Thursday, October 8, 2009

SELF-PROMOTION I CAN FORGIVE

No one celebrates themselves quite like ESPN. Even ESPN's most devoted fans have to admit the penchant for near non-stop self-aggrandizing and self-promotion. Besides professional athletes and Dwight Schrute, who puts out bobbleheads of themselves? Like ESPN's Bill Simmons admits, "We're the dude in college who throws himself birthday parties." However, ESPN's latest fete for the network's 30th anniversary is one I can forgive. Their "30 for 30" documentary series takes an in-depth look at 30 stories from this 30 year time frame with the help of some imported Hollywood filmmakers. Ever infatuated with rankings, the creative minds behind "30 for 30" resisted that temptation for this series and even chose the stories to be produced based on the filmmaker's personal connection or investment in the story rather than assumed importance. 
This past Tuesday marked the first documentary in the series. Peter Berg's "King's Ransom" is a look at the trade that sent Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988. Berg, a huge hockey and Gretzky fan, does a phenomenal job of delving into one of the most incomprehensible trades in sport history. Berg's storytelling expertly reveals the emotion and impact that still remains from the trade and its repercussions. The piece is both riveting and heart-wrenching as we are forced to watch this awful decision, one based solely on economics, and the inexorable change it had on the future of the greatest hockey player of all time as well as the Edmonton Oilers, the epitome of the small-market, community-based sports franchise. To watch the drama unfold is excruciating, no moment moreso than Gretzky's farewell press conference in Edmonton where he breaks down in tears and cannot finish saying goodbye. The pain on the face of Peter Pocklington, the Oilers owner at the time, was much worse. The fan reaction is equally fascinating. Pocklington and Gretzky's new wife, actress Janet Jones, were vilified. Appeals were made to the Canadian government to stop the trade from going through but to no avail, the NHL would be changed forever. Many have tried to put a positive spin on the move saying Gretzky was a selfless hockey missionary taking the game to parts South and West in the United States. For me, the continuing struggles of hockey franchises that do not call the Northeast or Midwest home only makes Gretzky's supposed selflessness seem more painful and pointless especially considering his estimate that that Oilers team could have won another four Stanley Cups in addition to the four they won with him in the 1980s. Imagine Gretzky's legacy had he stayed with the likes of Messier and the rest of that impressive team. Gretzky unconvincingly says he would do it again if the trade were proposed tomorrow. Pocklington has come to grips with the repercussions of that trade but he certainly endured some painful years between 1988 and his reconciling with the necessity of the move for the health of the franchise. The piece benefits from hindsight and is a remarkable behind-the-scenes look into the role economics plays in the success of franchises, the lives of those involved including fans.
Truly a monumental moment in sports history, this documentary hopefully hints at the 29 still to come. I am truly looking forward to the rest of the series especially the stories examining the special bond between Loyola Marymount stars Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, the handling of Allen Iverson's trial as a Virginia high schooler and the racism that tainted it, the short-lived USFL and the list goes on and on. If only all of ESPN's self-promotion was this enjoyable.

Monday, September 28, 2009

ESPNBoston and the Kraft conflict of interest

The NYT's David Carr points out in an article published today that conflicts of interest are starting to pop up regarding the relationships between ESPN's new local Web site -- ESPNBoston -- and the local group it has pegged for advertising sales, Kraft Sports Group. That's Kraft, as in Robert Kraft, the owner of both the New England Patriots (MLS) and the New England Revolution (MLS). We'll have to wait and see whether the relationship amounts to any form of benefits resultant of vertical integration between content, producer and distributor. Clearly this presents the potential for sweetheart deals as well as a substantive barrier to entry for both sports and media competitors.

Carr positions this relationship between media and sports organizations as a new phenomena; however, the symbiotic relationship between the two is nothing new, and it's been historically built on the ability of the two to advance each others interests through promotion and audience building.

What is a newer phenomena that Carr points to, and perhaps one which we may see more of in the era of dedicated sports networks (NFL Network, NBATV, etc.), is the commoditization of access to news and information about sports teams. The exclusion of newsgathering competitors from the marketplace for sports information is a troubling turn of events for the normative goal of media as a check on power -- yes, even power in the world of sports.

