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15 to Watch - January 23, 2017


By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
with Jamie Swimmer

 

1. If downtown Los Angeles doesn’t wash away by next weekend, after record rains, the city, Staples Center, and host LA Kings look forward to hosting the NHL’s best during the league’s annual All-Star break. Sunny skies are predicted for NHL All-Star weekend, comprising the annual skills contest, 3 on 3 All-Star game, and mobile “Centennial Fan Arena,” featuring the league’s Museum Truck, an "interactive virtual Zamboni ride station,” and photo ops with the Stanley Cup. The All-Star game, in its second season as a division-based, 3 on 3 mini-tournament with a $1-million prize on the line, takes place Sunday. The All-Star weekend takes on extra importance this year, as it is one in a series of year-long events celebrating the NHL’s centennial milestone. A major highlight is Friday’s recognition of 100 of the greatest NHL players of all time – including, of course, “Great One” Wayne Gretzky. Like most All-Star contests, the NHL’s annual celebration is all about exciting and entertaining the fans, and next week’s Hollywood-adjacent extravaganza will be no different. Just expect more famous faces behind the glass.

 

2. Wayne Gretzky won’t be the only sports GOAT in Southern California next weekend – Tiger Woods is set to make his 2017 PGA Tour debut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course. While the newly-revamped Torrey Pines course will play the same – difficult, especially following strong rough-lengthening rains – new partnerships and resulting fan amenities, including new food and beverage and entertainment options, are changing the way this PGA tournament is conducted. And with Woods and local favorite Phil Mickelson on course, this year’s Farmer’s will surely be crowded, and noisy. Tournament Director Peter Ripa has recruited extra marshals for duty this year, and anticipates doubling the 22 million viewers the tournament enjoyed in 2016. While the tournament might not break attendance and viewership records, one of its partner charities, Boys to Men Mentoring, a local program for fatherless teenage boys, once again has the opportunity to break the world record for number of surfers on one wave during Saturday’s One Wave Challenge. Innovative fan experiences and abundant philanthropy are hallmarks of the PGA Tour, and the Torrey Pines event is no exception. Watching a healthy Woods and Mickelson is only part of the fun.

 

3. As we head into 2017, LA 2024’s Olympic bid is slowly being revealed. According to the LA Times, LA 2024 is planning to split the opening and closing ceremonies between two venues, using both the LA Memorial Coliseum and the new Inglewood NFL venue. The Inglewood site will become the home to both the Rams and Chargers upon completion. Though USC has plans for a $270 million Coliseum renovation, the stadium "dates back to the first time" L.A. hosted the Games in 1932. LA 2024 "needed to feature" the Inglewood stadium, if only to "counteract a sense of ’been there, done that.’" As it is currently planned, the opening ceremony would be held at the Coliseum, paying tribute to its Olympic history, while the closing ceremony would be held at the Inglewood NFL palace, shining a bright light on the city’s future. The Los Angeles region will continue to capitalize on its biggest strength and asset – existing infrastructure and a solid legacy of the success of previous Games. Look for that theme to be continuously emphasized until the successful selection in early fall.

 

4. The Golden State Warriors have official broken ground on their new state-of-the-art arena in San Francisco. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the team held a groundbreaking ceremony for their new Chase Center that “resembled Cirque du Soleil more than it did a construction job.” The site where the arena is being built is in the city’s Mission Bay neighborhood, though it was originally planned on being erected at Piers 30-32 until lawsuits stopped that plan in its tracks. The Chase Center is projected to open in 2019 and will have a capacity of 18,000 seats. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and others at the groundbreaking "emphasized that the arena is being built on private property without a public subsidy – a rarity in professional sports." Warriors co-Owner Joe Lacob said, "We are totally good to go. It’s not surreal anymore. It’s real." Lacob and his team have done an incredible job securing the arena commitment in an intense and politically charged environment. As for Oakland, the pressure heats up – they have lost one team, the football team files for relocation, and the baseball team is looking for other sites. Game on, Oakland!

 

5. The on-field success of the Super Bowl-bound Atlanta Falcons has played a huge role in the team’s improved Personal Seat License sales. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, PSL sales have risen “from less than 33,000 at the start of the season to more than 41,000 now,” a significant increase in a relatively short period of time. Now, the team has only about 20,000 seats left to sell before the venue opens in the fall, prior to the 2017 NFL season kick off. The Falcons have "received a significant number of leads on potential additional sales" since their win in the NFL Divisional round over the Seattle Seahawks. The Falcons "haven’t said how many seats are in the PSL inventory, but after excluding seats that are part of sponsorship deals, in suites or held out for group sales and other purposes, the number of sellable seats to the general public is believed to be around 61,000." Historically, team performance is directly related to suite, seat, and PSL sales. Fortunately for Arthur Blank and the Falcons, the team is realizing its true potential just as the marketing of the stadium is most important. Good timing, Falcons!

