I grew up watching Detroit Lions football, but sadly I can only truly remember a couple of seasons with Barry Sanders. As a little girl, I elected to also watch and root for another more successful team in the NFL. First, it was the San Francisco 49ers with Steve Young and than it morphed into the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre (at that age, I didn’t really grasp the concept of division rival). Anyways, I still try to watch Green Bay games even to this day because there is something about watching the crazed, frozen fans at Lambeau Field cheering on their beloved team with visions of Brett Favre running through snow dancing in their heads. As much as I hate to admit it, both Favre and the Packers fumbled their PR snap in the recent fiasco.
Green Bay Packers PR Fumbles
Apparent lack of anticipation. If you had to pick one player in the world who would retire and then decide to return, who would you pick? I’m sorry, but Brett Favre has to be on your list of top ten choices. As a member of their PR and management staff, it would seem like a great idea to discuss the possibility of Favre deciding to return before the 2008-2009 season and then developing a game plan in case it actually happens. By not having a game plan, the Packers staff had to call a timeout while public opinion was already forming before they could take this any further.
Weren’t clear and consistent. When Favre indicated that he wanted to return, Packers GM Ted Thompson stated that the team was committed to Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback. The Packers said that they would welcome Favre back into the fold as a player, but then at the same time offered him a $20 million marketing deal to stay retired. Management was satisfied with Favre returning as a back-up QB, but Favre understandably wanted a starting position. When it became clear of Favre’s desire to return as a starting QB even if that meant playing for another team, the Packers did their best to stall trading him and they had refused to release him. Had the team had a game plan to follow, they would have been able to be much more consistent and clear with the media and their fans. Consistency is key if you want to garner any credibility with your fans, especially with such a passionate fan base in Green Bay.
Shunned an icon. The situation was treated poorly and as a result, the team’s biggest icon was shunned. I can certainly understand head coach Mike McCarthy wanting to stick with Aaron Rodgers (even though I think Favre is the reason the team made it as far as they did last season); that’s his call as a head coach. However, the team did not handle this fiasco well with the face of their brand. I mean, the Packers brought up tampering charges against the Minnesota Vikings based on phone calls and texts made by Favre, which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell later dismissed.
Didn’t appear to be sincerely concerned. An article by John Sprecher says it best,
When Packers general manager Ted Thompson responded to Brett Favre’s interest in returning to the team by sending him a text message stating, “I’m on vacation, I’ll get back to you,” it was apparent to the football consuming public that Brett Favre was not his priority, but almost his nuisance. And public perception is reality, so be prepared to appear and be concerned about your crisis or suffer the ire of your consumers.
Brett Favre PR Fumbles
Before this incident, Favre was beloved by Packers and NFL fans alike (even division rival teams’ fans admired the guy). Now some fans have become embittered, others grew frustrated with the situation, and even NFL players turned on him.
But how in the world does one of the most beloved sports figures of all time, a man who epitomized toughness and grit turn so soap opera-ish so fast? His PR tactics have gained him little if any sympathy, even from his peers. In my travels through camp so far, not one coach I’ve talked to agrees with his stance and the players have been split 50 percent somewhat sadly against Favre, 25 percent adamantly for Favre and 25 percent absolutely blasting him for the PR route he’s taken.
“I don’t care, it’s Brett Favre, give him his helmet back,” said one Bears player over beers the other night. “I don’t care what happened or how it’s gotten here, it’s freakin’ Brett Favre!”
“Don’t let him back in the building,” said a Rams veteran after practice on Sunday. “He’s made it all about Brett. I’d be pissed if I was in that locker room and he’s made it all about him all this time. Man, I’d want to move on. Enough already, it’s been about is he coming back or not for damn near four years. I’d be sick of it.”
Didn’t return to the Packers. The first PR fumble is that instead of waiting for Rodgers to have a bad game and stepping in and then taking the QB reins, Favre refused to play back-up. Instead of going to a playoff contender, he’s now the QB for the NY Jets who went 4-12 last season. While Favre can certainly help them improve this season, he would have had a much better shot at getting that Super Bowl ring staying with the Packers.
