SBJ/Feb. 7-13, 2011/In Depth

Crowd pleaser

Teams use a mix of the traditional and the technical as they step up efforts to show fans a good time

Leagues have a message for teams: Make fans believe they get their money's worth.

With the economy crimping ticket sales and fans having improved viewing options at home, teams realize they must boost the in-game experience and show value.
CROWDWAVE
Cleveland Cavaliers fans get into the act as their movement powers a video game created by CrowdWave.

Whether it's shooting T-shirts into the crowd or laser beams throughout the arena, entertaining with a mascot or informing with a smartphone app, the approaches run the gamut.

And while some added options provide the opportunity to generate additional revenue, team executives need to know when to dial it down and keep the focus on the game.

Just ask Chicago Bulls executive Jeff Wohlschlaeger, who has spent 15 years directing in-game entertainment at the perennially sold-out United Center. Each season demands new ways to enhance the fan experience, from up in the rafters to down at courtside.

"Fans are smart," Wohlschlaeger said. "We can't create fake energy and fans aren't going to cheer for no reason."
For teams, improving the in-game experience not only demonstrates value to fans, but it also provides opportunities to increase revenue. The trick is knowing when enough is enough.

"You can wallpaper the game presentation with sponsors' specific reads, but you can go over the edge," said Tom O'Grady, president of Gameplan Creative and in-game executive producer and consultant for the Chicago Fire and the Chicago Blackhawks.

"You want to sell everything you can but you want something that hooks the fans in," O'Grady said. "Teams are doing more of that than before, and off the shelf is not good enough anymore. It's about creating ideas that will stick."

So intertwined is the in-game fan experience and revenue that the Tampa Bay Rays now make it a policy to include game presentation staff on corporate sales calls, creating a seamless strategy between in-game presentation and sponsorship inventory.

Yet, at the same time, the Rays refuse to roll out a sponsored promotion during the middle of the eighth inning in order to preserve the feeling that the game belongs to the fans.

"Our fan experience department generates ideas that are put into sales pitches so they will be integrated from the beginning, but we are not going to do something that sacrifices the experience at the ballpark," said Brian Auld, senior vice president of business operations for the Rays. "We made the decision to protect that moment of the game that is exciting."

Even NFL teams, most of which sell out all eight of their regular-season home games, are paying more attention to the in-game experience. The Chicago Bears have sold out every game at Soldier Field for the past 27 years but this year gave suite holders and other premium customers FanVision handheld devices to enhance their in-game experience.

"We pay particular attention to the balance between entertainment and revenue generation in the game presentation," said Chris Hibbs, senior director of sales and marketing for the Bears. "If we can integrate sponsors into our game presentation that is related to the team, those are more valuable than overt advertising. My challenge is how to find more platforms inside the stadium. We can entertain fans and drive necessary revenue as opposed to running 30-second commercials on our video board."

In the NBA, which has long pushed its in-game approach to new entertainment heights, some teams are moving away from an overly scripted strategy to ward off any in-game sponsorship overload.

"The in-game experience has gone from being overproduced to finding a balance between the basketball and entertainment," said Shelly Driggers, director of event presentation for the Orlando Magic. "We have scaled back on the number of fan prompts, while the number of replays shown on the scoreboard has gone far beyond what we have done in the past. We let the game be the game."

Still, the Magic this year has nine entertainment teams to keep in-arena entertainment fresh during the club's 41 regular-season home games. The team's dancers greet fans in the atrium of the new Amway Center while jugglers, face painters and balloon artists combine to create a carnival-like environment.

NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Stuff the Magic Dragon continues to be the Magic's most popular entertainment draw.
Inside the seating bowl, two roving game emcees appear throughout the stands along with the team's most popular entertainment draw: its mascot Stuff The Magic Dragon. In addition, the Magic has a kids play area with slides and basketball hoops in the building's upper bowl in an effort to extend the carnival feel throughout the venue.

"We want to create amenities for every ticket buyer, not just for premium buyers," Driggers said. "We want to get the fans energized early, but once the game starts, we try to focus on the basketball."

To live up to the "driveway to driveway" entertainment goal for fans attending games, NBA teams can spend anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000 per season on their in-game experience budgets.

Halftime entertainment is still a major draw, as teams such as the Magic and Bulls pay between $1,500 and $4,000 for acts that make the NBA circuit. Yet, a new trend is for teams to use a revenue-producing component as part of their entertainment by bringing in local groups to perform, allowing teams to sell group tickets to the friends and families of those community-based acts.


Turnkey Sports Poll

The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in January. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.

» Which of the following areas of pro sports do you think is in the greatest need of innovation?

At-event experience 25%
Ticketing 22%
Sponsorship 14%
Marketing 10%
Merchandising 6%
Content distribution 5%
Facilities 5%
360° media coverage 4%
Live broadcast 3%
Not sure / No response 6%


» Compared to 10 years ago, has the at-event experience at sporting events …?

Improved 67%
Stayed the same 25%
Deteriorated 8%
Not sure / No response 0%


» Is the development of at-event entertainment at sporting events driven more by sponsorship commitments or the desire to raise the quality of the at-event experience?

Sponsorship commitments 56%
Desire to raise quality of at-event experience 39%
Not sure / No response 5%

Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.
"We've changed the philosophy," Driggers said. "We try to get bigger-name acts but we also work on group sales. We want to keep the entertainment quality up but also assist on revenue."

