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An NFL Offseason Offers Hope for Teams, but So Might a Rebranded Look

The NFL’s partnership with Nike has inspired some bolder changes in its first five years.

Scot Chartrand

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NFL teams reveal their new Nike uniforms in 2012–via NFL Films

The NFL’s Partnership with Nike Has Inspired Some Bolder Changes in Its First Five Years

For 30 of the NFL’s 32 team fan bases, it’s the offseason already. The focus is on what your favorite team could do to improve their performance and identity on the field next season.

But for several teams, there’s also the business side of improving the identity of the team.  Sometimes this can go hand in hand with the football side.  Sometimes, that identity can leave fans just as frustrated.

Today in the NFL, these changes have been further encouraged by the involvement of league partner, Nike, since 2012. What’s gone right under Nike? What leaves us wanting?  What happened before Nike?

We reached out to a number of experts in logos and brand identity for some of their thoughts on the past and future of brand and visual identity changes for NFL teams and explored how teams can make these changes.

THE WORLD OF NFL IDENTITY CHANGES BEFORE NIKE

There are teams that have maintained the same, basic look for well over a half-century. The Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and others come to mind in thinking of a more timeless brand identity.

The lone star adorns the Cowboys helmet. Vince Lombardi’s famous “G” for greatness rests on Green Bay’s. Even Bubbles the Lion has been on Detroit helmets in some fashion since the 1960s. Their business side need not worry about that part of their identity.

Not every franchise has such a look…or one that might create a fan revolt if they tried to change it.

Over the years, NFL rebrands have either tried to modernize a look or completely overhaul it.  Sometimes, the rebrands were attempting to jump-start a floundering team on the field.  Other times, teams were in the middle of success.

Let’s take a look at examples of each.

Cincinnati Bengals, before and after 1981 change–via Amarillo Globe News (l) and Bengals.com (r)

Entering the early 1980s, the Cincinnati Bengals had failed to produce much success on the field since their founding.  Paul Brown took to Cincinnati and immediately created an identity similar to what the Browns had built under him in Cleveland with orange helmets designed to aid the quarterback looking down the field.

In 1981, the team switched from an orange helmet with the word “Bengals” plastered over it to today’s unique, striped orange helmet.  Strangely enough, their fortunes turned around on the field right away.

After defeating the Chargers in freezing temperatures to win the AFC Championship, they played in Super Bowl XVI against Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers and made another Super Bowl appearance at the end of the decade as well.

Todd Radom (@toddradom) of Todd Radom Design has worked in sports branding and design for a quarter century.  When we asked him about his favorite brand change in the NFL, he saw the Bengals as most notable.

This may be an outside of the box opinion, but the Bengals’ 1981 helmet and uniform change comes to mind first. They went from a bland, vanilla look to something truly ownable and noteworthy. The uniform has been degraded in the years since, but that first iteration was a brilliant one, way ahead of its time. The helmet communicates the franchise identity seamlessly and effectively. A winning tradition would have helped elevate this in the public consciousness.”

New England Patriots, before and after 1993 change–via Patriots.com

Not all fans of this year’s Super Bowl participant, New England, remember the old Pat the Patriot logo on a white helmet with a striped red jersey at the shoulders.

The Patriots made one Super Bowl appearance in the old uniforms, but fell on hard times behind less memorable quarterbacks, such as Hugh Millen and Scott Zolak. That was until Robert Kraft bought the team from Victor Kiam and hired Bill Parcells in 1993.

That year, the Patriots conducted a dramatic rebrand to their “Flying Elvis” Patriots logo on a silver helmet with blue jerseys.  The look also welcomed new quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and within a few years, Parcells led them to a Super Bowl appearance in 1996.

It would not be until Tom Brady’s arrival with Bill Belichick in 2000 that the look (and another adjusted uniform) became as cemented in the minds of football fans, but the dramatic branding change paid off in New England.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before and after 1997 change–via St. Pete Times (l) and Buccaneers.com (r)

In the middle of the 1980s, things were so bad in Tampa that a local media outlet took a survey to determine which NFL team locals should consider rooting for instead of the Buccaneers (FYI, the Browns were the winner).

The “Bucco Bruce” logo of a swashbuckler with a sword in his mouth and creamsicle orange jerseys didn’t quite inspire fear and neither did the team’s play.

