In April 2018, the NBA had just concluded the most successful season since the league’s inception in 1946.
Television ratings were up – the highest rated season in 5 years, fans were subscribing to the league’s streaming service, attendance for regular season games were up and average attendance per game was up with a record high 751 sellouts across the league. In fact, by the end of the season the league had sold 95% of all tickets available. And as each NBA team is considered its own business (a franchise), the value of that average franchise was at an all time high.
The Phoenix Suns were the black sheep of this narrative.
Just 9 months prior, in the summer of 2017, the Phoenix Suns were staring down the barrel of a potentially dire season. Coming off the two worst years in franchise history, the team was in the midst of a major rebuild with no new high-profile players. Awareness was high – but for all the wrong reasons. Empty seats seemed a reality heading in to the 2017/2018 season.
Amidst dozens of options for discretionary spend, how can the Phoenix Suns drum up fan interest in going to the games when the #1 driver of single game ticket sales – team performance – is at an all-time low?
Keeping the Suns top of mind (and not just with all the negative sports news stories) was the first priority. In previous seasons, the media was disjointed and a guessing game of “if we spend, we believe we’ll sell tickets.” For the 2017/2018 season, a systematic media approach was needed that could deliver an evergreen strategy, create a steady pool of handraisers and nurture them to conversion: purchasing a single game ticket.
As timing would have it, the season happened to coincide with the team’s 50th anniversary and we knew this could invoke a sense of tradition, nostalgia and stability. So we surrounded our audience with awareness generating media including TV, radio, out-of-home and fine-tuned digital media to key audience segments including:
The Core Audience segment encompassed basketball enthusiasts, the uber wealthy, families and out-of-towners. They exhibited behaviors of sports enthusiasts and were spending money on other sports teams including the Arizona Cardinals and Diamondbacks. They were interested in family-friendly entertainment and had a high propensity to purchase season memberships. The historical mainstay of the fan base, we could reinvigorate them with new reasons to continue going to the game.
The Emerging Audience segment encompassed millennials and Hispanics. They represented a potential new fan base but to bring them to the arena for a Phoenix Suns game, we would need to steal share from other sports teams.
With upper funnel media as the beginning of the sports fan journey, driving volumes of potential fans into digital channels like search and social, we progressively created a retargeting pool that we nurtured with targeted messaging against digital display and social media –with the singular goal of driving them to a ticketing page. Awareness first, nurture second became the rhythm of the season, with incremental media spend allocated closer to the date of actual home games. But how we promoted each game was also an interesting exercise in segmentation.
Given that this was a rebuild year and in the absence of a winning streak or any hometown enthusiasm, the games weren’t going to sell themselves. So we took to treating each of the 41 home games as a “product” and developed a segmentation strategy:
This segmentation strategy served as a guide to determine both spend and channel allocation with High Revenue / High Interest games taking priority. With these games, the draw was the competition or the popularity of a star player from the opposing team (i.e. Kobe Bryant’s last game with the Lakers). We believed that the buzz surrounding these games could provide a halo for the other games in the season. And we were right.
While empty seats were a real possibility at the beginning of the season, our media approach of awareness then nurture combined with game segmentation, delivered surprising results:
Highest single-game revenue since 2014-15 season
Increase in single-game ticket revenue vs. 2016-17 season
Higher return on ad spend vs. 2016-17 season (4.73)
More than doubled single-game ticket sales compared to the prior year (2016-17 Season) ($890K vs $1.9MM)
If the 2017/2018 season was about rebuilding and laying down a foundation, the 2018/2019 season was about applying learnings from Year 1 and taking more risks.
Like the prior season, we were on a mission to increase single game ticket sales versus the previous year. Additionally, we would need to generate net new leads to drive full-season and partial-season ticket sales.
The twist? A 25% reduction in budget.
Thankfully, we had a full season of insights and learnings including attribution analysis to identify spend optimizations across the media mix.
Learning #1: Fine-tuned audiences will yield smarter spend allocation
With a combination of the Phoenix Suns 1st party data and our 3rd party data, we were able to further define and segment audience profiles. The new segments included:
Learning #2: Directional media shifts will increase conversion
With conversion (ticket purchase) as the holy grail, attribution analysis from the previous season revealed where we needed to increase or decrease budget. For the 2018/2019 season we increased the display budget, decreased paid search and maintained retargeting and social media budgets.
Learning #3: We can capitalize on moments of impulse
We knew we could intercept sports fans when they were already in the sports and entertainment mindset so we strategically placed media where we knew sports fans would be, including additional entertainment venues, which were designed to get patrons to consider the Phoenix Suns.
In addition to doing more with less, we wanted to take risks and experiment with innovative new media approaches to fill the bank with new learnings and insights for future seasons. Throughout our relationship with the Phoenix Suns, it was standard operating business to deliver new media ideas including a potential Foursquare partnership where on a game night, we could leverage geolocation data to send a personalized push notification to fans to purchase a ticket.
But perhaps the biggest risk we took was in June of 2018 when the Phoenix Suns got the #1 draft pick in the lottery and chose Deandre Ayton as their pick. This was big news and we needed to make a big impact. Out-of-home seemed an ideal yet an impossible medium given the long production timelines. By the time a billboard went up, the big news would be old news. Yet we knew that 2 high profile boards, running on Central/Thomas and I-10/48th st. would capture a large share of eyeballs from busy Phoenix commuters.
The client trusted us enough to send over multiple versions of creative showcasing the 4 possible players prior to the pick. The strong vendor relationship and dedicated LT team made it possible to get the creative posted by 8:45 the next morning, less than 12 hours after the Phoenix Suns made their pick.
A one day turnaround time is almost unheard of in the industry and received media recognition from ESPN’s Pedro Gomez.
Higher return on ad spend vs. 2017-18 season (6.23)
Decrease in ad budget over the previous year
Full/Partial Membership leads over the course of Y1 and Y2
When we started our relationship with the Phoenix Suns, a season of empty seats was a real possibility. By the end of the 2018/2019 season, we had exponentially increased single-game ticket sales revenue and delivered a higher return on ad spend. Talk about a 180. In short, we found a way to capitalize on factors other than winning to maintain the loyalty of existing fans while acquiring new fans – keeping them engaged through good times and bad. And our record selling single game ticket sales were proof of that. No longer the black sheep of the NBA narrative, the Phoenix Suns are on their way to being a key part of the winning story.