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Volume 20 No. 42

Leagues and Governing Bodies

For the first time in more than a decade, Major League Lacrosse finished its season with a neutral-site championship game, after playing the two semifinal games in home stadiums.

The MLL has experienced its share of ups and downs in its 14 seasons, so going to a neutral site with no guaranteed ticket sales represented something of a risk for the outdoor lacrosse league.

But MLL Commissioner David Gross had ulterior motives. In his pursuit of placing a franchise in the Atlanta area, he figured there was no better way to expose the MLL’s product than by putting its championship game in the market.

More than 8,000 turned out in Cobb County, Ga., for the MLL’s championship game Aug. 23.

Denver’s last-minute 12-11 victory over Rochester on Aug. 23 was played before more than 8,000 fans in the new Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University. The growing school, which has more than 24,000 students, is in booming Cobb County, not far from where the Atlanta Braves’ new baseball stadium will be.

Only a few hundred seats in the end zone went unfilled, giving the MLL a near-capacity audience for the league’s message that it would like to return on a more permanent basis. “The higher price points actually sold better than the lower price points,” Gross said of tickets that started at $20 and went up to $100 for sideline seats.

In the past, the MLL had played two semifinal games on a Saturday, with the championship game on a Sunday, creating a weekend festival. But playing the finals within 24 hours of the semifinals left players exhausted and hurt the product, Gross said.

So the league changed its policy this year, letting teams with the best record host semifinals, and putting the championship game on the following weekend in Atlanta.

Gross said that he’s in talks with potential franchise owners in Atlanta and that, if all goes well, the MLL will have a team there for the 2016 season. MLL seasons run from April through August.

A team in Atlanta would give the MLL nine teams and the kind of momentum it needs to continue expansion and, Gross hopes, draw more corporate support. Coca-Cola and its Powerade brand represent the MLL’s nonendemic sponsors. The other partners are endemics, like New Balance and equipment makers.

“Everyone sees how the sport of lacrosse is growing,” said Gross, in his 11th year at the helm. “Now it’s a matter of figuring out the best place to put your money and how to develop a strategy. ”

Gross said TV distribution remains strong. CBS Sports Network carried 24 games during the 2014 regular season, while the rest were broadcast through syndicated packages in each of the eight home markets. Most of those games went to regional sports networks. ESPN3 also streamed those syndicated games.

NASCAR is rolling out its most comprehensive promotion of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

The effort includes TV advertising, digital promotions, driver appearances, track marketing and a social media campaign and is designed to raise awareness of the new Chase format in hopes of keeping the interest of existing NASCAR fans and attracting casual fans.

“We needed to make sure we are putting our best foot forward against what we think is a terrific format,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketer. “Every single department is doing whatever it can to push this new format. It will create significant buzz and excitement.”

NASCAR revamped its Chase

Kyle Busch (top) is among those featured in the brand campaign for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Photo by: NASCAR (2)

before the start of this season. The sport expanded the number of drivers from 12 to 16 and changed the structure from one that rewarded the best driver over 10 races to one that eliminated drivers over 10 races.

The first round of the Chase kicks off at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 14. Four drivers will be eliminated every three races until four drivers remain. Those four drivers will race for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

To help capture the interest of existing and casual fans, NASCAR this week will announce a digital bracket competition called the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge. The competition, which will be hosted by, allows fans to fill out a Chase Grid, NASCAR’s term for its playoff-like bracket. Fans who correctly pick the drivers who will be eliminated in all three elimination rounds and the finishing order of the four finalists will win $100,000. also plans to offer a round-by-round game called Chase Grid Battle, in which entrants pick which drivers they think will advance. They will accumulate points for correct picks and have a chance to win prizes.

The games were designed by NASCAR’s digital staff and its digital agency, Omnigon. They were aiming to develop competitions that would appeal to fans and encourage viewership in the same way that the brackets fans fill out for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament promote interest in college basketball.

“We think this is the opportunity to hook people who could be fans,” Phelps said. “Being in an office pool, competing against friends or family provides a little bit of a hook … for that three-week period, and they’re engaged with the sport. We think we have an opportunity to do that, and the opportunity to create a potential lifelong fan by changing the format.”

NASCAR is complementing the digital game with other efforts. It will have a social media promotion around #MyChaseNation. It joined with ESPN, which is broadcasting the Chase, to encourage fans to submit photos using that hashtag. They will collect those photos and feature 40 winners who will have their Twitter handles displayed on their favorite driver’s car.

