■ ALONG THE BASEBALL WATCHTOWER: MLB, NASCAR and the Bowl Championship Series are the biggest media packages that will hit the market in the next year, and expect NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus to be an active player for all of them. It’s no secret that NBC Sports covets live sports, especially for its NBC Sports Network cable channel. As negotiations get under way this year, don’t overlook Lazarus’ deep ties with baseball and NASCAR, in particular. During his time running Turner Sports, Lazarus brought NASCAR to the network. He also was at Turner when the network made the deal to carry the MLB playoffs in 2006. In a recent interview, Lazarus was asked about “growth sports,” and it struck me that he didn’t mention MMA, soccer or lacrosse, which always seem to be among the sports mentioned when that question is asked. Instead, he talked about MLB — the national pastime. He still sees major room for growth for MLB, and that fits in with NBC Sports’ local/national strategy. … The positive buzz on baseball was seconded during a conversation over a beer last week with an executive at a top sponsor of a major-market baseball team. This person has years of experience across multiple brands working with various properties, but he told me that even he was surprised how much his brand benefited from MLB as a marketing platform. Asked to elaborate, he rattled off the key points that he didn’t see in other properties he had dealt with: tonnage; plenty of touch points with various and segmented audiences that attend ballgames and are captive for hours; the consistent, long length of a season that allows for extended and deep programs; and the radio, TV and online inventory that allows for broad areas of activation, not just in paid media, but also in the PR value that a full season offers. He just kept coming back to the fact that 81 homes games, hitting close to 30,000 fans for each game in addition to viewers at home, offered his brand a powerful opportunity to conduct deep and broad programs.
■ OUTSIDE THE WALL: It’s been written and speculated that the next group of possible bidders for sports rights would be services like Apple, Netflix and YouTube, so I was interested to hear Hulu CEO Jason Kilar speak recently at the Ad Age Digital Conference in New York City. The former Disney and Amazon executive is an impressive speaker and clearly knows his business.
Kilar was frank in the company’s interest in acquiring and creating more content, and said it could spend more than $500 million on content acquisition. He also outlined six insightful points on the future of TV:
1) You will have a personalized consumer experience turning on any screen, similar to Pandora.
2) There will be comprehensive content where everything is going to be available. He specifically mentioned that every sports event in history will be accessible.
3) The TV experience will thrive with “life,” brimming with social interaction that will be part of the experience. There will be no such things as a quiet TV experience.
4) It will be “unusually convenient,” with a screen in your pocket on which you can watch anything at any time.
5) The formats will meet the content; all formats will be custom suited to your personal situation.
6) The experience will enable more relevant/higher-value advertising, with more personalized targeting resulting in a higher advertising recall rate.
He also said that from a rights perspective, the barriers to obtaining more sought-after content are getting knocked down. He believes the legal issues that at one time prevented the sharing or distribution of content are getting handled and the digitization of historical content is rapidly moving forward. In this case, he specifically mentioned the ability to access every sports event as a benefit.
■ NEW BLOOD: I love to read about people’s media diet of favorite features. A couple of mine include “Corner Office” in Sunday’s New York Times and “The Last Word” in Men’s Journal. “Corner Office” is filled with ideas and anecdotes; “The Last Word” offers real life lessons and hardened, frank advice. While not completely ripping off others, this week we introduce our new back-page feature around personalities and life lessons called “The Sit-Down.” Our first conversation is with Proskauer chairman Joe Leccese, one of the most connected executives in sports. Joe talked with us in between bits of panini sandwiches at lunch after the World Congress of Sports in California.
We will be talking to other top executives across sports business who will discuss their thoughts on leadership, management, business, current events, sports and lifestyle. We hope you enjoy it, and we welcome your questions and comments.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And why change? Golf is doing great as it is; sponsors love it, the money is good and the dedicated audience has deep pockets. But change is necessary and, at this point, unavoidable.
It’s unavoidable because small changes in the tide have already taken place, ultimately setting the game up for a titanic shift. First, the sport is attracting younger players. For those seeking evidence, one does not need to look further than a handful of key moments from the 2011 PGA Tour season, as well as from the first few majors of 2012. Whether it was the 2011 U.S. Open and Rory McIlroy’s record-breaking performance, or the more recent Masters win for everyman Bubba Watson, hot-pink driver and all, or the continued rise of other young guns like Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan, the writing is on the wall. Change is here.
The trend has grown outside of golf to the brands and companies associated with the sport. Some recent examples include Callaway’s partnership with Justin Timberlake, Ping capitalizing on Watson’s driver flair, and Red Bull’s signing of young PGA pro and motocross enthusiast Fowler.
Fowler makes perfect sense as a young golfer with an edge and, frankly, what sport is Red Bull not associated with yet? As for Ping, the brand just released the new pink Watson driver after demand went through the roof as a result of his Masters run.
■ Getting creative
|Justin Timberlake was creative director for Callaway’s latest ads, which featured Phil Mickelson.
In addition to golf brands, PGA Tour events are attempting to reach the younger demographic with their crowds. A more recent example is the Cobra-Puma Girls’ Golf Fair presented by PGA Tour charities, which takes place on May 19 at TPC River Highlands. The event is geared toward girls ages 5 to 17 to learn about the game and serve as a fun introduction to the sports environment.
