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Volume 22 No. 19
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How events can create emotional connection between team, fan

When it comes to sports sales, events have always been a critical part of the promotional mix because they provide the possibility of personal or face-to-face selling and the chance to showcase a product or opportunity in an experiential manner.

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.

Gathering feedback from clients and friends, sales events for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, Tampa Bay Lightning and Buccaneers, and the Golden State Warriors seem to incorporate many of the following elements:

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 ( 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.