Friday, May 22, 2009

What I Learned from Tom Brokaw

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we always play defense for 48 minutes.

Last week, my wife and I had the incredible honor and privilege of meeting Tom Brokaw at the annual Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Page One Awards banquet. This is always a wonderful event to attend, because I get to see lots of great friends and help honor the truly great journalism that is practiced every year in Minnesota. But this year, Minnesota SPJ really outdid itself by securing Brokaw to be the keynote speaker.

His speech centered on the dire situation the journalism industry finds itself in today, and what everyone from rank and file reporters to news executives to the general public can do to improve it. I'm sure that you, like me, have heard many people speak on this topic, but I've never heard it done like Brokaw did it.

He didn't mince words. When he talked about why the industry fell into the rut it's in, he said (summarizing): We're forgetting as a society that information isn't free.

In a short, simple sentence, there it is. All of it. Think about it for a minute.

With the Internet, it has never been easier or cheaper to read the news. The number of people in America who do not pay for their news is increasing daily - and, in particular, the youngest Americans have never known what it's like to pay for their news...they've never had to do it before. Of course, this is troubling because it takes serious financial and human resources to do journalism well. It just does. There are so many blogs and "news sites" out there, but how many of them are actually breaking real news? How many of them allocate and invest the resources it takes to do the legwork to report real, accurate, relevant stories - ones which truly make an impact on the way we live our lives, or the way our elected leaders govern, or protect the public? It's a small percentage, to be sure. Most blogs simply aggregate news from other sources, and put their own unique spin on that news. And let's be honest with ourselves and admit that most of the "news" we read on a daily basis is pop culture on a stick, whether it's sports, entertainment, etc.

Of course, we NEED trained journalists and journalism organizations to produce this kind of real, hard news, because it's incredibly important to our way of life. Journalism, after all, is the "Fourth Estate" of government; our founding fathers realized right away that an informed public was the single most important aspect of a democratic society. Why do you think they wrote the First Amendment? Freedom of speech, and the press, and assembly, etc.? Journalism has forever been regarded as a fourth branch, right up there with the executive, judicial and legislative places checks and balances on the other three, and ensures that the people have the knowledge they need to live their lives and ably elect their leaders. Imagine, for just a minute, what our society would be like if journalism wasn't done, or done well. It's not much of a stretch to say that it would be completely different...there may not even be an America to speak of.

So it is paramount to our future to understand that information isn't free, and that we need to act to invest in it and educate each other about this. Maybe if people have a true appreciation for what's at stake here, they'll be more apt to pick up a paper from the newsstand, or click through on a banner advertisement. At the same time, news executives need to take bold action soon to advance this agenda in the public discourse. Sure, it's self-serving - it's about journalism entities making enough money to survive. But it's also about ensuring that American democracy as we know it can function into the future. If they don't take up the cause, no one will.

To me, Brokaw's statement was sheer brilliance, a masterpiece of wordsmithing that could only be done by one of the greatest journalists of all time. I've literally spent hours reflecting on this since I heard his speech, and I hope you'll give this some thought as well.

What a night it was. Sure, it was an unforgettable because of the opportunity to sit down with Brokaw at the same dinner table and have a once-in-a-lifetime conversation. But I still can't believe how lucky we all were to hear honest reflection on the journalism industry from one of the greatest to ever practice the craft. If you'd like to experience the thrill for yourself, I'd encourage you to visit the Minnesota SPJ Web site at and watch the video of his keynote speech.

This Memorial Day Weekend, as we remember and honor our veterans for all they've done for us, let's not forget that they sacrificed as much to preserve our way of life as anything else. It's our time now to step up to the plate and do our part...I see this is one important way we can do just that.

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

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Dodgers: Marketing Through The Manny Debacle

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we always play bogey-free golf on Sundays.

You all know by now that Manny Ramirez has been suspended for 50 games by Major League Baseball for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. It's the latest black eye on a sport which has been severely battered over the last few years.

But, in this post, I'd like to focus on the Dodgers and the team's marketing. Much has been made of the team's efforts around Manny: it is a case study on how to build a local-market campaign around a superstar athlete. From Mannywood to wigs to jerseys to ticket sale promotions, the Dodgers have been very aggressive in trying to build excitement among Dodger Nation through Manny. And, by the accounts I've read, it was working remarkably well...before the suspension news came down. So, if you're the Dodgers and the centerpiece of the entire effort takes a credibility/reputation hit, what do you do now?

Well, the team seems to be moving forward on the same track, almost like nothing ever happened. Manny will be back in July, after all, and he's still a part of the team. Of course, this begs several questions. Is it smart marketing to keep going with an aggressive campaign built on an athlete with a damaged reputation? What does such an effort say about the team or organization doing the marketing? Do these athletes with damaged reputations still carry marketing weight?

