The Top 15 Sports PR Stories of 2015
By: Natalie Mikolich & Zach Jones
2015 was another sensational year of history made in sports that will go down in the record books for both exhilarating victories and sports performances we witnessed on the field, court, course or in the ring along with stunts, crises, scandals, announcements and much more that took place in the public eye outside of the battlefield grounds. From the start of 2015 with the so-called #Deflategate scandal unfolding to the FIFA Women’s World Cup victory, the return of ARod to the game, Kobe’s slam dunk retirement announcement and Peyton Manning being accused of human growth hormone use, here are a look at the top 15 sports PR stories that took place starting in January and ending in December 2015:
Super Bowl Deflategate Scandal Spirals Out of Control
2015 might as well be known as “The Year of Deflategate.” From PR pros to reporters, NFL fans and the Patriots Nation, no one would’ve guessed that what started out as an accusation against NFL Quarterback future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady and the New England Patriots intentionally deflating their footballs in the AFC Championship Game would’ve led to a 243 page report filed by the NFL, countless press conferences, statements and interviews, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell being called “PR obsessed” and Tom Brady facing a possible suspension from the league that would question his long-term legacy and public reputation as the “Golden Boy” of football.
With Deflategate putting the real issues the NFL faces like domestic violence and player concussions on the backburner from the media limelight this year, we all lived and witnessed what should’ve been a “next day news story” turn into a year- long PR and media frenzy with the Deflategate saga in 2015. A fire that was only fueled further with each statement, each press conference and each legal filing that took place amongst the NFL, Tom Brady and the Patriots this year. In the end, the NFL and Commissioner Goodell took the publicity hit on this one.
Shortly before the 2015-2016 NFL season kicked-off in September, the judge in the Deflategate case eliminated the four-game suspension Tom Brady was facing. Shifting the focus to the wrongdoings of the league and Commissioner for the way they handled the situation with Tom Brady (also their most marketable player), they ended up facing an even worse brand reputation crisis situation than when the year started.
Many believed Commissioner Goodell tried to impose the harshest league penalty possible on Tom Brady in order to rebuild his public reputation. This was an opportunity for the commissioner to flex his muscle following the questionable way he handled the domestic violence arrests of several players, their suspensions and the PR crisis the league faced in 2014. Ultimately, this only backfired further on him and the league.
And, with the October filing of the NFL’s appeal of the Deflategate decision by the judge, we might not be done yet. Heading into the New Year and Super Bowl 50, Deflategate might unfortunately still be something all of us in sports are forced to continue to follow.
“The NFL turned on its biggest star, Tom Brady, and tarnished his reputation, the Super Bowl and the integrity of the league,” said Leighton Ginn, sports reporter, in a recent article titled ‘Sports highlights of 2015.’ “This is part of a long line of blunders by Commissioner Roger Goodell, who is making a case as the worst commissioner of a league.”
A-Rod Steps Back Up to the Plate
Major League Baseball’s all-time home run leader amongst active players, and fourth on the all-time list, returned to the diamond in 2015 for the New York Yankees after serving a 162-game suspension during the 2014 season. Rodriguez was suspended in the aftermath of a Miami New Times article which linked him, along with twelve other players, to the Biogenesis clinic in Coral Gables, Florida, where Alex Rodriguez grew up. Anthony Bosch, the clinic’s proprietor, provided MLB with testimony and records showing Rodriguez received performance-enhancing drugs from the clinic, as well as personal injections from Bosch on occasion.
A-Rod became the personification of what was wrong with baseball in the Steroid Era. During a ’60 Minutes’ interview with Katie Couric in 2007, Rodriguez denied he ever used steroids only to later admit to the DEA that he used performance-enhancing drugs from 2010-2012. He was a cheater and a liar, not to mention a fragile 39 years old returning to a team projected to finish last in the AL East by many analysts. But somehow these conditions did not control A-Rod’s 2015.
Serving as a warm-up for the media frenzy that is New York, Yankee spring training helped Rodriguez and the team hone their message to the public. That being, A-Rod was there to help the Yankees win. He and the team mastered framing any Rodriguez-centered talk around his on-field expectations, setting the bar low, and avoiding the personal inquiries about his previous transgressions. Manager Joe Girardi and ace pitcher CC Sabathia echoed that, saying, “he served his suspension and it’s pretty much over.”
Once the regular season started, the media focus quickly shifted to the Yankees’ and A-Rod’s on-field performance as well. The Yankees went 48-40 before the All-Star break and A-Rod was on his way to hitting .250 with 33 home runs. In fact, the biggest blip on the PR radar did not come from the aftermath of his steroid saga, but rather from passing Willie Mays to move to fourth on the all-time home runs list. From Rodriguez’s perspective, a $6 million bonus clause tied into Rodriguez’s 2007, $275 million contract should have been triggered by A-Rod’s 661st career home run, surpassing the legendary Mays. However, the Yankees maintained the clause required the milestone be commercially marketable by the organization and refused to pay out the bonus. Instead of creating a stir, both sides came to an agreement where the Yankees would donate $3.5 million to several charities, with Rodriguez having some input on the allocation of the funds. From a PR standpoint, both sides avoided an early season standoff that could have alienated A-Rod for the rest of the season and transformed it into an opportunity to improve the superstar’s image and continue to distance both parties from Rodriguez’s steroid saga.
