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Volume 20 No. 42

Leagues and Governing Bodies

The NFL often is compared to law firms for its openness and accessibility, or lack thereof.

Many at 345 Park Ave., NFL headquarters, have thought the traditionally conservative league did not need an aggressive communications strategy, especially given the sport’s overwhelming popularity and massive reach. As a result, its PR effort was more about playing defense than offense.

Welcome to a new NFL. The days of hiding behind the shield are gone. A rush of off-field problems — from player health and safety to domestic violence issues to declining TV ratings and a tepid start in Los Angeles — has led to a far more forceful communications approach.

Joe Lockhart, the league’s executive vice president of communications since January 2016, has instituted an in-your-face approach learned in part from his days as White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton. The change has led to a more open and accessible NFL that is not afraid to mix it up.

One of the biggest changes under Lockhart is the introduction of weekly media conference calls with influential NFL reporters. Lockhart uses these to share the league’s message and help shape the narrative.

The calls started after week one of the season and have continued through the first month. Lockhart briefs dozens of reporters up to three times a week, generally handling five to six questions in calls lasting up to 15 minutes.

“We have pushed to be transparent,” Lockhart said. “There is a strong sense that the game, and the platform and the NFL, is a very strong uniting force in this country and we have an obligation to be open and honest. And that’s what we try to do every day.”

Lockhart has addressed a variety of topics. After soft ratings in the league’s opening weekend, Lockhart said, “We try not to take too much out of just one week. We are confident that the ratings will be strong.”

On the morning before the second Sunday, ESPN reported that powerful Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had impeded a contract renewal for Commissioner Roger Goodell. Within 24 hours, Lockhart said on a conference call the story “had no validity” and that the contract talks were “moving nicely to a resolution.”

When stories focused on the sparse attendance for both the Rams and the Chargers in L.A., Lockhart went on the offensive, saying, “We remain confident that the city of Los Angeles can support in a very strong way two franchises, and we’re committed to making that happen as we work toward the opening of the new stadium.” He also questioned photos that showed sparsely attended games, saying they could have been taken at halftime.

This marks the first time in recent memory that a sports league has gone to such lengths to brief reporters during a regular season.

Lockhart said the idea of the weekly calls, which will continue through the entire season, was born out of frustration he felt over the summer that the NFL’s point of view was not getting across, especially the league’s handling of the Ezekiel Elliott case. Goodell has grown increasingly frustrated with coverage of the league, feeling that the NFL hasn’t received enough credit for many of its efforts, specifically around player health and safety, according to several league insiders.


Sept. 18
On the celebration rule and if Martavis Bryant “threw dice” after scoring — permissible or not?: “There was an internal debate this morning over whether they were referring to Yahtzee or backgammon. I don’t think we’re in a position to really determine that, so I think that’s OK with us.”

Sept. 20
On ratings: “It’s hard to draw a lot of conclusion on just two weeks, especially since the two weeks were very different.”

On DeMaurice Smith being re-elected to executive director of the NFLPA: “We hope that we can sit down and extend the CBA. We’ve made clear to the NFLPA and the players that this is something that is in both parties’ interest. It is certainly not our view that a work stoppage is inevitable. There is no reason for that. It is not in the interest of the game. Sometimes campaign rhetoric is overtaken by the reality of mutual interest, and that is certainly our hope.”

Lockhart said top league brass have bought into the weekly outreach and said the calls have served their purpose so far. At times, Lockhart brings on other top league executives to discuss their areas of specialty, such as Mark Waller, executive vice president of international, who previewed the London games.

The calls have led NFL writers to quote the league’s message in stories during the week and in their NFL columns. For example, Boston Globe NFL reporter Ben Volin cited Lockhart’s take on ratings in a recent Sunday column.

The NFL previously believed that it could get its message out through a few large news organizations, but Lockhart signaled that those days are over, especially given the amount of online outlets that weigh in on the state of the league.

“You can’t sit back and wait for people to cover you,” Lockhart told SportsBusiness Journal last year.

Along with the sudden flow of information comes an aggressiveness straight out of Lockhart’s political playbook, which the Bronx-born communicator developed while defending President Clinton during his impeachment. Lockhart has sported sharp elbows in speaking on several topics, especially when it came to the Elliott case.

He raised eyebrows when he put out an unsolicited statement last month accusing the NFL Players Association of shaming the alleged victim in the Elliott case, which the union furiously denied, stating, “The public statement issued on behalf of every NFL owner is a lie. The NFLPA categorically denies the accusations made in this statement.”

Lockhart also criticized the union’s outside counsel, Jeffrey Kessler, for his description of the alleged victim.

Lockhart doesn’t regret his comments.

“They crossed a line by going after the victim,” he said last week when asked about his muscular approach to communications in the Elliott case.

While the league’s aggressive outreach is new, Lockhart’s approach — from explaining ratings to attendance for the Rams and Chargers in L.A. — has not surprised PR professionals, who said the style fits Lockhart’s political background.

“People who come out of political communications have a DNA that is always playing offense,” said Ari Fleischer, himself a former White House spokesman for President George W. Bush, and now a sports industry communications consultant. “There are many people in sports who are reluctant to step forward. They prefer to take their time, to see if it will blow over, deal with things one on one.”

