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Volume 20 No. 42


Last June, Chris Heck was named president of business operations for the New York Red Bulls. He came to the MLS club having spent seven years with the NBA, most recently as senior vice president of marketing partnerships. He also had experience with NFL and college-level work. But working with the Red Bulls, and in soccer, was something new — and it’s been anything but a quiet year. Heck helped lead the Red Bulls to increased attendance in 2011. The year also had him overseeing New York’s hosting of the 2011 MLS All-Star Game and two friendlies featuring the U.S. men’s team at Red Bull Arena.

Heck spoke with staff writer Christopher Botta last week about his first year on the job.

What was the biggest adjustment for you in changing sports and going from a league to a team?

Chris Heck notes more activation by Red Bull, the drink, with Red Bulls, the team.
HECK: How passionate our fans are. I’ve worked in just about every sport, including college athletics, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Not only the soccer fans in New York, but throughout the world. It’s a different level. That was the biggest wake-up call. It keeps you very much in tune. Our fans have very high expectations for entertainment, and that’s what I wanted.

What are you most proud of from your first year with the Red Bulls?

HECK: Culturally, we’re doing something special here. We made some major changes in year one, from pricing to staffing to how we do business. We want to keep driving our attendance, our experience and our activation. At the end of this season, we want to be seen as one of the 10 major sports teams in this market. [The Red Bulls through six home games this year were averaging 15,823 fans, down about 9 percent from their six-game mark last season. MLS attendance traditionally picks up in the summer].

After hosting the 2011 MLS All-Star Game against Manchester United, is there any advice you would give the Philadelphia Union as they prepare for Chelsea FC against the MLS all-stars next month?

HECK: Be extremely careful with who you sell your season tickets to by leveraging a major event. There were an overwhelming number, about 25 percent, who were brokers buying our season tickets to have access to purchase All-Star Game tickets. It can be a great shot in the arm, but it can be extremely detrimental to a franchise because [when] the brokers control a lot of tickets, the tickets can go unused and the accounts are not renewed for the next season.

It appears activation with the Red Bull drink and the team has been minimal the last few years. Is that a fair read?

HECK: It was very fair in the past, but it is 100 percent inaccurate as we speak. We’ve had 1 million branded cans with Rafa Marquez and 800,000 of branded four-packs with Thierry Henry and ticket offers on there. There is a major … marketing campaign, a joint effort between the New York Red Bulls and Red Bull, including outdoor advertising featuring our players and the drink. There will also be a television commercial airing nationally over the next few weeks for the World of Red Bull featuring our arena and Henry.

Where does your organization stand on the potential for another MLS franchise in the New York area?

HECK: If another team comes into the marketplace, we would love the rivalry. Right now, we are New York’s team. We are the only team in our sport, in the greatest market in the world. If they add another team, we will feel quite comfortable with our position here.

The sale of the New Orleans Hornets to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson last week was set for league approval, and with the expected vote comes an effort by the Hornets to tap into the Saints’ far larger fan base to drive business.

Since agreeing to buy the Hornets from the NBA for $338 million on April 13, Benson has taken a quiet approach toward the basketball franchise while waiting for official league approval. But some cross-promotion between the teams began just after the Hornets won the NBA draft lottery on May 30.

Saints owner Tom Benson was set to be approved as the Hornets’ new owner.
On June 3, the Hornets held a “select-a-seat” promotion exclusively for Saints season-ticket holders at the New Orleans Arena as the Hornets look for increased business among that group.

In addition, the Hornets set up ticket sales kiosks at the Saints’ recent organized team activities and are likely to do the same at the NFL team’s training camp in July. Other cross-marketing plans are under consideration and likely will be rolled out after the NBA approves the sale.

“The Saints have about 70,000 season-ticket holders and a waiting list, and there is a rich database,” said Bill Bailey, senior vice president of ticket sales and services for the Hornets.

The Hornets last year had a season-ticket base of more than 10,000 as the team rallied the community to buy tickets in order to build support for a local buyer. But the team’s average attendance of 15,110 a game ranked 24th in the 30-team NBA amid the ownership uncertainty during the lockout-shortened season.

Now, with Benson owning the team, the Hornets are banking on a stable future to help build fan interest and drive revenue. The Hornets have a season-ticket renewal rate of about 85 percent and have sold all but six of the 56 suites in the New Orleans Arena. Team officials would not disclose current ticket sales information.

“We are talking about basketball now as opposed to attendance thresholds and state deals,” Bailey said. “Now we are talking about a new owner, a No. 1 draft pick and filling the roster with cap space that we have.”

The NBA’s board of governors was expected to formally approve the team sale after final approval of legislation regarding capital improvements at the state-owned New Orleans Arena. The legislation had not been signed at press time.

“There is the ability of fans to invest emotionally in us, and with the feeling that the team is going to be here, the fans feel that they can engage with us,” Bailey said. “We are trying to catch lightning in a bottle.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder rolls into its first NBA Finals on a hot streak not only on the court but also on the merchandise front.

For the first two rounds of the NBA postseason this year, sales of Thunder merchandise on were up 80 percent compared with the team’s total for the first two rounds of the playoffs last year.

Oklahoma City’s sales on jumped by 173 percent early in the Spurs series.
The team’s gains increased further in the conference finals. Through the first five games of the Thunder’s six-game series with San Antonio this year, the team’s sales total on was up 173 percent from the total for last year’s conference finals appearance against Dallas, a series won by the Mavericks in five games.

Merchandise sales at the team’s shop at Chesapeake Energy Arena have increased by about 13 percent during the postseason.

The NBA does not disclose specific sales figures. The league also did not disclose how the Thunder’s postseason merchandise sales compare to the Spurs, the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics during their appearances in the conference finals.

“Any time a team advances to the Finals, it is common to see an increase in merchandise sales,” said Sal LaRocca, executive vice president of the NBA’s global merchandise group. “The Thunder have a very passionate fan base, and players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that have a global following, so it’s no surprise to see such a surge in merchandise sales for this team.”

The spike in the Thunder’s postseason merchandise sales comes after the lockout-shortened regular season that saw Durant land at No. 8 on the list of the league’s top-selling player jerseys. The Thunder ranked seventh among all NBA team merchandise sales during the regular season.