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Volume 24 No. 154
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SFF Symposium: Teams Need To Maintain Fan Engagement, Keep Social Media In Forefront

The challenges of keeping fans engaged with pro sports was a big topic during the opening session of the '13 Sports Facilities & Franchises Symposium, which featured D'Backs President & CEO Derrick Hall and Sabres President Ted Black. Hall said that personally engaging D'Backs fans is a big part of his day-to-day job, and that he often spends two or three hours answering fan e-mails and tweets after games. He added that he thinks teams are doing a better job of listening to fans' criticism in the social media era. “You can't be reactionary," Hall said. "Be proactive, have the right relationships and line of communication with your fans." He said the D'Backs also have a season-ticket advisory board that rotates each year, and is treated "like board members" for the team. Among the changes implemented by the team based on fan input was opening Chase Field 30 minutes early for season-ticket holders. Meanwhile, Black said the Sabres opened a suggestion box for the fans, and received 30,000 responses. Fans suggested everything from changing the colors of paint in the lower bowl, to adding a cup shelf above the urinals in the men's room. Black added that the Sabres fan-blog community, despite frequent criticism, represents the type of fans that every team wants. "They dedicate hours and hours of their life, and don't ask us for anything,” he said. “So we try to engage them." The in-venue impact of fan engagement is felt by every franchise in pro sports, as Black said that 30-35% of the Sabres' revenue comes from ticket sales. He said the team's season-ticket waiting list of 3,000 fans "won't last forever." Black: "That can disappear like rain evaporating on a hot sidewalk. The day you take it for granted, it's going to slap you in the face." Hall said D'Backs ticket sales account for closer to 50% of total revenue.

TWITTER HELPS, BUT ISN’T DRIVING REVENUE: Both Hall and Black emphasized the positive impact Twitter has had on fan engagement, branding and PR. But Black said that social media is not a revenue driver for the Sabres. He said, "It's first and foremost a way to connect. People have been struggling with how to monetize it for a long time. And that may come, but it has to be the right scale, too. You could do it now, but you could end up pissing off more people than it's worth. For us, it's just part of trying to be front and center, be as transparent as we can be." However, Hall said a recent ticket promotion solely communicated via Twitter resulted in more than 2,000 tickets sold. The team offered special pricing for a weekday series against the Pirates, and Hall tweeted the promotion, which was then re-tweeted by the team's official account. Both Hall and Black said they frequently respond personally to tweets and e-mails from fans.

OWNER ACCESSIBILITY: Some in the Buffalo media have recently called for Sabres Owner Terry Pegula to be more accessible after the team parted ways with longtime coach Lindy Ruff and traded away many fan favorites. Black said Pegula is typically only available to the media two or three times a year, and he thinks that is appropriate. He added, "I would like to find more opportunities for Terry to interact with the fans. Interacting with the media is important. But to me, it's more of having Terry accessible to the fans." Black said that town hall-style meetings with fans and special events with season-ticket holders are more effective methods of ownership transparency than making owners available to the media more frequently.

TEARING DOWN THE WALLS: Hall and Black also discussed the evolution of the relationship between the business side and team operations side of pro sports organizations. Hall said, "It's not ‘us and them,' you have to make sure you tear down that wall. So often in the past, it used to be, 'Ugh, the suits.'" He added, "We don't have that now. It's not us and them, it's a real 'we.' It's one family. The players feel it. The coaching staff feels it. And they know how important the corporate partners are." Black said that Sabres GM Darcy Regier attends weekly business operations meetings. Hall said that both business and team operations personnel were involved in the interview process when the D'Backs were searching for a new GM this past offseason. He said Exec VP/Business Operations Cullen Maxey, Exec VP & CFO Tom Harris, Special Assistant to the President & CEO Roland Hemand, former D'Backs LF Luis Gonzalez and others were integral in the decision to hire Exec VP & GM Kevin Towers. Hall said, "They interviewed all the candidates along with me, and helped make the decision." Hall and Black also stressed the importance of open communication lines between both sides when it comes to player appearances. While each said that the vast majority of their players are happy to attend community and charity based events, Black added that pushback from players and coaches can occur when the marketing staff is scheduling too many sponsor-focused events for any one player. Hall said D'Backs manager Kirk Gibson will at times turn to the front office and ask for less marketing event requests for a certain player.