Friday, December 5, 2008

The WNBA Fan Marketing Problem

Note: This is a long opinion piece. Forewarned is forearmed.

I found this article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (*) that explains that the governing body of Washington High School Athletics is proposing to ban booing at high school games.

"I don't know why people think it's acceptable to boo in the first place," WIAA Executive Director Mike Colbrese said. "It's a pretty novel concept to me."

Policies are still in the draft stages, and would add to WIAA rules that prohibit hand-made signs and artificial noisemakers at state tournament basketball games. Some schools, including those in the South Puget Sound League, prohibit students from painting their faces.

This leads me to conclude the following - why go to the games at all? Why not just watch the games on TV? Why not just wait for the boxscore to come in the paper?

"But if you don't go, you're going to miss the amazing athleticism of these fine young athletes!"

Well...athleticism only goes so far. If you watch, say, the NBA Network, you can see amazing athleticism (or great team play, if you're watching women's basketball) almost 24 hours a day. If the entire purpose of attending a sports game is "to see these wonderful players in real time", then television suits those purposes just as well. Furthermore, it's free, or at least it's cheaper than paying $10 to park and $35 for a ticket where you're surrounded by people that you'd normally cross the street to avoid. (**)

I'm not really so much interested in what the article is about - you can have your own opinions regarding how much abuse opposing teams should face from the crowd, or how officials should be treated, and how much is too much. My main point is that the entire concept of being a fan has become quite sanitized and passive.

Think about your basketball experience. You show up at the arena. You sit down and get a good (hopefully) seat. From that point on your participation is not only unnecessary, it's also probably not wanted, either, as the article above shows. You let the fans start showing up with their own signs and costumes and immediately fear sets in from echelons above reason that something might get all out of control, the bete noire of organized sports.

Remember the "every-bo-dee-CLAP-YOUR-HANDS!" chant that you hear piped in to just about every basketball game around? It's a sad state when the audience has to be told to show its appreciation.

I remember an Atlanta Dream game where the crowd went deathly silent. It was odd. We were getting stomped by twenty points again. I don't think the crowd knew what to do. They were afraid to boo, so they just did - nothing. I swear if two fans were chatting about the weather at the opposite end of Philips Arena, I could have told you the temperature outside from hearsay.

I think you have to give fans a reason to attend games other than "boy, these players are great". There are a lot of great players in the world. Me, I'll be attending Dream games until I die - "loyalty until death" - but the problem is that there's no reason to attend WNBA games, other than "support women's athletics". Come to think of it, there's no reason to attend NBA games, either - which is why attendance is dropping in both leagues. You attend basketball games because a) you like basketball - a lot, and b) you have nothing better to do with your time and money.

So here's the conundrum the WNBA faces - how do you get people to watch WNBA games when there are other things they could be doing with their time and money? This is the conundrum faced by sports marketers across the board.

My solution: make the game a communal experience again. Make the thrill of attending an WNBA game something that can't be replicated by watching the game on TV.

Some of the funniest and most memorable parts of basketball games are the promotions. Anything that involves the audience is a winner. Anything that takes them out of the seat and makes them a part of the action is a winner.

What are the winners?

* Giving away free swag. I love it when the Dream dance team starts throwing around free crap or shooting T-shirts in the air. The rule is that you should not give away too much stuff - then it becomes "everybody gets a trophy" day. There should be some real doubt left in the audience as to whether or not you'll get any swag.

* The kiss-cam. You don't see kissing on televised basketball.

* The dance-off. Now the fans are cast in the role of judges.

* Having fans shoot free throws for cash, little kids dressing up - "Hey! That could be (me, my kid) down there!"

What are the losers?

* "Everybody-clap-your-hands."

* Mascots. Not all mascots though. The Famous Chicken knows how to do it. (Can't we get him at a Dream game?) He uses props, humor, and you never know what the hell he's going to do next. A guy standing around in a suit looking goofy just doesn't do it.

* "Free swag to the first five thousand who show up." Everybody gets a trophy. Meh.

If the WNBA is going to move tickets, the audience has to be made active participants. They have to have some sort of emotional investment in coming to the games other than a love of basketball. This is how you draw in the casual basketball fans and turn them into screaming maniacs that would run through Hell in a gasoline suit before they'd miss attending a game in person.

The most involved fans in the world are English (and European) football fans. They have it going on; it's a friggin' religion over there. They have team scarfs, team colors, dances, signs (gigantic mo-fos that cover several rows of seats), chants (that's why I included those chants). Going to a Premiere League football game is about more than just watching football. It's a communal experience, in the same way that going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an experience.

"But what about hooliganism? We don't want a bunch of gaily-painted psychos at WNBA games! We don't want riots!"

True. "Hooliganism" is just fan participation that's completely out of control. There's a spectrum.

Fan participation scale

0 - reading the boxscore, watching highlights on ESPN
1 - watching the game, passively, on television
2 -
3 - fans come to games but are passive observers - the norm at WNBA games - in some cases, this is actually a "2" on the scale and not a "3"
4 -
5 -
6 -
7 - an interesting English football game, most Japanese baseball games
8 - a really interesting English football game
9 -
10 - the roof is raised, violence may spill over
11 - firehoses and teargas - police are called

My theory: If you move the participatory experience to a 7 or 8 from the current 2 or 3 it is now, more people will attend the games. We don't want hooligans, but we don't want passive attendees, either.

How do we get there? Anyone running a WNBA marketing plan would not want to lose control. However, I think more can be added in, in small steps, such as:

- A creative cheering section. Make one section of seats the "official cheering section". (You limit the riotousness to one area.) Fans are offered reduced costs for good seats - you don't want to displace season tix holders who have paid full value for their seats. Here's the rub: you have to audition to get in. "Hey, Dream fans! If you show that you're willing to go the last full measure, you'll get great seats for $5 a game!")

Yes, you lose the value of the tickets - but in exchange you get something that no other WNBA team has - a group of fanatics that are willing to raise the roof for the entire length of the game.

- Chants. The chants can be posted on the jumbotron. They can be laudatory ("la la la the Dream is great la la la") or they can be centered around individual players. Or even the enemy - hey, in NHL games in Nashville they would show little vidoes of the Nashville Predators mascot making the enemy mascot miserable. Why not a few catcalls.

- Prizes for creativity. "Wildest costume." "LARGEST sign." Winner gets a private chat session with Dream players.

- The (Atlanta Dream, Washington Mystics, etc.) Band. At last, the Brooklyn Dodgers Sym-PHONY Orchestra can be recreated! "Fans, if you can form a *band* that will play at games, not only will we *let* you play while seated in the audience, but we'll reduce the price of your tickets.")

(* * *)

The more the fans are involved, the more tickets you'll sell. Really, what does the WNBA have to lose?

As a marketer, you try the ideas, making sure the proper controls are there. If an idea works, you keep it and introduce it to the other teams. If it fails, you either adjust it so that it works next time or forget it. But a marketer should be doing new things every single game. I suggest that the book WNBA marketers should read should not be "Sports Marketing 101" but the autobiography of John Boyd - you should always be doing something different at every game - "by the time the opposition figures out what you're doing, you're doing something else".

Imagine this:

A WNBA fan comes to his or her first game. Let's say it's a Minnesota Lynx game.

They immediately enter a sea of color. There is green and white everywhere. The arena is packed. Fans are waving around flags - not just little flags, but giant banners. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a Mardi Gras. Fans are shouting encouragement at their favorite players, who are taking their warmups.

The Lynx take the field as the lights dim. The crowd goes wild. The Minnesota Weakest Lynx "Band" begins to fire up their somewhat out-of-tune instruments and the crowd begins chanting the Lynx Fight Song.

As the game continues, the crowd - never stops talking. There are claps. There are chants. There are chants at the enemy, creative stuff, too. The crowd gets involved before the game, stays involved during the game, and indeed, only breaks up slowly after the game.

It's an experience he or she never forgets. Tickets are purchased for the next game.

And the cycle continues....

(*) - for some reason, they call the website, leading one to think that this is a website devoted to private investigation.

(**) - one could argue that movie goers are not only passive spectators, but are happy in being passive. The difference, however, is that movies by their nature are radically different experiences each time that require passivity for the suspension of disbelief whereas sports are just variations on a theme.


Ethan said...

I'll have to follow on to this article with one of my own, but in the short term,

"Anything that involves the audience is a winner. Anything that takes them out of the seat and makes them a part of the action is a winner." the quote of the day. HUGE.

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

i am a die hard Dream Fan and like you will be at every game cheering screaming until i loose my voice...which is every game...give the fans a reason to get out of their seats and be a maniac like me...i come to be a part of the whole experience.

Anonymous said...

If you go to a Hawks game and then a Dream game the difference is huge....but I know the Dream do a little bit better job than some WNBA teams and I agree that WNBA teams can do even more than they already do to make the fan experience 100% fun and active....