While an aging Target Center may have a growing to-do list for facility amenities, there are strong signs of surging fan avidity for the Timberwolves.Mike Grahl
The cover of Malcom Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” states “How little things can make a big difference.” In the case of the Minnesota Timberwolves, there were both big things and little things that were significant internally and externally, and how those “things” were managed have tipped fan interest and behavior in favor of the team.
My association with the Timberwolves began with their first season in 1989, when Tim Leiweke invited me to bring some of my Ohio State grad students to conduct fan surveys. Subsequently, four of my students later joined the team. I then worked with the team as part of my responsibilities as a VP with the NBA’s TMBO department and finally as a consultant in 2017-2019. So I have seen the infrequent highs and numerous lows during that time. This year, I had the opportunity to attend Game 4 of their first-round playoff matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies on April 23. Before the game I sat down with a cross-section of Timberwolves ticket buyers and talked with them about their feelings of being ticket holders through the riots and demonstrations associated with the tragic death of George Floyd, the COVID pandemic, the sale and new ownership of the franchise and finally the Timberwolves of 2021-22.
One of the questions I asked was related to the demonstrations, civil unrest and movement to defund the police in the market following the death of George Floyd and how that affected their feelings about coming to downtown Minneapolis for sporting events and other activities. The participants were quick to point out while there was some initial trepidation followed by the COVID year of no live attendance, this was quickly overcome by the excitement about being able to attend in person. But they linked that feeling to their belief that the Timberwolves organization had taken a leadership role in the community and were very active in social justice issues and community investment and they were proud to be part of an organization that made a commitment to improve the city and communities where they live and work. One respondent mentioned that the “Timberwolves leadership seemed to be involved in helping to lead the city back.”
Alex Rodriguez in the sales office in February.David Sherman
I followed up with a question about how they felt about the sale of the team, new ownership, and if they thought the change was positive. The initial response of the group was “not if they plan to move the team.” While you can never say never, I pointed out that the new owners were intent on securing a new modern downtown arena. Suggestions from the group included better Wi-Fi, wider concourses, better food with more local vendors and earlier entry. We then moved on to how they perceived the new owners. They liked the fact that Alex Rodriguez was highly visible and they felt his presence gave the Timberwolves a “coolness factor” if they don’t move the team. I mentioned that an ownership change often invigorated a fan base. They felt that the energy in the building was “amazing” and were expecting a very loud house “despite having lost the previous game after leading by more than 20 points.”
I asked them about their personal relationships with the Timberwolves and what kept them coming back, and unanimously it was how they were treated by the organization. Every person mentioned the team’s outstanding customer service. They were able to mention the names of their representatives and the importance of that one-to-one relationship. I then asked them: “Based upon the current team and the new ownership, rate how you feel about the relationship with the organization on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high).” The lowest rating was a 7, with numerous participants sharing a rating of 10. The average was slightly above 9. Several people pointed out that the organization had promised ticket pricing would remain flat and that as a STH they receive a 50% discount on concessions items, and this shows that the organization kept their word (despite last year’s fanless games). And while they know a price increase will be coming, the gestures were appreciated.
One comment or theme was related to the “constant turnover in both the GM role and the head coach — which has been a cause of concern — leading to several people commenting “I hope they got it right this time and that it lasts.” Most comments were very positive and I left the group with the sense that fandom had “tipped” in a very positive direction.
My wife Sharon and I attended the game and despite the late start time (9 p.m. locally), we saw a diverse, engaged and very loud crowd who took every opportunity to cheer for their favorites, and when prompted to howl, they sounded authentic, like members of the pack.
Gladwell suggests that the “Tipping Point” is like an epidemic; it is a result of something being contagious, little causes having big effects and happening in a dramatic moment. The Timberwolves have renewed 90% of their accounts for the first time in almost 20 years and rank in the NBA’s top five in new ticket sales. Having interacted with this franchise for more than 30 years, this epidemic, unlike the pandemic, is fun and bodes well for the future.
Bill Sutton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director emeritus of the Vinik Graduate Sport Business Program at USF and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.
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