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Jennifer Azzi Is Growing the Game of Basketball All Over the World

The basketball superstar regularly speaks to audiences all over the world on how to lead and motivate teams.

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Photo via Jennifer Azzi

(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)

Jennifer Azzi is one of the world’s most accomplished names in women’s basketball. An NCAA champion from Stanford, Olympic gold medalist, and 13-year professional player, Azzi went on to coach the University of San Francisco women’s basketball team, earning a West Coast Conference championship and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2016 after six seasons at the helm.

Shortly after that, Azzi accepted a role with the NBA as the global director of the NBA Academy. In this role, Azzi oversees a network of elite basketball training centers around the world that is developing the top international male and female basketball prospects. Having the opportunity to serve as a global ambassador for the sport, as well as develop the future stars of basketball, continues to attract Azzi to the job.

“Being part of the NBA family and helping to grow the game globally is really exciting,” Azzi said. “A lot of American colleges and universities are looking for international talent on the men’s and women’s sides. There’s so much potential in places like India and China. We’re working there to help young men and women develop both their athletic and academic abilities so they can get to the next level and eventually play professionally. It’s exhilarating to be at the forefront of the growth of the game.”

READ MORE: Inside the Huddle: Talking Paid Social With Angela Welchert

Working in conjunction with former University of Missouri standout and USF associate head coach Blair Hardiek, Azzi and the NBA’s efforts to grow the game are already paying dividends, particularly in India.

Sanjana Ramesh, an NBA Academy product, recently signed with Northern Arizona University, becoming the second female student-athlete from India to join a Division I program.

“On the women’s side, it’s been really fun to help young women like Sanjana come to the United States and play in the NCAA. That’s a huge thing for India, it’s great for the NBA, and it’s great for women around the world.”

Thanks to the NBA Academy’s focus on academics as well as basketball, Azzi and company are able to prepare them for the expectations that await them in college. This has been immensely satisfying for Azzi.

“I thought it would take us three or four years before we get a Division-I athlete, but it happened in the first year,” she remarked. “We’re able to bridge the gap between these incredibly talented, motivated young women and opportunities. It’s just very rewarding to educate them on what the possibilities are as long as they also focus on getting the grades. That’s why the education component of the academies are important as well.”

A former student-athlete herself at Stanford, Azzi recognizes what an enriching experience playing in the NCAA can be, and takes pride in helping other young women reach that level.

“Growing up in East Tennessee, getting the opportunity to go to Stanford opened up the world for me,” Azzi said. “It led to me playing professionally in other countries and in the WNBA. I have incredible respect and gratitude for Amy Tucker at Stanford for taking a chance on me. Helping someone to fulfill their own dreams and get those kinds of opportunities has been incredibly rewarding work.”

With basketball now being the second-most popular sport in the world, Azzi attributes the game’s growth to a number of the NBA’s efforts over the last few decades.

“The NBA effort has been great on the global front in terms of both marketing and building people. They’ve done a fantastic job over the last 10 to 20 years building initiatives, like Basketball Without Borders, which led to things like opening basketball schools in India, and the Jr. NBA Global Championship.”

Since 2009, Azzi and Hardiek have also been running their own developmental camps for young athletes. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Azzi Academy teaches not only the fundamentals of the game, but also the life skills that “encourage every player to be their very best.”

Azzi, Hardiek and their staff try to instill the values of teamwork, leadership, and kindness in the campers. Azzi also conducts camps on the NCAA recruiting process for student-athletes looking to learn more.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to in this day and age, but we’ve made sure that that kindness is a big piece of what we do. The good thing about being based in the Bay Area is that we have the Golden State Warriors right here, so kids get to see the wonderful examples of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant — guys playing at the highest levels who are also kind and do the right things.”

Paralympian Trooper Johnson also speaks to camp attendees about the importance of staying away from drugs and living a healthy lifestyle.

After 11 years of doing camps and coaching, Azzi is starting to see children that came through her camps finish college and become adults that use the lessons Azzi’s camps taught them. These are some of the most satisfying moments for her.

“To hear a parent or a former camper say things like ‘I’m really glad that you guys do more than just basketball because you’re teaching valuable lessons of life that they might not get going somewhere else.’ As time goes on, those are the real rewarding stories.”

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To grow the camp, as well as her personal brand, Azzi works with athlete brand strategy consultancy BrandForward, which Azzi describes as “wonderful to work with.” With booking help from BrandForward, Azzi regularly speaks to audiences all over the world on how to lead and motivate teams. In these talks, Azzi stresses the importance of being supportive and available for every member of a team.

“The greatest lesson in leadership that I can give is to try to make every player feel comfortable and important,” she said. “I think my greatest tough lesson being in a position of power came through coaching and realizing that your power and influence can be used for good or bad purposes. I learned quickly that using my authority in a positive way and building people up was invaluable as a coach.”

Overall, communicating has been a major reason for Azzi’s success as a player, a coach, and now as an advocate for the game she loves all over the planet.

