Sports Champions: A return to heritage

India Captures Title, One Billion People Cheer

This is a small sample size, but let’s take a look at some recent winners in sports. Back in February, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. Arguably the two most storied franchises in the NFL (and save the Yankees, possibly American sports.)

Later in the Spring, the Cricket World Cup was won by India, the country most associated with the sport, after a nearly 30 year run without lifting the trophy. Last month, the Rugby World Cup was claimed by New Zealand, once again the country now most associated with the sport, and once again after a lengthy drought (last title, 1987). Less than a week later, the St. Louis Cardinals clinched their 11th World Series title (2nd most in history).

What does this all mean? Again, with a sample size this small, probably nothing. But when times are tough (economically in the U.S., politically in India, environmentally in New Zealand) people look for something to rally around. Something safe and reassuring that they know they can count. Something that reminds them of their strengths and past successes. Sport can answer that call and in a lovely symbiotic relationship, the teams feed off the fans who are desperate for the win, driving them on to play inspired. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the Cricket World Cup was played partially in India and the Rugby World Cup took place in New Zealand.

Super Bowl Ads: Six Great Performances in Super Bowl Ads

Aaron Rodgers Packers Super Bowl Winner

The Packers weren't the only ones earning statues last night.

Another year, another Super Bowl. While this marked the 45th time teams have met on the field of play to decide the NFL champion in a Super Bowl, this was the 28th season that the Super Bowl ads have generated buzz. Yes, it all started with the ‘1984’ Apple spot from Chiat/Day back in, well, 1984.  Since then, the Super Bowl ads have increased in grandeur, cost, and the interest level displayed by fans (and those of us in the marketing industry).  This year, if you were following the game (no, not the Steelers v. Packers game, the ad game) you were spoiled for choice. Adweek had full coverage, as did Ad Age. Brand Bowl, brought to you by Mullen and Radian6, was also a gathering place. These arbiters and scorekeepers focused, rightly so, on how well brands did with their Big Game efforts.  Brand Bowl determined Chrysler was a big winner and Adweek’s crew enjoyed the work by Volkswagon.

A lot of great work went into what I thought was a surprising number of good spots. While some spots fell short – Go Daddy’s Joan Rivers reveal and Groupon’s middle finger to social causes come to mind – many others delivered the goods.  But rather than focus on the brands or the agencies who created the spots, I’d like to focus on an element that rarely gets mentioned – the quality of the acting in the spots themselves. So, today, I’m unveiling the Anya! The Anya is named after Anya Major the actress/model/athlete who launched the whole Super Bowl ad phenomenon when she launched the anvil at Big Brother in that Apple ad. The Anya looks to highlight and honor the winning performances by those that appeared in the ads, for while a great creative idea is critical, the execution of that idea makes or breaks the spot. So, live from the Shrine Auditorium in beautiful Los Angeles, California… Here’s Ricky Ger… no, actually, maybe I’ll just host it myself this year.

Best Supporting Actor

The first big winner of the night for me was Audi. Their spot had multiple laughs, but the line of the night was “Hit ’em with the Kenny G” as uttered by the warden. I enjoyed the understated performance. There is just the slightest grin upon his face when he utters the line, a subtle hint to the diabolical evil that lurks within him – not unlike a James Bond villain.

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Best Supporting Actress

A tremendously weak field here. I’m loathe to reward Roseanne or Joan Rivers, so I’m going to go with the lead senior citizen from the Chevrolet ‘Misunderstanding’ spot.

“It’s a cruise for plus size individuals,” she explains, before getting in a nice product feature plug with “…eco, eco, eco.”

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Best Actress.

This was a tough year for women in the ads. Just not a lot of depth of choice. Guys and animals tend to get the best roles and if women are featured, it’s usually a very one dimensional role – or overly three-dimensional if we’re talking cleavage.  The Thespy for Best Supporting Actress goes to…  Faith Hill for her work in the Teleflora spot:

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I thought Faith came across very natural. Considering she’s not an actress by trade I was impressed by her work. The voice-over at the end has just the right delivery.  In a role that didn’t have much to work with she didn’t try to over-sell it, but rather played within the confines of the role. Well done, Faith.

