The Top 14 Sports PR Stories of 2014
By: Natalie Mikolich
There’s no better reality show than the exciting world of sports we live in and all the victories, dramas and incredible athletic performances that unfold in front of our eyes on the fields, courts and many other arenas around the world, and 2014 did not disappoint us with the excitement we expected to come from it.
For those of us who work in the sports industry and sports public relations area in particular, 2014 was unlike many previous years with numerous sports stories not only making front page headlines, but also the PR surrounding them demonstrating just how vital public relations is to many aspects of the sports business industry when it comes to dealing with crises, managing public image and perceptions, making important public announcements and much more.
From the first cold weather Super Bowl in history to the Sochi Winter Olympics, World Cup, World Series and major crises encountered by the largest global brands and leagues such as the NFL and NBA, here is a look at the top 14 sports PR stories that made headlines in 2014 starting from the Super Bowl at the beginning of the year and ending with the World Series:
1.Super Bowl XLVIII Cold Weather Touchdown
Starting things off in 2014 for sports PR stories of the year was the first cold-weather Super Bowl in history making its debut in New Jersey and the surrounding New York areas. Projected to be the most expensive Super Bowl put on by the NFL Committee in history the past 48 years, Super Bowl XLVIII between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks generated enormous amounts of media exposure and publicity before game day and following it due to several factors including the weather, ticket prices, the projected economic impact and poor game day transportation.
Being the first cold weather Super Bowl, every media outlet from ESPN to the Weather Channel were buzzing about the big uncertainty on whether or not a possible snow storm would impact the quality of the game and fan turn out in the stadium. Causing on-going changes in the ticket prices, this was reported constantly by the sports business media in the weeks and days leading-up to kick-off. Even more than the numerous media reports and coverage on the weather, ticket prices and what kind of economic impact Super Bowl XLVIII would have on the local area, what generated nearly just as much media coverage following the game was the mass transit problems fans experienced with the New Jersey Transit system. And, although the next day story was mainly about the “mass transit mess” Super Bowl XLVIII fans encountered, in the end it will be remembered for the millions of dollars it generated for the projects and inner cities areas of New Jersey and New York City.
“I think the lasting impression of Super Bowl 48 was of the weather being good and a great win for the Seahawks. The transit mess was actually solved pretty quickly, and the legacy of the game that lives on is that millions were raised for projects in inner cities in the area.” –Joe Favorito, Sports Public Relation & Strategic Communications Expert
2.2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Win
Like past Summer and Winter Olympics, Sochi 2014 faced the concern of possible terrorist threats and increased security measures put in place to prevent them prior to the start of the games. With this being reported by sports and news outlets around the world in the months leading-up to the Opening Ceremonies, it left many travelers feeling unsettled about their journey to Sochi, including the Olympians competing in the Games. In addition, the negative perception of Sochi 2014 was amplified before the Opening Ceremonies even commenced with some of the first reporters arriving in Sochi reporting endlessly about the massive stray dog problem and poor/unfinished living conditions in the Olympic Village. Poking fun at just how bad Sochi’s $51 billion Winter Olympics were going to be, a @SochiProblems twitter account was even started and generated over 331,000 followers with tweets sent out throughout the Games highlighting the comical incidences occurring in Sochi.
However, despite the unsafe and unsanitary perception the public had of Sochi before the Games started, once the athletic events got underway there was little-to-no coverage on all the things that could possibly go wrong (and all the stray dogs). Instead, the media coverage and reports shifted to the record-breaking performances by the Olympians on the slopes, slides and in the rinks. In the end, not only did Sochi 2014 go off without a hitch (well except maybe for one of their Opening Ceremony Olympic Rings failing to open all the way), but for the most part, both the media and athletes left the public with a positive, reassuring perception of Sochi 2014 negating the original stories about the safety concerns, poor living conditions and stray dogs.
“I got to Sochi about a week before the opening ceremony and frankly was surprised at how well it was all working. I didn’t see a lot of dogs and the amenities weren’t great, but I never had a problem, never felt unsafe, never thought security was too lax or too tough. I don’t think it was the best Olympics of the seven I’ve been lucky enough to attend, but it was far better than any of us expected it would be. –Tim Reynolds, Associated Press Reporter
3.Michael Sam’s Historical Announcement
In perhaps one of the most well-orchestrated sports PR campaigns of the year, Michael Sam’s PR strategy surrounding his historical announcement was key for its success. Following Michael Sam’s decision in 2014 to share publicly that he was gay, together with his publicist Michael Bragman they carefully selected which reporters they trusted and wanted to tell his story first, and accurately.