Another wrinkle in Rodriguez’s year was a number of broadcast appearances on Fox Sports to cover the World Series. Rodriguez started with a few pregame analyst spots and did so well that Fox added him to the live coverage of the games. He received positive reviews from professional critics as well as on social media. With his on-field career creeping toward an end, it looks like A-Rod will have many more years as an analyst to add onto an excellent image makeover he and the Yankees pulled off in 2015. Going forward, it looks like Rodriguez will be able to overcome his follies and cement himself as a baseball hero in the public perception.
Jordan Spieth Sinks Publicity Putt for Golf
As the youngest PGA golfer in nearly a century to win back-to-back major championships, Jordan Spieth was on fire in 2015. Not only was he sinking putts to win majors like The Masters and US Open, not to mention the season-ending Tour Championships, he also created huge media buzz for the game of golf by drawing in fans on and off the links through the media buzz he created around the game.
Elevating the game of golf from his performances on the course and through mainstream media spotlight coverage with the likes of interviews on the Late Show with David Letterman, TODAY, FOX News and many more following his Masters win, Spieth has played an important role attracting young golfers to pick up clubs and head out to the greens as the number one player in the world who named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
What those of us in the PR industry have been reminded of from the emergence of Spieth this year is just how valuable a professional athlete can be as a spokesperson for not only the brands he endorses and represents, but for the game of golf as well as he becomes the new face of the PGA Tour.
“This much we know: golf has a new face. It is a recognizable face that millennials seem to enjoy,” said Darren Heitner, in one of his recent Sports Business article contributions for FORBES.
With Spieth’s composure, humility and sportsmanship, he is poised to continue increasing the interest for the game of golf and the PGA Tour events amongst the considerable amount of publicity he is attracting for his sponsors such as Under Armour and AT&T.
“The golf industry is in a healthy state, and is gearing up for possibly its greatest year ever in 2016,” said Darren Heitner via FORBES. “During a four-month stretch, millions of people around the globe will be treated to the U.S. Open, Open Championship, PGA Championship, golf’s return to the Olympics, and Ryder Cup. The heightened interest and media coverage with players like Spieth will certainly showcase why golf is cool and help to develop new players for generations to come.”
FIFA Red Carded
Scandal engulfed FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter, this year stemming from suspicions of corruption and racketeering surrounding the Copa América Centenario and the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup, set for Qatar. In May 2015, seven FIFA executives were arrested in Zürich and later indicted by U.S. federal prosecutors in New York on corruption charges under the RICO Act, which was intended for use against the Mafia. As of November, numerous FIFA officials pled guilty and forfeited over $40 million collectively for taking bribes and racketeering.
Scrutiny piled in from officials, fans, media and even major sponsors of tournaments and international events, especially regarding the 2022 Qatar World Cup and the country’s ongoing human rights violations as laborers toil to build infrastructure. In October 2015, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa, and Budweiser coordinated a call for Blatter’s resignation and encouraged reform within the governing organization. These coordinated statements were a show of power and media influence from the corporate partners. Here’s what they said:
For the benefit of the game the Coca-Cola company is calling for FIFA president Joseph Blatter to step down immediately so that a credible and sustainable reform process can begin in earnest.
The events of recent weeks have continued to diminish the reputation of FIFA and public confidence in its leadership.
We believe it would be in the best interest of the game for Sepp Blatter to step down immediately so the reform process can proceed with the credibility that is needed.
We believe no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA's existing leadership. And given the events of last week, it's clear it would be in the best interests of FIFA and the sport for Sepp Blatter to step down immediately.
It would be appropriate for Mr. Blatter to step down as we believe his continued presence to be an obstacle in the reform process.
However, in July 2015, Blatter announced he would not seek reelection in FIFA’s December elections. So why call for his resignation over two months later? The answer is that the brands’ PR pros saw an opportunity to show the soccer world that they were on board with the FIFA clean up and sought inclusion in the media coverage surrounding FIFA brass.
Pepsi, Burger King, and a myriad of other companies are chomping at the bit to get involved with FIFA and an exploding American soccer audience; Blatter and FIFA know there’s no real threat of these companies pulling out. A perturbed Blatter said so himself; it would be bad business. But the PR pros recognized an opportunity to separate themselves from FIFA’s crumbling image and portray themselves as the good guys coming in to clean up the mess that an already vilified Blatter allowed to transpire. Positioning themselves as such was a low-risk maneuver for the big brands since the wheels of reform were already in motion as it would only benefit soccer fans’ perception of their brands.
