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Daytona Tortugas Hope to Push Women’s Sports Forward with NPF Deal

The Beijing Shougang Eagles will play their home games in Daytona’s Jackie Robinson Ballpark. Tortugas ownership believes the move befits Robinson’s name.

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Courtesy of Daytona Tortugas

What’s in a name? Plenty, says Daytona Tortugas Co-Owner Rick French, where the team’s home stadium of Jackie Robinson Ballpark is concerned.

That’s what led the Reds’ High-A affiliate to create a groundbreaking partnership with the Chinese Softball Association which will see the Beijing Shougang Eagles of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) women’s softball league play their entire 2019 home slate at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, which overlaps with part of the current minor league baseball season. The occasional double-header aside, the Eagles’ home games will coincide with Tortugas road games. According to team president Ryan Keur, the deal is the first of its kind between a MiLB and NPF team.

For French, the agreement was no-brainer. The ballpark is where Robinson played the first racially integrated game in professional baseball history, and French believes that, as the stadium’s primary tenant, the Tortugas have an obligation to uphold Robinson’s legacy as a boundary-breaker. In this case, that means providing stability for the Eagles, who did not have a full-time home after spending 2017 playing at multiple parks in Ohio before bouncing around Florida last year.

READ MORE: LPGA’s ‘Drive On’ Campaign Highlights Diversity, Inclusion, Empowerment

“We bear the name of somebody who transcends gender and race and spoke to diversity,” French says. “The idea of stabilizing women’s professional sports and potentially giving one of these squads a home at a ballpark where he broke the color barrier was something that spoke to me personally.”

The impetus for the deal came from a series of upgrades to “The Jack,” as Keur calls it, most notably the installation of an artificial playing surface. That opened the doorway to attracting new opportunities, and Keur says that the organization was anticipating a more packed schedule in 2019.

Integrating another professional sports team, though, exceeded the bounds of his imagination. Both Keur and French readily admit the agreement comes with challenges. As part of the deal, the Tortugas will handle all marketing, ticket sales and game-day production for the Eagles’ 25 home games as well as handle additional field maintenance.

“We recognize that within the ownership that it’s asking a lot of our staff,” French says, and Keur notes the team has already brought on additional part-time staff to help shoulder the load before the NPF begins in mid-May.

Ultimately, though, Keur says the organization is viewing this season through the lens of opportunity – not only for what it provides the Eagles but also through what the Tortugas’ staff can demonstrate with a fresh canvas to work with.

“I think this is a great way to showcase what we can do now at the Ballpark,” he says. “It gives us 25 new openings here at the Ballpark to entertain and engage our fans.”

READ MORE: AT&T’s Logo Deal With WNBA Represents Deeper Strategy With NBA

Then there’s the revenue piece. Keur estimates the deal is worth $10 million in economic impact, with a healthy chunk coming from 5,000 sold hotel rooms over the course of the NPF’s three-month season. That number could climb in a big way, too. The Eagles essentially double as the Chinese national softball team and are in the process of attempting to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. If they succeed, they’ll return to Daytona Beach to train for the game for another three months as well as hold exhibition games. The Tortugas are optimistic that the team and city’s relationship with Chinese Softball Association can blossom further from there.

To French, though, the bigger-picture impacts transcend pure economics. He believes that too many women “have had to play in facilities that are not up to the standards of professional baseball.” The solution is much bigger than anything the Tortugas can conjure up on their own. But he is confident that the agreement is a step in the right direction – and, hopefully, a call to arms.

“We hope that it sends a message to other minor league clubs… that they should be getting behind as well as providing women’s sports and these players the same kind of opportunities that we provide,” he says. “What makes us proud is the ability to take a team of female professional athletes who have dreams like every other athlete and give them a great facility and a great infrastructure in which we can support those dreams.”

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WNT Everywhere Creates Buzz for World Cup through Art Series

Through a series of posters and murals, WNT Everywhere connects fans to Women’s National Team players on a deeper level leading up to World Cup action.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo Credit: U.S. Soccer

Since its inception, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team has been one of the most dominant squads in sports, earning three Women’s World Cup titles and four Olympics gold medals. As a result of that success, even the most casual soccer fans in the U.S. have embraced the WNT, a team that adopted a fitting tagline for the 2019 World Cup: One nation, one team.