Went on the attack. According to Jay Glazer, a senior NFL writer at FoxSports.com, the legendary Favre verbally attacked the Packers’ management on TV.
However, legend or no legend, if in any other business an employee, even the top sales manager of all time, calls his boss a liar three times on national television, and then reveals conversations with his boss that were believed to be private and then threatens his bosses … seriously, how many of those folks would still be employed? How many players in this league would come through unscathed, especially in the wallet?
If I had been advising Favre during this scenario, I would have advised him to release a statement about the situation, personally deal with the team management and the league’s office, and stay out of the public eye as much as possible. Yes, you want Favre to earn his spot back with the team, but attacking the hand that feeds you and riling up the media and public isn’t really the best way to do so. Favre is the face of the franchise and him badmouthing the team and leaving for the Jets has left a PR scar on his personal brand.
Even as Lions fan, this fiasco has left a sour taste in my mouth as I no longer hold the Packers organization and Brett Favre in the same high regard I once did (I had previously likened it to the relationship the Detroit Red Wings had with Steve Yzerman throughout his career). Fortunately, the decisions have been made and Favre is playing for a new team allowing the Packers to focus on developing Rodgers. After 16 years with the Packers, Favre will always be a cheesehead and the Packers have also expressed interest in offering Favre that marketing deal once he retires for good.
Hopefully this situation will encourage other sports teams to evaluate their game plan should one of their star former players decide to un-retire because of the possible negative implications. The first step in crisis communications is planning and preparing in case of a crisis and this is situation was no different.
Former NY Islanders media relations VP, Chris Botta, still blogs under NYI Point Blank even after resigning from his post back in early May. As an aspiring sports PR professional, I have his blog in my Google Reader and always look forward to his new posts. Today’s post discusses some of his frustration regarding a sentence in an SI.com column.
Jim Kelley is a Hall of Fame hockey writer and person who recently made the sort of lazy move that used to give me chest pains when I was on the PR side. In a recent column on SI.com, the former Buffalo News reporter wrote the following sentence on the Islanders:
“It’s the kind of place where experienced coaches like Joel Quennvelle, John Tortotella, Bob Hartley, Maurice, Marc Crawford and a slew of other seasoned but currently unemployed coaches don’t necessarily object to being passed over.”
The laziness has nothing to do with the typos/spelling errors on two big-name NHL coaches. The bigger problem is, does Kelley really know that all of these coaches ho-hummed not getting the Islanders job? Did he ask them? Did he think about checking with them – at least off-the-record – before telling a big audience on Sports Illustrated’s website that they’d rather be unemployed than work for the Islanders?
I really doubt it. The line reads like the kind of throw-away journalism a hockey writer might post from the beach on August 14th. That’s too bad because, beyond the Islanders’ image, Jim may have inadvertently made some respected coaches in need of work look like reckless idiots.
Of the four major sports leagues, I think it’s fair to say that the NHL seems to be struggling the most with garnering media attention, which is a shame because it’s a fantastic sport full of wonderful athletes and stories. Anyways, it is really frustrating when you do see an article about the NHL and then you find big typos (ex. misspelling a star player’s name) that make it look like that media outlet doesn’t even really care about the league.
And as Botta argues in his blog post, what support does he have for that statement? None that he acknowledges at least in his column. It’s hard enough for an NHL team to compete in a crowded market like NYC, but it makes it even tougher among the casual fan when columnists for large respected publications like Sports Illustrated critique your team without proof to back up their complaint.
I’m not really sure how a sports PR professional could really protect their team against that type of remark. Perhaps it just means encouraging a line of communication with reporters so that they feel welcomed to fact check that type of remark. But as Botta reminds his readers, a veteran reporter like Kelley should have the phone numbers to be able to call up those coaches in an effort to confirm that statement in his column.