Enter new owner Malcolm Glazer, new head coach Tony Dungy, and the color known as pewter. The “Pewter Pirates” suddenly sported a large red pirate flag on the pewter helmet and a team muddled in failure for 15 years became a consistent playoff participant through winning Super Bowl XXXVII under Jon Gruden.

In these cases, the teams rode significant branding changes from rags to riches.

Two other teams made major changes while on top of the world.

Denver Broncos, before and after 1997 change–via NFL.com (l) and Rant Sports (r)

The Denver Broncos logo and “orange crush” persona were so iconic, that the horse in the middle of the D on their helmet came from not just the top of Mile High Stadium’s scoreboard—“Bucky Bronco” was actually a model cast from Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger.

Denver had been a top-tier AFC franchise since John Elway’s arrival, but they had gone 0-for-4 in the Super Bowl to match the dubious achievements of the Vikings and Bills at the time.

The first year the team switched to the dramatic rebranded horse head along with the navy uniforms (fueled by design from Nike), they erased that tradition of losing the big game and claimed the first of their two back-to-back titles.

St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams, before and after 2000 change–via TheRams.com (l) and stltoday.com (r)

In 1999, Trent Green went down with a season-ending injury for the St. Louis Rams in the preseason, and well, the rest is history.  Kurt Warner’s improbable story resulted in a title, but the following year, the Rams ditched their bright blue and yellow colors they brought with them from the Golden State to wrap themselves in Y2K with Millennium Blue and New Century Gold.

They went right back to the Super Bowl after a year and fell short to New England, but the bold move caught the eye of Chris Creamer (@sportslogosnet), who is well known for his work for two decades on SportsLogos.net, a comprehensive database of sports logos for all things sports.

“At the time I was a big fan of the change the St. Louis Rams made to their logo and color scheme, back around the turn of the century. It seems odd to have this opinion now with everything retro being big, but by the late 1990s that yellow and blue of the Rams was aging poorly and needed an update bad – a switch to navy blue and gold while maintaining the classic horns and introducing the modern rams head logo was great for the era. It hasn’t stood up to the test of time (the color scheme, that is… the logo is doing just fine) and it could stand an update now, but as far as a classic look getting an update in 2000 that was a good way to go.”

Arizona Cardinals, before and after the 2005 change–via USA Today (l) and AZCardinals.com (r)

So, what about simply modernizing a classic look?  That’s what impressed Donovan Moore (@colorwerx), founder of ColorWerx, a website dedicated to preserving historical sports color data.

“My favorite logo change of all time is a completely biased one, but I believe is still worthy of mention: the Arizona Cardinals rebrand in 2005. I’ve been a die-hard Cardinals fan since the late ‘60s, and what makes that particular change so perfect (in my eyes), was the fact that they created a logo that completely modernized the look, while still preserving the tradition of the primary mark. Most people noticed the corresponding uniform changes, but were somewhat unaware of the logo change. Put them side-by-side and you can easily see the differences, but on the field, they still look like the Cardinals.”

These days, there are fans of some teams who would long for such an incremental change.

An incremental change wasn’t on the mind of two NFL teams who were quite successful in the 1980s and 1990s.

Carmen Policy speaks at a press conference unveiling an ill-fated 49ers helmet in 1991–via San Francisco Chronicle

The San Francisco 49ers unveiled a “49ers” helmet in 1991 that replaced the “SF” they had won four Super Bowls with and scrapped it six days later.

Also in the 1990’s, the Miami Dolphins had prepared a very avant-garde design that would be a violent shock to the system for most Dolphins fans that was dismissed before any public unveiling.

Even the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns kicked around prototype helmets in the 1960’s with logos that would stun many fans that weren’t aware.

It’s not that teams didn’t try major rebrands prior to Nike’s work with the NFL…

NFL IDENTITY CHANGES UNDER NIKE

After replacing Reebok as the NFL’s exclusive manufacturer in 2012, Nike sought to bring with them some of the same revolutionary branding they had created for universities, such as Oregon.

At first, the only team in the Pacific Northwest tried Nike’s magic.  In the following years, teams became bolder.

