Before reading this post, I urge you to check out this commentary by Aisander D over at Ridiculous Upside, which is directed at this report of Bakersfield Jam's new business model.
Seriously, read those two links and come back here. But in case you're really lazy and want to read my post right now, the very abbreviated take on it is that Bakersfield is catering to a very small segment of the population—specifically the rich—offering approximately 550 tickets per game to be played at their cozy practice facility. The "fans" will be treated to dinner, an open bar, a cigar room. Simply put, they won't be there for the basketball.
Up front I must admit that I am not a businessman. I graduated with an English degree. I've worked as a journalist, corporate communications consultant, and advertising copywriter. One look at my bank account will tell you, I'm not all about the money. I follow my passions and work enough to make enough to get by. Would I like to have more money? Yes, but not if it means sacrificing things I care about.
I will never own a professional basketball team—D-League or otherwise. I feel pretty confident in saying that. I'm not sure if it's more or less likely to happen than me playing professional basketball, but let's just agree that neither one is happening anytime soon unless I'm dreaming peacefully.
That said, I think it's pretty clear that if you look around professional sports, there are different types of owners. It goes without saying that you have to be fairly wealthy to be an owner of a professional sports team. It's a hefty investment, but it's likely far from your only asset.
So then, the question becomes, what's the goal as an owner? To turn a profit? To win games/a championship? To become an integral part of the community where your team plays? I'm just speculating here, but I think it's safe to say that for most owners it's a formula combining those three factors. I also think it's safe to say that there's a common link between the three: the fans.
Without fans buying tickets, merchandise, etc., the team won't survive. Of course, fans (generally) are more willing to buy those tickets and apparel when the team is winning games and they feel a connection to them in the city.
This all becomes a bit more challenging when you step down to the minor league level. In general, fans in Erie don't feel the same connection to the BayHawks that say, for example, the fans in Cleveland have for the Cavs. There's a lot that factors into that—history, media exposure, level of play, etc.—but the bottom line is that while it may be a bit of a tougher sell to get a community to support a minor league franchise, the same basic principles apply.
The owner wants to make a profit, and the best way to do that is to attract fans. Winning games still matters. Even if it's a lesser percentage piece of the puzzle, it still helps. The BayHawks making the playoffs last season definitely drew some positive attention to the team and stirred up a little buzz in Erie. Had that playoff game been played in Erie, I believe the attendance figures would've exceeded regular season figures.
So that brings me back to Bakersfield. I don't understand how catering to such a small segment of the population is a good move long term. By pricing out most of your potential fan pool, aren't you killing fan interest? I understand the value of selling some luxury-box packages. There's a market out there for that sort of thing, but it shouldn't be the only market, right?
Just from reading Summer League recaps and NBA team blogs on the Internet, I think there's a healthy amount of basketball junkies out there in Erie, Bakersfield, and elsewhere that ought to be able to find reasonably priced seats to these games. And yet, I can't dismiss the news that the Bakersfield Jam was losing money every year with their old, more traditional, business model.
Call me an idealist, but I do think a minor league franchise can work if it's run right. And that means going above and beyond to catch on in the community. That means, especially in the first years of existence (yes, this means you, BayHawks), getting out there in the community as much as possible. County fairs, basketball clinics, autograph signings, community service projects, schools, wherever. Someone from the team—players whenever possible—from the coach to the owner to employees should be out spreading the good word of NEW TEAM X in the community, and using Facebook, Twitter, MySpace doesn't hurt either.
So, maybe the franchise isn't rolling in green after year one. From my limited knowledge of starting a new business (you know, from watching movies and stuff), isn't that sort of a given for anyone starting a new business? The point is, I think the key is to reach out as much as possible from the get-go to expand the initial fan base, get people excited and talking about the team, and then, of course, putting a good product out there that makes them want to come back and maybe bring a friend or two as well.
Unfortunately, I don't have access to the financial figures for the Erie BayHawks last year. What I do know is that I like their general approach, which involves reaching out to the various segments of the Erie population. They're not perfect, but they certainly put Bakersfield to shame when it comes to reaching out to different groups of people. They have special group packages and courtside tables that get waited on during the game, but they also offer $99 season ticket packages for kids and promote a family friendly atmosphere. Professional sports leagues are pricing out the average fan much too much these days. If that starts trickling down to D-League organizations, which are usually based in smaller cities, I worry that teams like the BayHawks won't last long.
Sports are a business, it's true. But let's not forget that it's a business that simply doesn't exist without the fans. I don't wish failure on anyone, but I certainly hope Bakersfield's new business model does not become the future operating model of choice in the D-League or any league for that matter. I'd much rather see more fans paying less per ticket to enjoy the game than fewer people paying extravagant prices for luxury outings with a side of basketball.