If there is one thing that Jon Spoelstra didn’t do to earn the distinction of being top sports marketer, it is to stay inside a neat little box. Jon is best known for coming up with outrageous marketing ideas that, in more than the few cases that he got away with them, drove a ton of recognition and revenue for the teams he worked with. Widely recognized as one of the best sports marketers in the world, Jon is a former NBA executive for the Buffalo Braves, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets; a co-founder of SRO Partners and presently the President of Mandalay Sports Entertainment. In this conversation with Jesse Cole, he shares some of his most outrageous stories that teach us to keep coming up with something new, keep differentiating, have an idea champion and get your ideas approved. Stick out until the end where Jon puts Jesse on the spot with an outrageous question!
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Getting Away With Outrageous Marketing Ideas With Jon Spoelstra
I am fired up to welcome one of the best sports marketers in the world. The outrageous marketer himself, the man who wrote the book, Outrageous Marketing, a true mentor from afar for me until we joined forces and watching our team in Savannah together, I am so pumped to welcome Jon Spoelstra to the show. Welcome, Jon.
Thank you, Jesse. It’s my delight to be here.
I’m excited to chat and share some of the things that we’ve learned over the last few years. I got to start with this because you inspired me. The jockstraps that you famously wrote about many years ago. I don’t know if you knew this, Jon, but a couple of years ago, we launched the Dolce and Banana underwear and it became a big seller. We didn’t give it away, we sold it and it’s continued to sell the bananas underwear. I want to thank you first for the jockstrap inspiration that has happened.
Do I get a finder fee on that 10%?
We’ll give you a few pairs of underwear free so people know what we’re talking about. Tell briefly about the jockstrap story.
When I became President of the New Jersey Nets, this is back in the early 1990s. There’s a famous advertising guy in New York City and he had written some advertising books. He gives me a call and says, “I’ve got the solution of how you can market your team. Can I come and talk to you?” I had him come in and he made the presentation. He said, “You’re an awful team. You’ve been the worst team league for seven straight years. You’ve been an awful attendance. Everybody knows that it’s an awful experience. I know how you can sell the place out.” I said, “How do you do that?” He said, “Give a jockstrap to every man, woman, and child that comes to the game. They come through the turnstiles, hand them a jockstrap.”
He said, “People will be talking about you. Do it for every game.” There are 41 Home Games in the NBA season. “If a person goes to all 41 games, you give them 41 jockstraps, all XL. A woman gets it, she’ll take it to work the next day and drop it off in somebody’s desks. If a kid gets it, they’ll think it’s a slingshot and fire things away. You’ll be the talk of the nation.” That’s how it started. There are some ideas that intimidate me. Jesse, this is what I’ve done my whole business life. When I come up with an idea and I don’t quite know where to go with it but it’s a wild idea, I handwrite it down on a piece of paper.
This would be, “Give a jockstrap to every man, woman and child who comes from New Jersey Nets, every game.” I put it in an envelope and sit in my office. I locked the door so nobody could come in and see me. This was at the New Jersey Nets offices. I pushed that envelope across the table slowly. I started to think of a natural reaction of pushing this outrageous envelope across my desk. You start to think about some of the problems with that and some of the opportunities too. I called in a guy who had done our hats. We gave away a lot of hats. We gave it away for group ticket sales.
If you bought a group ticket, you got a hat. We gave away over 100,000 hats. This guy was a Chinese guy that put these hats and we were buying the hats at that time for $0.95. I thought they were good-looking hats. I found out if you put it on the shelf of your car in the back, that was not a good idea because if it was in the sun, they would melt. I called the guy in and I said, “We figured that you would do about 500,000 in attendance. I want to give away 500,000 jocks.” To make sure he knew what I was talking about, I brought a jock into work. He is like, “A lot of stitches.” I said, “Find out what it’s going to cost for 500,000 jocks.”
He comes back a week later and the hats were cost is $0.95. The jock was going to cost us $3. I said to the guy, “That can’t be possible. With the jock, all there is air. The hat, there’s some material there.” He says, “Too many stitches.” I said, “We can’t do $1.5 million. There’s no way we’d have that type of money.” He said, “I could do it in November.” That was, at that time, the beginning of the NBA Season. “I could do it for the first three games.” I said, “Instead of 500,000 jocks, how about if we did 40,000 jockstraps.” He said, “November is too soon.” Instead of three months for the hats, because the number of stitches in the jocks need five months. He said, “How about the Playoffs?” I said, “You know our team. We are not going to make the Playoffs.” We never did the jockstrap.
You inspired, not just that idea but also, we did a Salute To Underwear Night in my second year in Gastonia. We said, “Anybody that wore their underwear on the outside got a free ticket,” and we threw away underwear. Jon, I’ve shared this many times but it was the most unfamily-friendly night we’ve ever done. It was disgusting what people are wearing to the ballpark and we had about 262 fans show up and the media shot up. The Charlotte News came and they covered people wearing their underwear but no one in the stadium.
It was a colossal failure but it ended up leading to this which turned out to a win, be inspiration. This is for the background that people know and they’ll share. The president of the Nets, the trailblazers, and running Mandalay Baseball minor league teams, tons of experience but pushing the outrageous envelope and this show Business Done Differently. People are so scared and I’d love to give some more examples of how you did that and how it can inspire other people to get a little more outrageous to have outrageous results.
I don’t mean to plug the book, but it’s all about not the outrageous idea necessarily but how to get an approved. There were some crazy things that I’ve done throughout my career that when I look back on it, I’m saying, “That was an awful lot of idea.” A lot of it was insider stuff like bringing radio in-house. We were the first team to do that in an era when nobody did it. That was a breakthrough thing. Nowadays, that’s common with teams. We were the first team to go with satellite for our radio broadcast and no other team was doing it. Here’s what we didn’t do but I tried. When the USSR dissolve and became Russia, this was about 1993 or so, they had a radio signal that would reach off of nine times zones, meaning that from Moscow, it could reach to Japan and you could rent airtime on that.