To the latter, generally speaking, recent precedent would suggest that a baseball player's reputation and marketability evaporate when they're hit with steroid-related suspensions/accusations. Just look at Clemens, McGwire, Bonds, Palmeiro and the long list of others in this same situation. But Ramirez' stock - although definitely weakened - still seems to have a pulse, at least. Based on what's going on with the Dodgers, it appears that he might be the guy who breaks precedent and still have a chance to be the central figure in campaigns going forward.

But what about the fact he was busted for, essentially, cheating? Doesn't that matter at all? Shouldn't this change how the Dodgers move forward? In this case, surprisingly, the answer appears to be no. Why?

Allow me to offer a couple of reasons:
  • Marketing isn't just about the product, service or asset (in this case Manny) - it's also about the pool of buyers you're targeting. Successful marketing surely means that you enable a group of people to buy what you're selling. But that group first has to need or want - or you need to convince them they need or want - what you have to offer. So, as important as Manny is in this entire situation, the Los Angeles/Dodger Nation baseball marketplace is just as important. I'm no expert on Southern California culture, and I'm not trying to label Dodger Nation in any way, but from everything I've read Dodger Nation - for whatever reason - is still buying what the team is selling. Plain and simple. There's still a marketplace for the team, for Manny and for the campaign efforts the team has put forth. And no matter where you land on the right or wrong of the ethics/values involved with the situation, this truth validates the team's strategy.
  • Maybe this is a sign that we've reached a critical tipping point or new stage in the public's process of dealing with the Steroid Era. I think the public could very well be so burnt out on the bad news that they just don't care anymore; just like the grief process has stages, maybe the public has gone from anger and/or denial to acceptance, and fans are choosing to move on and focus again on the game itself. Let's face it: no one is shocked anymore about players testing positive for PEDs. And Americans love baseball. There hasn't been a scandal in the game's history that has kept fans away for the long-term. Even nowadays, fans are turning out in record numbers league-wide. It seems the Dodgers have recognized this, and are simply moving on along with their fans. This doesn't mean everyone's ignored what Manny did - they just aren't dwelling on it.
No matter what you think about the right vs. wrong of the situation, Dodger Nation continues to buy into the larger Mannywood concept. And the Dodgers in turn are continuing to feed the beast, using their assets (including Manny) to enable their audiences to buy what they want. After all, that's what successful marketers do, isn't it?

That's all for now. I'm out like the Vancouver Canucks and Atlanta Hawks.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Brett Favre to the Vikings?

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we always sweep our first round playoff series.

Every hour and day that passes, it seems more and more likely that Brett Favre will become a Viking. I know Favre plays this retirement game every year, and there's absolutely no guarantee of anything, but all signs and logic point to Favre wearing Purple this season. I can't tell you how excited I am about this.

Yes, I am a lifelong, die-hard Viking fan, so adding a first-ballot Hall of Famer (no matter how washed up) to a QB-needy franchise is exciting enough. But I'll take off my helmet, horns, braids and the Moss jersey I bought the day after the 1999 Falcon debacle to tell you why else I think this is a great move for my hometown team:
  • Tickets. If you're just joining us, the NFL is big business. And the Vikings, for the first time in a long time, are in serious danger of not selling out every game in the 2009 campaign. Consider that problem solved - and in no time flat - if Favre is signed. Plus, that nice new stadium Viking ownership wants to build might actually stand a chance of getting done if people were more interested in the franchise.
  • Television. The Vikings not only would feature the best storyline in the NFL, with Favre returning to the NFC North, but also would feature a roster including Favre, Adrian Peterson, Bernard Berrian, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, the Williams Wall, etc. The combination of that much drama and talent adds up to a lot of "featured game" national television time - and more revenue and general interest for the team.
  • Talent. Brett Favre, despite his age and all his supposed injury baggage, would go into training camp as the clear starter...he's surely better than Tarvaris and Sage. Favre would no doubt help Tarvaris and Sage develop and learn, no matter what roles they play in the future. And the Vikings would almost assuredly go into the season as the odds-on favorite to win the NFC and play in the Super Bowl.
  • Rivalry. The Vikings/Packers is far and away the best rivalry in the Upper Midwest in any sport, and easily one of the best in the NFL. Trash talk flies, practical jokes occur and passions run high all year round. And there are no prouder fans in the NFL than Packer fans. So imagine the best and most revered player in the history of the Packers, a guy who Packer fans absolutely went mental over for so many years, going to their archrival - and then leading them to success. It would be a seminal moment in the long, storied history of this rivalry, and take that passion and excitement to a whole new level. Plus, Packer fans have always seemed to have a good comeback for every brag point or jab that Viking fans throw at them. Favre, to the Vikings? It would be the ultimate all-time zinger to Packer Nation, one for which there can be no comeback. Viking fans are collectively licking their chops right now.

If the Vikings' front office has any sense, they'll sign Favre sooner than later, let their fan base absorb the news and get excited all summer long, let Favre get comfortable on the team and with the offense, and then sit back and watch the wins pile up in the fall. Worst case scenario, the Vikings would be more relevant and fun to watch than ever before. Good times indeed.

I'm out like anyone hitting against Zach Greinke.