 

6. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is coming under heavy scrutiny for his choice to attend the NFC Championship game instead of the AFC Championship. According to the Boston Herald, it appears that Goodell is “afraid to show his face” in Boston following Deflategate, which resulted in the suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Similar to the conference championship round, the commissioner elected to travel to Atlanta to see the Falcons take on the Seahawks instead of attending to Patriots-Texans game in Foxborough. Boston columnist Dan Shaughnessy directly challenged Goodell on this topic. "What is the big deal, Roger?” said Shaughnessy. “You are not Salman Rushdie hiding from the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini…You are the commissioner of the NFL. You are the protector of the Shield. You won the Deflategate war. Come back to Foxborough and face the angry nation." Despite this issue being over, emotions still seem to be running high across the league. In a classic case of “you can’t make everybody happy,” Goodell apparently needs an intergalactic transport to get him to both games on the same day. With the Patriots advancing to the Super Bowl to face the Falcons, look for Goodell to craft many favorable media opportunities showing him making nice with the team, Pats fans, and owner Robert Kraft.

 

7. Despite not winning a single major this past year, Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy finished as the world’s top-paid golfer in 2016. According to the London Daily Mail, McIlroy raked in a whopping $49.5 million, placing him atop golf’s “rich list” for the first time. He "amassed a fortune in just one year thanks in no small part to winning the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup," and the $10 million bonus that comes with it. While his on-course earnings totaled around $17.5 million, his off-course earnings are what separated him from the pack. Thanks in part to sponsorship deals from companies like Nike, Omega, Bose, and Electronic Arts, McIlroy’s off-course earnings amounted to approximately $32.5 million. Remarkably, Arnold Palmer earned more than anyone else in the game other than McIlroy in the year that he died at age 87: $40 million, "thanks to his portfolio of golf businesses and own brand of iced tea." Arnold Palmer will always be the king of branding and endorsements. He undoubtedly set the standard for Tiger Woods, and now will do the same for McIlroy in his off-the-course branding aspirations and business performance.

 

8. The surge of the U.S. dollar has bolstered the domestic economy, but it has been detrimental to many Mexican soccer clubs. According to ESPN.com, Liga MX clubs have been negatively affected by the strengthening of the dollar because “league expenses are in dollars and revenues are in pesos.” Over the past four years, the U.S. dollar has increased its value by almost 10 pesos, which has “made things difficult for football clubs, who are searching for different ways to deal with the devaluation.” For example, “if a player was bought for $8 million in 2013, the equivalent in Mexican currency was 102 million pesos. Now, the same cost in dollars would amount to 176 million pesos.” The reason that the clubs have their revenues in pesos is because most money that the clubs receive, with the exception of TV contracts, come is pesos – ticket sales, food, beverages, etc. The cooperative sports connections between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. will no doubt continue as parties explore the feasibility of a 2026 World Cup bid. In the meantime, each country struggles with its competitive balance as it relates to exchange rate, facilities, player transfers, and the like.

 

9. The Chicago Blackhawks have one of the best records in the NHL, but the team’s local TV ratings do not reflect that. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the Blackhawks have “posted an average local rating of 3.15” for their 29 broadcasts on CSN Chicago thus far, which is “down 17% from the same point last season.” But these statistics may be a bit skewed due to one critical factor: the team’s early games overlapped with the Chicago Cubs’ World Series run. Three Blackhawks telecasts on CSN Chicago went up against Cubs NLCS or World Series games, "including the lowest-rated game thus far on Nov. 1" against the Flames, which posted a 1.31 rating. Ever since the Cubs ended their season as world champions, the Blackhawks have seen a steady climb in local ratings as eyes turned back to the rink from the diamond. This is clearly a case of continued astronomical expectations coupled with “Cubmania” in Chicagoland. It’s a pleasant problem for Chicago to have: two championship-worthy teams struggling for superiority at the gate and on television.

 

10. Things are finally starting to look up for U.S. men’s tennis. After years without a deep pool of domestic talent, “seven U.S. men 20 or younger made it into the 128-player main draw for the Australian Open.” According to the New York Times, “the last time the U.S. had that many 20-or-younger players in a major was the 2006 U.S. Open, and at this week’s tournament the country has “more men competing in singles (14) than any other nation.” Many of these budding American players have grown up training together at the USTA’s former development complex in Boca Raton, and are now taking a collective, team-like approach entering major tournaments. Twenty-three-year-old Bjorn Fratangelo said, “It’s really changed the perspective for the players; we do feel as if we’re a small team.” The USTA’s new training complex recently opened in Orlando, where these same players often room and workout together. While Jack Sock and John Isner are the faces of the current American program, look for new, diverse, and talented fresh faces in the years to come. New facilities and programs clearly have that effect on all types of programs all across the globe.

