Tuesday, August 14, 2007

In a recent edition of Ad Week, a trade magazine geared towards the movers and shakers of the advertising industry, Jon Hickey discusses how ad shops and their clients should tackle some of the controversies currently surrounding professional sports. As a Senior Vice President of sports and entertainment marketing of Mullen Advertising, Hickey brings the perspective of a veteran of industry who has witnessed his fair share of successes and failures in the relationship between the playing field and Madison Avenue.

Titled ‘Sports Run Amok’, he laments over the continued stories of performance-enhancing substances in sports along with the legal troubles of several athletes and officials and wonders how corporate America, let alone the fans, can trust pro leagues. What’s interesting about his article is that he speaks of pro sports these days as a minefield for advertisers looking to enhance the profile of their clients.

Is it really that bad?

Absolutely not.

While there are great concerns of what is going on these days with athletes, it seems as if we are throwing all the plights of the world upon them. This is nothing new in the history of the pro game as athletes have been the lightning rods for everything under the sun except for gas prices, global warming and drunken NASA astronauts before liftoff. In fact, from the fists and trysts of Jack Johnson to the clutch three-pointers and family travails of Derek Fisher, an athlete’s story has represented more than his or her journey to stardom to society at large. Because of this, so have their transgressions and differences. Players have been in trouble as long as their fans have, but their financial status and public profiles single them out as the scourges of our world. Yet, instead of turning off the television or changing the subject during our lunch breaks, we continue to watch, read and listen to everything involving sports.

People have launched careers to feed the need to consume sports, such as yours truly. Those very advertisers have built dedicated divisions within their companies to use sports in order to promote goods and services - as ineffective as those attempts can be sometimes. The most obvious reason is that no matter how good or bad the athlete may be off the field, his or her performance on the field is too captivating to turn away from. Deep down, you’d have to truly believe that not all of these players are criminals and lowlifes, right?

That’s hard to believe if the same sources are foretelling doom and gloom non-stop.

It would be very typical to blame the media for this current tide of negativity and it is well deserved for some outlets, whether it’s the national empires or the local weeklies, daily blogs and podcasts you may download from time to time. We all have a routine of finding information and opinions about all news that we practice day after day, so using the same sources is part of the deal. However, if we all take a look around the sports landscape for a few more minutes than usual, we can find that not everyone is caught up in the drama. If you are tired of debating the merits of the new home-run king Barry Bonds, then pay attention to the National League East, which plays host to arguably the best pennant race coming down the stretch. If you could care less about Michael Vick losing sponsorships you never heard about, then read a few training camp reports from Yahoo! Sports or get familiar with Big East football. If you’re starting to believe that the NBA is starting to look like an unaired episode of The Sopranos thanks to Tim Donaghy’s gambling problem, refresh your memory on a huge offseason for the Eastern Conference and adjust the rosters on your last NBA video game accordingly.

The beauty of sports has always been the different styles of play from one city, town, country or college to the next. As said earlier, we have taken the path of these performers and looked for similarities to our own for some connection. Ad agencies look to place signs in our paths so that we can detour to a store and buy something over our budgets. There’s nothing wrong with partnering with sports to enhance a brand – an age-old practice that actually fund the games – but to chop the tree because of a few rotten apples is a bit extreme. At the same time, consumers don’t always want to be inundated with the same faces because they are ‘safe’. As the NFL season creeps closer, Peyton Manning is going to take over our televisions. Derek Jeter has asked us to go to our nearby Ford dealers all summer. LeBron James had more commercials than field goals attempted during the NBA Finals. Those are Madison Avenue icons in their own right and international superstar David Beckham is still one week away from his first MLS appearance in the New York area. An opportunity to work with the biggest names in sports is not one to be passed up, yet they are not the only people who play sports. Just as fans need to look around a little more, so does corporate America.

In Hickey’s article, he says that pure entertainment properties such as movies and music can be safer alternatives to pro sports, though there is no guarantee that other entertainers aren’t capable of ‘acting a fool’. Despite how recent news actually contradicts his statement, he can find solace in knowing that there are fresh faces in the landscape that advertisers can look to. Over time, consumers become apathetic and even resentful towards seeing the same people pushing the same products over and over again. Especially with the negative news, this is a perfect time to introduce someone else to the world that has yet to develop a stale memory to the public.

Sadly, these fears won’t go away anytime soon because just as the players have erred, so have those of us who surround them. In addition to our personal faults and public hypocrisy, we have also allowed for the same stories to be recycled in order to make a few dollars. This is not dismissing the current issues of the day, but in all honesty, there are much greater issues that are overlooked, even in the realm of sports. In the meantime, watch a game or two and enjoy. Go ahead and buy that new cell phone or car you saw on that ad in right field. Professional sports are not in complete ruin as we are being told to believe.

Say What?!?!: I watched more Mets telecasts as a kid than Yankees, despite living in the Bronx. However, whenever I watched the American League side of New York, I always enjoyed one part in particular. I loved when Phil Rizzuto would take off after the seventh inning to beat the traffic. Why? When you're seven or eight, you don't really know why it was so important to get on the George Washington Bridge when there was still a 4-4 tie with the Yanks at bat. Yet, it was as if my father would have said "screw this, I'm going home" after his lunch break at work. It was just funny to me. RIP, Scooter.

From the Lockerroom to the Boardroom: With the recent troubles off the field, you'd think that the NFL would suffer where it counts - in their coffers. It would be shocking if the league experiences any dip in popularity, especially with one of the most active offseasons since free agency began. An article in Forbes can provide more insight.

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