SBJ/Sept. 2-8, 2013/In Depth

Bucs set sail with fresh approach to business

Can customer service, outreach stem tide of game blackouts?

Less than two years ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sent a collection agency after Tom Wiebe, who like other Bucs fans at the time tried to walk away from the remainder of his season-ticket payments. The small business owner had been buying tickets since 1998 but felt fans were being treated poorly by the organization.

Yet less than 24 months later, Wiebe literally and figuratively waves the Bucs flag, energized by a new off-the-field business approach that is challenging the image of a team as one awash in blackouts and fan apathy.

“It was like you would leave two tickets on your windshield and there would be four when you got back,” Wiebe said of the fan attitude through 2011. “Now I feel like I am treated differently; they totally turned it around.”

The Buccaneers have fired up their fan base by focusing on customer service and community outreach.
Photo by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Twenty of the team’s last 24 home games, a period of three seasons, were not televised locally because the club did not sell out or come close, which the NFL requires to air games in-market. This season, the Bucs anticipate half to three quarters of their games to air, or at least as many as did in the previous three seasons combined. Season-ticket renewals are over 90 percent.

“We haven’t given up on any games,” said Jason Dial, the club’s chief marketing officer who, just around the time Wiebe got his collection call, the Bucs hired from Procter & Gamble, where he oversaw sports marketing.

Dial, 44, immediately set out to change the Bucs’ staid and game-centric business culture, a fact freely admitted internally.

“It’s [no longer] here’s just the 10 tickets to the 10 games; that is what it was for so many years,” said Brian Ford, the team’s chief operating officer since 2006.

Season-ticket holders are now called “members,” who can call a customer service representative, the number of which more than tripled after Dial arrived. Sixty-five “Can I Help” employees roam the stadium and parking lots on game day.

Offseason events are the norm, from poker tournaments, food tastings, movie nights and meet-the-coach nights, to
the draft day party. Even without a first-round draft pick this year, the team’s gathering attracted 15,000 fans, the league’s high for such events. Thirty-thousand fans attended open practice night last month.

Just how hard are the Bucs trying to make personal connections?

When a customer service rep called Wiebe to win him back for 2012 (he had paid the 2011 bill), he spent an hour on the phone with her. At one point, he recalled, he mentioned briefly that he would rather spend his money on an upcoming trip to a Disney resort with his wife to celebrate their anniversary. When they arrived in their hotel room, a bouquet of flowers greeted them with a card signed by the Bucs owners, head coach and players, wishing them a happy anniversary.

“My boss [at the time] bought two tickets based on my story,” he said. “I had some clients who did the same based on my experience.”

And Wiebe, who got a bottle of wine this year from the Bucs on his anniversary, is not an outlier. The club’s ranking in internal NFL surveys has skyrocketed from one of the worst in customer service in 2011 to, within a year, the best. And according to the Bucs’ own research, in 2012, 60 percent of those surveyed are very or somewhat happy with the team, up from 14 percent the year before.

Tough challenges

It’s not all peaches and cream suddenly for the Bucs, who still threaten to lead the league in blackouts.

The 2008 financial crisis hit the Tampa region harder than most, and even today about one in 20 houses in the market is vacant. The Tampa Bay market ranks last in the NFL based on median income, 27th in home value and 27th based on unemployment.

The Bucs say they would rather spend on ways to improve the fan experience than buy excess ticket inventory.
Photo by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The region’s corporate base is minimal compared with other NFL markets. No Fortune 500 company is headquartered in the area, with individuals, compared to corporations, accounting for 75 percent of local revenue. The NFL average, Dial said, is the inverse.

Then there are the area’s pristine beaches. The club’s research, based on a poll of 1,504 residents, found that the top choice of leisure is the beach, followed by theme parks, concerts and then a pro sports event. In fact, twice the number of respondents said they had been to a beach in the preceding year than had been to a sports event.

With the hot weather not moderating until the middle of fall, early-afternoon Sunday games early in the season are particularly hard sells, especially in 65,890-seat Raymond James Stadium, which enjoys little shade.

There are also self-inflicted wounds. The ticket waiting list grew to 200,000 after the 2003 Super Bowl-winning season, which is immortalized in the lobby of the team’s headquarters with life-size pewter statues of the top players and then-head coach Jon Gruden celebrating the clinching play. Two years later, the Glazer family, which owns the football team, bought Manchester United of the English Premier League. This led to worries in Tampa that the Bucs owners would focus more on their new team, and rumors spread that the family had diverted resources to the British club. It didn’t help that the press-shy Glazer family declined to speak publicly to refute the gossip.

Then came the 2008 financial implosion, which wiped out the waiting list and led to attendance issues for the first
time in nearly two decades. In 2009, the Glazers bought the extra tickets to ensure sellouts, but in 2010, unlike most teams facing empty rows, they rebuffed that policy.

