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Volume 21 No. 1

Leagues and Governing Bodies

As the NFL and NFL Players Association battle over the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, a third front is emerging in one of the league’s biggest offseason stories: a split between coaches and players.

While the suspended coaches quickly acquiesced to the NFL’s punishment, the NFLPA not only is fighting the league, but it also has turned its finger at the coaches. The union sponsored the declaration of former Saints player Anthony Hargrove saying the coaches instructed Hargrove to deny the existence of the bounty program, a contention quickly rebutted by Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt, who is among the suspended coaches.

Saints interim coach Joe Vitt says he didn’t tell Anthony Hargrove to lie about the bounty program.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“After having capitulated and folded in collective bargaining with the entity it was charged to battle with, the players association chose to pick a battle with coaches to create the false impression of standing up for players,” said David Cornwell, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, which the NFLPA is suing in a matter separate from the Saints investigation.

The NFLPA did not respond for comment.

The coach-player rift emerges as the four Saints players suspended by the league for allegedly participating in a bounty program between 2009 and 2011 are fighting their punishments through appeals from the union and, in linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s case, also through his lawyer, Peter Ginsberg. Ginsberg insists Vilma, who was suspended for one season by the NFL, had nothing to do with an alleged bounty program that paid teammates for knocking opponents out of games.

A source near to Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator indefinitely suspended for his role in the matter, disagreed and described Vilma as instrumental in the program. However, this source disagreed with the league’s contention that it was a bounty program and instead described the payment system as more of a “game” to motivate players. Players only were eligible to receive payments if the play was clean and if the team won, this source said. Also, this source said the notorious “cart-off” payments only existed in 2011. The players suggested these payments after seeing them portrayed in a movie, this source said.

And please press 2 to protest his suspension

New Orleans Saints suspended head coach Sean Payton’s ban from any contact with the NFL, and especially his team, for his role in the Bountygate scandal apparently does not cover his recorded voice.

Callers to the Saints ticket office are greeted by the embattled coach, who remains popular in New Orleans.

“This is coach Sean Payton. Thanks for calling the ticket office of your New Orleans Saints,” he says on the message. “Let’s huddle up. Here’s the play. To speak to the next available Saints representative, please press 1 now.”

His recording directs callers to other options, and then he concludes by saying, “This call may be monitored and recorded for training purposes. Who knows, it may even be placed under further review by the officials. Thanks for calling the New Orleans Saints.”

A league spokesman said the recording has existed for several years and that the NFL has no problem with it.

The NFL banned Payton for the 2012 season for allegedly failing to shut down the so-called bounty program that the Saints defense is said to have used between 2009 and 2011. The program allegedly paid players for tackles that injured opponents.

— Daniel Kaplan
The NFL has not publicly offered evidence that any opposing players were injured or carted off because of these alleged payments.

There are believed to be, sources said, slides detailing payments for specific types of plays, though whether this money was actually paid is unclear. The source close to Williams said very little of the money actually got paid out — either because the players would have their share wiped away because of penalties incurred during the game, or because they simply did not take the cash so the pool would be bigger the next week.

Cornwell agrees with the NFLPA that the league should show more evidence, but is upset over what he characterizes as the NFLPA interfering with his organization to the extent that he says it is unable to pursue its goals.

The NFLPA is suing the NFLCA, seeking to prevent the coaches group from using its bank accounts until its pays back alleged loans to the union. Until Cornwell’s election in March, the NFLCA worked closely with the NFLPA, if not as a de facto unit. But Cornwell, who ran for the union’s top post in 2009, has criticized the NFLPA’s leadership in the past.

Cornwell said the Hargrove declaration and the lawsuit are two instances of the NFLPA attacking coaches. He also points to a court brief filed last year and the union, he says, not fighting to protect coaches’ pensions.

Before last year’s lockout, the NFL changed coaches’ retirement planning to a 401(k)-type system rather than a pension plan. Cornwell said the NFLPA, which ostensibly was running the NFLCA, agreed to this because it could have meant more money for the players.

The court brief Cornwell cited is the one the NFLCA filed last year on behalf of the players during the lockout but which coaches quickly denounced. Cornwell said the document was filed without authorization by the coaches’ organization.

As the NBA debates the merits of putting advertising on uniforms, league officials also are asking club marketers to consider new on-court signage that could be in place as soon as next season — an LED system that would sit on the basket stanchion.

The sign system, from Dorna/Van Wagner, would replace static signage from ANC.
The LED backboard arm sign from Dorna/Van Wagner allows for limited animation. It would replace the static basket profile stanchion signage from rival sign provider ANC, which has been used in NBA arenas since 2007 and was in 21 NBA arenas during the 2011-12 regular season, all carrying State Farm signs.

The newer Dorna sign was tested in the NBA Development League and select college games during the last two seasons. At the recent meeting of team marketers in Toronto, league officials collected data about current stanchion signage deals and asked whether club marketers would be interested in the new signage. Not surprisingly, most were, especially those playing in arenas that they do not own.

