SBJ/September 13 - 19, 2004/SBJ In Depth

Reaching tomorrow’s fans

The New York Jets last season launched “Generation Jets,” a weekly half-hour TV show for children that uses animated characters, Jets players and New York landmarks to teach life lessons.

The Jets spent $500,000 to produce last season’s episodes of the “Generation Jets” series.
A few of the lessons featured in season one — preparation, patience and faith — might also be the keys to success for pro teams that are marketing to kids and teenagers.

Case in point: Like many teams, the Arizona Cardinals have a kids club through which members receive specially created newsletters and team merchandise. Many marketers figure that kids clubs are a sort of necessary evil, a way to create some connection with children and teenagers who probably aren’t going to buy full-price tickets for years to come. And most executives would argue that it’s nearly impossible to calculate a return on their investments in their kids clubs.

But the Cardinals have used a mix of preparation, patience and faith to find that a kids club really can generate ROI, even if the payoff takes time.

The preparation began 12 years ago when the team launched its kids club. Today, some of the club’s original members are Cardinals season-ticket holders, according to Michael Bidwill, the team’s vice president and general counsel.

“With all our kids outreach, we try to take a longer view of things, and that’s a perfect example,” Bidwill said.

Whether a team is looking a dozen years into the future or at the next game on the schedule, the importance of reaching kids and teenagers is clear and well-documented. The 18-and-younger set of today not only will be the season-ticket buyers of tomorrow, but youngsters also are believed to have a tremendous influence on families’ purchasing decisions.

More at stake

A recent study by New York-based research firm Packaged Facts predicts that by 2006 the buying power of American 12- to 19-year-olds will reach $190 billion. The figure reflects the money kids and teens have to spend on their own, and spending by their parents that the young people influence.

In his 2003 book “Brandchild,” which examines kids’ attitudes toward brands, Martin Lindstrom estimated that children influence a whopping 80 percent of brands purchased by their parents, including mobile phones, cars and homes.

For pro teams, reaching fans while they’re still young is perhaps more

See also:
Top sports watched by young fans
Turnkey Sports Poll
important now than ever because of well-established competing forces like the Internet, video games and action sports. With the X Games marking its 10th year in 2004 and other action-sports events reaching maturity, an entire generation of children has come of age perceiving skateboarding, motocross and snowboarding as big-time, mainstream sports.

So it’s no surprise that every marketing executive who spoke with SportsBusiness Journal said that marketing to young fans is an extremely important component of their overall marketing plans.

The way they’re going about it, however, varies widely from team to team. The range of tactics includes everything from scheduling kid-friendly promotional giveaways, to letting kids participate in game presentation activities, to building an entire subbrand around the effort.

How teams and leagues execute their youth-marketing initiatives should be dictated by the ages of the children they’re targeting. Marketers need to understand how messaging to 7-year-olds should be different from a campaign aimed at 10-year-olds. It’s also important to know the most appropriate time to deliver certain messages.

For example, the NFL has been working in the past few months not only to plan more aggressive youth marketing efforts, but also to sharpen their focus. “We’ve really homed in on the 11- to 14-year-old group,” said Ty Stewart, the league’s director of marketing. “All of our intelligence told us that was the time in the life cycle when kids are making decisions about participating in football and long-lasting decisions about sports consumption and viewership.

“Earlier in their lives, they may watch sports because it’s part of the family experience,” Stewart said. “But once they’re that age, they’re doing it more for themselves.”

‘Trunk of the tree’

That’s why “Generation Jets” is aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds, said Lee Stacey, the Jets’ senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We think that at that age, we’re getting them before they establish what’s cool,” Stacey said.

“Generation Jets” is more than just a TV show; the name has become the umbrella for a comprehensive kids marketing effort that has seen the team launch a dedicated Web site (, create themed merchandise, and rebrand its community relations activities and kids club.

“It’s one of the major things we do,” Stacey said, noting that last year’s 13 episodes cost more than $500,000 to produce. “It will still be a loss leader in [2004], but from a branding standpoint, this is the trunk of the tree for us — a staple for all our youth programs.”

Airing this season on Saturday afternoons on WCBS-TV, “Generation Jets” drew a 1.0 rating in its first season. At the time, though, the team wasn’t taking full advantage of the “Generation Jets” brand, said Sharon Hartley, a veteran toy-industry marketer who has worked for Hasbro and Mattel. Hartley advised the Jets this year on the initiative.