FIFA will hold an election in February 2016 to name a new president. There are eight candidates, six of which have FIFA pedigrees. Whoever becomes president will have the first opportunity to rebuild the organization’s reputation and repair the damage inflicted during Blatter’s reign. Ultimately, the method of regaining trust from fans and media alike should be determined in a strong PR crisis recovery plan and providing transparency into how decisions are made should be an early priority.
Bryan Harris, COO and Managing Partner of Taylor, added:
“Even without a World Cup, 2016 will be another historic year for global soccer. Following the UEFA Champions League final will be a spectacular lineup line-up of marquee summer events – the European Championships in France, the Copa América Centenario in the United States, and the Olympic Games in Rio. Off the field, it will hopefully be a year of transformational change in the governance of the worlds’ most popular sport. Thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Department of Justice (sad that it had to come to this), a well-entrenched culture of greed and corruption was exposed throughout FIFA as dozens of the sport’s top officials were charged with a host of improprieties that have eroded the integrity of the sport. A new president will take the reigns from Sepp Blatter, but will it be enough to truly engender much needed change in the upper ranks of the sport? Realistically, it will really take a reengineering of the sport’s governance across every region of the globe. To that end, FIFA must be willing and able conduct itself with the highest integrity and full transparency – a big ask – and its corporate partners must intensify the scrutiny and higher expectations of accountability that we began to see in 2015 after the scandal broke. These marketers are among the world’s most admired brands and they must demand that FIFA operate in a way that does not threaten the equity and trust they have built with soccer fans over years and even decades.”
Pacquiao vs Mayweather Fight for Women’s Reporters
Leading up to one of the most hyped professional boxing fights of our time, trumpeted as “the fight of the century,” the fight for female sports reporters to cover Pacquiao vs. Mayweather took place outside the ring. In what turned out to be a heated back-and-forth social media jab display of statements by the Mayweather camp’s PR representative, Kelly Swanson, and two female reporters said to have been banned from receiving press credentials, it further exploited and shined light on the difficult barriers of inclusion women sports reporters still face today in the evolving world of sports media coverage.
ESPN and HBO’s Michelle Beadle and CNN reporter Rachel Nichols to to twitter, just 12 hours prior to the bought at the MGM Grand, to say their press credentials had been pulled and they were banned from covering the fight by Mayweather’s PR camp. Claiming Swanson had objected to their presence due the women’s coverage of Mayweather’s history of domestic violence, Swanson swiftly responded by tweeting that neither reporter was denied press credentials or banned from covering the fight. Swanson then spoke with a USA Today reporter at the press center to clarify the credential “misunderstanding” that was occurring.
Adding fuel to a growing fire with numerous top male and female sports reporters standing up for Nichols and Beadle, Swanson tweeted that she believed the two reputable reporters were falsely claiming to be denied press access to the fight.
In the end, Beadle’s credential was re-approved to cover the fight on behalf of HBO although she had left Las Vegas when she learned that her original request was denied. She followed this up by speaking to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch and stated, “there are emails. They lie. It’s their job. But I was banned.”
Nichols also made a public statement that she would not attend the fight after a seating chart surfaced claiming that CNN had been granted two press seats but neither included Nichols. She again took to twitter to lay out the timeline of facts that occurred leading up to fight and concluded by saying,
“it doesn’t surprise me that now, after facing significant backlash, the Mayweather camp has reversed its position. But despite this, and other outside parties generously offering me their seats, I will not attend the fight. I will also not let fear of retaliation prevent me from asking the tough questions the public deserves answers to in the future.”
Women’s World Cup Scores Goal for Long Term Victory for Women's Sports
The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, with the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) defeating Japan 5-2, brought in record TV audiences this summer with a reported 25.4 million viewers, made it the most watched soccer match ever in U.S. history. Also generating a tremendous amount of conversation on social media with a reported 9 billion tweets seen on and off Twitter from June 6 through July 5 (via Twitter data), immediately following their World Cup victory the USWNT kicked-off their media campaign with team members staying up until almost 4:00 a.m. PST in order to do live interviews with top morning television talk shows with those such as “Good Morning America” amongst many others on the east coast.
Keeping the momentum going, Team USA hit the streets of Los Angeles in the days following their win where the Americans were welcomed by an estimated crowd of 10,000 cheering fans at a rally on the first stop of their victory tour. Following this, the USWNT made their way across the country to New York City where they were greeted by a sold out crowd of 3,500 people at City Hall Plaza before journeying down the Canyon of Heroes for the first ticker tape parade in history put on for a women’s sports team.
In addition to numerous national television talk show appearances with the likes of Late Night with Seth Myers, Jimmy Kimmel Live and ESPN Sports Center, to name a few, Sports Illustrated put out an epic tribute to the USWNT with an unprecedented victory print edition consisting of 25 covers featuring all 23 individual players, head coach Jill Ellis, and a group shot.
