The March Before The Madness

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My bracket from last year, or an example of how you can waste so much time and still be so wrong.

The NCAA Divison-I Men’s basketball tournament is quite possibly the most exciting event in American sports. From middle of nowhere David stunning Goliath blueblood programs, great teams chasing history, to some of today’s best players flashing their greatness for the first time on center stage. You can find just about every cliche sport narrative you could ever dream of in the 68 team field.

 

In years past, you’ve probably tried your hand at filling out a bracket in hopes of winning that $100 from your office pool. Myself? I don’t even want to think about the “analysis” I’ve put in trying to hit the 1 in 1,610,543,269 odds in coming up with the perfect bracket. Hell, even President Obama himself gets a segment on ESPN every year for his picks. For many schools, the tournament will be some of the best exposure they’ll get all year long and the results speak for themselves. For those schools to earn that right, however, they must go through a little madness before the dance and they have no problem with that.

For schools in conferences outside the “Power Seven,” end of the season conference tournaments are their only chances at grasping the nation’s attention for a night as they battle for the single automatic bid given to every division one conference. There is an argument to be made that this format waters down the NCAA tournament because it allows teams that wouldn’t have qualified on their regular season merit take a spot away from a more deserving team. The Ivy League offers an alternative example by simply not holding a tournament and giving the bid to the regular season champion. But conference championships are more about exposure than crowning a champion.

Less recognized conferences usually begin their tournaments before larger ones do and some even conclude before the big boys end their regular seasons. For example, the regular season officially came to a close tonight and as of this moment, five teams (Since this page will most likely be updated by the time you read this, those schools are: Florida Gulf Coast University, UNC-Asheville, Yale, Northern Iowa University, and Austin Peay University) have already punched their tickets. This strategy leads to a cohesive flow that benefits the large majority of college basketball. While the larger conferences are preparing for their tournaments, the national stage is left wide open. Smaller conferences utilize that time to get the audiences they desperately want. The power conferences have no qualms with all of the lesser guys getting out of the way early because it allows them to maximize viewership later on when their tournaments are underway.

I think if you looked at the NCAA tournament in a vacuum, the Ivy League’s format is the most logical and rewarding system. Yale earned its bid this year over the course of two months, not one week. However, the world doesn’t work like that and TV time is of incredible value to small programs. Tournaments are the tools these conferences use for exposure by building an exciting story with strong implications and delivering it at the most opportune time. If they lose the chance to put their best programs on the larger stage, so be it. The value in reaching new publics with conference tournaments far outweighs the risk of putting out an undeserving product for these lesser known conferences. You know, cinderella rode in a pumpkin carriage before she danced at the ball. Enjoy the ride.

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Rebuilding FIFA’s Reputation

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Will a new president bring the change FIFA needs? Or will he just be the next one up for a deeply corrupted organization? Photo by Wayne Roddy

The global soccer governing body, FIFA, announced this past Friday that current UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino was elected to be the next president of what is likely the most powerful organization in all of sports. FIFA has been under immense scrutiny ever since the May 2015 arrests of seven top officials on corruption charges in Switzerland and subsequent charges made by the United States government. Infantino’s election comes in light of former president Sepp Blatter and heir apparent Michael Platini’s eight-year bans from all FIFA events. The scandal has been a public relations nightmare for FIFA, including public reprimands by some of the largest corporations in the world, severance of partnerships from others, and the release of arguably the worst movie of all time. The ruling body that is capable of bringing North Korea and the United States together on a grassy field needs Infantino to right a ship that has been sailing crooked for far too long.

From the looks of it, Infantino is starting his tenure off on the right foot. As he helped open a new FIFA museum in his first act as president, he declared his intent to implement reforms to the ruling body. It is important in this time of change that he reiterates that the organization is making the changes its publics need to see for reassurance. In what was a massive part of the previous regime’s abhorrent corruption, Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup in 2010 despite its complete lack of infrastructure at the time. To meet the promises it laid out in its bid, the nation has embarked on an incredibly horrific migrant worker system that has left thousands dead already. Huge sponsors including Visa, Coca-Cola, and Adidas, are calling for Infantino to address the human rights issues FIFA has turned a blind eye to thus far.

