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NEW JERSEY - Former NBA referee Lee Jones was named the inaugural winner of the Greg Willard Spirit Award, which recognizes a current or former official for his service, professionalism and leadership. Jones, an NBA referee for 25 seasons from 1971-1996, officiated 1,749 regular-season games and 71 playoff games. He also worked the NBA All-Star Game in 1977 and 1991.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Jointly sponsored by the NBA and the National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA), the newly introduced annual award honors the memory and legacy of former NBA referee Greg Willard, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2013 at the age of 54. Willard officiated 1,494 regular-season games, 136 playoff games and the 2006 NBA All-Star Game during his 25-year career.“Lee’s distinguished career as an NBA referee makes him a deserving winner of this special award,” said Bob Delaney, NBA Vice President, Referee Operations/Director of Officials. “I have known Lee for 30 years and while he was a great official, he is an even better person.”

“We are pleased that Lee has been selected as the first recipient of the Greg Willard Award Spirit Award,” said NBRA board member and longtime NBA referee James Capers. “Like Greg, Lee embodied the values of an NBA referee – integrity, professionalism and dedication to his craft.”

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK - (From staff report and official news release) -  If first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Plans were recently announced for another version of the long sought-after code to crack the perfect complement to the NFL. With a chance to mine the cord-cutting trends of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or Twitter, sports executives announced the Spring League of American Football (SLAF), to begin play as early as the spring of 2018. The group is led by longtime broadcast media executives Michael and Rex Lardner, and longtime Madison Square Garden Chief Financial officer Robert Pollichino. The structure of the league will have regional teams aligned by hometowns and where they attended college and high school playing against other regional teams.

The announcement for SLA Football comes after the group commissioned a research study by BETA Research Corporation which validated the high level of interest that fans have in the concept of this league, especially at a time of year when live collegiate and professional games are not available. Research showed a host of compelling statistics, such as: 83% of men who watch television sports (18 -34) would make every effort to watch, or be more likely to watch SLA Football games. As well as: 20% of those who do not stream programming through a service like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu would be very likely to subscribe to a streaming service if it was the only way to view a professional spring football game. (BETA Research Corporation, 2016).

“Not only do the numbers make sense for the fans, the financial model shows it is a solid investment for the individual team-owners as well as the advertisers and league members,” Pollichino added. “Financially it works –yes. But for the fans it works as well. College players develop a strong following at their respective universities. We are capitalizing on that fan loyalty, by keeping players in the same region where they played college ball.”

“We all know that content is king, and the creation of a compelling football product in the time of year when the NFL is not playing and the fans are looking for even more live action is more real than ever before, according to the survey we have assembled,” Michael Lardner said. “We have taken all the steps to find the right balance financially and content wise and are now ready to present the fully baked plan to a business audience that has been clamoring for such an opportunity.”

The SLAF will have 10 teams and a 10-game schedule, not including playoffs, and will pair players from the Texas/Southwest Region against players from the Florida/Southeast Region along with other US geographic areas. SLAF players can try-out for the league when their college eligibility expires and must play in the team territory located nearest to their college. The season will run from April through July and will utilize a combination of NFL and NCAA football rules. The executive team is currently in negotiations with additional ownership groups and media partners, and additional announcements are expected in late 2016 and early in 2017.

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TUSCALOOSA, September 14 - (From staff report and official news release) - If you want to learn more about the Alabama football program, what better way than to get new original content and breaking information from the very source of "Roll Tide."

College sports fans will have new, inside information delivered to their inboxes to cover their favorite team this football and basketball season with twice weekly podcasts produced by collegiate marketer Learfield and DGital Media, the innovative creator of high quality, on-demand audio entertainment. The new partnership calls for original, non-event audio content to be created for fans by the familiar, hometown radio voices associated with some of the nation’s most recognizable collegiate athletic programs.

North Carolina football joins forces with Learfield for new podcast network
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The initial launch will feature football, men’s basketball and Olympic sports of the Alabama Crimson Tide, North Carolina Tar Heels, Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys, with additional programs to come. The podcasts – featuring a first-ever opportunity to hear this level of behind-the-scenes insight, guest interviews and conversation by voices fans know – will be introduced every Tuesday and Friday. Fans will be able to subscribe to these podcast series on many platforms including Apple iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify and Google Play.

“The major college sports marketplace in the United States is insatiable when it comes to consuming content, and this partnership is a great example of where we can help many colleges go by creating a compelling and engaging on-demand audio platform for their millions of fans,” said Chris Corcoran, Chief Content Officer, DGital Media. “All the platforms we engage on are the exact ways in which college fans, especially younger, engaged millennials, are consuming media, so know this has huge potential.”

“Research shows that 72 percent of millennials listened to digital audio the past month and 46 million users overall have listened to a podcast in the past 30 days, making these original podcasts an outstanding platform for our university partners,” said Tom Boman, Learfield’s vice president, broadcast operations. “Not only can our schools extend their reach with fans week to week with added value for that overall experience, but it’s content their fans won’t get anywhere else.”

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