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Boston Celtics: The Global Business of Sports, Fans, and Legacy

In sports, loyalty doesn’t keep the stadium lights on, and it doesn’t pay our favorite players. Professional sports teams are a fascinating case study in customer engagement. Where most businesses aspire to turn customers into loyal fans, for pro sports teams it’s the opposite – turn loyal fans into profitable customers.

For a league like the NBA, and for a team like the Boston Celtics, those fans live all around the world. In January 2018, the Celtics will play their first-ever game in London, and plans are in the works to soon play a game in China.

“Social media has really opened our eyes to exactly how big our fanbase is” says Rich Gotham, President of the Boston Celtics, on the Outside In podcast. “We have more social media followers in the Philippines than we do in the greater Boston area. The same is true for China and Australia,” he says of the team’s more than 12 million global fans and followers.

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As President, Gotham oversees the Celtics business and is responsible for growing the brand. He joined the team in 2003, shortly after it was purchased for $360 million by venture capital and private equity partners. At the time, despite being the most decorated franchise in NBA history, he says the Celtics were “an under-managed asset.” The team wasn’t winning games. The new owners were looking for management that could turn things around on the court and create an organizational culture that was invested in winning.

Like the Celtics, every pro sports team has to balance growth with a fixed amount of “inventory” – a set amount of games per season, a certain number of advertisements played during broadcasts, and a finite amount of seats in the stadium or arena. And so, Gotham stresses the importance of “creating experiences and access through content” to get people closer to the team, anytime and anywhere. As do all NBA teams, the Celtics have in-house production staff that creates content like player interview videos and behind-the-scenes stories. Social media is the ideal vehicle for broadcasting that content to larger and larger audiences; the team is currently in the process of hiring a Mandarin speaking person to oversee its Chinese social media and web content.

Gotham has helped elevate the Celtics to the NBA’s fifth most valuable team, today valued at an estimated $2.2 billion. This year, the Celtics are one of 9 NBA teams so far who will feature brand sponsor logos directly on players’ jerseys. Celtics players will sport the General Electric (GE) logo as part of a multi-year partnership with the Boston-based company, who is the team’s exclusive data science and analytics partner. Gotham’s hope is that this partnership will help fuel the team’s competitive advantage. “You can imagine the appeal to GE to have people watching Celtics games in China – 400 million people a year with that GE patch visible. Ultimately, it’s about growing our business so that we can continue to invest in our product and our player payroll.”

While the NBA is the first of the four major North American sports leagues to take this route, Gotham says that, with the rapid pace at which people are watching games and consuming sports content, it’s only a matter of time before the other leagues follow suit. “I frankly think that you’ll see other professional sports teams in the U.S. gravitate there because it’s not just about the money. It’s really the way media is changing.”

Still, the logo decision has not been without controversy. Some Celtics fans see it as defiling the classic Celtics green jersey, and they worry that GE is the first of many brands whose logos may one day occupy sacred jersey real estate.

Gotham acknowledges fans’ concerns, but he insists that the decision is best for the team’s success. As a lifelong Celtics fan himself, he understands and reveres the team’s storied heritage. “They call it Celtic mystique, Celtic pride,” he says of the team’s intangible brand value. “The tradition and the legacy, our playing surface, the parquet floor – these are all things that are a big part of our brand. If you’re not a sports team, it’s almost impossible to create that kind of an emotional attachment with the consumer.”

While not all brands can as easily achieve that connection and level of engagement, brands of all kinds – and anywhere the world – can learn a lot from the Boston Celtics. The emotional connection fans have to the team feels vivid and real because, to them, it is. Emotion has always driven our loyalty. Brands that understand this, and use it to grow, will win customer’s hearts…and the game of business.

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