Infantino and FIFA have a massive hill to climb in righting the wrongs of its previous leaders. In my opinion, stripping Qatar of the World Cup bid it won would be the strongest and most symbolic act Infantino could make at this time. It would show the world that FIFA is making the necessary changes it desperately needs to make during this period of mistrust from its publics and also that it values the rights of the voiceless. Realistically, I don’t see a shake up that large happening, but I do hope Infantino takes a page out of NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s playbook and levies a heavy hand early to set a tone.

The Importance of the Student in Student-Athlete.

 

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The dark side of college athletics can be nasty. Photo By Kim W.

While the nation was entrenched in the Super Bowl two weeks ago, a small but very important anniversary in the sports universe went largely unnoticed. Feb. 7 marked the first anniversary of the death of Dean Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach. A man revered for his commitment to integrity and the importance of academics in collegiate athletics, Smith and the powerhouse UNC program he built were shining examples that excellence on the basketball court could coincide with excellence in the classroom. Today, the university that Smith helped forge an impeccable identity with finds itself embedded in one of the largest academic scandals in NCAA history. As details continue to pour out, the university is tasked with maintaining its reputation as one of the most prestigious universities in the country and reassuring its audiences that academics do not take a backseat to athletics.

 

The scandal revolves around the African-American Studies department at UNC and scam classes that have become known as “paper classes.” These classes never met and simply required a single paper to pass. On the surface, the classes don’t sound entirely like shams– just somewhat. But when you see what passes for an A grade and the demographics of them you see exactly what they were created for. They were simply meant to maintain NCAA eligibility requirements and move athletes right along.

PR wise, the scandal is an utter disaster for not just UNC, but also the NCAA ruling body. One of the chief concepts (that is highly debated) behind collegiate athletics is that the education scholarship athletes receive are proper compensation for their work at the school. But what happens when that education is diluted by grade mill classes? It just further amplifies the public perception that schools are using athletes as profit and exposure generators.

The University of North Carolina’s responses up to this point have been about as good a university charged with “lack of institutional control” can be. In 2013, the Chancellor of UNC, Holden Thorp, stepped down and in his place stepped Carol Folt who implemented 70 reform plans. The reforms were made to ensure the public that serious changes were being made in light of the scandal.

One of the best ways the University of North Carolina has responded to the scandal was launching a portal on the school’s official website regarding the issue in 2014. The page lays everything out for you, from press releases to university progress reports. The Carolina Commitment page serves as a form of transparency and is used as a communication channel for the university to speak directly with audiences seeking information. Chancellor Folt releasing statements on the page about any updates is a great example of good crisis response work by the university. It shows from the head down that the school is making efforts in ridding the university of institutional dishonesty. The transparency is important because it shows that UNC is not shying away and hoping for the scandal to just disappear. Instead, UNC is taking action and showing you the reforming work the school has implemented and the progress it is making. That transparency shows is mutually beneficial for UNC and its publics because the feedback its audiences gives in response to the school’s strategies shows what is working and what needs changing.

I can’t imagine that if Dean Smith was still alive he would feel much pride toward UNC for the fact that it allowed this to even happen in the first place. However, I think he would have appreciated the work the school has put in righting its wrongs. In the meantime, at least its not SMU.

Championship Parades and How Franchises Celebrate with Their Publics

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Championship parades bring the whole city to a standstill. Photo by Griszka Niewiadomski

Watching your team win a championship is the ultimate dream of every sports fanatic. The confetti, the trophies, the awkward kind of/maybe/probably name-drops of companies you have stakes in. Nothing feels better than reveling in your team’s climb to the top.

Last week, the Denver Broncos captured Super Bowl 50 and with that, the opportunity to host one of the largest parties in sports: A Championship Parade.

