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•What NFL cheerleaders are to many male spectators, NBA players are to many female fans: sex objects in scanty costumes.
More than illuminating, Levine's findings shed a damning light on an industry that is still in the Dark Ages of consumer awareness. Ignorance is no excuse for the fact that peddlers of dog food know and care far more about their consumers than do the moguls of the pro game. While the correlation between winning and attendance is clear, there are so many exceptions that only the most apathetic observer would be unaware that there is more to filling the stands than leading the standings.
In baseball, for example, anyone perusing the attendance figures would have no inkling that the current lords of their leagues, the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, have been top contenders for most of the '70s. Take the 1977 Orioles—please. That apparently was how their fans felt when, despite a slam-bang divisional race in which the Birds finished just 2½ games off the pace, they played before small crowds; indeed, the Toronto Blue Jays, who finished 45½ games out, drew 505,283 more rooters than the Orioles.
Likewise for the 1978 Pirates; though they came within 1½ games of winning the NL East, their gate dropped by 273,243 from that of the previous season, when they finished five games behind. And even last season no amount of belated we-are-fam-a-lee hoopla could disguise the mean fact that the No. 1 team in the majors was No. 18 in attendance.
Then there was 1974, the extraordinary season when it mattered not that the San Diego Padres could do no better than duplicate their woeful 1973 record (60-102) or that the Oakland A's won their third straight World Series. Padre attendance soared by 463,593 and the A's declined by 155,070—thus the phenomenon of the worst team in baseball out-drawing the best. The problem in Oakland was an old, jaded owner; the difference in San Diego was a new, energetic one, Ray Kroc of Big Mac fame, and the same kind of we-care, you-matter promotional hustle that sold all those hamburgers.
Similarly, while the Houston Astros were sliding from third place in 1976 to fifth in 1978, their gate climbed by nearly a quarter of a million. The result of an aggressive new marketing campaign, the support set the stage for last season when, with a bona fide contender to root for, Astro attendance jumped by a startling 774,167, the greatest gain last year by any team in professional sports.
It is not coincidental that the Astros are one of several satisfied clients of Pacific Select. Nor does their success mean that the neediest teams benefit the most from Levine's expertise. Too often, lulled by a kind of fat-cat complacency, it is the perennial powers who are the least attentive to their public and consequently suffer the most when they fall from grace. For instance, Levine estimates that two seasons ago Pacific Select could have helped the faltering Chicago Bulls cut their gate losses by at least half.
The problem, says Levine, is that professional teams developed as the playthings of millionaires seeking relief from the pressures of the business world. Even today, with inflated salaries and soaring costs, many teams are still run like the corner grocery. "We're not as efficient as we should be," admits Billy Sullivan, president of the New England Patriots. "Football really isn't run like most businesses. Budgets are never done. Expense accounts are kept on the backs of envelopes. We don't set goals."
Matt Levine does. As a kid raised in the smoky arenas of Jumping Joe Fulks and the Philadelphia Warriors, and later as sports editor of the school paper at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Levine earned his stripes as a true-blue fan. After a tour at the Columbia Graduate School of Business, he joined the Scott Paper Co. and served in the combat zone of marketing, selling diapers, garbage bags and the like to supermarkets in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto of New York City. Though he also engaged in more genteel pursuits—bank-loan officer, management consultant—Levine never lost his fascination with the wonderful world of packaged goods, and in 1971 he moved to San Francisco and founded his own marketing consultant firm.
Business was brisk but so was the competition, and Levine longed "to find a smaller industry with major problems, one in which we would be the leader in the field and not just one of many." Shortly after the 1973-74 NBA season, he chanced upon a newspaper account of team attendance and "ran some numbers" on his trusty pocket calculator. To his surprise he found that the league was playing to less than 60% capacity, a sales record that would embarrass any self-respecting diaper salesman. The more Levine investigated the possibilities of applying the sales techniques of packaged goods to sports, the more he was convinced that he had stumbled upon a virgin market. "Damn," he concluded, "we can do something to help these people."