“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” Vince Lombardi.
Perhaps not when it comes to season memberships though Mr. Lombardi.
The great thing about the dawn of a new sports season is the anticipation of what’s to come; the fresh start; putting last year’s disappointment behind us; and the equality of everyone beginning on zero points. The optimists will always cling to the thought that this year might be the one when we win the competition.
However, when observing sporting club or franchise examples from other parts of the world, and analysing what actually motivates people to attend sports events, I’d challenge whether the ticket purchase decision comes down to whether your team is winning or not.
Having worked for two sports franchises myself, there’s a misnomer that the off-season is a quiet time when you can put your feet up. Not true! If you work in the front office, almost immediately following the final whistle of the season, you must focus on selling memberships or season tickets for next year. Actually that process begins long before the previous season draws to a close, such is the effort required to communicate with; persuade; process and deliver those passes to thousands and thousands of demanding fans.
WARRIORS’ MEMBERSHIP CHALLENGE
The much-maligned New Zealand Warriors began their 2018 campaign with a rare, but morale-boosting win away in Perth against the Rabbitohs, all the more impressive considering their exhausting 7 ½ hour and 5,000 KM flight. A very welcome result given the heavy fog of pessimism that has hung over Auckland following the team’s depressing run of nine-straight defeats to end their 2017. Their last NRL finals appearance in 2011, an ever-fading memory.
In January, the local Auckland media reported that Warriors’ season membership sales were down again year on year, and they now stood at 10,781, just over half of the level they were only two season ago.
PHILADELPHIA OFFERS HOPE
But are season ticket sales based entirely upon the previous years’ results? A firm no, is the answer if you ask the sales and marketing department at the 76ers, Philadelphia’s comparably disparaged NBA franchise in the USA. Mirroring New Zealand’s only professional Rugby League team, the 76ers also hold a sorry recent performance history. In 2016-17 they managed only 28 victories from 82 games, a 34% win record (the Warriors earned 7 from 24 games, or 29%) and 2012 was the last time Philadelphia made an appearance in the NBA play-offs.
So, when you read that the 76ers have leapt from bottom-of-the NBA season ticket pile with only 3,400 in 2013, to now number one on the season ticket ladder, with over 14,500 season tickets, it is an impressive zero–to-hero story indeed, especially given the team’s 23% winning record over this time period. So how you ask? If your players aren’t chalking up victories on the court, field or pitch; how do you quadruple memberships inside five years?
Focusing on the motives of the fans, and building a brand they want to believe in, looks like the answer. In 2015, the 76ers launched their “Revolution is Our Name” brand campaign, and followed up in 2017 with “Welcome to the Moment”. They began by targeting a younger demographic, those in their 20s and 30s, and promising a fun and exciting evening of entertainment.
Then they overlaid a historic creative, reminding Philadelphia-natives that in 1776 their city was where the American Revolution and an independent USA was born. 240 years earlier their ancestors had taken on an empire and won, and now they are being called upon to be a part of another revolutionary rebuilding process, and one in which they can be a part of a modern day sporting and city revolution.
76ers’ Chief Marketing Officer, Tim McDermott explained to Philadelphia Magazine “We invited the fans into the process… if you listen, they’ll usually tell you the answer. We want people to have a great time when they come to a game. We want them to scream and cheer and laugh all at the same time. Our brand is different from some of the other teams in the marketplace.”
WE CARE MORE ABOUT FUN, THAN RESULTS
Gemba’s research reveals that the top three motives for sport attendance among Aucklanders is for fun & enjoyment; to relax; and for a social experience with friends or family. Team support and favourite sport are further down the list of reasons at numbers 4 and 6. So maybe Aucklanders aren’t so different to those flocking to the basketball in Philadelphia.
Interestingly, when we looked at the brand attributes of some of our New Zealand sports franchises it was no surprise to see teams like the Crusaders, Breakers and Hurricanes ahead of teams such as the Warriors and their cross-town Rugby Union cousins, the similarly criticised Blues. However, a stronger influencer of popularity were the image attributes of positively-showcasing-New Zealand, pride, and being well-connected-with-the-public.