What I wanted to do for the New Jersey Nets is I wanted our coverage map on the radio to be Northern New Jersey, Russia, and Japan. I was working my way through on how to do this so we could broadcast all of our games on the radio in Russia. I’m not sure if anybody had listened, it would be an English but didn’t make any difference. I wanted the coverage map of Russia and I found that it was going to cost us, to do all 82 games, $20,000 to put into Russia, China and the whole place. Unfortunately, the wisdom of David Stern wasn’t with him that day when he stopped us from doing it. He says, “We don’t have the right to do that.”
Now, you’re inspiring me. Is there a small country that we can go and infiltrate with the Bananas and give them a Banana shirt?
Here’s the other one with Portland. We had a radio network of 40 some stations. You could go to every place in the State of Oregon and they’d be carrying a Portland Trail Blazer game. We had 350,000-watt stations, one in Portland, one in Eugene, Oregon, one in Boise. We had stationed in Alaska and Hawaii but for the fun of it, I wanted to get a station in Iowa or Nebraska. They don’t have any pro teams. I wanted one of those States to adopt this pro team and we went by satellite. Getting the signal to Iowa and Nebraska was nothing. We’d have to put in a dowel night and I couldn’t get a station.
That was Portland. You won some games in Portland.
I thought that would be neat that a town in Iowa or Nebraska adopted.
It’s thinking the way other people aren’t thinking. That’s where I want to go. To the business leaders that are reading this, you have some main ideas but differentiate until you sweat new as a way of life. Share how that became a model for you with a story.
It’s a way of life. It started with doing something new in the first place. With the New Jersey Nets, there were a lot of Japanese and American companies located in the New York, New Jersey area. Most of the executives at those companies were Americans but they knew about the New Jersey Nets that we’re an utter failure. Any sponsorship in those days, it was over $100,000. Usually, they had to go back for approval in Japan. I figured why should I go and get embarrassed by calling somebody in New York or New Jersey? Why don’t I go to the source? Why don’t I go to Toyota in Japan? Why don’t I go to Sony? I hired a Japanese national who had the ins at all those big companies. I trekked off to Japan, sat down, and met with the chairman of Toyota, Honda, and Sony, all these companies. I was trying pitching from sponsorship but the way to do it is to go over and present yourself.
My guy, Yoshi, would talk to that guys to talk about the sponsorship deal. It was impolite for me to talk about the deal because they measured the character. In three years, I went over there twelve times, we were importing about $3 million a year in sponsorships directly from Japan. We found out that there was a tax deal with the Japanese. If they use their logo in advertising, just their logo, nothing else, they got a special tax break in Japan so our arena looks like it was in Tokyo. There were all these Japanese signs. Nobody understood that. The media never picked up on it. We were doing about $3 million in revenue coming directly from Japan but the President of Sony, Kunitake Ando. He is a wonderful man.
We’re having dinner one night and I said, “Kuni, it must be difficult for your engineers to continue to come up with new products because if you come up with new products and then somebody knocks it off six months later for half the price. You’re always coming up with new stuff. It must put a lot of pressure on your engineers.” He said, “In Sony, we consider new as a way of life. If we don’t do new, we perish in the marketplace.” I thought, “Can I write that down?” I wrote it down. Coming home, in the wintertime it’s a fifteen-hour flight coming back from Tokyo to New York, New Jersey. I kept on thinking, “New is a way of life.”
This doesn’t mean that you’re inventing like Tesla, an electric car. I’ll give you a great example. Almost every team that I know, they had a tri-fold ticket brochure. It’s a piece of paper folded twice. Everybody did that. I talked to different teams. I said, “How many tickets do you sell?” They’d always say none or a few. I was talking to a friend of mine, Joe Sugarman, who invented remember the BluBlocker sunglasses. He sold by catalog, infomercial and a lot of different ways but he never sold it with the tri-fold.
I said, “How come you never sell by tri-fold?” He aid, “It’s a lot cheaper. I’m in the direct mail business. I’d love to be able to do that but it doesn’t work. The catalog works.” It even still. We still get a lot of catalogs at home at certain times of the year, but we don’t get tri-fold because the people in the business of selling in the mail are catalog. The new as a way of life, I said, “Why don’t we do a ticket catalog? Each page would feature a different ticket product. One would be on tickets. One would be all-you-can-eat, another one would be a different ticket product.”
We put that together. It was an eight-page catalog and there was seven ticket product featured. It costs us $1 to make the thing and then put it in the mail. The return was, for every $1 we spent, we were getting $10 back. The question is, let’s do it again. That’s what I talking about, new is a way of life. I’m not saying something that nobody’s ever thought of, but how can you take something into existence and change it? When we did radio in-house, the games were on the air. You will still be able to listen to the game, the only difference was we were the ones that made the money instead of the radio station.
For someone reading, it’s almost you look at every product that you have and not what the product is, how you sell it, how you promote it, what it looks like, what’s the design, how is it delivered? You can write down every part of that.
By new is a way of life, take one of those elements and say, “That’s the thing that’s going to help differentiate and how to make this product better.”
You know as much as anyone. Every single year we asked, “What are you guys doing new this year? What’s next? What’s new?” You can ask that question because people want to have something to talk about whether it’ll be sports or a cool brand but you got to give them someone to talk about it. I’ll give you an example. In 2019, Jon, we had our streaming. The way that you stream a game, you show it, you have two cameras, or four cameras, etc. We challenged every way that a game could be streamed. We said, “Is it sold per game or per season like everyone else?” We said, “No, let’s do it $5 a month year-round and have content that goes year-round.” Sell it as a year-round like a Netflix model.
The next we said, “Can we have drones in the middle of the games that film during games? Couldn’t we do that?” On every road, you can’t because you can’t have drones but we said, “Let’s break the rules and see what happens. Could we be in trouble?” Could we make up players during the games? Could we let fans vote for who comes into the game? Could we have a camera that falls to the players up to the bat? We ask all these questions. I’ll tell you one thing, Jon, the first game was a disaster. We had no idea what we were doing. The audio was going out, by the second game, we got better. By the third game, it got better because we kept asking those questions. You almost have to have an impatience to the old way of doing things, to continue to have a new way of doing things. I love that new is a way of life. Are there other ways people can embody this? We gave some examples but is it looking at everything that they’re selling and then not looking at inventing but looking at it in different ways. What else did you guys do or be able to teach?