■ Technology plays
To grab the interest of the younger crowd, golf needs to offer the new technology that this key demographic enjoys. The Masters utilized a beautifully designed website and mobile application for streaming specific holes of the 2012 tournament, with great video content and various different feed options for any fan’s interest.
In addition to the Timberlake-led campaign, Callaway launched Udesign, a website that allows average golfers to design the look and feel of their RAZR golf clubs, offering consumers 70,000 different combinations for the club of their dreams. In addition to all of this, there is TopGolf, an interactive golf entertainment venue, which uses radio frequency identification chips in each golf ball to track accuracy and distance in relation to targets on the range.
■ They’re watching, and playing
Golf’s audience is changing, and the sport needs to make adjustments. Looking at male golfers, specifically from age 18 to 35, 33.8 percent have purchased beer at a bar or nightclub within the past 30 days (compared with the national average of 10.4 percent), according to Scarborough research. Additionally, according to Scarborough, this same group of men (18-to-35) is also 52 percent more likely to have played golf in the last year than the average American man.
Awareness has increased, as well. Just look at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Tiger Woods recently broke his winning slump. Ratings for the final round of the tournament on Sunday were up 129 percent from last year.
There’s a delicate balance to keep in mind when attracting this new golf audience. The older golf fans are a dedicated group, and brands need to be wary of alienating these passionate followers. The PGA Tour has done a good job thus far of walking that fine line, recognizing the need for the older fans to share their passion with the younger ones, both men and women.
Randy Starr (Randy.Starr@topgolf.com) is chief development officer of golf entertainment venture TopGolf, overseeing the company’s expansion and global growth strategies.
But can holding tight to such control actually invite outside interference?
Over the years, players have been able to gain some protection from the far-reaching power of the commissioner by bargaining for independent review of certain league and commissioner decisions. For example, the collective-bargaining agreements in the big four pro sports leagues in the U.S. require disputes regarding many provisions of the CBA to be heard by a neutral arbitrator or panel of neutrals. The significance of this protection is perhaps clearest in Major League Baseball, where an independent arbitrator was able to get something for MLB players that they were not able to get from the owners: free agency.
The NFL, however, has managed to carve out two significant areas where the commissioner is the ultimate authority and his decisions are not subject to independent review: off-field misconduct and drug testing. Under the NFL’s Conduct Policy, players (and all NFL employees) have no right to impartial review of commissioner discipline for off-field misconduct. Rather, all appeals are heard by the commissioner. The NHL is the only other major pro sports league that provides no outside review for commissioner discipline of off-field misconduct. Under the NFL’s most recent Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances (the two sides are in the process of negotiating a new policy), players do not have the right to appeal discipline for a positive drug test to an independent arbitrator. Rather, all appeals are heard by the commissioner’s office. The NFL is the only major pro sports league that does not provide independent review of positive drug tests.
|The differences in the outcomes of the drug-testing cases involving Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun (top) and Denver’s Ryan McBean (above) and D.J. Williams is striking.
Braun argued in his appeal that the sample collector had violated MLB’s drug testing policy by storing Braun’s urine sample in his home over the weekend rather than immediately bringing it to a Fed Ex office for shipping. McBean and Williams argued in their appeals that the sample collector had violated the NFL’s drug testing policy by failing to observe a number of “universally accepted specimen safeguarding and chain of custody standards,” which ultimately led the collector to be terminated by the testing agency.
Braun won his appeal (with the neutral arbitrator casting the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision) and had his 50-game suspension thrown out, which prompted a “livid” MLB to issue a statement that they “vehemently disagree” with the decision. McBean and Williams lost their appeals, despite the NFL’s acknowledgment that Williams’ case showed “troubling” gaps in the chain of custody and an “environment of haste, rushing, confusion and short cuts around the collection process,” while McBean’s case presented evidence that was “troubling and arguably calls into question the integrity of the validation process.”
The perceived unfairness in cases like this — and the belief that an appeal only to the commissioner is no right of appeal at all — led the NFL players to fight for independent review of commissioner discipline in both drug testing and off-field misconduct cases. They lost the fight for the off-field issues (thus, the Bounty-gate perpetrators are stuck with the commissioner as judge, jury and executioner) but they are still haggling over terms of the new drug testing policy, and independent review of positive tests has emerged as an even more significant issue because of the planned introduction of blood testing for HGH.
But this issue is bigger than independent review of drug suspensions. After all, in some ways, the benefits of an independent arbitrator for drug cases are largely illusory, because most drug-testing regimes in professional sports have a strict liability policy. Independent review or not, drug suspensions are rarely overturned because there are only very limited defenses available to the players. In fact, Braun was the first MLB player to have a drug suspension overturned on appeal (and despite the fact that the independent Court of Arbitration for Sport reviews drug testing in international sports, positive tests rarely get overturned).
Instead, this is about leagues protecting themselves from outside interference. The NFL wants to keep its disputes out of court and does not want a judge (or Congress) telling them how to run their business. Yet, ironically, the absence of independent review in the NFL drug policy has led to litigation by the players — McBean and Williams filed suit in federal court to overturn their suspensions, and Pat Williams and Kevin Williams filed suit in state court to overturn their Star Caps suspensions — that opens the door for judicial, and perhaps congressional, intervention.
While the NFL’s desire to be the master of its own domain is understandable, setting up a fair process with independent review that gives up a little control might be the best way for them to ensure that they don’t lose complete control.
Gabe Feldman is associate professor of law and director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University Law School. Follow him on Twitter @SportsLawGuy.