If you are an NBA basketball team, this scenario sounds like a formula for failure, right? What would you do if you were responsible for the marketing of an NBA team that had all the attraction of a tired slug in a mud-filled swamp?
Would you believe me if I told you that dunking sumo wrestlers would be the answer to not only turning things around, but to electrifying your revenue?
Jon Spoelstra, president of the Nets at the time, rethought everything the organization was doing to spur interest in the community and demonstrated a highly creative approach to transforming the team’s marketing. He started by taking the traditional NBA marketing formula and tossing it out the window.
Spoelstra’s marketing innovations revolutionized NBA marketing, and it has never been the same since. While he was in charge, Nets’ annual ticket sales increased by 240 percent. Sponsorship fees grew an astounding 1,650 percent. In total, thanks to Spoelstra’s marketing genius, overall revenue rose by almost 500 percent in just three years.
Spoelstra took over during the 1990’s, when the Nets were a pathetic team racking up loss after loss, when player salaries were skyrocketing, and when there was no such thing as a true Nets fan. The organization was losing $4 to $5 million per season and the team had the worst record and lowest attendance of any NBA team for five straight years. Blech!
The owners discounted ticket prices and even tried giving tickets away for free. Nothing worked.
Enter Spoelstra. He outlined some of the highly unusual strategies he developed in his book Marketing Outrageously. Other teams marketed their own players. Spoelstra did the unthinkable at the time, and started marketing the other team’s players. He put together ticket packages that allowed fans to see the NBA’s best – Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson – and that finally kept the home crowd coming back to games. He did not bother marketing his own Nets players since he already knew that was not enough of a draw.
For games against opposing teams that lacked any true star power, he came up with alternative ideas like his White Castle package – where a family of four could have dinner at White Castle and then attend the game all for an incredible $40. The White Castle nights consistently sold out.
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He decided to completely ignore Manhattan and its millions of potential fans. It was thought at the time that a team in New Jersey could not survive without fans from New York City. In reality, the Nets had tried in vain for years to get New Yorkers interested in supporting the Nets, but folks in Manhattan already had a team – the New York Knicks. Why in the world would they head across the river to cheer on a team that lost most of its games?
He also stopped marketing the games themselves and focused on making them family entertainment events. Whatever happened on the court – a win or a loss – was largely irrelevant. He used huge Hollywood-style search lights. At the end of the national anthem, fireworks exploded in the building (unheard of back then). He did whatever he could to keep the crowd entertained during every stoppage of play. During timeouts in the second half of games, two huge guys in sumo wrestling outfits ran up and down the court playing basketball. According to Spoelstra’s account, they were more popular than the Nets players!
To get unstuck and drive new revenue growth, you sometimes need to rethink your marketing mix and methods. Sometimes you need outrageous marketing. And yes, sometimes, you need basketball-playing sumo wrestlers.
This post was first published on August 14, 2017, and was updated on October 27, 2021.
Source of 3rd Sumo Wrestlers Photo: Earth Trekkers