Being on the offensive also means the league is less concerned about stepping on toes. In addition to taking on the NFLPA recently, Lockhart led an aggressive rebuttal to the New York Times’ controversial March 2016 story that compared the NFL to the tobacco industry. When ESPN put out a story in late August accusing the NFL of skimping on concussion research, Lockhart soon after put out a detailed rebuttal and offered league executives for interview.

“Joe clearly understands the concept of bringing a campaign mentality to the NFL,” said Peter Land, a partner at crisis communications shop Finsbury. “That includes everything from message testing to more of an emphasis on SEO, to consistent media briefings.”

PR veterans think the approach is smart, considering the recent issues sticking to the previously Teflon shield.

“Joe is very wise and knows from his extensive experience that consistent engagement and sharing relevant, timely information with reporters are key elements of any successful strategic communications plan,” said Matthew Hiltzik, a political PR executive who also has done work in sports, including for the New York Jets.

Lockhart — and his approach — were cited by the NFLPA on Sept. 15 when they issued a release by George Atallah, assistant executive director for external affairs, saying, “This week, the NFL continued their endless spin cycle by using their lawyers and political operatives in a series of background and on-the-record media calls that only included some of you.”

One issue to watch is whether Lockhart will continue to be as aggressive in taking on the NFLPA. Historically, the league has avoided public shots at the union. Labor peace is a key underpinning of the NFL’s health, so antagonizing the players has never been seen as good policy.

Even during the 2011 lockout, missives were usually aimed at policy differences, and staff often remained friendly. Kessler even attended the commissioner’s party at the Super Bowl in Dallas shortly before the lockout.

With the CBA expiring in four years and the NFLPA already warning that a labor stoppage is inevitable, the new approach at the NFL portends potentially a far more turbulent labor negotiation. Lockhart’s past and current strategy suggests the league’s days of merely playing defense are over.

American Josef Newgarden won the 2017 title, something for the circuit to market against.
IndyCar wrapped up a season that saw a decline in television viewership and news that Verizon is unlikely to renew its title sponsorship, yet series CEO Mark Miles touted several positive developments that could bode well for the future.

Miles pointed to a new American champion, 26-year-old Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden, which gives the series another element to market against. He also cited attendance upticks at many tracks, including a strong return to the schedule from Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis. And Miles said the series saw more international interest, particularly in Europe, as Formula One driver Fernando Alonso drove in the Indianapolis 500.

“It was a terrific year — the championship was compelling yet again, coming down to the finale, and we crowned a great champion with a great future,” Miles said.

Still, overall viewership for the Verizon IndyCar Series was down 11 percent this season, from an average of 1.28 million last year over 15 races to 1.14 million over 17 races this year. Viewership had climbed 34 percent from 2014 to 2016. IndyCar averaged 2.31 million viewers on ABC this season, down 8 percent from last year, while it averaged 502,000 viewers on NBCSN (and one race on CNBC), up 3 percent from last year.

Miles noted that last year’s sold-out Indy 500, the 100th running of the race, was shown live in Indianapolis while this year’s wasn’t, which he said accounted for a sizable part of the downtick in viewership.

IndyCar doesn’t typically release gate figures, but Miles said overall attendance for the year was up if excluding the Indy 500, which drew 300,000 people this year compared to 350,000 for the 100th running.

Gateway’s return was widely viewed as a highlight, because the track based near St. Louis saw more than 40,000 fans show up for the venue’s first IndyCar race since 2003. Chris Blair, executive vice president and general manager of the track, said he plans to leverage the sport’s new car debuting next season, and Newgarden, to attract a similar crowd.

“I’m going to be selling that car for sure — that’s going to be the primary focus,” Blair said. “The other part of it is I’m hoping we can capitalize on Josef.”

Next year’s schedule will be nearly identical to this year’s, save for possibly adding a race in Mexico City, a market Miles is optimistic about thanks to Mexican driver Esteban Gutierrez coming over from F1.

Team executives seemed overall pleased with the season.

Jonathan Gibson, vice president of marketing and communications for Team Penske, which just won its 15th title in the series, said the team saw continued interest in corporate sponsorship from technology companies, pointing to signing IT company DXC Technology as an example. Team Penske hosted more than 200 corporate guests at Sonoma, a race held near California’s Silicon Valley, and its next partner summit will be held in October at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

“We continue to be bullish on the series both from a commercial perspective but also from a competition standpoint,” Gibson said. “We continue to see a high level of interest from our partners.”

The series is working through important challenges, though. The two tracks owned by International Speedway Corp. that currently host an IndyCar Series race, Phoenix Raceway and Watkins Glen International, are still dealing with attendance challenges. On the team side, IndyCar front-runner Chip Ganassi Racing announced last week that it would contract from a four-car to a two-car operation, and release a number of employees as a result, as it deals with the loss of longtime partner Target.

And with Miles confirming last week that Verizon is not likely to renew its title sponsorship after 2018, IndyCar’s sales team will have an even busier offseason. IndyCar has several important official categories not filled, including insurance, banking/financial services and quick-service restaurant.

