Now that the 2011 NBA Draft is complete, the lockout is in full effect and the Charlotte Bobcats have their two selections in seventh overall pick Bismack Biyombo and ninth overall selection Kemba Walker, it's time for the franchise to start actively planning for the 2011-2012 season and beyond. From the look of things, the Bobcats have already started doing just that. They've pretty much gutted the franchise's only playoff team and started to rebuild. Perhaps building assets in an effort to land a difference-making free agent next summer.
On the court, they appear to have a plan, and don't take that for granted because I'm not so sure that's always been the case. But I hope the team doesn't forget to make some much-needed changes off the court as well. The image, the perception, the likability of this team and franchise is up for grabs and it needs to be controlled, now.To be fair, I think the Bobcats have done a great job in several areas over the last couple of years. They've embraced social media and have really started to leverage Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, their own smart phone app (which is actually pretty good) and from what I can tell anything they can get their hands on to engage the fans. The marketing and sales departments have amped up the aggressiveness as well. Sure, when Michael Jordan throws out a weekend in Vegas for the top sellers that will probably help get people dialing for dollars. But phone anxiety is no joke!
I think the Cats have finally embraced the idea of just putting butts in seats. Get people in the building, then sell them drinks, eats, hats, shirts and the experience. The Bobcats have offered up several creative ticket plans and ideas over the last two off-seasons. Just after this past season you could have ordered two season tickets for the price of one (select seats), and half price season tickets. Even for one with more losses than wins that is a nice deal for a professional sports team. They constantly offer mini-season packs (which are becoming more and more popular for folks when the alternative to sitting in the upper deck with increasingly drunk wannabe coaches the whole game is sitting in your own chair at home in front of your gorgeous HDTV), family specials, and team store discounts to get people in the building. Prime seats are still expensive, but I don't think that model is disappearing any time soon.
However, there are still strides to be made for the Bobcats off the court.
1. Radio and Television coverage
This section would have included getting every game in HD, but the Cats were able to do that for last season. That is a must. People don't want to watch anything that's not in HD these days. And save for AMC, I pretty much filter anything without high definition. AMC, which for some maddening reason is not available in HD on DirecTV. Really guys, the wife can watch Real Housewives from every corner of the country and the botox is crystal clear but I am squinting when Joan Holloway struts across the floors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? That's just not right. And a word of advice, you might want to have that HD up and running by the time The Killing comes back. In case you didn't hear, the finale last season? Didn't exactly win a lot of viewers. At least let me see the rain drops in HD.
So kudos for getting all the games going in HD, now get all the games on. What I mean by that is, I have not walked into a bar or restaurant in Charlotte since CSET was put out of it's misery when I didn't have to ask them to turn on the Bobcats game. The lone exception to that might be Selwyn Pub, where Jordan has been known to frequent.
However, nine times out of ten the request must be made to turn the channel to the Bobcats game...and guaranteed ten times out of ten I have to tell them what channel it's on. Maybe someone has done this, and if so great but get a map of Charlotte out, find every bar and restaurant from Mooresville to Knight's Castle and hit them hard. Talk to the owners, the managers, the wait staff, the bartenders and get that information out there. Get the wall poster up with the season schedule and the channel numbers (DirecTV and cable) for the games. Give the owners a deal on season tickets. Give the wait staff a free pair for a home game. Whatever you want. But now that you can actually get the games on TV make sure people are seeing this product without having to ask for it.
Get them to guarantee a TV for the Bobcats. Most places have mulitple TVs now, spot check them. Have your restaurant/bar liaison stop in from time to time and drop of some S.W.A.G. and make sure they are tuned in. The Bobcats did some watch parties for away games at local bars. That's a great start, now crank it up. If you're in Charlotte you shouldn't have to search for the NBA team.
But here's the kicker, unless you're actually in Charlotte, you can hardly see the games. On the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (a two-hour drive from Time Warner Cable Arena) for example, the campus-provided cable has a feed that doesn't include the Charlotte Bobcats. Along the coasts of the South Carolina beaches (three and a half hour drive) and in the Mountains of North Carolina (roughly a two-hour drive) it's the same story. You know what's shown in place of the Bobcats games in the mountains? Poker. Also, SEC football. I know football is king, but come on.
Sometimes those feeds will show you the Atlanta Hawks coverage. That has to change. I don't know who needs to agree on it or who needs to be convinced but someone in the Bobcats' office needs to speak with whomever is in charge of flipping the switch in the Fox SportSouth (or is it SportsSouth, they're basically the same right?) control room and get it flipped.
You can't tell me having the Hawks on TV is preferable to having the Bobcats, in their own or neighboring state. And if you can tell me that, the Bobcats need to change that. Which leads to my next point.
