Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) -- If anyone in the wake of the National Football League’s Super Bowl seating fiasco can reaffirm a sports fans belief that the paying customers matter, it’s Mike Rupp of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Rupp isn’t a SportsCenter staple, though he should be. Every fan in every sport would be lucky to have a player like Rupp on their favorite team. Every owner would be lucky to have him, too. Great players win games. Players like Rupp win hearts and minds.
Rupp might not possess the uncommon scoring touch of, say, teammate and former Most Valuable Player Sidney Crosby. He has, however, showcased something even more rare: an everyman’s appreciation for those who pay to sit and cheer.
It’s a lesson that still hasn’t reached the executive suites at the NFL, where Commissioner Roger Goodell and Executive Vice President Eric Grubman, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. investment banker, ought to telephone Rupp for a little conversation about their duds and his suds, which we’ll get to in a minute.
“It’s just a matter of every once in a while it’s good to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Rupp, who will make about $800,000 this season, said over the telephone the other day.
Had Goodell or Grubman lived that mantra on Super Bowl Sunday there’s no way that Green Bay fan Kim Beiser would have labeled the day the Packers won the Super Bowl the worst experience of her life.
“I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on my 16-year-old son’s face,” she said. “I don’t want any million-dollar lawsuit. I wanted to see the Packers beat the Steelers with my son.”
Just to recap, the NFL in an attempt to set a Super Bowl attendance record added temporary seats inside Cowboys Stadium. Only the fire marshal deemed them unsafe, leaving about 400 fans without an assigned seat. The NFL’s solution was to stick the displaced fans in a field-level club where they could watch on television.
Even worse, once there, Beiser ordered a vodka tonic for herself and a Coke for her son. “Not only did my drink come in a Dixie Cup, but the woman said she had to charge me. It was $21.”
Let’s contrast the NFL’s behavior with that of Rupp, whose pre-game routine includes a whirl around the goal and a leap into the boards as a means of testing how forgiving the glass is on that particular night.
Only this time Rupp at the last second noticed a fan had placed his beer on the lip on the other side of the glass. The beer didn’t survive.
“Aw, man,” Rupp recalled saying to himself. “I felt pretty bad.”
Feeling wasn’t enough for Rupp, who learned the value and necessity of catering to the customer as a 15-year-old working as a produce clerk in a Cleveland-area supermarket.
Rupp skated to the Penguins bench, where he asked the trainer to retrieve a puck, a piece of paper, a pen and a $10 bill from his wallet. Rupp wrote, “Here’s for your beer. Sorry,” on the paper, which he wrapped around the money and taped to the puck.
The 31-year-old returned to the scene of the spill, tapped on the glass, got the soggy fan’s attention and tossed the puck to him. The fan read the note, smiled and offered a two-thumbs-up response.
The NFL obviously forgot that it’s doing business in a digital age, when an unhappy customer with only a few clicks of a computer mouse can tell not only 10 or 100 friends but the world.
Rupp chuckled at the NFL’s initial response, which was to offer a refund of up to three times the ticket’s face value and a trip to next season’s Super Bowl. The league subsequently sweetened the offer, saying affected fans could choose any Super Bowl. No after-the-fact tokens of apology can make up for not treating displaced fans like they mattered on game day.
“The beer probably didn’t mean as much to the fan as the gesture of my being sincerely sorry,” Rupp said. “If you’re a father, and you got your kid tickets to the Super Bowl, how do you explain that one?”
What Rupp understood, and Goodell didn’t, is that memories, not money, are what matter to die-hard sports fans. Beiser said she spent $15,000 on what was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.
NFL executives, including Goodell, have taken to Twitter with messages of how much the paying customers matter.
And then a league that generates more than $8 billion a year in revenue thinks nothing of telling its most loyal fans -- the ones who pay ungodly sums and travel for the chance to see their team win it all -- to watch on TV.
Beiser isn’t familiar with the Pittsburgh Penguins. And she’d never heard of Rupp until told of what he did.
“This guy gets it,” she said over the telephone from Appleton, Wisconsin. “It gives me hope.”
Hope. Still. Now there’s something for every sports league, especially the NFL, to think about when it’s time to pick an MVP.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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