Seattle Seahawks Nike uniform–via Tacoma News Tribune

NFL Rebrands by Year under the Nike agreement:

  • 2012:  Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks
  • 2013:  Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings
  • 2014:  Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • 2015:  Cleveland Browns
  • 2017:  Detroit Lions

While some were more modest upgrades and modernization of the brand, others were much more dramatic.  Seattle, Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa Bay and Cleveland are generally considered to be among the greatest changes in terms of rebrands in this group.

SportsLogos.net’s Chris Creamer saw the perks of teams trying to be bold in utilizing Nike for rebrands so far as well as the drawbacks teams have faced.

“Nike taking over the NFL has led to some interesting and out-of-the-box designs – their Miami redesign would’ve worked if the team was an expansion franchise, but alas a history (with championships) is involved there, so it changes how one perceives it. I can’t say I was much of a fan of what they did with Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, but I’m never going to fault a company for trying something new, I’m just not necessarily a fan of the result.”

On the other hand, fan sentiment seemed to applaud redesigned uniforms in Seattle.  It certainly didn’t hurt that the team has since experienced success in them with a Super Bowl title and two appearances coinciding with the Russell Wilson era in 2012.

However, as Creamer noted, some fans in places like Cleveland and the three Florida teams have been less receptive.  A visit to some of the pages of the SportsLogos.net Forum section of his site will often find discussions about the two-toned Jaguars helmet and the appeal of the Dolphins’ throwback jerseys as examples of fans hoping for change already.

Todd Radom sees some improvement in the work Nike has done as the contract has aged along with some opportunities ahead to improve their work:

It’s still early, but Nike has corrected some egregious mistakes, particularly with regard to neck trim. I think it’s safe to assume that we will begin to see a wave of changes next year and beyond, so the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned.”

Those windows for change of the initial teams to rebrand under Nike are now starting open.

As noted, Nike’s contract with the NFL began in 2012.  According to the NFL Constitution and Bylaws, teams essentially must wait five years after a change in branding to try again.

NFL Constitution and Bylaws Article XIX 19.9

NFL Constitution and Bylaws Article XIX 19.9–via NFL Digital Care

NFL 2002 Resolution G-3 and Attachment–via NFL Digital Care

It’s not just the five-year waiting period, though.  Besides the notification of March 1, of the year prior, it takes two years just to design a new uniform as noted in a report published by CBS Sports last year that dealt with dissatisfaction around the Cleveland Browns uniforms.

Cleveland Browns huddle–via NFL.com

Cleveland will have to start the process now, but still wait until 2020 to see the finished product. However, fans in Jacksonville and Miami are eligible this upcoming season—provided that pre-work has gone in.

So what is sparking all this fan interest in uniforms and logos?  Is it just Nike?

Again, we reached out to our experts for their thoughts on the evolution of fan interest in team branding elements.

From Todd Radom’s perspective, he noted, “Some folks have always cared about this stuff, but the sheer number of uniforms that are trotted out these days and the marketing behind them has really ramped up interest tremendously. There was a time when NFL uniforms were, for the most part, functional and very utilitarian. Third jerseys, the use of throwbacks and, yes, ‘Color Rush’—have all helped to ramp up fan interest.”

Chris Creamer remembers an earlier time that piqued his interest, sharing as follows, “Pre-internet, I just presumed I was the only person in the world who cared about the uniforms being worn. I’d point out the throwback helmets and jerseys during the NFL 75th anniversary games in 1994 and the others in the room would usually respond with ‘huh, I didn’t even notice.’

The internet changed all of that when I discovered that there were plenty others just like me and they all thought they were all alone in their interest. The explosion of interest is fantastic for me because I run a site dedicated to this topic, but I also wonder if it puts too much pressure on teams to tinker with their look and to try and come up with a reason for every little design element perhaps complicating a design.

Back in the day, a team would have two stripes on each sleeve and it wouldn’t be for some manufactured reason, it’d be because it looked better that way.”

To Creamer’s point, when the MLS’s Columbus Crew SC rebranded back in 2015, they actually identified six separate elements to a simple soccer roundel.

So, these days, fans don’t take rebrands that lightly as evidenced by the infamous one-day L.A. Chargers logo last year that involved the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Lightning exploring their relationship dynamic on Twitter and sparked a quick retraction.

LOOKING AHEAD TO CHANGES IN 2018 AND BEYOND

So, what’s on the horizon in the NFL?