“Communication is everything. Everybody’s different, and what might motivate one kid is not going to motivate another one. You have to figure out what motivates different people. Applying that is why I feel we’ve been successful with Azzi Camp, as well as with the NBA Academy.”

(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)

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Dallas Cowboys’ Digital Team Takes on Texas-Sized Storytelling

With one of the largest social media audiences in sports, there really isn’t an offseason for the Dallas Cowboys’ digital team.

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

(*Team Infographics is a Proud Partner of Front Office Sports)

There are many superlatives to describe the Dallas Cowboys organization. On top of the five Super Bowl victories, the Cowboys are valued at $4.8 billion, the highest figure of any professional sports team in the world. The Cowboys are also on or near the top of the NFL, as well as the global pro sports landscape, in terms of total audience on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Telling a story to that big of an audience can be daunting. It’s a challenge, however, that the digital team of Taylor Stern (Content Strategist), Shannon Gross (Director of Content Strategy) and Dana Byrnes (Social Media Coordinator) continually meets. With their combined experience, the group has come to understand how to approach the NFL offseason from a digital perspective. When the season ends on the field, the digital team begins to recap the team’s accomplishments while being sensitive to how the season ended as well as personnel changes. There isn’t too much time to dwell on the past though with things like free agency, schedule releases and the NFL Draft quickly approaching.

“As far as preparing and getting ready for other events that are coming, you kind of hit the ground running right away,” Stern says. “It’s all immediate. For some of the other smaller events such as the combine that fall in between, we have game plans set. I think it’s just having consistency in the offseason that we’ve really found to be the key because during the season you can’t really prepare for it because you’re so focused on what’s happening in the moment.”

In recent years, the Cowboys’ digital success during the regular season and postseason has been best exemplified by the storytelling in their video work. Particularly, in the buildup to the 2016 playoffs, the Cowboys released a series entitled “#FinishThisFight,” which consisted of short-form documentaries about the struggles notable players overcame to obtain their current success. The series reached over four million people combined on social media.

“It was really unique because, for the first time ever, we got the players to tell their own stories headed into those playoffs and then actually followed up in the off-season,” Stern recalls. “I was lucky to be a part of a team that went and did this documentary that we actually won an Emmy for. Following up for 2018’s playoff run, we went with #FinishThisFight again, and we had great videos once again.”

2018’s #FinishThisFight included a video simply called “Round 2” featuring Cowboys fan and world champion boxer Errol Spence Jr. That video had a reach of over two million on Facebook.

While the Cowboys have the largest audience on Facebook, the digital team puts the most effort, in terms of strategy, into the team’s Instagram presence. That page includes no sponsored content or promotional posts. As a result, the team has seen more growth on Instagram in the past year than on any other platform.

“I don’t think that as a brand we’ve ever been flashy with contests or things of that nature,” Stern says. “Instagram is so focused on images, and we have great photographers that we want to show off and make images stand out instead of being buried against an ad.”

Something that you will find on the Cowboys’ social pages is content created through the team’s partnership with Team Infographics. The digital team and Team Infographics work together to create templates for score updates and player of the game posts as well as things like schedule releases. It can all be modified and rendered on the fly through the company’s easy-to-use CMS.

“Team Infographics are absolutely incredible and the customer service that they’ve been able to provide us is unlike any other vendor I’ve ever worked with,” Stern says. “Doing graphics in-game is a huge part of the game-day experience on social media. The PSD files were messy [before Team Infographics]. I think it’s heaven-sent because of the fact that it’s all just on a web page, all custom and unique to us. It’s the best system I’ve used.”

Now, just a few short months away from another NFL season, the Cowboys digital team is settling in for another year of churning out high-quality content. This approach can be an example for aspiring sports professionals to keep working hard and trying to outdo themselves.

“Don’t take your foot off the gas,” Stern advises. “It’s really easy to get discouraged in this business. But just keep grinding, keep working and keep changing and adapting and growing, and you’ll get to where you want to be in time.”

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Viz Arena’s Down & Distance Gives Ravens Fans More to Cheer About

Vizrt’s game-changing technology is a vital storytelling tool for the Baltimore Ravens and soon could be throughout professional football.

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Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

(*VIZRT is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)

The NFL’s Baltimore Ravens know a lot about meeting goals on and off the field. Since 2000, the team has won two Super Bowl, two AFC Championships and five AFC North division titles. Now, as a three-year, $120 million renovation nears completion, the Ravens want to make M&T Stadium the very best place in the U.S. to experience football.

Vizrt’s Viz Arena live sports enhancement solution is a vital part of the upgrade. Both a fan enhancement tool and a monetization solution, Viz Arena enables the addition of augmented reality graphics, including virtual ads, through image-based tracking.

The sweeping renovation also includes a high-density WiFi network, larger and higher-resolution in-stadium video screens and a completely overhauled control room with the most advanced video production solutions available today.

With Viz Arena and their new broadcast equipment, the Ravens can now give fans an even more immersive in-stadium experience through cleaner, more professional in-stadium programming. The team also tacked on a package called Down & Distance, a software application of Viz Arena that inserts a yellow first-down marker, making the line appear painted on the field rather than digitally imposed. This is the first application of its kind available in 1080p or 4K without any upscaling or complex image processing.

