Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 42


Eight months to the day the Vatican concluded its inaugural conference on Sport at the Service of Humanity, Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman stood in a new conference room at Villanova University and asked a simple question: “What can we do to bring out the best in our young people?” Ackerman was leading the first conference to build on the October event in Rome, which centered on six core principles — compassion, respect, love, enlightenment, balance and joy — to enhance the greater good through sports. The two-day meeting, hosted by Villanova’s Office of Mission and Ministry in conjunction with the Big East, focused solely on intercollegiate athletics. More than 100 leaders representing 28 colleges and universities from largely Catholic schools gathered to tackle the broad but admirable goal of bringing out the best in today’s student athletes by harnessing the power of sport and the role it can play in the educational and personal development process.

I attended the October conference, in which Ackerman played a key role in developing, and was very pleased to see her carry the torch forward. The agenda of the two days was rooted in how college sports can teach values and improve lives, as Ackerman stressed developing the “whole person” — mind, body and spirit. The event was held in the recently renovated Inn at Villanova, which sits a mile from the main campus and had opened just days before the event, and provided a serene, contemplative environment, with floor to ceiling windows looking out over a peaceful green. The school’s president, Rev. Peter Donohue, a cheery, effusive character with a wide smile, kicked off the event with an honest understanding of the pressures on today’s athletes. “We ask a lot of them,” he said. “We ask them to be so good at so many things — we ask them to be great in athletics, at academics and to be great in the community. So, we have the responsibility to help and protect them.” Donohue’s theme was continually reinforced, as his athletic director, Mark Jackson, shared his goal of developing the “complete student athlete.” “The complete piece is the one I am most concerned about,” he said. “Graduation is, of course, good. But we want student athletes to explore themselves, to become comprehensive student athletes.”

Vatican plans mix of global,

regional conferences

     The conference on college athletics was the first one building off the Vatican’s inaugural event in October. Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, who came over from Rome to attend the two days, said the Vatican is in talks with other sports organizations that share the philosophy of the Sport at the Service of Humanity (SSH) movement. “We are talking to big clubs and leagues, looking for them to be partners and integrate these principles into action,” he said.
    Sources said plans to build on Pope Francis’ vision for Sport at the Service of Humanity will be manifested through a series of global conferences bringing together world leaders in faith and sport. These conferences, ideally annually, will be supplemented by regional events that will focus on a specific sport, like the Villanova event, or across sports in a region, as there’s been talk of an event in Mumbai in 2018 around cricket, squash and field hockey. A professional sports conference in the U.S. and an event with the International Olympic Committee at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires next summer are also in development.
Bernie Mullin’s The Aspire Group has been retained by SSH to obtain funding, sponsors, as well as to assist in long-term strategic planning.
    Bishop Paul Tighe of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican was pleased that the dialogue was continuing from the initial event in October. “We understand that these are broad principles that are hard to put in action or make applicable to everyone with different agendas,” he said. “But we are trying to bring together like-minded voices to build awareness of our shared interests of accountability around integrity and ethics.”
                                       — Abraham D. Madkour

I was only able to take in one day of the conference, which included a Vespers service and a group dinner at the recently completed O’Dea Lounge overlooking Villanova Stadium, but the earnestness to drill deep into important, yet at times theoretical, issues was encouraging. Much like in Rome, small groups discussed specific issues, with the key suggestions presented back to the full group. Topics included what can be done to provide greater balance, development and even joy to the student-athlete experience, with so much pressure on them academically, athletically and in the community. Another topic focused around greater inclusion, removing the isolation of today’s top athletes from the rich experiences of college life. Some campus officials expressed dismay that athletes weren’t part of the full fabric of a university or interacting with other students.

Administrators cautioned against the “football-ization” of today’s coaches and athletic programs specific to practice schedules, training and other full-time demands. Discussions explored the potential value in easing up on the time demands and training for athletes, which could potentially stimulate performance. The Catholic institutions questioned the need and value of playing games on holidays such as Christmas or Christmas Eve, while officials from BYU extolled the benefit for their students by their institution’s refusal to play on Sundays. While many praised NCAA guidelines allowing for student athletes to take part in internships or study abroad programs, some felt that benefit would be impeded by coaches looking to get the maximum time and energy out of their athletes. Finally, there was discussion on better amplification and PR around the work done by athletic programs in the community, and even a national day of service by student athletes was broached.

