NetWorks Sports Two-Mintue Drill: Week of January 1, 2012

THE NETWORKS SPORTS TWO-MINUTE DRILL

Log on to the NetWorks Sports blog every Sunday as we succinctly recap our Top 5 list of events that caught our eye during the week in sports in The NetWorks Sports Two-Minute Drill.  Take two minutes out of your day to get our view on what’s going on both on the field (or court) and in the front-offices!

Top 5 Topics from the Week of January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!  As 2012 officially rolled in last Sunday, the world of sports remained the focus of many of our attention.  As I rang the new year in down in Scottsdale for the Fiesta Bowl, it was evident that 2012 would start off where 2011 left off…with several intriguing sports stories that promise to make this leap year another phenomenal year comprised of 366 magical days of sports.  Football fans were able to finally enjoy some competitive BCS Bowl games, the NFL playoff picture came into focus, and after a week of lockout affected NBA hoops, fans were enjoying (thanks to a free preview of NBA League Pass) the return of the best basketball players in the world to packed arenas around the country (except in a few markets, those poorly managed markets we speak of often). Here are the 5 topics in sports that topped our list this week:

5. Mike Tomlin proves that winning isn’t everything: While this is tough for Steelers fans to digest hours after a tough playoff loss to a lower-seeded Broncos team, in a culture & era where “winning is everything”, Coach Mike Tomlin continues to impress with his compassion for his players and view of the big picture. Defensive Back Ryan Clark, who has Sickle Cell trait, could have put his life in jeopardy if he opted to play in the high elevation of Denver.  In fact, unknowingly, doing so caused tremendous health issues for Clark a few years ago (in 2007), so Tomlin & the Steelers brass made the decision that Clark would have to sit this game out this week, despite it being a huge playoff battle on the road.  Clark stated this week that he wanted to play in such a huge game, but understands AND appreciates Coach Tomlin making his health a priority.  As witnessed late Sunday evening, Clark’s absence from the Steelers’ defensive backfield (along with solid play by Denver’s offensive and defensive units…and yes, 361 passing yards by Tim Tebow) may have cost the team dearly as his replacement struggled to make critical plays down the stretch.  There’s no doubt that Clark would have loved to have been on the field to impact the outcome of a huge playoff game, but in an age where many subscribe to the win at all costs method, it is refreshing to see why the Steelers organization and its leaders, such as Tomlin, are so well-respected across the sports industry.

4. Clippers continue to fight unwanted perceptions: This week, Blake Griffin (who actually coined the term Lob City when he initially heard about CP3 trade to Clippers being official) and Chris Paul attempted to distance themselves from the term by strongly stating that they are much more than just a team centered on lobs and dunks in transition.  Fearing that Lob City will imply that there is more style than substance (which arguably is a characteristic found in many Los Angeles based situations), the pair have taken to the media to further define what this new Clippers team is about…winning games & competing for Championships.  Seems like there is an identity crisis for LA’s newly appointed trendy team.  Based on the not-so-flattering nicknames fans of NBA hoops have used on the Clippers in the past, you’d think that they actually would be ok with embracing the fact that the Lob City moniker caught on so quickly and is a first step to changing the perception of a downtrodden franchise that had been the laughingstock of the league for years.  Personally, many fans find themselves tuning in to Clippers games because their Lob City exploits and charismatic players are exciting to watch.  More exciting than many of us can even remember!

3. A sports discussion falls back on a debate about race: Terrell Suggs (Ball So Hard University grad) vs. Skip Bayless on ESPN First Take this week!  Ding, Ding, Ding.  In what has previously been a rather mellow back and forth banter during Suggs’ occasional appearances on ESPN’s First Take, this week’s interviews took on an entirely new dynamic when Suggs brought up religious agendas involved in the current obsession with Tim Tebow when they debated Joe Flacco vs. Tim Tebow.  This debate, one of many, furthers the divide many feel in this complicated conversation based on the presence of a religious undertone.  Unfortunately, on the heels of this heated discussion, others began to allude to racial biases involved in the love/hate relationship many have with Tim Tebow.  We discussed it on a recent Game Changers Live radio show and undoubtedly will continue to discuss this very difficult topic.  Ultimately, at least we are having a dialogue about two very sensitive issues: race & religion.

2. She doesn’t “Love this Game”: Serena Williams divulged that she doesn’t love tennis or working out.  ”It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love; I’ve actually never liked sports, and I never understood how I became an athlete,” she said, according to the website. “I don’t like working out; I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.”  We won’t see an NBA-like commercial where Serena says “I Love this Game!”, but don’t let this statement diminish her will & desire to be great and/or to win majors.  A lot has happened in Serena’s life, from the death of her sister to serious injuries, but through it all, when the lights & cameras of a major tennis tournament are on…she tends to bring out her passion for winning better than most.  Her display of honesty and candor should not have any impact on what we have come to expect when she laces up her Nike’s, puts on an outfit that will be critiqued, and stares across the net at her opponent.  If that ankle she injured last week heals properly, we should all tune in to the Australian Open to witness her greatness.

