How were you able to parlay last year’s playoff appearance into successful business?We wanted to be very aggressive in taking advantage of the team’s play during the spring of ’10. And we were able to build our season ticket base. Going into this season it was a matter of focusing on how we further can build our season ticket base, and how we can build a sponsor base – those are our primary concerns.
When the Forbes numbers come out ever year, one of the questions that always looms is the correlation between on-field and off-field success, especially for a smaller market. Do the Bucks need a good basketball team to survive?
Well it’s very easy for sports sponsorships and for sports ticket sales people to sell tickets and sponsorships in a winning environment. If you’re a team that is not a consistent winner it’s much harder…
But it’s also a variable we can’t control, so we need to sell through the winning and losing by selling a great experience in arena. We need to have great customer service both on the season ticket and the sponsorship side, we need to have practical and reasonable pricing, and we need to grow our season ticket base and grow our sponsorship category as much as we can. So in a smaller market it is harder, but it is doable, and if we believe that an NBA team can exist in Milwaukee, and we all do, we need to prove it by our results.
How many years of consistent success do you need before it benefits your side of the operation?
Well it has to start somewhere. Last year was a start in that we were a playoff team. But we need to repeat this year because it does build consistency. If you can be a consistent playoff team over 2, 3, 4 years you can really add to your bases in sponsorships and ticket sales. If you’re not consistent year after year, and establish a pattern of not being in the playoffs for several years, it’s a much harder return of success. So you have to start with that first year back, we got it, we took advantage of that last summer, now we need to again make playoffs, and build on the base as it is.
It’s a cyclical business. The cycles can be long both in winning, and they can be long and painful in losing too. But, again, on the sponsorship and ticket side you are really at the mercy of your team’s record, at your basketball management and leadership. You work through it, and you hope that when the cycle does turn that you’re prepared for it. That you have the right staff, that you have the right energy, and that you’re not taken by surprise by either good fortune or bad fortune.
But it’s so much harder for a small-market team in Milwaukee to establish that winning pattern, and therefore consistent financial success. Does that mean, as many have suggested, that the NBA needs to adopt more revenue sharing?
Well, I can’t go very deeply into it because of collective bargaining issues, so I’m going to have to be very careful and short.
The NBA has 30 teams, all of them are in great cities, and nearly all of have a good base of support. The success of other sports leagues has been due in great part to the ability to create hope in each one of its cities. The NBA started some revenue sharing several years back, and it’s a big part of the league’s initiatives now to improve and accomplish what is really desired: a strong league in every city, where every team has a chance, over time, to compete for a championship, and also to be successful off the court in its business ventures and has a chance to make a profit.While there will by cycles on and off the court in terms of competitive levels, those come and go. But every team should be able to field a competitive team over the course of the cycles, and every team can make a profit so that there’s hope in its market, and so the fans have a chance to see a competitive team, and not always the same team. New teams getting in the playoffs create some excitement, and ensures that it’s not just a four market league in terms of hope – on and off the court.
Without getting the rare household name through the draft, is it possible for the Bucks to compete from a marketing standpoint?
Well, I think, I think that the league and the owners of the league, they’re working hard at it. So I’m hopeful they’re going to find ways and processes, that will make it a very strong and competitive league in every way on and off the court.
It has to be tough for you to get businesses to purchase season tickets, especially relative to New York, Los Angeles, and other major markets. Can you quantify how important fan nights and other creative initiatives are to a team like the Bucks?
Well, every team has its own unique advantages depending on its market. Size is an advantage for certainly the New Yorks and LAs and Bostons and Chicagos, yet we feel that we can sell, in a certain way, to the loyalty of our fan base, to the strength and affinity of the fans who have been with us for 43 years. We have a great history, we have a fan base that tends to get a little more excited about its teams. We have a good sports menu in the state of Wisconsin – certainly for the population size of the state – we have NFL, MLB, and NBA, and great college programs, as well. So our sports fans are very sophisticated, they’re very avid and they’re also value-oriented.
Given those provisions in terms of ticket buyers, we try to market as aggressively as we can to all constituencies. On the sponsor side, we do tend to look at the more non-traditionals. Yes, we have some good corporate headquarters that are supportive of the team considering the size of our market, but we have to reach out to businesses that might not be part of the traditional sports sponsorship landscape which get involved with us because they are interested in the game and operate their business here.
How do you sell the Bucks to sponsors? What can you offer that other opportunities can’t?
Well we have the traditional methods of our radio, and our broadcast, our hospitality advantages, our media in terms of website – we have a very robust website. We have a strong base of fans who are excited and loyal about our team, on a statewide basis. We have good community relations initiatives that can be sponsored and partnered with, so that businesses can accomplish some of their goals in the community relations area. So I think we have a pretty full menu of assets that can solve many, or most of a business’s goals. Whether it’s new business, employee retention or recruitment, whether it’s the launch of new products, or markets, we know that from past experience, we can stick to many success stories. And we can bring our assets – which include our coaches, our players, and our building to the table – to provide really cost-efficient, exciting sponsorships that will differentiate them in the marketplace. .
For one season, his first in the NBA, you guys had Yi Jianlin. Did he help you open doors to new markets in the Far East?
Yeah it can definitely open up some doors and give us some opportunities with several Chinese brands, and we were definitely able to take advantage of that. We’ve even had a little bit of Chinese interest even this year. So yes, you can take advantage of those special situations where a player form a certain zone, a certain country, or who has a strong affinity can help you. And again, you want to be ready for it.
When Yi was drafted here, we were very aggressive in dealing with potential Chinese sponsors as well as the Chinese community in the region, and we learned a lot from that, and we benefited from it. There will be a day when we have another Chinese player, or a player from another country that we can do similar business with. Yi was a particularly great situation for us, because China is a growing country with heavy interest in NBA basketball, so we were able to bring Bucks assets here in Milwaukee to potential Chinese sponsors.
Wait, you’re still benefiting from that one season of Yi?We’ve had a little bit of Chinese sponsorship investment this season, and we’re always looking for it. Because now having had Yi, Chinese sponsor candidates do know about Milwaukee, they know that Milwaukee is in the league, they know Milwaukee as a city that embraced Yi, and its fans and the Chinese market are also aware of it. I think now that many Chinese sponsors are really looking for exposure in any fashion, whether its back to China via the home games in Milwaukee that are shown back in China, or whether it be via players that are from the Chinese country, I think they really see that you don’t have to have a Chinese player on the team because many of the broadcasts from our NBA cities are seen in China.
Talk about that excellent Fear the Deer commercial and the campaign as a whole.
ESPN invited our mascot to be part of a spot, and of course, we were excited and thrilled about it. It really turned out well, so it’s been a very good thing for us. And Fear the Deer has been a great rally cry, and it’s a great theme that we hope to keep going for a number of years, without wearing it out. We really hope to make it part of our fabric and part of our competitive spirit that we can ride with for a number of years.
Who came up with that slogan?
There’s a lot of stories, or a lot of theories about how it started. Some say it started locally, others say it was used by an ESPN SportsCenter talent. It’s one of those things where it’s almost good that no one knows how it started. It kind of grew organically. And we knew when we heard it and we saw it – and there was a fan in the audience with a homemade sign of the slogan – we knew we couldn’t let it go.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
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