Your Pre-Olympics “Cashing In” Preview

16 Jul

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we’re thinking of declaring a 6-week vacation for the Olympics…like the WNBA.

One of the things I find most fascinating about sports and marketing is how little-known athletes can do something great and burst onto the scene, become national darlings, cash in on their fame with one or more endorsement deals and then fade away almost as quickly.  Sometimes these figures become enduring legends (think Mary Lou Retton or Brandi Chastain), and can parlay their accomplishments into a lifelong career.  But most of the time, the only things these athletes have after 6-12 months are the medals they won and the cash they earned while they were still in the limelight.

Each time an Olympics comes around, I try to predict which athletes will emerge in similar fashion.  So…which under-the-radar athletes will captivate America, get their face on a Wheaties box and cash in on their fame during/after the 2012 London Olympics – and maybe even become a legend?  Try these three:

1)  Jordyn Wieber, gymnastics.  This one’s easy, folks.  Every four years America’s Fabulous Five dominate discussion for 1-2 weeks, and at least one of them becomes one of the faces of the Games for the USA.  In Beijing, it was Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin.  This year my money’s on Jordyn Wieber.  She’s as accomplished, rock solid and cool under pressure as any member of Team USA – which is why she has emerged as the de facto leader of the squad.  And it doesn’t hurt that the team is favored to win gold.  Talk about photo ops.

2)  Missy Franklin, swimming.  She dominated the Olympic trials and will be swimming about as many events in London as Michael Phelps – so the Olympics should be her coming-out party on the big stage.  Natalie Coughlin, Phelps and all the USA swimming greats call her the next big thing.  And she’s 17, meaning she should be no flash in the pan.  Get ready to hear about Missy for a long time to come.

3)  Ashton Eaton, track and field.  He’s the best athlete you’ve never heard of – he’s a top decathlete, and a world record holder in the heptathlon.  If he lives up to form and can win gold in the decathlon (and officially earn the title of world’s best athlete), why can’t he join sprinters like Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin on the track and field mantle?

Honorable Mention: Ryan Lochte, Allyson Felix and Hugh McCutcheon.  But these athletes and coach aren’t really under the radar…

That’s all for now.  I’m out like Blake Griffin.

(Photo Credits: all photos from TeamUSA.org)

Advertisements

So, for Penn State Football…Now What?

12 Jul

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the ESPYs were cancelled years ago.

Beaver Stadium on gameday (photo credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP)

The big sports-related story today, of course, is the announcement of the report detailing the results of Louis Freeh’s (and team’s) investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.  I’ve blogged on this before, so I’ll suffice it to say for now that once again today I’m absolutely sick at what happened.  I hope that proper respect and restitution is paid to the victims, and I hope that those who are guilty pay the appropriate price for their dastardly deeds.  I think Christine Brennan of USA Today makes a pretty good statement here too…

Today, I’d like to focus on one (and perhaps under-reported, if that’s possible) angle of all this: sanctions on the football team itself.  The question has come up whether or not the NCAA or another governing body will impose any sanctions on the football program for the misdeeds of administrators and Paterno.  I’ve heard it argued both ways…but most of the talking heads right now don’t seem to want current program members to pay for the mistakes of those before them.    An interesting take, considering all that’s at stake here.

Personally, and with my PR hat on, I don’t think the NCAA, the Big Ten Conference and anyone else with a pulse has a choice: they have to punish Penn State, and come down hard.  The University, AND the football program.  Think of it from a public perception; unless you’re an alum, or a former PSU player, or someone with direct ties to the program, you identify most with the organization responsible for this scandal through its appearance on the field on fall Saturdays.  To the average Joe (no pun intended), to recruits and to the broader community, that IS Penn State football.  So, if no punishment is imposed that affected the program on the field, the average participant might not think anything happened at all.  Which, of course, isn’t even on the same planet of relevance…considering this is the most significant sports scandal of our time, and maybe any time.

So, what type of punishment is appropriate?  Obviously, punishment should be commensurate with the crime…and programs have been given the death penalty for less.  I’ll leave it to others to make this decision, but I think it would be well within the means of the NCAA and the Big Ten to shut down PSU football for a year or more until things get sorted out, the program and culture change, etc.  It would be an incredibly drastic step, one I’m not sure they have the cajones to take given the significance (and revenue-ability) of PSU football.

