Major League Baseball is concluding its 2018 regular season with the largest sweep of Hispanic-themed celebrations in the league’s history.
MLB’s Hispanic Heritage Month activities running throughout September will include:
■ A new youth stickball tournament, the Bronx Stickball Classic, running on Sept. 15 and Sept. 22 near Yankee Stadium. The stickball tournament is an expansion of a one-day event held last year as part of the league’s ongoing Play Ball youth participation campaign.
■ A first Play Ball trip to Panama involving former major leaguers and native Panamanians Bruce Chen and Olmedo Saenz, which follows Play Ball events earlier this year in Puerto Rico and Mexico.
■ Players and coaches wearing “Ponle Acento” (Put An Accent On It) T-shirts prior to select games this month in batting practice.
■ New broadcast and digital spots across the league’s in-house and partner media platforms spotlighting Hispanic contributions to MLB and the development of a “Ponle Acento” accented player jersey.
■ Spanish-language online and Twitter counterparts to MLB.com’s popular “Cut4” feed.
■ Newly produced vignettes on current Hispanic MLB players that will air on MLB Network.
Those league-level efforts will be joined by a series of club activations. The San Diego Padres, for example, will dedicate their Sept. 14-16 home weekend series at Petco Park to activities including Hispanic and Latin food and drink specials, presentation of its Hispanic Heritage Comunidad Awards, a celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day, and a postgame event involving a Spanish-speaking Padre and Mexican Little League teams.
“There has been a continually growing push in our efforts to celebrate Hispanic heritage. And the way it also connects to things like Play Ball and player marketing, it’s a sign of how we have repositioned our marketing efforts to be a lot quicker and more nimble,” said Barbara McHugh, MLB senior vice president of marketing.
MLB originally introduced the “Ponle Acento” effort in 2016. Nearly 30 percent of current major leaguers are of Latino descent, and more than 170 players and coaches in recent years have changed their name presentations on uniforms and in broadcasts to include marks such as accents or tildes.
The planned events this month follow last week’s release of the 30 nominees, one player from each club, for this year’s Roberto Clemente Award, named after the late Pirates and Hall of Fame outfielder from Puerto Rico and recognizing extraordinary character, community involvement and philanthropy.
NASCAR has consolidated its content divisions into one group as part of a move that has seen longtime entertainment marketing executive Zane Stoddard leave the company.
This is the latest reorganization under the direction of COO Steve Phelps, as the sanctioning body has been overhauling its content strategy gradually over the years.
The move will see all of NASCAR’s content groups reporting to one executive, Evan Parker, who was promoted to vice president of content as part of the move. The different groups encompass social; partner engagement; creative services; the Los Angeles-based entertainment marketing division; and the content elements of the digital and NASCAR Productions groups. Some of the divisions, like the digital and social teams, were already working together as part of a move to form a content committee in 2016, but this move will bring all of them under one group.
Stoddard, who joined NASCAR in 2010 after stints at Nike and the NBA among other stops, left last month as part of the reorganization. He was the only executive to leave as part of the move. The groups officially consolidated two weeks ago.
“When Steve Phelps recognized that we needed to be more aligned from a content perspective and have groups work better together to find efficiencies and create better stories, he recognized it wasn’t possible to pull the Band-Aid off and put everybody together in one department [from the start],” said Parker, who will remain based in Charlotte but travel more to his native L.A. as part of the move.
“That wasn’t going to work for us, so his plan was to start with the committee, get groups to work more closely and get everyone understanding integration and collaboration. As we saw success, opportunities arose to take groups and smash them together.”
Parker continues to report to Jill Gregory, executive vice president and CMO.
NASCAR Productions and the entertainment marketing group were the most autonomous groups. NASCAR Productions creates content for the sanctioning body and the sport’s broadcast partners in Fox Sports and NBC Sports, and sells documentaries to other media companies. The entertainment marketing group largely works on long-term projects such as TV shows, movies and interactions with celebrities. Parker said the plan is for each division that creates and distributes content to be brought “together in one group and have them ladder up to one strategy to find ways to be more efficient, collaborative and tell better stories.”
Citing a recent example, Parker pointed to a project this summer to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of driver Davey Allison, where all the various content teams met and came up with parts of the project they could produce. The digital team produced NASCAR.com stories while NASCAR Productions handled a feature to air on Fox Sports’ TV channels.
Parker said he doesn’t anticipate making major changes to any of the groups for the rest of this season.
“We can’t overestimate the benefit of having all content people under one roof from a resource perspective,” Parker said. “This is going to make a big difference.”
NHL’s next wave gets schooled on life
With less than a month to go until the start of NHL training camps and preseason, you’d expect that a gathering of more than 90 young players hoping to crack a team’s lineup this season would likely include skates, sticks and pucks.
But earlier this month in Leesburg, Va., the players ranging from 2018 first-round draftees to 23-year-olds fresh out of college were treated to a mental workout that aimed to prepare them for life in the NHL off the ice.
What began as a roughly two-hour seminar for a handful of top prospects six years ago, the Rookie Orientation Program has now evolved into a two-day, on-site event that is encouraged and essential for players expecting to wear an NHL sweater this fall. Jointly run by the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, it broaches everything from a session on money management run by financial planners to sensitivity training to a discussion on substance abuse and behavior led by former NHL player Rob Ramage, who served 10 months in jail after a 2003 incident in which he crashed his car as he drove while impaired, killing his passenger.