1.  “We Are Penn State” and we want to be heard: Amid the ongoing debate surrounding the Penn State scandal, proud alum of the PSU Football program took to the airwaves to air the utter frustration with the “new” direction the administration is taking.  LaVar Arrington, who has a unique platform to air his disdain on a DC-based radio show, was the loudest of many alum voicing their opinions on the hire.  At a time when every move made by the Penn State brains trust will be scrutinized, it was especially alarming when the pride and unity that this university has displayed for decades began to crumble over yet another decision that was perceived as disloyal.  Administration should certainly have appeased powerful alums by at least involving a committee of former players in the interview process (just based on the situation). Dallas Cowboys linebacker and Penn State alum, Sean Lee (a soft spoken leader), put out a statement on Sunday acknowledging that he (along with the others) had hoped for a member of the PSU family to have the opportunity to follow in Paterno’s footsteps, but ultimately encouraging his fellow alums to support the new regime.  That along with Bill O’Brien’s letter to the alum should help to calm down the madness and allow those who care the most about this program to start moving forward during a difficult time.

For a “New View from the Sidelines”, tune in to Game Changers Live Wednesday’s at 1:00pm ET/10:00am PT on BlogTalk Radio as the co-hosts cover important topics in the sports world.

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Catching Women’s World Cup Fever

 

On a typical Sunday in mid-July, households across the world were captivated by a group of women who potentially have rejuvenated fan interest in a sport that has been in hibernation ever since fan favorites Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain brought home the Gold Medal on a similar stage 12 years ago.

While Chastain & Hamm et al had, what we now realize was, much more at stake (the survival of a women’s pro soccer league in the states), the drama and intrigue for the 2011 U.S. Women’s National Team was equally compelling.  If the 1999 group seemed to be the pioneers for women’s soccer at the elite level, then the 2011 team were flag bearers for the viability of the future of the sport.

Sometimes it takes a perfect storm to conjure up just enough steam to generate momentum.  Was this the perfect storm?

If Twitter is any indication (and we all now seem to use activity on this platform as confirmation of interest), the answer is YES!  The 2011 USWNT was in the midst of the perfect storm.  In fact, on Sunday evening, Twitter announced that a new record of tweets per second had been set at 7,196.  Eclipsing the activity around the Super Bowl, Osama bin Laden’s death, and the NBA Finals.

While media members debate whether or not this team is fair game for criticism for blowing two leads in the Final as the heavy favorite, the team can be grateful that the chatter hasn’t ended despite the disappointing and devastating outcome.  Truth is, as consumers of sports in all forms, many of us can’t resist analyzing this important moment in sports.  For many, the following questions come to mind:

1.  Was a sports starved American public (which included the President of the United States and his family), longing for any type of action as a result of the NFL & NBA lockouts, Tiger Woods’ absence from the Open, and a hangover from Derek Jeter eclipsing the 3,000 hit milestone last week? An 8.6 overnight rating on ESPN is a strong indication that a sports-starved public was more than willing to jump on the women’s soccer bandwagon.  For the avid sports fan, the absence of NFL free agency and training camp talk along with the terse undertones of a potential long-term NBA lockout certainly contributed to the interest in the WWC.  But to say that is the only reason people tuned in is a disservice to the fans and to the women’s soccer team.  Through their play, they earned our respect and desire to tune in as they sought after the first WC Gold medal in 12 years.  A hungry child must eat.  If fans tuned in because this was the best option, they were pleasantly surprised with what may just become a sport they now choose to consume on a regular basis.

2.  Was the Nike Women’s Sports campaign influential? There is no disputing the fact that Nike and its agency, Wieden & Kennedy, produce many of the most compelling ad campaigns in the industry and their efforts around the WWC were no different.  Nike’s commitment to the USWNT certainly provides a certain bit of credibility, but doesn’t necessarily impact consumer behavior or viewing choices.  It may, however, sell quite a few of those purple Hope Solo jerseys that were wildly popular.

3.  How strong was the Twitter-effect? As is witnessed by nearly 7,200 tweets being sent per second during the World Cup yesterday, fan activity on Twitter definitely played a role.  Players tweeted about their experiences, fellow athletes offered their respect & support, and Twitter-nation rallied in support of the team.  For those who weren’t watching the games live, they were treated to play-by-play throughout the matches and tune in prompts when action got exciting.

