SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Opinion

Open up the doors to different kinds of fans

Few decisions in business are more critical than figuring out what the customer base is and how to appeal to it. Bankruptcy court is littered with the corpses of companies that forgot why they existed and tried to be something they weren’t. Conversely, other companies fail to grow as much as they could because they lack the vision to reach out to new markets.

The sports sector is not exempt from this quandary, as we were reminded by a couple of news items last week.

The NBA drew some criticism for its decision to feature a couple of country music acts during halftime of its All-Star Game. Sports writers and TV talkers opined like this: “Pathetic.” “Dropped the ball.” “No interest.” “NASCAR music.” “Quite possibly the worst form of entertainment I’ve ever seen.” TNT analyst Charles Barkley weighed in: “I just hope whoever put the halftime together, they’re getting their résumé ready. This is a hip-hop weekend. This ain’t no NASCAR race.”

Meanwhile, in Daytona, NASCAR launched its 2005 season by rolling out the likes of one-time Miss America Vanessa Williams, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson and actor Ashton Kutcher. The sport, born in the rural South, was not rural enough for some tastes. “There’s a lot of people here and they told me I couldn’t wear blue jeans, which I really didn’t understand,” Kutcher, the honorary starter, was quoted. “This is like one of the greatest redneck sports there is. I mean redneck in a good way; I’m a redneck. I’ve never watched a race in khaki pants before.”

There we have it: The ultimate urban sport, basketball, coming off as too redneck, while the stereotypical redneck property, NASCAR, is accused, tongue-in-cheek no doubt, of being too sophisticated.

Let’s not make too much of the entertainment, which is just a sideshow to the main event, except that it is a handy shorthand for the fan-marketing decisions these properties face. In fact, we would argue, both properties are doing it just right.

NASCAR has made itself into one of the major success stories in the sports sector precisely by appealing to larger customer bases, by locating racetracks in new geographic areas and by obtaining national network television coverage. It has welcomed new enthusiasts, not turned them away. It has sought out and welcomed new audiences without alienating the entire traditional fan base that has been there from the beginning. It’s a careful balancing act.

Similarly, the NBA is experiencing a period of resurgence. The league counts two hip-hop artists as minority team owners and has a third on the way, and its brand image is very much aggressive, tattooed, in-your-face urban action. There’s no disputing the success of that formula, as league attendance continues to increase.

Yet there’s a great danger for the NBA if the league allows itself to be seen as strictly an urban sport for the hip-hop audience. If the league is perceived as unwilling to welcome different kinds of fans, as almost a private club that is not interested in enlarging its membership, then it’s well on its way to becoming a niche sport played and watched only at the margins.

Commissioner David Stern and his cadre understand that much better than their critics. The path to growth is by attracting new fans, not shutting them out.

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Basketball, Motorsports, NASCAR, NBA, Opinion

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