 

11. English Premier League clubs in London were recently urged to sign up for the Living Wage initiative by city Mayor Sadiq Khan. According to the Evening Standard, Khan wants the London-based clubs to set an example for other businesses across the city. Owners and chairs from Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, and Crystal Palace were all approached in regard to this and were told that it “could not be right” that so many Londoners “were still struggling to make ends meet.” The mayor believes that all EPL clubs should have to pay staff living wages, but he is strategically starting with only the London-based teams. Current EPL leader Chelsea, which signed up in 2014, is the "only top club in London already paying all its employees" the voluntary London Living Wage. In a letter, Khan said that paying all workers the wage was a “win-win” situation for their businesses as it could “help recruitment, retention and productivity of staff.” The EPL is always a symbolic standard for UK businesses, as well as the rest of Europe. The wage issue should be a major focus in the months ahead.

 

12. There is no doubt regarding the prestige and honor associated with attending a U.S. service academy, but many prospective student-athletes have been steered away from them throughout the years due to their postgrad service requirement. But last spring’s dropping of the minimum “two-year postgrad active duty requirement” has changed the game for service academies. According to Sports Illustrated, attracting top recruits has become easier for academies thanks to the new policy, which states that “any academy athlete can now turn pro immediately, his or her two years of active duty replaced by eight to 10 years in the reserves.” “For us to continue to have the maximum influence (as an institution), I think it’s pivotal that we are able to recruit better athletes,” stated former NFLer and West Point alumnus Caleb Campbell. Not every is jumping for joy though; many traditionalists at the academies firmly believe that all graduates should serve, regardless of their athletic ability. Ironically, the on-field performance of Army and Navy continues to show results, even though it is clearly harder to maintain a consistent and stable quality program on the field.

 

13. Defined by lackluster and embarrassing on-court performances over the past few years, the Philadelphia 76ers are finally starting to turn things around, and their merchandise sales reflect that. According to CSNPhilly.com, the 76ers ranked "fourth among all NBA teams in total merchandise sales over the past seven days,” just behind the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Chicago Bulls. Leading the way for the 76ers has been big man Joel Embiid, whose jersey was the fifth-best seller over that same period of time. The Sixers have "ranked in the league’s top 10 of merchandise sales since the beginning" of the 2016-17 season. They “hold the largest year-over-year increase during that timeframe in the NBA this season.” Similar to their increase in merchandise sales, the 76ers have also seen a 10% increase in home attendance from last year to this year. The 82.9% ticket sales rate per home contest represents the “highest attendance the Sixers have had” since Hall of Famer Allen Iverson last played in Philadelphia. The 76ers have had a tremendous history and an intense and avid following – Julius Erving, Will Chamberlain, and Iverson. It will clearly benefit the NBA when (and if) the 76ers, Lakers, and Knicks become “good” again.

 

14. Target is making a heavy investment in MLS after signing a multiyear deal to become an official partner of the ever-growing domestic soccer league. According to SportsBusiness Journal, the deal represents Target’s “largest-ever push into team sports.” “As part of its MLS deal, Target will have airtime during league broadcasts on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision, as well as in-stadium exposure and on-site activation.” Financial details regarding the deal have not yet been disclosed, but the deal has been confirmed as large enough to make Target “one of the largest supporters of soccer in the U.S.” The Minnesota-based retailer also inked a deal with MLS expansion club Minnesota United to put its logo on the front of the team’s jersey. Minnesota United will begin play in 2018 and will eventually move into its own soccer-specific stadium, pending construction. Good for the MLS to secure additional corporate partners – especially a premier consumer brand like Target. Television, stadiums, ownership, market share, and corporate partnerships continue to be the backbone of all sports leagues (including MLS).

 

15. As longtime sponsors continue to abandon the USOC, A-B InBev is the latest example of a high-profile partner electing not to renew its contract with the organizing committee. According to SportsBusiness Journal, “the brewer’s Budweiser brand has been the first and only official beer of Team USA since 1984,” and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics marked an end to that streak. With the next three consecutive Olympics being held in Asia (2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea; 2020 in Tokyo, Japan; 2022 in Beijing, China) sponsors are “worried about maintaining fan engagement during far-flung Games.” A-B InBev joins Hilton, Citi, TD Ameritrade, and AT&T as sponsors not renewing contracts with the USOC at this time. “The malt beverage category is now open with the USOC, along with hotels, banks and online brokerages.” All of this is happening despite Los Angeles’s encouraging bid to land the 2024 Olympics. Over time, the USOC will continue to expand and diversify its brand. Assuming Los Angeles is chosen for 2024, and assuming the brand continues to evolve, look for more USOC sponsors to commit at a higher level in the years ahead.


Follow Rick Horrow (@RickHorrow) and Karla Swatek (@kswak) on Twitter.




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