I spent a Friday in Atlanta last month and got a better sense of what’s going on with new facilities in the city that is a four-hour drive from where I live, in Charlotte. There’s the Falcons’ $1.2 billion stadium in the city’s downtown core; the massively ambitious plan by the Braves to build a $672 million mixed-use complex and ballpark on 83 acres in Cobb County, 12 miles north of Turner Field; and the development of the $66.9 million College Football Hall of Fame. For the Falcons and the Braves, their new world-class venues are both scheduled to open in 2017, meaning they will be in the marketplace at the same time selling tickets, sponsorships and naming rights.
My colleague Don Muret and I spent more than two hours with the two key executives behind the Braves’ plans. Over sandwiches in a conference room at Turner Field, executive vice presidents Mike Plant and Derek Schiller shared their vision for the club’s move. You’ll see parts of that conversation in the pages of SportsBusiness Journal over the next month — but I find what they’re doing, and their project, one of the more intriguing stories in sports business, because few teams have taken control of such an ambitious project. We’re talking about building a state-of-the-art ballpark while simultaneously developing a destination of boutique retail space, residential property, offices and a hotel, as well as developing entertainment programming that will run through the year — and do it all in less than three years.
The Braves are moving forward on this while facing the PR challenge of relocating out of the city’s urban core and countering the perception of traffic and transportation challenges at the new site. That’s why one talking point you’ll hear time and again from Braves executives is: “We’re just 12 miles up the road. It’s an Atlanta address.” In addition, they frequently stressed to me that there will be 14 points of ingress/egress at the new site, whereas the current Turner Field has two. Team executives also walked us though reams of data and hot maps showing how they are actually moving closer to their core fan base and ticket buyers, a counterpoint to criticism that fans won’t travel to the new location. There is still a lot to learn about this project, including the design of the ballpark from Populous, but it was interesting to hear Plant and Schiller talk about their philosophy on segmentation in their new park and their belief in offering multiple premium and social options at various price points for ticket buyers. They also hinted at bringing a new approach to the facility’s roof, to keep fans shaded during the hot summer months.
Designs for the Falcons’ new home
As for the Falcons’ plan for a downtown facility that features a dynamic blueprint by 360 Architecture: You’ve seen the eight-sided design, retractable roof and 62,000-square-foot video screen within the roof opening. Their vision is hosting another tenant, publicly expressing great interest in an MLS team, while setting their sights on landing major events like future Super Bowls, Final Fours and college football championships.
Keep an eye on this city and look for more on these developments in SBJ/SBD in the weeks, months — and years — ahead.
> LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH: There was a good panel at the Business of Sports Summit in Atlanta that featured a number of front-office executives. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, an avid cyclist and snowboarder, talked of the importance of the relationship between general manager and coach — in his case, Atlanta’s Mike Smith. “The relationship between the head coach and the GM is paramount in an organization,” he said. “I can’t underestimate how much time should be spent on that. My wife is worried about how much time I spend with Smitty.”
Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson talked about his role in the personnel process and sitting in the room with his staff on draft night. “I’m not ever hinting who their draft pick should be,” he said. “I am in there to make sure we are staying true to our mission, which is to build something sustainable over time. But I’m only an observer. I can and will challenge them to articulate how does this help us build sustainable success.”
As usual, the discussion of keeping fans engaged during the live game was stressed. Levenson said at one time he wanted to put a microphone on his coaches to give fans more insight into their thinking, but that was vetoed by staff. He also had one of the more interesting outlooks on the topic of fans being engaged with the play on the court versus looking at their phones.
“Fans are going to be looking at their phones during the game regardless,” he said. “The key for us is to connect that usage to new and intimate ways with what’s going on on the court. We need to [incent] fans to use their phones while at the games, so let’s develop mobile apps that will drive affinity.”
Levenson offered an example of how teams could develop apps that would be relevant to fans at the venue, compel fans to use them, and tie such action into the actual game. His scenario was the Hawks being down by one point late in the game, and Kyle Korver gets fouled, heading to the line to shoot two free throws. “Then we’d have an app that would send you a message, maybe from Coca-Cola, when Korver is about to go to the line, and you get all this data about Korver’s stats in similar situations,” he said. “You’re then asked about Korver’s likelihood to make the shots, and you’re rewarded if you answer correctly. That will give you points to use in the arena: merchandise, food or just more points you can accumulate. Maybe you get enough points to travel with the team and sit with the coaches or other special access points. We need to use technology to connect fans to the court and get fans betting on what will happen on the court, legally. Because we know, ultimately, it’s going to move to in-game legal betting.” Levenson said that looking down the line there will be the real-time in-game betting in the U.S. that is currently happening in the U.K. “It’s where we’re going, eventually,” he said.