This is another one of those books that I’m writing. I’ve done this for many years. It’s every 90 days, I want to come up with up to three things I’m going to initiate or improve upon. It’s no more than three and it can be one. This book that I wrote, Get Your Ideas Approved. I’ve come up with one in 90 days. I said, “I can do that in 90 days. I can write the thing. I could package it, so forth and so on.” I’ve done that throughout my life. Every 90 days, something new, something that I can initiate. Most people don’t think in those terms every 90 days but if you take a look at it like with the staff in Portland, it was a smaller staff but I’d have a meeting with every employee every 90 days.
We’re talking about what three things are you going to initiate or improve? It could be anything. It didn’t have to be work-related. This is where you choose what you want to initiate and improve, not what your boss says you should improve. We set up certain benchmarks. What type of progress? One would want to be able to type better. She typed 60 words a minute but she wanted to be able to type 80. That was okay. It wasn’t like I was doing a judge what she wants to prove upon? I asked, “How are you going to do that? What steps are you going to take? You can get a class at a community college. We’ll pay for the class.” She had to come up with a strategy and so forth. I said, “She wanted to be able to type 100 words a minute.” When she got the 90, she thought that was enough. I said, “That’s fine. You can quit at any point along the way once you think that it’s sufficient.”
It’s so simple though because if you have 100 employees, by the end of the year, you have 1,200 new ideas that are implemented. We call it The 12 Week Year and a great book by Brian Moran. We’ve been bonded here the same. Three things to get better improve and they take ownership of it because it’s something that they want to do and which gives them ownership, a job and gives them an entrepreneurial spirit which is great. I want to jump on that into the shift of the idea champion because these are your ideas, we’ve got to be champion, and we get them done. Your new book Get Your Ideas Approved, share with me how this came about. We’ve embodied some of this from you as well. Every company should have idea champions, idea paloozas, and make ideas happen.
With the idea champions, it could be their idea but it could be voluntary, when these ideas are embryonic stage, somebody has to carry that across the goal. They have to take ownership of that. When I worked with that, we’d ask for volunteers or some people was obvious, they’d say, “That’s my idea I want to run with.” They would run with it. They were the CEO of that idea and they would report back to me whenever necessary but no less than once a week. If they’re in the roadblocks, they could ask for assistance. Sometimes, they’d have a budget or they wouldn’t, or they’d have to get approval from other people in the same company but they became the idea champion to be able to carry that thing to fruition. There were times, Jesse, when we carried that idea very far and realized there were bad holes in it and it’d be better to discard it and that’s okay too.
What were some ideas from younger staff members? Do you remember back in the day that idea champion was like, “This made an impact?”
I was talking about our radio network with the Portland trailblazers and it was over 40 radio stations in three States. We fed the signal with AT&T long lines and AT&T told us that in a year, they were going to raise the rates which would cost us $100,000 more. At that time, we’re paying about $40,000 a year. It went up substantially. We sat down to try to come up with what is the solution to this. One person said, “Satellite.” Somebody else said, “What do you mean satellite?” “I read about that there’s a communication satellite up there now. ABC and NBC are using them. Why don’t we use it?”New is a way of life. Click To Tweet
None of us knew anything about satellites. That one person became the idea champion. Along the way, I ask for a couple of other people to help him. First of all, you had to find out who has these satellites then you have to find out if they do have, do they rent out transponder time and how much does it cost? What type of equipment do you need? All this stuff we need. We needed somebody to dig into this thing, grab the ball, and run with it. We found out that you couldn’t rent the transponder by the hour or by the day, you could only rent it annually.
An NBA Season has about 240 hours of transmission time. You’d rent it for 365 days, 24 hours a day. Even then, you’d have to have a downlink and an uplink. Many of the stations in the 1980s didn’t have downlinks. We’d have to buy them downlinks and we would have to build an unhand and uplink. The whole thing would cost us about $250,000. To put that in perspective, the best player on the team at that time was making about $600,000 a year or $500,000. This was a big investment, $50,000. That would have been your third best player. Once you paid for the cost of the satellite, were practically nothing. It would have been $140,000 a year going with AT&T or $250,000 going with satellite or the next year, it still would’ve been $140,000 with AT&T. The next year, it’d be about $10,000 by satellite.
We made the presentation to the owner, we have spent $250,000 and he accepted it. The funny thing is once it got rolling, other people found out that we had this satellite, this transponder tank and they wanted to rent it and we rented it. The first year is about $100,000 for other people. While the big guys couldn’t run it out by the hour, we weren’t held back, we could rent it out by per minute if we wanted to. We started to make about $500,000 a year. The idea champion came up with a normal meeting of how can we solve that problem. One guy blindly said satellite. He became the idea champion. He was by no means a techie. He should have never been put in charge of that. His previous job for years had been a trainer for a hockey team so he didn’t have a techy brain. He’s the one that became the idea champion that put it all together.
He saw it from a different perspective. It’s asking the questions that you talk about there, what’s it going to take, and what did I do to bring in revenue for the team. I got to tell you, my first year in Gastonia when I took the job and there was only $268 in the bank account. That’s not a joke, that was the number. There were three full-time employees and payroll was on Friday. That was my first day. I was the GM and I couldn’t pay myself for long periods of time. I read your book. It was about two months into the job. I wrote that down on an index card, “What’s it going to take? What did I do to bring in revenue?”
I made it my goal that every day, I got to bring in some form of revenue. I remember I didn’t have anything. I started calling to sell $100 family plans. I started calling families like, “There are $100 family plans.” I used to be able to sell something and I kept this hard. It was 42 days of something sold but it was asking that question, what’s it going to take? What did I do to bring in revenue?
