How has a team that hasn’t won a championship since the 1970’s retained generations of loyal fans, consecutive sell out seasons and a reputation for one of the loudest arenas in the league?
The Portland Trail Blazers have won an NBA championship only one time. The year was 1977 – most of us early-30’s fans only have grainy footage of Bill Walton throwing his jersey to a frenzy of fans in the lower level of The Coliseum to remind us of the Blazers’ only Broadway parade.
Since that time, the Blazers have managed to advance to the Western Conference finals a few times, meandered about the middle and lower rungs of the Western Conference standings most years, picked a center with bad knees over Michael Jordan, and repeated the same mistake 20 years later selecting a center with bad knees over a high volume scorer.
By many objective measures, the Blazers, as a franchise, has been a failure. They should have a dying fan base, no brand loyalty and trouble selling tickets.
Why are the Blazers more popular than ever on the eve of the 2016/2017 season?
How can you still sell tickets when your dad’s favorite team only won 19 times the season before?
In part, the Blazers sell tickets thanks to pure brand loyalty. There’s nothing more old-school Portland than the Blazers. Rip City. The Schonz. East Portland Grit. The cool factor.
The Portland Trail Blazers are a subsidiary of SportsMyx Holdings Inc. and fall under owner Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc. As a private company, their objective brand indicators are not publically available, but all signs point to high brand loyalty that cross multiple generations. Here’s how.
The Blazers aggressively appeal to old-Portland. They don’t sell tons of scarves, they don’t market to Portland-Pearl-Dwellers, they’ve managed to differentiate their brand from the Portland Timbers through appealing to middle to lower income groups of Portlanders and Oregonians. Ads over recent years have appeared to target the anti-Portlandia crowd, you know, men that do want to work, because they have to. Sales in the Blazers’ on-campus store include Bedazzled shirts for women and snap-backs hats with mock graffiti on them. Legendary broadcaster Bill “The Schonz” Schonely starred in Standard TV and Appliance (a SE 82nd home store) ads for over a decade. He knew his appeal: in many ways, his brand mirrors that of the Blazers.
While the Blazers do have scarf night, their Brand is one of the old-school, hard-working, against-all-odds, middle-to-lower class, Portland, blue-collar worker. Think of your most favorite Blazer, he is most likely one that’s a “hard worker,” “win against the odds,” “fighter” with a story that mirrors your own.
How brand loyalty like this fits, now, when the demographics and economic makeup of the city have changed so drastically in the past 25 years, is almost too perfect – it’s no longer cool to adhere to the status quo. The hipsters that made a living a few years back off the trendy, “I loved it before it was cool,” are now just a mockery, making room for the Portlander that loves to love everything decidedly non-hipster and non-Portlandia.
When the Blazers of the late 90’s and early 2000’s became embattled in a number of off-court incidents, the Blazers briefly became known as the Blaze City and had trouble selling tickets after the Blazers stopped winning. The Blazers quickly realized that the city of Portland loves a “good -guy” who stays out of trouble, and they branded the new players they acquired as such.
The Blazers have mastered a consistent message of nostalgia.
Ticket Sales and Price Modeling
As we know from the classic business case, the Cialis case, a high level of brand awareness makes brands more difficult to change. And while Blazers brand loyalty and brand awareness have stayed concrete, to sell tickets in the Rose Garden – I’ll never call it the Moda Center- the Blazers have changed their approach a number of times in the past 20 years, before settling on a mixed approach, targeting:
1.Corporate ticket package buyers
2.Season ticket holders
4.Setting fan appreciation nights, where discount, third tier, tickets are sold at discount prices
All ticket prices are market sensitive, meaning if the defending champs, Cleveland Cavs, come to town, ticket prices will be higher than if the 76ers are making a visit. They have a full staff of over 20 outside sales people, and a full team of inbound marketing representatives passing leads and making sales over the phone or internet.
