Take that, New York sports fans
Visiting team fans are rowdy, but are a small minority, poll finds
By Alexis Muellner
The Business Journal
June 23-29, 2000
Where there's ambivalence in sports fans, there's whining from professional athletes.
When unruly visiting Boston Red Sox fans drowned out meek Marlin fan chatter at Pro Player Stadium this month, Marlins players publicly groaned. Boisterous New York Knicks fans tried to do the same thing at American Airlines Arena during this year's NBA play-off quarter finals. Miami Dolphins season ticket holders would love to shut up bombastic New York Jets fans.
While fans of opposing teams may seem louder and more forceful in South Florida than elsewhere, in reality their numbers as a fan base are slim by comparison, according to the first of four exclusive Sports & Sponsorship Reports looking at local vs. national sports marketing trends to be published in The Business Journal. It's part of a collaboration with Coral Gables sports marketing firm Sports & Sponsorships.
The results raise some curious questions.
Did you know that among South Floridians, Michael Jordan is more popular as a favorite athlete than Dan Marino? Or that the Marlins and Heat have yet to fully connect with African-American consumers?
African-Americans pick Knicks, Bulls over Heat
Some highlights of the data showed:
- South Florida African-Americans rank the New York Knicks their favorite NBA team, with the Heat third behind the Chicago Bulls. Among African-Americans, retired boxing champ Muhammad Ali is the third most favorite athlete behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.
- Major League Soccer still has a long way to go to be a bigger radar blip here. Nearly 69 percent polled in South Florida couldn't name which pro soccer team was their favorite.
- The Florida Panthers hockey team has a strong fan base, especially among women, 63 percent of whom called the club their favorite NHL team.
- The Miami Heat have done a better job of connecting with Hispanics than the Florida Marlins. In a question about favorite basketball teams, 50 percent of local Hispanics chose the Heat. In the same question related to baseball, 24.7 percent of Hispanics chose the Marlins and 29 percent chose the New York Yankees.
- The Miami Dolphins are a popular commodity in South Florida and nationally, probably due to many winning seasons. Their biggest rival, the New York Jets, may have loud fans, but have a small fan base in South Florida. The Dolphins are the favorite NFL team here (32.8 percent), while the Jets are No. 10 (2.5 percent) and the New York Giants No. 12 (2.1 percent).
The Jacksonville Jaguars received favorite team recognition among 1 percent of locals. None cited the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
- University of Miami football enjoys a popular status among fans who earn $75,000 or more. Almost half (45 percent) of those local respondents name UM as its favorite college football team, followed by Florida State (7.6 percent) and Florida (5.2 percent).
Why do the research?
Companies that use sports marketing are intensely focused on maximizing their investments, especially as fees and the cost of doing business in those arenas has jumped. Those costs include the development of stadium signage, rights to use team trademarks and logos, and media ad buys, as high as seven figures.
"Companies no longer can afford to impulsively get in bed with a team just because they offered great tickets or nifty hospitality." said Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships. "There's always a certain amount of emotion attached to associating with a sports team or an athlete because sports are cool."
In South Florida, there's a heavy burden on pro teams to sell. Part of that is finding out who their core fan is in the context of the overall fan base. TV ratings are decreasing, ticket prices are increasing and disposable leisure dollars are thinly spread. Fans are stating their ambivalence by staying to watch "NYPD Blue" reruns.
"In this market in particular, winning is everything," Becher said. "It's a very fickle fan base anxious to support winners and not terribly patient in supporting anything else."
Retired or not, Jordan still first in popularity
So it's not surprising that Michael Jordan was far and away the favorite professional athlete for both the U.S. population and among the South Florida population as well, with 11.9 percent and 16.3 percent, respectively, naming Jordan their favorite. Sammy Sosa ranked high locally as well, coming in third. Dan Marino was second.
"Marketing dollars follow magical moments, which are part of winning," said New York sports marketer Brandon Steiner. "You've got to show up and believe in the product and the management team, and I think that's underestimated amongst advertisers because some don't look at teams' management and how committed and creative they are."
The big lessons for marketers, Becher says: "Be careful when you are associating with one of the local teams to make sure that whoever the target audience is, you have the right fit."
The Atlanta Braves were the favorite baseball team nationally (12.4 percent), followed closely by the New York Yankees (11.3 percent). The Braves also were second-most popular of all pro teams in South Florida. Despite the lingering effects of the Florida Marlins' dismantling and the Yankees' success, the Marlins were the most popular baseball team in South Florida with 28.8 percent, but the Yankees weren't far behind with 20.5 percent.
While 24.7 percent of Hispanics said the Marlins were their favorite baseball team, nearly 30 percent ranked the New York Yankees in higher.
The Marlins have tried to appeal to Hispanic fans. The team opened a ticket office in Little Havana and holds remote block parties with players and locals.
The team's new marketing director, Susan Budd, says staff constantly holds brainstorming sessions designed to enrich a fan's experience at the games.
"The biggest challenge is getting people here," she said. "Once they're here, they seem to have a really good time." Creating a great experience at the game is a key focus of the team's marketing crew. "Winning always helps but still, this is an exciting ball club, they are great players and they are competitive."
Competitive enough, says Becher, to maintain core local support.
"The Marlins still have a comfortable retention in the heart of local fans," he said. "From a marketing standpoint, the question (for companies) is how do we tap into that affinity in order to have fans feel like they want to support our business because we associate with and help our team."
Heat holds events in effort to broaden team appeal
Striking a match
When Miami Heat executive vice president and chief marketing officer Michael McCullough first joined the team more than three years ago, he inherited a trend of plummeting season ticket sales. The fan base was estranged and disgruntled with a mediocre team. There wasn't much connection with fans beyond a player sitting at a desk, head down, signing autographs.
All that's changed, McCullough said.
"In the past three years, we've tried to make a strong connection with our fans and that was lacking with the previous Heat regime," he said.
The team holds day-long meet and greet outings with players at Blockbuster Golf & Games, at the Miami Seaquarium, and on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach where fans and players shoot hoops, putt mini-golf, or talk basketball. At this year's playoffs, the Heat held wacky ticket giveaways for fans who shaved their heads or sat for 48 hours. Gone are days when Heat players complained about dead fans.
"Coach Riley and the guys understand (that need for fan connection) and that's their way to get the fans as rabid as they were this year." McCullough said.
The Miami Heat scored well with area fans in all three age groups from 18-54, a sign that the team's marketing efforts have done well to attract young and mature fans alike. Hispanic and white fans preferred the Heat at a rate of 40 percent with the Boston Celtics a far second at 7.1 percent and the Knicks third at 5.9 percent. But in the African-American community, the Heat were third behind the Knicks at 24.4 percent and the Detroit Pistons at 17.1 percent.
The team already has a plan to warm up to African-Americans, who have responded well to the new WNBA franchise Miami Sol. Heat executives plan to spend more money in traditional African-American media.
"One of our biggest challenges is to make everyone feel they are more than welcome to come out and that they can afford it," McCullough said.
That's the biggest issue facing sports teams today, Becher said.
"How do we re-establish a connection, a trust, with our fans?"
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION about the poll, and see more survey results, visit the Exclusive Research section of our Web site.