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Volume 21 No. 2
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World Congress: ‘One size fits all, that’s over’

Fan experience dominates discussions at World Congress

While the sports industry is constantly focused on increasing revenue, the prevailing sense at the 2012 IMG World Congress of Sports last week was more myopic: Focus on the current customers, enhance their experience and do everything possible to retain their business.

Industry executives said time and again that they are focused on improving customer service by providing a healthy variety of entertainment options, improved premium packages, diverse ticket prices and viable technology offerings that make everything from parking to ordering concessions easier.

In an era where people increasingly choose the videos they watch on YouTube, pick the songs they hear on Spotify and compile the news they want to read on Flipboard, the consensus of the 600 sports executives who gathered last week in Dana Point, Calif., was that customizing a fan’s experience is critical to retaining his business.

“We realize that there are fans for a three-hour baseball game who are not going to be waiting on every pitch.”
Larry Baer
President and CEO, San Francisco Giants
“Trying to dictate for your consumers and trying to give them a kind of one size fits all, that’s over,” said Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers.

San Francisco Giants President Larry Baer added, “People talk about competing for the entertainment dollar, but I see it more as competing for the entertainment hour. If you don’t get it at the ballpark, you’ll get it at the theme park or movies or sailing on the bay or driving to the wine country.”

NFL Network President and CEO Steve Bornstein said the arrival of high-definition TV improved the experience of watching games at home so much, so fast that it was impossible for teams and their venues to keep pace and add the type of value to the game-day experience that compelled people to leave the couch.

At the same time, Bedrocket founder and former CSTV co-creator Brian Bedol said ticket prices rose, so teams were asking fans to pay more for the same offerings at a time when fans could stay home, pay less and have a better experience.

Bedrocket’s Brian Bedol said the in-stadium experience hasn’t kept up with the couch.
“The at-home experience is great. The in-stadium experience has not kept up with it for the price of the ticket,” Bedol said.

This isn’t the first time that sports executives have talked about the importance of improving the customer experience. What is different is that it’s become the foremost priority as they fight to remain competitive in a fragmented entertainment environment.

Several team presidents said that one of the most immediate ways they are looking to improve the fan experience is by replicating some of the strategies employed at Disney theme parks. They are trying to do a better job policing fan behavior, offering more entertainment before and during games and training staff to provide better customer service.

“We have a fan [parking] lot with Coca-Cola, where fans can go out and hit baseballs, simulate the game, involving the mascots for the younger fans and creating a feeling that it is a bit of a theme park for the more casual fan,” Baer said. “We realize that there are fans for a three-hour baseball game who are not going to be waiting on every pitch.”

The Nets are working with the Disney Institute to train staff and help create a family-friendly, feel-good air at NBA games, said Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment.

“I had a meeting with [New Jersey Nets minority owner] Jay-Z six months ago [and] he said your goal is to make sure that everyone leaves feeling like they were a celebrity that night,” Yormark said. “And that truly is the differentiator, at least in our mind, because I’m not sure anyone is coming to any vendor in New York saying, ‘Boy, I had a great experience tonight, they treated me well.’ With our alignment with Disney … they’re going to help us treat the customer in a very special and different way and give that customer a reason to keep coming back.”

Improving premium and season-ticket-holder offerings is another way teams are looking to improve the fan experience and retain customers. The San Diego Chargers, who have a season-ticket base of 50,000 and had two games blacked out last season, are focused on giving season-ticket holders more access at Qualcomm Stadium. They’ve begun offering tours of the locker room and private coach talks and have given club ticket holders the chance to go on the field after games.

“It’s all about servicing our best clients even better,” said Ken Derrett, the Chargers’ chief marketing officer.

Other teams are trying to do that by improving their infrastructure and creating new premium offerings. The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks recently hired Rossetti to design bird-nest suites that are perched at the top of the venue and look down over the ice the way the upper loge of an old theater hangs above the stage. It’s an area that typically attracts younger, affluent fans because it favors glass and steel over the granite and wood panels featured in most suites.

Packers President Mark Murphy warned of crowds becoming too corporate.
“It catches a different demo and delivers a different type of access,” said Matt Rossetti, the architecture firm’s president.

Diversifying ticket prices is another area where teams believe they can make a difference. Some executives believe ticket prices have increased too much. Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy gasped when Madison Square Garden Sports President Scott O’Neil mentioned that courtside seats for Knicks games cost more than $3,000.

“Not to pick on [the Knicks], but $3,000 for a courtside seat?” Murphy said. “All fans and crowds have become more corporate. We’re getting away from really having family events.”

But O’Neil made the point that those are the high end of the Garden’s ticket prices.

“We like to have something for everyone,” he said. “In our market, if someone wants to sit on the front row, there’s a premium. If someone wants to get in the building, we have $10 seats. If somebody wants to have the food and beverage inclusive … we’ve got you too, buddy.”

The biggest area in which industry executives believe teams and leagues can improve the fan experience is, of course, with technology. Old and new venues alike feel increasing pressure to provide Wi-Fi and wireless service that allows fans to upload photos, watch replays and order concessions.

“If you can’t take a picture and send it to your friend, you get frustrated,” said Gary Stevenson, Pac-12 Enterprises president. “Our view is that the infrastructure has to improve so you don’t get frustrated.”

There was a real sense last week that venues are on the precipice of being able to offer Wi-Fi and wireless service to every fan at every game. When it opens next year, Barclays Center will have high-density Wi-Fi that the Nets claim will service all 18,000 spectators. Cisco also has updated old stadiums like Real Madrid’s famed Estadio Santiago Bernabéu so that they have the capability to deliver Wi-Fi to 85,000 spectators a game.

Providing connectivity is a seven-figure expense for teams, and most executives remain unsure of how they will monetize it. But they know there will be upsides in making sure fans are wired at games.

“Maybe your no-show ratio drops. Maybe you drive higher per caps. Maybe you shorten concession lines,” said Marc Riccio, senior vice president of the New York Jets, who recently invested in improving the Wi-Fi service at MetLife Stadium. “That provides better value and gets fans to games. You can’t pin it on any one thing. It won’t be the same for every fan. But you have to do it.”

Technology developers said that most of the financial upside in connecting fans at venues rests in the ability to upsell fans. Ticketmaster developed technology that allows people to post their seats on Facebook and Twitter, which in turn produced incremental ticket sales of $6 and $20, respectively, per post to each site. And the Staples Center, which adopted Cisco video platforms that allow customers to order concessions from their premium seats, has seen a 10 percent increase in per-cap spending.

“Everything we’re doing we’re trying to take back to how does it pay for itself,” said David Holland, Cisco’s senior vice president and general manager of sports and entertainment. “These investments don’t just create cool stuff, but they [have to] help them make money and hopefully bring in players and win on the field.”

The evolution of paperless ticketing is another advancement that will help teams further improve the way they service fans, said Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard. Right now, teams don’t know who buys two-thirds of the tickets for any given game because those purchases occur on the secondary ticket market. Having customers swipe their credit card when they attend a game or use their smartphone as a ticket will allow teams to learn a wealth of information about who is attending games.

“Paperless ticketing is a data point,” Hubbard said. “It’s about how do we get to know each and every person who’s walking through that venue so that these guys who are the best in the world at marketing can get the right experience at the right time to the right person at the right price.”

Whether it was technology improvements, new premium offerings or more entertainment at games, the consensus throughout the two-day event kept coming back to one thing: Teams have to put fans attending games first.

“You have to think of yourself as a steward,” said Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber. “You have to look at these people as guests, and you’ve got to get these guests to come back one time, two times, 10 times, 12 times. You have to build relationships with them, not transactions. Most of these owners aim for people’s wallets instead of their hearts.”

Staff writers Terry Lefton, John Ourand, Chasen Marshall and Dave Morgan contributed to this report.