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Volume 22 No. 14

Opinion

My mother took me to see “Rocky.” I was 8 years old and it was a big deal to see a PG movie. She took me and my best friend, Richard Lewis, to our small, cramped theater in Manchester, Vermont. I had no concept of the story, but Richard and I ran out of the theater on a high, throwing punches and jumping up in the air. 

 

From that moment on, Rocky Balboa was a large influence in my life. I got a gray sweatsuit, an Everlast boxing bag and listened time and again to Bill Conti’s motivational score. I found the fictional pugilist heroic and inspirational, and invested time and energy into Sylvester Stallone’s entire career. The character of Rocky Balboa has been with me through 42 of the 50 years of my life, which is staggering. Sure, it turned campy and “Rocky V” was downright bad.  But the others all had redeeming and enjoyable qualities — and the surprisingly effective “Creed” in 2015 introduced the new character of Adonis Creed and featured Stallone’s best performance in years. Audiences and critics responded favorably, as it grossed nearly $175 million on a budget of around $40 million. 

 

The characters return later this month with “Creed II” (opening Nov. 21), and it lines up well with the resurgence of boxing that we’ve seen over the last two years. I recently caught up with the series’ producer, Irwin Winkler, one of the most successful movie minds of the last 40 years, about the longevity of the franchise he helped create.

 

“I had doubts about doing ‘Rocky Balboa’ because ‘Rocky V’ did not do well — it wasn’t fresh or innovative. We wanted to pack it in,” Winkler said. “But Sly wrote this script, ‘Rocky Balboa,’ and said, ‘Let’s do this, it’s the last one.’ His script was really, really good and we had to peddle it around, because we couldn’t get anybody to finance it, believe it or not, until MGM ultimately took it over.” 

 

The 2006 film grossed $156 million and Winkler felt the character study was complete. But “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler aggressively pursued Winkler and convinced him to continue the storyline with a fresh spinoff focusing on Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, Adonis. “It struck me that he came from a world that was very different from mine, and he was coming from a place that would give the ‘Rocky’ franchise a whole new attitude and a whole new look — generational, racial and motivational. I liked the idea a lot. So did Sly. And we decided to go ahead and it worked very, very well.” 

The ‘Rocky’ character … was always interesting. With Michael B. Jordan, we found a terrifically interesting character in ‘Creed’ and are following him.
Irwin Winkler
"Rocky" series' producer

I told Winkler I was very surprised how good “Creed” was, and he quickly responded, “It was good. Quality comes through. It was a good script and the performances were great.” But again, he wasn’t sold on a sequel. “Sly came up with the idea. I don’t know if you can call it a sequel. It’s more of a continuation, where Creed has really accepted his position as a boxer, but he’s still not a champion. It’s so much about relationships, parents and children.” 

 

There is the return of Ivan Drago, seeking redemption from “Rocky IV,” and the introduction of his son Victor. There’s the story of Adonis and his mother, father Apollo, and his new daughter, and even Balboa and his estranged son. Winkler is proud of “Creed II” and credits 30-year-old director Steven Caple Jr.: “It’s as good as any other movie in the whole ‘Rocky’ franchise.” 

 

Can the franchise continue? “As long as we can come up with good characters,” he said. “The ‘Rocky’ character Sly developed and played was always interesting. With Michael B. Jordan, we found a terrifically interesting character in ‘Creed’ and are following him. As long as we can keep the characters interesting and innovative, we’ll keep the audience interested.”

 

With global grosses of $1.4 billion for the seven-film series, “Rocky” is a long way from the  raw days shooting on the streets of Philadelphia in 1976. “We had no money,” Winkler recalled. “There were a lot of actors that we wanted that turned us down because we couldn’t pay them. We chose Burgess Meredith for Mickey because he was willing to work for nothing. And we chose Bill Conti for the music because he was the cheapest guy around.” In pre-production, Winkler said, “We thought it was a nice little movie, nothing special.” Asked if he had any idea “Rocky” would become a global sensation, or influence an entire generation, he laughed: “I didn’t think we’d be making a ‘Rocky II.’ And here we are, still going 40 years later.”

 

Winkler is not alone. Count me, and certainly my mother, just as surprised that we are still following the underdog saga of Rocky Balboa.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

In sports over the past 20 years we have been witness to the emergence of data as a strategic tool, whether applied to player personnel decisions or business practices. We have also learned that not every number or statistic is equally important. When it comes to marketing in sports, for example, population size matters but it is not everything. Rate of growth, geographic concentration of population, and income/spending power can all come into play. These factors are important when it comes to analyzing the relatively small but lucrative demographic of South Asians in the United States.

Almost 4.5 million South Asians live in the U.S., with a majority of those living in major metropolitan markets, and they have a median income exceeding $80K, the highest among any ethnic group. And it is a growing group. Comparing the 2000 Census and 2013 American Community Survey data, the South Asian community grew 97 percent, being the fastest-growing major ethnic group in the U.S.

