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But how to get through to the hard-of-listening? Levine contacted a number of teams, including the foundering Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants, but met with the same response given to fans: don't call us, we won't call you. Levine was about to write off the pros as incorrigible amateurs when the Warriors announced the appointment of Dick Vertlieb, a former stockbroker, as general manager. Levine recalls, " 'Ah, a businessman,' I said to myself. 'He'll understand what I'm talking about.' "
He did, thanks to an after-hours telephone call that Levine arranged with the help of a team secretary who let it drop that Vertlieb was in the habit of working late at night. "Picking up the phone is a reflex action with stockbrokers," Vertlieb explains. "It might be a sale." And so, after the two men talked for more than two hours. Pacific Select had its first professional-sports customer.
The prospects were bleak. Since moving from Philadelphia to the Bay Area in 1962, the Warriors had had more trouble reaching the fans than reaching the playoffs. In those parts, winters were for ski trips to Tahoe and money was for spending on Raider and 49er games.
A team on the make was the image that Levine and Vertlieb purveyed when they launched their full-scale marketing assault in the summer of 1974, a period when the Warriors customarily shut down their offices. "Can you imagine?" says Levine. "The most important time to sell season and group tickets, and they hung up their gone fishin' sign." By polling fans on everything from their preferences in starting times to halftime entertainment, Levine compiled a demographic profile of Warrior supporters and isolated them by Zip Codes for specialized promotions.
Direct mailings were sent to "target audiences." Public transportation was arranged for fans in outlying districts. Players staged clinics and appeared at charity functions to demonstrate that the Warriors were good citizens intent on giving something back to the community. Feature stories on new acquisitions like Center Clifford Ray, gourmet cook and clarinet player, were pushed to show that the players were colorful personalities. Appearances by the visiting stars named most popular by the fans—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Walt Frazier, Bill Walton—were promoted like movie premieres. "We worked 10 to 12 hours a day," says Vertlieb. "We went out to people on a one-to-one basis. We spoke before every group, answered every letter—even hate mail—and responded to every phone call. We wanted the people to know that we cared. Then we thought they'd care."
One slogan, the Year of Entertainment, was aimed at the 55% of adult fans who were under 35 and tended to view a game as more of a showbiz spectacle than a sporting event. Another pitch exploited the fact that basketball attracts a larger share of the female audience than football or baseball—38% of the gate in the case of the Warriors.
Through in-depth discussions with groups of women fans, Levine ascertained that their appreciation of the game is more "interpersonal." For instance, where male spectators see exciting matchups on the court, female fans see attractive young men performing a kind of sensuous ballet. The resulting billboard campaign was about as subtle as a slam dunk: WE HAVE 12 GUYS IN THEIR SHORTS WHO WILL GO ALL NIGHT. "It was our way of telling folks that we were going to be exciting, entertaining and hustling every minute," says Vertlieb.
Sure enough, once the season got under way the fans started showing up in inspiring numbers. The Warriors, who had averaged a lonely 6,465 fans a game the previous season, sold out the 12,787-seat Oakland Coliseum for a game in the notoriously slow month of December. A week later they had another full house. Then another and another. Levine's studies showed that efforts to broaden the team's drawing base were paying off; for each game 5,000 fans poured across the bridge from the San Francisco side of the Bay, and one-third of the arrivals hadn't attended a game the season before.
It also didn't hurt that the Warriors started winning in bunches. In fact, there was every evidence that their newfound togetherness proved Levine's point that business is not only compatible with sports but it can also be a formidable unifying force. In an era when the lowliest bench warmer has a stock portfolio and a battery of financial advisers, Vertlieb agrees that "modern athletes understand and respond better to the businesslike approach than they do to the old family approach."
Something was contagious, for what began as a rash became an epidemic of avid support as the Warriors set new attendance and gross revenue records for the season and then roared on to win the NBA championship. For their parts, Vertlieb was named NBA Executive of the Year and Levine became MVP—Most Valuable Prophet—for a host of new converts who, miracle of miracles, had suddenly regained their hearing. Always a believer, Vertlieb subsequently spread the gospel in Seattle and two years ago, after serving as executive director of the Mariners, he joined Pacific Select as a management troubleshooter.