ teams this season?”

The show gave similar treatment to “The Three Musketeers,” where actress Milla Jovovich said, “This is ‘The NFL Today!’” and Brown forced a smile to exclaim, “Wow, Milla did a nice job there!” But the biggest infraction was during the Divisional Playoffs, when CBS’s “Subway Postgame Show” featured Subway spokesman Jared Fogle in-studio, presenting Subway subs, along with guest and Subway endorser Ndamukong Suh, who said he was “getting ready” by eating Subway.

I’m all for sponsor integrations. It fuels the business. For the films, maybe more creative types need to write the scripts for the production team. For Subway, I’m sure they loved the hit, and why wouldn’t they? But a less crass solution for CBS could have been a feature or discussion about diet/nutrition and effect on performance sponsored by Subway. Overall, CBS should rethink its approach and make these integrations more natural, interesting, perhaps even educational — and with far less shill.

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I’m a big fan of the way Visa supports and activates against its sports sponsorships, and its most recent ad effort promoting its NFL sweepstakes allowing a winner to take 10 friends to the Super Bowl on Visa truly raises the bar. You can’t miss them — the ads have been everywhere during the NFL season — with various versions by well-known director Stacy Wall, the creative mind behind “Lil’ Penny” and “The LeBrons.”

The results are clever, energetic, a touch whimsical, but overall smart in that they bring relevance to anyone using a payment card. With Morgan Freeman’s fantastic baritone guiding you through the saga of Ned winning the tickets and “selecting” the 10 friends who will travel with him to Indianapolis, the spots brim with fun.

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The most interesting story to me in the young NBA season is what’s happening in Philadelphia. The work of the 76ers’ new ownership group, led by Josh Harris and CEO Adam Aron, shouldn’t be overlooked.

Many in sports business were familiar with Aron because of his years and expertise in customer relations: He was the CEO of Vail Resorts for 10 years and has long been in the leisure-related industry. The selection of this Philadelphia native to breathe new life into his stagnant hometown franchise was a smart move, and if you have followed his planning, fan engagement and communication on Twitter, you’d see an aggressive, responsive, customer-focused executive willing to try new ideas.

The 76ers have often been dismissed in sports-crazy Philadelphia, regarded as a distant fourth on the pro sports landscape, so their work is cut out for them. And whether Philly is truly a basketball town ready to embrace the team is up for debate. Remember, the franchise failed to sell out during its salad days with Dr. J. But one can’t fault Aron’s enthusiasm, and to see an outsider bring new thinking to the traditionally insular sports world is refreshing. The team is certainly helping him: As of this writing, the surprising 76ers were atop the Atlantic Division. If you haven’t begun following Aron — at a game, on Twitter (SixersCEOAdam) or in the press — you should.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

SBJ’s picks for the 50 most influential people in sports business (Dec. 12-18, 2011, SportsBusiness Journal) is a great barometer for where our collective focus is as an industry. I find it troubling that not one person on this list represents or provides a voice for education-based high school sports. This is not a criticism of SBJ’s choices, however, it is a major criticism of our collective focus as an industry.

Consider the facts. There are 19,000 member schools within the National Federation of State High School Associations with nearly 8 million participating student athletes (NCAA has about 400,000). State associations are the caretakers for thousands of teams participating in football, basketball, baseball, soccer and many others. Education-based athletics is the foundation for our entire industry. These are the associations and schools that represent all high school athletics in the U.S., and I am here to tell you that they are largely ignored by our industry.

High school is the first place that widespread governance comes into play both at the state and national level. Without education-based high school sports, I contend there would be no NFL, NBA, MLB or any other major pro/college league. There are many stories in SBJ about the incredible dollars being spent, paid, lost and gained at the top levels of sports. It is ironic because the foundation for all of this is eroding right in front of us.

Our company has been blessed to find some corporate entities that have made a true devotion to supporting these activities. I am honored to attend annual conferences hosted by the NFHS and listen to all of the state executive directors. The financial decline is absolute, real and continuing. 

The people on this list are very influential. They (we!), along with the leagues, teams, sports, etc., have the ability to do something quite special. Education-based high school sports needs a seat at the table and they need to be heard loudly and clearly! We have the ability to sustain and strengthen the long-term future of our industry. There needs to be a concrete moment and commitment, a seismic shift in how we do things. Is responding to this call the responsibility of the major leagues? Yes. Major conferences? Yes. Sports networks? Yes. Our industry? Yes. Professional athletes? Yes. The people on the top 50? Yes. Mine? Absolutely. I’m talking about true financial support that is large, sustained and dedicated, not flowery support and PR to make ourselves feel good. 

We need a leader to step forward and do this. Didn’t Bill Gates and family do something special to sustain their own industry when they created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a strong emphasis on technology? 

Take a look at this picture: Major apparel companies outfit our best pros and colleges with free gear; inner city high schools pay full price for theirs. By “sponsoring” these multimillion-dollar teams, what happens to the price point for the paying high school teams? There is no intent to lay blame on any company or segment of our industry, but simply to provide an honest look at where it is heading.   

I would like to see an NFHS or state executive director on the top-50 list, but that would be a misplaced ranking because they do not have much influence in the picture of our current industry. In other ways, they hold more influence than anyone.

Can anyone change this? Yes. Top 50 is a good place to begin.

