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It's March Madness time. That's good news for college hoops fans—and for sports media outlets and advertisers
1. Digital Madness! NCAA Tourney Awaits, MMOD Readies
Unbelievably, it's already March, with its lambs, lions, shamrocks, Ides, brackets, widgets, and ultimately, Madness. Selection Sunday is upon us this weekend, with NCAA Division I men's tournament games beginning Mar. 19. Are you ready for some basketball?
Sports media outlets and advertisers are. CBSSports.com has sold nearly $30 million in advertising for March Madness On Demand (MMOD), which launches Mar. 10, over 20% more than last year's record sales of $23 million. The network expects to surpass easily last year's nearly 4.8 million unique users of the site, which streams live video of all NCAA men's tournament games over 10 days of competition. For advertisers, this is a gold mine, since the majority of viewers belong to the coveted 25- to 54-year-old male college grad, high-income demographic.
AT&T (T), Coca-Cola (KO), and Pontiac are 2009 presenting sponsors for MMOD; more than three dozen other brands have signed on to advertise on the site. General Motors (GM), however, has cut its Final Four spending by 60% and may not renew its 25-year sponsorship with the NCAA. The company reported a net fourth-quarter loss of $9.6 billion.
CBSSports.com will also bring back its developer platform for this year's MMOD, allowing third-party Web sites one-click access to the network's online coverage of the tournament. This year, the program will include such sites as USAToday.com, CBS affiliates TV.com and CNET.com, and Web sites for local CBS stations. Also new to the offering this year are widgets and applications that allow official CBS tournament content (including brackets and scores) into third-party blogs and other sites. The program helped spur 164% year-over-year growth in MMOD unique visitors; ad revenue rose by $13 million over the same period.
CBS claims that the increase in MMOD viewers has not cut into television ratings, largely because most of the MMOD usage occurs during workday hours. This, of course, helps fuel the annual estimates of lost workplace productivity put forth by employment monitor Challenger, Gray & Christmas—they put the 2008 lost-productivity number at about $2 billion, hardly good news for managers everywhere struggling to get along with smaller staff.
2. NCAA Basketball at Conference Championships
By comparison to their scarcer football brethren, the televised NCAA basketball conference championship tournaments almost seem like an afterthought—and for teams that have already clinched a berth in the big dance, they seem a lower-energy dress rehearsal where the goal is to not damage the all-important tournament seed. Television ratings are generally down for the tournaments, as the games tend to drag on. And March Madness bracketeers are only concerned about outcomes that they can get off of any comprehensive sports site—who placed where, and who remained healthy.
But like most other sports entities this year, diminished ticket sales and travel plans are causes for concern for local tournament organizers in such cities as Indianapolis (Conseco Fieldhouse is home to the Big Ten tourney), Memphis (FedEx Forum, home to Conference USA), Richmond (the Colonial Athletic Assn.'s home this week), and Oklahoma City (Ford Center, home of the Big 12).
In Tampa, ticket sales for the Southeastern Conference tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum are so slow that some schools have reduced ticket prices, according to the Birmingham News. A conference official indicated that only about 17,000 tickets have been sold for the 20,500-seat facility. All-session ticket packs for the four-day, 11-game tournament were priced initially at $300; some SEC schools have lowered single-session tickets to a more affordable $50. Even the ACC tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, which holds 53,000 for basketball games and is always one of the toughest tickets in sports, has made some of its tickets available to the general public for the first time ever.
There is a bright spot in the West. At Las Vegas' Orleans Arena, all-session ticket allotments to participating West Coast Conference schools have sold out, and tournament-goers have booked more than 2,500 hotel rooms.
3. NBA: Loan Rangers
In the pro basketball realm, the NBA announced last week that it has a $200 million line of credit, $175 million of which is reportedly borrowed, available to the 15 out of 30 NBA teams that indicated in a survey they might be interested in tapping into the fund. Since the survey, a dozen teams have stepped forward to indicate strong interest or a real intent to borrow, including the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns, both of which have confirmed they will borrow some of the funds, and the New Orleans Hornets, who are filling their arena at 97.6% of capacity on average this season.
Each of the 12 teams will have $13 million to $20 million available for whatever purpose it deems appropriate, including covering operating losses. According to SportsBusiness Journal, the private placement deal will carry interest rates of up to 8.27% on $100 million and 7.45% on $75 million. The deal was arranged by Bank of America (BAC) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM).
Yet the underperforming Minnesota Timberwolves have unveiled arguably the NBA's most unique means of dealing with the down economy. They're offering a "No-Risk Pledge" to fans, guaranteeing a season-ticket refund if fans lose their jobs prior to Jan. 1, 2010. If fans lose their job after the season begins, the discount will be prorated.
