Special Events

Winning the Sports Marketing Game

IF YOU FOLLOW SPORTS, you're probably adding the names of new expansion teams to your vocabulary. But are you adding them to your list of potential clients? Expansion teams and an increasing interest in women's sports have strengthened the market and broadened the fan base. For the special event industry, these new teams present opportunities to market your services. Here are the stories of three companies who are on the special events scoreboard.

MOST VALUABLE PLANNER Mona Meretsky, CSEP, president of Comcor Event and Meeting Production in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., made her foray into the sports arena by leaving a good impression. When the Florida Panthers professional hockey team, based in Fort Lauderdale, was planning its debut in 1993, she was surprised and pleased to get a call to submit a proposal for the team's opening show. She later learned that she had been recommended by Frank Supovitz, vice president of special events for the National Hockey League. Supovitz remembered her from the time they sat on a panel at an ISES Conference for Professional Development years before.

Meretsky produced the Panthers' inaugural and the opening events for years three, four and five at the team's arena, the National Car Rental Center. "The first game of each hockey season kicks off with a preshow, which usually includes lasers and lighting, fireworks and dancers, or other entertainment on the ice."

She adds that the inaugural opening had a much bigger budget than the events for the following years. "The Florida crowd had never seen a hockey opening before," Meretsky says. "One of our tasks was to explain why hockey came here." To do so, her team created an animated story told in lasers on the ice detailing how the Panthers came to the arena. "We also had the Panthers mascot come out of a white stretch limousine on the ice."

In most cases, sports events are live, televised events, which means "timing has to be exact," Meretsky says. "Your entertainment better be off the ice when the official is ready to drop the puck. And if there's a pause in the show, you lose some of the excitement. Depending on the venue, about 17,000 fans and press reporters are watching."

She tries to keep pre-show events to 12 minutes because "a hockey crowd is very enthusiastic, and they don't like to keep quiet too long."

Some special considerations enter into planning a show at a sports venue, Meretsky says. "It's really important to communicate and coordinate with not just your group but the entire arena staff. Also, you have to work around team practices."

Many events have to be pulled together on short notice, she says, as when the Panthers made it to the playoffs in 1996. "We were planning the MasterCard/NHL Stanley Cup luncheon, but everything was on hold and we didn't find out they made it until less than a week before the luncheon," Meretsky says. "We had to keep people after hours and pay more for items because we didn't have an option."

Supovitz says that some sports also have traditions that must be followed, as in the Stanley Cup luncheon. "The tradition goes that players don't look at the Stanley Cup during the finals," he says. "We had to bring in players from the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers through separate service entrances so the Cup, which was being displayed outside the ballroom, wouldn't be visible to the players."

Even though her client came to her, Meretsky says she still had to close the deal. "Before I made my proposal, I watched other teams' openings on video to see what worked and what didn't by audience response," she says. "And I called hockey teams in other cities to see what they had done. Knowing what's been done before gives you the parameters of what is expected."

The NHL was so impressed with Meretsky's work that it invited her to speak at its annual meeting a few years ago on the importance of using a special event producer.

To break into sports events, Meretsky suggests: "Find out which new teams are starting out. If I were in a market that was just awarded an expansion team, I would be on the phone today, asking who's going to produce their inaugural event."

Editor's note: Both Mona Meretsky and Frank Supovitz will be speakers at The Special Event 2000, sponsored by Special Events Magazine, Jan. 12-15 in San Diego. For more information, call 800/288-8606 or 303/741-2901, ext. 3159; or visit our Web site: www.specialevents.com/tse2000

YOU GO, GIRLS This summer, Bob Talmage was bicoastal, working the Women's World Cup soccer tournament. The owner of Los Angeles-based Bob Talmage Associates produced the kickoff festivities at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands Sports Complex, East Rutherford, N.J., and the closing ceremonies at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

Using such top pop talent as 'N Sync, Jennifer Lopez and Hanson, Talmage says the event appealed to the teenage soccer fans. "It was a marketing choice, not just an entertainment choice," he says. "Young girl fans suddenly had real heroes."

Talmage says that emotion needs to be a part of sporting events. "People care about things that touch them emotionally and things that involve them," he says. "We need to reach them in some way so that they feel they can participate."

He suggests giveaways such as Super Bowl tickets as a way to invite participation. "If you build suspense by gradually narrowing down the winner, like announcing a section or row each quarter, the audience members feel involved and are more likely to stay in their seats."

Talmage echoes Meretsky's sentiment that there are challenges to working around a sports venue, especially when it's outdoors. "At the Rose Bowl, we had one dress rehearsal day and it started to rain," he recalls. "FIFA-the Federation Internationale de Football Association-is very specific about when you can stand on grass, so the cast had to take off their shoes and socks and rehearse in their bare feet."

The ever-expanding sports event market needs to catch up to its audience, Talmage says. At a sporting event, "Americans expect a certain level of entertainment as well as the game," he says. "We need to bring something fresh to the marketplace, which up until recently has been stale." Crediting women's soccer and the Women's National Basketball Association with broadening the fan base, he adds, "we have a new generation of consumers coming up who will be buying the tickets, and they need to be addressed."

A PHOTO FINISH Jim Gluckson says making an event memorable makes guests want to come back. He is vice president of communications for Greenwich, Conn.-based Sports Marketing & Television International, a part of SFX Sports Group, a division of SFX Entertainment.

Making an event memorable means catering to your audience. Gluckson says, "We are working on the Breeders' Cup Championship [Nov. 6, 1999, at Gulfstream Park, Hallandale, Fla.]-the championship of thoroughbred racing. It's the richest single day in sports, and guests come in from around the world for the upscale event. Because of those factors, we are looking to take care of the guests in a highbrow way. We do that through hospitality." One scheduled event is the Breeders' Cup Gala, headlined by singer Melissa Manchester.

He offers a few suggestions to event planners who are ready to step into the winner's circle. "You must make it clear to your clients what they're going to get way out front," he says. "Make sure you get a commitment in the first year to do more years, to allow the event to grow.

"After the event, talk about it with the sponsors and really listen to them," Gluckson adds. "Just remember that it's a work in progress."

Resources: Bob Talmage Associates, 310/314-9601; Comcor Event & Meeting Production, 954/491-3233; National Hockey League, 212/789-2000; Sports Marketing & Television International, 203/629-2229.

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