“They had great programs in place but they weren’t getting leverage among them. They really had no way to engage a child in all of them,” Hartley said, adding that bringing all the programs under the Generation Jets umbrella went a long way toward solving that problem. “Kids have amazing resiliency and they’re able to bounce around to different messages,” she said. “So marketers need to communicate clearly and make sure they get a consistent message.”

Young consumers’ ability to digest multiple messages at once also creates a possible hook for team marketers, said Declan Bolger, chief marketing officer of the Portland Trail Blazers.

“They can participate in online chats or check stats online while they’re watching a game, either in person or on TV,” Bolger said. “There’s an opportunity for us to communicate via those vehicles, whether it’s via text [messaging] or providing experiences in the building where they can interact more. It has to be more participatory and less stagnant.”

Going through mom

Many teams have decided that the best way to create interest among kids and teenagers is to market to their parents — and in some cases, moms in particular — using as a hook the sporting event as the ideal family outing.

A young Anaheim Angels fan waits to yell “Play ball!” at the start of a game. The team has placed added emphasis on reaching children.
“Our research showed that 80 percent of the female heads of household were the main decision-maker for the family’s weekend leisure activity,” said Robert Alvarado, director of marketing and promotions for the Anaheim Angels. “And yet we had been running ads in the sports pages.”

For much of the team’s youth outreach, “we target the kids indirectly through their mothers,” Alvarado said. The Angels’ media buy now includes print ads in regional editions of family and parenting magazines. The Angels also run ads targeted at kids, including spots on the local Radio Disney affiliate that promote the team’s kid-friendly giveaways.

In addition to those giveaways, the Angels have three main youth-focused in-stadium events: a kids’ opening day, held during the season’s first home stand but after the actual season opener; a Kids Run the Show day, in which children take over select stadium-operation jobs; and a kids appreciation game at the end of the season.

The Angels also offer discount ticket prices for children, charging $5 for left-field pavilion seats and $7 for right-field pavilion seats (they’re $9 and $10 for adults) at every game, and $3 for view-level seats ($12 for adults) on Tuesday nights.

Some original members of the Arizona Cardinals Kids Club are now season-ticket holders.
But the Angels took an unusual step this year to expand the customer base for those discounts and the promotional days. For 2004, the team modified the definition of a “kid” at Angel Stadium. Previously, the discounts and giveaways were available to children 12 and younger. Now, hoping to pull in more teenagers, the team allows customers as “old” as 18 to take advantage of them.

Offering discounted ticket prices for kids is fairly common among MLB clubs, but the practice also is being embraced in certain NBA and NHL arenas, at least for some games. The Denver Nuggets, for example, offer free tickets to kids 14 and younger with a paying adult at one game a month. The team gives away promotional items to kids at those games. This year, the giveaways will include a series of pocket folders bearing images of players.

The Nuggets sold about 4,300 tickets to those games last season. “We could very well see that number reach the 8,000 range this season,” said Paul Andrews, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche.

Dual targets

The Florida Panthers created a similar program last season, promoting all seven

The Florida Panthers have dedicated an entire month to kids, including special ticket offers (below) and opportunities to meet players.
January home games collectively as Kids Month. With the purchase of a full-price adult ticket, parents could bring any number of children 12 and younger to a game for free. After each Kids Month game, Panthers players were stationed outside the Office Depot Center to sign autographs for children. The team also promoted sweepstakes in which kids could win locker-room tours and autographed memorabilia.

To tout the offer, the team made a strategic decision to run ads aimed at parents and kids. “We wanted to try and make sure that mom and dad are aware of the message we’re targeting to their kids, so they could help us expedite the process of cultivating new fans,” said Michael Yormark, the Panthers’ chief operating officer.

If the ads aimed at parents carried a “bring the kids” message, the youth-targeted marketing gave kids ammunition for persuading mom and dad to go to a game. The team created a TV spot using a 13-year-old boy as the spokesman, which ran on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and other children’s cable programming. “We wanted to film a cool kid for the TV spot because we wanted to make sure kids knew [the offer] was coming from another kid,” said Gabrielle Valdez, the team’s director of marketing.

The spot gave a toll-free number for Kids Month tickets, 866-8-THE-KID — which the team registered specifically for the promotion — and closed with the boy telling viewers to let their parents know about the bargain. The kicker: “Just say ‘free.’ Parents love that.”

Last season, the Panthers sold 5,000 tickets through the program and gave away 15,000.