“As soon as they took them off TV it pissed a lot of people off,” said J.P. Peterson, a former local sports radio personality who spent 16 years in the market.

All eight Bucs home games were blacked out in 2010 (despite a 10-6 record), six in 2011 and six last year, even with a new policy in 2012 allowing the team to sell only 85 percent of its tickets to get on TV. Fans were so upset, Peterson said he took to linking to illegal game streams on his Twitter account.

The 2010 blackout acceptance by the Glazers came in tandem with modest spending on players that year, one without a salary cap or floor.

The nadir for many fans came when the Glazers declined to buy the few thousand remaining tickets to the Sept. 11, 2011, game, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack and an occasion with deep meaning in a region with a large military population and base.

The team remains steadfastly opposed to buying tickets to avoid blackouts. Instead of spending money to buy tickets, Ford, the team’s chief operating officer, explained the club is investing in marketing, events, customer service, the game experience and research. “Rather than just trying to prevent one blackout, we want to spend our money where it counts,” Ford said.

Last year the team at its own expense wired the municipally owned stadium with Wi-Fi, a seven-figure expenditure. A new concessionaire, Aramark, came on board, and luxury suite holders once a season are given an all-expense-paid trip to an away game. Two hundred suite patrons are attending the Jets game in New Jersey on Sunday and staying at the Waldorf Astoria.

The team hired Big Screen Network to produce in-game video, like the firm does for the Super Bowl, to energize the crowd. The club even took its float for the annual Mardi Gras-like Gasparilla parade that Tampa hosts every winter and turned it into a tailgate attraction.

In the community

Dial, who spent 18 years in Cincinnati and Michigan with P&G, likes to call Tampa a “tropical Midwestern town.” By this he means that winning, while important, is also rated equal to family values, underscoring the team’s heavy emphasis on getting its players involved locally.

The team has cast off players not considered good characters. On a wall opposite the entrance to the team’s practice facility locker room, a “wall of fame” highlights Bucs players involved in the area.

Next to it with equal billing is a “wall of shame,” featuring a half dozen or so players from other teams that are in the news for the wrong reasons. Featured on the board recently were Von Miller of the Denver Broncos, who was recently suspended under the league drug policy, and Joe McKnight, who was arrested on traffic warrants last month and released by the New York Jets.

The club’s research shows that from 2011 to 2012, the number of fans who said they go to games because of the community ties of players rose from 4 percent to 11 percent.

“More of the revenue we are seeing is being driven by players [being] a positive presence in the community,” Dial said.

When the club hired Greg Schiano as head coach last year, Dial managed a 100-day marketing campaign to introduce the Northeasterner to the Tampa community, including an ad featuring a pep talk the coach used at a reception.

The team also works closely with the local school district. One hundred and thirty schools are now signed up to a program in which students sell Bucs tickets. For each ticket they sell, the club donates $5 to that school’s fundraising campaign.

The club is reaching out in more traditional ways, with year-round marketing and advertising campaigns. The
branding slogan, adopted last year, is “It’s a Bucs Life,” which embraces a pirate image. Commercials feature fans in pirate garb and, of course, the stadium’s pirate ship blasting ear-shattering canons.

The fan-outreach effort is not above taking a knock at other markets. An anthem created last year, and played as a video featuring players before games, starts with “I’ve seen the rain in Seattle, the frozen fields of Green Bay, the gray skies of the Motor City, Soldier Field on game day. The Metrodome is old (at which point in the video the collapse of the dome’s roof is shown). Cowboy Stadium is too expensive. Philly fans are annoying. Raider Nation is offensive.”

The anthem then proceeds to tout the advantages of Tampa and concludes with, “It’s a Bucs life for me.”

Then there is the more direct approach to getting fans to the game: cutting prices. The team lowered ticket prices on 35 percent of its seats, and more than halved in recent years the cost of its cheapest seats to $30. Fans also can spread the fees over a 12-month payment plan. And recent free agent acquisitions have also helped blunt the notion the Glazers will not spend the money necessary to win.

Dr. Allen Haimes, a dentist who has been going to Bucs games since the late 1970s when he moved to Tampa from Philadelphia, said he hears from his own blue-collar clients about now going to the stadium.

Haimes and his wife, Judith, are such avid fans that they once rescheduled, at what he called great expense, their son’s wedding because it conflicted with a home game. Their daughter’s nuptials included the Bucs mascot. Even he became disenchanted, though, and told Dial that if his dentistry was run the same way as the Bucs, it would go out of business.

“We were treated like outsiders,” he said of the fans. “Now we know who the suits are. We know their names, we see them when we go into the stadium club, we talk to them, and they have made personal relationships. In the past we had no clue who they were. Jason [Dial] really went the extra mile to bridge that.”



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