|Tuesday, September 25
Jordan is just the ticket to boost NBA attendance
By Darren Rovell
Michael Jordan is one of the best sellers of tickets in the world.
Just ask the Chicago Bulls, who sold out 610 consecutive games over a 13-year period. Or the officials of struggling teams who had to hire extra staff whenever Jordan came to town. Or Pat Williams, sports marketing guru and the Orlando Magic's senior vice president.
It won't be that quick. Though season tickets and ticket packages have been on sale for weeks, individual tickets for most teams won't go on sale for another two weeks. Nonetheless, the demand for what remains is expected to be high.
For the book, Williams conducted more than 1,500 interviews with people who had been touched by Jordan.
"There was one businessman in San Francisco who told me that he bought his company season tickets to the Warriors every year so that he could see one game -- Michael and the Bulls," Williams said. "And when Michael stopped playing, he didn't buy season tickets anymore."
The Wizards, a team that won only 19 games last season, have sold more than 12,000 season tickets so far this year. Already gone are Washington's entire allotment of $100 and $90 seats which sell for $4,150 and $3,735 for the season. The Wizards have already sold over 2,000 more season tickets than they did last season.
Certainly, the Bulls had no trouble selling tickets with No. 23 in their lineup. They sold out every home game from Nov. 20, 1987 to Nov. 7, 2000, almost two years after Jordan's retirement. And with Jordan on the team, the Bulls remained a tough ticket on the road, too.
Many teams put the Wizards in ticket packages when decision-making time came in late July. Teams couldn't promise Jordan, but they didn't want to hurt their chances of capitalizing on Jordan's comeback, either. The Celtics, who will play the Wizards on Nov. 7 and March 10, have two of three 10-game packages that feature Jordan's new team. And the Atlanta Hawks, who filled their Philips Arena to only 70 percent of capacity last season, included the Wizards in their five-, 10- and 15-game ticket packages.
“Michael will sell himself,” said Lee Douglas, Atlanta Hawks executive vice president. "He only comes once (Nov. 1) and it’s our home opener, so we felt we needed to use that as leverage to help sell out our other marquee games.”
The Hawks' strategy is to make the big games even bigger. With the five-game package including the Wizards, Lakers, 76ers, Raptors and Kings, Douglas said the team hopes to boost last season's two sellouts to at least five next season. But Douglas said the team won't consider moving the Wizards game to the 41,474-seat Georgia Dome, more than twice the capacity of Philips Arena.
Nets spokesman Gary Sussman said the Wizards were included in one of the Nets' seven-game ticket packages. But Nets officials didn't include the Wizards banking on a Jordan comeback, he said.
That might be a temptation most teams can't resist, Williams said. The chance to lure Jordan fans who might not otherwise attend games to buy a ticket package guarantees those fans will pay for seats to other games.
"Most of the teams were smart enough to include their Wizards game in a mini-package," said Williams, whose Magic offer a Wizards game in two of their 10-game ticket packages. "We've got our Rembrandt back and even if he's not in your building, he's going to help sell the sport."
The Hawks' initial advertising included plenty of question marks about Jordan and the Wizards before his comeback seemed a certainty. "See Shaq, Kobe, Vince, Allen and just maybe, a guy named Michael," one ad read.
Sports consultant David Carter said now that Jordan is back doesn't mean that teams don't have to be careful with how they sell Jordan's appearance.
“There are five critical words when NBA teams start to market individuals instead of games. Those are: 'Subject to change without notice,'" said Carter, who teaches the business of sports at the University of Southern California. “Teams shouldn’t be thoroughly convinced Michael will definitely make it for the whole season or even the past the All-Star break. They should therefore make it clear to customers that they are selling the chance to see Michael.”
An Ottawa Senators season-ticket holder sued the team for $27.5 million when the NHL team's top player, Alexei Yashin, sat out during the 1999-2000 season during a contract dispute. Literally, Yashin was the team’s poster boy in the team’s marketing campaign. The suit was eventually thrown out of court, but teams throughout sports used it as a learning experience.
"You always have to make sure when you're advertising that there's an understanding that if the Lakers are coming, it's possible Shaq or Kobe might be hurt or sick and won't play," Douglas said.
Bids for Wizards game tickets on eBay, the online auction site, have been relatively low. On Sunday, two Wizards upper-level season-tickets, which boasted a face value of $3,780 for the pair, commanded bids up to $1,075 and failed to meet the reserve price. On Monday, four club seats to a March 10 Celtics game -- valued at $796 -- only reached $425. Even Tuesday, eBay action on Wizards tickets appeared slow before Jordan's announcement.
Ticket brokers in Washington, D.C., are starting to get calls about Wizards games. Encore Tickets in Chevy Chase, Md., did little Wizards business over the past couple years. It simply wasn't a profitable business, said Randy Levenberg, an account executive with the company.
Now, he said, "It's pretty crazy around here. It's like all of sudden Walter Payton is playing for the Chargers."
The company bought 26 season tickets and is selling $45 tickets for $100 and $175 floor seats for $500 and up, Levenberg said. He cautioned that an increase in demand would result in a further increase in the asking price.
"People have been hesitant recently," Levenberg said. "Obviously with the terrorist attacks just a couple weeks ago, people aren't ready to celebrate yet. But if there's anyone to bring people out of the shadows, it's Michael."
Darren Rovell covers sports business for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.