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Selling hope: Bruised Falcons embark on NFL marketing 101


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Selling hope: Bruised Falcons embark on NFL marketing 101
By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
X's and O's that map strategy on the football field go only so far in the gameplan to revive the Atlanta Falcons.

X's and O's that map strategy on the football field go only so far in the gameplan to revive the Atlanta Falcons.

Billboards, radio ads and TV commercials are also keys to the playbook.

The Falcons stung by a disastrous 2007 that saw marquee quarterback Michael Vick exposed for criminal dogfighting, first-year coach Bobby Petrino bolt for a new job and a last-place finish in the NFC South open camp Friday on the heels of a massive marketing blitz designed to restore the franchise's credibility as much as woo ticket-buyers.

This is not an easy sell in a huge market that has dumbfounded experts by its inconsistent support for professional sports teams. Yet the Falcons, ranked next-to-last among the 32 NFL teams for franchise value last year by Forbes magazine ($796 million) despite playing in the nation's eighth-largest TV market, are cornered.

The team purchased about 250 30-second slots on two Atlanta TV stations and 2,000 spots on local radio stations. Since April, 23 billboards have declared "Screamers Wanted." Translation: Tickets are still available.

Then there are the mass e-mails. More than 600,000 recipients in the team's database have been spam-targeted for sales.

"We need to get people understanding what we're about again," Falcons president Rich McKay said during a recent minicamp. "We need people feeling good about us again, to turn the page."

NFL teams that feed off the nation's most popular sport and benefit from extensive media coverage, typically don't push their product with such vigor. The Falcons have never engaged in a campaign so rich since Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank purchased the team in 2002. But distressed times call for a fresh approach. The price tag for the marketing campaign, according to the team, was in the mid six-figures.

Although he won't reveal specific figures, McKay acknowledges a "big loss" in season ticket sales a year after the Falcons carried a waiting list of 50,000 and despite slashed prices for non-premium seats. With two non-sellouts in 2007 (and pockets of empty seats resulting from no-shows during other games at the Georgia Dome) the team failed to sell out every game in a season for the first time in Blank's era.

With a new coach, new GM and new franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, drafted third overall in April from Boston College, the Falcons have clearly instituted a plan adding distance from Vick, the erstwhile drawing card serving a 23-month federal prison sentence.

They are selling hope, values and what has been described by Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz as an NFL version of the Marketing 101 concept of "new and improved."

 

Rebuilding bonds broken in '07

Mike Smith, 48, a low-profile hire for his first head coaching job after five years as the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator, teams with GM Thomas Dimitroff to head the football operations. Dimitroff contributed to two Super Bowl championships as the New England Patriots' college scouting director, but was virtually in the shadows of coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli. He gets power stripped from McKay, now concentrating on the business side.

Meanwhile, several big-name players including running back Warrick Dunn, cornerback DeAngelo Hall and tight end Alge Crumpler were dumped.

Whether fans will eagerly buy into changes that include a refurbished Georgia Dome is debatable. But the Falcons are undoubtedly trying to nudge them along. A TV ad contains draft-day footage of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell presenting Ryan with a Falcons jersey and ends with a plea outlined in bold, stenciled letters: Believe.

"You definitely notice it," says Ryan Stewart, who co-hosts "2 Live Stews," a top-rated afternoon sports talk show on WQXI-AM with his brother Doug. "But there's one commercial that makes me sick to my stomach. It's where Mr. Blank tells people, 'Come and meet my new regime.' Then he says how the GM came from the New England Patriots. How in the **** do you put another team's name in your ad? That's ridiculous."

Still, it's a stark contrast from last year's images. Remember? PETA demonstrators at training camp. Hall's sideline tirade. Petrino's "Pig Sooey" chants at a December press conference at the University of Arkansas, hours after he walked out on his five-year Falcons contract.

In their ads and interviews and public appearances, the Falcons are trying to "re-brand" themselves as a team with a renewed focus on character.

"This tells me that Arthur Blank gets it," says sports consultant Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, Ltd. "He's not going to let the fan base deteriorate to the point of no return. There are more instances of teams that should re-brand themselves that are not. They desperately need to connect and sell themselves. But they don't because of the big checks they receive from the NFL. The more proactive teams are in these cases, the better."

Stewart, a former NFL safety, understands the Falcons' marketing challenge and agrees with the approach. But with training camp opening Friday, he doesn't sense the typical preseason buzz from callers to the show.

"Blank is a marketing genius," he says. "But he's also desperate."

 'This is what Arthur's franchise is about'

McKay says a fundamental strategy is to rely less on the appeal of marketing individual players such as Vick, drafted No. 1 overall in 2001 and a man who led Atlanta to the 2004 NFC title game and was the undeniable draw.