For Vice President of Broadcasting and Gameday Productions Jay O’Brien and his production staff, this means enhancing replays and in-stadium entertainment to include first-down line capabilities for the first time.

It’s become the standard for watching football and has completely changed the viewing experience,” explains O’Brien. “Fans aren’t looking at sticks and the chain any more. They look to the video boards. The yellow line has changed fans’ viewing patterns, so it has to be accurate and reliable. We can’t afford any mistakes.”  

The Viz Arena Down & Distance tool can also seamlessly and unobtrusively integrate locked-in virtual graphics or ads on or around the field of play. They can be fully integrated into a production at a specific location or tied to the lines as they move.This versatility allows multiple sponsors and graphics to change throughout the game. It adds an extra incentive for sponsors and another revenue stream for the organization.

“What’s surprising is how much Down & Distance has changed the way we produce our content,” O’Brien continues, “It gives us in the control room information in real time that’s vital to enhance the in-stadium fan experience and get more value from our programming.”

In the past, O’Brien worked with other similar video solutions that didn’t live up to his team’s needs or expectations. After using Viz Arena’s Down and Distance for a short time, however, he could see that the end product was of a higher quality altogether. Not only that, it’s cost-effective: Down and Distance depends on live or archived footage instead of cameras and doesn’t require expensive, labor-intensive deployment.

As an added bonus, the solution only took O’Brien and his team roughly 25 minutes to set up and about the same time to learn how to use. All told, O’Brien expects the solution to be a much bigger part of the fan experience landscape in the near future.

“Vizrt wants to innovate with us. They want a larger footprint in the NFL space, and that’s sure to happen as more teams become aware of what Viz Arena and its applications can do,” he says. “I’ve been a cheerleader for this product, and we want to stretch our use of the solution even further next year.”

For more information Vizrt’s Viz Arena and Down & Distance application, please visit www.vizrt.com or email sports@vizrt.com.

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Connect&GO’s RFID Solutions Improve Live Events For Fans And Venues

The founders of Connect&GO brought several uses for radio-frequency identification technology to the world of live sports and entertainment.

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Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

(*Connect&GO is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology can have many practical uses. In the past, Anthony Palermo has developed RFID solutions within the realms of healthcare, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and military operations. In 2012, Palermo and Dominic Gagnon joined forces to found Connect&GO in Montréal, Québec. Connect&GO provides RFID solutions for sports and entertainment events and venues all over the world.

Seven years ago, Palermo and Gagnon had their first major success within the sports industry with Montréal’s Saputo Stadium, home of Major League Soccer’s Montréal Impact.

At the time, Saputo Stadium comfortably sat about 16,000 fans, but a plan was in process to add 5,000 more seats. The venue enlisted Palermo and Gagnon to find a way to attract more fans while simultaneously making game entry  as easy as possible. Their solution was a plastic key that fans could scan in an express lane to enter the stadium on game days.

“The concept was fans could have their own key to the stadium,” Palermo says. “We wanted to make fans feel like the stadium belonged to them.”

Every seventh fan that scanned their key would even see their name and photo appear on a monitor welcoming them to the stadium. Fans could also scan the keys at several points around the stadium to enter contests, utilize photo kiosks and collect points that were redeemable at the fan shop and other areas tied into the stadium. It was from this success that Palermo and Gagnon realized they had a valuable tool for access control as well as cashless payments and experiential activations. From there, Connect&GO was born.

“We personally believe, as a company and as founders of the company, that technology should only be there to make an experience better, not to impose on an experience,” Palermo says. “What we’re trying to do is look at guest experiences and ask how do we make it a better? How do we make people see the value in being a VIP or a season ticket holder?

“What we don’t want to do is have people use technology for technology’s sake. We don’t want to drive people to an app. We want to maximize the amount of time that people are using to actually take in the game or show. That’s a personal mission that we have.”

This focus on the guest experience is what Palermo believes sets Connect&GO apart from other RFID solutions providers in the space.

“RFID just happened to be the technology that as a team we mastered over the years, but it really wasn’t about that.” he says. We ask questions such as, ‘How do people enter? Is the parking frustrating? Is getting through security frustrating?’ What we’re trying to do is make everything that much easier, and it gets people to just enjoy their experience as well.”

After the Saputo Stadium project, Connect&GO partnered with the Osheaga Festival, Canada’s largest music festival. From there, the company has performed activations with brands including Pepsi and HBO at events like the Super Bowl, the Olympics, Comicon and SXSW. In 2017, Sports Illustrated named Connect&GO a company that will “change the way you watch sports.” Moving forward, Connect&GO has activations lined up with the Rogers Cup and the AFL.

As Connect&GO continues to focus on ways to improve the guest experience through access, payments and experiential solutions, look for their footprint within the sports industry to continue to grow exponentially in the near future.

Learn more about Connect&GO and how they connect the fan experience at live games in their latest whitepaper here.

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