SBJ/January 24 - 30, 2005/Opinion

My old school is back in session

I have been told a number of times in the past year that I am old school. That was said both as a compliment and in a less-than-favorable context.

In my definition, old school adheres to the values, considerations and social contracts that have been at the core of civilized society. Events that have transpired in the world of sport over the past month have me thinking that perhaps the business of sport could use a little more old school.

How can we improve sports in such a way that our business remains moving in a positive direction? In 2005, let’s resolve to:

1. Restore integrity to the playing fields and arenas.
We all know what constitutes cheating, and steroids certainly fit that definition. Spectator sports are dependent upon sportsmanship, fair play and the unpredictable nature of competition, which ensures an opportunity for any team to win on any given day.

Fans have too many other entertainment options to settle for anything less, and fan retention has never been more important than it is today. So, regardless of who has cheated, let’s move ahead and clean it up.

Old School Award: To the rank and file of the MLBPA (not its leadership). They recognized the disconnect cheating causes on and off the field and pushed their leadership to negotiate a strict drug-testing policy to restore integrity to the game and preserve fan interest.

2. Establish safer facility experiences for fans and players.
Without dredging up the incidents that occurred last year in professional baseball and basketball, we must work to ensure that the fan’s biggest decision at a sporting event is what to purchase at the concession stand, not where the safest place is to sit.

Perhaps the ancient Romans had it right by designing a stadium where the fans had no access to the gladiators. But is this what we want?

Professional sports franchises, particularly those in the NBA, have worked hard to cultivate a player-fan connection and provide opportunities for interaction. Such relationships are built upon mutual appreciation and respect.

For the fans, opposing players are competitors and worthy adversaries. Abusive player-baiting behavior has no place in sports at any level. The players must be less concerned about being “disrespected” and more concerned about playing hard and competing as a team.

Old School Award: To NBA Commissioner David Stern for his quick and decisive action in disciplining his players.

3. Emphasize values that the fans identify with and appreciate.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from fans who have defected from particular teams or, in some cases, from a sport in general is, “I can’t identify with the way they play the game today.”

Another refrain often heard is, “It’s a team game. The players today don’t appreciate that. They put themselves above the team.”

Oftentimes the sport played at the highest levels doesn’t resemble the sport that fans once played. Values that are ingrained in many fans are not apparent in today’s grab-the-cell-phone-and-dance, score-25-points-on-10-for-35-shooting, and charge-the-pitcher’s-mound world of professional sport.

Players, coaches and general managers need to understand that there is a rapidly growing disconnect between them and the ticket-buying public that supports them and address that gap before it becomes a chasm.

Old School Award: Orlando Magic GM John Weisbrod, who is overseeing a team resurgence on and off the court. His philosophy is that the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back.

4. Make affordable family entertainment a priority.
Attending a sporting event should be something that can be enjoyed by the entire family more than once a year.

All professional sports offer discounted or specially priced ticketing packages. Some even offer Family Night packages that include food and game tickets for one fee.

I just wish it were available on a more frequent and widespread basis. Attending a sporting event has to be an entertaining and ultimately memorable experience. After all, outside of a few souvenirs and some occasional heartburn, all the fan leaves with is a memory.

Old School Award: To Mike Veeck and all the other owner-operators of minor league baseball franchises who live this on a daily basis.

Why did I single out Veeck? Because his motto is “Fun is good.” Who can argue with that?

You might ask if there are any opportunities in professional sports to witness old school behavior and values. The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Everything I have described is readily available at any WNBA game or LPGA event. Values, respect, safety, affordability, reciprocity, player-fan interaction, teamwork and fun are commonly found in women’s professional sporting events. But they should be integral to all sporting experiences for players and spectators alike.

So, sports marketers and managers, if you want to be a little more old school in 2005, go for it. Your fans and your bottom line will appreciate it.

Bill Sutton (wsutton@bus.ucf.edu) is a professor at the DeVos Sports Business program at the University of Central Florida.

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