Knowing it was going to be a big sports story, Sam’s news first broke in an in-depth article by Sports Reporter John Branch with The New York Times and Chris Connelly with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” Immediately following this, the NFL released a statement supporting Sam and together the combined efforts resulted in an immediate positive impact and public reaction.
Along with strategically deciding which outlets and reporters Sam wanted to share his announcement with first, his publicist also carefully determined the timing of his announcement so that it came out two weeks before the NFL Combine in order to be completely transparent with any NFL Teams who could potentially be drafting Sam. Although they were criticized for the timing of his announcement, Sam and his publicist wanted everyone to know that he had nothing to hide. With many acknowledging Sam for his announcement, Sam ended 2014 by being prominently profiled with GQ Magazine as one of their “Men of the Year.”
4.The Offensive & Defensives Plays of the NBA by Adam Silver & Donald Sterling
Recently being named the “worst sports communicator of 2014” in an article released by USA Today Sports in December 2014, former NBA Team Owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, swirled in a PR crisis nightmare this year following the release of his racist comments by TMZ recorded by his girlfriend.
With both Sterling and his legal representation refusing to publicly comment on the situation and leaving media inquiries for interviews completely unanswered, it wasn’t until his exclusive interview months later with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Sterling surfaced in the public eye. In what we assume was a PR effort to improve Sterling’s reputation with the public, his interview on CNN’s “AC 360” only tarnished it even further with his comments slamming Magic Johnson amongst other racist statements made during the segment with Anderson Cooper.
On the flip side of the coin, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, was praised for his prompt PR response and professional handling of the situation that occurred with LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Within three days of the release of Sterling’s recorded conversation, Silver held a press conference and gave a formal statement saying that “the views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful” and that they were “contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league.” Silver banned Sterling for life from the NBA, fined him the maximum penalty and forced the sale of the LA Clippers to former Microsoft CEO, Steve Balmer.
“What made the Commissioner Silver press conference so strong was that the emphasis was on the swift action the NBA was taking – not just words he was saying or plans he was proposing." –Kevin Sullivan, Founder of Sullivan Communications, Crisis PR Expert and former representative for White House, the U.S. Department of Education, NBC Universal, NBC Sports and the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks
5.Roger Goodell & the NFL Huddle on Domestic Violence
Topping the Associated Press’ #1 sports story of the year is the NFL’s domestic violence situation that spiraled into what was the biggest sports PR crisis of 2014 shortly following the release of a video by TMZ on September 8th showing Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancée (now wife) unconscious in a casino elevator. On September 12th, one of the league’s biggest stars, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, was indicted on felony child abuse charges for the disciplining of son.
Being named the #1 worst communicator of 2014 in an article by USA Today Sports, it took NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, seven days following Adrian Peterson’s felony charges to finally surface and hold what was said to be a “regrettable” press conference on September 19th. Not making matters any better in his press conference performance where he was grilled by outraged reporters, Goodell dodged more questions than he answered. Even current NFL players criticized Goodell’s comments with live tweets during the press conference. With Goodell and the NFL emerging from this with a serious image problem, they were not only shamed by the public, but also lost a promotion with sponsor Crest after being forced to attempt to answer the tough questions. Despite the public relations nightmare the NFL and Goodell faced in the biggest fumble of 2014 though, its popularity and television ratings have never been higher.
6.World Cup 2014 Scores Big
With all eyes on World Cup following Sochi 2014, World Cup 2014 was said to be arguably the best one yet from shocks to breakouts before Germany lifted the trophy at the end. On pitch, there were stories that grabbed headlines for both the right and wrong reasons amidst the security concerns and ticket scalping, brand wars (such as Nike vs. Adidas and Beats by Dre vs. Sony headphones) and the incredible on-field player performances.
In the U.S. though, the biggest story of all was how the World Cup captivated Americans throughout the entire summer from watch parties to increased television viewership numbers with both Univision and ESPN having record ratings showing a more general acceptance of soccer in the U.S. even if it is uncertain how long it will last for. Globally, the World Cup finals recorded more social media mentions than any other sporting event with 280 million Facebook interaction taking place and close to 619,000 tweets per minute during Germany vs. Argentina. As for Brazil, they will now have the world and media buzzing as the Rio Summer Olympics 2016 quickly approach with World Cup showing that they are now prepared to stage a great Olympics in 2016.