4. World Baseball Classic at Bat, Spring Training Struggling at the Plate
So far, ticket sales for the 2009 World Baseball Classic are pacing comfortably ahead of the inaugural 2006 edition; television ratings, as expected, are outpacing local and regional broadcasts of MLB exhibition games; and the MLB Network and ESPN are receiving high marks for their coverage of the games. ESPN Deportes is airing all 39 WBC games; there's also a special WBC section on ESPNDeportes.com.
And this before Classic games officially hit mainland U.S. soil this weekend in Miami and San Diego.
Last week, World Baseball Classic Inc. also announced that it is distributing more than $15 million from this year's Classic to participating national federations and the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). The prize pool is $14 million: Teams are guaranteed a minimum of $300,000 for participating, with the winner receiving $2.7 million, while the IBAF is receiving more than $1 million to invest in baseball's global development.
Meanwhile, from sunny Florida to Arizona, smaller-than-expected crowds have sent a shiver through MLB officials, owners, and staff presiding over baseball's spring training season.
At Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., attendance at Florida Marlins' and St. Louis Cardinals' games was down around 20% the first week of play. Last Tuesday, the Marlins drew a mere 3,611 fans for a game against the WBC Dominican Republic team. In Port St. Lucie, attendance for the Mets at the 7,350-seat Tradition Field is down 15% from last year, according to The Palm Beach Post, while the Orioles have seen an increase in Fort Lauderdale only when they hosted the Boston Red Sox last week. As usual, however, World Series teams are drawing well—the world champion Phillies' audiences are up around 29%, and the Rays are seeing an impressive 40% more in the new Charlotte Sports Park.
In Tucson, the Diamondbacks are averaging 5,072 fans per game at Tucson Electric Park, down almost 1,000 from the same period last season. The housing crisis has hit hard in the Phoenix area, affecting the spring training season. Through the first 11 days of games, average attendance was 4,472, according to The Arizona Republic, down from 5,719 at a similar point in 2008. At Hohokam Stadium, the Cubs still lead the Cactus League in attendance, but they're drawing about 3,000 fewer fans than last year, when they averaged 12,805 a game.
5. International Accord Reached: Beckham to Stay in Milan Until June
The peace treaty was signed and sealed over the weekend, so now it's official—David Beckham is arrivederci.
The Los Angeles Galaxy/AC Milan midfielder will rejoin the Galaxy in July after getting his wish and being allowed to stay on loan with the Italian Serie A club for the remainder of the season through May 31, which will also leave him eligible to play for England in future international matches—including the 2010 World Cup. Under the auspices of the international transfer agreement, Beckham must wait until July 15 to rejoin the Los Angeles club, thus missing the first 17 games of a 30-game season. His buyout clause goes into effect at the end of the 2009 calendar year.
For MLS and the Galaxy in particular, the return of their No. 1 marketing icon and box-office draw is drawing a vast sigh of relief—even though the Galaxy has pledged to cut ticket prices by an average of 10% as partial restitution for the pain and suffering the Beckham bickering caused diehard fans. (Rollback refunds will be issued to those who have already purchased tickets.) Beckham's $6.5 million salary won't count against the salary cap until he returns, the Galaxy and AEG will keep sponsors happy, and you can bet that single-ticket sales for matches after July 18, when he is slated to return to the team in New York against the Red Bulls, will skyrocket on the secondary market in light of his 13-match (or fewer) farewell tour.
In related news this week, Miami withdraws its bid for an MLS franchise. The ownership group, which included FC Barcelona, cited adverse market conditions as the reason for backing out.
6. BNP Paribas Adds Desert Sand to Terre Battue
As the new sports section of The Wall Street Journal tells us (see below), the number of tennis balls players will use during the two-week run of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., is 12,000. But that number is mini tennis compared with the multimillions BNP Paribas paid for the rights to the first major tennis event of the season in America that combines players from both the ATP and the WTA tours.
In 2008, more than 330,000 tennis fans—the most of any tournament outside of the four Slams—attended the former Pacific Life Open to see more than 250 of the world's top-ranked tennis players compete in and around the second-largest tennis stadium in the world. (New York's Arthur Ashe is the largest.) In 2009, attendance is likely going to be slightly down if the tournament trends like other sporting events this year, but the prize money is up: $4,500,000 in total purse, with equal amounts going to the male and female champions for the first time.
While it's perhaps best known for being title sponsor of the French Open in Paris, BNP Paribas (BNPP), one of the three healthiest banks left standing in the world at present, according to Standard & Poor's, has been actively involved in tennis since 1973 and is currently the world's No. 1 tennis sponsor. The bank has also been title sponsor of the Davis Cup since 2001; the Fed Cup since 2005; and the BNP Paribas Masters since 1986. BNP Paribas also supports numerous other international competitions such as the WTA Bank of the West Classic in California and the Monte Carlo Masters Series.