I think I put them in the book but I spent a day in New Jersey as the president. One day, I’m driving home, I would usually leave around 7:00 PM, but there’s still a lot of traffic in New Jersey. I was bone-tired and a thought crossed my mind like, “What did I do to make money for my company for the New Jersey Nets?” I’m thinking I met with a couple of lawyers but that didn’t make us any money. I went through the whole day and I realized that I was bone-tired and I didn’t do anything to increase or work on revenue for the team. I sat down that night and made a solemn vow to myself that I would never go a working day again without making at least one sales call.
In New Jersey, it was easy to do because we had twenty ticket salespeople and we had four sponsorship salespeople. It was easy for me to hook up with a guy. It would take an hour to hold on my life because that’s all sales calls. It takes us 30 to 45 minutes to get there, come back, and making the pitch. When I went to Mandalay where we own seven baseball teams, I traveled around with the teams. There, it was easy too because I would make sales calls with the local team whether it be ticket sales or sponsorships. I found out that it was a good way for me to understand the market of that individual team. The salesperson still made the pitch. I was going along the way like John Madden. I was the color commentator.
Steve did that a lot with us with that. You got a feel for it, you get to know what it’s like, you get to be a part of it, and you can help coach better when you’re in their shoes.
The biggest benefit, Jesse, is driving to and from with a young salesperson. It wasn’t like I was going to grade them or anything but I got to talk with them a little bit about whatever. Coming back from the sales call, we talked about what went on. I found that that was a helpful one-on-one. That was one of the most important things I did. It’s to take an hour on my day to make a sales call.
It’s so valuable. How can you put yourself in their shoes and spend time with them? We started this frontline fan, Jon, where we go and everyone in our front office works in the concession stand, beer garden, and stadium with the people dressed up. I take the yellow tux off. They call me Toby. I was called Toby so no one knew the owner was serving them and the relationship was able to build and connect with them to have empathy for what they go through. It’s so crucial. We’re going to get to some games, Jon.
Here’s one other thing. That is in Portland and New Jersey, at least once a year, everybody that worked there went to the game as a fan. They couldn’t park in any special parking lot. They had to pay for the parking. There was no special dues or whatever. We expanded that and you could travel to any NBA team. We pay for the flight, hotel, all expenses and all we wanted you to do is to come back with an idea that we could steal.
We’ve done that in our state but we’ve never done that in another ballpark. That’s a good one. We learn more from outside the industry. When we take our trip, our team on cruises, or go to Disney, we try to take those and bring them in. Every team may not have something that you can steal, but you can get inspired to do something because they were doing it. I said I was going to get into some games because this is Business Done Differently, Jon. It’s not going to be a typical back and forth. Before we do that, you may think about what’s it going to take and what did I do to bring in money?
I wrote a piece about how you can be the most valuable player of your team and it’s not the person on the field. How can you every day be the most valuable? That’s a different question to ask. If everyone is trying to provide value that if you are going to lead, your boss will fight to keep you a part of it. How can you provide more value and not try to be taking a spot or taking a role? You’ve inspired me for a little bit. I want to go into Advertising Done Differently because you talk a lot about how much you learned from Joe Sugarman and Roy Williams. Share a little bit of advertising done differently on what you did back in the day and then now, it’s a whole different world.
In the ’90s, they had advertising budgets of $2 million or $3 million and it runs these beautiful TV commercials. I’d always be of service wealth partner and I’ll say, “How many tickets did you sell?” They say, “There’s a lot of goodwill.” I say, “I know but your tenants went down and your team was good.” Joe Sugarman believes that every ad that is spent has to show results. I took that throughout my business career. Television was difficult to do unless you do an infomercial. We did that in New Jersey.
It was closer to us. What worked for us was a quarter-page ad in the newspaper on a direct response ad. It was a very ugly ad. It was all copy but I always had an interesting headline. We get people interested and we tend to tell our whole story in that ad. The goal was to get the person to pick up the phone and call in to order a ticket package. Simple goal. Nowadays, it’s far different. You want people to come to your website and instead of picking up the phone, you want them to click. The advantage of the website is far greater than a newspaper ad because, in the newspaper ad, we did a quarter-page ad that cost $2,000. Let’s say, the ad came out on a Tuesday, in the next two days, we want to sell $8,000 worth of tickets.
We want at least a 4 to 1 ratio and we’d only advertised twice a week. We didn’t advertise Monday and Thursday. The shelf life of an ad in newspapers is very limited. It’s like two days. Nowadays, the world has changed. Newspaper circulation has gone way down. Their costs have not gone down. The costs have stayed up. It’s much more difficult to get a 4 to 1 ratio but then what’s come along is Facebook and the other types of social media. Still, the goal on Facebook is to get the person to read about what your offer is. With on the line, you can show videos, a lot of copy, a lot of fun, you can do a lot of different things that weren’t available before. The difference is how do you get the person that’s on Facebook to come to your site. That’s creative.
What did you learn with creativity? You have a lot more copies. Again, we worked through some of this together where you would write more of a story-based. Is that one of the biggest things you’ve done?
The feeling is that people that are going to make an investment in tickets generally want more information than less. If you go to the infomercials that are on the internet like I saw one the other day for a wedge in golf and went on and on from the Aussie wedge. The thing is, the people that are interested, you can’t almost give them enough information. The more they get into it, there has got to be pauses along the way where they can order.
Can you create an ad that’s almost the world’s longest ad that keeps talking about it? That’s better than the best experience ever.
The key is to get them to come to your site. Let’s say a Facebook Ad. That’s got to be creative and grab their attention. This used to be like our newspaper ads. The same principle applies to the internet like the headline on a newspaper ad. The sole purpose of that headline was to get the person to read the sub-headline. The sole purpose of the sub-headline and picture was to get them to read the first sentence. The sole purpose of the first sentence was to get them to read the second sentence. The sole purpose of the second sentence is to get them reading the next paragraph. You got to get them going down that shoot. The difficulty in that, Jesse, is it’s got to be interesting and make the person curious with that headline, the sub-headline and then the first few sentences. You got to make them curious and they have to be interested in your product, anyway. With your baseball, if somebody is not interested in baseball or sports, they would come there with somebody else and then enjoy but they wouldn’t do it without knowing. The baseball might turn them off.