Peter Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick is president and founder of Home Team Marketing.

In a recent survey, 1,500 of America’s top CEOs cited “creativity” as the single most important leadership competency of the future. Creativity. Not math, science, educational pedigree or good old fashioned work ethic. So why do these giants of business believe the imagineers will inherit the earth?

I suppose it’s not a huge surprise. “Thinking Different” has made Apple the most famous and the most valuable company in the world. Barack Obama became president of the most powerful country on the planet through creative campaign marketing tactics. And Hollywood continues to thrive as the economy plummets, simply by mastering the art of creative storytelling.

But is there a place for creativity in sports? Haven’t the games we play always been about strength, agility, speed, sweat, endless preparation and a lifetime of training? Yes — but in these ultra-competitive times, when parents have their kids commit to and specialize in a single sport by age 10, all these attributes have simply become table stakes.

So what will separate the good from the great? The memorable from the legendary? I think the best athletes and coaches of the future will also be the most creative — original thinkers who can create new ways to outsmart their opponents. So let’s look back at the five most creative sports performances of all time, along with their modern business equivalents.

5. General manager Billy Beane’s 2002 Oakland Athletics had exactly one-third the total salary of teams like the New York Yankees. So Beane got creative. He re-evaluated the strategies that produce wins on the field. He used a sophisticated sabermetric approach toward scouting and analyzing undervalued players. This was an unheard-of idea; totally fresh thinking. And in a stats-crazy sport, nobody has ever more creatively and successfully worked the numbers, the math and the algorithms. The result was an American League-record 20 consecutive wins, a trip to the postseason and, of course, a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt as Beane.

Creative Business Equivalent: Google: Speaking of working algorithms to unheard-of success … .

4. In Game 4 of the 1980 NBA Finals, Julius Erving beats the Lakers’ Mark Landsberger baseline and takes off toward the rim. Awaiting him up there is 7-foot-2 center Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Stuck in midair, “Dr. J” cannot get to the basket — so he keeps floating, ducking his head to avoid smacking it into the backboard. He is now entirely behind the glass, and he keeps floating all the way to the opposite side of the rim. He then swings his fully extended right arm all the way across his body, flips the ball gently off the glass, and it drops in without touching iron. The Los Angeles crowd is stunned, and the Sixers go on to beat the Lakers, 105-102. This is creativity on the fly, literally — thinking quick and making it up as it happens.

Creative Business Equivalent: Twitter: Make it fast (140 characters) and of the moment (it’s old news in 2 minutes).

Princeton went old-school in its creativity in 1996 and found success, just as the website Craigslist has.
3. In the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament, the Princeton Tigers believed in miracles. They were the 13th seed against No. 4-seeded UCLA, the defending national champions, so they did the only thing they could do: They slowed it down. Way down. The Tigers just ran back-door cut after back-door cut until they got an open layup, and they had the patience to do this for an entire game. Oh, it was ugly. And shameless. And brilliant. In the end, Princeton pulled off the biggest upset in college basketball history, beating UCLA 43-41 on Gabe Lewullis’ back-door layup with 2 seconds left. That’s creativity in a patient, boring, old-school kind of way. Ugly, but effective as hell.

Creative Business Equivalent: Craigslist: The most unpleasant looking, boring and archaic site on the Web that continues to kick the competition’s ass.

2. On Oct. 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali invented the rope-a-dope. It happened during the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire. Ali was a huge underdog against the bigger, stronger, scarier George Foreman. True to form, Foreman came out swinging hard, and it looked like Ali had no chance. He was backed up against the ropes throughout much of the fight taking power blows from Foreman. But it was all part of Ali’s genius, creative plan: Tick off big George, then lie against the ropes and play possum. Allow Foreman to waste all his energy angrily swinging away, as the elasticity of the ropes absorb most of the force of each punch. When Foreman got tired and left himself open, the well-rested Ali launched into a vicious counterattack that left Foreman on his back, knocked out cold.

Creative Business Equivalent: Spotify: This Swedish music streaming service recently pulled a rope-a-dope of its own. It played possum in Europe, pretending to be a small, regional player, then — bam! — it signed an exclusive partnership with Facebook and its 800 million members, becoming the first real digital music threat to heavyweight champ iTunes.

1. The Boise State Broncos’ improbable 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl is by far the most creative performance in the history of sports. Not one, not two, but three absurdly creative plays down the stretch ensured this honor. Down by seven with 18 seconds in the game, the Broncos pull off a crazy, 50-yard “hook-and-ladder” play to tie the score at 35. They go back into their bag of creative tricks in overtime, as they confuse the Sooners’ defense with a direct snap to wide receiver Vinny Perretta, who sprints right like he’s going to run but instead throws a touchdown pass. The final, most outrageously creative call comes when Boise State coach Chris Petersen elects to go for a game-winning two-point conversion instead of a tying extra point. And we all remember the legendary Statue of Liberty play that followed. Classic creative ideation, over and over and over again. Impossible to defend. The Broncos were so damn creative in this game that it was almost unfair.

Creative Business Equivalent: Apple: The most creative company in the world just keeps coming at you with ingenious ideas. As if the iPod and iTunes weren’t good enough, they bring out the iPhone. Then, in overtime, they pull out the iPad just for good measure. Game over.

Tor Myhren is president and chief creative officer at Grey New York.