Before going any further, it would help to specify who we are talking about. The South Asian community in the U.S. includes individuals who trace their ancestry to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Indians comprise the largest segment, making up over 80 percent of the total population, followed by Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepali, Sri Lankans and Bhutanese. They speak many languages, with Hindi and Urdu being the most widely spoken. 

South Asians are among the most highly educated immigrant groups, and when combined with other Asian Americans, their purchasing power is expected to reach $1.1 trillion by 2020. (It is safe to assume some of them will be buying the latest pair of Air Jordans or Curry 5s.)

Growth in the population is not uniformly distributed, so many cities with sports teams may not have reason, yet, to build out a comprehensive South Asian strategy. However, the metropolitan areas with the largest South Asian populations are sports meccas, including New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco-Oakland. Across the five major sports leagues, these cities are the home to 41 franchises, or more than 25 percent of all teams. (Both of those numbers increase when you take into account Canada’s largest city, Toronto, which has a large South Asian population.)

With these statistics, we hope we have gotten your attention. Now may be the time to start targeting this group with a well-defined strategy, not a cookie-cutter ethnic group effort. The challenge? There is a relative lack of data for this demographic when it comes to sports consumption behaviors. Who can help with this? Well, how about South Asians themselves? We are seeing more South Asians enter the industry and excelling, In fact, three were among SBJ’s latest Forty Under 40: Megha Parekh, Jacksonville Jaguars; Deepen Parikh, Courtside Ventures; Miheer Walavalkar, LiveLike. Others in sports business include Vivek Ranadivé, co-owner, Sacramento Kings; Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, president, StubHub; Sunil Gulati, former president, USSF; Kevin Negandhi, sports anchor, ESPN; Devi Mahadevia, sports partnerships, Facebook; Akash Jain, VP of International Development, NFL; and Ram Padmanabhan, general counsel, Chicago Bulls. And of course, there are those South Asians running multinationals that have a hand in sports, i.e. Indra Nooyi, who recently stepped down from her position as PepsiCo CEO, and Ajaypal Singh Banga, president and chief executive officer of Mastercard.

There are several marketing, content and participation success stories happening already in the U.S. and Canada. A number of teams have held “South Asian Night,” “India Day” and “Sikh Heritage Night” events. The Sacramento Kings held their first “Kaurs Singhs and Kings” night in 2014 and have teamed with the local Sikh community for pregame and halftime performances of Punjabi folk dances and music. In 2017, the NBA recognized the Orlando Magic’s India Day Celebration as the Best Heritage Night in the NBA. 

Canada has the first national sports programming in a South Asian language, “Hockey Night in Punjabi.” This, coupled with the success of Jujhar Khaira, Robin Bawa and Manny Malhotra, the first players of Indian descent to play in the NHL, is showing positive ripple effects in ice rinks across Canada.

Previously in the pages of SBJ, we have highlighted the inroads being made into the world’s second-most-populous country, India, by sports entities from the U.S. and around the world. However, the second half of the puzzle is success in our domestic market with an affluent and growing ethnic group. According to Inderjit Singh Kallirai, founder of K3 International, an organizer of some of the aforementioned cultural nights, early efforts are sure to prove bountiful as the marketplace becomes more educated and savvier about marketing to South Asian Americans. “I think we are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to opportunities for sports entities and the South Asian community. This is an exciting time.” 

Neha Uberoi Khangoora is co-founder of business and networking group South Asians in Sports (SAiSports) and Sarbjit “Sab” Singh is a professor and chairperson of Sports Management at Farmingdale State College (NY).

With NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this week, there is much to celebrate: his success in growing the NHL from 24 teams to 31, increasing league revenue from $37 million to $5 billion, and growing hockey into international markets, among many other accomplishments. 

From my perspective, Bettman’s hall of fame plaque should also reference his less-celebrated humanitarian work, especially his role as an environmental advocate. 

During his tenure, Bettman has worked to promote environmental literacy among teams and fans, and he is personally involved in shaping the NHL’s focus on the threats posed by climate change.

There are many environmental accomplishments to celebrate under Bettman’s leadership: The NHL was the first sports league to issue a sustainability report; the league measures greenhouse gas emissions from games and league operations; it promotes the donation of uneaten food on game day; it supports the largest watershed restoration project of any sports league in the world; and, with Bettman’s approval, the NHL appeared before a congressional task force to encourage action on global warming. The NHL has won environmental awards from the EPA and in 2014 Bettman was awarded the Green Sports Alliance’s Environmental Leadership Award.

An organization is the shadow of its leadership, and the character of Bettman is defined by humanitarian instincts. The important program that the NHL has created to promote sustainability was initiated by Bettman and through his commitment to sustainability he has changed more than sports — he has improved the world. 

 

Allen Hershkowitz

Ridgefield, Conn.