"The natural reaction is, 'Geez, you guys used to rely on just marketing Michael and now you're going to market the team,' " says McKay. "No, we marketed the team before but had a player who was a magnet. He should have been, because of the athlete he is. He drew marketing with ad campaigns with Nike or other things that made it look like we were marketing one player& This campaign is more, 'This is what Arthur's franchise is about and why you should jump on the bandwagon.' "

Quality obviously matters. Since their NFL expansion debut in 1966, the Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons. Now they rebuild after a 4-12 finish was the worst in eight years.

"I'm leaving the ticket sales and the business side to Mr. Blank and Rich McKay," says Dimitroff. "There's enough on my plate. But if you win, people will come."

The Falcons have season ticket packages for as little as $250. While the team is encouraged by suite leases and sponsorships, upper-deck seats most affordable for many fans have been the most difficult to sell. This, even after cutting the price of some upper-level seats by more than 50%.

"Winning sells tickets. Period," says Keith Brooking, an 11th-year linebacker and the team's most-tenured player.

Second-favorite team in Atlanta?

Terence Moore, columnist for the AJC since 1985, considers the market's history and nuances, and sees a Herculean task for the Falcons. In addition to hot-and-cold attendance spells for the Falcons, the NBA Atlanta Hawks and Georgia Tech's football and basketball programs, Moore remembers the Atlanta Braves failing to sell out postseason games in the early '90s. He says that epitomized the weak market support. Beginning in 1991, the Braves won a record 14 consecutive division titles.

"This is clearly the worst sports town in America," says Moore. "In order to attract people in Atlanta, you've got to give them flash and a gimmick. In the Falcons' case, it begins and ends with Michael Vick."

Moore isn't convinced that winning is an elixir.

"I don't know that it makes a difference," he says.

Atlanta's transient population is often cited as a factor. The region is a mecca for transplants perhaps unwilling to establish team loyalty.

Jim Smith, the Falcons' marketing director, hears the doubts.

"I'm not going to put it on the Atlanta market," says Smith. "If you give them a competitive product to respect, they are willing to support you. You saw it with the Hawks this season. You saw sellouts. It was about being an exciting team."

Still, Smith says he can envision the Falcons as some local fans' second-favorite NFL team. He's "cautiously optimistic" the team will avoid local TV blackouts.

"We knew there would be a hangover from last year," Smith says. "This is not a time when we can be complacent."

Hardly. When NFL owners met at a Buckhead hotel in May, an event for sponsors that featured league commissioner Roger Goodell evolved into Ryan's official signing party. The quarterback penned his name on a faux contract hours after signing the real 6-year, $72 million deal.

McKay mentioned the idea for this to Ryan's agent two weeks before negotiations were completed.

"It was a good opportunity," said McKay.

McKay insists this isn't as tough a sell as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in 1992, when he took over a team in the midst of 12 consecutive double-digit loss seasons.

"I know what lean looks like," McKay says. "But the beauty of the NFL is the ability to turn franchises around. You just have to stick to your plan."

http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nf...ing-cover_N.htm

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Atlanta is a city you can't really market sports teams well, even winning doesn't fix that. Ask the Braves who couldn't sell out most of their playoff games during their 14 division title run.

There are too many people from other states and too many college football fanatics to get the Falcons across with billboards and commercials.

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Nice read. Interesting to hear "Blank gets it" from an expert. Contradicts what people around here think.

They are right, though. Making the right moves can turn a team around in a hurry. Here's to hoping this past draft will be a big first step in that process.

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HOPE'S NOT A BAD PRODUCT. IT'S AN OUTSTANDING PRODUCT WHEN IT'S ALL YOU'VE GOT. SOONER OR LATER YOU'LL NEED SOMETHING TO COMPLIMENT IT ...... LIKE A LOT OF WINS. I DON'T REALLY CARE WHAT McKAY IS SAYING, BECAUSE TO ME HE'S STILL A BUC. HE ALWAYS WAS, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. THAT SAID, I THINK THEY HAVE A LITTLE MORE THAN HOPE GOING FOR THEM. WHEN I SAY THEM, I'M NOT INCLUDING McKAY. THIS TEAM IS IN A WHOLE LOT BETTER SHAPE THAN WE WERE LAST YEAR. THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE IS THE COACHING STAFF. NEVER MIND WHAT OUR TALENT LEVEL IS, IF THEY CAN GET A MAXIMUM EFFORT FROM THESE GUYS, AND PLAY SOME PHYSICAL FOOTBALL ...... WE'LL BASH THE **** OUT OF A LOT OF UNSUSPECTING TEAMS.:)
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formul8or (7/22/2008)
Atlanta is a city you can't really market sports teams well, even winning doesn't fix that. Ask the Braves who couldn't sell out most of their playoff games during their 14 division title run.

There are too many people from other states and too many college football fanatics to get the Falcons across with billboards and commercials.

