MARKET FOCUS <b>Sports PR</b>: A league of their own

Tom Acitelli profiles nine sports communicators, all at the top of their game.

Tom Acitelli profiles nine sports communicators, all at the top of their game.

Jim Moorhouse Communications director, US Soccer Federation By 1989, no American soccer team in 40 years had qualified for the World Cup, which is played every four years and is, hands-down, the largest sporting event on Earth, easily dwarfing the Super Bowl and the World Series combined. But since 1990, the US men's soccer team has made the Cup four straight times and the women's squad has won two titles. Jim Moorhouse, communications director for the Chicago-based US Soccer Federation, has led some of soccer's recent PR triumphs. In 1999, before the women's soccer team started what would become its victorious Cup run, the federation's PR unit came up with a goal. "We sat down as a PR group," Moorhouse recalls, "and we said, 'OK, what's our best-case scenario?' We wanted to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but we knew that was a long shot." By the end of the Cup, the women's team made SI's cover twice, as well as the covers of Time, Newsweek, and People. Tom Brokaw even broadcast an edition of NBC Nightly News from the team's practice field. The latter event almost didn't happen, according to Moorhouse, because fans flocked to the practices by the thousands and he just wasn't sure if they could accommodate all the fans plus the demands of a network news show. Andrew Giangola Director of business communications, NASCAR Shaking the image of the sun-burned rural male turning out to whoop at a car wreck, NASCAR has rocketed over the past 10 years into second place in TV ratings among American sports, trailing only the NFL. Seventeen of the 20 biggest sporting events in 2003 were NASCAR events and more Fortune 500 companies sponsor or otherwise work with NASCAR than any other sport in the country. Andrew Giangola has helped that boom by handling business communications for Daytona, FL-based NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). "It's not gee-whiz PR here," Giangola explains. "It's about a product being great." The challenge NASCAR faces is continuing to draw interest to a sport that is still relatively nascent in its national exposure. Almost all major sports have been on network TV for decades. NASCAR didn't ink its deals with FOX and NBC until 2001. Jill Geer Communications director, USA Track & Field When it comes to good PR, there's no hope with dope. The USA Track & Field (USATF) teams have weathered doping scandals the past few years that have eroded the sport's reputation. Devoted to a sport she played in high school and college, Jill Geer, USATF's communications director, is trying to change that in a very simple manner: By spreading a message to the media that Olympic track and field is a noble and drug-hating sport. "Drugs are really a double-edged sword," says Geer, who arrived at USATF in 2000 when the communications department had drifted down to one employee. "Whenever you catch a cheater, it's good for the sport, but it's bad for the sport's image." So while journalists repeatedly ask questions about drug issues, Geer tries to focus on the core issue. "My approach is making sure that people are informed [about the sport]," she says. Joe Favorito VP of PR, New York Knicks The Knicks are one of the best-known sports teams in the world, but that does not mean PR is a slam dunk. Win or lose, selling the team is always a challenge, says Joe Favorito, VP of PR with the NBA franchise. "Whether the team's winning or losing, there are always stories there," Favorito notes. "You just have to dig and find what's appealing to either sponsors, the media, or our fans. How do we put our franchise in the best light regardless of what happens on the court?" Sometimes, too, losing can be good for PR. "I actually think that you do your best work when your team isn't doing well," Favorito says, explaining that the work becomes all the more focused on unearthing those PR gems. Favorito cites one recent example: The Knicks were having a tough week, so Favorito told the story of Knicks president - and NBA Hall of Famer - Isiah Thomas' close relationship with his mother. "It's a great story that a lot of people don't know," Favorito says. "You can take that, whether you're winning or losing, and bring it to different places." Art Berke VP of communications, Sports Illustrated Easily the most recognized brand in sports media, SI has been slapping athletes on its covers and laboring as the conscience of sports for decades. This reality makes Art Berke's job easier, but not necessarily simple. On the PR side of Sports Illustrated for 16 years and now the VP of communications, Berke says he always has to consider how PR affects the magazine precisely because it is so highly regarded. Such a mission of maintaining purity is all the more important in a sports media world now inhabited by slapstick radio-show hosts and beer-crazy fans clacking keyboards for blog rants about why their hometown team stinks. "When we're trying to promote the magazine itself or any of the initiatives it's involved in, you can be careful," Berke says. "You don't have to go out there and get publicity just to get publicity." Chris McCloskey VP of communications, Arena Football Despite the rough and tumble, gladiatorial style with its closed-in fields, the Arena Football League has successfully marketed itself as a more family-friendly alternative to the NFL. It's the only league with a Fan Bill of Rights. It draws families with special incentives like tickets that are deliberately the same price as a movie and mandatory autograph sessions after games, where the coaches, players, and cheerleaders from the 19 teams make themselves accessible to fans. Now in its 18th season, the AFL enjoyed a 15% attendance jump last season and a 6% rise this season. "It's a young sport relative to the other major leagues," says Chris McCloskey, VP of communications, "and, frankly, the establishment is probably the toughest aspect of the job. Getting the AFL in the traditional sports media is challenging. Many editors only grew up with four sports and are reluctant to embrace the AFL despite its obvious success." Still, McCloskey helps the AFL continue to expand in an era when other leagues remain static. The AFL added three franchises this year, along with a long-term broadcasting deal with NBC. Chris Widmaier Senior director for PR, US Tennis Association Tennis players are often celebrities and celebrities often make it into the media. That logic helps the US Tennis Association (USTA) greatly when it's doing PR for a sport that now tussles in a crowded field of more popular activities. "Our number-one challenge is how competitive the landscape is," says Chris Widmaier, the USTA's senior director for PR. "There are many different entities that are competing for eyeballs, people's leisure time, and their wallets." Enter, then, Andy Roddick, Anna Kournikova, the Williams sisters, et al. Roddick, for one, recently hosted Saturday Night Live, while the Williamses did guest voices for The Simpsons. The USTA is also seeking to make tennis at least feel like other sports in the crowded field. The association started the US Open Series this year. It combines 10 major North American hard-court tournaments - six men's, four women's - into what is basically a season, a feature of sports any football or basketball fan could easily recognize. The season will culminate with the already-heavily watched US Open. Lance Van Auken Senior communications executive, Little League Baseball Too much success can be bad for a brand. Take Little League Baseball, the worldwide youth baseball and softball league with more than 2.7 million players in 70 countries. Sometimes, when something bad happens in a youth sport, even if it's not softball or baseball, the media refers to it as a scandal in "Little League [insert sport here]." "We don't want people to use it generically," says Lance Van Auken, senior communications executive at Little League Baseball. To do that, Van Auken says, Little League works closely with the media to ensure the league brand is used accurately. The league even got "Little League," and "Little League Baseball" added to the AP Stylebook, the meaty media bible full of official definitions. Maureen Coyle Senior director of sports communications, WNBA Maureen Coyle was in at the ground floor of a sports brand. She was the first PR director for the New York Liberty, an original franchise of the WNBA started in 1997. When Coyle arrived, the Liberty had no logo, no mascot, no name, no coaches, and no players. "It was the best experience a PR person could have," says Coyle, who eventually did PR for the WNBA and is now in her second season with the NBA. "Essentially, we created that brand." The Liberty took advantage of every announcement, Coyle says, making each new nugget of information about the team something worth the media's time to cover.

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