It’s unfortunate that innocent players, coaches, gameday staff and the like would have to pay for the mistakes of others, sure.  But let’s keep this in perspective, people…innocent people already have paid for mistakes.  Kids were raped.  By people who they trusted to keep them safe.  The abuse was covered up.  More kids were molested after the cover-up occurred, according to today’s report…which means that at least one if not several rapes should have been prevented.  This is as low as it gets, and it just so happens that it’s tied into Penn State and its football program.  The real victims here are the kids and their families, and to suggest anything else just seems to me to be out of whack.

That’s all for now.   I’m out like the American League.

The Handler…Exposed

19 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where it doesn’t take the better part of two weeks to play the College World Series.

(photo credit: Deadspin.com)

I learned this morning that Deadspin now has a regular contributor called “The Handler,” a self-described PR pro with several high-profile athlete clients.  In this second piece in the series, this author tries to expose what he feels the world of working with athletes is really like – deceitful and sordid.  Now, having worked with athletes myself, I don’t doubt any of the alleged stories/details described in the column, as unfortunate as that is to say.  And I won’t even say that The Handler isn’t committed to his clients’ success, as any good PR pro should be.  But…as an accredited and seasoned PR pro myself, I’m concerned about a few things I see in the piece.

First – I’m bothered by The Handler’s apparent motivations here.  In the PR business, our clients and our companies get the spotlight; we are the counselors behind the scenes that help facilitate success, and then over time we build a reputation for good work and high integrity among our peers.  By even writing this piece, it’s clear to me that The Handler is isolated from other pros and tired of watching his clients get all the attention, and he wants some for himself.  Or, at least, he wants some credit for his self-described “professional accomplishments”…which really won’t come anyway because third parties assign credit/expertise, not individuals for themselves.  Ultimately, besides the money Deadspin is likely shelling out for the series, I’d bet The Handler won’t be fulfilled from writing this piece.  Attention and credit are impossible to receive when there’s no one earning the credit or no name for anyone to give attention/credit to.

Second – there are potential ethics breaches that come from this.  On the plus side, The Handler is contributing to the free flow of information and fostering open communication about a subject matter.  He also protects confidential information about his clients…only by not naming them.  (That, of course, would blow up in his face – and likely end his career – if his identity leaks out somehow.)

But that’s where it ends.  Without giving all the details (especially names) the public only gets some of the story and has to guess at the rest.  That’s no way to establish the facts and open up a truly productive debate about the issue at hand.  Also, what self-respecting PR pro in his right mind goes anonymous?  Quite simply, that’s code for “I’m afraid” or the cardinal sin of PR itself, “No comment;” it implies guilt and suggests that even by coming clean, The Handler has called his professionalism and integrity into question.   Finally, and most important, one of the key ethical tenets of PR is to work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession and our clients; if we are not trustworthy, and seen as high-integrity, we cannot function as PR people.  I fear the average Joe reading this will now (again) associate PR with spin doctoring, covering up facts and protecting clients at all costs, legal and illegal.  That’s not what I want others thinking about what we do…because that’s NOT what we do.

Apparently, this column isn’t going away…Deadspin, after all, loves sensational stories that will grab web traffic.  Unfortunately, I have a hunch that means this could be the first of many posts reminding readers of the truths and practices of the PR industry that I know and love, inside and outside of the sports world.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like LaDainian Tomlinson.

Thoughts on Norwood Teague

15 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where all NBA basketball games are played with the intensity and passion that the Finals are.

Norwood Teague (photo credit: AJ Mansour, KFAN.com)

Next Monday, Norwood Teague starts as the new Athletics Director at my beloved University of Minnesota.  He replaces Joel Maturi, who ran the department for more than 10 years to mixed reviews.  Many people have asked for my thoughts on the hire, both personal and with my PR hat on, so I thought I’d capture them here.

