The Premium Pitch
Teams and venues are searching for a fountain of youth when it comes to their suites, clubs and VIP spaces.
The challenge is how to make those premium spaces desirable to affluent younger fans who are driven by technology and socializing, and how to work with a new generation of companies that might not want the traditional corporate suite or lengthy season-long plan.
“There is no question that the younger generation is looking for that new experience, that cool vibe, and it’s not how I used to watch football growing up,” said Jim Mercurio, San Francisco 49ers vice president of stadium operations and general manager of Levi’s Stadium.
That requires a different mindset in the design, marketing and selling of premium and club spaces to not only younger fans but also 21st century companies.
Want to deliver your pitch the right way? Try social media channels. Want to get them more familiar with the facility? Hold networking events where they can build their business while you build relationships. Want to get them to sign on the dotted line? Try offering smaller spaces, compelling special events and even opportunities to “test drive” premium inventory. Better yet, build in enhanced experiences that set their event apart.
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Flavil Hampsten is chief commercial officer of Elevate Sports Ventures, an agency that helps teams and venues sell premium spaces. He remembers a time when telephone calls usually led the way to selling such inventory.
“When I was coming up as a sales person it was literally just the phone,” said Hampsten, who held executive sales posts with the San Jose Sharks, the Charlotte Hornets and the NBA. “Now you can actually do a deal over LinkedIn or Facebook. There were high-level CEOs [that] if we called them 20 times on the phone we probably wouldn’t have heard back.”
Some venues, in the spirit of LinkedIn, cultivate relationships with first-time premium buyers and younger affluent fans through special networking opportunities.
Dennis Bickmeier, president of Richmond Raceway, said the NASCAR track hosts business and professional group events throughout the year. “We really try to get people to come out and walk through the space,” he said.
Bickmeier — whose track is wrapping up a $30 million renovation — has put a focus on hosting events for young professionals involved with local chambers. “Those are the future leaders of Richmond,” he said. “We’re getting to know them when they are in middle management positions.”
The Prudential Center in Newark also uses networking events to attract and retain premium customers, said Natasha Moody, vice president of premium partnerships for the arena and its primary tenant, the New Jersey Devils. The Devils and the arena are owned by Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE), which also owns the Philadelphia 76ers.
“We may host a speaker from an HBSE property, an executive or special industry-oriented speaker,” Moody said. “It works very well and based on the feedback we’ve received, we are growing it this year.”
Prudential Center also holds pregame and pre-concert networking events to give premium buyers and companies an opportunity to meet one another. Moody said arena marketing, sales and executive staff will also facilitate introductions between premium members.
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Other sports venues are marketing their premium space by crafting VIP and inclusive experiences.
“Total buy-in options should abound,” said Kevin Camper, senior vice president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He sees growth for all-inclusive packages that could include transportation to and from events and more personal VIP interactions with players, drivers, fans and celebrities.
The NASCAR track is marketing a new $1,200, one-day VIP package that includes a champagne toast with the race winner, complimentary food and drinks, and garage access.
Greg Kish, vice president for sales and service for sports agency Legends at the new Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, said selling a VIP experience is essential to premium marketing plans for the new $4 billion stadium for the NFL’s Rams and Chargers.
“We know we are going to have to battle and compete with Los Angeles as a market and not just as a stadium,” said Kish.
The stadium, located in Inglewood, is slated to open in 2020 and Kish said some premium offerings are still being developed. It is scheduled to have 13,000 premium seats with seat licenses costing as much as $100,000. For that price point, the experience has to be special. Kish said that means making the VIP experience a VIP journey. The new stadium is set to have 260 luxury suites and a number of all-inclusive premium packages.
“How easy is it to go from curb to curb,” Kish said. “Our goal is to make the customer journey on the premium side as smooth and frictionless as possible.”
That means VIP parking and private entrances and, in the case of Los Angeles, a realization that fans (even the wealthiest ones) are already fighting through traffic.
Zach Hensley, vice president of venue operations and guest experience for the Seattle Seahawks, said CenturyLink Field opens an hour earlier for premium customers. The team also launched a celebrity chef series last season for those customers. The chefs create special menus appealing to the city’s foodie culture and aimed at competing with top restaurants outside the stadium, Hensley said.