A staff writer at The Times-Picayune, James Gill, noted that Ari Fleischer is making the rounds to every NFL team as part of the NFL’s requirement for pre-season PR classes for its players. For those who don’t know, Fleischer was George W. Bush’s first White House press secretary where he had a mixture of good and bad moments. Gill finds it amusing that Fleischer advocates telling the truth when he didn’t really live that out in his post in the White House.
Anyways, the point I want to talk about is the media training of sports athletes. Fleischer started his own sports communications firm and now spends his time training sports athletes and executives on how to effectively deal with the media. After spending a year in a PR department for a professional sports team and then the past summer at a PR agency with media training specialists, I definitely see the value in media training.
PR agencies frequently train CEOs and other top executives at a various sized firms with the same purpose in mind. The goal is to be able to be interviewed by a print, radio, or TV reporter and effectively answer their questions while getting your message(s) out. Honesty is always emphasized in these trainings.
To be honest, I don’t know how many teams have PR training sessions with their athletes. Personally, I think it should be a requirement. It’s not that many athletes stray from the basic cliches following a practice or game, but when something unexpected comes up this training can help guide an athlete. In a time of crisis, there may not be enough time for the PR staff to remind the player(s) which statements need to be avoided or which answers they can’t answer (ex. the player or team could be fined for certain remarks).
The benefits of, say, a media-savvy offensive line may not be immediately obvious, but NFL owners seldom take an initiative without a financial motive. Loose-lipped players can stir controversy and tarnish the image of one of the greatest money-making machines in the country. Owners are not here to play games.
As a fan, I want to see a player’s personality shine through in an interview and the consequential article. I love seeing players say something outside of the importance of executing their game plan or the need to stay focused. And I’m not saying that media training should strip a player of their chance to show some personality. I just think it’s an important investment for teams to make sure that their players know which topics can be approached, which areas they need to avoid, and why all of this is important to them. Not only could the team be hurt by a poor statement, but the player could lose potential endorsements and other opportunities.
For that reason, PR classes for athletes can also help them with any potential image problems that could arise for the team or league. Imagine if someone had advised Michael Vick of the negative hit his image would take if people were to learn of his involvement with dog fighting just as Vick started dabbling in that “sport.” I don’t think some athletes realize how much their extracurricular activities can affect the player’s own bottom line and these PR classes could try to raise an athlete’s awareness of this critical issue.
Additionally, I think media training for athletes would be particularly beneficial to leagues like the NHL with such an international involvement. I always feel awful for the foreign-born players who barely know English and struggle to make it through an interview with the media. Appropriate training (and even an English tutor) could make these high-class athletes more comfortable with dealing with reporters and reduce stress they may have about these kinds of interactions.
Case in point, Sidney Crosby versus Alexander Ovechkin during their rookie seasons in the NHL.
On paper, the battle was close — Ovechkin edged Crosby in points (106 to 102) and goals (52 to 39) last season – but off the ice and under the intense glare of the media spotlight, Crosby was miles ahead. Ovechkin never looks quite comfortable with the press because, as he admitted in September on TSN’s Off The Record, “my English no good.” Crosby, on the other hand, has become quite media savvy during his young career. Richer says that Crosby has had media training that “probably made him a lot more comfortable” when surrounded by the press.
I remember reading or hearing somewhere that the Washington Capitals, the team Ovechkin plays for, did hire an English tutor and engage the Russian in some media training. Perhaps, it wasn’t until after the first season when it was evident that the Caps were missing out on media opportunities because their star wasn’t comfortable with the language. Nowadays, Ovechkin shines in the media spotlight as his personality certainly shines through and I always seem to read quotes of his filled with humor and spunk. According to an article in the Toronto Star, Ovechkin’s struggle with English hurt him in obtaining endorsements like his rival Crosby. But now that he is much more comfortable with English and he was the league’s MVP this past regular season, he is “poised to break into the endorsement business.” Ovechkin can act as a case study for how media training can make a positive impact on an athlete’s career.
