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Volume 20 No. 42

Leagues and Governing Bodies

Minor League Baseball has hired former IMG College executive Michael Hand as its new chief marketing officer, setting in motion a new national marketing strategy titled Project Brand.

Hand, previously the senior vice president of marketing and strategy for IMG College, will lead the property’s marketing and branding efforts as the affiliated minors continue an effort to become a more unified, nationally prominent outfit and generate additional collective revenue.

Project Brand, first disclosed to individual team owners in December and now to be run by Hand, aims to strike national corporate partnerships with top-tier brands as opposed to the minors’ traditional practices of selling local ballpark and media inventory.

“When you look at all the connections Minor League Baseball has all across America, in all of our 160 markets, this really is a major untapped opportunity,” Hand said. “The teams have done an amazing job becoming a part of the fabric of their individual cities. What we want to do now is tell a broader story to corporate America as well.”

Before joining IMG in 2009, Hand held marketing roles with Hershey, MillerCoors, General Motors, M&M/Mars and BMW. His varied background on both the buy and sell sides of sports marketing, and experience navigating between national and local activations and the more than 70 universities in the IMG College portfolio, were all seen as major attributes.

“Michael exemplifies precisely the type of person, the type of background, we were looking for,” said Chuck Greenberg, chairman and managing partner of the State College (Pa.) Spikes and Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans, and a member of an ad hoc committee charged with helping develop Project Brand and hire the CMO. “We looked a lot of people, but this is the guy we absolutely wanted, and he’s got an open platform to really use his talents.”

MiLB also worked with executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates during a four-month hiring process that had become one of the most talked-about job searches in the industry.

Hand will be based in Minor League Baseball’s St. Petersburg, Fla., headquarters and report directly to President Pat O’Conner. Hand will also carry the title of president of Minor League Baseball Enterprises.

The development of Project Brand is designed to be complementary to the Baseball Internet Rights Co., the affiliated minors digital rights venture with MLB Advanced Media that creates a common digital platform for MiLB and shares revenue generated through online advertising, multimedia content and other similar efforts.

“We see this effort, like we do BIRCO, as truly transformational,” O’Conner said. “We’ve traditionally been a ‘states’ rights’ group, so to speak, and we still are in a lot of ways. But I’m continuing to push the message of ‘the power of one,’ and this effort and bringing on Michael is another big step forward.”

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Buoyed by strong attendance and TV ratings for a lockout-shortened regular season that cost each team 34 games, or 41 percent of its usual 82-game schedule, the NHL is launching a postseason marketing campaign this week. The Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 30.

The campaign retains the “Because it’s the Cup” tag line, designed to attract casual fans, but was formulated with a new agency, Mono, Minneapolis. DraftFCB worked on last year’s campaign. Mono has MSNBC and NBA TV on its client roster.

“The campaign worked,” said Brian Jennings, executive vice president of marketing for the league. “We saw increased ratings and digital consumption. There was a lot of media speculation about irreparable brand damage because of the lockout, but look at our attendance and ratings and you see that hasn’t happened. We still need to get our ‘every game every night’ [on a national cable network] promise out there, and the playoffs are vital as we build to the return of a full season next year.’’

John Miller, NBC Sports Group CMO, said the size of the campaign was roughly the same as last year. Aside from being shown in and around hockey broadcasts, the campaign will be on NBC Universal networks, including Golf Channel, NBC Sports Network, CNBC and MSNBC. Cable and digital buys off NBC Universal-owned properties also support the campaign.

“You had some frustrated NHL fans,” said Miller, “but with the shortened season, like the NBA last year, you had a compressed season with more meaningful games and fans with pent-up demand to watch their sport, which has worked in our favor.”

While there will be team and playoff-specific ads, the campaign begins with five spots. An ad titled “First Kiss” highlights the nervousness and emotions of players and fans, while “Characters” showcases player personalities, “Ding Ding” emphasizes NHL players in the postseason, “Weird” celebrates the excitement evident in NHL rinks during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and “One Up” features the world-class skills of NHL players.

