Know How – Sports Marketing: Mark Woods: The art of growth from amid adversity

EMPTY seats. Stagnant levels of interest. A seeming acceptance of mediocrity rather than sustained challenge for the major trophies. No apparent long-term plan.

Yes, it happens in the USA, as well as in Scotland.

But there is a certain truth to the assumption that, in the States, they do it rather better than we do, back home, in the UK, when it comes to sports marketing.

My career as a sports journalist has taken me all over the world. I’ve reported football from LA and baseball in Tokyo – and myriad events and games in between.

Among the really smart pieces of marketing I have encountered on my travels, there’s been everything, from snazzy t-shirts dished out en masse at World Cups to particularly handy phone-charging gadgets at Super Bowl.

But for a standout example of conjuring growth from adversity, Iook no further than the Atlanta Hawks – of the NBA – and its president, Steve Koonin, now hitting his first anniversary at the helm.

“A quality team, absolutely, makes a huge difference,” he told me.

“But it’s also a combination with relevance, with fun, with pride in the city, with shared values. And bringing people together.”

To all intents and purposes, Koonin’s is a ready-made instruction manual, one with insights that might easily travel across the Atlantic from the high-gloss world of American basketball to an UK sporting sphere that stretches from the glitter of the Premier League to the coalface of the humblest local club.

Barely 12 months ago, the Hawks were approaching their lowest ebb. Rarely did they play to full houses at their downtown arena, save for when the biggest stars were coming into town.

Since re-locating to the city in 1968, they had never sniffed a championship.

And they had experienced some PR mishaps.

Yet now, a year on, the Hawks have the second-best record in the NBA, tickets are hot property and they have been hailed for their imaginative turnaround.

In his first season in charge, Koonin – a former head of worldwide advertising at Coca-Cola – noted one pivotal shift upon his arrival that had to be made.

“I’d seen a fan base that didn’t have an emotional connection to the team,” he reflects. “So we’ve worked very very hard to build that connection, to try and make every element of the game experience outstanding. We have a 3D projection in the arena.

“Every element is scripted and choreographed around what’s being broadcast on TV. Every offer to the fans has an unique twist to it. We had a Tinder dating night, a Fright Night. We’ve had concerts. We realised it has to be more than mere availability. It has to mean something.”

The Tinder connection – capitalising on the popularity of the dating app – earned widespread attention following what was termed, ‘Swipe Right Night’.

It was not so much about hooking up strangers or flogging extra seats, he adds. More about selling a personality.

“That we’re fun, that we’re social, that this is a place to be.”

Contrast that with Saturday afternoons at many sporting arenas over here, where the highlight may be an above-average half-time pie.

The Hawks have determinedly downshifted the average age of their attendees, by ten years, while reaching out unashamedly to those who live closest.

Forty per cent of tickets sold this season, Koonin reveals, have been to newbies.

“And that’s fabulous because we’re converting them to season ticket buyers. We have lots of different plans: ten-game plans, 20-games, full season plans. By using digital ticketing, we’re allowing people to build their own groups.”

Here and there, the days of mass unquestioning devotion are long gone.

Few among Generation Y have ever acquired a habit of trotting out, rain or shine.

Other attractions, as they say, are available.

Which, in Atlanta, means more than just tweaking the ticket prices between A-Grade and D-List opponents.

“You also want to be inclusionary,” Koonin confirms. “You want people to come and enjoy your product. You want to make it affordable.

“And you want to make it occasion-based. If I’m taking a client and I want to use a suite, that’s a very different experience from when you’re taking my kids.

“We look at game, we look at time and we look at all those elements when we’re doing our pricing.

“We use both dynamic pricing and variable pricing so we can move on the fly and take advantage of opportunities. But we also make sure we’re doing things for our audience.”

The so-called capital of the American South, it should be noted, is flooded with sporting attractions. NFL American football. Major league baseball. A huge university with teams drawing huge crowds.

Hitherto, the Hawks were, relatively, small fry. Now, they’re making some noise.

However, Koonin stresses, the obsession is not on besting those rivals. Bringing in the dollars – or the pounds – demands a daily push to give supporters a reason to walk through the door – and a hundred reasons to opt to come back on another night over the myriad attractions available elsewhere.

“Going to the movies is competition,” he adds. “Our own TV broadcast is competition. One of the great thing about sports is you can be a huge huge fan and never go to a game because you watch it on television.

“So we don’t look at competition against (other) sports, we look at it first and foremost against ourselves, how are we doing, year on year, against our own goals. And then we look at the marketplace more for inspiration than competition.”

Mark Woods has written extensively both on arena/stadium issues and on the NBA. He tweets @markbritball

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