If you haven’t heard of Michael Phelps and his record eight gold medals in one Olympic games, I’m not sure what rock you’ve been hiding under. Because of his incredible success and the way that he has captured America’s heart, marketers are salivating at attracting him and current sponsors are no doubt pleased with the impact his performances have had on their company’s reputation and brand recognition.
Busy Busy Busy
After an amazing 17 races since August 8, Phelps has a heavy workload this week satisfying sponsor and media requests. According to the Sports Business Journal, Phelps has a variety of obligations to meet for his sponsors in particular.
Monday there’s a kickoff sponsored by longtime Phelps partner Visa at the credit card company’s hospitality headquarters at the Prince Jun Palace. (By the way, Visa released yet another 30-second spot congratulating Phelps, this time on his eighth gold medal. The company previously had done an ad congratulating him for tying Mark Spitz when he won his seventh gold.)
Later Monday, Phelps showed up at the McDonald’s on the north end of the Olympic Green, about a 20-minute walk from the Water Cube where he won all his medals. It was a photo op.
Speedo, his swimwear partner, is hosting three social events, which began Sunday night in Beijing for swim athletes. Also on the schedule are a coaches’ event Monday and another athlete photo-op Tuesday.
Wednesday, Omega will host Phelps and other swimming legends.
In his Visa press conference, Phelps talked about the 5000 messages he has received on his Blackberry phone (nice plug for that brand), his phone call with the president, and more.
When asked if he was ready for kids to “Be Like Mike,” he responded that he was, and recalled putting his hand on the special Gatorade bottle that had Jordan’s handprint on it. Jordan is the one guy Phelps wants to meet. …
Visa’s Michael Lynch said that they are sending Phelps to London as part of their handover party for the closing ceremony since Visa’s sponsorship spans through the 2012 games. Phelps will be at the Buckingham Palace mall via satellite, Lynch said.
Speedo’s sales have skyrocketed since the start of the Olympics. Phelps’ jersey has sold out with over 10,000 sold at the price of $24.99. In addition, the Speedo LZR Racer swimsuits pre-orders at $550 apiece have been selling at a strong clip. The company’s website has also seen record numbers over the past week. Speedo plans to continue reminding consumers of their sponsorship of Phelps with a promotional tour.
A Speedo spokeswoman said the company is planning a nationwide publicity tour for Mr. Phelps and other Olympians at the end of August to coincide with the introduction of more-general-market-oriented swimsuits based on the same technology as the LZR racer suits worn in the Olympics. The marketer is also weighing its first general-market ad campaign, something it mulled over last fall but decided to forego on the hunch that performance-based buzz would generate more attention than traditional ads.
Outside of Speedo, I believe that Visa has done the most to leverage its sponsorship of Phelps between the first press conference following the record and its frequent commercials throughout the Olympics coverage congratulating Phelps on a job well done.
Possible New Endorsements?
Speaking of Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” campaign and the possibility of a future endorsement there, what might be other possibilities for Phelps?
Sports business reporter Darren Rovell had a brief interview with Michael Phelps where he asked Phelps about any types of endorsements he’d be interested in. Phelps has to eat 10-12,000 calories of food each day so I wasn’t too surprised by his response.
Darren: You mentioned you had to have a burger after you were done. Any category of endorsements you’d like to entertain?
Michael: I love fast food. I mean, I eat fast food all the time. So I think a fast food deal would be pretty fun.
A recent Wall Street Journal article mentions another endorsement proposal and even requests from celebrities.
A dog-food idea was pitched, given Mr. Phelps’s well-known love for his British bulldog, Herman.
And still more: bobblehead dolls, acrylic paintings, commemorative coins, car rims and tuxedos. Some just wanted to give him things, like all the pizza he could eat for a year, or free dental work. And certain female celebrities and athletes wanted an introduction from Mr. Carlisle.
The biggest endorsement decision for Phelps in the next year or so may be whether to stay with Speedo or to leave with Nike according to that WSJ article.