So while the Portland Trail Blazers brand is very well ingrained, the ticket-selling strategy is a bit more complex. Any major sports game is an event worth visiting in most major towns, for corporations and businesses in Portland, the Blazers are an excellent high-dollar benefit to offer clients or visiting friends. According to a source inside the Blazers, revenue from corporate buyers represents a large proportion of total revenue in the past 10 years. Indeed, the flexible pricing structure did not impact overall sales as much as some folks predicted because corporate buyers could afford the slightly more expensive package, or, were purchasing packages at bulk rate at the beginning of the season.
The Blazers are using data to inform segmenting and targeting, also. They’ve reportedly used Cortana (Thanks, Paul Allen) to drive data and inform ticket sales.
“As a fully managed big data and advanced analytics product, Cortana Intelligence makes this end-to-end data experience easy to navigate. It allows data specialists from both our organizations to quickly ingest, process and analyze data and build operational machine learning models. Specifically, Python support in Azure ML allows us to easily incorporate feature engineering into model development and increase our development speed and productivity. The insights gained from the analysis using Cortana Intelligence Suite are useful in optimizing the marketing strategy. For instance:
•There are significant differences in purchasing patterns among fans, and they are powerful signals in predicting season ticket purchase.
•Attendance patterns with different opponents are also strong predictors of whether or not a customer is going to be a new season ticket holder.”
Season ticket holders have waxed and waned relative to the success of the team, and single ticket buyers or club ticket buyers, tend to be super fans that can afford one game a season, or the casual fan that enjoys the beer and atmosphere more than the game, respectively.
As the Blazers have worked to attract and retain more corporate package buyers, which has kept ticket sales level or rising over the years, the team has consistently partnered with local schools to offer cheap tickets on school appreciation nights. This gives fans that otherwise would not be able to afford seats a chance to witness an NBA game. The Blazers have also partnered with local Boys and Girls clubs in lower income areas, charter schools and NIKE to give back to underserved communities. The attention to underserved areas appeals to consumers that may not be able to attend games more than once a season, or, who don’t work for a large corporation where they can win tickets to games.
Social Media Marketing
The Blazers social media marketing team is well known for their ground -breaking and first-to-market work across the digital space. They were one of the first teams to embrace the digital realm, becoming early on adopters of a consistently excellent team-Twitter user, and generating compelling digital content that was meaningful, well-researched, carefully curated, and seemingly from fans just like you and me – we could relate with those users – exactly how social media marketing should be set up.
How they do it:
1) Nostalgic mindset
“In their office, the team has assembled all sorts of unique memorabilia that showcases their passion and originality. It helps paint a picture for understanding why they’re great at what they do.” (Baller Mind Frame)
2) A mix of podcasts, video, twitter posts, blog posts of original content, and stories that combine video, audio, and written word that rival the Oregonian’s most poignant player profile.
3) Consistent and strategic use of hash tags and tracking mechanisms that allows content to appear at the top of regional digital users online ads, twitter and facebook news feeds, while providing great data feedback for future decision making.
Winning at the Right Time
Branding and ticket sales strategy can only take you so far, at some point, the product must deliver. Fans want wins. The Blazers have managed to assemble a lovable, against-the-odds, team that made it to the second round of the play offs last year, even after losing its biggest star. The Blazers reinvented themselves after the troubled era at the onset of the 2000’s through drafting and coaching young, talented, utterly underappreciated players and making a play for the top slot in the West (sound familiar, doesn’t it).
Indeed, the Blazers are currently enjoying the success of Damian Lillard, who has catapulted himself to international stardom, a rarity for a small market NBAer. And while many players have a similar rags-to-riches story, the Blazers don’t hesitate to point out the struggle Lillard came from with his longer-than-average time in college, quest to finish his Bachelor’s degree, and sheer determination.
The Blazers attract and retain a certain caliber of player because, in part, he will fit with the Blazers brand. That brand has endured over four decades as the Blazers have one of the most well known franchises in the country. And through the relative lack of success in the NBA, the Blazers have been able to capitalize on their brand loyalty and ticket selling strategy to fill the stands every night.
The Blazers have successfully managed their organization without consistently winning, to retain generations of fans and gain new viewers year over year.