On March 12, 2014, the University of Toronto hosted distinguished members of the sports industry to speak at the Sports Industry Conference. For those in attendance, the speakers provided valuable insights into the industry, through the three panels and keynote. The event was also live streamed, and can be watched below.
Moderators are in bold.
PANEL 1: BRANDING IN THE NEW AGE
Speakers: Richard Powers (Associate Dean and Executive Director, Rotman MBA), Matt Maccarone (Manager of Sports Marketing, Nike Canada), Greg Woods (Head of Marketing and Partnerships, UFC Canada), Corey Friesen (Director of Marketing, Under Armour Americas), Keith Gordon (President, NFL Players Inc.)
With a heavy focus on marketing, this panel appropriately featured marketing executives from sports apparel companies, the UFC, and NFL Players Inc.
Though there were strict rules against marketing at the Sochi Olympics, Nike and Under Armour did it anyways, creatively – because anytime you can further your brand on an international stage, you do it! In Nike’s case, to show off their brand, they used one of their most marketable athletes, Alex Bilodeau. Bilodeau, wearing a hat with a Nike swoosh under his helmet, was trained to take his helmet off whenever he could, basically becoming a walking advertisement for Nike.
Meanwhile, Under Armour was fortunate enough to provide the uniforms for the U.S. Olympic speed skating team at Sochi, but were embroiled in controversy when the team failed to meet expectations. The athletes put the blame on the new uniforms; even changing to the older Under Armour suits. Still, another deal was signed, this time for 8 years (covering two Olympics), which would give a chance for Under Armour to “fix” the uniform.
The UFC in particular is a brilliant example of good marketing. In Canada, the UFC is experiencing massive growth. Currently, on a per-capita basis, Canada consumes more MMA than any other nation. Dana White, the commissioner of the UFC, is an interesting case because he is unlike most other commissioners. For one, White is younger than commissioners in the NHL, NBA, NFL, and MLB. At the sprightly age of 44, White is much more tech-savvy than other league bosses. He’s made it a priority that Twitter be a big part of what the athletes do, providing incentives in cash to fighters who compose good tweets. Dana himself is a huge personality, and is extremely active on Twitter on his own as well. In many ways, he is the face of his own league, which some purists may be against. However, there is no denying that he has been behind a huge growth in the UFC.
The coming out of Jason Collins and Michael Sam was also touched on. Keith Gordon, in comparing the styles of David Stern (NBA commissioner) and Roger Goodell (NFL commissioner), mentioned Jason Collins as an example of Stern’s willingness to be a pioneer. In the NFL, the owners are likely to not care at all about a player’s orientation, since teams are so dollar-driven.
The transformation of advertising is important as well: maybe ten or twenty years ago, pasting an athlete’s face on a cereal box would be positively grand for his brand. But in today’s world, it just doesn’t have the same impact. Instead, social media is coming to the forefront as a premier marketing strategy, since it builds an audience and keeps it in special ways.
PANEL 2: TRUST THE DATA?
Speakers: Matt Mitchell
(Professor of Business Economics, Rotman), Alex Rucker (Senior Analytics Consultant, Toronto Raptors), Reid Mitchell (Director of Scouting Adiministration, Toronto Maple Leafs), Alex Burwasser (Analyst, Bloomberg Sports), and Timothy Chan (Industrial Engineering Professor, University of Toronto)
Appropriately sponsored by Bloomberg Sports, this discussion was the one that brought the most light to the way front offices in sports are run.
A big part of this panel was the relationship between analytics and scouting. In basketball, this is particularly difficult, since there are multiple variables that interfere when scouting prospects. How do you compare a professional in Europe to a college player? Every league plays a different game, and in these situations, it’s almost impossible to judge by stats. The differences in leagues are most glaring in basketball, since the rules are completely different. For instance, in his last year in Europe, Ricky Rubio’s stats were down across the board (4.8 ppg and 4.1 apg in 22 minutes). In his first season in the NBA, Rubio blew these numbers out, almost averaging a double double with 11 and 8. What the numbers don’t take into account are the huge differences between the European game and the American one. In Europe, players are given less freedom to do what they want. There is much more freelancing in the NBA, and because of this, some players are just more suited to play in American leagues than others.
In hockey, the struggle is just as real as it is in basketball. Leagues other than the NHL only keep stats for goals, assists, plus-minus, and penalty minutes, which, as Timothy Chan put it, is “like the NHL twenty years ago.” Advanced metrics are very difficult to find in these leagues, forcing an even stronger emphasis on attributes such as character, size, and play style.