Howard Bloom, who teaches sports management at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has worked with several Olympic athletes, says the key decision for Mr. Phelps will be whether to renew his contract with Speedo, the swimsuit maker that sponsors Mr. Phelps and offered him $1 million if he won seven gold medals.
“Michael Phelps would be worth $40 or $50 million to Nike,” Mr. Bloom said. “He could literally allow them to launch a massive swimwear company, and I think you are going to see an incredible bidding war for him.”
A Nike Inc. spokesman said, “We don’t discuss contracts and that extends to future or potential sports marketing relationships.”
Personally, I think Phelps will stay with Speedo. Yes, Nike will be able to offer the big money and whatnot, but Speedo’s LZR suit helped Phelps achieve his dream. Speedo is synonymous with swimming (at least in my eyes). Phelps has said that it’s not about the money, but the sport so we’ll see if he truly means that.
It will certainly be interesting to see how long this Phelps Phrenzy lasts. I’ve been a big Phelps fan since the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Soon thereafter, he came to train in Ann Arbor while his coach Bob Bowman coached the Michigan Wolverines team. He has spent the last few years in my college town and has been a Facebook friend of mine for at least two years. According to a TV interview I saw a couple of days ago, he has gotten over 7600 Facebook friend requests. Since you can only have 5000 friends, a lot of people are going to be disappointed.
Phelps says he looks forward to just sitting, taking it easy, eating cheeseburgers and pizza, and hanging out with friends. Once all of his promotional duties are fulfilled, Phelps plans to return to Ann Arbor to get the remaining stuff he had left and visit some friends before moving back to hometown Baltimore.
Congrats to Phelps and Go Blue!
According to an article in the July 23-August 3 issue of Sports Business Journal, the Orlando Magic put their 2008-2009 media guide on a flash drive for their season ticket holders instead of sending them out as print. While numerous teams place their media guide online, this will be the first time an NBA team puts their guide on a memory stick.
It costs the Magic approximately $6 for each memory stick media guide, compared with $8 for the printed version. The team’s new 352-page interactive guide will be available on an environmentally friendly 128-megabyte memory stick that can plug into an computer. The new effort will save more than a half million sheets of 5-by-8-inch pieces of paper.
I think this is a great move for the team and I look forward to seeing more teams make this move over the next couple of years. Many teams already put their guide on CD or memory sticks to give to reporters (the NHL puts their media directory and all of the teams’ media guides on CDs), but it’s time for the teams to start doing this for their season ticket-holders to reduce waste and save costs. At PR firms across the country, it is common practice to send reporters press kits on flash drives with the client’s logo so it’s definitely not a surprise to see this transition of putting media guides on memory sticks.
Forbes recently published their list of the 10 Best Entry-Level Jobs in Pro Sports, one of which was in the public relations department.
But if sales just isn’t your thing, there are other avenues. Most clubs and leagues offer entry level slots in public relations. Writing press releases and putting together media guides is often a path to bigger things. Legendary NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle went that route, starting out in public relations for the Los Angeles Rams. The pros’ advice to undergrads: Get down to your school’s Sports Information Department right away and start doing it for free. Almost anyone you’ll be competing with for a PR spot already is.
To even get one of these entry-level positions, gaining experience during your college years is critical. Even with experience, it’s hard enough to get that job. By having experiences writing press releases, helping put together the media guide, and observing how the professionals handle big events and crisis will give you a leg up over the competition. Personally, I have learned a ton from my PR internship with the Red Wings. In addition to my internship there, I’m hoping to volunteer in the University of Michigan’s media relations department, but have not done so yet due to time constraints.
Welcome to my new blog entitled the Sports PR Blog, which is dedicated to looking at the sports business industry from a PR perspective.
I am currently a senior at the University of Michigan where I am double majoring in Communication Studies and Sport Management. While I’m certainly not the most qualified individual to blog about Sports PR, this blog will essentially become a way for me vocalize what I’m learning about both the sports business and PR industry. Some of my posts may strictly be PR in nature, but I will do my best to apply it to the sports world as much as possible.