4.  Was ESPN’s commitment to the World Cup and growing coverage throughout the tournament a factor? ESPN’s commitment to the WWC was impressive.  They covered all of the matches, offered pre-match analysis, involved various experts (and former players) to share their opinions & analysis, and invested in making this a great event for the network.  As the tournament continued, ESPN’s covered picked up with post-game interviews and interviews on off days.  This allowed us to get to know the personalities of the rising stars.  In what had to be a moral victory for the 2011 team, the tone shifted from recounted the successes of the 1999 team to admiring the fierce competitors on the 2011 team.  Fans will still have Hamm, Foudy, and Chastain etched in their memories, but now a new generation of soccer playing role models have staked their claim on our respect & admiration.

5.  Is it the marketability of stars like Hope Solo and Alex Morgan? This isn’t even a question.  Simply Google Mia Hamm and you will realize how important it is for a struggling sport/league to have marquee stars. Over the course of Sunday’s Final, as reported by CNBC’s Darren Rovell, Morgan’s Twitter followers increased by 70%.  Yet, an important point to emphasize here is that these players are marketable primarily because THEY CAN PLAY!  Mia was one of the best (if not the best) players in the game who also was well-spoken and willing to carry the sport on her shoulders with her fellow teammates.  From what we can tell thus far, these players carry similar characteristics and both should be part of the USWNT for years to come.

6.  Is it the clutch play(s) by Abby Wambach that garnered instant respect with other professional athletes? Skip Bayless constantly harps on the “clutch gene” as he rates players in various sports.  In fact, despite his stellar play in the Eastern Conference Semis versus Boston & Finals against Chicago, LeBron’s fourth quarter disappearances in the NBA Finals still leaves Bayless questioning his clutch-ability.  Wambach’s huge clutch performances and game winning goals certainly made her one of the stars of this team.  To validate the impact clutch performances have on fan interest, we don’t have to look to far.  Remember Michael Jordan’s follow through as he hit a last second jumper in the Finals against Utah.  Think about Joe Montana & John Elway’s Super Bowl winning drives.  Recall Christian Laettnar’s game winner against Kentucky.  Clutch plays can make a career legacy!

7.  What will be the long-term impact of losing in the Final? Unfortunately, despite a cinderella-like journey through the World Cup that saw the team get off to a slow and unimpressive start, this loss will definitely have a negative impact on what “could have been” if the team brought home the gold.  The individual players will still benefit greatly from performing so well on this global stage, but they may not be able to generate as much off the field as they would have otherwise.  In addition, while interest will be boosted in WPS here in the states, we all love winners and may have somewhat of a hangover from the loss that stands in the way of us being motivated to tune into women’s soccer.  Hope Solo and Abby Wambach will now be household names and if they go on to win a Gold at the Olympics, they may be able to recapture some of what they lost.  It’s almost impossible to quantify the impact, but many of us will go on and say “what if”.

Despite the loss, the team captivated many unexpected fans. Possibly the coolest group of fans watching the theatre that became the Women’s World Cup Final was the POTUS and his family.  Huge fans of sports and fitness, the Twitter community was outwardly impressed that President Obama was not only watching the match with his family but also live-tweeting throughout the match.

Along with the question of whether or not sports fans will jump on board the women’s soccer bandwagon once the team returns to the states and their teams in the WPS, is the financial impact this attention will have on the new soccer stars Solo, Morgan, and Wambach.  An article in AdAge estimated that the stars each could have garnered $3 million – $4 million in endorsements with a victory.  Their eventual endorsement opportunities may not meet those expectations due to the disappointing outcome, but their agents’ phones certainly will be ringing off the hook with endorsements that can bring 7 figure incomes.  A newbie to the team, Alex Morgan, promises to become the face of women’s soccer.  She’s young.  She’s attractive.  She’s athletic.  She scored her first two goals in World Cup competition in two important moments.  She has a chance to become the next Mia.

We all have been treated to some amazing soccer over the last couple of weeks.  There were exciting victories claimed in the waning moments of regulation.  There was plenty of star power for avid and casual fans to follow. There was an amazing display of talented young stars.  There was great coverage from media members who typically hadn’t covered women’s sports or women’s soccer.  There were enthusiastic crowds in stadiums in Germany, pubs around the globe, and living rooms across the country.  And there were millions of Americans who Caught World Cup Fever!!!

The question remains, will they soon find a cure for that cold or will they continue to feed off the momentum and add a new activity to their calendars.  For those women who have worked so hard to put themselves in position to succeed on the grandest of stages, they hope that our interest is not temporary but that we will all find our way to stadiums around the country and watch them display the same passion for their craft as they play in the WPS.

Peace…