SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2000/Marketingsponsorship

Some sports execs have their fingers firmly on their fans’ pulse

My May 29 column posed the possibility that the sports industry is losing touch with its ultimate customers, the fans.

Just for the record, I don't believe that any sports entity is trying to drive away its fans. But sports execs make decisions based on the best interests of their organization as they perceive those interests to be. And decisions are sometimes made under financial pressures that can result in alienating long-term support.

It's not just team owners. Any sports agent who advises his clients to take a lower salary to keep the costs of tickets down won't be an agent for long. Sports barns built in the 1960s and '70s were icons to sports' growing influence on our culture. Now we can't get rid of them fast enough because MLB, NBA and NFL team owners are expected to provide clean, attractive, modern and hospitable sites for corporate and retail customers. Of course, average ticket prices at the new places shoot up 35 percent.

On the other hand, some sports executives have their eyes squarely on the needs of the fans. Here are a few of many examples of sports franchises in touch with their customers:

Who would have ever thought that NASCAR fans would cheer a track's decision not to sell beer?

A Feb. 5 referendum in Denton County, Texas, opened the door for Texas Motor Speedway to sell beer. Only problem was that if it did so, a companion ordinance prevented race fans from bringing their own brew to the track. To a NASCAR fan, the right to bring beer to a race ranks up there with free speech and peaceable assembly.

Track VP and GM Eddie Gossage and his staff used e-mail, phone calls, letters, the track's newsletter and a Fort Worth research firm to poll thousands of customers on the issue during the last four months. An amazing 73 percent who responded said they preferred the track not sell beer, thank you. Gossage decided against adding beer to the speedway's offerings and wrote off an estimated $3 million a year in beer revenue.

Charging race fans for parking at NASCAR tracks began only about 10 years ago. Almost all tracks now charge anywhere from $5 to $25 for daily parking with few complaints from fans. But there is no charge for parking at Texas Motor Speedway. Gossage estimates the track is passing up another $3 million in parking revenue.

Gossage and track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. are kissing off an easy $6 million a year because the risk of alienating fans and losing the track's customer base is far more expensive. Gossage said fans "pay enough as it is to enjoy professional sports. We want them to keep coming back."

Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center, home of the NHL Nashville Predators and AFL Nashville Kats, is dumping its south-end suites. Replacing the suites is a high-end 225-seat bar and restaurant accessible to suite-ticket holders and club-seat purchasers. Imagine that! Corporate customers and walk-up customers mixing, in the same bar at a sports event! The $900,000 project is expected to be completed in September.

The NBA Atlanta Hawks recently announced a price reduction affecting 2,400 seats at Philips Arena. The reduction of $5 to $15 a seat covers what amounts to more than 10 percent of the hall's seats. The Hawks are also offering season-ticket holders who have been with the club two-plus seasons a 15 percent discount on renewals. First-time season-ticket holders from last season score a 10 percent discount. The NBA requires its clubs to make 500 $10 seats available to the public. The Hawks offer more than twice that many. The Tampa Bay Lightning NHL club also has cut selected ticket prices at the Ice Palace.

An interesting twist is happening in Calgary, Alberta. Harley Hotchkiss, chair of the Flames' ownership group, recently announced that the club had to increase its season-ticket buyers from 9,000 to 14,000 by June 30 if the team is to stay off the auction block. Hotchkiss also said the Flames need more corporate support, a new hall and government aid.

A public group, Friends of the Flames, was formed and came riding to the rescue. The group immediately divided into eight subcommittees and went to work. The team donated work space in the Canadian Airlines Saddledome. SportsBusiness Journal's Andy Bernstein reported that local media had donated $350,000 in media to help the cause.

Can you imagine your team's fans banding together as a mission to keep your franchise happy? Maybe that's the model to which all sports franchises should aspire, to be so woven into the community fabric that moving would be unthinkable.

Mel Poole (mpoole@sprynet.com) is president of SponsorLogic, a sponsorship consulting, management and events agency.

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