By Jason Menard
At last — truth in advertising! And from a sports franchise no less.
When it comes to businesses, sports are one of the least likely enterprises to engage in honesty — after all, a large part of a club’s revenue is generated, in one way or another, by selling their fan base on hope.
Hope sells jerseys. Hope sells tickets — and once those butts are in the seat, hope delivers them to the concession booth where hope justifies paying outrageous sums of money for watered-down beer, cheaply made clothing bearing the team’s logo, and seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time knick-knacks (which can easily be confused, if you’re in Madison Square Garden, with Knick Knacks.)
So I suppose that’s why it’s not just refreshing, but also absolutely shocking to learn about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ recent decision to come straight out and tell their fans not to expect too much out of the club this NBA season. It goes against all traditional sports marketing, but it represents a much-appreciated shift towards treating one’s customers — in this case, the paying Timberwolves’ fan base — with respect.
In Monday’s Star Tribune the club paid for a full-page advertisement, which they used to publish an open letter to their fans. This letter contained the following, revealing, statement, “So will we challenge for the NBA championship this year? Not likely.”
OK, it’s not a full-scale throwing in of the towel, but it’s a rare dampening of fans’ expectations that many franchises in all sports are generally terrified of making. After all, the great platitudes that teams often use are the old “everyone’s got the same goal in the pre-season” or “we’re all equal” before the games are played.
The thing is, fans know better. Sure, there may be some delusional über-fans out there who refuse to believe that their beloved club is anything less than championship calibre, but most rational-thinking sports fans know that even before the first puck is dropped, the first kickoff is made, or the first pitch is thrown, their franchise of choice has absolutely no chance of making it to the playoffs — much less hoist the league’s trophy.
Yet despite this obvious fact, fans and franchises play a wink-nod game wherein the clubs pay lip service to the idea of remaining competitive throughout the season and fans allow their emotions to override their common sense when it comes to looking at the reality of the situation.
What the Timberwolves have done is allow their fans to be a part of the process. By expressing the obvious, they remove any sense of disappointment from the fans when the inevitable happens. And the fans, in return, can fully buy into a rebuilding franchise — after all, it’s a lot easier to accept young players’ growing pains when you know that miscues aren’t going to impact a non-existent playoff run.
The Toronto Blue Jays have found some success with a similar approach — albeit not at the gate. Yes, the franchise is taking some lumps — paid attendance is down on paper, but the fact is that the number of people allegedly passing through the turnstiles was inflated by free tickets and corporate gifts. The numbers may be down, but they’re probably a more realistic reflection of the actual attendance from the past few years. But they’ve developed a following based upon realistic goals — a three-to-four-year approach to contending for the Wild Card or the division.
Admittedly, there is a danger with this approach. Players want to win and few are willing to grow with a franchise and lead it to victory, preferring to jump on the bandwagon at the last minute (see Durant, Kevin v. James, Lebron/Bosh, Chris). In fact, in the NHL and the NBA we’re seeing more and more long-term veterans sacrificing pay to play a smaller role on a franchise with a chance of winning. This tactic worked with the Boston Celtics, and MLB and NHL franchises have long used the trading deadline to stock up on veteran help in return for prospects. The question remains, though, how are players going to deal with management showing so little faith — although more realistic expectations — in their prospects? Does Kevin Love stick with the program, or does he look towards greener pastures?
The world of business is changing. Customers are more savvy and have a world of information and analysis at their fingertips. The old way of dealing with customers, both in sports and other businesses, no longer applies. Openness, honesty, and transparency are they keys to getting people to engage with the brand.
The Timberwolves may not lead on the scoreboard very often this season, but they’re head and shoulders above the crowd when it comes to doing business the right way.