“At a time when the FIFA corruption scandal was casting an ominous shadow across the soccer landscape, the U.S. Women’s astounding run to glory at the World Cup was exactly what the sport needed: a bravura performance that underscored all that is wonderful about the world’s most popular game,” said Bryan Harris, COO and Managing Partner of Taylor. “Although not the favorite heading into Canada 2016, the U.S. rose to the occasion and grew stronger as the tournament progressed. Through exceptional teamwork, bold coaching, veteran leadership, heroic feats (and feet), and a flair for the dramatic, the U.S. Women, led by the incomparable Carli Lloyd, stoked the passions and pride of an entire nation and drew the admiration of fans around the globe en route to a record third World Cup title.”
At the 2015 EPSY’s, the USWNT was honored with the “Best Team” award and in the fall visited the White House to meet President Obama where he stated, “they've inspired millions of girls to dream bigger, and by the way, inspired millions of boys to look at girls differently, which is just as important."
With the USWNT’s World Cup victory this summer, they continued to drive the growing conversation on what it means to “play like a girl” and further advance breaking down stereotypes for women and girls who play sports.
Heading into 2016 with the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro coming up, now is the optimum time for the players, brands and league to capitalize on the USWNT’s visibility from the tremendous amounts of media exposure they have received, social media buzz they have generated and momentum that have built from their World Cup win in order to continue growing the interest in soccer in the U.S. for both men and women and secure a long term victory for the sport.
“The exploits of Carli Lloyd and the U.S. soccer team were among many historic accomplishments by U.S. women athletes in 2015,” added Harris. “Beyond the soccer pitch, there was Serena Williams’ dominance on the tennis courts, Ronda Rousey’s meteoric rise in the ring, Simone Biles’ perfection in the gymnastics arena, Katy Ledecky’s record setting medal run in the pool, Breanna Stewart and UCONN’s crowning glory on the hardwood floor, a surging Mikeala Shiffrin and a resurgent Lindsay Vonn on the ski slopes. What’s so exciting about these transcendent women is that their excellence will continue into 2016, many of them on the biggest stage of all, the Rio Olympic Games. As this wonderful narrative about women’s athletics continues to captivate us, expect marketers to increasingly embrace female athletes like these champions who embody the very best of sport and competitive spirit.”
Team USA #RoadtoRIo Commences Campaign Early
The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics are just around the corner, and Team USA commenced their #RoadtoRio campaign on the 4th of July in Philadelphia with their first tour stop.
Showcasing previous Olympic stars and future gold medal contenders for the U.S., the U.S. Olympic Committee began their campaign 13 months ahead of the Summer Olympic Games. With ten events planned leading up to Rio between July 4th, 2015 and August 5th, 2016, this is a tremendous expansion of the U.S.O.C.’s campaign efforts compared to past Olympics when they started promoting the Olympic Games with their 100-day out countdown in New York City filled with one-day events for London 2012 followed by a 12 city tour with 13 events in the 100 days leading up to Sochi 2014.
Elevating the athletes, their stories and their historical accomplishments through national mainstream media exposure and social media campaigns at each event (including social media takeovers by some of the most decorated Olympians in U.S. history), the U.S.O.C. also promoted the location of the Summer Games taking place in Rio next summer with a tropical beach-theme setting used at each of the ten event sites in the various tour cities.
Highlighting the one-year-out from Rio 2016 celebration this summer on August 5th, 2015, was NBC’s TODAY show who had live coverage from both New York City and Rio where numerous Olympians demonstrated the sports they will be competing in for Team USA including track and field, table tennis, golf and weightlifting. In addition to this, we began to see media coverage trickle out on the U.S. Olympic stars to watch at Rio 2016 who are being profiled with national magazine publications, online news sites and with top television talk shows.
Looking ahead to 2016, we can expect to see a lot of more of this. In addition to the launch of national and global marketing and advertising campaigns for Olympic sponsors like Coca-Cola, VISA, BMW, Liberty Mutual Insurance, expect to see many more to look to get involved in promoting the U.S. Olympic hopefuls and their stories that reflect the different core values of the brands and their targeted consumer messaging.
"Tactically, this appears to be a well thought-out PR campaign with media tours and sponsor activation, but given some of the challenges the organizers in Rio are facing, it is possible this could become sort of Internet meme quickly - "The Road to Rio passes by dirty water," for example. We all remember how quickly #NBCFail became a thing a few years ago," said Steve Dittmore, two-time former Olympic Games staff member, sport PR textbook author and Associate Professor of sport management at the University of Arkansas.
Next year, the #RoadtoRio campaign will continue in Los Angeles, New York City (for the 100-day out from Rio 2016 celebration), Oklahoma City, Indianapolis and Chicago before wrapping up in Boston on the day of the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games (August 5th, 2016).