Those in charge of marketing at U.S. Soccer wanted to capitalize on that patriotic pride, so they have unveiled WNT Everywhere to forge a connection between fans and players on the team ahead of the World Cup. Starting this week, USWNT players can be seen featured on murals and posters designed by female artists in different locations around the country.

“We’re creating this ‘energy moment’ around what is already a big event,” said U.S. Soccer director of analytics, Ross Moses.

READ MORE: La Liga Looks to Seize Opportunity in U.S. Soccer Market

A new U.S. Soccer app has also been introduced. It offers fans the opportunity to scan the murals or posters and unlock exclusive geo-targeted content, like special messages from USWNT players, based on their location.

“To take soccer to the next level, it requires the entire nation to be involved, especially with the World Cup moment this summer,” said Kay Bradley, brand director at U.S. Soccer. “The Women’s National Team has a narrative that we think is extremely emotive and powerful for fans. They’re such elite athletes on the field, and they have such approachable personalities off the field, so they have the ability to inspire fans to achieve what they want, related or unrelated to soccer.”

The posters have been placed in locations where each player has a special bond. For example, posters featuring Alex Morgan are located in Orlando, as Morgan is a member of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride.

“We’re more focused on talking about the teams behind the scenes and players and their backgrounds, and less on keeping up with the ESPNs and Bleacher Reports of the world,” said Moses. “It’s more of a buildup of these storylines for teams and players.”

READ MORE: Liverpool FC Ready to Build Overseas Brand on U.S. Tour

The new app will serve a larger purpose beyond the WNT Everywhere activation, providing fans a one-stop shop for game-day information, ticket purchases and live content like stats and highlights. It is part of U.S. Soccer’s recent digital revamp, which also includes a website overhaul and new data infrastructure.

The murals and posters were an important, authentic supplement to the app, explained Moses, who helped execute the digital revamp.

“It’s easy to scale with digital, but we wanted to have that physical aspect,” he said. “We wanted to have boots on the ground, so to speak, where people were stopping to take a look, or they were seeking out and finding these original pieces of art…We’re taking this physical piece and setting it off by blending it with the app so the players come to life.”

“We would love to take every player to every city to play games, but that’s not possible,” Bradley added. “We thought, ‘How can we bring the team and players to cities across America, and if not physically, how can we do it digitally?’ This merges the two, physical and digital.”

The final product—murals in 11 cities and posters depicting all 23 players—captures the attention of the everyday passerby.

“Our avid, hardcore fans—there’s an appeal for them, but we also felt this was a way to bridge the gap between avid fans and casual fans, those people who are interested in soccer but aren’t following us all the time,” Bradley said. “The element of artwork, which is outside, brings a cultural appeal to the activation for someone who’s not innately interested in soccer, but it could pique their curiosity.”

Even with the emphasis on the physical experience, U.S. Soccer still prioritizes the digital side, thanks to its young audience.

“There’s not much we do that isn’t related to tech,” Moses said. “We know the millenial and Gen Z generations have got their phones tied to their hands, so if you’re not giving them a digital experience, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

Although WNT Everywhere will build interest for the 2019 World Cup, Bradley and her team hope it leaves a lasting legacy beyond this summer.

“We want to generate interest and deepen the relationship, so [fans] start to engage with the federation and team, and deepen it so they’re supporting during the competition and continue to have that relationship with U.S. Soccer once the World Cup ends,” she said. “Our overarching mission is to become the preeminent sport here in the U.S. That’s our goal.”

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Brutal Business: How WLC is Selling Lethwei to the World

Lethwei, a brutal bare-knuckle combat sport, was previously confined behind Myanmar’s borders. Now, WLC CEO Gerald Ng wants to go international.

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Photo Credit: World Lethwei Championship

Lethwei is one of the most brutal sports you have never heard of. In fact, with rules that prohibit gloves and allow punches, elbows, kicks, knees and even headbutts, this Burmese combat sport is in a league of its own.

