SBJ/February 18 - 24, 2002/Marketingsponsorship

A few teams have going, going, gone for creative auctions with success

The Beatles once sang that money can't buy you love. They didn't say anything about a date.

The Philadelphia 76ers recently scheduled an auction on their Web site (sixers.com) for a date with Raja Bell, a guard on the team. Karen Frascona, senior director of communications for the 76ers, came up with the idea as part of the team's efforts to create unique auction items to generate revenue for Sixers Charities.

The bidding starts at $1,500. The winner will be picked up in a stretch limousine for the dinner date, which is expected to last 90 minutes.

"I don't know what to expect, but I know it's a nice restaurant and I get to hear some good jazz," Bell told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "This is for charity, and that's why I'm doing it."

This romantic excursion is just a continuation of several unique experiences the team already has auctioned off on its Web site, including fishing trips with general manager Billy King and a miniature-golf outing with players. The Sixers lead a growing number of teams that create auctions on their Web sites for items and experiences previously inaccessible to the general public.

Included in this group are the Dallas Mavericks, who auctioned pieces of forward Dirk Nowitzki's hair to raise funds for breast cancer research. After Nowitzki shaved his head, clippings of his hair were placed in 45 plastic bags to be auctioned off. All of the bags sold — for as much as $1,000 apiece — as the team proved that fans will pay significant dollars for a cause and a keepsake item, no matter how strange the item might be.

The University of California's athletic department has posted nearly 300 items and experiences in auctions on its Web site. The majority of the items are memorabilia; the experiences range from the opportunity to play a scrimmage at halftime of a men's basketball game to serving as the guest radio announcer for four plays during a Golden Bears football game. These two experiences collected $1,360 and $2,500, respectively.

According to Kevin Reneau, associate athletic director at Cal, the auctions have generated about $150,000 in new revenue for the school. Unlike the Mavericks and 76ers, the school did not give the money to charity.

"When the University of Michigan gets 102,000 [people] in its football stadium every Saturday and is still in debt, that forces you to open your eyes to finding and creating new revenue streams like this," Reneau said.

If professional teams are smart and want to follow the lead of the 76ers, they will start marketing unique experiences and items for auctions on their sites and, like the 76ers, donate the proceeds to a charitable organization.

At the same time, creative ideas for future auction items and experiences should come not only from inventive team executives like Frascona, but also from a section on the team Web site that allows fans to suggest what they'd like to bid on.

Some executives rightfully question whether formal experiences like the radio booth appearance and the halftime game are being cheapened by selling them to the highest bidder. Any computer-savvy fan with a few thousand dollars can mosey onto the mound (the Oakland A's and the Chicago Cubs offer the chance to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for a game at auction) or arrange for a blind date with a player.

Since winning bidders are often unknown beyond their e-mail addresses and credit card numbers, teams must take precautions to screen the winners. After all, how does a team know that the national anthem singer (the A's also offer this experience at auction) will not create problems during the performance?

"If someone showed up on the day of the game and we felt uncomfortable, we'd pull it," said David Alioto, vice president of the Oakland A's, who added that the team has not faced any problems to date with its online auctions.

The Sixers are not taking any chances. A staff member will chaperone Bell and his date.

Dan Migala (dmigala@teammarketing.com) is the author of "Interactive Sports Strategies."

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