2. Fan and Regional Support
The Bobcats have held pre-season exhibition games in North and South Carolina before. The team played to a sold-out crowd in Charleston in 2009 as well as playing in Greensboro that same pre-season. Keep that up but find some way to get those markets more involved. In South Carolina, Steve Spurrier needs to be on the to-do list. Get a charity golf tournament going. Give away a foursome with MJ and the Ole Ball Coach. If you're doing games on college campuses, get that student body involved. Hold tryouts before the game for one student to suit up for the pre-season game. Sit them on the end of the bench in a warm-up. On second thought, do that in Charlotte during the season. The fantasy camp for season ticket holders is a great event. Keep doing that.
The closest thing to having fans on the court and participating comes from half time or timeout contests, which are not all bad. I actually like most of the stuff that goes on during the breaks in action. My all-time favorite though is something that, I'm not sure how it was approved but probably should never take place again. It was a fan trampoline dunk contest. With actual fans. One of them was a buddy of mine who is not a professional acrobat but could definitely make it to the finals of a reality show for those aspiring to be. At the same time, he could have legitimately killed himself during the contest, it was awesome. Thankfully, this event still lives on over at YouTube.
McCutcheon Flip Dunk (via blockington33)
You should be able to pick out which one he is...he does an effing flip. Actually two. If you slow it down his eyebrow buzzes the rim. Ridiculous. But I digress.
The Bobcats don't have the support of the entire region like the Carolina Panthers. The genius of what the Panthers did when they were drumming up support from the region was for one, they used "Carolina." Well, it's probably too late for that but they also played their first season in Clemson, out of necessity but it also bred fans in that region. They went as far as to make their logo the shape of the two states put together. Yes, it's the NFL and you're not but that doesn't mean you can't engage regional support and it sure as hell doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
Having training camp in Wilmington is actually a nice touch. I wouldn't mind seeing that return on the other side of this new collective bargaining agreement. Hit the colleges, the beaches and the mountains. Play a game in Cameron Indoor. Heck, play a game outside at Myrtle Beach. UNC is playing on an aircraft carrier in San Diego this season, get a pre-season game at a military base, a runway with bleachers, get some attention for those games. From what I can tell you can do whatever you want in the pre-season (probably not true) so get creative.
3. King of Kicks
There's a subculture in America, actually it's much larger than America now, that's been growing ever since MJ made basketball shoes bigger than footwear. The Sneakerheads across the globe are a passionate bunch, just like any subculture. And there is a passion that drives them to websites, catalogs (crazy to think Eastbay catalogs are old school now), malls and conventions. Exclusive sneaker releases are met with lines that start the night before and wrap around city blocks. And you don't have to do much, just drop a much-hyped release and it's instant crowd.
The Bobcats team store hosted several release events last year, in particular a successful release of the most anticipated sneaker of 2010, the Air Jordan XI Cool Grey. They need to do more of that, and in particular they need to make that store more of a destination and home base for sneakers. During the daytime hours have a section of the store that is just shoes. Sell shoes there. Have limited releases there, and exclusive Jordan Brand colorways there. You have Jordan Brand athletes on the Bobcats' roster right? They have player exclusive colorways right? Make them available for purchase! Especially the retros. (Admittedly, this is somewhat of a personal request.) How can that be a bad thing? It can't.
Kixandthecity.com just featured the team store on its web site and that's great. Make a sneaker boutique out of the thing. There are a handful of nice ones in Charlotte, connect one to the team store. Do more midnight sales and hold a sneaker convention there. Bring in Tinker Hatfield, have wear tests there...all this stuff is being done already, just not in Charlotte. I know Nike, Jordan Brand and Jordan himself have a larger business to think about and those things are meticulously planned out and they work. You can still have one some events in Charlotte. In short, make the King of Kicks' current home a destination place for the sneaker culture.
I know there are restrictions on what he as an owner can do in regards to his other business ventures. But if you can have one sneaker release at the team store, I imagine you can have as many as you want. Have exhibits, have MJ break out some crazy stuff from his personal collection and display it. Bring in Jordan Brand athletes from other sports for events. Make the Air Jordan release an annual event at the store. I could go on and on because basically every time they post an event on Kix and The City, Sneaker News, The Shoe Game, Nice Kicks, or any of my other bookmarks I wish I was there.
Between the folks at Nike and Jordan Brand they know what they're doing when it comes to marketing. And Jordan needs to put some emphasis on leveraging some of that genius. Use the culture he helped create to benefit his current team.