Best Actor

I really enjoyed the Stella Artois spot and considered giving this to Adrian Brody, but ultimately I wanted to go with an unknown. In this case we have the rare tie as the Anya goes to both actors in the Coke “Border” spot. With absolutely zero dialogue, these two needed to bring the emotion through gestures, expressions and timing. It would be easy, especially  in a Coke ad, to go over the top schmaltzy here, but both play with just enough restraint. Yeah, it’s still a corny Coke ad, but I thought these two gave it just enough dignity.

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Special Category – Best Character Homage

I had to find a place to honor the Little Darth Vader from the Volkswagon ad.  If acting with no dialogue is a challenge, how about with a Darth Vader mask on? Yet, this little actor is able to portray a variety of emotions and suck you in, when it would have been easy to go over the top. Well done little man.

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Special Category – Best Voice Acting

Again, needed to find a way to work this spot in, just too good. The winner here is really the copywriting as noted at the time by Mike Arauz:

Whoa. Eminem in two commercials, and that Chrysler ad wins my award for best copywriting.
Mike Arauz

But great work though by the voice actor as well. That guy just sounds like the voice of Detroit.

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I’d love to know who were your winners and losers from last night. Who do you think turned in the best performances? Let me know in the comments.

Super Bowl Special: Eight off-field factors that made the NFL what it is today

"pittsburgh steelers" "green bay packers"As all eyes turn to the Super Bowl tomorrow it’s clear that the event is much more than just the game. It’s equally clear that the NFL has lapped the field when it comes to sports league popularity in this country. For those who haven’t grown up with the game or just aren’t close observers of the sports marketing industry, this leadership position may be a bit of a puzzle. After all, wasn’t baseball America’s Pastime? Wasn’t NBA superstar Michael Jordan arguably the most popular American athlete of the last 25 years? How did the NFL push these sports to the side to take center stage?

Is the sport itself inherently more appealing? That’s a tough argument to make in my opinion. All sports are different and the speed and grace of sports like basketball and hockey are certainly very entertaining. Does the slower pace of baseball make it boring? I hear that argument, but millions of people go to baseball games every year and the game really hasn’t changed much in 100 years.  Football certainly has several inherent detriments that would seemingly work against it.  With all the padding and helmets, it’s actually hard to see the players, you’d think that would make marketing the game difficult. Or how about the fact that the average game plays out over around three hours, yet only has 11 minutes of actual action! That’s right, watch the game tomorrow with a stop watch and you’ll see that the combined time of all plays is a little less than one quarter.

So with on-field play a factor that doesn’t necessarily overwhelmingly favor the NFL, we have to look at off-field factors. Here’s where the NFL becomes the NFL. Here are the eight factors that made the NFL what it is today:

Joe Namath Predicts a Super Bowl victory for the New York Jets – January 12, 1969

Interestingly, Super Bowl III was actually the first AFL-NFL game to be called “The Super Bowl” (Super Bowls I and II were so named retroactively). This game made football fans stand up and take notice of the AFL clubs who were beaten by the Packers in the first two championship games. But it wasn’t the Jets performance in the game that was memorable, but rather a pre-game prediction by Joe Namath, the Jets quarterback, that is memorable and noteworthy.  Just days before the game Namath told reporters, “We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.” And then the underdog Jets went out and won. Today, athletes predicting victories is commonplace, but when Namath did it, it launched him to national super stardom, embarking on a movie and television career and icon status that continues to this day.