I think it's also noteworthy that this type of coverage is run under Media & Advertising rather than Sports. Often the most important sports news -- that which impacts the lives of citizens in social, political, and economic forums -- cannot be found in the sports section. Likewise, controversy over stadium subsidies are often local or metro issues.

Friday, September 25, 2009

NFL Blackouts: Money vs Good PR, Money Wins Every Time

In the world of professional sports, the National Football League is the epitome of public relations savvy. The NFL has long had an impressive understanding of the importance of eliminating even the slightest potential for negative media coverage. The league has had a drug testing program in place longer than any other sport, it polices the personal conduct of its players in order to defuse public backlash and the list of its carefully chosen actions goes on and on. It is exactly this predilection toward calculating public relations that makes their steadfast decision to keep their blackout rules in place, despite the calls for them to be lifted, more than a tad curious. Many in the sports media have been vociferous in their urging the NFL to lift the blackout rules, if only for specific games this season. However, the NFL says it has no plans to do any such thing.
Those calling for suspending the blackout rule temporarily say that the economic recession has made it difficult for many to justify spending money on NFL tickets. The average price, it should be noted, is $75. In those cities where the stadium is not sold out, fans are not be able to watch the game live on television whether at home or at a bar. Many have argued that a league that boasts an average franchise value of $1 billion dollars can afford to throw their fans a bone and rescind the blackout rule especially for smaller markets. Jacksonville, for instance, runs the very real risk of not selling out a single home game meaning fans would not be able to see any of their games on television. Jacksonville Municipal Stadium seats a shade over 67,000 people. Under the rule, the stadium must be sold out at least 72 hours in advance of game time before it may be aired on any TV market within 75 miles of the stadium. Club seats and suites don't count in the equation. However, the league does offer teams extensions to sell remaining tickets in order to avoid the blackout.
While the move to relax the blackout rules would bring solid PR to the NFL during what has been a trying time for many football fans across the country, it is most certainly trumped by the owners' concerns about filling their stadiums. Their rationale is that if you don't penalize the fan base for not going to the game, droves of fans may begin to elect to watch at home or at a bar rather than at the stadium. Television dollars are already in NFL owners' pockets which allows them to create a salary cap and essentially cover all of their costs. On the other hand, gate receipts are money for the owners' pockets and if they can be beefed up then that is what the NFL will try to do. In this age of corporate greed, NFL owners aren't doing anything out of character. Of course because their profits are never made public we do not know just how greedy they are. The new head of the players union says he is adamant in demanding to see the owners' books before negotiating the next collective bargaining agreement... it's a safe bet that it will be a cold day in hell before that happens and you will see a lockout in two years, 2011.
Not surprisingly the NFL admits it has no way of measuring how the blackout influences ticket sales however, an outside study of the 1996-97 season determined that the policy harms the community as a whole. The NFL argues that there have been a mere 38 blackouts in the last four years, a span covering more than a thousand games. The league is offering fans the opportunity to watch a delayed game broadcast on NFL.com for 72 hours except during Monday Night Football. Of course, by the time of the delayed broadcast the conclusion of the game is well known not to mention the need for high speed internet connections and the time to watch during what is the work week for most people. The NFL believes it is a fair and just compromise, saying it is concerned with long term growth and will not be hasty in relaxing the blackout rule. The NFL had better hope their fans never find out just how greedy they are being. When pitted against each other, NFL owners will choose money over good PR every time.

Monday, September 21, 2009

ESPN and local audience packaging

The latest my once-every-three-months attempt to get back into updating this blog...

Last week ESPN launched its new ESPNBoston.com. The site will focus, like ESPNChicago.com and the New York, L.A., and Dallas offerings to come, on major professional and elite amateur sports for the local Boston audience. The move reflects ESPN's interest in positioning itself as both a dominant national and local/regional provider for content after being somewhat outmaneuvered by FoxSportsNet and Comcast Sports Net for RSN positioning in the late 90's and early 2000's. The move also reflects other general trends in the entertainment and leisure industries: the fragmentation of audiences within the contemporary media landscape; capital's continued interest in reaching affluent "upmarket" consumers in "world class cities;" and the perceived civic and developmental benefits of inserting cities into the branding efforts of "promotional culture."

