Arnold Palmer, a pioneer and a dealer in hope

It doesn’t take a brand strategist to figure out the appeal of Arnold Palmer. He was one of us.

Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer, the King of the people.

Before Palmer, golf was a sport for the elites, like polo. It was birthed in 15th-century Scotland by kings and stayed that way until after World War II.

That’s when Palmer showed up. His personality, born from less than elite status in Latrobe, Penn., was outgoing and inclusive. He adopted the game following his dad, who wasn’t a member of the local country club, but the greenskeeper.

Arnold Palmer’s personality was so welcoming that he attracted fans to the game who had previously ignored it. They became known as Arnie’s Army, a version of a rebellion in the sport of golf. If you were part of that army, you identified yourself as a new wave of golfers and fans. That is, the rest of us.

His passion sparked a game that was not polite, a go-for-broke style that worked against the demure, chip-away-at-things style his forbearers played. That led to 62 PGA Tour wins and seven major victories.

He was a true pioneer and he will be missed.

Arnold Palmer embodied a brand of the people.

He was also the perfect embodiment of a brand. Many mistakenly believe brand is about what the company/product offers. “We do this,” “We do that” become the mantras of brands that find themselves in perpetual stagnation.

But brand that’s practiced to be persuasive is about the aspirational self-reflection we (fans, consumers) see in the brand. When we buy an Apple product, we “think different.” When we buy a Nike shoe, we “just do it.”

For fans of Arnold Palmer, the self-reflection was, in its own way, fighting the power: The common man taking over a sport that was previously hidden. Palmer’s down to earth personality played into that, but also the fierce way he played. As Napoleon said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” That was Arnold Palmer.

Even the drink he invented, the Arnold Palmer, was a common man kind of drink. Who would have thought that iced tea and lemonade, the drinks you sip while sitting on the porch, would work so well together?

Yes, Arnold Palmer was great. He was a true pioneer. And he was one of us.

Fantasy football has overtaken the NFL

For years I have been waffling on my feelings about fantasy sports, especially fantasy football.

The cynic in me immediately disliked the concept of fantasy anything. For me, fantasy football seems like a frat-guy version of Dungeons and Dragons. Nothing against D&D either, but it appears to be an ode to the imaginary. For anyone other than a kid, I see fantasy as a waste of time for adults.

That’s me though.

Fantasy football
Fantasy football means fans watch the games like this.

But I also think fantasy actually hurts sports. I don’t like that it has changed how most fans watch games. Sure, folks may still have a favorite team but, with fantasy, you’re rooting for singular players, not a team. You may find yourself rooting for a player playing against your favorite team.

This creates a seemingly impossible reality for players to live up to. Take what Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse had to say about it.

“I think it’s starting, kind of, to be more about fantasy football than, like, football. You start to see that. All you hear about is, ‘Oh, this guy got me this amount of points.’ I was talking to a teammate and he made a really good point: It also gives people just reasons to watch games they really wouldn’t watch. But I think it’s all about fantasy football for fans. Or that’s where I think it’s heading.”

Fantasy football makes fans root for players, not teams.

More and more fans are consumed by fantasy football. The rise of Draft Kings and other online fantasy sites has increased. Fantasy football has become a billion-dollar industry.

My children, for example, only know the sport because they play fantasy. My oldest son, bless his heart, doesn’t even know how many players position themselves on offense and defense. But he knows enough to play in three fantasy leagues where he typically finishes in the top three. Go figure. He’ll only watch games involving one of his players and cares only when those players do well.

My assumption is that he is not alone in this habit. In fact, my guess is that he is in the great majority. Fantasy football isn’t going anywhere – and the NFL knows it attracts the average fan, like my son – but something is lost when you approach the game that way.

Should anyone sponsor the Denver Broncos?

When Sports Authority closed its doors due to bankruptcy, that left the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in a dilemma. What should they re-name Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium?

The Denver Broncos were left without a field sponsor and, now that Sports Authority has gone out of business, the team is igniting talks with potential suitors.

Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos can sponsor its own stadium.

Tops on the list, according to some reports, is Papa Johns, the national pizza chain that has tied its wagon to both the NFL and founder John Schnatter. Considering its overall strategy, it would make some sense.

Or would it?

What would a brand get out of sponsoring the Denver Broncos?

As a brand strategist, I’ve always been wary of stadium naming rights. It can be expensive, for one thing. Costs usually run from $11 million (Levi Stadium near San Francisco) to $20 million (Citi Field in NYC) per year.

In the large scheme of things, especially when you consider how much brands waste on advertising, it’s not that expensive. But what do brands get out of it?

To me, the reason to be the name sponsor of a sports arena is strictly for awareness. There’s no other reason. I can’t fathom how a brand can create preference based on that sponsorship.

Of course, that kind of sponsorship doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It should be part of an entire marketing strategy. And, often, sports sponsorship comes from a local company with nationwide reach. (Such as Sports Authority, which was headquartered in Englewood, Colorado.) Brands consider it part of their community outreach.

