Corporate Case Study: NBA's Bobcats win over media, fans with outreach

By aggressively targeting the press and community, the Charlotte Bobcats were able to gain approval from fans who were largely apathetic about a new NBA team coming to town.

By aggressively targeting the press and community, the Charlotte Bobcats were able to gain approval from fans who were largely apathetic about a new NBA team coming to town.

As the newest NBA team, the Charlotte Bobcats exist in the shadow of the former Charlotte Hornets, who left North Carolina's largest city in 2002 for New Orleans over a controversy surrounding a new downtown arena. The rift between city and franchise was messy and mean. Long gone were the days when Hornets majority owner George Shinn brought the state its first professional team, and the governors of North and South Carolina declared November 4, 1988 - the date of the first Hornets game - "George Shinn Day" in both states. Shinn now co-owns the Hornets in the Big Easy, having picked up and left town when Charlotte voters refused to pay for most of the arena through taxes. Then came the Bobcats, founded and mostly owned by Black Entertainment Television president Robert Johnson, who announced the franchise in January 2003. A new NBA team was coming to the fast-growing New South city of nearly 500,000 residents. But would Charlotte embrace the Bobcats with the bitter aftertaste of the Hornets still lingering? Getting fans interested Tom Sorenson has written a sports column for North and South Carolina's largest newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, since the mid-1980s. The Hornets' departure, he says, hurt the chances for fan support of any successive NBA franchise. "If people had been angry when the Hornets left," Sorenson says, "then I think at least a faction of the fans would've turned to the Bobcats and said, 'Thank you. You're not the Hornets; thank you for saving us.' It wasn't like that. When the Hornets left, it was mainly apathy. People just turned off; they didn't care. By the time they left town, it was, 'Hey, would you mind hitting the lights on your way out?'" To douse that apathy and reignite a love for basketball in a state renowned for its college hoops, the Bobcats went into the community. Johnson, for one, made a $1 million donation to the YMCA of Greater Charlotte within weeks of his arrival in the city, before there was even a team name or much of an organization. Johnson also hired Ed Tapscott as team president. Tapscott had been VP of player personnel and basketball operations for the New York Knicks, where he also served as interim GM. Tapscott traveled through the greater Charlotte area, speaking to community groups and sitting on boards. "Ed probably worked the room better than any politician I've ever seen, the room being the Charlotte area," says Chris Weiller, the Bobcats' EVP of corporate affairs, whom Tapscott hired away from the Knicks, where he was VP of communications. "He really understood, and we've all followed [his lead], that we need to be open, honest, and engaging. When things are good, be there to talk about them. When things are bad, be there to talk about them. We've tried to do everything in a way that would engage the community." The franchise introduced a new concept for the NBA this summer to reach out to schools in the area. Its October 26 pre-season game against the Miami Heat will be open only to students who earn one of the 14,000 seats through incentive-based programs in their school districts. This kind of aggressive community outreach came as a direct response to the insularity of the Hornets' management, especially in those last desperate days before the hop to New Orleans. "We were looked at, I think, with suspect eyes coming in," Weiller says. "And I think, coming into town, there was really no doubt we needed to differentiate who we were going to be as ownership and who we were going to be as a franchise from what was here before." Press conferences, for one thing, have been used to get the Charlotte Bobcats in front of the city. First-round draft pick Emeka Okafor - the Bobcats' first draftee ever - was introduced to Charlotte at a press conference in a local YMCA, as was head coach and GM Bernie Bickerstaff. "We're allowing people to basically see, touch, and feel us, even when we've basically had no players and no 'product,'" says PR director Chris Leightman, who spent five years with the Phoenix Suns, most recently as director of basketball communications, before going to Charlotte. Being open with the press The Bobcats enjoyed a relative honeymoon in Charlotte for the first few months. The community-friendly approach kept the news generally positive and the team in the good graces of its new city. But then the ticket prices were announced. They were higher than those for the Hornets - who often went to the playoffs. Many Charlotteans, including those in the media, saw the high prices for an untested team as unfair. The resulting storm in the summer of 2003 provided the Bobcats' open approach to PR its first test. "So the story was, 'Oh my God, the ticket prices are so high,'" Weiller recalls. "That afternoon, Ed and I were on sports radio here, live in the studio, taking phone calls as people were calling to say what they wanted to say, and the host of the show was saying what he wanted to say. "I think that was a turning point, quite honestly, in how the media saw us," he says. It was OK when things were good for the first six months. But when the first piece of negative react came in, we were right out there talking about it. We didn't run and hide." And, thanks to the candor, the ticket prices story soon faded from the public's mind. "It's been nice to be able to deal with the media in a very up-front, here-it-is kind of way as opposed to a lot of the chicanery that takes place in New York," says Weiller, "with all the different players in that media market." Charlotte's media market is dominated by a few big players, led by the Observer. The Bobcats have courted them all largely through the sort of open-door policy that shepherded the franchise through the ticket-prices brouhaha. The courting has not gone unnoticed, or unappreciated. "The one thing they're doing really well is the people who've represented the team could not have been more gracious," Sorenson says. "Bickerstaff is the media's dream. You call him, he calls you back. It's a hell of a concept." The new, more than $200 million arena the Bobcats will play in starting with the 2005-06 season has involved a lot of returned phone calls. It's the one sore spot between the franchise and the city that refuses to go away quietly. A bond referendum originally failed among Charlotte voters in 2001, which precipitated the Hornets' departure. Then, in a highly contentious February 2002 vote, the City Council approved a long-term lease with a future pro franchise in exchange for most of the money for a new downtown arena coming from taxpayers. Basically, what the voters had rejected, the politicians, backed by a strong business lobby, had approved. Without the arena, though, the Bobcats wouldn't have come to Charlotte. "There's nothing more we can do than talk about what a great place it will be," Weiller says, "and what a great center of gravity it's going to be for the city." The Bobcats would not disclose how much they spend on PR, but Weiller says they've had all the resources they've needed to handle PR and community relations. The PR staff includes nine employees, who also handle PR for the new arena, the WNBA's Charlotte Sting, which Johnson also owns, and a new cable sports network, C-SET (Carolina Sports Entertainment Television), which is expected to launch in October. Weiller says he expects the number of PR staffers to increase once the arena opens for the Bobcats' second season. "We can never lose sight of the fact," he says, "that how we're perceived publicly here in town matters a great deal." PR contacts EVP of corporate affairs Chris Weiller
VP of community relations LaRita Barber VP of marketing Andy Feffer PR director Scott Leightman

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