“The World Cup demonstrated the true reach of social media on a global scale, for better or worse. In some ways, it affirms the international power and value of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but it also confirmed to big brands, many who concentrate their marketing efforts only in the States, that the huge numbers of social media users are often beyond the US's border and may not be viable customer leads. The value of media properties and official partnership rights is continuing to grow, in some facets, while being threatened in others.
The live viewing and engaging components of live sports like the World Cup offer a unique, highly-valued opportunity for brands and partners. But the onslaught of ambush marketing by non-official partners riding the coattails of the events will continue to be a glaring issue moving forward. In the same vein in regards to live, engaged viewers/fans, the desire, and ability, for brands and teams to be reactive and nimble, while remaining responsible and thoughtful, in their content creation is continuing to emerge. “–Neil Horowitz, Social and Digital Media Marketing Professional
7.Tony Stewart Crashes NASCAR’s Summer
For someone like NASCAR’s three-time champion Tony Stewart who touches nearly every part of auto racing, the tragedy that took place on August 9th when Stewart’s car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. is something that both Stewart and NASCAR will be lucky to walk away from without a scratch. Although Stewart and his team’s initial decision to allow him to race the next day following Ward’s death was said to be purely a business decision, once it was met with harsh backlash by the public he quickly backtracked and followed it up instead with a public statement the next day expressing his deep condolences about the tragic events that occurred.
Turning the corner from what could’ve been a shaky PR crisis to instead a new path and road to recovery, his public statement issued on August 10th helped keep intact not only Stewart’s image and that of NASCAR’s, but also prevented potential damage from occurring with their sponsors. Stewart did not surface again with the media or in the public eye until nearly six weeks later when he held his first public press conference. Held at the Stewart-Haas Racing headquarters, the emotional press conference honestly addressed Ward’s death and also announced Stewart’s return to racing followed by a half hour of questions that he answered from the media in attendance.
8.Mo’ne Davis Pitches Little League World Series Phenomenon
Who would’ve thought that this year’s Little League World Series home run was going to be a 13-year-old female pitching phenom from Philadelphia named Mo’ne Davis? Becoming the first girl to throw a shutout in the history of the Little League World Series, the media frenzy she attracted to this year’s Little League World Series brought out a record-breaking 34,128 fans to the stadium and broke TV audience ratings on ESPN with them airing two of the most-watched Little League telecasts ever this year (which was also the top audience for any baseball game on the network since the Yankees/Red Sox game in 2007). In addition to this, the August 20th game with Davis pitching had a record number of 375 media credentials requested with only 205 requested for the entire 2013 Little League World Series.
In today’s highly competitive news-media landscape, Davis’ impact was immediate and broadly resonated with fans due to the fact that she was a girl brightly shining in a sport dominated by boys, and because she is also believed to be the first African American girl to play in the Little League World Series. Helping disarm stereotypes for young female athletes and African-Americans alike, Davis became the youngest athlete ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated this Summer and was also named the Associated Press' Female Athlete of the Year.
“Mo’ne Davis and her performance at this year’s Little League World Series was one of the most inspiring sports stories of 2014, if not the most inspiring one. Capturing the hearts of sports fans and media reporters across the nation, the unexpected media frenzy and coverage she generated from it produced record breaking fan attendance and media attendance at the Little League World Series along with record breaking television audience viewership on ESPN. Because her story was genuine and real, showing the world how girls can make it in a sport dominated by boys, she earned the opportunity (and honor) to be the youngest athlete ever featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was named AP Female Athlete of the Year while attracting more attention than ever in past years to the Little League World Series.” –Natalie P. Mikolich, Sports Publicist, NPM | PR
9.Michael Jordan & Roger Federer’s Grand Slam-Slam Dunk
Before this year’s US Open even swung into action, two of sports’ greatest athletes of all-time – Roger Federer and Michael Jordan – had the sports and tennis media alike buzzing with headlines and stories about the debut of Federer’s new limited edition shoe (the Nike Zoom Vapor9 TourAJ3 inspired by a classic 1988 Air Jordan model) in his opening round night match at the 2014 US Open.
Drawing even more attention than Federer’s new kicks and the action taking place on Arthur Ashe Stadium, was “His Airness” Michael Jordan who made a surprise special guest appearance in Roger Federer’s courtside box. Stealing the spotlight not only from Federer’s opening round match with even his opponent waving to Jordan in the stands, he also stole the thunder of famous Vogue editor (and longtime friend of Federer) Anna Wintour who was sitting courtside with Jordan and who had his image flashed numerous times on the massive stadium screens during Federer’s match.