It also is taking the 16 drivers who qualify for the Chase to 16 markets, including Mexico City, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Antonio. It will be the first time it has taken Chase drivers to those four markets and the first time it has taken drivers outside the country for promotional appearances around the Chase.

NASCAR has a series in Mexico called the Toyota Series, and it is trying to expand its fan base there. It has TV distribution in Canada and held a Nationwide Series race there until 2013.

“We wanted to show support for fans, media and partners in Mexico City and Toronto,” Phelps said.

The anchor of NASCAR’s Chase promotions is its media campaign. The sport last month rolled out a series of ads featuring the slogan, “Sixteen nations. Ten battles. One will prevail.” The concept was developed with NASCAR’s agency of record, Ogilvy. It plays on the concept that each driver’s fan base is a “nation” that will follow them into “battle” in the Chase. There’s “Jimmie Nation,” “Gordon Nation” and “Edwards Nation,” for example.

The spots will air on ESPN throughout the Chase.

NASCAR has been encouraged this year by the interest it has seen in the new Chase. It estimates that 20 percent of each weekend’s media coverage of NASCAR has focused on the Chase, doubling what it saw a year ago. Of that coverage, 69 percent focused on the sport’s new qualification system for the Chase, which awards race winners an automatic spot in the end-of-season competition.

“It started back in February with win-and-in,” Phelps said, “and there’s been a constant buzz that I think will crescendo around the Richmond race [Sept. 6].”

The NFL and the NFL Players Association do not often agree, but there is one subject in the public discussion now on which they are standing together: opposition to a proposed rule at the Federal Communications Commission to lift the controversial blackout policy that prevents local broadcasts of games if they are not sold out within 72 hours of kickoff.

The NFLPA in July filed a letter with the FCC opposing the proposal. Last week, the group’s parent union, the AFL-CIO, also wrote to the government agency objecting to a change.

Repealing the blackout rule “will threaten the continued broadcast of NFL games on free, over-the-air television, hurting football fans and threatening the business model that has made NFL games so popular and widely viewed,” the NFLPA’s public policy counsel, Joe Briggs, wrote in July.

Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s president, wrote last week, “The current broadcast rules promote full stadiums, which provide jobs and incomes for the working people we are proud to represent.”

The Sports Fan Coalition, the lobbying group that has spearheaded the drive to lift the blackout rule, charged the NFL with providing the impetus for labor now coming out against the effort. David Goodfriend, the coalition’s chairman, said two years ago that NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith told him the NFL had asked him to oppose the anti-blackout effort and Smith said then that he had declined the league’s overture.

The NFLPA did not return requests for comment.

The NFL, in response to a question of whether it pushed for the union letters, responded in an email: “Sports leagues, broadcasters and other groups work together on a variety of policy issues. They all share an interest in this issue. We have met with other organizations that have an interest in preserving this rule. Likewise, the NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] and the NFLPA reached [out] to relevant organizations that may be negatively affected by a change. It is up to these organizations if they want to file letters.”

The arguments remain the same as they’ve been for years. The NFL contends that the blackout rule helps push teams to sell and market their games, and it prevents cable operators and satellite companies from transmitting out-of-market games into home-team markets. Opponents of the rule argue that the NFL already has contracts with most cable companies and can prevent the feared broadcast of out-of-market games.

The talk all comes as the NFL last season registered its fewest blackouts in history: two out of 256 games, smashing the previous low of seven games from 2006.

The FCC may vote on the proposal in coming months, Goodfriend said. 

The NFL is conducting a search for a new chief marketing officer after a series of high-level organizational changes that Commissioner Roger Goodell outlined in a memo sent last week to teams and league officials.

Mark Waller is dropping his CMO title to focus fully on international, a role he had before taking over marketing. He is being promoted to executive vice president and will report directly to the commissioner.

Waller joined the NFL in 2006 to run international and assumed the CMO role in 2009.

NFL Executive Vice President Eric Grubman, meanwhile, “will focus on critical league priorities, including stadium development, the return of a team presence to the Los Angeles area, the league’s strategic investment fund, and other key

strategic initiatives,” Goodell wrote in the memo. Grubman will retain his EVP rank with the new responsibilities; he had been executive vice president of business ventures.

Brian Rolapp, already chief operating officer of NFL Media, adds oversight of consumer products to his responsibilities, according to the memo. Additionally, Chris Halpin, a league vice president, is being promoted to senior vice president and also will have responsibility for consumer products.