It will be interesting to see how much new content will really be produced under the new arrangement though. From what I've seen on the site, it appears to be little more than a repackaging of existing ESPN content with the addition of some familiar former stars and popular local bloggers. More importantly though, the audience is, itself, repackaged for advertisers in a manner that allows the "Worldwide Leader" to more strategically utilize price discrimination techniques that suit the interests of both national and regional advertisers. Last time I visited the ESPNBoston site I was immediately (and correctly) reminded of how much I need Dunkin Donuts. This seems to be the geographic variation of ESPN's age-specific demographic efforts deployed in its packaging of high school audiences and the recruitment-obsessed college football and basketball fans in last year's launch of ESPN Rise.

You may find having all your favorite local teams on one site a benefit in terms of convenience; advertisers, however, find a concentration of local audiences apt to strong, positive brand associations quite convenient too.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Boom: Endorsements

John Madden may have retired from the booth, but don't be too concerned about him stretching out his retirement funds throughout his golden years. Here's a recent post by CNBC's Darren Rovell that highlights Madden's various endorsement deals and another that breaks down endorsements by announcer. Seems that the value of sport's "star system" clearly extends from the field to the booth. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

325 Pounds of "Tweet"

Shaquille O'Neal, no stranger to the use of media to connect with his fans, drew attention this past week by "tweeting" his 500,000 Twitter followers the news of his endorsement deal with an electrolyte mouthstrip manufacturer named Enlyten (seriously).

This incidents reflect the potential and problems of new media and social networking sites in their bypassing of the mainstream media. Shaq has been able to "communicate" with his fans in a manner that could be described as more democratic; his announcement was (apparently) orchestrated by O'Neal and not a major media gatekeeper. However, tweeting an endorsement deal still reflects the commercial and promotional logic that emphasizes the branding and commodification of elite athletes at all levels. Is Shaq's tweeting really a form of connecting with his fans in a more "authentic" manner (a la alternative sport's niche media), or is it simply the newest wrinkle in what David Whitson has described as the "promotional culture" of sports? Such a question is really a false choice - the seeming authenticity of Shaq's connection with his fans functions as a means of enhancing his brand, and no one has ever accused Shaq of not being marketing-savvy.

We also shouldn't view these social networking sites as outlets that operate in isolation from mainstream sports media. In fact, the NBA and Turner plan to deploy a massive social networking campaign in conjunction with their playoff coverage, and Chris Bosh has actually purchased advertising time for his social networking efforts. The NBA/Turner social networking campaign should serve as a fascinating example of what Whitson describes as the "circuits of promotion" that have come to serve as the economic logic of professional sports. Expect extensive efforts to create synergy between league, media, and player brands, as well as the brands of advertisers across multiple media platforms. 

Since the Suns are lottery-bound, Shaq will also have plenty of time to enjoy his new hobby.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

ESPN secures BCS rights starting in 2011

The "Worldwide Leader" announced today that it has acquired an extensive rights package for BCS games from 2011-2014, including the 2011-2013 national championship games. While a figure was not released (why, because their reporters couldn't get it?), SportsBusiness Daily has reported that ESPN's offer through the last round of bidding was $125 million a year over four years -- too rich apparently for Fox, which dropped out of the bidding with an offer of $100 million. These figures are up from Fox's previously reported package of $82.5 million per year.

In addition to the television and radio rights, the ESPN deal will also include rights to the official BCS Web site, digital and mobile content, international programming, as well as the weekly BCS Rankings release show.

For the discussion and comments from a ESPN/BCS conference call with questions from various national journalists see Eye on Sports Media. Responses from major college football conference administrators to President-elect Barack Obama's call for a playoff system can be found at the Journal of Sports Media blog.

-T.C.