Caitlyn Jenner Coming Out Causes Controversy at the ESPYs
Each year at the ESPYs, the world’s biggest sports stars and A-list Hollywood celebrities line the red carpet to attend the most prestigious night of awards in sports given to those who have demonstrated excellence in sports performance for individual and team athletic achievements.
With the Arthur Ashe Courage Award designated for “somebody in the athletic community who has done something that transcends sports,” this year’s ESPY nominee Caitlyn Jenner (formerly one of the most decorated U.S. Olympians in history, known as Bruce Jenner) caused quite the controversy and media stir as her transformation unveiling to a woman and masterfully planned strategic PR campaign surrounding it continued to roll out.
Over the six months prior to the ESPY’s, Jenner hired powerful Hollywood PR firm Rogers & Cowan who represented Jenner on-and-off over the years since her 1976 Olympic triumph to help Jenner own and tell the story of her transformation journey to becoming a woman. This was first accomplished by an exclusive interview that took place with 20/20’s Diane Sawyer of the ABC network. The network choice is of note because keeping the interview away the NBC network, where Keeping Up with the Kardashians (which airs with E! on the NBC network and that Jenner had been a part of for many years during his marriage to Kris Kardashian) airs, helped show it wasn’t just a PR ploy to boost network ratings for the show.
Airing on April 24th, the 20/20 interview concluded with Jenner saying “farewell” to Bruce and hinting to a transformation to a woman and how Jenner would be seen in the next public appearance made. Following this, Jenner made her next PR splash on the cover of Vanity Fair’s July issue that had been kept secret up until its debut in the summer.
Taking a modern turn to incorporate old-school PR tactics with new school social media integration, Jenner shared the cover feature release with a simple tweet showcasing the Vanity Fair cover photo and hashtag stating “#CallMeCaitlyn.” Within minutes, the tweet went viral and in just about four hours Jenner accumulated over one million followers. Fueling a media circus of additional media articles, television shows and unlimited opinion stories on transgender awareness, many believe this is what led to Jenner’s nomination for the ESPY award, along with the inside knowledge that Jenner’s PR team passed on to key executives at ESPN about Caitlyn’s transition timetable in 2015.
Caitlyn’s nomination caused some outrage amongst the sports community. Many people and numerous media reporters believed that others athletes in sports were more deserving of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award such as Lauren Hill, a collegiate basketball player who battled brain cancer and created awareness in her final days to generate money for cancer research.
“If I had my choice, I would have picked Hill, because she did inspire me. But to pit the two against each other for the award was just ugly. Jenner gave a voice to people who were not being heard. She is definitely in the spirit of what the award stands for. To claim that Jenner was only there to garner ratings or for some other reason was unfair and wrong,” stated Leighton Ginn, former sports writer at Desert Sun and USA Today.
Despite the controversy, Jenner’s award might’ve caused, the transformation of Bruce to Caitlyn was a tremendous success and will be remembered as one of the most masterful, well-organized public relations campaigns in history.
“Strictly from a PR angle, I’m beyond impressed with the stellar work of Jenner’s PR team. They’ve handled themselves professionally and, ultimately, have led their former Olympic champion to victorious gold once again,” said Jason Mudd, CEO of Axia Public Relations, in an article contribution to The Business Journals.
Boston Bids Farewell to the 2024 Summer Olympics
Getting things started in 2015 was the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) announcing in January that they would support Boston as the U.S. bid city for the 2024 Summer Games. Beating out other major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C, Boston would represent the U.S. in the country's effort to host its first Olympics since the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.
Quickly following the announcement that the USOC would support Boston as their bid for the 2024 Games, social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were immediately launched to add to the campaign efforts and advance the bid for Boston. Via press conferences, meetings and traditional media coverage, organizers of Boston’s Olympic bid continued to release information and unveil plans weekly to demonstrate why hosting the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Boston would not only make it a legacy for the athletes who compete in the Games, but the city as a whole overall.
Unfortunately though, it seemed that just as quickly as the campaign began for Boston 2024 that it also came to an end. In late July of 2015, the USOC announced that it was withdrawing Boston as its bid city because the resistance amongst the residents was too great to overcome in the short time that remained before the committee had to formally propose their bid city to the International Olympic Committee in September.
"The selection, and subsequent withdrawal, of Boston as a bid city for the 2024 Olympic Games represented the most recent low point for the organization since the 2009 forced resignation of CEO Jim Scherr months before Chicago would lose a bid to host the 2016 Games,” said Steve Dittmore, two-time former Olympic Games staff member, sport PR textbook author and Associate Professor of sport management at the University of Arkansas. “While cities across the globe are backing away from hosting the ridiculously expensive Olympic Games, the current USOC leadership could not accurately assess the local support for Boston during a critical period in its organizational history is embarrassing.”
In one of their final statements, Scott Blackmun, the chief executive of the USOC, said, “We have not been able to get a majority of the citizens of Boston to support hosting the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Therefore, the USOC does not think that the level of support enjoyed by Boston’s bid would allow it to prevail over great bids from Paris, Rome, Hamburg, Budapest or Toronto.”