With streets and sidewalks shut down for the event, over one million fans stuffed the streets and Civic Center Park of Denver to celebrate, listen to members of the organization speak and catch a glimpse of the Lombardi trophy. An event of such magnitude requires a lot of communication between an organization and its publics. These events are used by franchises as ways to express the organizations’ gratitude to its supporters and allow them to celebrate together. For instance, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock roared to those in attendance last Tuesday “Let the nation hear you! You are world champions! Make … some … noise!” The Broncos purposely used the mayor to express its thanks because it roots the organization into the fibers of the city and strengthens its special connections with the community. It is always important for an organization to acknowledge the importance its publics have in the successes it finds because without them, there is no franchise.

My first taste as a champion came last Fall when my favorite baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, broke through and won the World Series for the first time in 30 years after falling just short the year before. Even after I spent over $200 on champions emblazoned clothing, my thirst for celebration lived on. Going to school in Eugene, Ore., close to 2,000 miles away from Kansas City, Mo., there was obviously no way for me to celebrate alongside the reportedly 800,000 people who packed downtown that day. To put that number and excitement in perspective, Kansas City has a population of 467,000. Thankfully in this day and age, I watched the rally from the comforts of my home thanks to a live stream of the events by the Fox 4 affiliate in Kansas City.

I will always remember the images from that day and how outside of select restricted spaces, there was no visible standing room in the fields of Union Station where the ceremony ended. I hope the next time one of my favorite teams wins it all, I can be right there with the rest of my millions of friends celebrating the team’s efforts.

How Minor League Baseball Draws out Attendance

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Take me out to the ballgame. Photo by Kurt Krejny

To this point, I’ve really only focused on football on this blog. Ironically, football is a sport I am becoming less interested in as the years go by. Something that has caught my attention lately is baseball and specifically the way minor leagues attempt to get your butt in their seats.

 

The Minor league baseball system consists of 176 teams spanning 15 leagues across North America. As a result of having so many leagues and teams, in 2014 MiLB reported over 40 million turnstiles were walked through. Needless to say, that’s a lot of competition for your viewership. To draw your attention, teams will often host promotional nights as incentives for you to come out. In between your run of the mill dollar beer or bobblehead giveaway nights, organizations will sometimes come up with genius publicity stunts.

Throughout last year, for example, Star Wars Nights were raging across the nation in anticipation of the movie. Many teams even went so far as to include one-off uniforms for the night. Teams will often try to draw your attention in using any and all popular culture references. 2015 was the year the movie Back to the Future II traveled to and many organizations took advantage of that opportunity for promotional purposes. Holidays were no exception. One of the most outrageous promotions I have ever heard of came out of Lake Elsinore, Calif. in 2011, when on Cinco de Mayo, The Storm hosted “Charlie Sheen-co de Mayo.”

Promotional nights in the minor leagues aren’t always just wacky stunts to get you to come out and attend a game. They can also be used to promote good causes and raise awareness of issues. In 2014, The Myrtle Beach Pelicans won 2014 MiLB promotion of the year for its Prostate Cancer Awareness Night that included a live prostate exam for the team’s GM during the seventh inning stretch. The event drew attention from the media sources the likes of ESPN, The Today Show, and even across the pond from The Daily Mail in England. Not only did the event promote awareness of prostate cancer, but the team raised $6,500 in support for Fallon Emery, a local ten-year-old girl who was battling brain cancer. You could say the event was a home run for everyone involved.

So get out and support your local minor league team. Chances are you live very close to at least one. Promotional schedules should be coming out soon, so you can target dates if you’re interested in a free swag bag or want to support an issue you’re passionate about.