The rare spectacle of one all-time sports great cheering on another, whether planned by the master minds of Nike/Jordan’s PR department or not, was not only one of the biggest stories of the US Open, but also drew massive media attention worldwide and sold out the limited edition shoe before Federer could even finish his first round match.
“The Roger Federer and Michael Jordan ‘Greatness Meets Greatness’ campaign by Nike and the Jordan brand this summer is just one example showing the power of publicity when it comes to celebrity athletes. When two of the greatest athletes of all-time come together to collaborate for a brand like Federer and Jordan did, the attention they draw and the media exposure they generate is so enormous that the supply simply cannot keep up with the demand – for both sales and media coverage.” –Natalie P. Mikolich, Sports/Tennis Publicist, NPM | PR
10.The Full-Court Press of Lebron James’ Return Home
With NBA superstar Lebron James’ anticipated return to Cleveland this summer to play for the Cavaliers, there was a lot of speculation leading-up to his announcement on whether or not he would continue to stay in Miami and play for the HEAT or return to his hometown of Cleveland and if the announcement would turn into the “Decision 2.0.” This time though, to avoid another PR disaster like "The Decision" in 2010, James’ announcement was made via a 965-word letter published in Sports Illustrated that was said to be “pitched perfect” and “executed flawlessly.”
Without the pressure of being on a live, sit down television interview on ESPN like “The Decision” in 2010, this time James was able to clearly convey his message through his letter published in Sports Illustrated and address things like his love for the game along with clearing the air about his departure from Miami and express what it meant for him to return to Cleveland. And, although James’ letter may have been written and edited by his professional PR representative with James’ input and personal touch, USA Today Sports For the Win said “it was everything the original Decision wasn’t.”
“How LeBron and his representatives handled his decision was smart and effective on different layers, because it was: 1) tamed: not a TV spectacle, which caused him to lose fans back in 2010; 2) established: a story managed by the prestigious and respected Sports Illustrated; 3) authentic: in his own words, carefully post-edited so he felt well-represented and not taken out of context, which happens far too often in today's hypercritical media world out for click bait; 4) shareable: published online to be easily passed around worldwide in seconds -- a perfect way to capitalize on the modern-day content flow; And 5) surprising: no one expected him to make his announcement in the manner he did.” –Jared Zwerling, NBA Senior Writer for Bleacher Report/Turner Sports
11.Derek Jeter’s Farewell “Hit” for the New York Yankees
With Nike’s “RE2PECT” and Gatorade’s Frank Sinatra “My Way” commercials being released this summer as a tribute to Derek Jeter and his final farewell to the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball, they had baseball and non-baseball fans alike buzzing about the celebration of the “The Captain's” career amidst the local and national media frenzy stirring in the months, weeks and days leading-up to Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium.
In what turned out to be a perfect “My Way” ending to his career, in his final game at Yankee Stadium Jeter successfully connected on a walk-off hit in front of our a sold out crowd of 48,613 and became what was the most tweeted about MLB game of 2014. In addition, the Yankees issued more than 150 daily press credentials for Jeter’s final game (which was five times more than a typical regular-season game) and ended-up having more than 250 total credentialed press in attendance when all was said and done.
The next morning, all of the major television network morning shows teased Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium in their opening segments including Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and TODAY with headlines like “2 Perfect” (ABC), “One for the Ages” (CBS) and “Captain Clutch” (NBC). Amongst the print publications following Jeter’s final farewell walk-off hit at Yankee Stadium, he landed on the front page of The New York Times, USA Today, New York Post, New York Daily News and Newsday to name a few.
And, just when Jeter might’ve had some of the media buzz and frenzy dying down about the walk-off perfect moment to end his MLB career, less than one week later Jeter announced the launch of ‘The Players’ Tribune’ and his new online, first-hand publishing platform run by athletes and striving to be “the voice of the game” – or another "hit" now off the field.
