SBJ/Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2011/Opinion

Communication is paramount in weathering a work stoppage

As the four major sports tumble toward potential labor strife, it is imperative to concentrate on the connection with their constituents — coaches, staff, media, sponsors and, most importantly, fans.

I began my NFL career during the labor problems of the 1970s. Initially, I was faced with the residue of players’ action that forced the cancellation of the 1974 Chicago Charities College All-Star game. Later, there were the player strikes of 1982 (57 days) and 1987 (24 days). Both occurred after the NFL seasons had begun, but were uniquely different with a true work stoppage vs. use of replacement players.

Among the most important lessons I learned was that myopic focus on saving money could potentially damage the recovery process. Fans and sponsors became disengaged. The focus often was the battle and not the recovery. It took foresight and planning to hasten recovery. The key component: Honest, consistent communication from all parties.
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Commissioner Pete Rozelle unequivocally told me his expectations. I needed to look at the means to show [Super Bowl] attendees we were the gold standard of sports.

In 1982, my mission was to maintain commitments with and continue planning for Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena, Calif. I was engaged, in person and on the phone, with everyone from politicians to vendors to hotel management, etc. Commissioner Pete Rozelle unequivocally told me his expectations. I needed to look at the means to show the attendees (including all our league sponsors) we were the gold standard of sports. Upon resuming play, we were singularly driven by the need for success, but planning had to be done during the strike to accomplish this.

We installed portable JumboTrons — it was the first time in history the NFL showed highlights during a game. We revamped the sound system to push it into rest rooms, concession stands, elevators, etc. The corporate hospitality concept was heavily promoted for the first time. Looking back, it was the best-run Super Bowl I oversaw, and we innovated more than at any other previous Super Bowl.

Communication is key

The commissioner ensured that the staffs were kept as well-informed as possible during these times. In the pre-Internet era, we constantly received newspaper articles, were given access to trial testimony, attended multiple question-and-answer sessions, and were given guidance about what to communicate. This is much easier now.
Events and activities must be planned to involve fans. If there is a work stoppage, other entertainment activities will attempt to fill the void, trying to convert fan spending habits temporarily, and then attempting to make a permanent change. It is possible other sports will jump into the void created, adjusting their seasons or events.

Everyone must cultivate their relationships. Among the things that should be planned before or during a work stoppage are:

• Ensure draft events are better than ever. The league plans for the draft even if the collective-bargaining agreement expires, and this may be among the last, best contacts with fans.

• Use training facilities for special events, corporate outings/meetings, charitable meetings, youth clinics, high school coach seminars, similar events to NFL 101 seminars, sit-downs with coaches, etc.

• Use stadiums for special events, including concerts, movie nights using the video boards and blanket seating on the field (even entertain studio premieres), fun runs and marathons ending at the stadium, social media events (such as last fall’s Panthers Purrsuit in Charlotte) or special college, high school or international games. Provide preferential seating or pricing to season-ticket holders. Some NFL teams already are taking action with their scheduling of Kenny Chesney’s 2011 “Going Coastal” tour.

• Revamp sponsorship packages to include community-driven programs, out-of-stadium retail promotions, etc. Teams want to avoid sponsors allocating their money elsewhere for a season, then realizing they don’t really need sports promotions and never returning or wanting back in at a dramatically reduced price.

• Community relations departments must continue reaching out to the public. Teams need to stockpile autographed items now to ensure items can be provided to charitable fundraisers in more depth than the past. Make sure everyone knows the importance of the franchise to the community.

• Use the relationships with alumni players and current coaches to enhance community outreach via charitable activities, golf tournaments, autograph and information sessions with season-ticket holders, etc. Develop tenure recognition programs for season-ticket holders. Hold fan forums and town meetings with season-ticket holders. If you have won championships, get the trophies out in the public forums.

• Move up the timetable on selection processes, including cheerleader tryouts. There is a need to be out in the community at an earlier time frame.

• Use Twitter, Facebook and texting (using an IM app like Kik) to constantly communicate, posting recollections of team achievements, fan memories, etc. Teams should start preparing these now. Updates on current issues can be woven in. Use video clips and podcasts as attachments. Get information to bloggers firsthand. Use all assets like newsletters, e-mail blasts, Web chats, telephone conference calls, phone blasts, etc.

• Have top management or head coaches meet for regular luncheons with sponsors to keep them informed of
Teams should be prepared to use social media sites such as Facebook to communicate with fans and post team achievements, video clips and podcasts.
developments, especially ahead of news cycles, maintaining their engagement. Sponsors should be among the first to know of the return to play.

• For those staff affected the most — the game-day workers who need to respond favorably to fans at the first game back — involve them and their families in events and keep them informed via newsletters and e-mail. These people may likely have been significantly affected financially, but their fan engagement will hasten the transition upon the return to play.

• Team radio and TV shows need to be directed to reinforcing great memories and anticipating times to come, especially if there is an anniversary to recognize.

• Group sales staffs need to cultivate leads, develop databases, take commitments and deposits on season tickets. Ticket sales should remain a primary focus.

Recovery efforts

After the labor unrest is resolved and play resumes, the first communication from the team should not be an invoice with an immediate due date. The packaging of the communication needs to be planned to re-engage the season-ticket holder and overcome their potential frustration. Most importantly team personnel need to come out of the labor strife in an aggressive mode.

The stadium experience needs to be fresh; it cannot appear as if everything was just taken out of storage. The time to do capital improvements is now.

Be prepared for in-stadium giveaways at the first game. Practice sessions upon the return need to re-energize the fans. Plan special events at preseason training times.

If there is a time for innovation, it is now: Roll it out. Show it off. Prove to all that the event, and the fan experience, is better than they remember.

Bottom line, leadership needs to be displayed to keep staff thinking and engaged to ensure all constituents feel connected to the team. The teams and leagues must demonstrate that they are still the best entertainment option for their communities. 

Jim Steeg (jim.steeg@gmail.com) is former executive vice president/chief operating officer of the San Diego Chargers and senior vice president of special events at the NFL.

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