As already noted, the Jaguars and Dolphins are eligible to make a change—as are any teams that have not made a change since 2013.

Tennessee Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk confirmed last training camp in an interview with The Tennessean what had been rumored previously, that the Titans would be changing uniforms (and likely helmets) for 2018.  She went on to add that the changes are “not minor.”

In fact, Titans fans need to ready themselves for this in April. Back in Jacksonville, one of the newly eligible teams to make a change appears ready to take another swing for the fences with Nike.

The Titans aren’t the only fan base that can look forward to this upcoming April.

As rumored last year and confirmed this week by Mark Long of the Associated Press, the Jaguars will have new helmets in 2018 and will feature more teal in their uniforms in a redesigned look.  The impetus here might be the team’s former coach now serving in the front office—Tom Coughlin.

Chris Creamer agrees with the suspected changes ahead with the Jaguars.

“The Jacksonville Jaguars need to re-embrace the teal part of their identity; I realize the Dolphins use something similar in-state, but there’s nothing necessarily special about this club wearing black and gold (also… Saints?), not to mention that gimmicky helmet. One of those designs folks will look back on ten years from now with a chuckle, and twenty years from now with a ‘they need to bring it back!’”

So, we have two teams making changes to their identity this offseason.

What else would our experts like to see?

Dallas Cowboys huddle–via Bleacher Report

For Donovan Moore of ColorWerx, it’s cleaning up some aspects of “America’s Team.”

My most hoped for uniform change is one a lot of uniform aficionados have been waiting for: the Dallas Cowboys. Although they made a very subtle color change in 2012 to match the helmet color to the road pant color (at least in print – the helmets used to be Silver-Blue), they are still using Silver and Navy helmets with White, Royal Blue and Silver-GREEN pants at home (yes, they are officially called Silver-Green). I truly believe they could easily standardize the color scheme without too much of an uproar from the traditionalists.”

Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff–via WPVI-TV

Todd Radom looked ahead to two teams rumored to be targeting notable changes in 2020.

Let’s start with the Rams, who are a disjointed mess. Then we can shift our attention to Cleveland, a franchise that needs to blow many things up and start anew—and yes, this sentiment applies to their on-field look too.”

The Orange County Register confirmed last year that the Rams have begun the process of making the change, but have yet to decide when. Originally, they were to change uniforms to coincide with moving into their new stadium in Inglewood, Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park. However, with the project delayed by a year, the Rams may very well give the new uniforms the same fate.

Perhaps the Rams will return to something closer to their look when in Los Angeles most recently?  Don’t get Rams fans started…

Los Angeles Rams “Melonheads” fans–via Los Angeles Daily News

There are a whole host of possible changes and tweaks diehard fans have thought about that weren’t even mentioned.

Occasionally discussion will arise topics like the Philadelphia Eagles and Kelly green uniforms (owner Jeffrey Lurie has said he’d love to see this). Additionally, the Denver Broncos and the old bronco in the D logo on helmets occasionally will arise as a possible change (Color Rush helmets tried this the last two years).

After all, beyond the traditional uniforms, teams can experiment further with throwbacks and now Color Rush uniforms to stir the imagination and support of fans.

Branding and identity are big business.

So, it’s the offseason again for most teams, and all hope springs eternal for next season.

What can we expect? We’ll know soon enough.

…and for other teams that won’t see April showers bring new branding flowers, it’s another opportunity to stir up more and more interest in their team’s identity and only increase awareness of branding, uniforms, and logos.

Scot Chartrand is a contributor with Front Office Sports and has worked in program management driving strategic initiatives at a corporate level. He has a passion for helping clients and corporate stakeholders achieve strategic goals while providing change management and optimizing process that drives repeatable results.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Luke

    January 31, 2018 at 10:23 pm

    I guess it’s probably a good thing when your team is not mentioned in this article. Nike nailed it with the Minnesota Vikings re-design in 2013. The number font was a little funky at the time but has grown well and seems very minimal now looking back compared to what we have seen with other teams. This is just my opinion, but the NFC North has the best uniforms. Bears and Packers very traditional. Lions and Vikings a mix of traditional yet modern.

    Amazes me how teams like the Browns, Dolphins, Bucs and Jaguars struggle so much with an identity. The Browns had some of the most simple, traditional uniforms when they returned to the league in 1999. That was one of the best things about the Browns until they messed up their re-design in 2015.

