• Wizards District Gaming planning match against West Ham esports team
• Activations scheduled with global partner Alibaba
• Back home, NBC telecast prepares US audiences for in-play betting
When the NBA London Game tips off on Thursday it will be an unfamiliar experience for at least one of the competing teams. While the New York Knicks will be making their third appearance in London, the Washington Wizards will be competing in the British capital for the first time.
The Wizards are the crown jewel in Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports & Entertainment group, which also includes Stanley Cup-winning NHL team the Washington Capitals, WNBA team the Washington Mystics, and NBA 2K League esports team Wizards District Gaming in its roster of sports properties. Monumental Sports & Entertainment president Jim Van Stone, chief marketing officer Hunter Lochmann and vice-president of business intelligence Adam Heintz spoke to SportBusiness ahead of the game.
This is the first time the Wizards have played in the NBA London Game. How exactly are you hoping to benefit commercially from the visit to London?
Jim Van Stone: We view Washington DC as a truly global city. We have over 180 embassies; one in five residents is foreign-born. We’ve got a unique, diverse community here and I think the opportunity for us to bring our brand over to London and participate in the London Games is an opportunity for us to really showcase our basketball platform around the world.
Hunter Lochmann: Our goal and my goal is to build the Wizards brand as much as we can – even through something as simple as our jerseys. We’re choosing to wear a red one that says Washington on the front for a good reason because we’re representing the city of Washington. We’re hoping that people internationally see that, and buy more jerseys because, ultimately, we are the benefactors of that. We are excited that our players are going to be all over the city, which hopefully will increase their social following and then we’ll find the same people on Wizards social channels which will then lead to more engagement with our brand and messaging from us. We’re looking at it holistically from a Wizards brand standpoint and we think the rising tide lifts all boats at the end of the day.
Jim Van Stone: Working with organizations that we have here locally, like Destination DC, which is really our travel and tourism representative agency, I think there’s an opportunity to build future ticket buyers. I’m hoping in the future that opportunities and experiences like this lead people to come to DC and make sure they check their calendars for a visit to Capital One Arena.
You also have other teams in the Monumental ownership group. Are they going to be involved in any activations in London?
Jim Van Stone: From our standpoint, one of the things that’s really unique about Monumental Sports & Entertainment is that we own a variety of different properties and basketball for us is a really big platform. We also own the Washington Mystics, and two of our star players are actually coming to London with us. Both Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud, who are stars of the WNBA, are going to be with us for the week, along with our head coach Mike Thibault. They’re going to be doing a variety of clinics and activations in the community. I think we have a huge responsibility to continue to develop and grow women’s athletics.
Monumental’s esports team, Wizards District Gaming, is scheduled to participate in a FIFA 19/NBA 2K challenge with West Ham United’s esports players during the trip to London. How did the relationship with West Ham come about and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Jim Van Stone: We’re also going to do an activation between our WNBA players and members of the West Ham Womens team. I think West Ham was the first English Premier League team to actually have a Fifa esports player and we’ve been one of the lead organizations in terms of being first to market in esports. We jumped on very quickly to be one of the inaugural teams in the NBA 2K League and we have a global platform as part of the Team Liquid Group [which currently fields 10 esports teams and a roster of 50 professional gamers competing in a variety of esports competitions]. For us it was really a no-brainer: their business aligned with our business. I think we’re excited about potentially building some relationships with West Ham United and hopefully getting more people that are big sports fans of the NBA or esports or the WNBA to start to grow an allegiance to our teams in Washington.
How much freedom do teams have to work with international sponsors during overseas games and how much is dictated by the league?
Jim Van Stone: When you look at markets outside of your team territory, yes, certainly the league represents us and represents all 30 teams in the league and is responsible in terms of really taking the lead role in developing the NBA platform around the world. However, from our standpoint, what’s unique about Washington is that we have a global platform of partners that really look to activate really in Washington DC but there are also opportunities to bring our brands back to their home countries or residencies. We have a global partnership with Alibaba so when we’re over in London, we’re going to be doing some receptions and activation programs with Alibaba. In addition to that, the official clothier of the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals is Charles Tyrwhitt. We’re doing a great activation [in which] two of our players and our head coach are going to be outfitted in brand new Charles Tyrwhitt suit at their Jermyn Street store. Finally, Etihad is the official airline partner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment and Etihad is very well connected to Manchester City and we work with the sales group from both the US and the European markets and we’re going to be doing some activation receptions with them and some of their key partners, in London and in England.
NBA rules say teams can only activate and sign individual sponsors within a 150-mile radius of their arenas. What does that mean for you on a practical level when you come to London?