Meanwhile, in a different desert, organizers of the controversial Dubai WTA proceedings last week appealed the record $300,000 fine the association levied against the event. Dubai Duty Free Managing Director Colm McLoughlin forwarded the appeal to WTA CEO Larry Scott, claiming the refusal to grant a visa to Israeli player Shahar Peer was out of tournament organizers' control. According to Scott, the WTA board will hear the appeal at its meeting in Madrid in May.
Fears of demonstrations and protests against Israel also forced last week's first-round Davis Cup match between Sweden and Israel in Malmö, Sweden, to be played in a closed arena, without fans.
7. Event Hosting Limited by Pakistan Attacks
Terrorist attacks on Tuesday, Mar.. 3, on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan have led high-profile sports officials to question future event hosting on the Indian subcontinent.
The attack on a team bus in Lahore left six police officers and two civilians dead, and five Sri Lankan cricketers and a coach injured. The Indian Premier League (IPL) will reschedule matches after rejecting a government minister's request to postpone the cricket tournament because of security concerns and a timing clash with the Indian elections. Pakistan may lose its role as a co-host of the 2011 Cricket World Cup as a result, and may also be forced to play in neutral venues as the "home team."
Australia stopped touring in Pakistan after 9/11, and all negotiations since then have failed to persuade athletes from that country to return. New Zealand, the West Indies, South Africa, and India have all canceled or amended events with Pakistan over the past six years because of worries about security. However, President of the Australian Commonwealth Games Assn. Perry Crosswhite said the Commonwealth Games Federation will discuss the latest incident, but there were "no plans" to relocate the 2010 Commonwealth Games away from India.
8. Wall Street Journal Adds Sports Section
The Wall Street Journal is going green. Taking a page from the San Francisco Chronicle with its green newsprint border, the business-oriented newspaper is turning to sports to increase circulation, as the Journal has decided to expand its sports coverage to six days a week, both in print and online. The new print section was published for the first time Mar. 3, replacing a Fridays-only sports page that was introduced a year ago.
The WSJ's sports section will distinguish itself from others by producing "analytical articles and statistics- and graphics-laden packages that put a forward-looking spin on the news," Sports Editor Sam Walker said. The move is part of Rupert Murdoch's plan to compete head-to-head with The New York Times and other media outlets.
The auto industry has expressed interest in advertising in the new section. The troubles of Detroit's Big Three are well documented, with no American automaker advertising during the Super Bowl for the first time since 2001. While the Super Bowl ad strategy was a winner until the economy went south, especially with middle-class car buyers, it will be interesting to see how automakers market to the more affluent readers of the WSJ.
9. Fighting Weight, or Fighting to Keep the Weight Off?
With his off-season, Wii Fit weight-loss program, San Diego Padres righty Heath Bell got us thinking about what it takes to be a champion in professional sports. So we decided to take a look at the average body-mass indexes of every athlete of recent championship teams. Although most of these athletes are in peak physical condition, consider this: a BMI between 25 and 29.9 indicates that one is overweight, 30-39.9 is in the obese range, and greater than 40 means extremely obese. Somewhere, training tables are groaning.
Detroit Red Wings
Jimmie Johnson, Nascar driver
*Pittsburgh Steelers OG Chris Kemoeatu had the highest BMI of any athlete examined at 43. Other athletes of note: Kevin Garnett (22.5), Ryan Howard (31.2), Ben Roethlisberger (28.5), and Henrik Zetterberg (27.2).
10. Mascot Mayhem
Last week, a Massachusetts man was fined $500 for assaulting a Chuck E. Cheese mascot that he thought was harassing his son. While Mr. Cheese is not a pro sports mascot (not yet, anyway—give him time), many teams' mascots have been attacked. Here are the top five mascot assaults of all time:
5. Rocky the Mountain Lion—In April 1995, the Denver Nuggets' mascot challenged Charles Barkley to a friendly boxing match. Known for his bad temper and refusal to be a role model, the not-so-friendly Barkley knocked the Mountain Lion out cold.
4. Guido the Italian Sausage—A staple at any Milwaukee Brewers game is the infamous sausage race. On July 9, 2003, as the sausages were passing the visitor's dugout, Pirates first baseman Randall Simon hit the head of Guido with a baseball bat. Simon was arrested, paid a fine, and was suspended three games by MLB. When Simon returned to Miller Park later that year, he bought Italian sausages for everyone in a randomly chosen section.
3. Oski vs. the Tree—The bad blood between Cal and Stanford has been spilling over for years, so understandably, the mascots do not like each other, either. During a nationally televised basketball game in February 1995, Oski Bear and the Stanford Tree engaged in such a vicious fight that the two had to be separated by police.
2. Phillie Phanatic—According to the Phillies Marketing Dept., the Phillie Phanatic stands 6-foot-5, weighs in at 300 pounds, and is the most sued mascot in pro sports. None of that deterred diminutive L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda from assaulting the mascot during a 1988 ballgame after the Phanatic stomped on a life-size Lasorda dummy.
1. Swoop—Philadelphia mascots sure know how to stir up trouble, but unlike the