SBJ/November 6 - 12, 2006/SBJ In Depth

Braves prefer a subtle approach

Looking out over the crowd from a box above Turner Field on July 27, Derek Schiller leaned back in his chair satisfied with the Braves’ afternoon turnout, but a sixth-inning public service announcement changed his perception.

The Braves settled on separate events after the games.
The team promoted the events through direct contact
with churches and on Christian radio.

“People staying for the postgame, faith-day event featuring Aaron Shust, please move to sections 242 to 248 following the game,” the announcer said.

Immediately, the Braves’ vice president of sales and marketing wondered if the team could pull off an event that attracted 10 percent of the people in attendance to the park that day without estranging the other 90 percent. It was a question he’d been asking since November 2005, when a Nashville-based marketing agency first pitched the concept to him.

Brent High, a partner and president at the agency, Third Coast Marketing, had e-mailed Schiller about using a faith-day event to attract religious groups and improve ticket sales.

High and Third Coast had been holding such events in Nashville, handing out camouflage Bibles at minor league baseball games and boosting attendance by close to 59 percent in the process.

Considering the Braves had 5,400 churches within a 75-mile radius of Atlanta, High felt it was the perfect market to introduce the faith-day concept to the professional ranks.

The opportunity intrigued the Braves’ front office because religious groups already accounted for more than 25 percent of annual group sales, Schiller said. The marketing department began to investigate whether a faith-day event could further those sales, and spent several months weighing the risks against the potential reward of developing new fans.

“Religion only appeals to a certain type of person with those beliefs,” Schiller said, “and because it elicits strong responses, you have to be careful not to estrange anyone else.”

Being careful ultimately meant tweaking High’s promotional model. In Nashville, Third Coast had incorporated faith events into the game by handing out bobblehead Moses figures to everyone who entered the gates. The Braves wanted something subtler. If they could design it, Schiller believed the event could boost ticket sales that day by 10 percent.

Together with Third Coast, the Braves developed the idea of having a separate event after the game. People would buy $10 tickets for the postgame event or $16 tickets for a game and event package. The Braves and Third Coast also agreed to promote the event only through direct contact with churches or advertising buys on Christian radio stations. That would limit exposure to the event to the target demographic.

The design represented a fundamental change from how faith days worked in the past, but it was one that both the Braves and Third Coast could live with. By May, they had finalized plans for the first faith day on July 27, a Thursday day game.

High and Third Coast set out contacting churches by hand-writing letters to hundreds of pastors in the region. They also lined up a list of sponsors and the schedule, which included Christian musician Shust and pitcher John Smoltz, who requested time to offer his testimony.

Four days before the event, when the Braves and Third Coast met to review logistics, Schiller expressed concern about the number of tickets that had been sold. He felt the numbers weren’t where the Braves envisioned them.

“Church people are last-minute people,” High said. “There will be walk-ups.”

On July 27, more than 3,000 people turned out for the faith-day activities, contributing to a 10 percent increase in attendance that day — on par with what the Braves expected.

Amid the crowd were journalists from NBC, CNN, ABC and other national news organizations. The media attention shocked Schiller. “We were prepared to talk to local news and other publications,” he said, “but that caught us off-guard a bit.”

The bulk of the media coverage was objective and positive, but there were critics. David Zarin wrote in The Nation that faith-day events represent “the ugliest edge of right-wing evangelism.”

Most of his attack and other attacks were directed at Focus on the Family, a controversial sponsor often criticized for its antigay activism. The damage from the criticism was minimal and the Braves dissociated themselves from the group by having Third Coast end the group’s sponsorship for the following two faith-day events at Turner Field. Both of those events drew crowds of 4,500 and 5,000, respectively.

Schiller and the Braves considered all three of the faith-day events they hosted successful. They plan to do similar promotions this year and also add a Jewish-based promotional event.

“Otherwise, you’re falling into the trap of only marketing to the religion of people with a specific belief,” Schiller said, “and that’s not something we want to do. We want to be as universally appealing as possible.”

Give it a try?


Derek Schiller, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Atlanta Braves, believes that each organization should ask itself some key questions as it evaluates faith-based marketing opportunities. He offers these tips:

Weigh the risks: Understand that when you involve religion in a promotion, you are opening yourself up to a lot of additional positives and negatives. Religion is not a promotion that sits on the fence and appeals to everybody. As a result, it carries certain risks that need to be managed and understood.

Mind the media: If you’re doing something for the first time in your marketplace, league or industry, the additional issue to consider is: How will the media judge this? We design promotions for fans, not the media, but in this particular case the media can influence the marketplace and affect the success or failure of the promotion.

Keep it separate: It’s important to have clear parameters for how to design the promotion. Keeping faith days as separate, stand-alone events is extremely important.

Favor all fans: It’s not just a matter of designing a faith-day promotion for the people who might like it, but also for those who won’t. Put yourself in their shoes and ask: Will it influence their perception of the Atlanta Braves or the Atlanta Braves brand? No promotion is worth risking your brand for.

Be inclusive: Be sure to expand the opportunities to other people with different beliefs. Otherwise, you’re falling into the trap of only marketing to the religion of people with that specific belief. It’s important to be as universally appealing as possible.

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