Gerald Ng has been CEO of the Myanmar-based World Lethwei Championship (WLC) for three years. The Singaporean, who previously worked for MMA powerhouse ONE Championship, was not familiar with Lethwei when he took his current job. Today, he’s the trailblazer attempting to elevate the sport – previously trapped behind Myanmar’s borders – internationally.

Ng has already made strides for WLC. He has secured broadcast deals with French broadcaster Canal+ and its sister company and K+, one of Vietnam’s largest sports networks, and UFC Fight Pass, the official streaming service of the UFC.

Ng says WLC’s five-year K+ deal, worth almost $1M, has made the organization so popular in Vietnam he places Vietnamese fighters on every card.

WLC is the only Lethwei company on UFC Fight Pass and the two companies are currently operating on a two-year deal, which began in December of 2018.

The exposure is there on paper, but selling this sport to international fans is not that simple.

Lethwei can be a graphic product. Ng and WLC are developing a few strategies to make Lethwei more palatable for sports fans outside Myanmar, many of whom are too squeamish to stomach the Burmese export.

Under the most common Lethwei ruleset, fights can only be won by knockout. If, after five three-minute rounds there has not been a knockout, the fight is ruled a draw.

READ MORE: UFC Looks to Asia as Next Frontier of Expansion Efforts

Ng felt this ruleset, particularly the prevalence of draws it creates, would frustrate international sports fans who are accustomed to closure. To negate this issue, he and his team dug up a less common Lethwei ruleset that uses a scoring system similar to those used in MMA and boxing. Judges score each round and decide on a winner if no knockout materializes.

“We didn’t really introduce a new rule set,” Ng explains. “When the sport first started trying to modernize itself in the 80s and 90s, the federation introduced two different kinds of rules. It just so happened that most of the promoters at that time used the knockout only rule. Nobody adopted the other ruleset. We decided that for a global audience, especially with social media, with all the content that’s available now, we need to make our fights more conclusive.

“I can’t have fans watching for hours and have it be all draws.”

Ng also hopes to hoist Lethwei to an international standard by improving fighter safety. WLC subjects its fighters to rigorous medical testing and also abolished the sport’s archaic time-out rule, which allowed fighters to take two minutes to recover after being knocked out.

“I appreciate that WLC is taking the effort to go the extra mile to take care of their fighters,” says Soe Lin Oo, a veteran Lethwei fighter. “It is something that no other promoter in the Myanmar has ever done.”

Another strategy Ng has undertaken as he attempts to turn Lethwei into a mainstream sport is signing international fighters to compete for WLC inside Myanmar. He has already signed French-Canadian star Dave Leduc, the world’s best foreign Lethwei fighter, as well as American UFC veteran Seth Baczynski.

“It legitimizes the sport,” Ng says. “If these guys who have been champions in MMA and kickboxing and Muay Thai decide they want to commit their future to Lethwei, it just shows that this is the future.”

Ng also enlists the services of foreign referees and judges to ensure these international fighters are scored fairly in any setting.

While Lethwei is evolving, Ng is protective of certain aspects of Myanmar’s traditions.

“The foreign fighters need to learn the culture of Lethwei,” Ng says. “For example, if I go back to Dave Leduc, when he first came to Myanmar, he was kind of looked at as a villain, but now the [local fans] see that he’s embraced the culture and he’s dedicating his life to promoting this sport.

“Burmese fans are amazing, if you’re a great fighter and you embrace the culture, they love you.”

Ng believes Lethwei has a place on American soil. He has seen similar organizations succeed in the U.S.

“A lot of people like to compare Lethwei to bare-knuckle boxing,” Ng says, referencing the success of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) in the United States. “Lethwei is a completely different sport, but it will attract the same fans.”

In fact, Ng says he’s already been in touch with BKFC brass about potentially co-promoting an event together in the future.

Needless to say, Ng has big goals for WLC and the larger sport of Lethwei. For the moment, however, his priority is continuing to introduce international fans to Myanmar’s incredible combat sport — starting with the next WLC event on the calendar.  