First, I think the hire tells you some things about the new University president Eric Kaler and his administration.  For one, he’s not afraid to delegate important items to others.  Also, he believes the course the University is already on is the right one, and needs to be properly shaped as opposed to completely overhauled.  Nowhere is this more evident than in context of the football program, which had flashes of competence in the 2000s but not much else to speak of since a run of national titles in the early 1960s.  Jerry Kill will be starting his second year as head coach this fall, and Kaler clearly feels Kill is the right guy long-term for the program.  Why?  It’s not just that he gave him a 7-year extension after his first conference win last year.  It’s also that Teague, the new AD, has no experience running a top-tier football program.  At VCU, Teague had no football team, and at North Carolina Teague wasn’t responsible for football.  Bottom line – it’s Kill’s program, for better or worse, and Teague’s hire was meant to bolster other areas of the program that needed it.

Second, Teague is known as a fundraiser – which will be a GREAT fit for the Gophers.  The U of M has several needs…a new basketball practice facility, upgrades/renovations to Williams Arena and other facilities and more booster donations to offset wildly unpopular ticket price hikes, to name a few.  Teague’s track record in this area will enable him to notch both quick and long-term wins, which should make a big difference on the program.

Third, Teague’s crowning achievement at VCU was the rise of the basketball program, which went to the 2011 Final Four and the 2012 Sweet 16 as the ultimate Cinderella.  Teague gets the credit for finding and hiring Shaka Smart, and for facilitating the success of the squad.  It is with men’s basketball that the University of Minnesota has the greatest chance for near-term success in a revenue sport; the Gophers are projected to be a top-25 team and a top-four finisher in the ultra-tough Big Ten in the 2012-2013 season, so the cupboard is far from bare.  If anyone can make a tweak here and there, and help the program return to sustained national prominence quickly, it’s Teague.  Then, with basketball rolling along, he can invest in other areas of the department…one team’s success will breed other’s, just like it has at Ohio State, Texas and other major schools.  It’s akin to building a house one brick at a time – with a solid foundation to go on, the house could stay strong and last a long time.

All in all, I like the hire.  Time will tell, of course, but even despite the lack of direct experience with football it seems like the U hired the kind of guy that can help fix the department’s greatest weaknesses…and that’s encouraging.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like the Houston Astros on Wednesday night.

BCS or Playoff, or Both?

13 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the Stanley Cup forever reigns as the greatest prize in sports.  Seeing it always gives us chills.

Quick update: a little while ago I wrote about the University of North Dakota and its nickname controversy.  Just yesterday ND voters elected to drop the nickname, in the latest sign that reason is winning out over passion.  This quote from Tim O’Keefe, EVP and CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, says it all: “The price of keeping the name is simply too high.”  Exactly.  I know it’s painful, North Dakotans, but you’ve done the right thing.

What a 2011 playoff might have looked like (photo credit: ufrsports.com)

Meanwhile, as we speak, big shots from the major college sports conferences are in meetings in Chicago to debate the future of the BCS and whether or not to initiate a playoff for college football.  My thoughts?

This blog has long been a proponent of a playoff, and that hasn’t changed.  I think it’s ludicrous that the national championship isn’t decided on the field, like it is at just about every other level of every kind of sport.  Done right, such a set-up leaves an undisputed champion – and a ton of revenue and buzz, a la the NCAA basketball tournament.  Personally, I’d support a four, six or eight-team seeded tournament, with all games at neutral sites.  Select the teams with a selection committee, like in basketball, and let the chips fall where they may.  This is what is needed for the game…a pure process where biases, conflicts of interest and the like are as far removed as possible.

That said, as a former band member/letterwinner at the Big Ten’s University of Minnesota, I’m admittedly a bit of a purist.  The Rose Bowl is part of our DNA in this part of the world, and ever since birth I’ve been looking forward to the day that I could follow my team to Pasadena for a Rose Bowl.  I didn’t have the honor during my years wearing the maroon and gold, although we got close.  And in many ways, I’d rather see the Gophers play once in the Rose Bowl than two or three times in a college football playoff – it’s about the experience of it all.  Yet I understand that if/when changes are made, said experience will fundamentally and forever change.  I get it, and I think it’s necessary for the greater good, but I’ll still hold out hope that the Gophers are playing a title game someday…for the Roses.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like the Boston Celtics.