The Big East’s Val Ackerman is carrying the torch forward.
It’s easy to understand and admire the goal of the conference. But as was stressed, specific action plans and implementation of those will be far more challenging. College athletics is a broad, diverse canvas of agendas and resources, with more than 1,000 athletic programs and 460,000 student athletes. It’s difficult to compare the experience of a Notre Dame football player to a University of Dayton tennis player. The missions and the values of the institutions, athletic departments, coaches and athletes, differ dramatically. Even what the student athlete wants is not clear — for every athlete that wishes to take greater advantage of campus life, there is one who wishes to only focus on athletics. But program leaders were undaunted and committed to forming a working group to build out some of the ideas specifically discussed. The notion of sports as just one component of an individual’s education and personal development is sound, and it’s often lost amid the pressures of commercialism and the zeal to win. Ackerman and her colleagues are continuing to push the dialogue forward, and that’s half the battle.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

D uring a recent snowstorm, my family and I were stranded in multiple airports across the country. As we jumped from terminal to terminal, we were inundated with ads for sports and entertainment events taking place in each particular city. The ads were predictably tactical — date, time and place — and the only events that got my sons, age 20 and 16, to look up from their phones were those that were already part of their social universe. The ones that were myopically selling just the live event on its own had no appeal and no chance of gaining our business.

Witnessing this reinforced the notion that live events cannot attract today’s media savvy and easily distracted audiences with simply promises of a great show. Consumers have come to expect more than a finite, two-hour live experience. They crave a connection with the property before, during, and after the event. There is a dramatic shift in how to successfully involve this generation: Live entertainment that keeps a flat, one-way relationship with its ticket buyers risks losing relevance; the key is for brands to employ what we may call “4-D fan engagement” to fully captivate their target audiences.

The common shared experience in-venue cannot be duplicated and this gives live entertainment an evergreen appeal. But with escalating prices and diminishing audience attention spans, it is now incumbent upon properties to constantly justify the cost and time to the consumer. True organic growth will come from a unique experience that starts well before the live event, peaks in the arena, and maintains fans’ interest long afterward. Consumers now expect an immersive, on-demand relationship with their entertainment at all times that they can simultaneously experience in an individualized way and immediately share via social media. To succeed, brands need to turn their ticket buyers into true fans.

To understand the best ways to position brands in this new 4-D fan engagement world, let’s first outline the different dimensions of live events:

2-D: Traditional in-arena entertainment presented to the ticket buyer with no audience participation.

3-D: Entertainment that encourages generalized mass audience participation. Little engagement outside the four walls of the arena.

4-D: Entertainment that envelops and encourages individualized fan participation via multiple access points on various platforms before, during and after the in-arena event.

For the past 20 plus years, I have had a front-row seat to witness brands become 4-D while working at Disney, Fox Sports, WWE and the Harlem Globetrotters. These companies acknowledged that their iconic brands’ future depended upon shifting from one-track live entertainment to 4-D fan engagement and evolved their offerings as a result. They understood that fans now demand to be pulled in for a customized experience.

The Harlem Globetrotters have evolved to stay relevant in a very crowded entertainment landscape.

Disney tugs at heartstrings with fabulous storytelling, and then spreads those stories across its many arteries to ensure full consumer immersion. It creates incredibly appealing characters and presents them to kids via consumer products, videos, social media posts, teaser trailers, etc., long before and after they see the actual event. In this way, kids have bonded with the characters on an emotional level throughout the property’s life cycle.

WWE attempts to create 4-D fan engagement by eliciting a powerful visceral reaction to the product. Whether they love or hate a particular wrestler, fans feel as if they were watching a family member or a sworn enemy. While its approach may not appeal to a broad audience, its rabid fans immerse themselves in the content from mobile videos, OTT network shows, social media feeds and weekly live television shows.

The Globetrotters, in their ninth decade of performing, transformed from a single-platform, live event touring troupe into an immersive content company. The brand had been mired in a dated 3-D relationship with its audience: While the Globetrotters always put on interactive in-arena shows, they lacked any consumer touch points beyond the live event. The tickets reinforced this insulated experience with “No video taking allowed” clearly printed on them. Evolving engagement was necessary for survival.

The first step was to ensure the IP allowed for enough bonding material for the company to incite engagement before, during and after the event. Daily player content served via social media introduces today’s players to a new audience, creating a reason to see them live.

Once the ticket is purchased, engagement intensifies. Videos are uploaded to YouTube and fans are encouraged to post their own amazing shots and basketball tricks.

The entire live event experience is now geared to fully transform the ticket buyer into a lifelong fan with interactive elements woven throughout. During and after the event, fans are encouraged to share their moments with friends around the world. This approach of consistent consumer contact helped a mature brand become relevant in today’s cluttered entertainment landscape.

Some brands have not been so lucky. Consider the Ringling Brothers Circus: The brand remained a true 3-D live event experience throughout its history, with no interaction beyond the three rings under the tent. While the loss of its signature elephants took away instant appeal, it also did not pivot and embrace the new rules of engagement with today’s live audiences and move past the third dimension. Perhaps the formula it had used with tremendous success for well over a hundred years had become so institutionalized they never saw the need to change or had the nimbleness to do so.