Jim Van Stone: The NBA takes the lead for us organisationally in terms of building global partnerships, but we still do have global partners. The use of our marks is [only allowed] within our geographical territory but I think today when you take a look at social and digital media, those are really global platforms. There are a lot of unique opportunities that you can activate and do some things differently. But we’re firm believers in the lead taken by the league, the level of growing the NBA, the WNBA, the 2K League and the G League on a global stage.
Are you going to differentiate any of your digital output for UK audiences?
Hunter Lochmann: We’re working closely with the NBA League office in New York, the NBA London office, with all of our content team here [in Washington], whether it’s our digital team or our production team. We have 72 hours of programming ideas planned. We’re going to be all over the city with the aforementioned assets to produce a ton of content – not only for the game but for posterity.
What are the highlights of the content you’re planning?
Hunter Lochmann: The aforementioned activations with West Ham, for instance, the other partner activations that we discussed, NBA junior clinics. We have some other things around the city that we call ‘sights and sounds’. There’s a team photo that all NBA teams take and as a Beatles fan we’re trying to do something over at Abbey Road.
How useful is the visit to London from a data acquisition point of view?
Adam Heintz: I think we certainly know country-by-country social media following and things like that, but the fact of the matter is we can always learn more. What you see and feel from a reporting standpoint, from an analytics standpoint, versus actually getting to go and experience this first-hand, are obviously two very different things. I think this also becomes a learning experience for us in seeing how other teams in other markets interact with their teams. If there are things there that we can bring back and use and further leverage our data ecosystem, our data warehouse and how that meets a better fan experience then I think that type of learning is not something that we get an opportunity to do very often.
The legalisation of sports gambling is obviously a big story in the US currently and the state of Washington recently voted to legalize betting. What does that mean for Monumental Sports & Entertainment and how do you plan to capitalize on it?
Jim Van Stone: We have been very active in terms of supporting the PASPA changes that were made [the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act until recently prohibited sports gambling in most US states] and Ted Leonsis, our majority owner, has been a big advocate [of the changes]. We think it’s a tremendous opportunity to really elevate fan engagement and hopefully improve the fan experience. It looks like there will be entertainment destinations in our marketplace [where betting is allowed] and our Capital One Arena will be one of those.
The Wizards and NBC Sports Washington piloted a gambling-focused telecast last Friday for the team’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks. What was the purpose of the pilot in light of the likely legalisation of gambling in the state?
Jim Van Stone: We think the in-game [betting] side is really going to be something that elevates that level of engagement and then one of the other things that is important for us is the education side. We’ve partnered with NBC Sports Washington here in the district and on their secondary channel [NBC Sports Washington Plus] that broadcasts our games they’re doing features built around real-time statistics around sports betting and sports information and predicting games. We’re the first organization in the NBA that has that opportunity. The NBC broadcast is a series of in-game questions almost. It’s really a pilot program to test the mechanism that would ultimately be in-game sports betting. Money won’t be changing hands but it is a pilot program to determine the best way to integrate this into the broadcast. The sports betting experience has probably been part of the English DNA for a long time. But for many in the States, outside of visiting Las Vegas or Atlantic City, it’s going to be new for a lot of people so I think the education part of it is really important from our standpoint.
Adam Heintz: There will be sort of an enter-to-win component. They [NBC] will encourage people to come to a website to be able to play a sort of predictive game for free. But it will be a way that people can actually win a prize, which obviously is another data acquisition piece as well.
There has been a political backlash against the pervasiveness of advertising by gambling firms in the UK and the same firms recently responded by self-regulating, imposing a whistle-to-whistle ban on gambling adverts during live televised sport. How would you like the NBA to treat sponsorship from betting brands and could you see a situation in which they would allow betting brands to appear on shirt patches?
Adam Heintz: Economically, I’m not sure that – right out of the gate – it’s going to make sense for a betting company to make that kind of investment given that the legislation is going to have to be passed state by state. While sports betting will be legal in the District of Columbia, it may not be in the areas surrounding us, as well as across the US. For a company to want to invest in something like a jersey or something that’s nationally relevant in a place where across many states betting won’t be legal…I don’t think that’s something that’s going to economically make sense to a sponsor.
But there is a bill in Congress in the moment calling for a federally-regulated model. Are you, like the NBA, in favour of federally-regulated model because it makes things simpler?
Jim Van Stone: No, I think every market around the country is different and unique and I think states having more of a say in what works in their market is probably a better way to approach it. I don’t think we have a real strong opinion to really comment at great length on that but I think we feel pretty comfortable in terms of what the opportunities out there are right now, and handling [gambling] on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis.