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Volume 21 No. 1


The Los Angeles Galaxy is drawing on the reach of social media to give fans a stake in the team’s on-field look, unveiling a Facebook application that lets the public design the MLS club’s third kit.

Giving fans such a say in the uniform design process is rare across sports, but both the Galaxy and its corporate partners are already drawing benefits from the unique effort.

L.A.’s uniform design studio on Facebook
In the first week since the program’s launch, there were more than 4,000 kit submissions and 12,977 unique visits to the design page. The Galaxy’s Facebook site received an additional 10,000 “likes.” In addition, one-quarter of the visitors to the site have been from outside the United States, so the initiative is striking a chord internationally, as well.

“We pride ourselves on being a leader at MLS in social media,” said Galaxy vice president and former player Chris Klein, citing the club’s MLS-best 396,000 Facebook fans and 88,000 Twitter followers. “This appears to be taking us to an even higher level.”

Fans have until June 1 to create a complete Galaxy uniform that would be worn at select games in 2013 and 2014, including jersey, shorts and socks. They also must create a personal message for the kit’s custom jock tag. The winner will be announced Aug. 1 after fans vote on their favorite among five finalists.

The idea for the program came from Andrea Bailey, a sponsorship executive with AEG Global Partnerships. After her idea received the green light, the social media department of AEG Sports, the Galaxy’s owner, developed it for nine months. The Facebook page was built by Sanborn Media Factory, a New York-based agency.

The result is added value for Adidas, the team’s apparel partner, and Herbalife, the sponsor on the Galaxy’s jersey. The companies’ logos are on every blank jersey the fans attempt to design.

“We’re a direct-sales company with more than 2 million distributors,” said Brian McKinley, a senior director at Herbalife, the global nutrition company that renewed its partnership with the Galaxy for 10 years before the MLS season. “The more they’re connected, the better it is for us. We’re seeing a lot of engagement within the Herbalife community because of the contest.”

Although artistic ability is important, the Galaxy’s promotion is easy to use. The offering provides contestants with 16 jersey touch points and 32 color schemes from which to choose. By giving fans plenty of options, the Facebook program has been successful in keeping fans on the site. In the first week, the average user stayed on the site for 8 minutes and 13 seconds, far longer than the amount of time Galaxy fans typically spend on team pages, according to the club.

Los Angeles is the first MLS club to offer a Facebook-based kit design opportunity to fans.

“We always encourage our clubs to be creative when it comes to the design of their kits,” said Maribeth Towers, MLS senior vice president of consumer products. “The Galaxy brand is known worldwide, so this is the chance of a lifetime for an L.A. or MLS fan to win this contest.”

Finalists will be selected by a panel of Galaxy, Herbalife and Adidas executives June 8. Fans connected as friends on Facebook are able to see each other’s designs.

The winner will receive a trip for two next July to see the Galaxy play in the uniform, and will get the designed jersey signed by the entire team. The Galaxy gets growth in its fan base and database.

“Any time a fan signs on to our social media outlets, it’s great for us,” Klein said. “It’s the best way to get them our latest team news and ticketing messages. We want to speak with our fans regularly, and this kit contest has really connected us with them.”

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh announced that they would join Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat two summers ago, the most active broker of premium tickets in South Florida felt the aftershock from the other side of the world.

Michael Lipman, owner of Tickets of America and the high-end sports and entertainment concierge service White Glove International, was in South Africa for the finals of the World Cup when word of The Decision crossed the Atlantic. He skipped the game and flew back to Miami.

“I sat in what amounted to a jump seat for 17 hours,” Lipman said. “But I got back in time to get the contract.”

The contract was an extension as the official premium ticket partner of the Heat, serving as reseller of the best seats in AmericanAirlines Arena, including the 143 in the front row on the floor. As seasonal home and weekend hangout for a glitzy cadre of actors, actresses and recording artists, South Florida offered an uncommon opportunity. Many of those who want to sit courtside are elsewhere for long stretches during the season.

“The end users of these tickets are not going to lock into a three- or five-year contract,” Lipman said. “So they have to go through the secondary market or a team partner.

“We have front-door relationships with the people who want those seats — the rappers and sports stars and their financial advisers. And, through the Heat, we have relationships with people who have the seats but can’t always use them. We deliver personal service to both.”

Like most teams, the Heat offers courtside seats only on a season-ticket basis. Beginning during the selling season before they landed James and Bosh, they pressed the terms on those seats to new heights. Prices went from about $100,000 to $150,000 for the season in the best courtside seats. Other sideline seat prices rose to almost $130,000. Duration of the contracts stretched to five, seven or even 10 years.

Pushing the prices up helped clear out inventory, which the team then turned into lengthy deals.

“There was amazing hype, and the winner was the Heat,” Lipman said. “They locked people into long-term contracts at high prices.”

The Heat is one of the few teams that offers a concierge service to help connect premium-seat holders with single-game buyers. Many teams say their premium services departments work to foster networks to move tickets between courtside-seat holders. Teams also say they will point a prospective buyer toward account holders who might be willing to sell. But the Heat has taken the service to a more formal level, signing up White Glove.

“When you’re talking about courtside, people aren’t as likely to give them away to their children or to clients,” said Mark Brown, vice president of ticket sales for the Heat. “We try to broach with them that there’s an opportunity to resell using White Glove. ”

Lipman said his company operates similarly to StubHub, taking a 20 percent commission from the gross price. Courtside seats rarely show up on StubHub or other Web resellers, thanks mostly to high asking prices and a limited pool of qualified buyers. So the lure of sitting with feet on the floor among the Miami glitterati is strong. And, for most people, the only way to do that was through White Glove.

“Teams have a limited [courtside] inventory,” Lipman said. “Most of the time all that they have are the owners’ seats. Those aren’t going to be made available to many people.

“You know they don’t want Spike Lee sitting in [owner] Micky Arison’s seats.”

Jim Olson started at the Utah Jazz as the phone center ticket manager in 1994, and has worked his way up to senior vice president of sales and marketing.

He’s had his hands on everything the team has to sell.

“It’s my 18th season,” Olson said, “and I’ve never had to sell a courtside seat.”

That’s because all but a “handful” of the Jazz’s 140 courtside seats are attached to membership in the 100 Club, set up by owner Larry Miller in 1987 to infuse cash. Members of the club hold the equivalent of a seat license to their locations, meaning they can sell them as they choose. As a result, buyers can land season seats up front without starting in the corner, as they must with many NBA teams — if they’re willing to pony up for a prime spot. Jazz executives have matched sellers with buyers on occasion, Olson said, but financial terms are struck outside of the control of the team.

All courtside seats in Utah sell for about $25,000 for the season, or $850 for a single game, regardless of location. Club 100 PSLs for the best courtside locations have sold for as much as $200,000.

While Salt Lake City lacks the year-round celebrity culture of Los Angeles, New York and Miami, it attracts its share of glitz when the film world gathers for the Sundance Film Festival in nearby Park City each January.

Because courtside seats are held tightly within the 100 Club, the Jazz typically turns to some of the 14 seats controlled by ownership. But at times 100 Club members approach team executives offering to play host. That’s what happened this season, when word spread that Jazz icon Karl Malone would be in town for a game.

“We’d never have a problem finding a spot for Karl [with the Miller family],” Olson said. “But a member caught wind that he was coming and wanted to sit with him. So we put them together. We try to take care of people with things like that.”

— Bill King

Minutes before Game 2 of the recent first-round playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center, a late-arriving fan nudged his way into seat No. 36, so close to TNT’s Reggie Miller that he could sneak a peek at the analyst’s game notes.

Fifty feet across the hardwood, Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen perched next to the Sixers bench. Pippen’s appearance no longer stirs much of a reaction from the front-row crowd, given that the NBA hall of famer is a regular in what is considered to be the best of the 144 seats that ring the floor.

The evolution of the Hollywood seat began in 2007, when the NBA allowed teams to shrink the size of their scorer's table to boost the number of revenue-generating seats.
Many would be surprised to hear that Pippen doesn’t own the seat. It belongs to Matt Pritzker, a member of the billionaire Pritzker family of the Hyatt hotel fortune. Pritzker, who often sits beside Pippen, owns four of the more coveted tickets in sports: Floor seats that put him in a location defined by Jack Nicholson in Los Angeles and Spike Lee in New York.

“People call me all the time asking who the guy was sitting in Scottie’s seats,” said Joe O’Neil, senior director of tickets sales for the Bulls. “I joke with Matt all the time about that, but it’s the most unique seat in sports. Where else you can sit between the players and coaches?”

Whether perched in the “Hollywood seats” between the benches, like Pritzker and Nicholson, or settled in across the floor or along the baseline, those who secure spots in the front row at NBA games occupy real estate unparalleled in sports.

And, like their counterparts on the cliffs of Malibu or the sands of South Beach, they pay a premium for it.

Knicks floor seats are priced from $2,850 to $3,600 per game. Lakers seats are priced similarly. So are spots on the front row to watch the Three Kings in Miami.

Courtside-seat holders in Chicago and Boston pay less, but only slightly. Pritzker’s seats in Chicago carry full-season face prices of upward of $100,000 each, or $2,500 per game.

While prices and local star wattage may vary, the attraction remains the same.

“You’re right there in the thick of it,” said Kurt Schwartzkopf, chief marketing officer of the Denver Nuggets. “Once you sit courtside, that experience takes you to a different level when it comes to live entertainment. Nothing can really top it.”

On the last week of the regular season with the Knicks in town, the Atlanta Hawks’ vice president of ticket sales and services, Kyle Brunson, was visiting a suite when a staff member surprised him with the news that Spike Lee was behind the Hawks bench, trying to flag down a dance team member who handles in-seat service for the team’s 10 all-inclusive Hollywood seats.

“We had no idea he was coming, and I have no clue where he got the seats,” Brunson said.

Executives in Miami tell a similar story. They say Lee frequently makes the trip when the Knicks are in town, but they never hear about it ahead of time.

It’s really not such a mystery. Al Palagonia, a private jet broker who has been going to games with Lee for 20 years and appeared in several of his movies, has connections with players, agents and ticket brokers across sports. He typically secures Lee’s spot. They met at a Knicks game in Chicago in 1992. Lee had good seats, but Palagonia’s were better. Palagonia gave Lee his phone number and invited him to call whenever he wanted to put his feet on the floor.

“We have people looking for tickets who only want to come if they can sit up front,” Brunson said. “Oftentimes, it’s Row 1 or nothing. I’ll tell them we have fourth row, center court, and they say, ‘No, that’s all right.’ That blows me away a little bit. But I get it.

“There’s nothing like having your feet on the floor.”

While all teams will acknowledge that their floor inventory is their most precious, there are various approaches to how the limited seats are sold and distributed.

NBA courtside seats deliver the action, and stars like Kevin Durant, directly to the fans.
If you want to sit on the floor and rub shoulders with all-star Kevin Durant and owner Clay Bennett in Oklahoma City, you better be prepared to buy a team sponsorship. All 124 floor seats in Chesapeake Energy Arena are sold only as part of sponsorship deals, a rarity among NBA teams.

Most of the floor-seat deals are in blocks of six and the team does not hold any in reserve, unlike other NBA teams that keep a handful of the pricey floor seats in their back pockets to dole out at their discretion.

“We don’t have a Hollywood history so the companies who sponsor the Thunder get access to the front-row tickets as part of their relationship to the team,” said Brian Byrnes, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Thunder.

Should any celebrities passing through town want to take in a Thunder game, Byrnes and his staff must appeal to the current floor-seat holders to give up their tickets to accommodate any special requests.

“We don’t have any internal inventory,” Byrnes said, adding that the cost of the seats is wrapped into individual team sponsorship deals. “We have to go to [current floor-seat holders] and ask if they’d like to host.”

That’s the route buyers must take in most NBA cities.

Teams like the Bulls, Celtics, Knicks, Heat and especially the Lakers are accustomed to dealing with floor-seat demands.

“We understand the market and the market understands us,” said Tim Harris, senior vice president of business operations for the Lakers, who deals with floor-seat ticket requests from some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

The Lakers are so hard-wired into the celebrity culture that catering to the 139 floor-seat holders has become routine. Some of the tickets come with privileges to the plush and very private Chairman’s Room just off the floor, where red-coat security agents guard the door.

“The [talent] agencies have the floor seats, the [record] labels have them and the studios have them,” Harris said. “We have been in the Finals in seven out of the past 12 years, so everyone has figured out how it works.”

How it works is that the Lakers hold eight floor seats for every game and they sell them — not give them — to a chosen few for a particular game. Typically, an agency will call on behalf of their celebrity client and Harris will tell them firmly but politely that they must pay for the seats.

“That is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “A lot of times they will want them for free, but it is an education for them. The favor is the access to purchase them.”

Jack Nicholson (center), a Lakers fixture for years, is synonymous with courtside star power.
Photo by: Enter Name Here
One of Harris’ favorite celebrities to deal with: David Beckham, who unlike other high-maintenance stars, never asks for extras. Harris’ most absurd request: an unnamed actress who demanded not only front-row tickets but also a meeting with Kobe Bryant at halftime.

When it comes to floor-seat star power, the Indiana Pacers are a low-voltage franchise. But the Pacers this year had at least one night when they rivaled the Lakers in meeting the crush of celebrity demand for front-row tickets.

“We had a game Super Bowl Saturday night and that was a challenge,” said Todd Taylor, senior vice president and chief sales and marketing officer for the Pacers. “And celebrities typically call at the last minute and expect to sit where they want, but we did the best to accommodate them.”

The team has 115 floor seats priced between $650 and $850 per game for the regular season and up to $1,500 for the playoffs, with half of the floor-seat inventory tied up in the team’s sponsorship deals.

The Pacers, like many NBA teams, keep up to eight tickets for their own use for each game. The team needed all those and more for Super Bowl Saturday night when they hosted a home game against the Orlando Magic with a crush of celebrities in town.

So rapper 50 Cent got his floor seat, so did boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr., and so did Nicki Minaj, who was in town to sing at the Super Bowl.

Taylor wheeled and dealed to secure Minaj front-row seats by offering a longtime floor-seat ticket holder four additional seats for the Pacers’ future home game against the Miami Heat. But Minaj, stuck at a Super Bowl dress rehearsal, never showed, leaving a hole in the front row during the sold-out game, a cardinal sin in the NBA.

The Pacers hurriedly sent four staff members to fill the sits until Minaj showed, but she never did, leaving four of 115 floor seats wasted during one of team’s biggest nights of the year.

“We had nothing to compare it to,” Taylor said, “because it was once-in-a-lifetime to have a game on the Saturday night before the Super Bowl.”

In Boston, the Celtics charge between $47,300 and $58,050 for a typical floor-seat season ticket. But the team keeps eight for their own use on a game-by-game basis, and those are carefully given to sponsors, celebrities or anyone else the team deems worthy.

“It depends on who it is, but if [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady comes in, we take care of him,” said Shawn Sullivan, chief marketing officer of the Celtics.

Owner Wyc Grousbeck sits in a floor seat on one baseline, with co-owner Stephen Pagliuca sitting across the floor on the other baseline. Grousbeck keeps a close eye on the game — and the floor seats controlled by the team. Sullivan sometimes runs the floor-seat ticket manifest by Grousbeck to keep track of who is in the team’s seats.

“Anyone Wyc wants to take care of shoots to the pole position,” Sullivan said.

Rarely do floor-seat ticket holders give up their prized ducats, despite the cost.

“One guy has had seats down there for 30-plus years,” Sullivan said. “He should have taken an equity stake in the team.”

In New York, the Knicks have 145 floor seats priced from $2,850 to $3,600 per seat per game, or between $122,550 and $154,800 for a typical full regular-season schedule at Madison Square Garden. All are sold out and the majority of floor-seat ticket holders are individual ticket holders. Yes, Lee owns his seats.

But one of the league’s most tenured sponsors in Gatorade doesn’t own seats in the Garden. Instead, it has floor seats with the Charlotte Bobcats, Bulls, Heat, Magic and Pacers.

“The point was to be able to wow important customers, and if they love basketball, you can do that by putting them in the front row,” said Bill Schmidt, who headed sports marketing for Gatorade from 1984-99. “If you aren’t doing it to promote sales, no business should have them. But we definitely used them to build relationships and sales.”

On the day of the 76ers’ first home playoff game this year, the team unveiled new and more plush courtside seats in the first four rows at the Wells Fargo Center, all the better to cushion the well-heeled individuals who would occupy those seats and justify the increase in price of the top ticket that next season jumps from $1,200 to $1,400 per game.

“What you are selling with courtside seats more than any others is visibility,’’ said Lara Price, the Sixers’ senior vice president of business operations. “The people buying courtside seats are people that want to be seen.”

That’s part of the appeal of the Hollywood seats, which put fans near midcourt, next to the coaching staff.

The evolution of the NBA Hollywood seat began in 2007 when the league allowed teams to shrink the size of their scorer’s table to boost the number of revenue-generating center-court seats. But not all teams have expanded to reach the limit of the league rule. The Hawks, for example, have held back because adding seats would mean cutting back on the length of the signs available on their scorer’s table, which is space that they’ve already sold in sponsorship contracts.

When the Memphis Grizzlies added eight seats between the benches and the scorer’s table this season, they found only one buyer for the new locations. Harrah’s Casino took the four next to the visitors’ bench to use as a perk for high rollers. At $850 a game — or almost $75,000 a pair for a typical full season — they were priced far higher than the $590 a game they charged for tickets on the opposite side of the floor, a steep price for relocation.

So the Grizzlies started offering the seats for $950 per game in packages of five games. They sold a few to sponsors and suite holders. But they still were left with plenty of openings, especially for softer games. When the lockout settled and the season started, demand picked up.

“The first time they look across the floor and see their friends, they want to know how they can get there,” said Dennis O’Connor, vice president of ticket sales and services for the Grizzlies. “Coaches are talking to you. Players are patting you on the head. It’s a completely different experience than you have on the other side [of the floor]. Once people saw what it was, they were willing to pay for it.”

The few times that the seats didn’t sell, the Grizzlies upgraded fans who had been in the other floor seats the longest. After the upgrades, the fans ended up buying the marquee packages.

“They’d come up at halftime and say — ‘You got me. My wife says I have to buy them for four more games,’” O’Connor said. “We were doing it on the service side, but it turned into more revenue.”

Like some of their counterparts, the Grizzlies grapple with the fact that the only way to move toward center court is by priority, and the people who have the money to sit courtside aren’t willing to start out near the baseline. That problem is magnified when a team goes through a bad stretch. After a poor four-season stretch, the Grizzlies went into the 2010 season with center-court seats available in the eighth row and lots of others to be had throughout the first 10 rows.

“You could be center court, eight rows up for $129 or spend $590 to sit in the last four seats on the front row,” O’Connor said. “The seats that are available on the floor aren’t the cream of the crop. You start at the end and then slide. A lot of people don’t want to wait.”

Once a team turns it around, the equation shifts. Coming off of last season, the Grizzlies had 12 seats on the floor available. Now, having made the playoffs back-to-back years, they don’t anticipate any will open up.

Courtside seats for Hawks games were easy to come by until the 2008 playoffs. Since then, the market has tightened. Still, even with increased demand, selling season rights to those that come open hasn’t been a layup. The Hawks haven’t encountered much price sensitivity. Their most expensive seats sell for $59,000 for the season. The rest of the sideline goes for $35,000 each, and seats on the baseline are less than $15,000.

The team often encounters potential buyers who would willingly write the $35,000 check to sit between the free-throw lines, but won’t accept a spot on the corner at any price.

“When somebody is making that investment they want to be closer to center,” Brunson said. “That takes time. And some people don’t want to wait.”

Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.

Around 100 business partners of the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center gathered earlier this month in Brooklyn for a partner summit less than five months before the scheduled Sept. 28 opening of the $1 billion arena. While these executives have been told for the past seven years that the planned building would become a reality, a visit by NBA Commissioner David Stern as well as a tour of the site — at which more than 80 percent of the roof was finished and seats were being installed — was evidence that the venue is more real than ever.

Renderings are giving way to reality in Brooklyn.
It hasn’t been an easy path for the Nets, as the process included struggles with lawsuits, financing and a change in design from the radical building envisioned by the original architect, Frank Gehry.

“I’m just happy to no longer have to answer the questions of ‘if’ and ‘when,’” said Nets Sports & Entertainment and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark.

Nets officials announced a schedule of 183 ticketed events for the arena’s first year, including college basketball, which tips off with defending national champion Kentucky playing Maryland on Nov. 9. Programming will include a variety of musical performances, including a Jay-Z concert to open the building, along with Barbra Streisand and Andrea Bocelli, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, Disney On Ice, and 48 or more other family shows from Feld Entertainment, as well as boxing through Golden Boy Promotions.

Rumors of the 2015 NBA All-Star Game being played at the new arena were rampant during the summit, but official confirmation from the team and league officials on hand was not forthcoming.

About 75 percent of the 100 suites in the arena have been sold, including four of the 11 Vault Suites, which include seats in the first 10 rows of the arena and are priced at $550,000 a year. While mum on other specific numbers, Nets officials said they have sold about 75 percent of their premium Nets seats, and the move to Brooklyn has already allowed them to double nonpremium season-ticket sales revenue.

MOVING ON BROOKLYN: Ticketmaster has augmented its pending NBA league sponsorship with a founding partnership at the Barclays Center, according to sources close to the deal.

Considering founding partner deals run from $2 million to $4 million annually, it will be interesting to see how Ticketmaster activates on-site. Rival ticketer StubHub was also pursuing a Barclays Center deal, which sources said resulted in Ticketmaster purchasing the high-end sponsorship rights.

Other founding partners include EmblemHealth, Metro PCS, Cushman & Wakefield, Stolichnaya and Foxwoods Resort Casino.

In another nontraditional sponsorship assignment, Calvin Klein is onboard at the founding partner level. Some of the rationale for the hookup has to be the Nets’ new black and white logo syncing with Calvin Klein’s trademark, which is also black and white. The apparel brand also will make a luxury marketing play by aligning itself with some of the arena’s high-end seating areas. Remaining, or at least unannounced, top-tier sponsorship categories in the building include insurance and automobile.

EARLY IMPACT: With Barclays Center nearing completion, Commissioner David Stern will have seen the Nets call four different arenas home during his years leading the NBA: Rutgers Athletic Center, the Izod Center, Prudential Center and now Barclays Center. Stern called the new arena “extraordinary” and noted that “several owners told me this was never going to happen, even as the steel was going into the ground.”

Inside the Barclays Center
“Now you’ve got this billion-dollar infrastructure doing some degree of battle on different fronts with the billion-dollar infrastructure sitting across the river in New York City [Madison Square Garden], and it will give everyone here enormous entertainment opportunities,” Stern said. “Just the dateline of the games here — Brooklyn — is very exciting and an incredible opportunity.”

With a new collective-bargaining agreement in place after last year’s lockout, Stern said technology integration is the biggest challenge facing the NBA and every big sports property. “You’ve got this fan base that loves to come to our games for three hours but doesn’t plan to be disconnected and will penalize you if and when they are,” he said. “You have to find a way to welcome and accommodate them.”

ON ICE: Fitting hockey into the Barclays Center is akin to placing the proverbial square peg in the round hole. The arena will use a horseshoe-shaped seating configuration for an exhibition game between the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 2. Barclays Center holds 14,500 for hockey, far below the NHL average capacity of 18,264, though it has only 500 fewer seats than the NHL’s smallest arena in Winnipeg.

Note that the Islanders’ 2011-12 average attendance of 13,191 (second-worst in the NHL) would fit comfortably into the Barclays Center.

The Islanders’ lease at Nassau Coliseum expires in 2015, and while the Isles have been unable to reach a deal for a new arena, owner Charles Wang and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman have said the team’s days at the coliseum will expire with the lease.

“It’s very important to keep that hockey team out there on Long Island in New York. That team is the [Long] Island team, whether it’s Brooklyn, whether it’s Queens, whether it’s Nassau — that’s the No. 1 goal,” said Barclays Center developer and Nets minority owner Bruce Ratner. “We’d love to have them. Whether or not there would be a decision by ownership of the Islanders as whether that’s what they want to do, I don’t know. … I happen to be very friendly with Charles Wang and I hope we’ll be able to work something out.”

There’s also chatter in hockey circles that even before the Islanders are free to move, an AHL team might seek tenancy in the building, at least on a short-term basis. Barclays Center officials also said they are in talks with the KHL to bring its brand of Eurasian hockey to Brooklyn.

As the Long Island Railroad train pulled into Penn Station before Game 1 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals last week, the conductor said over the PA, “Welcome to the home of the Rangers.” On other LIRR trips to Manhattan, the Rangers’ goal celebration song has been played.

Rangers great Rod Gilbert shaves MSG Sports President Scott O’Neil as part of Norelco’s playoff beard promotion.
When MSG Sports President Scott O’Neil hears these tales in emails from friends and colleagues, he grins proudly. It means the hockey franchise is making its mark in New York. Ever since the Rangers defeated Philadelphia in this year’s Winter Classic, grabbing a stranglehold on first place in the East, the Rangers have been full on in their marketing for a hopeful run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“You never know for sure how a sports team will do,” O’Neil said, “but we were confident the Rangers were clearly heading in the right direction. We set a goal of having unparalleled activity in the playoffs.”

Activation to date has run the gamut, from traditional to creative to out-there. Rally towels, sponsored on different nights by Chase and Geico, formed a flurry of white when the Rangers took the ice at Madison Square Garden for the first two conference finals games against New Jersey last week. For Game 4 at Prudential Center tonight, Chase is sponsoring a viewing party at the Garden, with a pregame skate included. A playoff beard-a-thon — sponsored by Norelco and an effort in which O’Neil is participating — has raised more than $100,000 for the Garden of Dreams Foundation, the arena’s charity for children.

And before Saturday’s Game 3 in New Jersey, Delta Air Lines was slated to host the first flight from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Newark. Eighty passengers, including what Delta calls “high-value customers” and “high-value tweeters,” along with youngsters from Garden of Dreams, were expected to be onboard.

The plane may have been scheduled to be in the air for only 10 minutes, but the buzz was intended to endure.

“We thought we’d never, literally, be able to get this off the ground,” said Annika Schmitz, Delta’s manager of promotional marketing. “We’re ecstatic about it. That’s the kind of activation we want with our sports teams — creating incredible experiences for customers and fans.”

Of the flight, O’Neil said with a laugh, “Of course, it’s kind of crazy, but that’s sort of the point, right? It’s fun.”

The goal of all this activity is more than a spiritual renewal of the Rangers’ existing fan base, which filled the Garden to 100 percent capacity this season.

“We want to captivate the casual sports fans, too,” O’Neil said. “We want them to know something special is happening with this franchise in our city.”

As part of its Rangers deal, Chase is sponsoring a T-shirt giveaway for all fans at the first game of each round of the playoffs. Chase, the Rangers and the team’s fans hope that activation continues for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

As for Delta, the airline is looking at a potential dream Final.

“We have big partnerships with the Rangers and the L.A. Kings,” Schmitz said. “How phenomenal would that be?”

Chris Minch, a Real Salt Lake season-ticket holder, issued a complaint at the team’s recent town hall meeting for fans. Minch pointed out that customers could buy all kinds of diet soda at RSL games at Rio Tinto Stadium but not Diet Sierra Mist.

The club’s improved customer service created results worth cheering for, an author says.
Ross Quigley, an account representative for the team, promised Minch he would look into a solution for her. Minch figured her request would be forgotten. But prior to RSL’s 2-1 win over New England on May 5, Quigley purchased a six-pack of 20-ounce Diet Sierra Mist, personally delivered it to Minch and informed her that for future games the brand would be available at the concession stand closest to her seats.

The story is typical of the customer service throughout the soccer club. The efforts of the MLS franchise to satisfy fans are so notable, in fact, that they are spotlighted in the recently published book, “All In” by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton (Free Press). The book has the subheading, “How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results.”

By optimizing customer service at every level of the organization under the direction of club owner Dave Checketts and President Bill Manning, RSL has seen big results. Since Manning, formerly vice president of sales and service for the Philadelphia Eagles, was named team president in March 2008, the team’s season-ticket base has doubled to more than 14,000 and merchandise sales have exceeded $1 million. Rio Tinto Stadium opened six months after Manning’s arrival.

“It’s an exceptional turn-around story,” co-author Gostick said. “Those results are phenomenal, not only for sports, but for any business.”

With competition for the sports dollar from the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and the Utah Jazz, RSL has to be on top of its game. Last Sept. 17, RSL sold out a home match that was played at the same time as “The Holy War” football game between Utah and BYU.

“We are fortunate to have a very passionate and loyal fan base that has developed over time,” Checketts said. “However, there are many sports and entertainment options for them to choose from in the region. We still have to be at our best at all times in order to distinguish ourselves.”

Manning hoped his accessibility to the public would trickle down to the rest of the staff. “I return every email I get from our fans,” Manning said. “What you find is, just by responding and letting them know their concerns are important, you always get a positive reaction.”

When Manning started with Real Salt Lake, he was everywhere on game day, making sure team and stadium employees (like those with concessionaire Levy Restaurants) were treating every ticket holder well.

“You want all the workers to understand that, whether they are soccer team employees or whether they work for the stadium or an outside vendor, they represent us,” Manning said. “The guy serving the hot dog may be a Levy employee, but every fan views him as a member of Real Salt Lake.”

The team recognizes superior performance with customer-service and employee-recognition awards, often in the form of a $250 gift card to Nordstrom. And now that the group has been together awhile, Manning no longer feels he has to monitor every level of the operation as the fans come through the gates of Rio Tinto Stadium. “There’s a strong level of trust,” he said.

The team effort also has resulted in huge benefits in corporate sales, where advertising revenue has quadrupled to more than $6 million over the last four years. Here, Manning places as much emphasis on service as sales. Rob Brough, executive vice president of marketing and communications for Zions Bank, a Real Salt Lake founding partner, said that one-third of the team’s fans have become their customers over the last four years — a 47 percent increase.

“It’s been a true partnership,” Brough said. “As Real Salt Lake’s influence has grown in the community, so has ours.”
Real Salt Lake’s work has also caught the attention of the league office.

“By focusing on the fan, RSL has achieved great success,” said MLS President Mark Abbott. “Rio Tinto Stadium is a world-class venue, and RSL provides fans a tremendous in-stadium experience by paying attention to every detail of that experience.”