Keeping the Fans on Your Side

Representatives From the Sports Industry Spoke About their Experiences at Concordia

From left, Kathleen Couture and Kate Beirness talked about Beirness’s background in sports journalism on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photo Vince Morello
From left, Chris Schultz and Tim Zenner discussed sports marketing on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photo Vince Morello

Without the fans, professional sports would count for very little. Tim Zenner’s job, as director of ticketing and fan engagement for the Detroit Lions, is basically to make sure his fanatics feel appreciated and happy without having their wallets emptied.

At the John Molson Sports Marketing conference that took place this past Saturday, Zenner highlighted the importance of finding a balance between fair ticket prices for fans, while maintaining competitive pricing relative to other NFL teams. The Lions rely heavily on analytical research in order to determine the optimal ticket price.

“[We looked at] what customers were really willing to pay,” said Zenner. “The price can drop as low as a dollar or be high like $10,000, depending on the demand of the event. Our seats are priced at $100—let’s say at midfield. But we found out that there were X amount of customers that were willing to pay $30 for them.”

Despite increasing ticket costs by 4 per cent, the Lions have some of the cheapest prices in the league. Competitively, compared to other teams, Detroit has a long way to go on the gridiron though.

“The team went winless in 2008,” said Zenner. “There were times a price increase was just out of the question just because how poorly the team was playing. And because of that, they started to really fall behind while all the other teams were starting to increase their tickets incrementally over the year.”

On top of going winless that season, Detroit like the rest of America, was left reeling after the economic recession of 2008, when the housing bubble crashed, leaving many without a home.

“It was tough,” said Zenner. “Some people, no matter how hard they wanted to stay […] it was an expense that they could afford to let go of.”

While the Lions can be given credit for cheap tickets and refusing to increase prices during hard times, most of the honour should go towards their fans’ devotion, whose long-time support has helped fill seats.

“The great thing about Detroit [is] how passionate that fan base was for the Detroit Lions, and how hungry they are for a winner,” said Zenner, in admiration.

Buying into a groups’ culture is also an important aspect of fan loyalty that cannot be overlooked, as vice-president of finance and general counsel of the Chicago Bulls Ram Padmanabhan learned with the shoe culture in the NBA.

“It was probably one of the things I was least aware of, the sneaker culture… it’s a real thing,” said a surprised Padmanabhan at the conference on Saturday.

The Bulls have done an excellent job extending their reach beyond American borders. It has become commonplace to see people sporting Air Jordans, the brand of sneakers named after Michael Jordan; it’s a worldwide phenomenon. By embracing basketball’s shoe culture, merchandising in the NBA finds itself at another level compared to other professional sports leagues in the US.

“If you go to a hockey game, if you go to a football game, people wear the jerseys of the teams,” explained Padmanabhan. “In basketball—the tank tops—I don’t think you really see anyone wearing them. Each sport has its own uniqueness. Certainly, the shoe culture is something that’s really cool about basketball. It’s almost like a museum, sort of like an artistic part of the sport.”

Succeeding in Sports Business

If there is one thing that Zenner, Padmanabhan, and TSN’s Chris Schultz and Kate Beirness have in common with regular fans, it’s that they too, are huge sports fanatics. They all took different paths that lead them to where they are today.

Schultz started out as a pro football player, while Beirness gave up on her dreams of becoming a basketball player. Zenner left his home with nothing but his car and his guitar for a career in music, as Padmanabhan first worked in a law firm.

Each speaker took their own unique path towards their career in sports, but made huge sacrifices in order to get there. For instance, after working for Rogers Sportsnet, Beirness gained two and a half years of unpaid, broadcasting experience in Barrie, Ontario for

“Those years I left a paying job, to work for free, ultimately put me in TSN,” said Beirness.

While they’ve been successful, they all believe students wishing to work in sports business need to approach it in the same way that an athlete approaches a sport: with hard work, discipline, and preparation.

“The people that have longevity in this industry are the ones who worked their asses off,” said Beirness.

“When you play a [football] game, you spend six days getting ready for the game, instilling in me the value of preparation,” explained Schultz. “When you go to work, you have to be ready to go to work. There is no such thing as not showing up in the right mentality in this business. Show up prepared.”

If there is one thing that each speaker stressed, it was leaving your comfort zone and gaining valuable experience.

“That’s how you grow. If you push yourself, you’d be surprised where you can go,” stressed Schulz.