    • Ronnie

      February 2, 2018 at 6:48 pm

      As a Browns fan you are spot on. The re-design of one of the most traditional uniforms in the NFL was a disaster and unnecessary. Packers, Steelers, Raiders, Bears, Giants…. you just don’t mess with it, like they haven’t. Another terrible decision by this franchise.

  2. Bob Gassel

    February 1, 2018 at 2:53 am

    I would think the overwhelming positive response to the Dolphins throwbacks would cause them to go in that direction as the Bills did…team CEO Tom Garfinkel is a big fan of the vintage look.

  3. Anthony In TX

    February 1, 2018 at 3:24 am

    I’d really like to see the Texans make some updates. They’ve had more or less the same uniforms for their entire existence. Leave the helmet alone, but it’s time to update the rest of the kit.

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Business

Dontrelle’s Diary: Life of an NFLPA Extern — Day 4

My final day at the NFLPA was filled with conversations and even a random drug test from the league.

Dontrelle Inman

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Rolling squad deep at the NFLPA. (Photo via me)

It might be the offseason and I might be externing at my “second job,” so to speak, but yesterday felt a lot like I was in the middle of the NFL season. Here’s why.

I started off the day with a morning workout, which is always good and necessary to staying ready for the season ahead. I also got a call from someone at the NFL. It’s a call that all players get at some point during the year; you just don’t know when it’s coming. Yesterday, I had to take a drug test.

For those not familiar with how these things work, let me explain. No, I’m not some drug offender or in a rehab program! As part of the CBA and to keep things clean across the sport, all players have to take random drug tests. Mine just happened to come yesterday.

The way it works is that they call or text you to let you know that you will undergo a drug test today and to confirm your location. Most of the time, they have your address on file, but in the cases where you’re going to be somewhere else for the day — like my case being here for the externship — you have to give them the address and they’ll tell you when they’ll be there to meet you.

So during my lunch break, I went back and filled the cup with you know what for them to test. The first few times I did it, it was kind of weird because the person has to be in the same room with you to make sure there’s no funny business or that you try to tamper with the test. But being in the league for as long as I have, you get used to it. Plus, I don’t have anything to worry about since I’m certainly not taking any drugs.

The only drug tests that I’m not a fan of are the ones that they make you take right after a game. You might remember Josh Norman from the Washington Redskins being mad during a postgame interview because they made him take a drug test following a game they won. Again, I’ve got nothing to hide, but it just kind of throws you for a loop after a game. And then if it takes a while or if you can’t “go” at the moment, you might hold up the team bus or plane. But it is what it is.

Anyway, the rest of my day was meeting with more good people as I continue learning the ins and outs of the NFLPA. I met with the events to talk about their goals in putting on stuff for the players and I tried to offer some perspective based on what I saw during my time at NBA All-Star Weekend.

I met with the legal department to talk about the CBA, contracts, agents and other topics like that. I got my first copy of the CBA and wow, is it a lot of reading! Salute to the legal team for knowing all they do about the CBA to help protect our player rights. We also talked some about the drug policy, go figure.

Then I met with the player managers to discuss what they do for the players and ways to improve on our communication. There’s a common perception in the public that the NFL and NFLPA are one in the same when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

But there are similarities and programs that overlap, so at the same time, sometimes it can be confusing for players because the NFLPA has the player managers who work with rookies and second- and third-year players, while the NFL has advisors and directors of player engagement to work with veterans and they’re around players more on a day-to-day basis since they are employed by the teams. Still, it’s great that we have so many people looking out for us.

Today marks my first day with NBC Sports Washington and ESPN980, which I’m really excited for. I’ll be back next week with one more blog to wrap up my externship experience, so stay tuned!

This piece is part of a collaboration between the NFLPA and Front Office Sports in order to give players the opportunity to showcase what they are doing in the business world. If you’d like to learn more, send an email to austin@frntofficesport.com.

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Business

Cut the Cord: How Ticketing Professionals are Shifting with the Times

Not only do traditional broadcast companies have to compete with streaming services, so do live events.

Owen Sanborn

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Image result for apple tv menu

Photo via: howtogeek.com

I have an Apple TV in my apartment. Two in fact — one for the living room and one for my bedroom. (It’s such a great experience that I had to take it to the bedroom.)