4. GM Rich Cho
Honestly, I don't even know if this is worth it anymore. I would get a little irked each time I heard Jordan referred to as GM of the Bobcats in print or on the radio. Mainly because he's not the GM. Michael Jordan has never been the GM of the Charlotte Bobcats. Rich Cho was hired as the new GM before his last check cleared after being fired from Portland. Prior to that, Rod Higgins was the GM for Charlotte. The first GM of the franchise was Bernie Bickerstaff who simultaneously served as the team's first coach and guaranteed himself first-ballot entry into the floor stomping hall of fame. But Jordan constantly gets referred to as the GM. And to be fair, the current company line is that the final decision rests with him. Which, kind of makes sense because he owns the team.
The hiring of Rich Cho, known more for his analytical approach to evaluating prospects, signals a potential change for the franchise. For many years, the Bobcats front office has been considered Turtle, E and Drama to MJ's Vinny Chase. But it wouldn't make a lot of sense to bring in a talent like Cho if they didn't want a different opinion. And apparently they do want a new voice in the room. It was Cho who pushed for the Bobcats to draft Biyombo after scouting him while still with the Blazers. And by all account it's Cho who has convinced the front office that the middle is no man's land.* You want to be at the top or at the bottom, and clearing house to start from the bottom is what they're doing. (*Thanks to reader Michael Procton for helping me clarify this. He pointed out that the plan to clean house was in place well before Cho came on board, and he's exactly right. Ironically, Cho played a major part by agreeing to the Gerald Wallace trade while he was still GM in Portland. But, I do think his way of thinking is very much in line with that plan to bottom out. His voice is most definitely a new one in the room and his addition to the front office leaves no doubt in my mind that the Bobcats are committed to this rebuilding project.)
I'd like to see Cho front and center, and up until the lockout he did appear at press conferences after the draft and introducing draft picks. But this is a respected guy around the league and hiring him is arguably Jordan's best move as owner of the team, it was certainly the most well received. So give Cho a voice, when basketball people speak of the Bobcats, it would be nice if Cho's name was the first mentioned. That probably won't ever happen because the best basketball player in history is the owner, but make Cho a close second.
What to do with NASCAR, what to do indeed. This one, I don't have an immediate answer for. Here's the thing, Charlotte is basically NASCAR. Most of the teams are based in and around Charlotte. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is in Charlotte, for better or for worse. (I think it's great the Hall of Fame is in Charlotte, I'm just not sure it was worth all the fuss. What Hall of Fame are you dying to visit? Exactly, if you're in the area you'll check it out, but not many people are planning trips around any Hall of Fame. Completely different topic.) The All-Star race is in Charlotte every year. You get the idea, NASCAR is big in Charlotte. Now if you're the Bobcats, what do you do with that? Honestly, I'm not sure. And I don't think anyone is yet.
You may have seen the NASCAR inspired Bobcats uniforms with the checkered flag design down the side. Yeeeeaaaahhh. That's fine. I don't have a problem with brief uniform alterations every so often. But NASCAR is such a huge business it would be nice to have some sort of tie-in that made sense. Drivers do attend games. Denny Hamlin is at a lot of games, and he was even before he signed with Jordan Brand, a move I like for the company.
There is a NASCAR night, where the team sports the aforementioned unis, and drivers are invited to sit up close and wave awkwardly into the camera when they are flashed up on the big screen. There's nothing more unintentionally funny than when a young faceless professional driver is put up on the big screen, sporting his sponsor's colors and no one in the arena has any idea who he is...and he's just waving thinking, "No one in the arena has any idea who I am."
Let's face it, the fan bases and the cultures of the NBA and NASCAR are very different. There are fans out there who enjoy both, but there aren't many of us and we can usually ride to the game in the same car. Maybe, just maybe, you don't do anything with NASCAR right now. And perhaps that's what the checkered flag uniforms are, just enough to look like you're doing something when you're really not. Because the cultures and fans are so different, maybe it's just not the right time to devote time, money and energy trying to force something that always seems forced.
So there you go, there's your recipe for success for the next 10-15 years. Pretty simple right. In all seriousness, I know one thing about Charlotte and that is the town will support a winner. Non-winners? Eh, not so much. So the Bobcats ultimately need to win. But, there are other factors to consider when trying to win over a fan base, especially one that has been burned. If you're not going to win, there needs to be some hope of building something and it helps immensely if while you're stinking up the joint your stench is at least entertaining. So have some young, athletic guys on the floor that will get up and down the court. Looks like the team is moving that way.
If you do these things is that going to give you an instant, rabid fan base? No, although it would make me look pretty smart...and I'm fine with that! But the franchise is not going to win right away and realistically it will be 2-3 years before it does. So, you have to make strides off the floor to make people say, "Yeah, those Bobcats aren't very good but this was pretty cool." Then you'll have a fan base that is on board once you do in fact start winning.