Today’s sports leagues are scrambling to use the engagement tools now at their disposal, yet some seem stuck in a 3-D relationship with their fans. The NHL is a fantastic live experience, but there are few brand touch points beyond the game to keep fans hooked. Despite having a tremendous digital network, the MLB seems content to let its games do the heavy fan interaction lifting. However, in today’s world, sitting in your seat keeping stats of hits and errors is not sustainable fan interaction. The NBA has done a great job globally promoting a dynamic hoops lifestyle, but the teams are where the fan engagement rubber hits the road and some get it while others are decidedly still in a 3-D world, leaving an inconsistency of total fan interaction. Niche sports organizations like Tough Mudder, PBA and even UFC have a unique opportunity to get deep into their fans’ lives, yet none has really figured out how to fully segue to 4-D and treat their events as the culmination of the fan experience — not the be all and end all.

We need to constantly adapt to grab onto our audience’s emotional lapels and never let go. 4-D fan engagement is the current cost of entry into the market, and successful properties must alter their playbooks to this constantly evolving new world. To ultimately engage consumers and finalize the transition from fleeting ticket buyer to passionate fan, brands need to provide opportunities for their audience to personalize their relationship with the content. The paradox is that the more a brand is willing to give up total control of its content, the more consumers will embrace it.

Perhaps the next frontier is to allow fans into the creative process from the get-go. Certainly they will then become stalwart brand ambassadors.

Kurt Schneider is CEO and founder of 4D Brands LLC. He is the former CEO of the Harlem Globetrotters and was an executive vice president of WWE.

It is hard to believe that it has been just over one year. The world lost one of its greatest heroes when Muhammad Ali died. My wife Ann and our daughter Emily and I attended the funeral services in Louisville, Ky., and saw the tens of thousands of people pour their hearts out for this once-in-a-lifetime human being. It was sad but also a celebration and an inspiration.

Less than 48 hours later, 49 people who were just as important to their families and friends as Ali was to the world had their lives ended by hate during the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

I live in Orlando, and watching the response of the community as it came together to help the survivors, comfort the families and begin the healing process in the community was nothing short of inspirational. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, the first responders from the police and fire departments, and the medical teams courageously helped save as many lives as possible. And they all stood all as the refrain became “Orlando Strong,” and “We are Orlando” was heard across the globe.

Within days the world of sport, as it often does, began to play its part in the healing process. Track Shack, a major leader in running events in Orlando, has a monthly race for anyone who wants to have a friendly run. Normally 75 runners turn up. Jon and Betsy Hughes, the co-owners of Track Shack, put the word out that the Wednesday night after the shooting was going to be in memory of the 49 victims and the survivors. More than 1,000 people turned out to run.

Orlando City SC joined other pro sports organizations in Florida as part of the healing process last year after the nightclub shootings.

That Friday night the Tampa Bay Rays had their regularly scheduled Pride Game. Billy Bean, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player, was scheduled to speak. The Rays typically draw 8,000 fans per game and are one of the worst attended teams in professional sports. They sold all 43,000 tickets and thought they could have sold 100,000 if they had the capacity. People wanted to be together, to be part of the healing in the Rays’ moving pregame ceremony, which was a 30-minute tribute to those who lost their lives, the survivors and those courageous people who supported them. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke to the crowd on the stadium screen.

The next night, Orlando City SC had its regularly scheduled Saturday game. More than 37,000 people attended. Fans in each section of the stadium organized on Facebook so that everyone in each section wore a different color. The entire stadium looked like a rainbow flag. Orlando City also put on a memorable and moving pregame ceremony. MLS Commissioner Don Garber was in the house.

The Orlando Magic stepped up the day after the shooting with a donation of $400,000. Team CEO Alex Martins headed up the One Orlando Fund, which eventually raised $30 million for the victims’ families and the survivors. Before the Magic tipped off their season in October, there was a powerful commemoration of the Pulse shooting.

I am proud to say that our students in the UCF DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program organized a 4.9K CommUNITY Rainbow Run on the Saturday before the first anniversary. On June 12, the day of the anniversary, there were commemorative events all across Central Florida. The 49 people who lost their lives that day have not only not been forgotten but are thought of as having helped make Orlando a unified, incredibly diverse community.

I have been lucky enough to become friends with Barbara Poma, the courageous owner of Pulse, and sit on the board of the onePULSE Foundation with humility.

I am proud that the world of sport could play its part in helping to bring Central Florida together after such a tragedy. When it seemed like war was being waged, Orlando created the tools to make peace. When someone tried to use hate against us, we embraced each other with love instead.

I speak often around the country and sometimes around the world. Now when people find out I am from Orlando, most never fail to mention how magnificent Orlando’s response was to that night of enormous tragedy. I am proud of my community and its leaders and of the world of sport that helped the healing.

Richard E. Lapchick ( is the chair of the DeVos Sports Business Management Graduate Program and is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which annually publishes racial and gender report cards on MLB, the NBA and WNBA, NFL, MLS, college sports, and the APSE. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick.