NBA Gets Back Into the Game

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NBA teams scrambling to sell tickets and inform fans about schedule revisions are relying on teleservices and direct mail to place bodies in seats for the lockout-shortened season, which begins Feb. 5.

The NBA is expected to release a revised 50-game schedule this week that takes into account the cancellation of the first three months of the season caused by a labor dispute between the league's owners and players. As soon as game dates are released, five NBA teams -- the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic -- will deliver automated phone messages to season ticket holders while other teams will make live calls and drop mail pieces to their ticket bases.

Like most teams, the Milwaukee Bucks remained in contact with its base of 10,000 season ticket holders throughout the lockout with monthly direct mail drops. John Steinmiller, vice president of business operations, said the team will send additional mail as new information becomes available.

The New York Knicks prepared for the eventual settlement by mailing 5,500 ticket packages to its 16,000 season subscribers in October with games marked A-J, which are good for a free exhibition and the team's first nine home games.

In addition to keeping season-ticket holders informed, teams will conduct abbreviated phone and mail sales campaigns for full and partial-season packages to lists of past ticket buyers.

"We're treating it like a relaunch of a new season," Steinmiller said. "We have 30 days to do what we would normally do in 120 days.''

The Hawks, one of the five teams using the RealCall System from Connextions, Orlando, FL, is leaving messages from coach Lenny Wilkens on ticket holders' answering machines as an introduction to further direct communications. Dexter Santos, director of marketing, said RealCall is a huge time-saver that is cheaper than newspaper advertising and lets recipients call back for a personal explanation of the schedule at their discretion.

"A call may last 20 to 30 minutes, and when you need to call a season ticket base of 8,000 to 9,000 people with a sales staff of five, you can imagine how long that would take,'' Santos said.

The Hawks also will use RealCall to notify fans, corporations and youth organizations in their databases about special ticket packages and discounts. That database is growing through a deal with Ticketmaster to collect contact information from Hawks ticket buyers during their purchase.

Palace Sports and Entertainment, the marketing arm of the Pistons, will use a RealCall message from All-Star forward Grant Hill in conjunction with messages to a small e-mail database to plant the seed of fan interest, said Chad Estis, director of sales.

"The best way for us to get them back is get on the phone with them," he said.

The Pistons also will use direct mail, broadcast faxing and outbound telemarketing to existing target lists to sell 25-game season and five-game packages where fans select the games. Palace Sports maintains a 35-seat call center -- and although it has outsourced some work in the past, Estis said the current staff should be enough to handle the post-lockout volume.

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