Following some really interesting dialogue at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference about game experience and the future of live sports, I wanted to talk Thunder Vice President of Sales and Marketing Brian Byrnes about how the Thunder might fit in there. I’ve been saving this conversation for a rainy day and well, thanks lockout, I guess.
First, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I know you’re a busy man (or at least was when I talked to him).
I always have time to talk about our business.
The first thing I wanted to ask about was that Mark Cuban said the Mavericks sink “hundreds of thousands” of dollars into just video presentations alone at games. I know the Thunder don’t do anything like that, but is the budget pretty substantial for game presentation?
Well, first of all, the answer to the first question that do we spend a good amount of our resources on the game presentation is an overwhelming yes. Mark’s comment I think was more attributed to their video development. I would suggest that we do a fair of that by the way. I don’t know that it’s as much as Dallas does though.
It’s probably one of our biggest investments in terms of business. Obviously I’m not speaking to the basketball side of things in terms of investment in players, but if you think of just the business, one of the more sizable investments we make both from a monetary perspective and a resource perspective is to create the most energetic and compelling game experience we can.
Cuban also said that during big games that the game entertainment kind of lays off and lets the fans produce more of it on their own. Like if the Mavs are playing the Spurs, they back off with the prompts and videos and try to produce a bit more of an organic feel to the experience rather than pounding away with music and stuff. Do the Thunder take that same approach?
That’s a good question. I think that answer is probably more market specific and Mark has a good perspective on the Maverick environment where they market certain games different from others. In Oklahoma City, it’s different.
I think we’ve tried to take the approach that every game is of the same value. We’ve never really tried to say that one game is more important because of the opponent quality or the opponent brand, i.e. a Celtic game versus a Grizzly game. It’s been our perspective that we want to treat every game with an equal level of value.
There are several reasons for that. One is, in a relatively new market we’re still very much promoting the NBA experience. We’re still very much promoting that every game is important to the organizational development of our fanbase. And I think from the team perspective we’ve always had a responsibility to create the best environment for our players and we don’t to suggest that one game is not the same as the other. Because to them, every game is important. So we’ve never really tried to differentiate that with our presentation to our fans. So we may be in the minority, but our approach to provide a consistent game experience to our fans.
What do the Thunder focus more on — the jumbotron or in trying to create that organic fan experience?
It’s a fine line. Clearly, not only is it our third year in OKC but the fifth year for the NBA here. We understand that our fans are becoming more knowledgeable about the pace of the game and the cadence of the game and as the team continues to play well, especially at home, I think our fans are more in tune with the ebbs and flow of the game.
So we’re very conscious of allowing the game to breathe when the fans are really connecting to the experience. Our approach is for the first two and half, three quarters of the game, we’re trying to create a consistent level of entertainment. There’s a lot of video board presentation, there’s a lot of on court promotions during timeouts, there’s constant music being played and it’s all part of creating a sense of excitement and buzz and interaction. But we’re also very conscious of the latter part of the game, where we’ll read and react. There’s times where we need to be more aggressive and there are times when we simply have to step back.
How concerned are you and the organization about TV? I know you make a ton of money off of TV rights, but at the same time it has to be a bit scary to that with HDTV’s and now 3D TVs and the convenience of DVR that staying at home and foregoing the pains of parking and the time commitment, right?
No question. We’re a business like everyone else. So when we go into business planning for any particular year, we start with the same thing every business starts with, a swot analysis. What are you strengths, weaknesses, what are the opportunities and what are the challenges.
And more and more, professional sports teams, just like Cuban articulated, more and more of our teams, when you think about the challenge to our business, it’s technology. The fact you can watch an NBA game on a 105-inch HDTV or a 70-inch 3D TV or your 4-inch iPad, and the quality is terrific, that’s absolutely a competitive threat to our business.
So, what do we do about that? We try to make the game experience so unique and so compelling and so interesting that to a consumer, there’s still a choice to make. While the game on TV might be extremely good, there’s still no substitute for the in-game experience.
One thing the panel discussed in detail was smart phone integration. The example I liked was saying if a movie is good, people aren’t going to be checking their phone for two hours. I assume that’s the same idea the Thunder have with in-game entertainment. One idea I had was maybe like an app that you only can use in the arena where you can hear Scott Brooks mic’d up or something. Do you see the game experience leaning that direction in the future?
Absolutely. And your idea is a good one because I think what it does is it starts the discussion about all of the different types of content you can provide. I’ll give you a real practical debate that we’re having in our offices now: In the arena, kind of the standard arena presentation on your video boards, you really have it focused on our of town scores, players on the floor, fouls, timeouts, points, steals, all of that. What we’re doing today in 2011 is really not all that different to what teams were doing in 1997, trying to provide those interesting facts to fans.
Well guess what: With a good PDA, you can get all that faster and maybe in a better format sitting in your seat with your smart phone than what you can get in the building. So we have to start thinking about re-purposing some of the real estate that we use for scores and stats and maybe do something different with it because the consumer has different and maybe better ways to access the data.
