Saturday, August 19, 2006

Knowing Your Market – Selling Tickets

A key to any sports organization successfully marketing and selling ticket understands their audience – knowing their demographics of their audience. The WNBA is in the midst of celebrating the league’s 10th anniversary. A key element of the WNBA’s ticket selling efforts has always been reaching the lesbian community.

The Nashville Sounds, the Triple-A affiliate for the Milwaukee Brewers successfully began a series of Faith Night promotions several years ago, bringing religion to the ballpark. This year several other minor league baseball teams joined the Sounds in faith based events as did the Atlanta Braves. The Arizona Diamondbacks will hold their first faith based promotion later this month.

Mixing gender and religious based promotions can be lucrative but at the same time it’s tricky to successfully pull off.

The Braves held their first faith day on July 27 which was organized by Nashville-based Third Coast Sports (the group behind the series of Sounds promotions). But days after the Braves held their first event they called the organizers formally requesting a change in the two remaining events.

“We have asked Third Coast Sports to not include Focus on the Family in our other two Faith Day events,” Beth Marshall, Braves spokesperson, said Aug. 1. “We do not feel it is an appropriate connection for Focus on the Family to be part of this event.”

Marshall made it clear to The Southern Voice what the Braves rationale was for offering faith based promotions -- “We were approached by Third Coast about the event and with over 5,000 churches within 75 miles of Turner Field, it made good business sense,” she said.

And how does Focus on the Family feel about being kicked to the curb by the Braves? They’re not talking. When asked, the group’s spokesperson Christina Loznicka acknowledged the Braves had indeed had asked them to “leave” and any further comments would come from the Braves – and they aren’t talking.

Third Coast promotes themselves on their website with the mission statement “Third Coast Sports has established itself as the foremost authority in church marketing and event planning for sports teams.”

According to Third Coast, their Faith Nights marry a Christian concert with a professional sporting event. At each event one of the home team's players gives his personal testimony of how God has worked in his life. Sponsors partner with Third Coast to give away items to the first 2,000 fans on certain nights. Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato from the hit animated series VeggieTales appear in each city thanks to Big Idea, Inc.

The Hagerstown Suns, the Class A affiliate of the New York Mets, recently held a Faith Night and included a member of the Suns delivering his message to fans attending that night’s faith night.

"God has given me the ability to throw a baseball," Brandon Nall, 24, a second-year pro from Dothan, Ala., says to the circle of spectators that has stopped to listen. "I don't take that for granted. I am who I am because God has a purpose for me. I'm going to glorify him by giving my all."

One concern with a promotion that includes an appearance with a Christian rock group is it might be offending other religions and religious beliefs. If the Suns faith night is any example of how the events are organized, that isn’t an issue. Representatives of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Baha'i faiths all threw out ceremonial first pitches as part of the evening’s events.

Brent High, the person behind Third Coast Sports holds his first event with a Major League Soccer franchise tonight at the D.C. United’s game at RFK Stadium. High told The South Florida Sun Sentinel his company is close to deals to stage events with teams from the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

"It constantly amazes us how this grows," says High, president of Third Coast Sports in Nashville, Tenn. "We think we're on just the tip of the iceberg."

Celebrating their 10th anniversary, the WNBA has become a mainstay for women’s sports. The WNBA is the eighth American professional basketball league to surface in the last 25 years – the first to succeed. The WUSA has come and gone as have several women’s professional fastball, softball and baseball leagues.

One of the biggest reasons the WNBA is still alive is the league’s focused marketing efforts to reach the lesbian community. The league’s efforts to reach the lesbian community captured a great deal of attention in 2001. Interestingly the WNBA had never made their marketing campaigns focused on the lesbian community a secret, it just wasn’t an issue the media was interested in reporting on.

''Lesbians have been the WNBA fan base since (the league started in) 1997,'' Los Angeles Monarchs season ticketholder Kat Fox, a spokeswoman for the Davis Dykes and the national distributor for Fleer's WNBA trading cards told the USA Today. ''We're saying our money is the same as the traditional family money. It's not that we need to be acknowledged. But (WNBA teams) need the money and their marketing efforts are brilliant if they target the lesbians.''

