Posted Mar 17 2010 12:23PM
Victories are important. Championships are sublime. Teamwork, defensive shooting percentages, PER ratings, playing through pain, guaranteed contracts, halftime dog shows, 50.4 points per game (one season), celebrity spectators, 360-degree slam dunks, melting-pot rosters and the simple beauty of a backdoor cut-and-layup are all vital to what we've come to know as professional basketball, a.k.a., the NBA.
Strip all that away and at a fundamental level, the NBA -- just like all our other commercial enterprises -- is about widgets. Selling widgets is good. Selling widgets at a greater profit than last year is better. Selling every possible widget an operation can muster, with a waiting list of customers desperate to buy more, is best of all.
Selling fewer widgets? Not good. The Minnesota Timberwolves are tackling their widget problem head-on, in a strategic business move that bears watching throughout the NBA.
Commissioner David Stern told us at All-Star Weekend that the business of the NBA is solid or, at least, better than expected in the first season to feel the full brunt of the Great Recession (TV contracts and season tickets for 2008-09 were largely bought and paid for before the economy really turned ugly). "Our attendance ... is doing better this season than we were actually projecting it," Stern said on Feb. 13 in Dallas. "We are going to be down a little under two percent and, in this environment, that's really very good."
An overall droop of two percent, obviously, is the result of some gains and some declines, measured across 30 teams. In Minnesota's case, its average home attendance of 14,791 through 34 dates actually represents a 1.9 increase over last season's 14,506. That's a bit surprising for a team that again has gotten worse (at 14-54, the Wolves aren't likely to match their 24-58 mark of 2008-09). Also, that is sheer turnstile count, distinct from whatever change in revenue has occurred due to more aggressive discounting.
The Timberwolves are a franchise that has known far happier, more lucrative times. In its inaugural 1989-90 season, Minnesota set NBA records for total and average home attendance thanks to playing for a year in the football/baseball Metrodome. But even with the move to Target Center in 1990-91, the Wolves were a solid draw. Their newness factor kept people coming through the 1994 NBA All-Star Game and then, in arguably the organization's only stroke of luck across 21 years, Kevin Garnett landed in their laps at No. 5 in 1995. (This team has never, ever, improved its Draft position in the lottery and often has moved down. That's how Minnesota ended up with Christian Laettner rather than Shaquille O'Neal in 1992, for instance.)
Minnesota ranked in the top half of the league, in attendance, for most of Garnett's 12 seasons there. It averaged more than 18,000 in 1997-98, sold out 15 home games in 2001-02 and 2003-04 and drew more than 700,000 people as recently as 2004-05. That, however, was the first of what soon will become six consecutive lottery finishes, and fan interest has headed south with the victory totals. This figures to be the Wolves' third straight season playing before fewer than 600,000 home fans.
When the team's marketing staff did its usual due diligence after last season, it learned that, in this economy, something was in play beyond the Northwest Divison standings or the crickets filling Target Center in late April. "Research showed that the fans have bought into the [long-term basketball rebuilding] vision,'' Wolves president Chris Wright said the other day. "The wins and losses weren't really mentioned to the same degree as to why they're not going to come back. What it was, was the value proposition."
Getting more bang for the bucks or, to be blunt, paying a lower price for what has been an inferior product is what Wolves followers seemed to want. That's how the club's current "Run With The Pack" season-ticket campaign was born. From March 1 until April 1, the team has slashed prices of its best seats by up to 50 percent, with 1,200 locations in the lower bowl now selling for $10 on a season-long basis. That means, spread out over the equally new 10-month payment plan, a fan can sit relatively close to the floor for the entire Wolves home schedule and pay $43 a month.
This is Phase 1 of what Wright describes as a four-phase sales plan, with other campaigns focused on the Draft, free agency and training camp.
Don't blink, though: This one ends April 1, after which the prices all will rise.
"It's a numbers play, it's a bodies play," Wright said. "If you look at the bold moves we're taking on the basketball operations side, you begin to go, 'Wow, we're positioned really nicely.' We think Minnesota is a 'growth stock' that people will want to buy right now."
The initial numbers are good: In the first week of March, the team sold 300 new full season tickets, while renewing 30 percent of its current season ticket holders. A year ago at the same point, the Wolves had renewed only 1.5 percent of those folks.
Some of the enthusiasm, in the face of mounting defeats -- the Wolves have dropped 16 of their past 17, with routs of 18, 14 and 38 points in their three most recent games -- is believed to be due to new basketball personnel. David Kahn was brought in as the team's chief architect, with Kurt Rambis as head coach and a roster that again got turned over significantly prior to this season. The learning curve has been steep, what with all the newness and Rambis' imported triangle offense, and the Wolves are threatening to match or beat the worst record in franchise history (15-67 in 1991-92).
Where the hoops and the sales goals meet is in the stands. "If we want these young men to walk into an arena where they have a partisan crowd and it's difficult for their opponents to play, then we need more people in the building," Wright said. "I mean, we've got plenty of inventory. What are we going to do?"
An NBA team's inventory isn't like your neighborhood airline, where flights can be combined or dropped. The Wolves can't just play 28 home games when the schedule demands 41. Selling those is dicier than ever in the Twin Cities, too, when you consider the MLB Twins' new outdoor ballpark, the NFL Vikings' ongoing drama with Brett Favre and the NHL Wild's cult status in a hockey-crazed state.
So while some view the "Run With The Pack" tactics as panic that could do permanent damage to the Wolves' price/value equation, team insiders see it as doing what they need to do. Now, with plenty of time to fret about tomorrow.
"I don't see it as desperation. I see it as calculation," Wright said. "I think it's a parallel of what David is trying to do on the basketball side. And my final analogy is, nobody wants to drink in an empty bar."
The key will be holding cautious fans to that April 1 deadline.
"Come April 1, if you're not in, the prices are going to go up," Wright said. "People can wait for the lottery to speculate who we're going to be picking, but they're going to be paying for our product at a different level. So if you want in, if you believe in it, if you're a basketball fan, if you follow the NBA, then get in now. Because it's as low now as it's going to go."
It all seems a little risky, but the Wolves -- like their NBA brethren -- have all the necessary data available, detailing the history of when, what, where and how much NBA fans in the Twin Cities will pay for the product. Er, the widgets.
"If people do believe in us, many of those are willing to commit in this phase because -- the research told us this -- there is a strong sense that we're on the right path," Wright said. "Provided the Ping-Pong balls don't go the way they have been. We'd better be drafting No. 2."
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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