The discount NBA

March, 9, 2010
3/09/10
11:52
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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All my life, I have loved the NBA.

But I have hardly ever bought tickets.

It's not because I don't want to go. It's not even because I can sit in the media section for free. I would like to go with friends and family, and hoot and holler. Instead of wearing starchy business garb at my laptop on press row, it would be fun to do what sports fans everywhere do -- to wear jeans and drink a beer. That difference is worth some money to me.

But not that much money. Holy cow, in a lot of cities to get a pair of reasonably good seats -- not amazing seats, but reasonably good seats -- is something like $300 before parking and beer and all that. Those are prices for corporate customers. People who are entertaining clients. People who are, frankly, writing off the expense.

It has been written a zillion times before: Because of those prices, the crowds at NBA games can be a little stiff. They're in starchy business garb too -- which makes sense, 'cause a lot of those people are there to work. To see and be seen. To impress people. To deal. To look good.

Sports are great ice-breakers. It is a great place to bring a client you hardly know. But if you do that, you are not going to let yourself act like a maniac fan, all delirious, boisterous and tipsy. You're unlikely to wear jeans, or go hoarse.

Cheap tickets would seem to be the only real way to address that.

The Timberwolves are now officially working the cheap tickets angle hard. In March, tickets are as much as half off, and there are even lower bowl season tickets that are ten dollars a game. They say it's going very well. "After one week," the team has announced, "the Minnesota Timberwolves 'Run with the Pack' ticket sales and renewal campaign resulted in the most new season tickets sold by the franchise in a one-week time since the NBA announced a franchise was coming to Minnesota. The team sold 300 new full season tickets during the record-setting week, while also renewing 30% of its current season ticket holders. At the same point last year, the team had only renewed 1.5% of its season ticket holders."

Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn was part of a conversation with the business office that led to the drastic price reductions. "We want to start to re-energize the fan base next year as we start, we hope, a climb," Kahn explains. "It'll be easier to make that climb to the top with a very full, vibrant, loud building. This was an opportunity for us to start to reconnect, and to rebuild the fan base which at one point was one of the most rabid in the League."

Kahn then took a few of my questions about the decision.

A lot of NBA tickets are sold to people with corporate expense accounts, or people who can get tax write-offs for buying the tickets to entertain clients. I can't help but feel that hurts the atmosphere in the building. It's a little starchy, and less loud.
I agree with the overall premise. You want the building to be loud. But I've seen some people in suits and ties be pretty loud. I spent some time in New York. With a 41-game season, it's really hard for a lot of people, in today's society, to attend that many games. So when a business, small or large, buys those tickets, a lot of times it makes sense that they distribute those to all different people.

I don't think it's a case of wanting a certain kind of fan. We want those who are loud and boisterous. If it's your theory that those people tend not to work at businesses, I'm not sure I can ascribe to that. I've seen people in suits and ties be very loud.

I know this. This building was extraordinarily loud at one point, especially when the team made a run to the conference finals in 2004. I think it can return to that, and I think it will return to that. And this is a step toward making it so.

Have you heard from any of the other 29 teams, or the NBA about this? I could see somebody making an argument that you're devaluing the brand a bit. Ten-dollar lower bowl seats could theoretically make $100 lower bowl seats a tougher sell in another market.
The pricing of the very best seats are hardly ten dollars. There's some prime beachfront real estate, and the pricing is still quite expensive by anybody's standards. But the analogy that I've used is to think of the iPhone. Check me on this but I believe when it first came out, it was priced at $399. It came back a year later for $199 and with a better phone. I don't think anybody thought the iPhone had become devalued. It was just a way for it to broaden its usage, and it became even more iconic.

I see this as being a very similar product. Are tickets are being reduced in price in many cases, but I still believe there's enormous value, and hopefully this will mean there are more users.

If you're selling these tickets so cheaply, presumably that hurts how much you could spend on free agents down the road. Does this pricing decision point to the ongoing issues between large and small markets?
I don't want to say anything in defiance of the League's wishes that we stay quiet on collective bargaining. But I'll echo what the commissioner said at All-Star, there should be a more robust revenue-sharing program out of this agreement. I will say though, that having worked at Indiana for nine years, and now here, there's no question that he difference in broadcast markets has an impact on your revenues. I mean, that's just obvious. New York, L.A., Chicago, the Bay Area, they're in the top ten, and especially those first three, have the opportunity to drive revenues that simply don't exist for the rest of us. TV, radio, cable and even new media now ... ticket prices have always been a way for other markets to keep pace, but that's difficult to have that persist over a long period of time, whether there's an economic downturn or not. [In small markets] you ultimately have fewer consumers and have to keep raising prices to keep up.

I'm hopeful that the end result here is that the pricing decrease here will be made up with a fuller building and more buyers, and a better atmosphere for our team and our fans.

And I want to say this to you, really seriously. I get asked this a lot, by people as I travel with the team. How has attendance been this year? I actually think is has been better than I anticipated. I thought it would be a more difficult picture. With the exception of two or three home games, I think it has been reasonably OK. But no question, we can do better, and this is one way to do so.

I guess getting more people in the building can inspire other value for the team. More people who might watch on TV, who might buy some team merchandise, or talk their friends into going to a game.
Absolutely. The best thing for us is for people to be talking about us. This is one of those cases where you can't be anything but please if people are buying the tickets. And the more the merrier. ... And it adds value to every ticketholder. I always used to say, when I was in Indiana, that if the courtside seatholder can look up to the upper deck or the balcony and see those seats filled, it adds value to his ticket. Even though there's no real relationship there, he sees the amount of people who are there, and it confirms the fact that he made a wise choice to purchase his very high-priced ticket.

Only good things can come from a full building.

Henry Abbott | email

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