 

Media Coverage of Pandemic Outbreaks

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With the help of these guys, Zika is on its way to the U.S. Photo by Cheryl Empey

I’m actually going to step away from sports for a second to touch on the rising threat of the Zika virus in the Western Hemisphere. Recently, I joined the IR Futures student club at the University of Oregon out of curiosity for corporate communications and one of the fun things about the group is that it runs a little stock exchange competition. You put one dollar down on a publically-traded company and at the end of the term whichever company sees the largest percentage worth growth wins. Many tend to stick to the large companies like Facebook, Nike, Apple, etc. but a member gave me a tip that smaller firms with higher risk might be the better play. I did some research on the health care industry and stumbled across a discussion about “investing in Zika.” With morbid curiosity, I went with a little biotechnology firm named Intrexon. Intrexon works in synthetic biology to combat health problems and is currently working on a project to genetically modify mosquitos to spread a gene that makes its offspring die young. If it weren’t for my own financial benefit, I probably would have ignored Zika until it became an issue that hit closer to home.

Zika is a mosquito-borne illness that causes those infected to experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, joint ache and pinkeye. The concern from Zika however is much more grime. Zika is reportedly linked to a rising rate of microcephaly, a birth defect that results in smaller head and brain size in babies affected, in Brazil. The Zika virus is known to be spread through mosquitos.

As far as I can remember, since the SARS outbreak in 2003 it seems as though there has consistently been at least one pandemic scare reported on in the media. We all remember the panic Ebola planted in the conscious of the U.S. Even before the first person in the U.S. was diagnosed with the disease in September of 2014, the nation was on high alert. According to the CDC however, as of January 31, 2016, only four people total have been diagnosed with the disease in the United States, with only one resulting death. Those miniscule numbers didn’t stop about 50 percent of American adults from fearing an outbreak.

Zika seems to be following the same trend as its pandemic predecessors. Right now, it’s an outside issue, but one to study up on. We can hope that a cure will come soon and we can eradicate the virus sooner rather than later. If not, it’ll be interesting to see if the tides will turn in the media and the resulting public outcry.

 

Organizational Branding in the NFL and Why the Rams Aren’t Changing.

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Los Angeles, California: The City of Stolen Teams. Photo by Jhezie Lim.

Just two weeks ago, the St. Louis Rams franchise announced it was moving back to Los Angeles in 2016, ending a rollercoaster relationship with the city it called home for the last 20 years. In the days following the announcement, the organization also released its sweet brand new logo (hint, it’s exactly the same as before save for the city name.) effectively killing the sliver of hope I had for at least a tweak to the brand.

Franchises changing cities and keeping the brand of its organization the same is nothing new in the modern world of sports. Albeit brief and exaggerate, this clip from the movie BASEketball starring Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park and The Book of Mormon fame) touches on some of the head scratching scenarios raised by relocation without brand refreshment.

Organizations choose to keep their identities consistent through relocation as a way to maintain the connections they are leaving behind while also establishing new ones. In other words, they stay the same to maximize profit. For instance, the Oakland Raiders spent a short 12 years in Los Angeles from 1982-1994. With the help of a notorious hip-hop collective, the Raiders quickly established lasting relationships with Los Angelenos. When the team moved back to Oakland in 1995, nothing changed with the brand and Los Angeles continued to support the Raiders. As a study conducted by Facebook in 2014 shows, the Raiders remain the top fan base in Los Angeles County despite the team moving over 20 years ago. Contrast that against the abysmal Seattle Supersonics turned Oklahoma City Thunder fiasco where there lies no dominant support for the Thunderin Washington. Outside of Kevin Durant, nothing remains from the team the Seattle community cherished for 41 years and as a result, lost fans found other teams to support instead.

The Rams situation is very similar to the ’90s Raiders in that the franchise is heading back to the city it spent 48 of its first 60 years of existence before it vacationed in St. Louis for 20 years. The decision to keep the Rams brand consistent was a no brainer in this scenario. It doesn’t have to sweat about connecting with the area as it already established a dedicated following in the almost five decades it spent in Los Angeles. The Rams will find success in its long-lost new-but-old-to-be home of Los Angeles and it will continue to find some support in St. Louis as there will always be “Rams” fans there. In the meantime, Rams fans can buy a bunch of great vintage apparel from the team shop for low prices!