Its library of apps and interfaces gives me access to every NBA game (thanks, NBA league pass!), MLB game (thanks, MLB.tv!), NFL game (thanks, NFL Sunday Ticket Max!), and more college football and basketball games than I can handle (thanks, ESPN!). And I didn’t even include the onslaught of TV and movie options I have at my disposal because one of my friends has a friend that knows a friend whose cousin has a login hookup for HBO GO, Netflix, and Hulu.

Have you ever searched for your favorite sports talking head’s studio show on YouTube? I assure you that you will find each segment from that day’s episode cut up into separate videos so that you can pick and choose which one is worth your time. If the video is not straight from the source (ESPN, Fox Sports 1, etc.), then some ambitious YouTuber out there felt the desire to share it just for you. You are a search bar and a click away.

And people wonder why us millennials stretch a mile wide and about a half of an inch in with our brains?

Pretty soon it may not be necessary for me to summon the courage to leave the couch. What’s the point? Everything I’ll ever need can be found in this little black box provided by Apple, Amazon, or Roku — along with a second and third screen to boot.

That last part has a hint of hyperbole sprinkled in — I will relinquish the throne of my couch. I do not consume sports on three screens at once … at least not ALL the time. But the point of my prelude is: the in-arena experience has stiff competition on its hands. Professionals in the ticketing business are well-aware of this fact and are readying themselves to shift with the times.

Like an NBA wing switching along the perimeter, sales staffs have to be ready to cater to a myriad of fan desires. Some may be looking for a single-game ticket or traditional season ticket membership, others want a flex pack, and a new wave of buyers may seek a monthly payment for the right to obtain tickets to every game. As a ticketing professional, you have to be quick on your feet and ready to supply an experience worth paying for.

“I think it speaks to how the consumer is coming to the realization that they really only HAVE to pay for the things they REALLY want,” Mike Hinson, VP College Athletics Sales at AudienceView told Front Office Sports. “Unless you have something compelling and personalized to each type of fan, you run the risk of alienating a large percentage of your fan base with “one size fits all” products (such as season tickets). That shift is why the memberships and experiences become not just compelling, but critical.”

Memberships and flexible ticketing plans are two areas where I could see the future of the industry going. I may not be willing to dish out fifty dollars per ticket to go see a Phoenix Suns game, but would I be willing to pay fifty dollars a month for the right to have a ticket to each home game (with the location of my seat shifting based on supply) that month? That idea at least makes me raise a brow.

In that case, the Suns would already be making fifty dollars more per month from a fan of my ilk than they would have been previously, and that doesn’t even account for the ancillary revenue (parking, concessions, merchandise, etc.) that comes along with me merely entering the building.

It makes sense for some teams more than others — the Dallas Cowboys are going to find no trouble selling out their venue on Sundays. However, what the Pittsburgh Pirates are trying to implement with their monthly payment program is an admirable pursuit. It should serve as a trailblazer for other franchises or college programs to follow.

“Consumers are so smart and adept at getting discounts,” Brent Jones, Deputy AD of External Operations at Troy University told Front Office Sports. “We have to add value with our ticket packages — promotional items, bobbleheads, vouchers, fan experiences and affinity-building items are all things that we consider.”

For the time being, the opportunity cost of missing the at-arena experience is too low compared to manning the fort in your living room, three screens on hand, monitoring the downfall of your fantasy team with each passing quarter. Millennials are conditioned to control what they consume.

As Hinson puts it, “They still want to consume content and experiences, just on their terms.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Baseball

It’s All Fun and Games (‘Till Somebody Brings Up the Money…)

With Spring Training around the corner, upwards of 90 free agents remain unsigned.

John Collins

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Hit By Pitch

Usually, as anticipated and celebrated by those in baseball as the unveiling of the Hess Truck commercial signaling the start of the holiday season, MLB Truck Day is much more somber this year. (For those unfamiliar, “truck day” is the marketing campaign teams have created around packing up their equipment and making the trek south for the start of Spring Training). It’s designed to generate enthusiasm and buzz for the upcoming season…except not this year.