It’s interesting the way you’re talking about the headlines because before we launch anything, we write a press release and say, “Is this interesting enough? Is this attention-getting? Is it exciting?”
Most press releases are extraordinarily boring. Do they learn that in college how to write a boring press release? In Mandalay what we did is, it went out to reporters. Reporters are human beings too even though there’s a lot of times they are bored which had to do with them and the press releases to make it interesting.
Let’s jump on this, Jon. A sports team going to have a unique game or something special, you can call it whatever you want. How would you not make it boring? Give me an example. How will you lead them down to train?
The headline could be one outrageous rule that you like. You’ve got the nine new rules of baseball or is it ten which are stunningly terrific. If that reporter gets that one outrageous rule you like, would that make them read the subhead? The commissioner said, “He’d kill us if we tried this.” Would that make the person interested in reading the first sentence?
It’s like, “My boss said he might fire me for doing this,” which I’ve seen. When we announced our fans giving game, we said, “Bananas announced fans giving.” Fans will temporarily starve because we’re not feeding fans for the first 66 minutes to honor the 66 pilgrims that came across on the Mayflower. There’ll be no food.
I’m looking forward to your press releases.
Say, “What’s next?” That goes into the newest way of life. Again, you have to think, is this outrageous enough that you want to keep reading? You want to read the next chapter because they give you a cliffhanger. How does everything have a click here? This right here is so important for everyone. How does everything you put have a cliffhanger of intrigued to get you to the next line? Let’s go to a quick game. Are you ready?
This is going to be the truth and dare so both of them. Which one would you like first?
It doesn’t make any difference.
We’ll go with a dare. Don’t worry, Jon, I have people sing because at our ballpark, we have everyone sing and it’s 4,000 people that’s crazy. I won’t do that to you. We’re going to do Bananas Barnyard. We’ve been grown men onto the field and we say an animal, you have to act like it. I want to know one animal that people would describe you as. You’re a business person, what kind of animal were you as a leader and what sound would they make?
You’re a dog?
Why would you be a dog? You didn’t bark but it’s okay. I’ll be easy on you.Don’t get an idea too far ahead of its time. Click To Tweet
I have no idea.
There are different leaders and I’ve had different impersonations. What type of leader that they would see you as, as a person that was very aggressive, more timid type of leader?
I don’t know animals enough.
You golf very well. If I went to the type of golf, I have gone there. Let’s go to the truth then. Give me some of the best lessons or something that didn’t work for you that you learned from?
There have been some big things but one truth is, don’t be too far ahead of the idea. You don’t have the idea too far ahead of its time. This was in the ‘70s. I got the TV rights nationally to Notre Dame Basketball. At that time, there were three television networks of which they carry one game of the week like NBC. There’s very little college basketball on television. I went to Notre Dame and I was living in Chicago at that time. I had my own little company and we’re living in an old Brownstone building in Evanston. I wanted to watch an early game and on the roof was an antenna of this three-story building. I figured I could hook that up with my TV because the games were televised itself in Indiana which is right across Lake Michigan.
I could hook this up and I did. I could get the picture for a while but then it would go out. If I ever run-up to the roof and reconfigure it. I want to watch these Notre Dame Basketball games a lot. There’s a lot of other Notre Dame grads in Chicago who like to watch it. They thought if they wanted to watch it, there are fans in Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, or New York City. Moose Krause was the athletic director at that time. Over a period of time, I acquired the rights to Notre Dame Basketball for ten years. I never knew anything about television and we were in an artistic success. We got great ratings, were on 118 stations. The landlines at that time through AT&T was $1 a mile per hour. If you’re a network, it was $0.02 a mile per hour.
Here’s an idea before it failed. We’re not successful, financial failure. Two years later, a satellite came in where you could go buy a transponder for cheap. At that time, cable came into play also. I could have sold rights to cable companies where they have liked to have the rights to Notre Dame Basketball for ten years. It failed. I also consider that my greatest success in life was putting together this television network with 118 stations. It’s also my greatest failure because I wasn’t able to make it work. That idea was too far ahead of its time. What you want to be is a little bit ahead of your time. Not too far. If it’s too far, there are things that aren’t in place yet before it can make it successful.
The greatest example is Netflix. When they split the company because they knew streaming is coming and it almost crippled them. Their stock price went from $172 to $17. You’re on the right path, they weren’t there yet. I want to do a little bit rapid-fire here. The future of sports marketing and I want us to have almost an outrageous marketing showdown. For instance, merchandise, promotions, food and bev. What are some outrageous things that we can do? You can throw one, then we can go back and forth. Looking at food and beverage at a stadium potentially, what are some outrageous things that you can do to create some attention?
We’ve already done that with you guys with the free food. Here’s something I did in Portland. We acquired the food and beverage rights that had been held by the city. In those days, it was basic like hotdogs, popcorn and so forth. We couldn’t fry food inside. You cook hot dogs but you couldn’t cook a burger or do a lot of things but there was an overhang outside in the front. We grilled burgers out there. In the winter in Portland, Oregon, you get rain and it’s cold but people would wait in line out there to get their cheeseburgers.
We also had stir fry. Any concessionaire will tell you to stir-fry doesn’t make money. It’s crazy to do it. I said, “I don’t care too much if we make money off of a stir fry. What I want is the people that have the choice so when they walk in, they see this big stir fry thing. They’re going to order a hotdog, but I want them to think they have an alternative so they’ll keep on eating something.” The stir fry wasn’t very profitable but it was so different in a stadium at that time. This was in the late 1980s. We also wanted to cook popcorn at that time right before it was consumed.
Every concessionaire hooks up a mountain of popcorn a week before. It puts it in big plastic bags. I wanted popcorn and the aroma of the popcorn in the arena. We had hired a concessionaire to do the operational work. He said, “How are we going to do this?” I said, “We’ve got a popcorn machine in the office. Why don’t we do it that way?” We put out two popcorn machines and kept them going the whole time but then the line got so big. The concessioner came to me, “What are we going to do now? There are 70 people on the line.” I said, “Buy more popcorn machines.” We ended up owning about ten popcorn machines and kept them going all game long. The aroma was terrific. Part of it is having a lot of different choices but interesting choices. Besides the food itself, get the aroma and get the fun of it.