Lee Corso on leadership
■ An attribute of a good leader: “How you treat the people you don’t need.”
■ On being on TV: “You can say anything you want to say — as long as you smile.”
■ On the sports business: “Greed will kill you.”
■ On professional growth: “Never prostitute your integrity to get a job, or keep one.”
It was good to see father and son at this event together and to hear fun stories and worthwhile thoughts from one of the most popular personalities in college football.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.
The paradigm changer for sales events can be traced to the then-New Jersey Nets, who pioneered the Influencer Program. The program was designed to be an event hosted by an influential season-ticket holder — usually in that person’s home — who invited friends and contacts (potential season-ticket holders) to attend and learn more about the team and ticket opportunities.
The team would provide the content: speakers from the business side and the basketball side (general manager, coach and/or player), possibly a mascot or dance team members, and a catered food and beverage service. The host would introduce the team representatives, who then presented information that usually culminated in a call to action, namely an opportunity to buy from the sales staff also in attendance. The success of the Influencer Program was copied by a number of teams, and the Nets were able to provide a sponsor for the event.
Fast forward eight to 10 years, and we are now in an era where using events to sell (and retain) is commonplace, with such events planned out well in advance and serving as part of the sales cycle. Sales events can be as simple as an open house or a locker room tour, or as unique as uniform/logo unveilings, a meet the coach event, or player retirement ceremonies. Some events are targeted as new sales events while others are targeted as customer retention efforts.
■ Premium event for premium prospects
■ Quality food and beverage experience
■ Incentive to purchase before the attendees leave the event
Events to attract and/or retain season-ticket holders range from a chance to meet the new coach to a player’s retirement.
■ An experience that lends itself to telling a story about that experience
■ Proper expectations set for both the sales team and the prospects
■ “Warm” prospects
■ Compelling draw — general manager, coach, players, president, owner — appropriate for the audience
■ An experience not available to the public; something unique that “money can’t buy”
■ Making the attendees feel like VIPs and treating them that way
The events range from a simple peek behind the curtain to locker room tours and chalk talks with members of the coaching staff prior to the game. Some teams that host the NBA Summer League competition provide a VIP experience and a chance to watch those games. The 76ers hosted a Q&A with new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who commented on the future of the NBA and his plans and offered his take on where the 76ers are and their future. The team has taken a poor season on the floor and transitioned to selling hope by creating opportunities such as the Silver event and the retirement ceremony of Allen Iverson. One event discusses the future while the other is a reminder of the past glory and success of the franchise.
The Buccaneers created events to meet their new coach and general manager and to introduce their new uniform and helmet designs. By hosting these events at their practice facility, the Buccaneers provided fans the opportunity to see where the players train and practice and to take in a display on the history of the team. The practice facility also provides the Buccaneers a great ongoing sales opportunity during training camp. The sales staff creates a personal sales event by inviting prospects to the facility to have lunch with the players and watch some of the practice, followed by a trip to the closing room, hopefully, to select their seats.
One of my favorite aspects of these events — besides the initial sell — is the creation of the story that can be retold over and over. Most teams provide some type of keepsake, in most cases a photo that commemorates the event attended. When displayed in the attendee’s office, it often starts conversations that begin with the question, “Where was that picture taken?” The question is often answered with an emotional description of the unique opportunity the VIP was afforded by the team. And so the seed is planted for another sales opportunity, and perhaps an opportunity for a formal referral program.
These sales events are viewed by both staff and attendees as more casual. The tone of these event is more conversational. It sends the message that there is something special about what is happening and gives the impression that if you are a ticket holder — or, in our new terminology, a “member” — that there are advantages and benefits to that association and relationship with the organization. Everything that one experiences at the event, along with the treatment that they receive, underscores this feeling.
The goal of a sales event is to put the seller and the prospect face to face in a relaxed setting that explains why one should consider buying or investing in the team. Ask any sales manager about the ROI related to such events and they will usually smile and say they wish they scheduled more events.
Bill Sutton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.