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The Big Business of Big-Time Sports

12/19/2012 --

Inaugural Michigan Sport Business Conference convenes industry execs and media personalities to explore "The Changing Faces of Sport."

A world of increased connectivity and shorter attention spans breeds new challenges and new power for the sport industry, said panelists and speakers at the Michigan Sport Business Conference (MSBC), held Nov. 9 at the Ross School of Business.

The inaugural event, organized by undergraduate students at Ross and U-M's School of Kinesiology, in partnership with U-M's Athletics Department, brought together a diverse lineup of sport industry executives and media representatives. Topics ranged from the changing revenue model of college sport to how to develop meaningful advertising and sponsorship for sport brands.

"There is a large value in bringing different perspectives together," says MSBC Co-president Brandon Rhodes, BBA '13. "We hope the conference will create more passionate students in sport business and spawn more dual degrees." Rhodes is pursuing a dual degree in business and sport management, with a minor in Spanish.

Such passion epitomizes the industry, said Fox Sports COO Larry Jones "Sports is tribal, no matter where you are in the world."

With some 90 percent of fans only watching sporting events on television, the pressure is on to make the game-day experience worthy of leaving the house, said David Brandon, U-M's director of intercollegiate athletics. "It's about more than the game. It's a marketing and event management challenge we have to continually meet."

In the conference's titled panel discussion, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross, BBA '62, and Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB.com, discussed ways that technology can enhance the fan experience. The Dolphins' Sun Life Stadium is one of the most technologically advanced in the country, thanks in part to its use of Fan Vision, a hand-held controller that provides attendees with multiple camera angles, replays, audio, real-time stats, and more.

"We are a second-screen society — wherever we are and whatever's in our hands," said Bowman.

Jones noted his job is the opposite of Brandon's and Ross' — to keep people on their couches by using enhancements that make it easier for fans to follow their game as well as keep track of other action.

Yet David Berson, executive VP at CBS Sports, cited the need for balance. TV networks don’t want empty stands, he said. "Full stadiums make more compelling viewing for the at-home audience."

Panelists noted that compelling viewing stems from increased fan-athlete engagement through the rise of social media.

Stephen Master, VP and head of the Nielsen Co's. sports practice, said prime-time ratings for the Olympics continue to increase despite criticism of the way NBC handles the coverage and despite the fact that live streaming of the events is available hours earlier. He believes one reason is that YouTube videos, tweets, and the like have better connected athletes with their audience.

"There are always going to be the hard-core fans. But when you've hooked the casual viewer [to watch tape-delayed coverage], you're having a good day."

Social media also has proved to be integral to brand marketing, said Rohan Oza, MBA '97, who delivered the keynote address. The former CMO of Glacéau vitaminwater launched the unknown brand to household-name status by creatively using celebrities ranging from athletes Tom Brady and Lebron James to rapper 50 Cent. "If you're going up against the big guys, you have to have creative ideas and disrupt the flow," he says. "Athletes have a stronger voice than ever before because of social media, so that became a key element of our strategy."

Oza noted that social media marketing works best when the product is authentic to the celebrity. He credits much of vitaminwater's success to the fact that the celebrity spokespeople were given equity in the company.

Ex-NFL star and television personality Dhani Jones agrees. "Your brand relationships become your lifestyle," he said. "You have to understand who you are before you decide which brands to align yourself with."

But what if the athlete's own brand becomes tarnished? In a world where scandals can go viral quickly, celebrities, more than anyone, must think before they hit the send button, said sports agent Steve Dubin. "Always thinking about your brand means you're not going to have to apologize later."

ESPN personality Mike Tirico noted that in the business of sport, like any industry, social media doesn't have all the answers. "Conversation is still the currency of society. Don't always send the how're-you-doing text. Go out for a cup of coffee."

Amy Spooner

For more information, contact:
Amy Spooner, (734) 615-5068, aschulz@umich.edu