Fast Talk: Good Sports

These five executives from the world of sports bring an array of clever approaches to finding, wooing, and retaining their fans as competition for their devotion—and their dollars—increases.

Patty Herrera

Director of multicultural initiatives
Oakland Raiders
Oakland, California

Herrera, 35, spent eight years as a Raiderette before being named to her current position overseeing outreach to minority communities.

"The Raiders have always been at the forefront of diversity issues in professional football. They made Tom Flores the NFL's first Hispanic head coach in 1979, and 10 years later, they hired Art Shell, the NFL's first black head coach [since 1921]. Our rich history and working-class image attract a lot of people, not just here, but internationally.

One of the missions we have is to reach out to our international fan base, both locally and internationally. These fans may never be able to come to one of our games, but at least through the Internet, we can make them feel as if they're a part of what we're doing. When we played in the American Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys in Mexico City in 2001, we were amazed by all of our fans in Mexico. Following that, we created Raiders en Español, the only alternative-language Web site in the NFL. We're not just translating material. We thought it was very important to create a site that is its own entity. Because of its popularity, we have expanded our multicultural efforts, and we've launched Raiders in Chinese and Raiders in German, for example.

The Raiders have always been about being different from the rest. Which is why we decided to broadcast Raiders games in Navajo, to unite the Navajo Nation and the Raider Nation. The response we got was unbelievable. One Navajo Raider fan wrote to us and said, 'I was driving down the highway, and when I heard the Raiders being broadcast in Navajo, I almost ran off the side of the road.' American football is growing in popularity, and as the sport expands, we need to embrace all our fans and communicate to them in a way they understand: 'Hey, the Raiders are talking in my language.' "

Tom Whaley

Executive vice president
St. Paul Saints
St. Paul, Minnesota

Whaley, 42, has used outrageous shenanigans to fill a 6,000-seat minor-league baseball stadium since joining the team in 1993. He got the job because (or maybe, even though) he sent his résumé to owner Mike Veeck on a piece of dried cod.

"We play in this ramshackle municipal park by the tracks with aluminum bleachers on concrete. If we just did baseball, we'd probably have 1,000 people here a night. If you look back over 13 seasons, we have averaged 90% capacity, and last year we had higher revenues than ever, and I credit that to fun.

We rate an event a success as long as it doesn't cost anything and no one gets killed. We put a lot of work into having fun and trying to come up with stuff that makes us laugh or causes conversation. We've had mimes reenacting the game, pigs delivering balls because we thought mascots were becoming too fluffy, and this year, we'll have 'ballet parking'—ballerinas who'll park your car. We try to move fast and react to the news. The day after commissioner Bud Selig had called a tie at the All-Star game, we were all talking about it. I mean, baseball is the one game you can't end in a tie. So the guy who's doing our merchandise says, 'Let's do Bud Selig Tie Night.' And in six hours we got the whole thing together. We had the ties purchased and silk-screened. It was even on ESPN.com by 3 p.m., and it was only an idea at 8 in the morning. The funny thing is, we never played the game. It got rained out.

There's no reason why our park should be full all the time other than that people have bought into the notion that you can bring your kids several times a summer to a great environment, have a lot of fun, and see really good baseball. You can't fake it, though. If you don't want to be fun, that's fine. But if you're not honest, fans will smell that out in a second."

Paul Brooks

President
NASCAR digital entertainment and broadcasting
Daytona beach, Florida

In his 13-year career with NASCAR, Brooks, 40, has been responsible for integrating new technology, from creating NASCAR's Web site to making NASCAR the first sport on satellite radio.

"We see our fan-friendly culture as a secret weapon. Everything we do today is built around how to bring fans closer to the sport. What we find is that fans want to experience the sport in different ways, but our goal is to put them 'inside the helmet,' whether it's on broadcast TV, DirecTV, satellite radio, or online.