Did you watch the Hawks' home playoff games this year? That place was INSANE and packed with fans of the HAWKS.

It can be done. The Braves just got boring when they were having the same season every year.

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come to think about it, the hawks and the falcons share similarties. they dont resign good cornerstone players example boley for the falcons, josh smith and j chill for the hawks. they draft players early that dont last example, jimmy williams for the falcons, and sheldon williams for the hawks. they both gave up to many picks to get one player example hawks got mike bibby for a 2nd round pick and a couple of players, falcons trade 2nd rounder and 4th for sam baker. wow, to many comparisions.

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crankthatbatman (7/22/2008)
come to think about it, the hawks and the falcons share similarties. they dont resign good cornerstone players example boley for the falcons, josh smith and j chill for the hawks. they draft players early that dont last example, jimmy williams for the falcons, and sheldon williams for the hawks. they both gave up to many picks to get one player example hawks got mike bibby for a 2nd round pick and a couple of players, falcons trade 2nd rounder and 4th for sam baker. wow, to many comparisions.

Except the Hawks are talking to the Joshes. No RFAs have contracts from any team yet.

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Duff_Man (7/22/2008)
crankthatbatman (7/22/2008)
come to think about it, the hawks and the falcons share similarties. they dont resign good cornerstone players example boley for the falcons, josh smith and j chill for the hawks. they draft players early that dont last example, jimmy williams for the falcons, and sheldon williams for the hawks. they both gave up to many picks to get one player example hawks got mike bibby for a 2nd round pick and a couple of players, falcons trade 2nd rounder and 4th for sam baker. wow, to many comparisions.

Except the Hawks are talking to the Joshes. No RFAs have contracts from any team yet.

 

then why is j chill considering going over seas to play for a greece team if im not mistakened? and why are they still "talking" when j smoove is a hot commodity and any team can come and wo him very easily. to me, it doesnt make sense.

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crankthatbatman (7/22/2008)
Duff_Man (7/22/2008)
crankthatbatman (7/22/2008)
come to think about it, the hawks and the falcons share similarties. they dont resign good cornerstone players example boley for the falcons, josh smith and j chill for the hawks. they draft players early that dont last example, jimmy williams for the falcons, and sheldon williams for the hawks. they both gave up to many picks to get one player example hawks got mike bibby for a 2nd round pick and a couple of players, falcons trade 2nd rounder and 4th for sam baker. wow, to many comparisions.

Except the Hawks are talking to the Joshes. No RFAs have contracts from any team yet.

Because the Greek team has money to burn. More than any NBA team outside of Memphis.

 

then why is j chill considering going over seas to play for a greece team if im not mistakened? and why are they still "talking" when j smoove is a hot commodity and any team can come and wo him very easily. to me, it doesnt make sense.

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If "Blank" got it, he would have put up an competitive team rather than trying to go for flash.  He "gets" it after the draft and seeing the season ticket sales go into the trash.  Vick wasn't ever going to win a superbowl but he had extreme talent and made the team competitive every week. 

Like I said before, I want to see improvement, not flash.  So Vick nor Ryan get my vote.  You build through the lines and by getting more picks in the draft.  We did neither.  Why should the fans be happy or fork up 1k plus to see a team they know isn't what it should be?

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red2play (7/22/2008)
If "Blank" got it, he would have put up an competitive team rather than trying to go for flash.  He "gets" it after the draft and seeing the season ticket sales go into the trash.  Vick wasn't ever going to win a superbowl but he had extreme talent and made the team competitive every week. 

Like I said before, I want to see improvement, not flash.  So Vick nor Ryan get my vote.  You build through the lines and by getting more picks in the draft.  We did neither.  Why should the fans be happy or fork up 1k plus to see a team they know isn't what it should be?

 

ding ding ding....and we have a winner ladies and gents

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Hey thanks for the post: it was an interesting read for sure.

Winning does draw fans no matter what Moore says (when has he ever been right?)

But like they pointed out in the article, Atlanta has never been much of a professional sports town, so the Falcons have their work cut out for them if they want to sell out the Dome. The suddenly terrible economy will not help them in their effort either.

I still think we are very lucky to have Blank as our owner. Sure, you may not agree with all he has done, but he does put all his heart into the team (and his money too).

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Duff_Man (7/22/2008)
formul8or (7/22/2008)
Atlanta is a city you can't really market sports teams well, even winning doesn't fix that. Ask the Braves who couldn't sell out most of their playoff games during their 14 division title run.

There are too many people from other states and too many college football fanatics to get the Falcons across with billboards and commercials.

Did you watch the Hawks' home playoff games this year? That place was INSANE and packed with fans of the HAWKS.

It can be done. The Braves just got boring when they were having the same season every year.

How big were the crowds during the regular season? Let's see how many "fans of the HAWKS" show up this regular season, especially if they are going to miss the playoffs.

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