“Derek Jeter finally let us in to see the REAL human behind the Yankee legend over the last week of his MLB career. From his reaction after his game-winning hit in his final game at Yankee Stadium, to his genuine appreciation of the fans at Fenway Park during his final series to his candor during interviews, Jeter was unscripted and authentic. I hope we see more of the REAL Jeter as he rides off into retirement and embraces his next challenge." –Brian Berger, Founder/CEO Sports PR Summit
12.Conference USA Hires PR Firm So Marshall is “Herd”
With the birth of the College Football Playoff in 2014 and the new selection committee put in place, Conference USA didn’t waste any time in hiring a public relations firm at the start of the college football season on behalf of Marshall University to make sure the school’s case was “Herd” for a semifinal game birth or major bowl selection. In an attempt to maximize Marshall’s visibility and awareness of their football program along with the success of the team, it was unlikely from the beginning that a strong public relations effort would be enough to push them into the College Football Playoff. However, even though the hiring of a public relations firm did not help Marshall get the attention of the College Football Playoff committee like they had hoped for, in the end, Conference USA’s efforts on behalf of Marshall helped raise awareness for their cause and their league. And, although Marshall did not receive a semifinal selection for the College Football Playoff, they ended up receiving a bowl bid for the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl which they won 52-33 over Northern Illinois.
“I think it is notable that a conference or a school would think enough of the power of public relations to try to create momentum for a postseason selection or to solve any kind of image issue. This is exactly what sports practitioners can and should be doing for their organizations. It's a great lesson in what we can do for our clients and employers.” –Doug Dull, Associate Athletic Director for Communications at American University and a past President of the College Sports Information Directors of America.
13.Redskins PR Fumble
To say that the Washington Redskins had their fair share of critical press coverage in 2014 would be an understatement with all of the attention they drew surrounding the team’s owner, Congress’ debate about the team’s branding and even the television network football announcers refusing to use the team’s name on-air. And just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any tougher for them, they did when their Senior VP of Communications (Tony Wyllie) made headlines for screaming at an ESPN Deportes reporter trying to interview Reskins’ player Colt McCoy following their stunning defeat of the Dallas Cowboys.
Following Wyllie’s shouting of “No means NO!” to the ESPN Deportes reporter before having him escorted off the field, the Sr. VP of Communications for the Redskins tried to recover from the national headline PR fumble by trying to explain his actions reporters the next morning that he did not receive prior notice from the reporter requesting to interview McCoy, but that he proceeded to do so anyway. Either way, this was a tough play call for any PR representative trying to maintain media boundaries and needing to obtain coverage at the same time.
14.The World Series #ChevyGuy Homerun Error
As if the Kansas City Royals run all the way to Game Seven of the 2014 World Series wasn’t exciting enough and generating publicity that led to the largest audience viewership of a Game Seven since 2011, all anyone could talk about following the San Francisco Giants’ one run win over the Royals was the #ChevyGuy (more formally known as Chevrolet executive Rikk Wilde).
Nervously presenting the MVP award to Madison Bumgarne on live television following Game Seven, the #ChevyGuy stumbled over his words the entire presentation using the now famous phrase “technology and stuff” to describe Chevrolet’s new line of truck models while the television crews quickly switched over to images of the trucks to save him and the brand from further embarrassment. In what could’ve been a PR nightmare for the Chevrolet brand, it turned into a PR success for them in what was described as a great “unplanned PR stunt” generating $2.4 million in free publicity and six times more than what a flawless presentation speech would’ve delivered (as reported by Bloomberg). In addition, with #ChevyGuy and #technologyandstuff trending on social media following the World Series, the Chevrolet brand included these taglines in their own marketing and advertising collateral and embraced what was first seen as an “error” and turned it into a homerun.
“Kudos to Chevy for being quick on their feet to take advantage of the buzz around #ChevyGuy. They turned a potentially negative scenario into a very positive one. Many brands allow opportunities like this to pass them by in the brief news cycle we live in today, but Chevy’s PR team was nimble and ready to spring into action as soon as the buzz around #ChevyGuy started trending in a sympathetic and authentic direction.” –Brian Berger, Founder/CEO Sports PR Summit
Natalie P. Mikolich, Executive Committee member of the PRSA Entertainment and Sports Section, is the President/Founder of NPM | PR (www.npmpr.com). Specializing in sports publicity, Natalie has represented six world number one ATP and WTA Tour professional tennis players, a London Olympic medalist, the “Fittest Woman on Earth” and provided public relations services for two of the leading international sports and entertainment agencies along with global racquet manufacturer Prince Tennis amongst many others. Natalie serves as the Communications Manager for the Manhattan Sports Business Academy and co-hosted the first sports business networking event in South Florida in 2014. Natalie received her B.S. in Communication from the University of Miami double-majoring in Public Relations and Psychology after transferring from the University of Florida where she was a member of the Women's Varsity Tennis Team winning the NCAA Division I Team Championships and SEC Conference Title in 2003. Read more of Natalie’s “spin” on the importance of sports publicity on Sports Publicity Spin (www.sportspublcityspin.com) and follow her on twitter at @npmikolich.