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Volume 22 No. 3
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The experience needs to change, not the game

Believe it or not, the inspiration for this latest column came from a trip to the grocery store. My shopping list took me to the cereal aisle, and I thought about buying some Cheerios for a change of pace. I was astounded to find that there are more than a dozen types of Cheerios. My astonishment continued as I decided to surprise my wife with one of her favorites — peanut M&M’s. Imagine my surprise when I also learned that selection was also now a choice with three types of peanut M&M’s (including peanut butter) and nine overall varieties of M&M’s. I thought about this for a while and made the following observations:

Successful brands continue to evolve hoping to both retain and expand market share. Tastes change not only in food, but also in cars, music and movies, and obviously in the types of experiences we seek out. A restaurant we preferred as teenagers might not have been the preferred choice in our thirties and beyond. As “tastes” change, so must the experience: What is offered, how it is offered and even why it is offered. Apple brought us the Mac but has continued to evolve in providing us iPods, iTunes and a variety of other products and services. Suites have evolved into loge boxes and a variety of smaller exclusive seating options with customized benefits. The New York Yankees have their premier seating — the Legends Suite — but also are replacing bleacher seats with spaces to provide for a higher level of social interaction.

In our customized world with almost instant access, we not only want to have it our way, we are willing to go elsewhere if our demands and preferences aren’t met. Sports organizations must become better listeners and more attuned to shifting behaviors and interests. A family night can no longer be simply four tickets, four hot dogs and four beverages. The Aspire Group encourages its clients to create the Modern Family Plan — a tribute to the family diversity portrayed in the TV show — while acknowledging a single-parent family is just that: a family, and that other families might have more than two children. This plan has a price per person and starts at two people and moves on from there. Four just doesn’t fit in 2019.

The experience has become the differentiation point for many consumers. While at Citi Field for a Mets game last season, I made a visit to the Coca-Cola Porch. I saw a very desirable target market — 18- to 25-year-olds — playing cornhole, petting dogs, sitting in comfortable porch-type furniture, playing video games and also watching portions of the game. Some were very engaged in the game while others had a passing interest if any. The common denominator was people engaged with each other having fun at a baseball game, and who doesn’t want to repeat an experience where they had fun and enjoyed themselves? 

The late Bill Veeck once said if he depended upon people who were baseball fans to make a living, he might be out of business before Memorial Day. The game, while an important part, is only one part of the experience.

As leaders, your vision and your imagination must continue to grow if you are to help your organization evolve. Years ago Theodore Levitt wrote “Marketing Myopia,” a work that looked at why and how companies became obsolete. Leaders need to look at their sport, at other sports, at entertainment, at mainstream business and at pop culture to help create the depth of understanding necessary to assess where they are and where they need to be and also where they could be. The growth and success of the NBA is due in part to its visionary Team Marketing & Business Operations group, which does just what I have described: provide information to the teams and challenging them on how to use it. Is it a coincidence that the NFL just launched an expansion of its team services group based upon a similar approach?

Bigger has become better once again because bigger means more varied experiences. Mergers and growth have always been at the core of organizational evolution. Marketing agencies have expanded by purchasing boutique agencies that may have had expertise in a particular area or dominated a niche. Teams are no longer content being just teams. They want to evolve and have varied interests in a variety of markets. Fenway Partners helped pioneer this philosophy. The New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys used it to create Legends, which started a concessions company but now helps teams build and operate stadiums and seats. Most recently, Elevate used strategic alliances and partnerships among the San Francisco 49ers, HBSE (New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia 76ers), Oak View Group and Ticketmaster to provide consulting to sports and entertainment properties.

Evolving doesn’t always involve growing in size, but becoming more knowledgeable, more informed and more skilled. Evolving could mean hiring a sales trainer, using a consultant for the first time, traveling to see what someone else in your space is doing, attending a conference on a topic of interest, hiring people with nonsports backgrounds, starting a departmental book club or offering employees a sabbatical. These are not just retention tools but can be used for development and growth.

Evolving may also involve experimenting, reconfiguring duties and responsibilities, adding new positions or eliminating others.

Evolving at its core implies some type of change, and change can be very difficult because it also implies uncertainty, which varies from person to person within the organization. The uncertainty cannot be prevented, but confidence in leadership and in the direction of the organization can go a long way in the evolution. Remember, we are all explorers — setting out in the unknown for what we hope is the greater good. Don’t fear it, embrace it.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) 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.