Instead of that traditional excitement and joy, the last few days have been clouded by contention and animosity among the Players Association, their agents, owners, and even fans of the game. At an estimated $10 billion dollars, league revenues have risen steadily to record highs, yet team payrolls and player salaries are falling this offseason for the first time since 2009. That has players and fans crying foul; haranguing owners they see as working to generate a profit for themselves at the expense of paying talented players what they’re worth and fielding competitive teams.

In place of the typical talk of “hope springing eternal” and optimism throughout the league are harsh accusations of “tanking,” “collusion,” and greedy owners tearing apart the fabric of the game. Murmurs haven’t been about new teammates or World Series expectations; the news has been soaked with thinly veiled threats from players and their agents about potential retribution and/or striking because of their outrage.

Now, I’m not one to side with the powerful rich (although in this case, it’s really a matter of choosing between the millionaires and the billionaires…) but enough with the vilification of the teams and the owners! The players did this to themselves. Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s simply the reality of the situation. The Players Association signed off on the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2017 that set this system up. They were more focused on “creature comforts,” like better travel conditions and extra off days instead of paying attention to the financial issues affecting the economic structure of the game.

Brandon Moss Takes Swing at Glacial Pace of Free Agency (Photo via fansided.com)

As Oakland Athletic Brandon Moss astutely noted, owners are just responding to a situation that “we [the players] created ourselves.” In an interview with MLB Network, Moss candidly admitted “We put things that are of less value to the forefront. I just feel like we’re starting to have to walk a little bit of a tightrope that we’ve created for ourselves.”

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw echoed the sentiment, responding to a question about the free agency stalemate going on by saying, “More than anything, it’s just the way the market is going right now…everybody talks about the CBT (Competitive Balance Tax)…maybe that’s on the players’ association for what we agreed to.” Put simply, players dropped the ball. Intended or not, the new CBA has incentivized owners to curtail their spending and stay under the Luxury Tax Threshold ($197 million), lest they go over and get hit with the harsher penalties included in the new agreement. Teams now stand to lose draft picks and international signing money, as well as face a much steeper tax on their payroll every year they exceed the threshold.

Yet owners have continued to bear the brunt of criticism for this slow offseason, getting chastised for what is their otherwise innocuous, rational reaction to the rules established by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams have been harangued for their lack of spending; accused of everything from colluding to being destructively parsimonious and leaving highly qualified players out in the cold merely because they’re cheap and greedy.

Players, agents, and union director Tony Clark have expressed outrage at the number of talented players unsigned, calling the lack of big-money offers to players a “destructive cancer;” saying that “the record number of talented free agents remaining unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs…is a fundamental breach of trust between the team…that threatens the integrity of the game.”

As Rob Manfred pointed out, what these accusations fail to take into account is that many players do, in fact, have offers on the table; they just aren’t as high as originally expected. Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, and others remain unsigned because they and their agents are not adapting to the realities of the market, which is essentially what free agency is. As financial analysts love to say, it’s merely a “course correction” reflecting the changing demands of teams in the game.

Interestingly, most fans and media have come out in support of the players, furious at teams and their owners for letting their star players sign elsewhere, breaking up what had been competitive rosters filled with fan-favorite athletes. It’s all the owners’ fault for letting their greed break up the team. But wait a minute…what about the players’ role in these negotiations?

Part of it is on the players for pricing themselves out of certain markets, a la Eric Hosmer of the Royals, Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, and most of the Tampa Bay Rays. There are comfortable contract offers out there from the hometown teams, but players go elsewhere chasing the money.

That’s not to say it’s wrong of the players to want their full value, or advocating for them to selflessly accept “hometown discounts;” it’s merely an acknowledgment that both parties bear some responsibility. Aging players overprice themselves, leaving franchises with two choices: waste money and sign ineffective players, or make smarter business and roster decisions by focusing on younger, less expensive players with more of an upside. As with any business decision or investment, it’s all about ROI.

So we’re left with this: Spring Training report dates right around the corner, with upwards of 90 free agents still not sure where they’re going. That’s why the Players’ Association has decided to stage a makeshift “spring training,” at the IMG facility in Bradenton, Florida for what is essentially a very talented “31st” team of unsigned players lingering out there. Wonder if that’s an open invitation to head down and find a role on the “team…” I don’t have a contract either…that mean I can be their broadcaster or batboy?

“If You Build It, They Will Come…” (Photo: Variety.com)

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