Sun, Mar 07, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Economics says games no longer enough for fans

By John Levesque  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

You know that old joke about going to a fight and seeing a hockey game break out? If you stretch the concept a bit, there are analogies throughout professional sport.

You can go to the playground, even give a pool party, and have a professional baseball game intrude. You can go to a carnival and see an NBA game take place when the acrobats, trampolinists and miniblimp pilots are on break. You can go to Sunday brunch and catch a few horse races between mimosas.

"The days of just opening the doors and selling tickets are over," said Jerry Colangelo, principal owner of baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks and basketball's Phoenix Suns.

This disclosure didn't exactly cause the oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling yesterday at Octagon/Street & Smith's World Congress of Sports, a two-day conference/trade show for major sports-industry players and those willing to spend about US$2,000 to sit in a room with them. Presumably, everyone in the room knows going to a game just to see a game is as dated as the trilobite. The modern parallel to "give me liberty or give me death," after all, is "give me a bobblehead or give me my money back."

The extent to which professional sports franchises will go to engender the warm-and-fuzzies among their paying customers is sometimes astonishing. The Chicago Bulls, long removed from the heavenly days of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman, still manage to fill the United Center with 22,000 people because they're hell on wheels when it comes to promotions.

At least that's the prevailing sentiment. The Bulls won't make the playoffs this year, but they are considered cutting-edge leaders on the NBA's entertainment side. Whether it's providing break dancers, tumblers, jugglers or some guys who beat the bottoms of plastic buckets with drumsticks for the enjoyment of the tympanically challenged, the Bulls take a back seat to no one.

Someday, probably in the near future, I can imagine a fan noticing a showy ring on the finger of a former Bulls player, who, when pressed, will explain he never won an NBA championship, but did play on a team that was voted best in the league at keeping fans occupied during TV timeouts.

As John Lombardo reports in this week's Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal, "Team executives know better than to peg ticket sales solely to wins, so they mix in some entertainment, maybe even enough to make you forget about your cellar-dwelling team's performance."

Which raises two obvious questions:

-- Are people so entertainment starved that they'll say, "Honey, want to go to the game tonight? They've got a kid who shoots free throws while standing on his head in a tub of goo."

-- Am I the only one who couldn't care less if the basketball floor remained devoid of dancers and other interlopers between periods?

Steve Schanawald, Bulls executive vice president of operations, explained to Lombardo "it's a 48-minute game, but the people are here for two hours."

Big deal. Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather talk to my seatmate than go deaf during the entertainment interludes. Not that someone is likely to hear my complaint. Anyone who works in an NBA arena is already deaf.

Winning teams have it a little easier, said Colangelo, who was part of a panel discussion on team ownership and fan satisfaction at the conference. His mates on the dais were fellow owners Bob Tisch (New York Giants), Peter Magowan (San Francisco Giants) and Jeremy Jacobs (Boston Bruins).

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