February 2, 2010

Slam-Dunk Sales!

By Kim Wright Wiley

Early to bed, early to rise…You know the rest, right? Well, in the case of the CEO of the New Jersey Nets, living by that old adage is paying off. Not that getting to work early is all there is to it. Still, if Brett Yormark is any indication, we’d all be out of this economic pickle a lot faster if we followed his incredible work ethic. Of course, he’s also making the numbers work. Hey, maybe that’s the ticket – work hard and work the numbers.  Yeah.

 

For a man who’s so successful, Brett Yormark spends a lot of time in the dark – literally.

Yormark, who at 41 years old is the youngest CEO in the NBA, wakes up at 3:30 in the morning and is in the office by 4:30 a.m., where he works out and then sends motivational emails to his New Jersey Nets staff. Seeing who can get up the earliest is part of a friendly competition he shares with his twin brother, Michael, the president of the Florida Panthers hockey team. (Yormark sleeps in on weekends – arriving at the office at about 7:00 a.m.)

His rock-hard work ethic is paying off. When Yormark joined the Nets four years ago, it was an underperforming franchise, but through a relentless flurry of creative marketing ideas, including initiatives offered by no other team in the NBA, the tide has turned. The Nets are one of only a handful of teams that have sold 2,000 new, full-season sponsorships three years in a row, and sponsorships have increased by more than 200 percent, even after the controversial decision to move the franchise to Brooklyn. 

Not surprisingly, Yormark sees a lot of similarities between business and basketball. “The DNA is the same for a good player and a good employee,” he says. “You look for people who are committed and passionate, willing to persevere and put the needs of the team ahead of themselves. Because, whether you’re on a basketball court or in an office, a good working environment is built on trust.”

So how do you get your team in the playoffs? Here are three things you can learn from Yormark’s turnaround of the Nets.

Put a Face on the Product

Yormark came to basketball from NASCAR, a sport known for providing its fans plenty of celebrity access and putting an easily identifiable face on its athletes. Yormark was the one who secured the $750 million naming-rights deal with Nextel for NASCAR, which was the largest sports deal in history.

“I had a good run at NASCAR and naturally took some things from that playbook,” says Yormark. “Specifically, I wanted the Nets to be the most accessible team in sports, with athletes who know how to communicate our brand. We sit our players down every year and have a business meeting to make sure that they understand they’re a big part of creating value for our ticket holders and sponsors.”

Yormark, in fact, is a master at using the celebrity power of his players to pull in sponsors and ticket holders. He debuted the Nets Ticket Influencer Program, in which the team hosts cocktail parties for prospective season-ticket buyers at the homes of season-ticket holders. Staff and players, including such stars as Vince Carter, mingle with the prospects and talk up Nets basketball. The team provides the star power – along with food and drink – and the host provides the prospects. It’s a trendsetting tactic in reaching consumers and probably one of the reasons Yormark has been called “the man who NASCAR-ized the Nets.” The Nets have held more than 100 Influencer events, and they average $75,000 in ticket sales.      

Another successful initiative has been the Home Away from Home Program, in which the Nets invite prospective season-ticket buyers to have dinner and watch a road game on the 65-inch TV in coach Lawrence Frank’s screening room. Either Darryl Dawkins or Albert King, both retired pro-basketball players, attend the viewing party and break down the game for the guests.

Since the only thing better than season-ticket sales is group sales, corporations are invited to Play Where We Play and hold a company basketball game at the Nets practice facility from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Afterward, the group tours the facility, attends a Nets game, and has a meal at the Winner’s Club on the concierge level of the stadium.

And you don’t have to be a high roller to hang with a Net. Young winners of the Take a Net to School program get to do exactly that. It’s all about making the team more visible within the community and putting a friendly face on the franchise.

Stay Up in Down Times

“A slump is a period of opportunity,” says Yormark. “All the extra time you’ve got, that’s the perfect chance to grow your brand, to look at places where you’re weak and figure out how to improve them. Then when things turn around, you’re really in the position to accelerate.”