It’s having something just to create attention.
Somebody goes to a place and it was cooked? A few hours before, wrapped and you pick it out of the bin and there’s no smell to it and it’s a little bit squishy. That isn’t merchandising the food.
I was in food and bev and I ended up merchandise, an outrageous department. What are some things in the past or what to do in the future? We are constantly thinking about what is the most outrageous item that we can sell.
Jesse, I liked the aroma. I like the popcorn, the grilling of the burgers, and the hotdogs right there. If you have to have a fan that blows the aroma out into the crowd, I like that too.
It’s very Disney-like. The cinnamon and stuff. You smell the desserts so you have desserts. As far as the future of different departments, what do you see some outrageous ideas that could come about whether it’s tickets, merchandise, food and bev, operations or anything in the sports department?
A lot of those things come a long way. Merchandise had come a long way. Again, when I was with the New Jersey Nets, they had all these national licensees but 90% of them would not make the merchandise of the New Jersey Nets because nobody bought them. If available, could people buy it in the first place? That’s what led me to want to change the name of the New Jersey Nets to the New Jersey Swamp Rights. I don’t know if you’ve been to the swamp at New Jersey, the Meadowlands.
No, I haven’t.
That used to be a swamp. It would catch on fire from the pollutants that were in the swamp. It wasn’t the Meadowlands which sounds like there’s going to be cows grazing off on the horizon. Nobody was making our merchandise and we had to go through the NBA. We came up with, “Can we change the name of the Nets?” It’s like we’re going into the witness protection program because they’ve been such a failure. They’d never won anything and you could give them a new name, a new identity. It was going to be the Swamp Dragons. We love the word dragons because the dragons can be a nice thing that kids love. Dragons are in every place. It could be ferocious. It could fly. It got fire coming out of its mouth. It got a lot of great things.
I went to see David Stern, the Commissioner at that time and he said in a very profane way, “This is the dumbest idea you’ve ever come up with to change the name.” I went through the presentation. There were deadlines in licensing. Ninety percent of the licenses didn’t even produce New Jersey Net stuff. The people at the NBA licensing think we’ve become number one. The logo was terrific. He said, “Have you got the approval from your owners?” There were seven owners of the Nets. I said, “No, because if he didn’t want it, that doesn’t mean that they want it.” He said, “I’ll go with you.” I present it to the seven owners who never agreed upon anything. All seven agreed to want to change the name to the Swamp Dragons.
The next step was taking it to the executive committee, NBA owners, Jerry Buss, the owner of the Lakers. He was all the most powerful owners. I presented that to the owners. They voted unanimously for it to change the name. Jerry Buss liked it. He said, “I love to do this. The Lakers, there is no lake in LA but we won something. We won the championship. We can’t do it. You guys have done nothing but stunk all these years. That’d be a good idea for you to change your name.”
I was told by the NBA and there are eleven owners on the executive committee. Once they approve it, it was a done deal but they had to go, as a formality, to get facts vote from every team. In those days, there were 26 teams in the NBA. Here’s where I made some mistakes, Jesse. I had done everything perfect until then. I said, “That’s fine.” The owners have never gone against the eleven most powerful owners but don’t worry about the thing. In fact, the league has spent $500,000 in legal fees around the world protecting the name Swamp Dragons.
I get a call and they said, “When are you going to do this?” “It’s going to be in the future. There were a couple of other things we got to take care of before we’re going to do it. Don’t worry about it. Everything is going in the right direction.” One day, I get a call from David Stern. I could practically see spinel coming out through the phone because he was so angry. He said, “What the hell is going on over there?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “When we took the vote for the Swamp Dragons, it came in at 25 to 1 in favor of the New Jersey Nets changing their name to Swamp Dragons.” I said, “That’s great. 25 to 1, all we needed was the majority.” He said, “Jon, the one team that got to know was the New Jersey Nets.”
Here’s where I made a mistake. The seven owners would pass around the fact vote which is more of a formality than anything. There’s one guy of the seven owners who was the nervous one got cold feet at and he voted no. I said, “David, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s 25 to 1. It doesn’t make a difference whether this other guy voted or not. We got the vote.” He said, “Jon, you can’t change the name of your team when your owners voted no. We can’t do it.” That never came to be. A mistake that I made and you look back at is not getting down when he said it’s got to go to the facts vote. They gave me all these assurances that this is a done deal. I didn’t find out exactly when that facts vote was going to take place. I didn’t find out exactly who went of the seven owners because then I would have babysat that guy and we would have been able to do it.
That’s a great prelude to why you wrote the book. That could have changed everything as far as the New Jersey Nets and merchandise product.
My feeling is if they would have done that, a lot of marketers feel we would have become number one in licensing. I wanted little kids to be wearing the Swamp Dragon shirts over at Madison Square Garden the next games. It would have given us a whole different identity. It would have been the Savannah Bananas. I submit that team would still be in New Jersey and Brooklyn might have a team right now but it would be an expansion team. The whole thing changed by the one guy getting the cold feet.
We’re getting close to the end here. We’ll have a little rapid-fire. First, I’ve been grilling you for a little bit. I’ll let you grill me. A quick flip the script. You’re the host of the show. You can ask me one question.
You’ve got one team now, why wouldn’t you do your own league?
You put me on the spot here. We’ve asked that question and discussed it. You brought up Banana Ball before and we’ve looked at all that. I’ll answer this. One of the best lessons I learned from Walt Disney was, how can you control your dependencies? He learned that when he had his movies in the theaters and the theaters were dirty, gross, the lighting wasn’t good, and it wasn’t a good experience. He said, “I want to create my own land. I want to create a Disneyland where I control people’s experience.” When you’re a part even the NBA is you’re learning. You wanted to do something which would have been a huge success. You were told you couldn’t. That’s something that we look at. How we can have more control, deliver the game with no rules, the rules that we want to do it. We are looking at that. If you were me, is that what you would do?