US Open Aces Publicity Stunts in the Streets of NYC
With the US Open being the highest attended annual sporting event in the world, the two week Grand Slam tennis event and the world’s biggest stars are no stranger to the enormous amounts of publicity and media coverage surrounding them.
Also capitalizing on this momentum during Labor Day Weekend each year with tennis being at the center of the media spotlight attention are the event and athlete brand sponsors who put up tennis courts in the middle of Times Squares, open up pop-up shops in the heart of Manhattan and host other special events and celebrity athlete appearances throughout New York City where the nation’s media capital is conveniently located.
This year though, there seemed to be a tournament taking place before the US Open even started in Flushing Meadows with the brands, each one trying outdo the other with their publicity events to see who could draw the most media attention and generate the most social media traction with consumers.
American Express’ “Rally on the River” featured Maria Sharapova and John Isner lighting up New York’s Pier 97 on the Hudson River with a water and light show along with a larger-than-life hologram of Sharapova and other tennis legends. Tommy Hilfiger put on a strip tennis match with Rafael Nadal to promote their new partnership announcement, and Delta airlines held a karaoke night with Serena Williams near Times Square.
“At a time when consumers are skipping television commercials and blocking ads online, brands are scrambling to find ways to reach their audience. Aligning themselves with live sports events like the United States Open is one way that companies try to break into the conversation and drive awareness,” tennis reporters Ben Rothenberg and Sydney Ember wrote in a New York Times article this summer titled “U.S. Open Stars Juggle Preparation with Publicity.”
Generating the most traditional and social media exposure this year though was Nike, who shut down the streets in Greenwich Village to put up a tennis court and host their Nike Street Tennis event that included their Grand Slam tennis legends such as John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi along with their current Grand Slam Champions and rising stars including Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal and Eugenie Bouchard.
“People want an experience; something they can capture via social channels and create memories,” said Marlon LeWinter, a sports marketing and public relations expert formerly with Catalyst and now an Account Director with rbb Communications. “These activations allow fans to walk away saying ‘that was cool, I want to try that again next year.’ ”
Have You Heard about Daily Fantasy Sports?
Daily fantasy sports (DFS) really put the test to the old adage that all media exposure is good media exposure. The leaders in DFS, DraftKings and FanDuel spent $205 million on advertising campaigns this year. When the NFL season kicked off, their ads were ubiquitous; every commercial break on television and radio included at least one commercial, sometimes back-to-back. This advertising blitz was so attention-grabbing that it put DFS operators on the radar of government officials across the country. Nevada, Illinois, and New York have all made headlines in recent months for banning DFS sites operation.
These concerns over the legality of DFS caused major problems for DraftKings and FanDuel. NCAA president Mark Emmert has ensured the companies’ ads won’t be seen by March Madness viewers. The NCAA has the power to block such ads under the terms of their television deal with Turner, CBS, and ESPN. ESPN even pulled DraftKings ads temporarily, subsequent to news that a DraftKings employee may have had access to and leaked insider information during Week 3 of the NFL Season. The employee won $350,000 in a FanDuel contest the same week and was later cleared of wrongdoing but the damage had already been done to the startup industry.
The future of DFS from a legal perspective is very much up in the air but DraftKings and FanDuel have reason to believe they will overcome these legality issues. After all, their investors include Google Capital, Atlas Ventures, MLB, the NHL, the NBA, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Fox Sports. NBA commissioner Adam Silver called for more regulation of the DFS industry but made it clear that his league remains steadfast in its partnership with FanDuel.
That being said, their PR struggle has taken the form of lobbying government officials. DraftKings and FanDuel signed the Washington D.C.-based law firm Steptoe and Johnson, Florida-based Ballard Partners, and numerous other firms to lobby for them in state capitals and to the federal government.
Meanwhile, the ads have slowed down but they haven’t stopped and the DFS operators try to sell the message that their platforms aren’t the same as sports betting because it requires skill. The 55 million people who play DFS in the United States, according to FanDuel CEO Nigel Eccles, probably agree that their contests are not the equivalent of making a wager at the Westgate Las Vegas Sportsbook. The real question is, will the lobbyists be able to convince policy makers of the same thing? It appears that the lobbying paid off in some states. Illinois state Representative Michael Zalewski hopes to pass a bill to legalize DFS operation in his state by May 2016. Countless legal experts have joined major sport networks to analyze and provide insight on these issues to the average fan and spectator. It would provide a big boost for companies like DraftKings and FanDuel in their fight for legality if some of these experts broadcasted the same opinion as some of the paid lobbyists.