NBA Entertainment logs every timeout of every NBA game and makes a video reel available for all teams. If a promotion or new entertainment element plays well in Portland, for example, teams in other markets will quickly adopt it.

In addition, the NBA assigns a game presentation manager to each of its 30 teams to assist and evaluate their in-game efforts through regular customer surveys. Every summer, the NBA holds a workshop for all in-game managers where new and best practices are discussed.

Currently, NBA teams are following a league mandate to increase player interaction inside arenas.
"Player imaging has been one of the focus points," Wohlschlaeger said. "We try to be creative in using players in our in-game and have them visible."

The Bulls, for example, spend about an hour with each player before the season, taping clips to be shown on the United Center video board throughout the year. Some are humorous spots, others are general question-and-answer clips to increase the fans' connection to the players.

"More than any other league, the NBA is in tune with the fan experience," said Dennis Mannion, the former president of the Los Angeles Dodgers who has also worked for NBA, NHL and NFL teams.

Baseball, Mannion said, is moving toward more sophisticated fan engagement between innings. He said baseball teams spend anywhere from $600,000 to $2 million on in-game operations for each 81-game home season.

"It has evolved from the old-school operator to where teams are so much more cutting edge with full production staffs, and those are the teams that will grow their fan base and create energy for sponsors," Mannion said.

Traditional or technical?

Teams are installing more high-definition and LED ribbon boards and scoreboards as the technology allows for a more unified arena messaging effort, which also makes in-game advertising more attractive to sponsors.

"The technology has gotten so much better. It allows fans to get close to the game," said Danny Meiseles, executive vice president and executive producer for NBA Entertainment. "Teams are using so many more replays and statistics while using their video boards as a bigger point of communication."

But not all clubs share the "newer is better" opinion when it comes to in-game entertainment. Advances in technology bring a bigger price tag and more sponsorship revenue opportunities, but ill-timed execution can have a dampening effect on the fan experience.

Tim Beach, vice president of game operations and events for the New York Islanders, said the club previously launched a Zamboni race video game that was powered by text messages. Beach said the game was slow and complicated, and few fans actually engaged with it.

"During a TV timeout, you have 90 seconds to capture the fans, and if you spend the first 30 seconds explaining how a game is going to work, they are gone," Beach said.

Beach said more expensive, high-tech activities run the risk of distracting the fans. "At the end of the day, fans are buying a ticket that says 'hockey game' on it. It doesn't say 'video board' or 'three-ring circus," he said.

Between periods, the Islanders' Ice Girls ride atop a Zamboni, blasting T-shirts into the stands with a pneumatic cannon. The club spent $25,000 constructing a FanZam miniature Zamboni as another attraction. The Islanders also are the only NHL team to regularly play the "Chuck the Puck" game, where fans purchase $5 packages of soft foam pucks, then throw them on the ice at a large target for a chance to win an automobile.

Kiss cams and laser beams

Other hockey teams have taken the simpler-is-better approach but added a twist.

Before each season, the Atlanta Thrashers make videos of local actors engaging in humorous kiss-cam-style situations in the stands, and then splice the funny scenes in during the live kiss-cam segments. In one situation, an elderly woman removes her dentures and places them in her beer before kissing her husband. In another, a group of actors dressed as Darth Vader and Star Wars stormtroopers dance to "YMCA."

"[The humor] reinforces the brand. The Thrashers are the fourth child in Atlanta so we have to have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders to get attention," said Peter Sorckoff, senior director of game operations and creative services for the Thrashers. "We've never done a shoot for more than a few thousand bucks, to bring in some pizza for the actors and staffing costs."

The NHL does not have a league-level policy for how teams run in-game entertainment, although the league does have personnel to assist clubs in choosing and refining entertainment.

GETTY IMAGES
The Los Angeles Kings entertain fans with a pregame laser show.
Not all teams favor grassroots entertainment like the Islanders. The Los Angeles Kings start each game by beaming a laser light show across the arena as the players step out of a castle-shaped structure onto the ice. A light projection system beams televised movie clips and logos onto the ice.

According to Chris McGowan, chief operating officer for the Kings, both the laser system and projectors represent significant six-figure purchases for the club.

"Los Angeles is the creative capital of the world. We need to have a game presentation that is above the rest," McGowan said. "It is a significant expense, but people are paying good money to come to the arena, and we feel it is what people expect nowadays."

Like the Islanders, the Kings sell presenting sponsorships for the entertainment infrastructure, and the light projector regularly beams trailers for upcoming Hollywood movies onto the ice.

Still, the Kings find time to use more traditional elements during period breaks, calling on elements such as sumo wrestling, musical chairs and midget hockey games.

"For about $5,000 a season, you can get all the props you need," McGowan said. "Then it's just a question of staffing."

Traditional forms of in-game entertainment may be cheaper, but according to Beach, they do have drawbacks. In 2003, the Islanders welcomed hundreds of fans clad as Santa Claus onto the ice during the first intermission for a parade. When a pair of fans threw off their costumes to reveal New York Rangers jerseys, a fight broke out.

"It took a while to break up and we were pretty late getting the Zamboni on the ice," Beach said, laughing. "Santas were wrestling on the ice. It was mayhem."

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