The Detroit Pistons went down 102-87 to the New York Knicks at London's O2 Arena on Thursday night in the latest sell-out instalment of the NBA's London Live series. Shortly before tipoff, SportsPro spoke to Dennis Mannion, president and chief executive of Palace Sports & Entertainment, to discuss his ambitions for and beyond the Pistons’ first trans-Atlantic outing.
You must be bored of all this talk about international growth among the big North American leagues. Would it be better for your franchise if the NBA were to concentrate at home?
I think the international piece to all the four major sports is critical to their long-term ability to survive. This league is just better at everything: they’re more aggressive; they figure out where to go and how to get it done; and they leave the talking for the other leagues, to tell you the truth. We have a lot of internet traffic from abroad but the opportunity here is obviously a huge brand play for us, just to be a part of this scene here in London.
So how do you push that brand play, given that so many people here at the O2 arena seem to be behind the Knicks?
I think the exposure to Knicks fans, even internationally, is great exposure for the Pistons because it opens the doorway to greater relationships with all their fans as well. It’s fantastic exposure even if the crowd is generally rooting for the other team.
What’s your role when you come here? Are you looking to set up some commercial deals?
On this particular trip there are a couple of different parts to the mission. One, we have a large group of commercial sponsors with us who we’re entertaining. That was a piece of it and another piece of it, of course, is to make sure our entertainment teams and coordinated and doing a good job of branding for us here since it is a home game for us. The third piece is there’s some actual business to be done with our television partners too, that have been working over here too.
What KPIs will you be assessing when you get back from this trip to Detroit?
The obvious check is on the internet, to see what kind of activity that we picked up from it and also any sales that might be attached to that as well. But we don’t really look for the short-term bang here; we’re collecting a lot of footage from the trip, from the game, and we’ll be using that over the coming months as part of our content.
Do you have deals with partners where they’ll get some kind of branded content for use in their marketing?
Yes, absolutely. That’s a big part of what we do. We do 24 two-minute video features a week, all inside access. We generally brand them with partners who have big distribution channels.
“This league is just better at everything: they’re more aggressive; they figure out where to go and how to get it done; and they leave the talking for the other leagues.”
Moving away from this game, obviously Detroit came under new ownership in 2011. How would you assess the success of the new ownership? What’s changed?
I think the folks at Platinum Equity bring a very good, strong analytical background to the table, both on the basketball side and on the business side, so there are more metrics probably associated with the new regime than there was with the old. In terms of everything from ticket sales to retail sales to concession sales, there’s a constant push culturally to make sure we’re measured and making accurate decisions based on data.
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Would you say the previous regime was more of a personal thing and this is more of a business?
I think that’s generally the idea: previous ownerships bought them as a sporting interest 30, 40 years ago and as time went on they had to become a business with the cost of players and whatnot. But then add debt to it when you buy a new team – it has to become a business.
Detroit is considered to be a city on the wane with the struggling motor industry and consequent economic and social fallout. How difficult is it to work as a sports franchise in Detroit?
It’s so interesting. Besides the four major teams – the Red Wings, the Tigers, the Lions and the Pistons – of course you have Michigan and Michigan State, two big colleges. And I’ll tell you the market is very sports-centric. Five of those teams sell out on a regular basis, us being the one that isn’t. I think we’re in a position now where we have to prove it on the court. The team has not been good, by Detroit’s standards, for the last few years. So we’ve got to prove it and once we get them I think we’ll keep them for a long time. But amazingly, as depressed as the Detroit economy has been, they’ve weathered through that with all the sports teams doing remarkably well in terms of attendance. They have great drawing power from all around the region and it’s a hardcore sports town. That’s the bottom line.
Would you say that ticket sales is therefore your major challenge at the moment?
I think so. Right now, ticket sales clearly is the big cursor to all the other revenue sources, so without the ticket sales you probably aren’t getting enough bodies in the arena to drive strong advertising revenue. You definitely aren't getting the parking and concessions you get with big ticket sales. So that’s a big part of it. The secondary part of it is creating experiences outside of game-day, like basketball clinics, camps, competitions…that we can sell as a package with the tickets too. That’ll be a whole new revenue stream.
Are you looking at upgrading your ticketing system in the same way as, say, the Boston Celtics have done?
We’re working primarily with Ticketmaster. I think Rich [Gotham, president of the Celtics] is probably too. We’re moving to a world of paperless tickets which means bigger data, more information you have on all the fans that come. What I’ve seen is an explosion of the collection of data through texting, through Twitter, through Facebook, added to the normal email traffic. So we’re about 1.7 million in our database just for email alone, then add on another million for Facebook and Twitter.
“The team has not been good, by Detroit’s standards, for the last few years. So we’ve got to prove it on the court.”
What’s the next big commercial thing in the NBA? Would you be happy to see jersey sponsors?
I am for it. I’m very much for it because I think it extends the brand appeal of the teams in every other market depending on the sponsors that you bring in, so I’m a fan of that. I think the really big thing though at the NBA, again, is use of data. I think this league is much more forward-thinking than other leagues have been traditionally, and I think data is going to be the biggest growth.
What are your thoughts on Adam Silver taking over from David Stern as NBA commissioner?
You couldn’t find, in my opinion, a better successor for the commissioner. And I think the commissioner will always be available, regularly for Adam. Adam brings an intellect probably equal to David. He’s a special, special guy and what I’ve liked about Adam is he thinks 360. So he’s thinking about media and content distribution at the same time as he’s thinking about in-game attendance, retail and putting all those matters together.
What’s the one achievement you're most proud of during your time at the Pistons?
I’m proud of the way in which we’ve accelerated changes in strategy, structure and staff. Those were the three main Ss that we had to accomplish. We’ve changed our strategy to be much more fan-cluster-centric – so men, women and kids – but also from the full-season ticket holder to the individual ticket holder. To support that we’ve built a structure a little bit out of good to great, with four major circles that run the business, from operations to revenue to creative communications and administration. Put that all together and we’ve now turned over somewhere around 50 per cent of the company bringing new talent in. So those three Ss I’m very proud of. But the upside of it is the amount of content generation that we are pushing out now is remarkable in a year-and-a-half. And we’ve also made US$25 million of improvements to the Palace so a lot has happened in a short amount of time.
What would define success for you over the next year or so?
You know, the bottom line is the bottom line. So ultimately I want to see the gross revenues jump and I’d like to see us getting to a positive EBITDA situation too.