The Seattle Storm are arguably more successful then the NBA’s Sonics in Seattle and understand how important lesbians are to their ability to sell tickets.

Women who are in a committed relationship feel more accepted at WNBA events as this couple told The Seattle Times.

"I'm not a highly social person, but this is something where you see people and you say, 'Oh, hey, let's get together' and we start instant-messaging and e-mailing," says Gretchen Fudala 37, who works at Microsoft.

"I'm completely out but sometimes I'm guarded," says Andrea Jessee of Redmond. "If our boys refer to us as Momma and Mommy, as soon as they address both of us, there are moments when I look around and say, 'OK, what kind of people are around me?' "

Bottom line – as other Storm ticket holders made it clear in the Seattle Times report – they’re happy to have found a social setting where they feel accepted.

"I've heard someone call it 'the fruit loop,' " says Jill Gagliardo, 40, a physical therapist and Storm season ticket holder, laughing. The games are must-do happenings for her group of friends who all happen to sit in the same row, in Section 108 together — except for her. So half-time means heading to the Pyramid Ale beer garden to meet up.

"It's great to see a lot of us. It's a social event," she says.

"For me, it's supporting women athletes. But it doesn't hurt that our friends are there," says Tamara Murphy, chef/owner of Brasa. After the games, her downtown restaurant typically hosts friend Gagliardo and some other women for a post-game soiree; once a month it's pre-game Girl Thursday.

"We've just never had the time to hang out, and that's what the games have become," Kelly Hudson of Everett, who attends the games with partner Denise Keegan, explains. "There's something exceptional about going to the Storm games. I can high-five with the man and woman who sit in front of me, and you don't get the sense that they're looking at you any differently."

As open as 2006 may be for the fans of the Seattle Storm, the USA Today’s Tom Weir almost found a hostile attitude towards the WNBA marketing efforts towards the lesbian community in his 2001 USA Today report.

''The WNBA is a business, so like all businesses they face a dilemma at this point in history, which is how can they reach out and profit from gay people without alienating homophobic, straight people?'' says Mariah Burton Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football.

''The WNBA has not done very well on this so far, in my opinion,'' Nelson says. ''In fact, they have bent over backwards to portray a family environment and family atmosphere, and family is always a code word for straight.''

As challenging as marketing to the gay community has been the new era of religious based events can be filled with even more pitfalls. Just ask the Atlanta Braves, after agreeing to host three events, dramatically changed their faith based events after their first event on July 27.

Focus on the Family, the group tossed from the Braves subsequent event(s) are considered right wing and anti-gay. It goes without saying Focus on the Family, won’t be a part of any future WNBA promotions.

For the Sounds – their decision to run faith based promotions remains in their belief that it’s proven to be a positive experience for their organization and it is helping drive the teams’ bottom line.

"We've always had some form of a targeted marketing plan towards churches," says Glenn Yeager, general manager of the Sounds. "At the beginning, you would put on your schedule Catholic night or Presbyterian night and just give churches of that denomination a reason to come to the ballpark together in hopes of selling large blocks of tickets. When it changed for us is one of our season ticket holders was also involved in the Christian music industry."

The bottom line is at the end of the day that’s what drives any sports promotional event is in drawing and audience and selling tickets. You want to sell tickets, but at the same time you don’t want to offend anyone.

If the Atlanta Braves are interested in hosting a series of faith nights that’s good. However if one of the groups associated with that night has been labeled as anti-gay, the Braves risk serious damage if the gay community decides to boycott Braves games and by extension people who know members of the gay community, or a simply bothered by a focus group whose beliefs they don’t agree with. Family values are one issue being anti-gay is another.

As homophobic as the sports world is, why risk turning anyone off? Knowing and understanding your market – a key to a successful season for any professional sports franchise.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Southern Voice, the Seattle Times and the USA Today