Mentioned as a player who exceeded expectations, Connor Brown posted a horrendous -72 in his draft year. Brown is now leading the OHL by 20 points. Obviously there may be some inflation due to him playing with super-duper prospect Connor McDavid, but as Reid Mitchell said, “I’m not saying he’ll be in the Hall of Fame, but boy he’s got a good start.” Plus-minus is a causal stat, and based on a player’s environment, he may end up either posting a great number or a very disappointing one.
But the panel wasn’t just limited to scouting – if it were, Alex Burwasser and Timothy Chan may have been left without much to say. The importance of “intangibles” and teamwork was in play, with Reid Mitchell placing high importance on both aspects of a player. In fact, traditional metrics were exposed to be of little importance when evaluating a player. However, there’s no doubt that there are statistics that teams use but hide from the public. More than anything, running a team is as much of a competition as what is going on during the matches. Each team is in a battle against each other. And because ultra-competitive people are running them, any kind of advantage will be used and protected.
When a player is performing well because of causal reasons, they become especially difficult to evaluate. Clearly there is no real way to know how good these players really are, which is evidenced by the multitude of bad deals that pro teams make. The Kunitz-Crosby relationship was used as an example: would Kunitz be as successful a player if Crosby were not his linemate? For scouts, it’s not enough to evaluate Kunitz when Crosby is out of the lineup, since with him out, there is a huge amount of cap space that would be filled if Crosby were not playing with him at all. This, however, only applies to salary cap leagues, where strategies that wouldn’t take place otherwise are employed.
In front offices, analytics play a huge role when contracts are being written. We are now seeing teams use more advanced stats than goals or assists when evaluating a player’s value. This often translates to better contracts, and a better way to correctly assess what a player is really worth.
PANEL 3: TWITTER AND THE NEW AGE OF FAN INTERACTION
Speakers: Gurdeep Ahluwalia
(Anchor and Reporter, TSN), Debora Silveira (Senior Account Executive, Twitter Canada), Dave Hopkinson (Chief Commercial Officer, MLSE), Keith Gordon (President, NFL Players Inc.), James Duthie (Host, NHL on TSN)
Featuring people who have been on TV, and hosted by a very cool man, the Twitter panel was one that delved into fan interaction in sports and its growth as a result of social media.
When speaking about “trolls” on social media, James Duthie mentioned “Twitter Terrorism”, an act that him and his co-worker Bob McKenzie often engage in to combat attacks. One such act of Terrorism was when one person tweeted that he would kill Duthie’s son. Enraged, he went on a sleuthing tear that ended with him calling the tweeter’s hockey coach, getting him suspended from the team. In general, these hate tweets are a part of being on social media, and is nearly an expectation at this point. Because of this, it is necessary that public figures are careful about who they respond to and what they say online. As Duthie says, social media is a reflection of society in that most of the people are good, but the ones that are not may have a louder voice. A positive is that these few jerks are also shot down when they do gain traction, a reflection of the good on social media.
In MLSE’s case, Twitter is a huge part of their organization. The Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, and Marlies all follow back, since, as Dave Hopkinson puts it, “if you’re going to have an authentic connection, it needs to be two-ways.” The importance of this philosophy is that there is more fan engagement than if the organization saw it as only one-way street (such as Manchester United), and MLSE sees this two-way interaction as a good investment. An advantage for a company like MLSE is that they can see what fans are saying on a public forum, while engaging in the conversation.
It’s also interesting that some athletes who would be lesser known if it weren’t for Twitter have been able to build their brand through it. An example that was referenced is Paul Bissonnette (@BizNasty2point0), who is, by all rights, a marginal NHL player. Through Twitter, fans were exposed to his wit and humor, something you just don’t get from watching him on the ice. His hockey will always be mediocre on an NHL level, but when you compare him to a player like Phil Kessel, who rarely tweets but is an extremely skilled player, his personality shines through his Twitter account. Players are also given training throughout the year, and are told “don’t put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the newspaper.”
In the athletes’ case, Twitter is even more important because of sponsorships and endorsements. Almost all contracts now have a social media component involved, and because of this, the players could be more guarded than they usually are. A single tweet could change a person’s life.
Athletes will also use Twitter to engage in real-time connections. Twitter can create special moments for fans. Even a retweet or a reply by an athlete is special. Last offseason, Kevin Durant played pick-up with some fans at a local court, making their days. Did this build his brand? Yes, it did. Twitter offers the chance for athletes to maximize their potential as a brand. Because of this, many athletes have teams that help them decide what to tweet. An important note is that the tweets still need to be authentic, in that the athletes need to be themselves when they tweet. Fans want to know the person, not an account run by a group of marketers.