NHL corporate partners, including MillerCoors, Molson Coors, Verizon, Discover and Pepsi, are expected to use the theme in their own campaigns, but marketing efforts requiring long lead times, like on-pack branding, were lost because of the lockout. Supporting point-of-sale ads will be placed in the NHL and NBC stores in New York and in sports specialty retailers, including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Modell’s.

As for ad sales, NBC says advertiser interest around the Stanley Cup playoffs is better than it was expecting.

“If you had asked me about [Stanley Cup playoff] ad sales four months ago, my knees would have been knocking,” said Seth Winter, executive vice president of NBC Sports Group’s sales and marketing division. However, playoff telecasts are 65 percent sold, with the network intentionally holding back inventory for the second-quarter scatter market. NBC has seen price increases in the high single digits.

As with the NBA last year, the NHL has seen ratings gains during the lockout-shortened season. The NHL is on pace to have its most-watched season so far on NBC Sports Network. Ratings for games on NBC are up about 10 percent.

A few months ago, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver and WNBA President Laurel Richie approached ESPN President John Skipper with a plan.

Even though the WNBA was under contract to ESPN for another four years, the league’s executives wanted ESPN to open its deal and renegotiate new terms.

The NBA wanted to breathe more money into the 16-year-old professional women’s league and give it the sense of security that a long-term media rights deal could provide. After all, WNBA teams averaged a record-low 7,457 fans a game last season.

Skipper was intrigued by the idea. ESPN’s NBA rights deal ends after the 2015-16 season, the same time the WNBA deal was scheduled to end originally. All signs point to a bidding frenzy around those rights. ESPN and Turner Sports are the incumbents and want to keep the NBA’s rights. Plus, Fox and NBC will have their own 24-hour sports channels, and their executives have hinted that they plan make strong bids for the NBA.

Sticking with WNBA gave ESPN a chance to reinforce its commitment to women’s sports.
utting a deal for the WNBA would be a good way to curry favor with the league and show that ESPN wants to be a good partner.

But Skipper’s interest went beyond the next NBA deal. Under his leadership, Skipper has made a big push to cover women’s sports. ESPN has carried the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament exclusively since 1996. It has carried WNBA games since 1997, when the league formed. It launched an editorial division focused on women’s athletics called espnW. A new WNBA deal would fit within ESPN’s programming plans.

“This deal gives us a good opportunity to reinforce our commitment to women’s sports,” Skipper said. “We never had a question. We wanted to do a deal with the WNBA.”

After some negotiations, the two sides had a deal. ESPN agreed to extend its WNBA deal six years, running through the 2022 season. ESPN committed to pay the NBA $12 million a year for the rights, which amounts to $1 million a team, sources said. Most of the media money will be filtered directly to the teams.

In return, the NBA gave ESPN some revenue-making opportunities, such as additional ad time for it to sell during games.
“Extending the partnership shows a lot about ESPN’s commitment to women’s sports,” Richie said. “Having a better sense of the athletes and getting to know the athletes is a really important part of building allegiance to a player, a team or a league.”

In that vein, the deal accounts for new programming initiatives to grow ratings.

The deal increases the number of WNBA games on ESPN to 30 from 28, which includes a Memorial Day double-header on ESPN2 that will be the WNBA’s version of the NBA’s popular Christmas Day games schedule. Those Memorial Day games will include the teams with the top four draft picks, so ESPN will be able to highlight the three top picks that it has showcased in its “Three to See”: Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne, Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins and Baylor’s Brittney Griner.
“We want to grow the ratings,” Skipper said. “We think there’s an upside there.”

Last season, the WNBA averaged 359,000 viewers a game during the regular season on ESPN, 180,000 viewers on ESPN 2 and 804,000 on ABC.

Like other media rights deals, ESPN picked up TV Everywhere rights that allow it to show WNBA games on ESPN3 and its WatchESPN app. ESPN’s current rights deal with the NBA, which was signed in 2007 and runs through the 2015-16 season, included WNBA rights. ESPN’s deal with the NBA is not affected by this deal.

The WNBA also is relaunching the WNBA brand. The 16-year-old league is taking the wraps off a new logo, designed in conjunction with the firm OCD (Original Champions of Design) to reflect “the diversity and athleticism of today’s WNBA,” Richie said.