Win and you're in
Published December 1, 2008
There’s an old axiom around sports that says that when you’re winning, the beer is colder, the hot dogs taste better and the line outside the rest room doesn’t seem so long.
Now, the data supports it.
Sports fans like winners. This, you already knew. But you might be surprised by the extent to which that demand for a winner bleeds into every aspect of their feelings — or at least their survey responses — when it comes to the teams they follow most closely.
The first edition of the Turnkey Team Brand Index, released last year, was populated heavily by winners at the top and losers at the bottom. That’s the case again this year, with 15 of the 20 highest-ranked franchises making the playoffs in their respective leagues.
The fabled Green Bay Packers, coming off a 13-3 season, ranked first this year. The bottom five — the Seattle SuperSonics, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Indiana Pacers and New York Islanders — all posted poor, and mostly disappointing, years, none more so than the Sonics, who were on their way out of town.
Year two also shows how quickly a team can rise or fall based on its fate on the field, floor or ice. Only 15 of the 122 franchises saw their overall brand index scores improve by double digits this year. All but two of those improved their winning percentages and/or went deeper into the playoffs than they had the previous season. Many made dramatic swings.
The Boston Celtics, who went from the cellar to an NBA championship, had the largest gain of any team, increasing their index score by 41.55. The New Orleans Hornets posted the second largest at 23.98, thanks to a share of a division title in their first full season back in a city in recovery. The Montreal Canadiens were a close third with a gain of 23.76 after posting their most regular-season wins since 1993 behind the most potent offense in the NHL.
The other easily explained big gainers: the Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Phillies, Packers, Orlando Magic, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia 76ers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. Two bucked the trend: the Carolina Hurricanes, who raised the Stanley Cup in 2006, and the Colorado Rockies, who made the World Series in 2007.
Declines in the Team Brand Index also mirrored declines in the standings. All but one of the 15 teams that showed a double-digit decline in the index were teams that slid from the year before, either by winning fewer games or by not getting as far in the playoffs. The other, the San Francisco Giants, went from horrific to slightly less horrific.
The worst slides: the Kansas City Chiefs, who went from the playoffs to a nightmarish year in which they lost their last nine games; the Knicks, who haven’t finished over .500 since 2001; and the San Diego Padres, who were about 10 games over .500 and fighting for first in their division when Turnkey conducted its poll in 2007, but about seven games out and in fourth place when polled this past summer.
The pull of winning and losing is so obvious, it might seem pointless to bother surveying and studying fan reaction. But marketing executives who specialize in branding say it’s important to track it in order to identify swings in areas in which they can have an impact.
“Winning is going to drive a lot of your brand strength,” said Greg Economou, former CMO of the Charlotte Bobcats and senior vice president of marketing at the NBA, who has spent much of his career focused on brand-building. “What you want to figure out is, How much? If there’s a 60 percent lift when you win and make the playoffs, that means that there’s 40 percent out there that I have control over. I need to make sure I’m getting every bit of that 40 percent.”
Head-to-head comparisons between NBA and NHL teams that share markets show the correlation even further. In 11 of those 15 cities, the team that had the better season scored as more popular.
The most illustrative: the Toronto Maple Leafs, who like to say they’ve sold out every home game since World War II, ranked behind the Raptors in this year’s index. Certainly the sudden, and relatively modest, success of the Toronto Raptors doesn’t trump the brand power of the iconic Maple Leafs. But, with the former winning and the latter in the dumps, fans responded more favorably to the team that’s winning now.
“People have always jumped on and off the bandwagon and probably always will,” said Bill Sutton, a sports marketing consultant who works with teams in baseball and the NBA. “But, beyond that, there’s that core fan that defines your brand. That’s who determines the value that you have inherently. Winning drives it higher and losing drops it down. But those really strong brands are never going to drop as far as the weaker ones.”
Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from those whose Team Brand Index score moved in the opposite direction of their winning percentage when that percentage rose or dropped significantly. There are only six of them, and only two moved in the direction that their owners would like them to: the Rockies, still aglow from that unlikely World Series run, and the Dallas Stars, who managed to raise their index number ever so slightly while sliding a bit on the ice, but still making the playoffs.
On the wrong side of the swing: the Chicago White Sox, who were about 10 games over .500 and in first place when the survey was taken, but dropped 5.8 index points; the Florida Marlins, who went from sub-.500 to about six games over .500, but dropped 2.5 points; the Texas Rangers, who were hovering around .500 after spending most of the previous season in the cellar, but dropped 1.3 points; and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went from 4-12 to a playoff appearance but saw their index remain flat.
Those are four franchises whose fans have been riding the roller coaster long enough to remain skeptical despite early indicators that might turn others optimistic. That may be in play here, or they might be misfiring in some way with their fans.
“You know you’re going to get a lift when you win,” Economou said. “But is it plus 10 or plus 5? The question should become: ‘Are you as strong as you can be?’ That’s what the research should be after. Figure out what the potential is. Are we where we should be right now, based on how well our product performs? There are always intangibles that are hard to factor in. But you can get scientific about it and use the research as a better tool to figure out where you stand.”
Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, which disclosed the full ranking of all 122 teams last year, would publicly reveal only the top 25 and bottom five this time around.
“We knew there was a correlation before we got into this,” said Len Perna, president and CEO of Turnkey Sports. “But quantifying what it means to the brand is something we’ve never had before. We’ve answered a little bit now that the correlation is strong, but it’s not strong in every case. There are exceptions and there are anomalies.”
Not many, though. The top 30 teams combined for a winning percentage of .633. The next 30 were at .520. The lower two quadrants were at .464 and .443.
But within the vast landscape there are a few teams that popped out as overcoming disappointing performances.
The New Orleans Saints posted a losing season last year — one of many for a team that has won only two playoff games in 41 years — and slipped only slightly on the brand list from seventh place to 11th. That’s 45 places ahead of the Washington Redskins, who remained flat after rebounding from a 5-11 season to make the playoffs.
The New York Yankees remained the dominant sports brand in New York, even though they were in fourth place at the time of the survey and the Giants were the reigning Super Bowl champs.
Perna explains it with a banking analogy. He describes a team’s brand as a savings account. Each win is a deposit; each loss a withdrawal. There are other ways to gain and lose equity, but none count as much as winning and losing.
“When you win, or you do something in the community, or you bring in a popular player or coach, you’re saving up good will and loyalty for a rainy day,” Perna said. “It’s inevitable that that rainy day is going to come. If you’re one of the teams, the question you always have to ask yourself is, ‘How much do we have in reserve in our account?’ The ones at the top of the list have a lot of savings. And the ones at the bottom are tapped out.”