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Monday, March 19, 2007

Sport or Entertainment?

Today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required; click here for a link to a preview of the article) has an interesting article about how major sports teams are hiring concierges and hospitality sales people to build relationships with season-ticket holders (even in non-luxury box settings) to keep them in tow. The premise: that there are many alternatives for a fan to spend his entertainment dollars, and the home teams want to have their fans renew their season ticket subscriptions.

I think that the premise is particularly true for the NBA, NHL and even for some Major League baseball teams. The article cites extensive efforts that the Philadelphia Eagles have made for what appear to be premium customers, but the bet here is that if those customers elected not to renew, there are many standing in line to take their place (I just joined the Eagles' waiting list and hope that I won't be eligible for Social Security by the time I get offered to purchase tickets). Yes, the NFL is that different.

I wish that I could link to the entire article, but it's clear that fans want additional amenities (for me, more nutritious food choices and cheaper beer would be atop the list, plus the availability of a few players to sign autographs for the kids before a game) and, yes, better play. I think the latter, of course, is the tricky part. Years ago, when there were 3 UHF channels, 3 VHF channels, 1 channel for public television and fewer games on TV, the record of the team didn't matter as much because the alternatives were fewer and farther between, although fans still didn't go to watch abysmal teams (read: the St. Louis Browns, bad Phillies teams in the late 1960's, etc.). Today, the abundance of options (indoor soccer, Arena Football, indoor lacrosse, to name a few) and the high price of tickets in the four "major" sports probably makes many a fan think twice about upping for a season ticket to a team that will play at .500 or below (especially the NBA and NHL).

Would a concierge make your decision easier? Would a personal salesperson who shmoozes you and builds a relationship make it harder to say no?

In the late 1980's the Phillies weren't very good, and they had a shortstop name Steve Jeltz, a light-hitting switch hitter whose main distinction was that he was born in France. At any rate, Jeltz wasn't a championship shortstop, and he started for a few seasons in a row (his career batting average was .210, although he once hit a home run from each side of the plate in a game). He was one of the main symbols of a bad team, and it was frustrating that the Phillies were trotting him out as their starting shortstop.

I had delayed renewing my partial season ticket plan after the 1988 season, because a) the team was bad, b) I thought that the Bill Giles-led ownership team was lame (it was Giles, after all, who labeled Philadelphia a "small market" town), and c) because, well, among other things Jeltz was the returning shortstop. In the winter time, a representative from the ticket office called me to see if I was interested in renewing my tickets. I told him that I wasn't sure, but that it would be a big help if the Phillies could do something to replace Steve Jeltz at shortstop. The ticket representative was good-natured about it, and I told him that I loved baseball and the Phillies but wasn't sure about renewing. The call then ended.

A few days later, the Phillies announced that they acquired Dickie Thon, also a shortstop (and definitely an upgrade) from the Houston Astros. That deal was good news for Phillies' fans.

The next day the same ticket representative called me back.

"Hey," he said, "I listened to you and we got Dickie Thon. What do you say now?"

Of course I renewed. I mean, how could you say no to a telephone call like that?

People like to feel wanted and needed, and, in the case of the NBA and NHL, they want to have a feeling that their dollars make a difference. What the teams are doing makes good business sense, but to me it will work in the short term only. While the NBA teams may be borrowing from the Four Seasons and Disney, there is a fundamental difference between the hotel chain and entertainment empire on the one hand and pro hoops and hockey on the other that keeps people coming back. Go to a Four Seasons, and you're always treated like royalty. Go to Disney, your family almost always will have a good time. Go to the Philadelphia 76ers last night and see your team get blasted by 50 (that's not a typo), and, well, the product is inconsistent at best and bad at worst. There's no getting around that no matter how much you dress up a mediocre product, the fans ultimate will peel away the veneer and go elsewhere.

The resort to personal sales people and concierges is good business to a degree, but it won't change a fan's experience the way a 20% increase in a team's amount of wins would. And, with bad teams, it might be a signal as to how desperate some of their situations have become.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of dozen concierges cost less than a starting point guard, too.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Richard Jennings said...

speaking of cost....You can get free access to those Wall Street Journal articles with a Netpass from:

This was reported on by the Associated Press Yesterday.

5:23 PM  

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