A STRONG CONNECTION WITH YOUR FAN BASE
This insight around a strong public connection took me back to the Philadelphia Story. I’d read that the 76ers also created a programme of over 100 events for their season ticket holders, meet-and-greets, post-game gatherings, and before every home game, the coaching staff interact with season ticket holders. On one occasion, their head coach, Brett Brown (a Bostonian, but now beloved in Philly) asked if he could take some of the front-row season ticket holders out to dinner! At the restaurant, he had some of his coaching team talk the fans through their perspective on the 76ers playing roster and the strengths and weaknesses of their player development programme. A true money can’t buy experience, but one that helped the fans understand the franchise’s vision, the goals, and to get their buy in for the future. It would be a bold gesture for a coach with a strong winning record, but even more remarkable for a man who’s team were only winning one in every four games.
But before you sneer, accuse the Americans of getting over excited at a little historical chest-beating, and going weak at the wallet when they hear some inspirational music, let me take you to Rochdale! There are also lessons to be learned from the Victorian mill town on the outskirts of Manchester and their football club, Rochdale AFC. No ex-Disney marketing gurus there to give them an imaginative 76ers, Pelicans or Raptors moniker. Instead they are simply nicknamed “The Dale”.
LONG SUFFERING FANS AIN’T LEAVING
I choose Rochdale AFC because they have yet to lift a trophy of any kind in their 111 year history. I’m not just talking Premier League titles, FA Cups, or whatever prefix the League Cup held in each season. That’s right, in over a century they’ve never won a thing, no division four championship, nor youth cup, and they have spent more years in the lowest division of English professional football than anyone else. Cruelly, fans of other clubs even renamed England and Wales’ bottom league “the Rochdale division” as ‘Dale had resided continuously in football’s basement for 36 years from 1974-2010.
It might seem a tough ask supporting the Warriors or Blues, but fifteen or twenty years of hurt is nothing compared to those wearing the royal blue replica shirts in Rochdale. Does anyone still wear those blues shirts you ask? If only winning warrants support, then surely 111 years of failure would mean The Dale are playing in front of empty stands at their Spotland stadium. Not the case! Over the past 89 seasons Rochdale’s average home attendance was 3,743. In 2016-17 their average crowd was 3,556, just 187 people or 5% lower than their historical average.
So if it’s not the team’s results that attracts the fans, then what? Well, if you visit their website you’ll notice that the pages that promote Rochdale season tickets, feature images of, not the team, nor the star players. Instead the pages showcase the fans themselves, and specifically a diverse demographic of terrace-tragics, hands-on-their-heads, obviously aghast at the latest open goal miss, or defensive calamity!
TOGETHER EVERY MATCH, EVERY SEASON
There’s no BS promise of landslide victories from the Rochdale AFC marketing team if you part with 250 quid for a Spotland season pass. Nope, they will give your nipper a goodie bag, but as an adult you’re paying for the right to be part of a welcoming collective who’ll happily share the inevitable despair and disappointment with you. If Rochdale AFC had a Chief Marketing Officer, she could have stolen the 76ers “Welcome to the Moment” tagline, but no, instead they chose “Together every match, every season”. I love that. It’s honest, not over-promising or hyping up the situation, but instead reassuring you of an unerring, inclusive social environment.
Echoing this warm Rochdale welcome, I was also impressed to see a whole website section dedicated to “First Time Visitors” and providing every possible detail you could need to remove any apprehension when visiting the Crown Oil Arena as their commercial team now prefer Spotland to be called. The cheery faces of a Dad and two sons with their thumbs up greet you; and you are encouraged to let the club administration know in advance of your impending visit, with the promise of a special personalised welcome from matchday announcer Dave on the public address system! Now that’s providing a connection with the public and proudly showcasing their corner of what was once Lancashire, and is now less-romantically part of the boastfully named county of Greater Manchester!
So what if Rochdale fans top the “long-suffering index”, maybe they are happy that’s the only thing they can win. So long as they feel as though they can have a laugh with their mates, in an environment where they can relax and enjoy themselves.
FOCUS ON BRAND AND A SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
Don’t get me wrong, sports fans love to see their teams come out on top; boast proudly about long winning records; and to celebrate the lifting of silverware at every opportunity; but there can only ever be one winner each year and no sporting team can guarantee that, not even the All Blacks.
However what clubs and franchises can do, is reach out a hand to connect with their public, do their best to positively represent their city or region, and endeavour to make its inhabitants proud.
On top of creating a positive brand image; providing an environment where fans can enjoy themselves, make their own fun, and socialise with their mates or their families, should help sell the tickets and memberships.
Whether we live in Philadelphia, Auckland or Rochdale, the recipe is likely to be a similarly human-centric one.