Winning is everything. That has been the rallying cry in the front offices as well as the front lines of professional sports for so long that it is the turnstile equivalent of In God We Trust. And for obvious reasons. As any ticket taker well knows, more victories equals more fans equals more profits. Elementary, no?
No. Dumb, unimaginative and hopelessly antediluvian thinking, says Matthew Levine, president of Pacific Select Corp., a marketing consultant firm that specializes in the sports business. "Winning isn't everything," he insists. "In fact, only 25% of the fans come out solely because a team is winning."
Hold on. Is Levine suggesting that all those raucous, wild-eyed fanatics in the stands are just humble consumers in search of understanding? That they purchase tickets for a wide variety of reasons, including anxiety, escapism and sex appeal? That by analyzing and catering to their needs a team can lose on the playing field and still gain at the box office? And conversely, that fans taken for granted are capable of giving the cold shoulder to the hottest contender?
Yes. Marketingwise, as Levine is wont to say, the sports industry is no different from any other business that deals in consumer goods. People can be swayed by most any stimuli to buy most anything, be it a can of no-brand beans or a ticket to see the no-name Colorado Rockies. Winning is nice, says Levine, but it isn't the only thing or—Vince Lombardi preserve us—even the primary thing. "Most fans aren't involved in races and won-lost records," says Levine. "Three-fourths of them attend five or fewer games a season, and winning is not a major factor in determining how they spend their entertainment dollar."
The winning obsession loses on three counts, Levine maintains. First, it deters teams from practicing the kind of sound business policies that benefit both the fans and the club. Second, since there can be only one winner, it shortchanges the also-rans; "Wait till next year" isn't the kind of slogan that sets attendance records. And third, it obscures the fact that the sports public requires more than the usual amount of hard sell and tender loving stroking.
Symptomatic of the idiosyncrasies of the sports market are the New York Mets. Debuting in 1962, they drew so well in their early stumblebum years as to create the impression that losing could be both endearing and lucrative. "That was a figment of the media's imagination," says Levine, who conducted a three-month study of the Mets' market last fall on behalf of the team and major league baseball. The support of the fledgling Mets was not a result of any kind of blind love affair, says Levine, but of the "lingering appeal" of the old Dodgers and Giants, whose visits to New York accounted for 40% of the Mets' gate. When that allure began to fade, so did attendance.
The Mets' box-office slide began in 1971 and, though the team remained competitive through 1976, it grew more precipitous each season thereafter. The nadir was reached one day last week when Met attendance dipped to 2,052 for a game, an all-time club home low. Among other miscalculations, says Levine, the Mets somehow assumed that the bulk of their attendance came from the affluent suburbs of Westchester County and Connecticut, when in fact 80% to 85% of their fans are from the working-class areas of Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau and Suffolk counties. As a result, "Their marketing focus was all wrong," says Levine, and so were their pinchpenny ways in the front office.
With the National League's smallest marketing staff in the nation's largest market, it was small wonder that the Mets were viewed as insensitive to their fans. Indeed, along with the Oakland A's Charlie Finley, the Mets' M. Donald Grant ranked as one of the most disliked owners in sports. Conversely, says Levine, "The Yankees' George Steinbrenner projects the same image that New Yorkers have of themselves—tough, opinionated, aggressive, hardened to the needs of survival—a fact that helped the Yankees draw more fans from the Mets' territory than the Mets did."
In a carefully plotted counterattack, Jerry Della Femina, head of the ad agency that the Mets hired to act on Levine's report, suggested that a trip to Shea was a safer bet because of the crime rate around Yankee Stadium. Moreover, he said, "This town has had to settle for Reggie Jackson too long," and insisted that the real "glamour player" was the Mets' Lee Mazzilli. "He's a handsome Bucky Dent who can hit, and he doesn't do fur-coat commercials."
Levine, who is negotiating his continued role with the new Mets ownership this season, feels they can prosper by enhancing Mazzilli's image as a teeny-bopper heartthrob and by introducing such innovations as a switch on the old Ladies' Day promo. Because 66% of the team's female fans are working women, the kind who are figuring more prominently in family decisions, Levine feels that they won't be able to resist a new offering: hey, gals, buy a ticket and drag along your husband at half price. He is confident that with sound management the Mets can triple their attendance to 2.3 million or so in the next three to five years.