So maybe those end boards instead of being hustle stats maybe there’s some other unique presentation. Maybe it’s alternate camera angles. Maybe it’s isolation cameras on players or pieces of the playing surface. To your point, maybe there’s apps that are developed that are location based apps where only in the arena you can get streams of information whether it’s the coach’s audio or a player isolation camera or whatever. Because quite frankly, that stuff can be distributed better than what we can do in-arena at least more practically.
I think some fans might suggest a “Thunder Girl cam” but I’m not so sure about that. But what about people bringing iPads to games. Do you think that’s going to become more commonplace in the future?
I do. I think the next generation of fans will have grown up in an era where multitasking is second nature. You don’t see iPads as much as cell phones, but I don’t think we’re too far away from seeing iPads as a device that’s open because people want to see shooting percentages or turnover rate or who has the most offensive rebounds. People expect it in real-time now. They don’t want to wait two minutes for us to display it. They want to see it when they want to see it. I don’t think we’re too far off from that.
I don’t want to use the word fear, but what’s your biggest concern I guess heading down the road? I have no doubt the organization is going to be successful but there has to be things that you guys are always keeping an eye on. Is it ticket sales, on court success, downtown parking, in-game experience? Something else?
The secret sauce for us is instilling an emotional connectivity with fans. I think that’s the holy grail for sports teams anyway, right? How do you have a Cubs relationship with your fans? How do you have a Packers relationship with your fans? How do you have a St. Louis Cardinals relationship with your fans? Where year in and year our, they want to support you, they want to be connected to you, they want to feel like there’s a sense of value to being a fan more important than team success.
So year in and year out, we feel like the fans are valuing the experience of being a Thunder fan and that supersedes what happens on the court. Because on the court, it’s only natural that we’re going to have cycles of performance. That’s a constant in sports. It’s way too early to know, but if we’re looking back 15 years from now to evaluate the Thunder business, we hope that we’ve accomplished a sense of fan value. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the ticket buyer. They could watch the game on TV or go to five games a year, how can I make sure that person is really connected to the experience?
The analogy is to the collegiate marketplace. Why do colleges have such a strong sense of loyalty? More often than not, it’s alumni driven and they spent four or five years at the university becoming immersed in the culture and the identity and the lifestyle of that experience and the environment, so they’re naturally following that football team or basketball team because there’s a sense of participation.
Professional teams don’t have that. You’re a fan because you’re choosing to follow this particular product or service. So we have to create in ways the experience colleges have by having you on their campus for four or five years. I think that’s my fear. My fear is that we have to keep working on developing that connection so that fans value what we provide.
Our greatest challenge is that we’re the smallest market in the NBA. Our biggest opportunity is that we’re the smallest market in the NBA. We have a chance to get this entire community to be really passionate and supportive of our business in such a way that you probably can’t instill that civic pride in other bigger markets because there are too many other things competing for their attention.
Yeah because at some point, that new car smell will wear off. And with the incredible success early, there has to be a worry of fans becoming more entitled and spoiled so when the cycle completes itself and the team starts coming back to Earth that support could waver some.
We think about that every day. That’s why we’ve tried to be so consistent with our advertising, our messaging, our relationship to fans. We’ve really tried to ask ourselves in every instance, is what we’re doing creating long-term value? If the answer’s not yes, we try not to do it.
There have been numerous opportunities where we could’ve taken a short-term approach to a marketing campaign, or a short-term approach to a message or could’ve reacted to a winning streak or a player being named Player of the Month. In those moments, you have choices. You have choices because the success of a player or the success of a team gives you short-term opportunities. We’ve tried to always take a step back and look at the interest of the long-term. Those aren’t always easy decisions and sometimes they’re not always popular either.
The market’s just not big enough to take it all for granted. We have to put everybody in the boat and get them to be inspired to support this team because we’re going to need it to be successful.
The blueprints are there for us. I’ll give you an example. The Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver in 1996. The first year they were there, they won the Stanley Cup. Now think about that level of expectation. For years, probably 10 years, they were sold out every night and it was considered a great hockey team. But underneath that, they only experienced a high level of success. Not just success, a high level of it. But in recent memory, they’ve really struggled. They’ve struggled putting fans in their building, they’ve struggled maintaining that sense of buzz that was there 10 years ago. I really think they’re going through that 15-year ping of looking back and saying, how good is the foundation, how good is the brand? I’m not questioning their business practices I’m just saying as an example, there’s a market that had a lot of success, why weren’t they able to turn that into a long-term foundation.
So for us, to be a relatively good team two of the first three years and starting to have a similar path, we have to be really cognizant of the foundation and not take it for granted that we’re still building something.
An NBA example would obviously be the Kings. So much support during the late 1990s and early part of the 2000s with those great teams with Chris Webber, Doug Christie, Mike Bibby and Vlade Divac. Now they could be facing a move if an arena isn’t in their future. Being a market similar to the Thunder, that has to catch your attention.
We’re going to watch that situation very closely. A lot of people would say that Oklahoma City looks a lot like Sacramento 15 years ago. The NBA popularity, the rabid fanbase — what a great lesson for us to say that how we can ensure that 15 years later we’re more like the San Antonio Spurs and not so much like the Sacramento Kings.