For many years the New York Knicks had a situation most marketers only dream of. They lived in a world where fans came to them and demand for Knicks season tickets vastly exceeded the number of seats at Madison Square Garden. In the golden days of the late’90s, when being at the Garden to watch (and be watched watching) the Knicks was de rigueur among New York’s elite and tickets were as avidly sought as first dibs on a hot IPO, advertising seemed beside the point.
All good things come to an end (such as their consecutive sell-out streak of 433 games). For the Knicks this is a reflection of the team’s erratic performance, the end of the stock market boom, the rise of the New Jersey Nets as an NBA contender, and ever-increasing competition from other entertainment and sports venues in the Big Apple.
In July 2002 the franchise found itself in the very unfamiliar position of needing to actually go out and sell itself — and thousands of tickets to 2002–2003 games — to fans in the greater New York area. To address this challenge the team went to Rapp Collins Worldwide, a division of Omnicom Group.
“When the Knicks first came to us,” recalls Rapp Collins New York creative director Doug Klein, “they faced two issues. First, they’d never been in a situation of needing to actually sell themselves. Their tickets had always sold out automatically well in advance. All they’d needed to do before was send out notices reminding season ticketholders to renew. Second, they needed to communicate to people the fact that it was even possible to get tickets to Knicks games.”
As RC accounts manager Jennifer Basso remembers it, “There was a very quick learning curve involved, as the Knicks had never worked with another agency. We got started in July and had to put a plan together in a hurry to sell tickets for the new season coming up only a couple of months away.”
The campaign began with a very simple direct email solicitation to selected target lists, including the approximately 8,000 fans who’d been on the team’s ticket waiting list in previous years, New York area Ticketmaster users, and American Express small business card holders. The goal was to sell “mini-plans,” blocks of tickets to 13 Knicks games for the upcoming season. “The message was very simple,” says Basso. “We just wanted to get the word out that tickets were available, with a call to action to click right from the ad to a Ticketmaster site where they could purchase tickets.”
Buoyed by a encouraging 36% click-through response to the first email “blast,” the campaign launched a second-wave HTML blast in early fall to a list of area CBS SportsLine and ESPN Sports Zone subscribers. The second email offered potential ticket buyers special deals on ticket “mini-plans,” along with a chance to lock in reservations for NBA playoff seats should the Knicks make the playoffs, as well as incentives such as a free Knick hat with purchases. In addition to providing a link to Ticketmaster, the email provided an 800 number with a special code to purchase tickets by phone. While there was no way to precisely track the number of ticket sales conversions prompted by the email, the team did see a higher call volume and more ticket sales.
Once these immediate direct mail resources had been exhausted, the agency’s challenge was to branch out both in terms of target markets and media and messages to reach them. “Email was our immediate ad venue because it was the quickest to implement,” explains Klein. From there, he says, the goal was to take advantage of television venues already affiliated in some way with Knick basketball, specifically the MSG network, which airs many Knick games, and Fox Sports. “A big part of the method and tactics of the campaign stemmed from the fact that the team — hard as it is to believe — was, when it came to ad budget, ‘cash poor.’ With no real advertising budget to work with, we had to take advantage of bartered media deals as much as possible.”
As the campaign evolved, the agency discovered that in addition to filling seats in the short run, the key to success in reviving the Knick brand was to capitalize on the association of Knick basketball as a quintessential New York experience.
To that end RC developed 30-second TV spots featuring actor and native New Yorker John Turturro doing voice-over videos that stress the rich tapestry of New York City life. One spot begins with an aerial view of the southern tip of Manhattan and speeds north toward bustling midtown. As Turturro intones, “New York has five boroughs, 12 million people, 38 Broadway theaters, 250 museums, 18,000 restaurants, but only one NBA team,” the camera zooms in on Madison Square Garden, the Knicks’ home court. In a second TV spot Turturro says, “New York has four tunnels, 20 bridges, 28 subway lines, 500 buses, and 12,000 taxis, all ready to take you to one incredible place, the Garden.” The spots, which debuted in late September, ran through early November. The ads end with a call to action to get tickets via an 800 number and to visit the Knick website, where fans are offered several ticket-buying options, including a direct link to the Ticketmaster site for ticket purchases. The website also features a video download of the TV spots. A special new feature on the website also gives season ticket holders the ability to sell individual tickets they don’t plan to use in a safe, legal environment.
“The TV strategy, which we want to amplify on the Web,” reflects Klein, “is to identify the Knicks with the dynamism, energy, and spirit of New York City, to appeal to people’s pride as New Yorkers and make clear the association between the team and the metropolis.”
The Knicks also ran print and radio ads in local New York media, including WFAN, the city’s largest sports radio station, and the Daily News, during the week leading up to Sept. 27, the date single-game Knicks’ tickets went on sale at the box office. Despite the short time frame in which the campaign was put together, the short-term goal of getting fans back to the Garden for the 2002–2003 season is on track, Klein says.
Beyond the immediate call to action to drive ticket sales for 2002–2003, the longer-term goal of the campaign is to reintroduce the Knicks as New York’s team through the slogan “One Team, One New York.” “Our longer aspirational goal,” says Klein, “is to make the Knick brand more accessible to a wider range of people throughout the region, including the five boroughs and suburbs in the tri-state area.”
With this in mind, the Knicks and Rapp Collins are exploring further advertising options, including banners, pop-ups, and rich media ads for advertising on sports and New York–oriented websites. The partnership also conceives of a possible ramp-up of media buys for the next season of both television and radio spots on a variety of local and regional sports network affiliates.
“It’s important to remember that this is all new terrain for the Knicks,” says Basso. “The transition here is from essentially no advertising to a kind of emergency advertising to make up a shortfall in ticket sales to a use of media to revive the brand and forge new kinds of relationships with its market.”
Crucial to taking the campaign to the next level, Basso believes, will be the development of ways to better track the progress of cross-media promotions. “So far,” she says, “we’ve only been able to measure click-throughs from the email blasts. We haven’t been able to then follow customers once they go to Ticketmaster. It’s also not possible to track direct sales of tickets via the 1-800 number from the TV ads, though it’s clear they had a great impact. In the future one of our big goals is to use TV ads more effectively to drive traffic to the website and to increase the functionality of the website to be able to capture more tracking information to measure the effectiveness of specific ads and buys.”