When Yormark took over the Nets, he immediately began to look for ways to improve the overall experience for the fans, confident that his investments would ultimately pay off. “Our last three years in New Jersey have been successful, even though we’ve been open and honest about our move to Brooklyn,” he says, “which is proof that companies can thrive in any situation if the leadership is strong enough.”

The trouble is that many leaders lack the perspective and creativity to find the opportunities inherent in hard times. “People get in a funk and can’t see out of it,” says Yormark. “But when the economy is challenging, the opportunities are still there; you just have to look farther to discover them. We have a popular Chinese player, Yi Jianlian, and partly because of his presence we just got our first big sponsorship from China.”

Yormark has found several ways to appeal to cash-strapped potential ticket holders. The $199 Season Ticket Program (which breaks down to less than $5 per game) was first introduced in August 2006, and the 500 seats sold out in a little more than 24 hours. In the past two years, the Nets have offered $299 Season Ticket Programs with similar success.

During the Broadway stagehands’ strike in early 2008, stranded theatergoers were invited to turn in their unused Broadway tickets for a 50 percent discount on select Nets tickets. Even the smallest gesture, Yormark believes, shows customers that the Nets care. On Fan Appreciation Night, tolls off the New Jersey Turnpike at the stadium’s exit were paid for one hour by the team. 

“When times are tough, it’s easy to turn down the volume and do what’s safe,” Yormark says. “But leaders are the ones who turn the volume up. A manager needs to understand how to take calculated risks. He needs to have the stomach to look at hard times and say, ‘This is our chance to grow this thing.’”

Assemble the Best Team Possible

The $950 million, Frank Gehry-designed Barclays Center in Brooklyn is expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2010 season, and Yormark is using the building buzz to attract top-flight partners. Seven founding partners have been signed, with seven more to be announced. Suites featuring pool tables, multiple 52-inch TV screens, wet bars, stadium seating for 16 people, and an average price tag of $300,000 are already for sale. Vonage will continue to be a presenting sponsor and, with Levy’s Restaurants handling the food service, Yormark is on track to making the first season in Brooklyn an upscale experience for basketball fans.

Well, forget merely upscale. Yormark’s vision is to make the experience world-class. In order to make sure season-ticket holders are offered the ultimate in personalization, Yormark launched the Nets VIP Access Department two seasons ago and hired an executive from the Four Seasons to run the program as the sports equivalent of a high-end hotel. 

Does he believe in making things grand? You bet. Yormark is so convinced that the Barclays Center will debut as one of the landmarks of New York that a sales video compares it to the Eiffel Tower. Does he believe in expressing things passionately? So much so that one of his catchphrases is, “We sell hope and vision.” Does he believe that every detail matters? Yormark not only brought in lesser-known, Seattle-based Jones Soda as a beverage sponsor – “They were unexpected,” he cheerfully explains – but he further encouraged Jones to design a customized soda label with the Barclays Center logo on it.

But what he doesn’t believe in is doing it alone. Yormark considers the ability to network your way to mutually beneficial arrangements with sponsors and other businesses to be an essential part of leadership.

“People say I’m competitive, and I am,” he says. “What gets me up and into the office each morning is a deep need to be the best at what I do. The fear of failure is a powerful motivation tool for me.”

But he quickly adds that the competitive spirit has to be tempered with an equally strong spirit of cooperation. He is pleased that his two children are not just playing sports, but that they’re playing team sports, which teaches them to focus on the overall success of the group.

“I’m a relationship person through and through,” he says, “and when I do a deal, I don’t consider it over. For me, the relationship starts at that moment, and I never take it for granted.” 

The Barclay naming-rights deal, the shining achievement among Yormark’s many successes since taking over the Nets, started with a cold call to Gerald LaRocca, the chief administrative officer for Barclays Capital Americas. Yormark was so enthusiastic about the possibilities that LaRocca – who thought Yormark was calling to pitch season tickets or maybe a suite – not only took the call, he took the whole deal.

But Yormark’s proudest moment came months later when LaRocca told USA Today, ”Yormark treats Barclays like he’s still courting us, not like a company that he has already signed a deal with.” 

“That’s one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me,” says Yormark. “To go back to where we started, this is a relationship business. You’re not just as strong as your last play. You’re as strong as your strongest relationship.” •