As is true now, if approved, the signage would be local inventory for games televised only in the local market and national inventory for nationally televised games. The LED system would allow for sales to more than one advertiser and for that valuable basket signage to sync with other on-court and in-arena advertising, or even TV ads.

Meanwhile, league marketers still have to figure out what restrictions there would be as far as the use of signs during game action and other uses that would be objectionable to anyone involved in game operations.

“You don’t want it to be distracting to the degree that someone is taking a three-pointer from the corner and the signage lights up before the ball comes down,” said one involved marketer.

As for a timetable for implementation, next season is the earliest possible scenario, with one source noting that it might be tested by a few teams before a leaguewide rollout.

Look for more grassroots marketing efforts in the WNBA this year as teams seek continued traction at the gate.

The WNBA saw its group sales grow by 20 percent last year. The league is on track for another double-digit boost in group-ticket sales this season, with much of that increase being driven by grassroots efforts.

The Sky is lining up more local marketing events in Chicago.
The Chicago Sky, for example, for the first time this year scheduled a preseason game at a local suburban high school in hopes of finding new ways to get exposure and target fans. It’s part of a strategy that calls for limiting broad marketing efforts in favor of having targeted events aimed at winning fans on a more local level.

“We know that trying to compete by out-advertising people may not work,” said Chicago Sky President and CEO Adam Fox. “It is not easy to cut through the noise as a sports team here in Chicago, especially one not lining up with [teams from] the big four in the market, so we are trying to take our product to the people and, to that end, we think we have a great opportunity.”

The Sky began its increased grassroots activity last season and saw attendance increase by 30 percent over the 2010 season to 5,536 fans per game. While that average was still second to last in the 12-team WNBA, the spike in sales spurred the call for more new local marketing events. In addition to the preseason game at a local high school, the Sky this year is working to develop a Gospel Night program aimed at driving new business.

“Our season-ticket sales will end up flat, so we hope to increase the number of individual buyers,” Fox said.

The Sky isn’t alone is creating new local events.

The Indiana Fever this year agreed to be a presenting sponsor of a girls youth basketball program that fields some 200 teams. It is the first time the WNBA club has agreed to be a presenting partner of another organization.

“Part of the plan is to connect with the girls and their families,” said Kelly Krauskopf, Fever general manager and COO. “For us, it is a very small investment, and they turn over their database to us.”

WNBA President Laurel Richie said there will be a continued shift toward grassroots marketing efforts as teams improve on their creation of local programs.

“Our teams have been exploring all kinds of partnerships, and we have really focused on who our prime prospects are,” Richie said. “We are getting better at it and we are understanding our audience and tapping into them.”

Boost Mobile is expanding its marquee partnership deal with the WNBA to title sponsor a new player awards program, a first for the league.

The prepaid wireless company begins its first full season as the WNBA’s sole marquee sponsor, a deal that puts the company’s logo patches on 11 of the WNBA’s 12 team jerseys, excluding only the San Antonio Silver Stars, a franchise that already had a wireless sponsorship deal in place prior to the league’s signing of Boost.

Boost Mobile, which presented last year’s playoffs, will have its name on WNBA uniforms and multiple events this season, including the draft.
The Boost deal, by far the league’s most comprehensive and lucrative deal, was signed last August and includes presenting sponsorship of the WNBA draft, this week’s season tipoff, the playoffs and the Finals, along with the WNBA All-Star Game, though this year the All-Star Game will not be played because of the Summer Olympics. Terms of the multiyear Boost deal could not be determined.

The company and the league this season are looking to further integrate the deal.

“We had our toe in the water last year and we used the offseason to map out a full season of engagement,” said WNBA President Laurel Richie. “The deal speaks to the power of the two organizations with a shared audience. [The jersey sponsorship] is an area where the WNBA has led the way for sports leagues, and we are proud of being the first.”

As for that increased activation, the company is putting the finishing touches on what will be the Boost-sponsored player performance awards, including the WNBA player of the week and the player of the month, along with postseason awards, including the league’s most valuable player award.

The company also is planning to include a fan sweepstakes offer related to the new awards sponsorship, though specifics of the promotion have not been finalized.

“It is a 2012 initiative, and what I like about this sponsorship is that are so many assets,” said Steve Gaffney, vice president of corporate marketing at Sprint, which owns Boost and in December signed on as a full NBA marketing partner.

In addition to its sponsorship of the WNBA player awards, Boost will roll out a WNBA-related in-store promotional program, though company officials did not disclose specifics.

“What you will see this year is point-of-sale offers wrapped in WNBA themes,” Gaffney said. “We are looking to activate in important battlegrounds in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York.”

Octagon assisted on Boost’s activation strategy.

The WNBA begins its 2012 season on Friday looking to sustain business momentum in a year that brings a monthlong shutdown to accommodate the Olympic Games in London.

The league will go dark from July 14 to Aug. 15 to make way for the London Games. While the WNBA won’t play any games during its break, its teams won’t be idle, as the league will be working to stay relevant during the hiatus.

Each franchise will a have steady diet of player appearances, promotions, clinics, camps and community events during the break. Teams with players on the U.S. national squad will leverage that international exposure by hosting viewing parties and other events related to Team USA.