Creating a one-of-a-kind experience is what appeals to younger premium buyers and companies, said Elevate’s Hampsten. Those can include exclusive meetings with coaches, players or ex-players or up-close interactions with the event or game.
“It creates those ‘wow’ opportunities no one else is offering,” he said. “If you can provide that experience you can associate that only with your company.”
Jake Reid, president and CEO of Sporting KC, said premium customers are always seeking something that most other fans don’t have, “so we try to provide that feeling of behind-the-scenes access.”
Well-received aspects include giving guests fieldside or courtside access, views of the interview rooms and putting them in close proximity to player locker rooms.
“Yet again, variety is key, so offering a wide variety of beers and craft cocktails, or even a Drink of the Match, can enhance their experience,” Reid said. “These people are paying for premium seating already, but the comprehensive experience — pregame, in-game and postgame — is what puts it over the top and keeps them coming back game after game.”
The Philadelphia 76ers host an annual VIP Hardwood Dinner for premium customers and top-tier season-ticket holders. The event was held this year at the team’s practice facility and included a “chalkboard session” with coach Brett Brown. They also got to mingle with top team executives.
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Such approaches can help justify the costs of suites and club seats, Hampsten said.
But cost isn’t the only barrier to overcome. Younger fans aren’t looking for their father’s corporate suite or full-season plans.
“They would like to have the flexibility of not having as many tickets. Suites can be daunting in term of tickets,” said Prudential Center’s Moody. “That’s just a lot of tickets to manage.”
Moody said Prudential Center lets prospective buyers take “test drives” of suites and premium areas by creating draw-down accounts where they can put $75,000 to $150,000 and then pay for the use of premium areas for concerts and games as they need them.
“It’s so we can get people in the door to taste the product and then convert them to a full membership,” Moody said.
Chris Giles, COO of the Oakland Athletics, said such bite-size approaches make sense, especially with younger fans who typically have less time and plan less. That means creating packages they will use and value — and not have to spend time figuring out how to use 81 or 41 season tickets or ways to fill larger traditional suites.
“You force your fans to become mini-brokers,” Giles said of the challenge of using tickets or finding takers for excess inventory.
The A’s are rolling out a more flexible annual membership plan over traditional season tickets for the 2019 season. That includes 10, 24, half-season and full-season options with the ability to upgrade seats. “Our game plan is to sell them access and allow them to come whenever they would like,” Giles said. He expects that season-ticket approach to also come to premium areas.
Prudential Center is creating smaller suites that seat eight people and four-person VIP tables to go along with larger suites as part of a five-year renovation. “It’s an opportunity for us to be out in front of different types of companies,” Moody said.
The VIP table concept is also at premium areas at T-Mobile Arena for Vegas Golden Knights games and will be at the Milwaukee Bucks’ new Fiserv Forum.
Jamie Morningstar, Bucks senior vice president of ticket sales and service, said there will be 14 half-moon tables seating as many as four at the new arena. “They get wait service throughout the show or game,” she said. Table packages cost $20,000 for either a season of basketball games or the new arena’s concert slate.
The WNBA’s Vegas Aces also have courtside VIP tables that seat four to six people. The price per seat at a table is $245 per game or $4,250 for the full season for Aces games.
Smaller suites and theater or loge boxes can also be more conducive to newer companies and first-time premium buyers both in price and size.
“You have to be as flexible as you can and provide the customer experience that they’re desiring, that they’re craving,” said the 49ers’ Mercurio. “It means you have an inventory of smaller, more intimate hospitality or experience packages.”
Other venues are building out flexible spaces that can be converted from large to small and back again.
The new Los Angeles stadium will have premium spaces that can seat eight to 100 people depending on flexible configurations, Kish said.
Jim Renne, sports principal for the Rossetti architecture firm, said a variety of premium spaces was front of mind for the $100 million renovation he oversaw at Ford Field for the Detroit Lions in 2017. Those include four-seat loge boxes and spaces to socialize.
“Your younger generation typically wants what they want and how they want it. A good deal of thought has to go into how do you offer a diversity of experiences and provide different types of products,” Renne said.