MARKET FOCUS: Sports: In a different league

Gideon Fidelzeid looks at the challenges each of the four major leagues face to keep and win fans.

Gideon Fidelzeid looks at the challenges each of the four major leagues face to keep and win fans.

Pro sports have always tugged at the heartstrings of Americans. They unite people. They provide an escape from everyday concerns. Ludicrous salaries, prima donna attitudes, and moral indiscretions have long been forgiven by most fans - just so long as the games are played and continue to entertain. This national passion reached a new level in the aftermath of September 11. Pro sports were perhaps first to provide a dose of comfort to a grieving nation. As such, their value to Americans grew. But amid stories of courage, compassion, heroism, war, and homeland security, the inflated salaries, attitudes, and indiscretions became not only more maddening, but downright insulting. Public acrimony toward coddled athletes was at an all-time high. PR has always been a crucial factor for the four major leagues, but as MLB, the NFL, NBA, and NHL deal with the simultaneous role of being both irreplaceable and a lightning rod for impropriety discussions, that focus must be honed. Not necessarily in response to September 11, of course, but just to maintain and advance pro sports' place in America's conscience and heart. "The nature of how the leagues are covered has changed forever," says Chris Lehane, partner at strategic communications firm Fabiani & Lehane. "Major events necessitate it. Politicians were forced to change how they represented themselves publicly ever since Watergate. Businesses had to act similarly in light of recent scandals. Now the major sports leagues face that reality." Baseball's harsh reality The sport most immediately affected by that reality is baseball. The recent near-strike is well chronicled. The threat of irreversible PR damage has been widely credited as the driving force for the last-second agreement reached on August 30. But this new deal, which, among other things, requires big-market teams to share more of their revenue with small-market clubs, can mean more than just avoiding PR doom - it can facilitate a PR boon. "The financial disparity between big- and small-market teams isn't solely evident on the field, but in the PR arena as well," says Michael Busselen, who presently works with the San Diego Padres in his role as senior partner/GM at Fleishman-Hillard San Diego. "But with this new deal, teams can now put some of the revenue-sharing money into more creative marketing, and that's vital because each team has 81 home games to sell each year." While the league can offer some assistance, most work must be done locally, which isn't always easy - particularly in markets with struggling teams. One common practice is sponsorship deals between MLB clubs and major corporations, but it can't end there. "Teams are often satisfied just taking the check and leaving it at that," says Dave Nobs, GM and head of the sports marketing practice at Weber Shandwick Worldwide's LA office. "But a sponsorship is only a platform to build on. You must 'activate' the sponsorship. In fact, baseball - and all leagues - can learn from the PR and brand-image expertise of sponsorship partners." Baseball also needs to better leverage certain advantages it already has, according to Peter Land, GM of sports and entertainment at Edelman. "Look at jerseys," says Land. "Baseball uniform tops have long been fashionable. So many celebrities wear MLB jerseys or custom-made ones. MLB has long worked with agents and publicists to provide clothing to celebrities. This is a very powerful brand-recognition tool that MLB can amplify. "On a more general level," Land continues, "leagues need to figure out how PR can work in concert with the brand and the bottom line. That balance isn't always easy to spot. Great PR won't necessarily put fans in stadiums. Baseball must implement PR programs that specifically address both brand awareness and sales needs." Of the four major sports leagues, the one perceived to have done the best overall marketing job is the NFL. Many chalk up the distinction to the fact that there are no local TV deals to worry about. All NFL games are shown on national networks, and thus the pie is divided equally among all 32 clubs. Others simply say that each team has only eight home games to worry about, which makes it easier. While conceding those points, Aaron Salkin, PR director for the Atlanta Falcons, contends that such rationale undermines the NFL's true PR vision - one that grew out of necessity. "For the longest time, the NFL took a back seat to all other sports - even college football," explains Salkin. "Some say having only eight games to worry about is a plus, but it can also complicate matters because there are only eight games to promote. As such, NFL teams used to get covered just once a week. But that started to change in 1960, when Pete Rozelle became commissioner, bringing his marketing savvy with him." The NFL's PR paradigm Salkin explains how NFL team PR people would go on weekly advances to all media outlets. "Media day" - as the name implies - became a huge media relations avenue for teams. Still prominent today, the media would not only talk to the head coach and players from the hometown team, but the upcoming week's opponent as well. Salkin contends that NFL owners' attitudes are a key to PR success too. "Our owners always think league first, team second. All the owners agreed to the revenue-sharing plan currently in place. That's a pretty big concession for a big-market owner to make. But we've all staked our success on the hope that every team in the league does well." And as far as the fans are concerned, the NFL has always listened. When Arthur Blank purchased the Falcons last year, he put together focus groups to find out how he could help fans. After reviewing the discussions, he lowered prices on 23,000 seats in the Falcons' stadium. "That's truly what 'public' relations is all about," says Salkin. While the NFL is lauded for its PR, its position as a media-friendly league is rivaled, if not surpassed, by the NHL. Lehane, who currently counsels the league, says that for all the talk of how the NHL lags far behind the other three sports, the media widely considers its players the most cooperative. "NHL players are viewed as blue-collar, hard-working, nice guys," says Lehane. "Much of the league's hierarchy consists of former players, so that attitude permeates the NHL's culture. And, for better or worse, perceived notions are key. This belief that it's genuinely fan-friendly is a natural media magnet the NHL can cultivate." Still, Lehane realizes, the