Sept. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Athletes get second chances. Some take advantage, like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. Others blow it.
Teams deserve a shot at redemption, too. They ought to have the chance to right a wrong, to prove that they care about the customer. That chance was offered. The results are in and, well, let’s just say the odds are good that your favorite team flunked.
Three years have passed since I asked in a column the 122 teams in the four major U.S. sports leagues -- Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and National Football League -- to prove what they say: that they value every fan.
The premise was simple: What would teams do, to what lengths would they go, to woo a free-agent fan. Players think nothing of switching uniforms, from red socks to pinstripes, even. Heck, even franchises change cities, sometimes under the cover of snowy darkness (ask the folks in Baltimore). Just business, they say. There is no loyalty in sports, except, it seems, from the consumer.
If you think about it, though, so many of our sporting allegiances aren’t chosen. They’re inherited. Dad was a Dodgers fan so kid is a Dodgers fan. So often one’s cheering loyalties are a byproduct of ZIP code more than anything else. Like the song says -- root, root, root for the home team.
Those That Cared
Big-league teams failed the 2007 experiment miserably. Only nine responded. That’s a measly 7 percent. Those that cared enough were, in alphabetical order, the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, who went above and beyond, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers and San Jose Sharks. Those clubs were exempt from the second-chance experiment, leaving 113 franchises with something to prove.
We’ve heard so much from professional sports teams during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression about caring, catering to customers and creating value. You want depressing? Chew on these results:
Only 17 franchises availed themselves of the opportunity to make amends. That means 85 percent didn’t care, don’t care and, in all likelihood, won’t care in the future. Fans ought to rethink their rooting interest.
Of the respondents, six did the minimum, sending promotional items such as T-shirts, stickers and refrigerator magnets. They are, in alphabetic order, the Baltimore Ravens, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Twins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Nationals. Hey, at least they did something, even if none of them addressed the question of providing value.
Rangers and Grizzlies
The New York Rangers had former player Adam Graves, now a team executive, call to make his sales pitch. He described a young, entertaining team with charitable intentions. The Memphis Grizzlies had General Manager Chris Wallace call, gushing about his young team’s promise, community involvement and absence from the police blotter.
A number of teams sent thoughtful letters, including the Red Sox. Boston’s Fenway Park Ambassador, Robert Mayhew, made a good case for adding to Red Sox Nation with three pages of on-and off-field accomplishments. Convincing letters also arrived from the Sacramento Kings, who trumpeted the affordability of their ticket plans, and Cleveland Indians, who, this is a nice touch, began by apologizing for failing to respond last time.
“Our fans are our family and family lasts forever,” said the letter from the Indians Fan Services Team.
The Philadelphia 76ers, before responding, wisely inquired what mattered most to this free-agent fan. The Minnesota Timberwolves called, too, selling a young team that, on many fronts, is starting over. The Washington Wizards forwarded an e-mail from an intern, a lifelong fan who welcomed a new beginning with a new owner, Ted Leonsis.
The Orlando Magic impressed with an e-mail that touched on every facet of the organization, including their new arena. The Houston Rockets blended substance and style, sending a leather-bound book that included 1) my face on the body of a Rockets player that touted me as the team’s #1 Fan, and 2) the top 10 reasons why Houston is the right choice. No. 1 is a commitment to winning.
That’s a perfect segue to the most refreshing and unexpected response, which came from Sarah Szabo, who works in community relations for the Carolina Panthers.
Szabo in a letter retold the story of team owner Jerry Richardson meeting a man while eating lunch at Art’s BBQ in Charlotte. The man told Richardson that his father, who ran a business in Clemson, South Carolina, never had much interest in the Panthers, who began play in 1995. Richardson took a napkin and addressed a note to the man’s father. He wrote “Thank you for your support” and signed it. The napkin hangs in the man’s office today.
Every Panthers employee on their first day of work is given a replica of a 1995 hand-written note from Richardson. “The fan,” it says, “is the most valuable member of our team.”
“Company culture and community are two prominent aspects of this business,” Szabo wrote. “Winning and competition come second.”
Wow. Never thought a pro sports team would admit that winning comes second.
While the Panthers are 0-2, and have been outscored 51-25 this season, they still seem like a team worth backing. Most aren’t. Sorry, no third chances.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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