Team scouting report: Pistons, Wolves, Bucks
The Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks enter the 2017-18 NBA season with high hopes after each spent the offseason focused on turnaround efforts. The Pistons move into a new home in downtown Detroit, the Wolves take the wraps off a major renovation of Target Center, and the Bucks are busy lining up business for their new arena opening next year. Here’s a look at the state of business for each franchise as the NBA season prepares to tip off.
First Look podcast, with discussion of NBA storylines:
The Pistons usher in a new era this year as they move from the suburban Palace of Auburn Hills to their new home at Little Caesars Arena, the 21,000-seat downtown Detroit venue operated by Olympia Entertainment, parent of the Detroit Red Wings.
The Pistons’ move is far more than a simple 33-mile relocation. The team is undergoing a major transformation with new uniforms and logos, and a new branding effort in advance of their move.
The team has seen its season-ticket sales soar, with 2,600 new full-season tickets sold, and has an 82 percent season-ticket renewal rate. That’s a respectable rate given the move downtown and a 40 percent hike in the price of some tickets. Little Caesars Arena also gives the team new premium inventory to generate additional revenue.
Sponsors are buying into the revamp, as the Pistons this year have seen a double-digit increase in sponsorship revenue. The team added Henry Ford Health System as naming-rights partner for its new downtown practice facility, signed a jersey patch deal with Flagstar Bank, and reached a deal with Platinum Equity that puts the logo of the company founded by Pistons owner Tom Gores on the floor of Little Caesars Arena.
Being a part of the revitalization of downtown Detroit provides the team with a new vibe.
“It’s an energy you get from being in the city that is spilling over to us and that is exciting,” said Charlie Metzger, the Pistons’ chief revenue and marketing officer. “We are reintroducing ourselves to a lot of fans.”
With one full season under his belt, Wolves CEO Ethan Casson spent the offseason aggressively revamping the team’s business approach, and it’s beginning to pay dividends in a market that hasn’t seen playoff basketball in 13 years.
The carefully scripted narrative began on the last day of the 2016-17 regular season when the team rolled out new uniforms and branding.
The offseason then featured a steady diet of new business efforts, including a $140 million renovation of Target Center that added revenue-producing premium amenities. Sponsorship revenue is up by 20 percent since last year and full-season ticket sales are up by 25 percent. The Wolves added about 2,000 new full-season ticket holders this year, the highest gain since the team’s inaugural 1989-90 season.
“From April to today there has been a drumbeat of news coming out of our organization talking about the new era,” Casson said.
The team signed a jersey patch deal with FitBit and purchased the Iowa Wolves G League franchise as Casson built a new culture around the Wolves. “It is shaping a new narrative that was so negative for all these years,” he said. “For us, it is about telling the story of a new era.”
On the court, the team’s march to relevance is aided by the basketball coaching staff, led by former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, and an offseason trade for former Chicago Bulls all-star Jimmy Butler. The Wolves will gain the spotlight this season by playing in the NBA’s China games and the high-profile, nationally televised Christmas Day games.
Off the court, the Wolves have restructured much of their front office, with former team president Chris Wright leaving to run the MLS Minnesota franchise. The team added a new position of vice president of community engagement and is creating its own alumni network, a common outreach strategy at other NBA teams but a first-time effort for the Wolves.
Despite the new business traction from such moves, Casson is hardly satisfied with the state of the franchise.
“A year into it, I’m happy with what we have done, but there is so much to do,” he said.
Under owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, the Bucks continue a makeover of major proportions. The biggest piece of the franchise overhaul is a new $524 million downtown arena set to open at the beginning of the 2018-19 NBA season. The Bucks also are building a $31 million downtown practice facility.
The team spent the offseason selling heavily into the new arena, an effort made easier by the team’s playoff appearance last season.
It’s part of an aggressive sales strategy that began when the team was sold three years ago.
“Ownership looked at the team as a distressed asset and literally started from scratch and ripped it down to the studs,” said Bucks President Peter Feigin. “It is an entrepreneurial start-up with all new processes with the goal to create an innovative business on every level.”
Perhaps the biggest shift in the Bucks’ business strategy is the amount of resources the team’s owners have poured into the franchise. The front office has grown from a staff of 87 three years ago to 215 today and the team now has a sales staff of 60, which Feigin said puts them in the upper half of the NBA in sales staff size.
“It is a wholesale change for us,” Feigin said. “We have become a sales organization with sponsorships and ticket sales the lifeblood.”
The team sits among the top five of the 30 NBA teams in new full-season ticket sales and have sold at least 2,250 new full-season ticket packages as it nears the 8,000 mark. Notably, the Bucks expect a 95 percent season-ticket renewal rate with overall ticket sales at a clip not seen since the 2001-02 season when the Bucks went to the Eastern Conference Finals.
With a new arena driving business, the Bucks have made major sponsorship gains, beginning with their jersey patch deal with Harley-Davidson. The Bucks also added Johnson Controls, Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, MillerCoors and BMO Harris Bank as founding partners of the new arena. The team aims to have seven or eight founding partnerships by the time the arena opens.
The biggest sponsorship deal is yet to come: naming rights for the new arena.
“Our partnership revenue is up by 20 percent over the prior year and still growing,” Feigin said. “There is an unbelievable leverage play with the new arena.”
The Bucks plan to market the arena as a major entertainment venue capable of competing with Chicago for the biggest acts. The Bucks hired former Madison Square Garden and AEG executive Raj Saha to lead the effort as general manager of the arena.
“We are making an effort to differentiate ourselves and Raj is a great example,” Feigin said. “We are positioning ourselves as a big-market arena would.”