NHL has plenty of PR obstacles, many stemming from the natural inclination to compare leagues. "It's unfair," he says. "Take league expansion, which isn't a PR move per se, but has the obvious PR implications of targeting new markets. The NFL goes to Houston with the Texans, but that's a football market already. Houston just had a team five years ago. Recent NHL expansion took the league to two Florida cities, Raleigh, NC, and Phoenix - not exactly hockey hotbeds. Who has the bigger PR challenge? Can you even compare?" Despite that, contests Lehane, there are examples where the NHL measures up well against other leagues. "Look at North Carolina. Home of Michael Jordan. Basketball-crazy community. Yet the Hornets couldn't survive there. [They moved to New Orleans for the 2002 season.] But the hockey team - the Hurricanes - built a fan base from the ground up, and is doing quite well." Transparency is another factor the NHL handles well. Last season, a 13-year-old girl was killed at a Hurricanes game when a puck struck her in the head. The team and league were immediately forthright about the unforeseeable tragedy. Both quickly convened to discuss preventive measures. Lehane also notes the NHL's vast growth potential. "The league may not have as many fans as other sports, but those it does have are the most loyal. Moreover, statistics show that the NHL excels at tapping into the coveted 18-34 market. Plus, while the MLB, NFL, and NBA focus on international growth, the NHL has a natural global tie-in. A large number of players are European and have huge supporters in their homelands who follow the NHL because of their heroes. These are advantages the league must leverage better." In the spotlight every day Each league has unique challenges, but they share common ground. "Sports are different because they're covered every day," says Edelman's Land. "No other business faces that." It sounds like a PR dream, but it can present difficulties. "Because sports get their own section in most media outlets, the coverage is often relegated to that area. The challenge is getting leagues covered in other parts of the news, which is needed to expand their reach." Lehane takes it a step further. "Pro sports don't only get covered every day, but thanks to sports-talk radio - which can be found in almost every major market - they get covered every second. Stories on pro athletes - particularly negative ones - tend to be made bigger and longer-lasting." When you take into account the media coverage, unparalleled fan passion, increased need for a release from all the world's wrongs, and a growing public disdain for pro sports' tendency toward negative excess, it shows that while the game plans for each league will always differ, they share a need to fine-tune and execute a strategy. ---------------------------------------- Mark Cuban shoots straight about the NBA Few figures in pro sports embrace PR like Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Whether sitting with diehard fans or serving as a Dairy Queen manager for a day to make amends for a remark he made about a referee, he's not only helped the Mavs win more games, but more fans and publicity too. Cuban spoke with PRWeek to share his views on current NBA PR. PRW: Can most PR triumphs and failures be attributed to wins and losses? Cuban: Winning makes it easier, of course, but the Chicago Cubs are still wildly popular though they haven't won a World Series since 1908. Fans need storylines they can connect to. It could be players, the owner, or arena atmosphere, which is a big focus of ours. We try to sell fun, not wins and losses. That said, it all falls on deaf ears if teams and the league don't actively communicate the message. PRW: How can league PR improve? Cuban: The NBA doesn't realize it's an all-out war not just with other sports, but with every entertainment option. We must be the answer when a person asks, "What do I want to do tonight?" People must choose the NBA, and that choice isn't made because of a commercial inside an NBA game. That's preaching to the choir. The NBA must continuously open new lines of communication and promotion. The league - and it's understandable to an extent - has fallen into the trap of doing things a certain way because they've always done them. But, as such, it's missing golden opportunities. Sports is the only business with an open daily pipeline to the media. Every team has at least one beat reporter writing one or more stories each day during the season, and at least weekly in the off-season. But instead of leveraging this resource to our advantage, the league often views the media as a necessary evil, communicating only to get up on a soapbox or to respond to negative articles. We must work with media to create or promote storylines. Because of the volume of reports they must write, the press is crying for stories, and that's a big resource for us. I personally communicate with our beat writers several times a day. I answer every question I can within our league rules. Open communication makes the media's job easier, and the PR benefits are huge. Finally, I think the NBA needs some new blood. The NBA has incredibly bright people, starting with Commissioner David Stern, but there are no unique ideas, at least none that are shared with owners or that I see implemented that come from the top. The different perspective that comes with new blood would be a good step. Without that, we continue to stagnate with the same old NBA approach. We have an amazing product that's better than ever. But while it has evolved, as has our audience, we need people in the league office who can create new avenues of excitement that will translate into sales and ratings. PRW: Jayson Williams. Allen Iverson. Glenn Robinson. All-Star players who've had run-ins with the law. How can the NBA handle these types of PR setbacks? Cuban: Irrelevant. Anyone who's ever managed a large company with many 20-something employees realizes they will do stupid things from time to time. Frankly, I don't know of a single major company the size of the NBA that wouldn't trade their personnel problems for ours. From a marketing standpoint, you have to understand that most criticism comes from 40-something writers who don't relate to our players. They write negative stories, as they think they should, and will find people to back their claims. At the end of the day, people still love the fun of an NBA game because it gives fans of all ages a common bond. If the league takes a more proactive approach to PR and media relations, we will not only better deal with negative stories, but we will win - and keep - so many new fans.

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