Among the players to attend this year were the top two picks from June’s draft: Rasmus Dahlin, a defenseman taken by the Sabres at No. 1, and Andrei Svechnikov, a forward selected by the Hurricanes at No. 2. The second pick two years ago, Jets forward Patrik Laine, attended the inaugural session in 2017 before embarking on a 44-goal season that helped boost his star quality.
Social media . . . can help a player raise their profile, which can lead to additional sponsorship opportunities.
“These are some of the first tests on what it takes to be a professional athlete, as well as the type of expectations that are going to be heaped on you in the coming months and years; it’s a very important step,” said Mathieu Schneider, the NHLPA special assistant to the executive director who played parts of 21 seasons in the NHL after debuting in 1987-88. “There was nothing like this when I came into the league — you were just kind of thrown into the fire.”
Those expectations continue to evolve, which has led the NHL and the NHLPA to broaden the entire program, especially the topic of social media usage. Previously, it was just part of the media training portion of the program, but last year it received its own session. It lasts almost two hours and is led by Catherine Faas, the NHLPA’s senior manager of digital, and David Klatt, the NHL’s senior manager of social media programs. Now, the discussions not only center around what players shouldn’t be doing, but how good social media usage can lead to brand building and off-ice earnings.
“Our views on social media have shifted as a league over the last couple of years,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, who attended the program. “When you look at its importance and the benefits that it can create, it can be a real positive thing to help draw attention to the game, but also to the players personally and their own brands.”
Schneider noted that there is a certain stereotype applied to hockey players, a barrier that social media might be able to take down.
“You typically hear that hockey players are very humble, that they are all about the team; the mindset of players from my generation is that we never wanted to be on social media or [have] any attention, you were part of a team and the team came first,” he said. “We want players now to view social media as an avenue to express themselves and become a little more of a brand if that’s what they want to do.”
Daly said that the league and NHLPA make it clear it’s a player’s individual decision if they want to engage with the public through social media, but that “social media, when used properly, can help a player raise their profile, which can lead to additional sponsorship opportunities and relationships with companies that can continue well beyond a playing career,” Daly said.
While the downside of social media has been on display in other leagues this summer — controversies related to multiple players’ old, offensive tweets dominated MLB headlines in mid-July — for the NHL and the NHLPA coaching the young players on how to use the medium to their advantage is important.
“With social media today, everyone has a say and has to understand the implications of their words and actions,” Schneider said. “The thing we like to preach at the PA is just be a good person, and continue to improve yourself on and off the ice.”
The United Soccer League is launching a centralized licensing program for the first time, a step the second-tier soccer league sees as a major revenue growth and branding opportunity.
The league has hired The Crystal Agency as its licensee agency of record, led by Stu Crystal, who spent more than a decade managing MLS’s licensing and commercial products.
Previously, USL clubs managed their own licensing and merchandise independent from each other and the league. USL does not have an overarching uniform supplier akin to MLS’s deal with Adidas.
While some clubs, such as FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC, have done well in this setup, Crystal said that broader aggregation will only serve as a boon to the league.
“USL per caps are actually very strong and are even comparable to the other leagues in this country, which is great, but the reality is that stems from the fact that fans really struggle to find merchandise outside of games,” Crystal said. He noted that as a percentage of total merchandise sales, most clubs only see low single digits for sales outside of game day or through their website. Beyond the basic items such as jerseys, T-shirts, hats and scarves, very few teams have additional pieces of merchandise for sale, and rarely are those items seen in big-box stores or at airports — all issues that this new program aims to remedy.
USL President Jake Edwards said that the league’s clubs had roughly $10 million in retail sales combined last season, an average of roughly $300,000 per team. Edwards said the goal for this year is to get to $400,000 per club. That would compare favorably to Minor League Baseball, which reported last year that its 160 teams had more than $68.3 million in retail sales, roughly $426,000 per team.
“By instituting a licensing program, getting our team’s products into airports, stores, online and more, as well as working with our teams to improve merchandise point-of-sale inside the buildings, we think this is an incredible opportunity,” Edwards said, adding that he believes the program can quadruple the league’s retail sales “in a very short amount of time.”
While the USL has 33 clubs this season, the program will only include the 14 independently owned clubs. The other 19 teams are affiliates of MLS clubs, and predominantly share the same marks and logos as their MLS sister club. The program will also include incoming USL expansion clubs — six are slated for 2019 — as well as the teams in the USL third division, which will launch next year, and the PDL developmental league.
Crystal said the USL is already in discussions with several licensees spanning key off-field categories such as apparel and accessories, with the aim of signing deals in the next two months and having merchandise available by the start of the 2019 season. The first partner in the program is ball manufacturer Select, which will produce team-branded replica and mini balls.
While finding a broader single-jersey provider for the entire league is not currently in the plan of this program, Edwards said the goal is to build the league’s merchandise business to a point where that may occur.
“We need to drive value in this space in the next few years, but you never know after that — our goal is to build the business and keep on improving it,” he said.