Team Penske’s deal with Verizon is likely to continue despite the company likely dropping the title sponsorship, sources have said in recent months.

IndyCar also is negotiating its next media deals, which opened to the wider market after no renewal was struck during ABC’s and NBC Sports Group’s exclusive negotiating windows. Miles said multiple linear and over-the-top platforms have expressed interest in the property, whose rights expire after next season.

“The way I look at it is we’re holding our own,” Miles said. “I can tell you that it’s seen that way in our (media rights) discussions.”

The Indianapolis Indians led the minors in attendance, averaging 9,159 fans.
Photo by: MiLB
Despite the largest number of recorded rainouts in organization history, Minor League Baseball posted a final 2017 attendance of 41.83 million, up 1 percent and its fifth-largest turnout ever.

The attendance number marks the 13th straight year above 41 million for the affiliated minors and reverses a 2.8 percent slide at the gates last year. MiLB’s 2017 turnout comes despite 562 dates lost to weather during the year. That rainout figure was up by 21 percent from 2016 and is the largest such figure in any season since MiLB began tracking that data in 2005.

MiLB estimates the rainouts cost its clubs about 400,000 fans during the year. But David Wright, MiLB chief marketing and commercial officer, said the 2017 total represented a key early step in the organization’s goal of reaching 50 million in annual attendance by 2026.

MiLB attendance:

Top ten highest years

2008 43,216,802
2007 42,812,812
2015 42,561,445
2014 42,411,194
2017 41,832,364
2006 41,710,357
2009 41,644,518
2013 41,553,781
2010 41,432,456
2016 41,377,202

Source: Minor League Baseball

“This was a great step in the right direction,” Wright said. “Each of the individual clubs continued to push Minor League Baseball as affordable family entertainment and did great work in their respective markets. You layer that in with the things we’re trying to do collectively, and it speaks to the level of optimism we have in this business.”

The overall figures include the 14 affiliated leagues, ranging from the rookie level to AAA, as well as the Mexican League.

Fourteen MiLB clubs set franchise single-season attendance records this year, and 22 set single-game marks, up from nine and eight clubs, respectively, in 2016.

Also fueling the increase was a greater level of sharing of best practices among clubs as MiLB advances the idea of the affiliated minors as a powerful collective entity to fans, sponsors and business partners instead of merely a disparate network of local clubs. That message took form foremost this year in a new national marketing campaign entitled “It’s Fun To Be A Fan” that later was expanded as part of a large-scale Hispanic outreach initiative.

Those collective efforts will continue this week with MiLB’s annual Promotional Seminar in Greenville, S.C., that has been expanded this year to include a ticketing summit with, newly designated last month as MiLB’s official ticketing partner.

“We’re continuing to get better management, better ownership and better business practices,” said Chuck Greenberg, managing partner for the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans, Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders and State College (Pa.) Spikes. “We’ve reached a period in our business now where team ownership is much more collaborative with each other, has more of a business background, and is more open to new ideas.”

The Class AAA Indianapolis Indians led the affiliated minors in per-game attendance with an average of 9,159, edging out 2016’s leader, the Class AAA Charlotte Knights, who averaged 9,109. The Frisco RoughRiders led Class AA teams with an average of 6,812. And the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons led Class A and rookie-level clubs with an average of 8,038 as its team sellout streak remains intact at 1,247 consecutive games and counting, dating to 2000.

There was also a noticeable Tim Tebow attendance effect in MiLB as the New York Mets farmhand and former Heisman Trophy winner generated a total incremental lift of about 225,000 fans compared to the prior averages of the teams he played for and against. MiLB estimates that translated to roughly $4.5 million in additional ticket revenue to the involved clubs.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat are the two latest NBA teams to sign jersey patch deals, bringing a pair of lesser-known brands into the mix.

The Lakers signed a deal with San Francisco-based e-commerce company Wish. The three-year agreement, according to a source, is between $12 million to $14 million annually, putting it on the top tier of NBA jersey patch deals.

The Golden State Warriors’ recent jersey patch deal with Rakuten is worth $20 million annually but also includes naming rights to the team’s practice facility.

Wish, founded in 2011, is a “digital mall” that sells discounted merchandise through an e-commerce platform. According to the company’s website, it is the sixth largest e-commerce company in the world.

Tim Harris, Lakers president of business, operations, said other elements of the Wish deal include a founding sponsorship in the team’s training center, and signage and hospitality in Staples Center. The Wish logo will also be on the team’s G League South Bay Lakers franchise. IMG was the sales agency.

“We talked to a bunch of companies,” Harris said. “We were hoping for a company that is more mobile facing, because it helps us to continue to connect with younger fans.”

Meanwhile, the Miami Heat has signed a patch deal with South Florida-based Ultimate Software, which specializes in serving human resource functions. The company was founded in 1990 and has been a long-standing partner of the Heat.

John Vidalin, executive vice president and chief revenue officer for the Heat, told The Miami Herald that the team and Ultimate Software will work together on several community programs.

Sixteen NBA teams have signed jersey patch deals.

— Staff report