University of Louisville Basketball Cardinal Rule of Crisis Miss
Katina Powell, a self-described escort, dropped a major bomb on the University of Louisville basketball program in early October 2015. She and Dick Cady released a book called, “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen,” in which she details numerous parties where former assistant basketball coach Andre McGee paid her $10,000 from 2010-2014 to provide strippers at parties attended by Louisville basketball players and recruits. Furthermore, she describes side deals with McGee where she would pay these women to have sex with players, recruits, and recruits’ guardians while on visits.
The Louisville program, which won the NCAA Basketball Championship in 2013, quickly called a press conference to address these shocking allegations. Good move. Head basketball coach Rick Pitino was the main attraction at the press conference but his handle on the situation was for from a slam-dunk. There was a sequence during which a reporter led with, “you’ve mentioned you don’t believe these allegations are true,” at which point Pitino went out of his way to correct the reporter, saying, “I didn’t say that.” The whole spectacle perhaps left reporters with more questions than when they arrived and the University of Louisville failed to deliver any real message.
Later in the month, Pitino and the administration made another faux pas, opting not to send the head coach to the annual preseason ACC media day. Maybe it was best they didn’t trot him out there in his slick white suit, but a head coach amidst a major scandal and pending NCAA investigation should not duck major media coverage. Pitino and the University of Louisville’s avoidance of ACC media days was analogous to responding to interrogative questions with, “no comment,” a cardinal sin in crisis PR.
Meanwhile, Pitino posted a letter on his personal website saying that one day he would leave the university and celebrate his tenure there, but that time had not arrived. He ended the letter saying, “let’s not try to justify, but let the Lord judge!! GO CARDS!” Eventually Louisville’s message became that Pitino had no knowledge of any wrongdoing, which athletic director Tom Jurich reinforced, showing support for his star basketball coach.
Like most issues under NCAA investigation, information and comments on the Louisville scandal have been few and far between. On the court, the Cardinals basketball team is ranked in the AP Top 25 and will be competitive in a tough ACC this year. Meanwhile, the scandal hangs over the program. Without new information on Powell’s allegations and the NCAA investigation, Louisville should take this time as an opportunity to craft a new PR strategy, because their first try came across as a flop and failing to control the message during crisis is a losing game plan.
Kobe Bryant Slam Dunks NBA Retirement Announcement
With Los Angeles Lakers NBA Superstar Kobe Bryant announcing his retirement shortly after Thanksgiving this year on November 29th, this was a perfect example of old school meets new school PR strategies and tactics for making a big announcement. Steering away from the traditional course of announcing his retirement by first putting out an official press release statement, or holding a press conference, Kobe’s announcement was carefully strategized and planned by himself, his team and the NBA who integrated traditional PR approaches with new, modern media and social media outlets. Breaking the news on a Sunday night (for those of us on the east coast), The Player’s Tribune first shared Kobe’s open letter, titled “Dear Basketball,” on their website announcing his retirement. Kobe immediately tweeted out the link for the letter, which spread virally on social media. Kobe’s open letter drove so much traffic to The Player’s Tribune site that it momentarily crashed from the thousands of fans, reporters and others wanting to get a glimpse of this special piece of basketball history and get more details on his decision to retire from the NBA.
Following this, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, put out an official press release statement on behalf of the league stating “Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players in the history of our game” which was released just prior to the Laker’s game against the Indiana Pacers that night in Los Angeles. Not leaving any loose ends, ticket holders in attendance at the Lakers game received a copy of Kobe’s open letter published on The Player’s Tribune and afterwards Kobe addressed the media with formal questions on his retirement announcement at the post-game press conference. Taking things one step further, Kobe committed to doing an exclusive, first television interview on his retirement with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts that aired three days later.
Neil Horowitz, Success Manager at Hopscotch added:
“Kobe is among the best at managing his brand and understanding the value and gravitas of his voice. He has been ahead of the game by NOT jumping quickly and thoughtlessly into every platform, but instead doing so with intention, thought, and strategy. Whether it be holding out on Twitter until he was ready, jumping on Weibo to engage his Chinese fans, or, in this case, controlling the message the content regarding his retirement on his terms, Kobe has tread his own path. The strategic success shone even brighter, too, when we learned how he worked with Lakers management to provide a separate letter to fans in attendance at that night's game. An impressive, thoughtful execution from someone who has consistently performed on and off the court.”
Although this was a slam dunk by all of the PR reps who worked behind the scenes to pull off Kobe’s NBA retirement announcement flawlessly, on the flip side of the coin the timing of his announcement during the NBA season has been seen as disruptive to the season by leading NBA reporters who feel that he should’ve done this before or after the season was over – not 15 games into it.
“It takes away all the attention from other players and now is something Kobe’s teammates have to deal with,” stated an NBA reporter who chose to remain anonymous. “If he made his announcement during training camp, everyone would’ve been prepared for it, but it is now disruptive and he is the only player to announce like this. Garnett, Duncan, Carter, Pierce and others are all waiting to announce after the season if they choose to retire.”
