Marketing the Pittsburgh Power: Arena football team blitzes for fans
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The Penguins are out of the playoffs. The National Football League can't decide if it's in a lockout or not. The baseball season is too young for the Pirates to be in a pennant race yet -- if indeed that ever happens.
This could be the moment for the city's new Arena Football League team, the Pittsburgh Power, to grab fans' attention.
"You couldn't have written the script any better," said John Clark, professor of sport management at Robert Morris University. "There's this void of professional sport."
But it won't last long in this sports-crazy town, and the Power's marketing plan, put together rapidly last year and adapted as the season progresses, is being challenged to seize the opportunity to help build a fan base to fill seats at its games, tune into its broadcasts and, in turn, attract sponsors who want to reach those people.
"Whatever you can do to get them, get them in," advised Mr. Clark.
The casual observer might have doubts about how well things are going.
During a recent televised Power game, the Consol Energy Center looked sparsely filled, with plenty of empty seats visible in the camera shots as players passed, blocked and maneuvered their way around the field.
Attendance has ranged from a high of 13,900 to a low of 9,300, with the team averaging more than 10,000 per game, according to Ethan Vickers, who is with Mount Washington agency BrabenderCox, which is doing marketing for the team. "It's on par with our expectations," he said. Consol Energy Center can accommodate 16,236 fans.
If it's hard to see the Power's fans on TV, that might be because the strongest sales, Mr. Vickers said, have been for the high-end tickets -- seats costing as much as $180 that are right up against the field where a football is likely to land in laps and the action is almost touchable -- and for the least expensive ones -- the $15 seats that may be too high in the Consol Energy Center to catch the camera's eye but are affordable for families checking out the new arena.
With five more home games before the regular season ends in July, the season is rolling along, and so, said Mr. Vickers, is the marketing, which involves a mix of team access, social media, traditional ads on TV and radio, as well as the trendy daily deal sites such as Groupon and Living Social.
A year ago at this time, it wasn't certain there would even be a Pittsburgh team in the Arena Football League. The league canceled its 2009 season and filed for bankruptcy protection. When it returned, it was with a new system in which players are employed by the league to avoid seeing salaries inflated by owners hungry to win at all costs.
In Pittsburgh, the team is co-owned by Matt Shaner, of Shaner Investments, and Lynn Swann, a former star of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers. From the time the team was introduced in August, Mr. Swann's hometown celebrity has helped raise the Power's profile.
The Consol Energy Center's celebrity status is a selling point, too. The arena is new, and many people who wanted to check it out couldn't afford tickets to a Penguins game or to one of the concerts held there. Robert Morris' Mr. Clark sees that as driving the sale of lower priced tickets, and said taking advantage of that interest was key to the Power's future. Once someone buys a ticket, that should be another name for the marketing list, he said.
Some have suggested dropping ticket prices overall, but Mr. Vickers said it was important to have integrity to the pricing.
The team did sell 2,400 tickets usually priced at $50 for $20 in a March Groupon deal, and about 1,800 in another offer in April. It also offered discounted tickets in a Living Social deal, selling about 1,000.
Other ways to fill seats and expand the fan base would be working with sponsors, said Mr. Clark.
For example, making a limited number of discounted family four-packs available through a retailer like Giant Eagle would give the sense that the sponsor was helping underwrite the deal. "They have to roll out more of these things," he said.The team is aware the Consol Energy Center won't be new forever, said Mr. Vickers. Asked how the Power keeps people coming when that no longer is a draw, he noted, "You could ask the same question to the Pirates." PNC Park, which opened during the 2001 season, has long been a draw for the baseball team.
The key, Mr. Vickers said, is making the experience compelling. "At the end of the day, you need to put out a quality product."
Part of the goal is to develop enthusiasts for arena football and the Power. The league makes games available online, in addition to some shown on the NFL Network and in local market broadcasts. "We have to reach fans who are not in an AFL market," said Evan Vladem, manager of media services and public relations for the league.
He said there's been more emphasis this year on developing Arena Football Nation, a part of the league's website where game stories are posted. Where possible, the league is recruiting college students who can use the reporting for course credits to take on the assignment of checking out practices and covering games.
In the Pittsburgh area, Mr. Vickers is enthusiastic about attention the team has received from radio talk shows and through online sites. He doesn't even mind when fans rant over the team's play, since that's evidence they are following the sport. "We had 100,000 unique Web views in the month of March for our team, which is just astounding," he said.
The team's Facebook page has about 4,500 fans. It would be good to get that up to at least 15,000 or so, said Mr. Clark, if the goal is to regularly get about 10,000 people to each game.
Access to team members is an important tool. Mr. Vickers said Power players participate in tailgates, parties and radio appearances. A recent Facebook post touted a team dinner at Beto's Pizza on Banksville Road, urging fans to come in for autographs.
Players also regularly come out after games to talk with fans, an effort that can last another hour and a half, Mr. Vickers said.
DiBella's Old-Fashioned Submarines signed on as a Power sponsor after having a good experience last season with the league's Cleveland Gladiators, said Dan Miller, a district manager whose responsibilities include three locations in the Pittsburgh market as well as restaurants in Ohio and Michigan.
As in Cleveland, he said, the Power players and coaches come into DiBella's for food, something that helps raise the team's profile as well as that of the restaurants.
In addition, the chain is mentioned in radio spots and on banners, as well as during a "dance for dinner" promotion in which fans are shown on Consol's big screen and with the best dancers winning a DiBella's gift certificate.
Mr. Miller said partnering with the AFL was more affordable than other sports sponsorships. "We're trading food for some of that sponsorship."
At the moment, the relationship is a year-to-year thing with no long-term commitment.
But Mr. Miller noted he re-upped with the Cleveland team this year, and that he'd been hearing good things from customers about the Power.
Sales of AFL merchandise are still too low to be reliably tracked, according to Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource, a company that tracks the sporting goods industry. But, said Mr. Vickers, he can report a good response to the Power's dance team. "Their calendars have been selling."
First Published May 5, 2011 12:00 am