I have very few regrets in life. I’ve managed to make some good decisions and the bad decisions I’ve made haven’t been too catastrophic, with one notable exception. At a point in my life when I was young and impressionable, I decided to become a Buffalo Bills fan — a choice that has haunted me every fall and winter since. As I write this, the Bills are in the process of wrapping up yet another miserable season. To commemorate another failed football campaign in Buffalo and because I have long been interested in the business side of sports, today’s post will be about the problem of marketing that most depressing of bad products: a hapless sports team.
Kevin O’Neill, a former coach of the Toronto Raptors, once observed that in the NBA, “You’re either selling wins or you’re selling hope.” O’Neill’s statement neatly sums up the marketing strategies available to professional sports teams in general. It goes without saying that teams that win a lot will tend to sell more tickets and merchandise. That’s why dynastic franchises with lots of championships, like the Yankees, the Lakers and the Steelers have national followings. If the team hasn’t won a lot lately, fan interest can still be captured by creating a sense of optimism about the future — usually by highlighting a recently drafted rookie or core of young players that show promise.
It’s a pretty simple formula, but what happens when neither option is available? When a team is a perennial loser to the point when the fan base’s reserves of optimism become exhausted, how can a team keep filling the stadium and hawking the t-shirts? Such is the marketing challenge facing the Buffalo Bills.
Consider the Bills’ won-loss record for each season so far, this century:
2000: 8-8, did not qualify for playoffs
2001: 3-13, did not qualify for playoffs
2002: 8-8, did not qualify for playoffs
2003: 6-10, did not qualify for playoffs
2004: 9-7, did not qualify for playoffs
2005: 5-11, did not qualify for playoffs
2006: 7-9, did not qualify for playoffs
2007: 7-9, did not qualify for playoffs
2008: 7-9, did not qualify for playoffs
2009: 6-10, did not qualify for playoffs
2010: 4-12, did not qualify for playoffs
2011: 6-10, did not qualify for playoffs
2012: 6-10, did not qualify for playoffs
2013: 6-9*, did not qualify for playoffs
*This post was completed just minutes before the Bills kicked off their final game of the 2013 season against the New England Patriots. Pencil them in for 6-10.
The numbers tell the story, and what a brutal story it is. For the past decade and a half, the Bills have oscillated between awful (3-13) and just mediocre (9-7). At no time during that stretch did they ever improve their win totals for two seasons in a row — in other words, every time they improved from one season to the next, the following season saw either regression or stagnation. In short, this is a team with a dearth of wins and a track record that rules out hope for anyone but the most gullible and recklessly optimistic. Yet it still falls upon the Bills’ sales and marketing people to convince fans to invest their money and emotions into the very embodiment of futility. Here is a look at a few ways they have attempted to do so throughout the team’s prolonged dry spell:
2004 – “This is Our House”
This commercial is asking fans to feel a sense of personal investment with the players and the organization. The basic message: “It may not be a great team, but it’s your team.” Not a bad approach, but the same idea was executed much better and in a more focused manner four years later with this…
2008 – “Be There”
In my opinion, this is the best spot of the four featured in this post. It works because it focuses on the very real sense of community and camaraderie that exists in the stands of Ralph Wilson Stadium during a game, features exactly the kinds of authentic Western New York folks you would see there and captures the excitement of attending an NFL game in person. When the guy says, “All of a sudden, the blues get bluer and the reds get redder,” it sounds like hyperbole, but in my personal experience of attending games in Buffalo, he’s absolutely right. There’s an undeniable vividness and intensity in the atmosphere in Orchard Park, even when the home team is playing like garbage.
2011 – “Lead the Charge”
Here the Bills are going with the “selling hope” gambit by featuring their then-head coach Chan Gailey talking up the team’s chances of becoming a contender. It’s worth noting that the team went 6-10 in 2011 and Gailey was fired in 2012.
2013 – “Lead the Charge (Recharged)”
There’s a sense of resignation in this spot. It features nothing but C.J. Spiller, probably the team’s most talented player, waving an American flag. One is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s timeless quote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It’s as if the Bills are saying, “Okay, we have nothing to offer our fans, but hey look…America!!!!” There’s no word yet on whether next year’s campaign will feature still photos of the team’s players holding puppies, kittens and babies.
Overall, The Marketing Smart Aleck will credit the Bills’ marketing efforts for making the most out of a difficult situation. The good news is that if the Bills ever do turn things around and start winning again, very little marketing will be needed. Fans will flock back to the team and buy anything they can with a Bills logo on it. The bad news is, with Buffalo’s luck by the time the Bills start winning again, the team will probably be playing in another city.