Eight of the league’s 12 teams have players on this year’s Olympic roster. Only Washington, San Antonio, New York and Tulsa are without a player on the national team, which is gunning for its fifth consecutive gold medal.

“We know the Olympics have a positive impact and I view it as a bonus when 12 players on [Team USA] are on WNBA teams,” said WNBA President Laurel Richie. “The Olympics are an international stage for us to showcase the talent in the WNBA.”

The London Games mark the fourth Olympic break for the 16-year-old WNBA. Attendance dipped for the league in 2000 and 2004 compared with the two respective prior seasons, but in 2008, after the U.S. women’s team won gold in Beijing, the league saw its attendance increase to 7,952 fans per game compared with 7,742 in 2007.

Washington led the league in attendance last season.
The WNBA last year drew an average of 7,955 fans per game, up 2 percent from 7,834 in 2010. Washington led the league with an average of 10,449; Tulsa ranked last with an average of 4,828.

The desire to increase this year’s fan base by leveraging the Olympics into the WNBA season takes on added importance given that the league will not hold an All-Star Game this year due to the Summer Games. Instead, Team USA has scheduled exhibition games against China’s national team and Japan’s national team in Seattle and against Brazil’s national team in Washington, D.C.

“[The national team’s schedule] will be woven into our schedule,” Richie said. “We will be having a lot of activities in our markets.”
Kelly Krauskopf, COO and general manager the Indiana Fever, who has worked for the team for 13 years, said the league has learned from its previous Olympic breaks.

“We have very specific ways to monetize the break and create a marketing opportunity that is geared toward a lot of community involvement,” Krauskopf said. “During the last Olympic break, we saw our group ticket sales increase by 8 percent. Having that window really allows us to have a lot of grassroots components.” (see story)

But other teams are wary about the WNBA going dark during the season.

“It is a double-edged sword,” said Adam Fox, president and CEO of the Chicago Sky. “What is concerning is that as the season gets going, you are able to gain momentum — and then we go dark. We play in a very cluttered market. You have to keep your awareness up and let people know that the [shutdown] is temporary. But a positive is that you have a month during the season to reset your business.”

The 2012 season comes as the WNBA saw key business metrics improve last year.

So far this year, the WNBA has an 80 percent season-ticket renewal rate, the same as last year. In addition, its teams are averaging about 2,000 full-season tickets sold, also tracking at the same level as last season, according to Richie.
The one major metric Richie is monitoring is team profitability. Last year, three teams were profitable: San Antonio, Minnesota and Connecticut. Richie expects that number to increase.

“It is a trend we plan on continuing,” Richie said. “Once you get a few teams profitable, then it feels within reach and there is some competition to see who will be team No. 4. But it doesn’t mean we are on Easy Street.”

The defending champion Lynx lead the league in new full-season-ticket sales, with the addition of 1,000 new season tickets, doubling the team’s season base to 2,000.

“The base is now real solid,” said Chris Wright, president of the Lynx and the NBA Timberwolves. “Our intention is to lead the league in gross sales. We don’t want to lose momentum and we are embracing the [Olympic break].”

The Minnesota Lynx has three players (from left) — Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus — on the U.S. Olympic team.
The Lynx has three players on the women’s national team roster: Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. That represents the most players on the Olympic team from a single WNBA franchise.

“Our intention is to take full advantage and find different ways to come alongside [the U.S. women’s national team],” Wright said.

The WNBA also hopes for a continued upswing in television viewership. Last year, the league averaged 270,126 viewers over its 12 national telecasts, up 5 percent from the 2010 season’s 18-game slate.

This year, the WNBA will have nine regular-season games on ESPN2, two on ESPN and one on ABC — the same regular-season national TV schedule as last year. The WNBA also will be seen on NBA TV, but that schedule had not been finalized last week. The WNBA postseason will be shown on ESPN2 and NBA TV.

The league also plans to roll out a new branding campaign in the near future, though league officials declined to provide specifics on that effort.

One major business strategy for the league is a plan to partner in all of its local markets with Girl Scouts of the USA, which this year is marking its 100th anniversary. Before joining the WNBA last May, Richie worked as senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the Girl Scouts. Specific details of the effort are being finalized.

The WNBA also is planning to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX with local events tied into the historic legislation.

The WNBA added eight new partners last year, including marquee partner Boost Mobile, which has a jersey deal with 11 of the 12 WNBA teams. The company begins its first full season with the WNBA this year with the Olympics seen as an added benefit (see story).

“The overall visibility for women’s basketball at the highest level will be on stage during [the Olympics] time frame,” said Steve Gaffney, vice president of corporate marketing for Sprint, which owns Boost Mobile. “We have great confidence that there will be great momentum coming out of the Olympic Games for the WNBA and by extension, it will benefit the Boost brand.”

The league as of last week had not announced any new marketing partners for the 2012 season, but the WNBA is banking on its deal with Boost to help attract new partners.

“Any time you form a partnership that has an impact on the industry, it can’t help but raise our profile,” Richie said.