Let’s take a look at this. When I was at Mandalay, we had seven teams. We were all very successful. Dayton was the most successful team in the history of Minor League Baseball in the Midwest League. I looked into buying a couple of other teams like Fort Wayne and South Bend. We knew we could replicate that success because we’ve done it time and time again. The league wouldn’t let us buy-in for other teams in that league because they say it would be uncompetitive but we had no choice on the players. On Minor League Baseball team provides the players, managers, coaches, the whole thing. We provide the stadium and the fans. I thought at that time, it could be a lot easier for us if we had 5 or 6 teams in the Midwest League. The Midwest League was terrific cities for Minor League Baseball. We couldn’t do that. I thought the best way to do a Mandalay type of thing is to do six teams where you own them all. What we did with Mandalay is a ticket sales manager. Jesse, ticket sales are the most important thing in Minor League.
Especially when you look at all your advertising, you’re crazy like us.
The ticket sales manager with the Mandalay teams report to me and Steve. They work for a day and they work for fiscal. When we had our ticket training, we took them to a small town in North Texas and the seven-day bootcamp where we brought in 50 tickets salespeople and train them in our way. We knew we could be successful. If you’re with a league, sometimes they don’t let you be successful.
You got me thinking more like always, Jon.
Back to controlling your thing. I’ve always felt that you bring in-house everything that’s important to you. If tickets are important, you do your own tickets. There are teams, particularly in college, they outsource ticket sales.
We don’t book any entertainment acts outside. We have the break dancing first base, male tooling team, the Banana Nana, every part of our entertainment is in-house.
We brought radio in-house, television in-house, and food in-house, this is in the NBA. Oakland teams weren’t doing that. If it’s important enough to you bringing in-house, the one area where you have difficulty bringing in-house although we did, it was cable but that can be done too. If anything is important, control it.If anything is important, control it. Click To Tweet
I got to finish this rapid-fire. Marketing Outrageously, now, you got Get Your Ideas Approved, you’ve done Ice To The Eskimos but one thing someone can take from you a lesson that they can start creating better ideas and being more outrageous and creating outrageous results.
You have to have a plan to think of ideas. I mentioned about it was something new to initiate in your life every 90 days. After a year, you’ve got these four ideas, new stuff that you’ve initiated. After two years, you got eight. After three years, you got twelve. You’re re-making your life and job the way you want it to be. I also believe that that’s more long-term type thinking but then once you get in the groove of doing that, you’re priming your brain to think of new things because you’re thinking of every 90 days, you’ve got to come up with something every 90 days.
I used to do five ideas a day. I’d sit with a cup of coffee and I didn’t care about the quality of the idea. I had to come up with five. We used to have think tanks with the Trail Blazer and New Jersey Nets where we go over the Oregon Coast with the Portland Trail Blazers staff. Those days, our marketing staff was only about ten people. You had to come up for two weeks in advance of that meeting. The bootcamp should be about three days and you’d have to come up with five ideas that day of how to improve what we did for a living.
You didn’t have to think about the weekends. You have five ideas for two weeks in advance. That’s ten days, 50 ideas if you’d come armed with. We’d have about 15 people. If each person came up with five ideas a day for ten days, that’s 50 ideas times 10, that’s 500 ideas. I said, “You’re not going to turn those into me and I’m not going to grade you on the ideas. This is your personal bank. We’re priming the pump for you thinking of how to improve what we do for a living. If you came with 500 ideas, everybody else came with 50 ideas.” This place is primming with thinking. I said, “We might not get to some of your ideas.” I came up with subject matters later on when we’re there. How can we improve our game performance and entertainment? That was an effort. I wanted them to think with a clear slate without rules. They won’t be judged on the quality idea. They had to show me the ideas.
You hold them accountable too.
I didn’t read all the 500 ideas but I wanted to see what they went through.
When you ask a question, how can we improve? We learned that you can’t say promotional ideas. It has to be a question because if you ask the question when we said, “What could we do to get people to want to stay until the end of the game?” In Baseball, that never happens. That’s unheard of. When you ask a question then you start creating the answers and solutions. I love all of that. You mentioned you write the ideas, you talked about it every 90 days, any other personal habits that have helped you be successful other than golf?
I found out later in life, which is helpful, is eating better. Not always eating ballpark food. My favorite food in the world is a hotdog. That used to be a benchmark of mine to tell me when I was a consultant and I go to a place and a game. The first thing I do is buy a hotdog and I could tell how well run or how poorly run that team is by that hotdog. This is my hotdog test. At the New Jersey Nets, I bought a hotdog and I bit into it and the middle of it was close to being frozen. Before I went there, I knew then that the franchise needed a lot of help, that they were in big trouble.
What’s your hotdog test at any business. With someone you go into it, what is that? Is there dust on the pictures? What’s that little detail that will show how? Hopefully, businesses could pose because I love that. It’s a simple little thing. That’s only a part of the experience but it shows how the overall experiences.
You almost can feel the vibes when you walk into a company. Every franchise that I was with, I always put a popcorn machine in the lobby and the reception said to keep that popcorn machine going because I thought, “We’re in the sports business, entertainment business, and fun business. The popcorn says what we are.”
It’s like theater. It’s a show. You’re in it.
Again, the aroma. We did that every place.
What are the best lessons you’ve learned from a mentor? You’ve mentioned some mentors the people that have helped you in your books but any lesson that stands out from a mentor of yours.
I’ve had quite a few, but I’m not sure. I don’t have one right off.
Any particular from Roy Williams? You talk a lot about him on the impact of The Wizard of Ads.
Roy is bright. He is good. He’s got a thing that’s $100 a month. You’d like to watch this. It’s Roy talking with two other bright guys about business. Are you doing something like that?
With Roy, I haven’t signed up for that.
No, on your own.
I’ve been fortunate to a lot of business talk.
This is by subscription. I was curious enough to spend $100 the first time. I know Roy. I’ve known him for a long time and I spent $100 a month to listen to Roy. I’m in my fifth month and I’m thinking, “This is great.”
