Sports Marketing

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A front page article in today’s Wall Street Journal has my Irish up (and I’m mostly Scotch-German). It concerns the Washington Nationals organization trying to have it both ways — full stadium attendance when the Phillies come to town, but with those seats occupied only by Nationals fans. Currently, this is the work (and job) of one Andrew Feffer.

Feffer is outraged that marauding Phils fans have traveled south to take over the mostly empty Nationals stadium whenever the NL East rivals played. The article cites the usual predictable nasty anecdotes about how horrible the sports fans of Philadelphia are. In this case, vomiting on a local fan’s shoes when he took his father to opening day. Well, there are horrible Philadelphia fans, but they are in the minority. Also, they are in roughly the same proportion as horrible fans from other cities. Philadelphia fans are the polar opposite of fair-weather, they are knowledgeable about their teams and their competitors, and they are passionate enough to take their support on the road.

Philly sports fans are proud to root on their teams even in enemy territory.

Philly sports fans are proud to root on their teams even in enemy territory.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of witnessing this phenomenon while vacationing in Los Angeles with my family. We wanted to take in a Dodgers game that week and were thrilled to learn the Phils were on a West Coast swing. Our only concern was awareness that LA had gotten some serious bad press after Dodgers faithful had beaten a Giants fan nearly to death in the parking lot earlier in the season. Turns out our concerns were unfounded. Like the Nationals, the Dodgers were having real trouble filling seats and as a result Phillies fans turned out in force. It was a great atmosphere and a real kick to watch our team notch a win in someone else’s ballpark. During every trip to the concession stands, a sea of red was high-fiving fellow travelers.

Back on the East Coast, for the past few seasons, Phils fans have actually helped boost the Nationals’ revenue by selling large blocks of tickets that would otherwise have been empty seats. Now, Andrew Feffer is leading an organizational charge to, in his mind, keep the barbarians at the gates. Really sad and shabby idea.

The solution is to field a winning team. The Nationals have been so bad as to be nearly unwatchable in recent years. It’s understandable to not fill seats when your team is terrible. There have been times in recent years, when the Braves and the Marlins had good teams and were unable to fill their stadiums, even at playoff time.  This year, the Nationals have improved from those tough seasons and look like they might be more than competitive. Feffer should trust that winning baseball will attract people to the ballpark. I know there will be at least one. My friend, Glenn, has been a Nats ballpark regular when they were like watching paint dry. THAT’S a fan. Now, it’s thick. Glenn was also there through thin.

Competition is good for sports rivalries. You don’t build a fanbase by keeping other teams’ fans out of your own ballpark. I hope the Nationals new stadium is filled to capacity this weekend. With Nats and Phils fans watching some great baseball, cheering on their teams, and not vomiting on each others’ shoes. Go Phightins!



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Michael Vick is redefining himself and the concept of athlete as role model.

Michael Vick is redefining himself and the concept of athlete as role model.

Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, is in the midst of an amazing run, rewriting NFL record books, making a strong case for his team as SuperBowl contender, but also testing every fan’s personal standard for forgiveness. Last Sunday, my pastor, with his tongue-firmly-in-cheek, gave a sermon noting that it is a lot easier to forgive Michael Vick when he is winning.
The Vick saga is an amazing arc of highs, lows, and now highs again. Ironically, Vick seems to trigger a visceral reaction, even now, among a significant portion of the population, those who own and love dogs. Animal cruelty is an especially heinous crime and one that is hard for people to fathom. Ironically, those on the long list of athletes who mistreat women are judged less harshly over time.
But Michael Vick was not alone in his transgressions. It was an unholy mess of family and friends running a seedy sports betting business built around dog fighting, to include dog torturing and dog killing. However, Vick was substantially and personally involved enough to be found guilty, stripped of his lucrative NFL contract and career, and sent to prison. Having done hard time, last year, he was given something most of us never get — a well defined second chance at the brass ring. To Vick’s credit, he has largely made the most of that opportunity, and in a way that challenges people to rethink how they judge him specifically, and others in general.
Vick has raised his athleticism and QB skills to an incredible level. He has been generous toward spreading offensive opportunities among his teammates. He has also been gracious in recent interviews. There hasn’t been a hint of vindictiveness toward detractors. He seems to exhibit a quality all of us claim to value, but its appearance is so rare that we seldom know how to react to it. Vick understands personal accountability. He knows that he was ultimately responsible for his own downfall and he went to prison for it. Even after paying that price, he does not appear to be embittered by the experience. Instead, he has been motivated to become a better person and (gasp) a role model. Today, he makes time to speak to students and others about his experience and why animal cruelty is so wrong.
Although I am an Eagles fan, I would love to see Vick continue his amazing personal turnaround even if he were helming the Cowboys (blasphemy). What a powerful message to send to people of all ages. That we are all human, capable of horrendous mistakes, but also of turning things around by working hard and changing course.
That brings me to my original premise, which is the tipping point at which personal redemption adds up to regained advertising endorsement contracts. My pastor and reveal that I am late to the party on this subject. However, I would also like to suggest a seemingly outrageous endorsement op — Michael Vick and any major dog food company. It would be an instant buzz generator (fiercely argued about on both sides). Alpo, once long and successfully associated with Lorne Greene because of his Bonanza popularity, could tell a different story of image and reality with Michael Vick as endorser. PetSmart could show how smart they are at leveraging media moments by signing a controversial spokesperson. That’s quite a chance for big corporations to take, but Michael Vick could sweeten the deal, by donating his earnings from the contract to the SPCA. Good things can come out of even the worst of circumstances. You just have to work hard to make them happen.

Update: Michael Vick has his first endorsement deal and it’s not dog food!

Update 2: This is what I meant by Vick provoking visceral reactions. Here is a well-stated opposing opinion from one of Newton Associates’s friends, Lonny Strum, an experienced consultant, a knowledgeable sports fan, and a customer (former) of the car dealership that has Michael Vick at the center of its new ad campaign. It underscores the risk of nearly every celebrity endorsement deal and why Vick is riskier than most. This is why nearly everything Vick does of this nature needs to be balanced with a charitable component.

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