NJ Nets transform team by courting fans

Effort to make the Nets the most accessible team in sports scores coverage beyond the sports pages

Effort to make the Nets the most accessible team in sports scores coverage beyond the sports pages

In the New York basketball world, the Knicks have always been considered the glamorous team. Their regional cousins, the New Jersey Nets, have had a more workmanlike reputation, despite the fact that they have been able to consistently wipe the court with the Knicks talent-wise over the past several years. But with the help of a new CEO and an energized PR program, the Nets are in the process of building their brand to Knicks-like levels and filling seats while they're at it.

When the Nets hired Brett Yormark as their new CEO in January of 2005, the team was signaling that it was ready for a change. It was notoriously unloved relative to other NBA teams, and Yormark, a former NASCAR executive with a marketing flair, was brought in to lure more sponsors and corporate partners and to keep fans happy.

Fans, of course, are the lifeblood of any team. And Yormark came in with a plan to appeal directly to those fans who are the most consistent of all: season-ticket holders.

At his job interview, Yormark was asked what he would do differently to help the team. He responded off the top of his head, "I'd love to identify 50 or 100 avid Nets fans who are ticket buyers and have them help us find people just like them."

That idea grew into the Nets' "Influencer" program, a remarkably grassroots effort for a major sports franchise. It consists of intimate backyard parties, held in fans' homes, at which Nets players and executives mix, mingle, and talk with prospective ticket buyers on their own turf.

Yormark says the team's ticket department identifies potential Influencers, 100 of whom are feted at a breakfast each spring. Up to 50 people sign up to host events on the spot, and others contact the team throughout the year expressing their own interest. That makes for a full slate of events throughout the year - a consistent parade of meet-and-greets that bring average fans face to face with a revolving cast that might include Yormark and Nets point guard Jason Kidd one night, and announcer Marv Albert and forward Richard Jefferson the next.

"[Season tickets] account for... close to, if not more than, 50% of the [team] revenue," Yormark points out. "It's obviously a very important revenue stream for us."

But past the mere revenue, which is considerable - the Nets say they average around $75,000 in ticket sales for each Influencer event they hold - the team recognized that the unique events offered a ripe PR opportunity. The job of recognizing the publicity potential fell to Barry Baum, the team's VP of business and entertainment PR. He and Yormark planned to make the Nets the "most accessible team in sports," and the pair viewed the Influencer program as the key component of an "All-Access campaign" that would reconnect the fan base to Nets personnel.

Baum, a former New York Post reporter, understood that the Influencer events were a solid news hook that could easily woo journalists. "You can't get more accessible than having players go to peoples' homes. That defines access," he says. "[That] really was exactly the message that we wanted to deliver to the marketplace: that we were going to do things differently."

He decided to start nationally, landing a story about the program in USA Today. Quickly following that came more pieces from The New York Times, Post, and Daily News, several papers in New Jersey, and various TV stations and magazines. All of the press was an added bonus for Tiffany's, which was sponsoring the events along with the Nets in order to reach an affluent demographic.

"We don't just get stories in just to see our name in the paper," says Baum. "We try to create value for our sponsors."

Mike Bass, the VP of marketing communications for the NBA, says that the Nets under Yormark have become one of the league's most proactive teams in the communications arena.

"Putting in a business communications discipline has really had great success in creating a positive buzz around the organization," Bass says. "[They] focused not just on the sports media, but really worked hard to get significant coverage in business, lifestyle, and entertainment media."

Indeed, Baum, who is a one-man department, says he is constantly placing stories about the team and Yormark everywhere from Fortune to Page Six. A parallel effort to gaining media focus on the team's business practices has been a steady but ceaseless push to build Yormark himself into one of the NBA's most recognized CEOs.

"Through our efforts on the business PR front, I've become a bit of a face of the franchise," Yormark says. "As we're out there pitching big deals and I'm calling CEOs of major companies, they've seen us. They've heard about our story."

 
AT A GLANCE

COMPANY:
New Jersey Nets

PRIMARY OWNER:
Bruce Ratner (developer)

VALUE: More than $300 million (2004 purchase price)

COMPETITORS:
New York Knicks, New York Yankees, New York Mets, New York Giants, New York Jets, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils

MARKETING BUDGET:
Undisclosed

BUSINESS PR TEAM:
Barry Baum, VP of business and entertainment PR

MARKETING SERVICES AGENCIES:
Advertising: BrandBuzz; PR: in-house

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