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“The next event is on August 2 in Mandalay,” he says. “We’re going to have a mega event. We’re going to have at least eight international fighters.

“We just want people to fall in love with Lethwei and in the process fall in love with the country as well. It’s been such a closed-off country for such a long time.”

For the record, that is the city of Mandalay, Myanmar, not the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. But perhaps down the road, Lethwei can become another combat sports stalwart in Sin City.

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Diving Into Banana Republic’s Extensive Use of Athletes

Banana Republic has tapped athletes such as Kevin Love and Jared Goff to help develop clothing lines and build a connection with sports fans.

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Photo Courtesy Kevin Love

Kevin Love and Jared Goff are lending more than just their modeling skills to Banana Republic, as the pair are instrumental in helping shape some of the brand’s male fashion lines.

Love was the company’s first global men’s style ambassador and as Banana Republic CMO Mary Alderete says, “helped put Banana Republic’s tailored performance mix on the map” in spring 2016 and launched “BR/K.Love-18,” the company’s first collection co-designed with an athlete last fall. This summer, the brand is putting Goff front and center, as well, showing off Banana Republic’s “Core Temp” collection.

By bringing in athletes, Banana Republic has acknowledged these individuals drive trends beyond the sports world.

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“The stadium is the new runway and athletes are both performance and style icons,”  Alderete says. “Athletes are getting photographed entering stadiums for their games, just as models are shot on the runway. It has become part of the pregame ritual and media coverage.”

Banana Republic is tapping into the emotions of sports fans, leveraging the connection between athletes and fans to draw in new consumers.

“[Athletes] are attractive for brands to use in their marketing for one reason: The strong emotions that fans hold for their favorite players and teams,” says David Meltzer, CEO and co-founder, Sports 1 Marketing. “People buy on emotion for logical reasons and a collaboration between a brand and their favorite athlete will invariably lead to increased attention on a company’s products and services.”

Banana Republic’s content strategy focuses on three main aspects, according to Alderete: “Give me access, give me more and multidimensional stories, tell me something I don’t know.”

With those points in mind, athletes are rolled out when there’s an ideal fit for a new line, like Goff and the “Core Temp” product. Alderete also notes Goff’s “modern, effortless California style” complements Love’s “more classically tailored menswear styles,” which helps showcase the versatility of Banana Republic’s options.

“Our athletes are chosen based on their authentic connection with the brand and how their personal style narrative connects with the product stories we tell,” Alderete says. “Jared’s cool-under-pressure style of play was a natural fit for our body temperature regulating Core Temp product launch and his effortless style from his California roots is aligned with our brand aesthetically.”

The personal connection with Love was brought to life last fall with the launch of the limited edition “BR/K.Love-18” collection, which included his tailored look, but also merged with outdoorsy aesthetics from his Oregon upbringing. On the company’s blog, The Republic, Love detailed in a Q&A what it was like to work with the design team to bring together the “timeless, athletic and rugged” collection.

“All of those categories really fit the nature of how I get dressed,” he says. “I wanted the collection to reflect all aspects of my personal style sensibility and have clothes that everyone can relate to, are staples, but can be mixed and matched to create something fresh and new.”

Beyond Love and Goff, Banana Republic has utilized its “Men’s Style Council,” a group of athletes organized to “showcase the brand’s versatility, quality and innovative performance-driven menswear collections” through campaigns and programs. The council includes Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius and Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum.

READ MORE: How Megan Wilson Blogged Her Way to Becoming a Top Athlete Stylist

“When we engage a partner, it’s not just athlete as model,” Alderete says. “We engage our elite athletes in a way that they contribute to the design and creative direction of our programs from a product collaboration with Kevin Love to a performance activation with Jared Goff that is aligned with his style of play and personal style. Our style council athletes are pulsed in our marketing mix as part of our culturally relevant intersections.

“The whole idea of having a ‘council’ of style ambassadors is that we can shine a spotlight on them individually or together at different points in our communications programming.”

While Love and Goff might be elite athletes, it doesn’t take those same abilities to dress like them.

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