“What the program did was give an incentive for mom and dad to bring their kids, and it gave the kids an experience with one of our players, which hopefully will evolve into an emotional connection,” Yormark said.


Leveraging children’s affinity for individual players is a smart move, according to Scott Hess, research director at Teenage Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill.-based consultancy whose clients include Coca-Cola, Nike and Gatorade. “For branding, you can really tell the story of your sport or franchise through your recognizable athletes. For the most part, athletes are much stronger brands than leagues or teams.”

But some player-focused marketing works better than others.

“A lot of times when we talk to leagues, we just make sure they’re showing athletes as real people,” Hess said. “That’s why a show like ‘Cribs’ on MTV works. Kids like to see how athletes live and see them hanging out with their friends or playing video games, just like they do themselves.”

Shows like “Cribs” and reality TV in general also have shaped the way children consume sports and athletes, Hess said. “The XFL had a lot of good ideas, but teens don’t want their sports dumbed down.”

One kid-savvy sports marketer, Sports Illustrated for Kids, apparently agrees with that assessment. The magazine (circulation: 1 million) presents its readers with warts-and-all coverage of sports news that some adults might think is too advanced or too sensitive for children. “We cover the issues kids are dealing with and hearing about — everything from steroids to hazing,” said David Watt, the magazine’s publisher. “We just have to make sure we present it in a way that’s appropriate for kids.”

In fact, the magazine’s October issue will feature a full-page piece on the prospect of an NHL lockout. The story includes management’s view of the labor dispute, contributed by NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly, and the players’ side, written by Colorado Avalanche player Peter Worrell.

“It was terrific that we were able to take on that weighty topic,” said Bernadette Mansur, NHL group vice president of communication. “In terms of how to talk to kids, we can really listen to them. … SI for Kids said they were getting questions from their readership about this issue.”

Daly’s approach for the article, she said, was “not to talk down but to make our point.”

Staying cool

Kids’ magazines, ad agencies and youth marketing consultants all can provide valuable insight in how to market to children. But so can children themselves. Teams including the Trail Blazers, Seattle SuperSonics and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are planning kids focus groups.

“Our plan this offseason is to do focus groups, phone surveys and Web surveys as part of our whole initiative of understanding our customer better, but kids are a big part of that,” said David Auker, the Devil Rays’ senior vice president of business operations.

An important part of the Devil Rays’ outreach to kids has been what Auker calls “utilizing our ballpark assets,” allowing youngsters to assume the role of stadium public address announcer or take the field with the players during the national anthem.

“As much as anything else, we’re competing for their time, so we need to learn which of the things we’re doing catches their attention and makes them want to spend their time with us,” Auker said.

The marketing staff of the Orlando Magic has a few other ways to stay on top of what’s important to kids. “We’re constantly looking at the Lycos 50 to see what the most popular [Internet] searches are,” said Chris D’Orso, the team’s vice president of marketing. “We’re always looking at pop culture, and not only benchmarking other teams, but also other industries, like retail.”

Staffers visit teen-favorite stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and The Gap to check out what young consumers are wearing and what music the retailers are playing. Research like that helps the team keep game presentation kid-friendly and choose trendy giveaway items.

For example, the Magic will distribute “trucker-style” mesh baseball caps at a game in November. Caps will be given to the first 5,000 fans of all ages, but “it will be marketed directly to high schools and local colleges,” D’Orso said.

Leveraging current trends can help forge a connection with kids and teenagers, but teams shouldn’t go overboard trying to seem cool. “The worst thing [a marketer] can do is be something they’re not,” said Derek White, executive vice president of Alloy, a New York-based marketing services company specializing in tweens (primarily children just shy of their teen years), teens and college students. “You don’t want to try using ‘cool’ language if that’s not what your brand is all about. Kids would tell you first and foremost they judge [brands] by their value above all else.”

D’Orso said the Magic is exploring ways to use Internet marketing to better reach kids and teenagers. “We’re looking at advertising on kid-focused Web sites or partnering with other sites or search engines to drive more people to our site,” he said.

Meanwhile, finding better locations to reach kids offline is one objective for the SuperSonics. “We’re focusing more on where they are and where they’re spending their time, and going to them,” said Michael Humes, the team’s executive vice president of sales and marketing.

To that end, the team is exploring cross-promotion opportunities with neighboring entertainment venues and will enhance its messaging at the 22 Sonics-branded public basketball courts throughout Seattle.

Sean Brenner is a writer in Chicago.

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