The Heidi Game – November 17, 1968

With just 65 seconds left in a fantastic game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets, NBC had a decision to make. Stay with the game, which the Jets were leading 32-39, or switch to the scheduled programming – a made for TV version of the children’s classic, Heidi.  They went with Heidi. The Raiders proceeded to score two touchdowns in those final 65 seconds, triggering die-hard football fans to absolutely lose their mind. For the next 30 years “The Heidi Game” becomes a part of NFL lore, and showed the growing interest in the sport. The incident forced the NFL to change their policies and became a part of American pop culture. Here’s legendary newsman David Brinkley explaining what happened the next day:

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Monday Night Football – 1970 to Present

In today’s era of cable television and niche networks it’s hard to understand the impact of Monday Night Football when it first aired in 1970.  Prior to Monday Night Football, most fans saw their team’s local broadcast. Now, there was a premier game, every week, with all football fans tuned in. The broadcast was also innovative in the way it introduced graphics, music and “event television” to sports broadcasts.  The highest rated MNF broadcast drew a 46 share (1985, Bears v. Dolphins). By comparison, the current season of American Idol is scoring an 18 share.  But perhaps more than anything else, the announcers of Monday Night Football took the sport to another level. At games you would often see as many home-made banners referring to Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and other denizens of the booth as you did for the teams competing. The show spawned a book, Monday Night Mayhem, that was even turned into a TV movie. A TV movie about a broadcast of football games. Think about that for a moment.

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Howard Cosell – 1970-1983

Without Monday Night Football, Howard Cosell would have been a legendary figure in American broadcasting. With it, he enters the pantheon of pop culture icons. Cosell, a New York lawyer turned sports journalist was unlike any other sportscaster before or quite frankly, since. Erudite, arrogant and aloof, he generated a visceral response from fans who loved or hated him in equal numbers. But regardless of where you stood, you were compelled to watch him. In the era before ESPN few fans saw highlights from games outside their market until Monday Night Football began their “Halftime Highlights” segment, which featured highlights from most of the other games. This literally became as important a part of the broadcast as the game itself. It was simply mesmerizing to hear Cosell narrate the highlights. Fans of teams who weren’t featured during the segment would write in to complain.  For many American’s, it was Cosell on Monday Night Football who told them of the death of John Lennon.

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NFL Films – 1962 to Present

Perhaps more than any other factor, the NFL that fans know is shaped by the myth-building of NFL Films. It was a combination of production elements never seen before by sports fans. The music, the editing, and the voice of God – John Facenda – all combined to create an experience that… here, let me just show you. Watch at least the first 40 seconds:

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If you don’t get goosebumbs when the music kicks in you may need to check yourself for a pulse.  The second most famous piece – The Autumn Wind is a Raider – is known by any football fan over the age of 40.

Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl Ad – January 22, 1984

This is the one that started it all. Now, Super Bowl ads has become an integral part of the game experience. Brands spend millions of dollars to produce and air spots, and yet 25+ years later, this effort by Chiat/Day is still the most memorable, and influential, spot. The USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter provides information as eagerly awaited as Nielsen ratings or even the game’s final score. Now, with the emergence of social media, we have the Brand Bowl.  Over the years, brands like Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Go Daddy have spent millions upon millions to reach people during the last true shared community experience in the our lives.

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Every week teams are required to file injury reports. The reports list players as out, doubtful, questionable or probable. Why the distinctions? So Las Vegas  can more accurately set the betting lines.  Watch how much attention is paid to the weather conditions at the different venues. This isn’t baseball, they play NFL games in blazing heat, downpours and on snow-covered fields. So why the weather reports? So Las Vegas knows where to set the over-under lines for points scored in the game.  For the casual sports fan, or even the non-sports fan, participating in an office pool or Super Bowl Boxes game. But just looking at legal betting, and just focusing on the Super Bowl, and we’re still talking about nearly $100 million wagered.