What would Papa Johns truly get out of it? It doesn’t have an awareness problem and it already has an official alliance with the NFL. From a brand perspective, sure, it could be the name sponsor for the Denver Broncos without impugning on its brand. But it already has high awareness and reach so there’s no compelling reason for it.

Think about this. What did the sponsorship do for Sports Authority? It probably has less awareness than Papa Johns, but the sponsorship did nothing to create preference for its brand.

Five years into its 10-year deal with the Denver Broncos, Sports Authority closed up shop.

My advice to Papa Johns or any of the other brands considering the sponsorship: Don’t do it. The NFL teams are rich enough to sponsor their own stadiums.

Tim Duncan, the quiet superstar

Less than a week ago, I wrote about Kevin Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you missed the blog, my position rested on the idea that I felt the spirit of competition had been lost. Durant has earned the right to move from the small market of Oklahoma City to any team he wishes. He surely played peak basketball for the Thunder for nine glorious years — giving, in my estimation, 100% every night.

However, there is something deeply admirable about staying put with one team. The logistics of doing that, compounded with the business of professional sports, makes that task a hard one to do. Yet, a career-long face imprinted on a professional sports brand means that athlete becomes adored. Cal Ripkin Jr., did it with the Baltimore Orioles, as did Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. Kobe Bryant achieved such with Los Angeles Lakers.

And so did Tim Duncan.

Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan was one of the greatest ever, and the most humble.

Yesterday, one of the greatest players ever, Tim Duncan, in his typically understated fashion, retired from the game of basketball.

There wasn’t a farewell tour for Duncan as there was for Kobe this season (which Kobe rightfully earned). No hoopla or leading coverage was had. Nope, it was just a class-act player calling it quits with the team he played every minute for: The San Antonio Spurs. Tim Duncan retired in the only way he knew how — quietly.

Pause a minute and consider what Duncan did on the hardwood:

  • Five NBA championships
  • Two NBA MVP awards
  • Three NBA Finals MVP awards
  • NBA Rookie of the Year
  • 15 All-Star selections
  • 26,496 total points (14th on the all-time list)

These are just a smidgeon of his career stats. Stats that show a career of being a man among boys (albeit, talented boys).

What made Tim Duncan stand out.

Coming full-circle, what I appreciate most about Duncan was his unwavering spirt and determination to win the five times championships in the small market of San Antonio. (If you’re reading Durant, you can win anywhere.) That is Duncan’s masterpiece and what has him etched with the pantheon of greats.

For people who have only seen Duncan in last half of his career, let me tell you also what an athletic marvel he was when he was young. The former Wake Forest star was actually a competitive swimmer before picking up basketball. When he played college basketball and later in the NBA, he has as agile as a 6-11 man could be, with a sweet stroke and an intelligent grasp of the game. They didn’t call him the Big Fundamental for nothing.

I know this for a fact. When I think back on San Antonio Spurs basketball later on in life, I’ll always think of Tim Duncan. I’ll remember his sheer dominance and grace on the court, his zen-like presence and brilliant level of achievement.

For all this, I wish to say thank you, Tim. The NBA is now a far lesser place without you.

The UCLA Under Armour deal is hypocritical

UCLA and Under Armour just announced a shoe and apparel deal worth about $280 million over the next 15 years. The deal covers all sports at UCLA and is the largest shoe deal in the history of the NCAA, eclipsing last year’s $252 million deal between Nike and Ohio State.

The UCLA Under Armour deal raises this truth: colleges and universities continue to make money on the backs of student athletes who play and attend school but receive nothing.

Looking at the UCLA Under Armour more closely.

Sure, people will argue that student athletes receive a free education but even that is misleading. Did you know that the NCAA only has six so-called head count scholarships? Men’s football and basketball with 85 and 13 scholarships respectively and women’s basketball, tennis, gymnastics and volleyball (15, 8, 12, and 12, respectively) are the only ones on that list.

UCLA Under Armour
The UCLA Under Armour deal exposes the hypocrisy of the NCAA.

In these sports, the scholarships are full-ride scholarships, although they never cover the total cost of attendance. In all other sports, NCAA only allows equivalency scholarships which means the value of a full ride can be split up among a number of players.

So, you have a whole host of student athletes that are not getting full ride scholarships yet are required to wear Under Armour gear. Because of the UCLA Under Armour deal, they are required to be good ambassadors for the Under Armour brand even though they are not even being compensated – not even with a full scholarship in many cases.

The school is making money on the deal at the expense of the student-athlete.

The NCAA brand has failed in its brand mission and has failed to live up to its core values. It has made a whole string of decisions that were meant to be for the student-athlete but only make the universities more money, making the large programs larger and the smaller programs less competitive.

If it’s all about the money, NCAA, then pay the athletes. If it’s about maintaining what you purportedly say you believe, then don’t let universities profit on the backs of their student-athletes.