Everything we do with technology is about giving fans the choice of how they want to watch the race. We're exploring and testing the next generation of in-car cameras with DirecTV right now. We think we can enhance this package to include driver- and team-specific produced content. You could watch all the Dale Earnhardt Jr. in-car cameras, all of his pit stops, the isolated-race camera on his race car, his car data, etc. The idea is a television race broadcast specifically produced from the perspective of your favorite driver.

We're also not forgetting about the fans who come out to the speedways. We've developed a handheld device called the NASCAR Nextel FanView that we first implemented this year at the Daytona 500. In one device, it brings together video, audio feeds, and data feeds so the fan sitting in the grandstand—who for so many years has been in that single fixed seat to watch the race—can cycle through seven or eight in-car cameras, get the television feed, data feeds, radio broadcast, and listen to the drivers. It's early, but they've sold out at every event. I would give anything if [NASCAR founder] Bill France Sr. could have held one of these things in his hands."

Tanya Van Court

Vice president and general manager
ESPN broadband and interactive television
Bristol, Connecticut

Van Court, 33, oversees ESPN360, a broadband computer application that lets users create a customizable interface to watch sports and original programming, and track statistics. Since its inception two years ago, it has been downloaded by more than 7 million people.

"The sports entertainment junkieS want to go deeper into everything that they see in the world of sports. ESPN360 really caters to what fans are looking for and enables them to go in and get their fill of what they want. We have this great video asset called ESPN, and there's lots of ways people want to use that: video on demand, condensed versions of games they've missed that are sorted and customized by them. Everything a fan would want to do with sports footage, they can do in one central location. When every ESPN outlet showed the Duke-UNC basketball game in March, we thought through how fans would want to consume the game online versus how they would want to consume it on television, and a data-rich video stream was one of the solutions that we came up with. For example, in the first half, both teams stole the ball from the other quite a bit, so the 360 production of the game featured stats on the number of steals that each player had, who had stolen the ball from whom, and so on.

Sports lends itself to all of the things that are great about what technology can do today. In the future, we're going to build more community applications around the video, because we see that's going to be of paramount importance to our fans. You'll be able to watch a game with all your friends and send chat messages back and forth, have your fantasy league watching the game at the same time and tracking your league standings while watching the game. We can make it much more than television on your computer. That's not what we're trying to replicate at all. The appetite for video on demand online is growing, and a year from now, it's going to be insatiable."

Brett Yormark

President and CEO
Nets Sports & Entertainment
East Rutherford, New Jersey

Since joining the professional basketball franchise as CEO in January 2005, Yormark, 39, has helped revamp Nets culture. The result has been soaring attendance and a 90%-plus renewal of season-ticket packages.

"When I was with NASCAR, I learned that the stars being accessible to fans successfully sold the sport. Coming here, I decided I wanted to make the Nets the most accessible franchise possible. On the heels of the brawl between players and fans during the Indiana-Detroit game last year, people would not have defined NBA basketball as being an accessible sport. In fact, the NBA was going to get away from that, given what had happened. In addition, I faced the perception that the Nets couldn't draw any fans in the next couple of years because of our planned move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. The question was, How do we stay true to our core fans, many of whom are from northern New Jersey, and encourage sampling of Nets basketball throughout the metropolitan area?

We're fortunate to have great character guys like Jason Kidd and Vince Carter on our roster, so if I can exploit that in a positive way, why not? Our All Access campaign puts them in touch with fans, be it through Pancakes & Hoops, where fans have breakfast with them, or our Ticket Influencer program, where they come to a party we hold at the home of a season-ticket holder and have him invite other potential ones. We've also focused on the great things the players do for the franchise and the community.

Through these programs, we humanized the players. And then, in turn, I've been able to monetize it all. Thanks to the environment we've been able to create here, more people are sampling our product from outside New Jersey than ever before, including a lot of fans from Brooklyn. And our fans from New Jersey are voting yes with their wallets: We're setting all kinds of home attendance records this year."

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