I can’t wait. I’ll sign up. You were part of the whole Savannah Bananas as we started in the beginning. What does Going Bandanas mean to you?
It’s going crazy.
How does it relate to business?
I’ve always looked at innovation, new is a way of life. Savannah Bananas is not only crazy. It’s vaudeville. It’s fun. Other businesses have the difficulty of being properly crazy. First of all, I look at the business that should be fun by itself whether in the sports business or you’re in a storage company. How is that going to be a little bit more memorable at how can you differentiate that? It doesn’t have to be Savannah Bananas crazy. That’s different.
Last one here, Jon. When I first read your book, the lessons from you were unforgettable for me. They made a lasting impact from when I was 23 years old and it changed my course in this business. I want to finish here. What do you think makes someone unforgettable?
That’s a tough question. I could say a person walking down the street. That would be unforgettable. I’m not sure how to answer that, Jesse. I can say the easy one, what makes him authentic but how do you know a person is authentic until you get to know them. Be memorable.
I think of that question and what you did with your teams was unforgettable to many people.
It wasn’t necessarily me. I could be sitting next to the people on an airplane and they would say, “There’s this boring guy reading a mystery novel.”
It’s the experience that you’ve created.
The people that we’re working with weren’t afraid of making a mistake. We have a thing in New Jersey where, again, going back to the champions where we would pay bonuses for different ideas. We would pay a bonus if we killed the idea. Let’s say we took the idea to further steps and you got to a point where we thought it was a great idea but it isn’t. We paid the guy or the person a bonus to kill the idea.
Did you give a bonus for the worst idea?
We had to go through the steps to try to bring this idea to fruition. If the idea had too many holes in it where they couldn’t be fixed, we wanted to let the person know that it was important to take that idea to the fullest even if it’s to kill it. First of all, convince your boss is a great idea and then put it out there. It’s like a turnaround on the table. If you can prevent that, that’s good. Sometimes the ideas don’t work so you discard it and go to the next one.
I never knew we’d get into so much ideas but that’s obviously what you were doing for many years coming up with ideas. It’s such a great segue for your new book. What’s the name of the new book?
It’s Your Ideas Approved. It’s on Amazon so go there and you’ll get it for $2.99.
It’s a much lower deal than your other books. What did you sell The Ultimate Toolkit for? How much were those generally?
$4,000 for that book versus the $2.99. You might as well get them both and mix it up. Jon, seriously, you’re a big inspiration. This is a lot of fun. I love this because we go back, new is a way of life. Keep differentiating, have an idea champion, how to get your ideas approved. There are many good thoughts and concepts that we can get going. I appreciate you. As I said, you’ve always been a mentor, and thanks for everything that you’ve done to help me in my career.
Thank you, Jesse. I think you’re terrific. This has been so much fun. I’ll be watching you as you put your league together with your own rules.
The Banana Ball rules. I’m going to buy your book, share it with the group. Your name comes up still frequently in Savannah with everything. We try to think, “What would Jon do here?”
I’ll tell you, once you read the book, you should buy it for every staff member because this one business guy did send me an email about that. He got tired of having staff present to him half-cocked ideas. What it shows you are this is a blueprint of how to get your ideas approved instead of going to the boss and say, “I’ve got an idea and not being able to fully explain what it is.”
We’ll do that. You mentioned the league, we’ve talked about that. We’re going to start having games year-round. Why should a team play during the season? We’re going to have a game on Thanksgiving. We’re having games on St. Patrick. We’re bringing in other players to play.
Did your college come in for that?
Independent college, with Minor Leagues being shut down, 42 teams, there are players everywhere, but we’re also going to take the show on the road. We’re going to do the One City World Tour. We think that taking the Bananas on the road will create some attention. That’s why when you talked about the other States, how do you get them to follow you? I was interested but that’s where we’re going. If you were me, you think that’s a good path?
The world tour, that’ll get your feet wet.
No baseball team is doing it right now. The Globe Charter is the only one that’s doing those tours.
Here’s something. A friend of mine years ago felt that it was The Famous Chicken, Bud Light Daredevils, Phoenix Gorilla and all these things were the important part. This was in Iowa. This was a CBA game where he featured all these mascots. He brought them in from all over. It was in the CBA arena or you didn’t have a basketball game and it failed miserably. People like to have the auspices of an event.
It’s something going on.
Have the three-ring circus on and baseball is by far the perfect sport for that because there’s so much downtime. Here’s the thing. Nothing good in life lasts longer than two hours. Think about TV movies, it’s for two hours. The movies in the theater should be two hours. Any more than two hours like college football, it’s 3.5 to 4 hours. I think college football should play one-half. The first quarter would be the first half. The second quarter would be the second half. Don’t play the second half. If you want to make it a little bit longer per quarter, make each quarter twenty minutes.
In baseball, people blink and they’re so bored. They’re like, “Let’s go get food because I’m bored.” That’s what I keep thinking. That’s a problem. Why don’t we take that show on the road?
That’s the thing. Dave did that and he was making and is still is I think making $5 million a year. We didn’t want more than two people in a line. The concessionaire said, “That’s crazy.” You’d have to hire all these people. Our per cap and this was back years ago was over $10 a person because, in baseball, this is the downtime. You would think, “I like to have another hotdog.” You look back to the concession stand. You see a big long line think, “I’ll wait for another inning.” You lose that impulse buyer.
John, thank you. Let’s keep in touch. I appreciate you. We’ll get your books and we’ll share with the team.
- Outrageous Marketing
- Get Your Ideas Approved
- The 12 Week Year
- Ice To The Eskimos
- The Ultimate Toolkit
About Jon Spoelstra
Jon Spoelstra is an American author, sports marketer, and a former National Basketball Association executive for the Buffalo Braves, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets. He is the co-founder of SRO Partners, and he currently serves as president of Mandalay Sports Entertainment. Spoelstra graduated from Notre Dame in 1966. He was a judge at the Miss America 2004 contest. He and his wife Elisa Celino have two children: Monica and Erik, the head coach of the Miami Heat. Spoelstra’s father was sportswriter Watson Spoelstra.
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