Tennis Swings Multi-Million Dollar Sponsorship Deals for Squeaky Clean Image
Like the game of golf, tennis is known as a sport of good sportsmanship, proper manners and world-class athletes representing the most luxurious, high-end brands in the world for both their on-court and off-court marketing endorsements.
This year in particular though with the doping scandals we have seen other sports and global leagues face, along with crisis situations stemming from domestic abuse and corruption allegations, the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) World Tour capitalized on the clean image of the sport and their athletes to secure a record $160 million in new sponsorship deals in the last few months of 2015.
“There's been a concerted effort by the sport to keep it clean, from the creation of the Tennis Integrity Unit to the adaption of the biological passport, and that's paying off.,” said Pete Holtermann, President of HolterMedia who does media relations and digital marketing for some of the largest ATP and WTA events including the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global and Western & Southern Open a part of the US Open Series. “Another considerable asset for tennis is that it is already very active across the globe, particularly in Asia. Tennis is among the leaders among sports for international reach, and in many coveted markets, tennis is looking to grow while others are simply looking to get established.”
The largest amount of new revenue the ATP World Tour has secured in the shortest amount of time is a big win for the game of tennis. ATP World Tour President, Chris Kermode stated in a recent interview with The Telegraph:
“Many sports have had difficulties, most recently athletics and football. I think brands are thinking very carefully about which sports they want to associate with. Sponsors are attracted to tennis because controversies have engulfed other sports, especially athletics and football. Athletics has been shaken by doping scandals, while Fifa has been embroiled in corruption allegations that prompted sponsors Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald's, and Anheuser-Busch Inbev-owned Budweiser to call for president Sepp Blatter’s resignation and signal they could end their association with the footballing body.”
Peyton Manning and Al-Jazeera America’s Accusing Documentary
Al-Jazeera America accused Peyton Manning of using HGH? Wait a second; this is pretty incredible even for 2015. Peyton Manning?! The NFL’s leader in off-field endorsements?! No way! Right??
The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers said that Ashley Manning, Peyton’s wife, received numerous shipments of human growth hormone from the Guyer Institute in Indiana, an anti-aging clinic. This information was provided by Charlie Sly, a pharmacist-in-training at the time who worked a three-month rotation at the clinic beginning in 2011, the same period when Manning was rehabbing from surgery to fix a herniated disc in his neck that was causing nerve damage. Mr. Sly thought he was pitching a potential client, British hurdler and Britain’s Got Talent sensation Liam Collins, and name-dropped numerous professional athletes whom the clinic provided with performance-enhancing drugs, with Manning being the most prominent. As it turns out, Collins was working undercover on the Al-Jazeera piece that debuted December 26th, 2015.
The star quarterback responded quickly on the 27th, in a statement released through the Denver Broncos PR department to ESPN, calling the accusations, “complete trash,” and, “garbage.” The Steroid Era in baseball, when countless players denied their use of PEDs only to be found guilty later, made the public skeptical of these types of quick, adamant repudiations. However, pushing the statement out through the Broncos organization added a sense of legitimacy to Manning’s denial and slightly helps combat such skepticism.
Manning also immediately hired Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s White House Press Secretary, to help manage the media attention and rebut these allegations. Mr. Fleischer now owns a sports communication firm but his track record is far from encouraging. In fact, Tiger Woods hired him in 2010 to help repair his image as a result of his disintegrating personal life but the business partnership lasted all of ten days because the hire raised too many red flags.
Perhaps Manning just panicked. Other than his obligations through endorsements and NFL-mandated interviews, Manning seems to value his privacy and may not be familiar with niche sports communications professionals like those that specialize in crisis situations. Or, perhaps, it’s a brilliant move since Fleischer should be familiar with Al-Jazeera’s media tactics from his time with the Bush administration. Who better to predict and outmaneuver those allegations than a man who did it for a United States President? This is such a fresh story that facts are still coming out and it will be interesting to see how both sides handle the PR as more information emerges.
About the Authors:
Natalie P. Mikolich
Natalie P. Mikolich is the Founder of npm | pr (www.npmpr.com) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Entertainment and Sports Section 2016 Chair. In addition to providing public relation services for top global sportswear and equipment companies like Prince Tennis, Natalie has worked with some of the leading sports and entertainment agencies such as Blue Entertainment Sports Television (BEST) and Lagardere Unlimited Tennis. Natalie has represented many world class professional and Olympic athletes including Greatest Doubles Team of All-Time Bob & Mike Bryan, Seven-time Grand Slam Champion and former WTA World #1 Justine Henin, 2012 London Olympic Bronze Medalist Marlen Esparza and 2014 CrossFit Games Winner Camille Leblanc-Bazinet along with Major League Soccer Medical Coordinator Dr. John Gallucci. Prior to this, Natalie was former NCAA Division I Team and SEC Conference Champion a part of the 2002-2003 University of Florida Women’s Varsity Tennis Team and a top five nationally ranked USTA junior tennis player. Follow Natalie on Twitter @npmikolich