League Structure

The NFL regular season lasts a mere 16 games. By comparison the NBA and NHL both play 80+ games and Major League Baseball features a stamina-testing 162 regular season games. The result? Every single regular season NFL game matters. Every game is precious and the difference between making the playoffs and not is the difference between going 10-6 or 9-7. For fans, you can’t take a game off, you are committed to the weekly ritual of watching your team on Sunday. The league structure also promotes parity. By instituting a salary cap and revenue sharing, along with a draft that aids the worst teams, the league is incredibly competitive. In the last 10 years, 10 different teams have represented the NFL in the Super Bowl. Every NFL team is potentially no more than two years away from being a playoff team (horrible management not withstanding).  All this keeps fans of all teams engaged year after year.

The NFL is a machine. A machine that was created not by the play on the field, as good as it is, but rather by myth-makers behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Enjoy the game on Sunday, and Go Steelers!

Brett Favre, Starbucks and the Wisdom of Crowds

Favre heads out of town - Courtesy the AP

Favre heads out of town - Courtesy the AP

It’s been impossible the last couple of days to watch ESPN or NFL Network and not hear some talking head say, “Of course the Packers are a better team with Brett Favre at quarterback.” These aren’t fans saying this, they are “football experts.” And yet, it looks like Favre is on his way out.

Swing by Brand Autopsy and take a read regarding the latest marketing initiatives undertaken by Starbucks. In addition to John Moore, a former Starbuck’s guy, and Seth Godin, here are some quotes from other commenters:

“It seems like a strange promotion all around — as in, I can’t tell who really benefits from it.”

“Bad decision for Starbucks. Definitely not the best way for them to go.”

“It won’t be long before their brand has totally been commoditized.”

It seems the wisdom of crowds is pretty clear in both examples, yet neither the Packers nor Starbucks seems to be listening. I don’t think the management of either the Pack or Starbucks are dumb people, in fact I’d wager they are pretty darn smart. So why the disconnect?

What makes smart people make poor decisions? Are these poor decisions merely because a handful of people on the outside say so? When, and how, do you incorporate the Wisdom of Crowds into your thinking?

Favre v. Green Bay Packers – Another celebrity divorce with no winner

Celebrity divorces are messy things. Too much information is shared and both sides usually come out looking worse for wear. Brinkley v. Cook, Alex & Cynthia Rodriguez, the list goes on. In the sports world divorces are a little different, but once again we see that there are no winners, well maybe the media, but neither side is going to look good. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you Favre v. Green Bay Packers.

Brett Favre has spent the last couple of years hemming and hawing, thinking about retiring, talking about retiring, and then, finally, kind of, sort of, actually retiring. Until he decided he didn’t really want to retire after all. Well, see, the thing is, the Green Bay Packers have already decided to move on and aren’t exactly welcoming Brett back with open arms.

So of course things are now getting messy. And when things get messy, it’s time to go to the media:

And, now nobody is a winner. Not Brett Favre, who has clearly burned bridges with the Packers, and maybe, just maybe, even with some of the Packers fans.  The Packers certainly aren’t the winners. They don’t want to bring Favre back, but they don’t want to let him go to another team either.  Since 20/20 hindsight doesn’t solve any problems, what can the sides do right now, to make this a PR win for both sides? 

For both parties a quick resolution is the best option. So:

1. Hold a joint press conference where both sides announce publicly what the next steps are going to be. Favre’s going to stay with the team or the Packers are going to trade him or he’s not going to come back after all. Whatever, but agree to what’s going to happen, let everbody know and then move forward.

2. If you are going to trade him, do it quickly and don’t worry too much about where he goes or what you get in return. Yes, the Packers are a special club with a unique relationship with the community and their fans. But they aren’t so unique that they can’t function like other teams. The San Francisco 49ers traded Joe Montana, who won three more Super Bowls than Brett Favre. The franchise moved on, Montana moved on and that was that. Montana had another good year or two, but the Niners committed to Steve Young (admittedly easier than committing to Aaron Rodgers) and moved forward.

3. Take the high road. Wish Favre success in the next stage of his career.

4. Understand that no player is bigger than the Green Bay Packers. Once the season starts, fans will fill Lambeau Field. There will be some signs and some booing, but ultimately the fans want to root for this team. Remove the drama and refocus on the season ahead.