Business model for SS&E based on Spurs’ success

By Richard Oliver

Roughly 10 years after its creation, Spurs Sports Entertainment has finally seen its operations across the board begin to match the success of its famous flagship franchise.

The reason, officials say, is as elementary as a Tony Parker layup.

The organization’s business model, from overseeing teams to a spreading entertainment portfolio and the 10-year-old ATT Center, is designed to mirror that of the four-time NBA champion Spurs.

“I think the values of the organization are consistent throughout,” said R.C. Buford, general manager of the Spurs as well as president of sports franchises for Spurs Sports Entertainment. “Where you have values driving your decisions, then your performance — if you’re consistent to your values — should follow a similar path to consistency.”

It’s a game plan that’s starting to show dividends, on many levels.

While the Spurs, fresh off their league-best 15th consecutive postseason run, remain the unquestioned centerpiece, the team’s peripheral interests have reached a crossroads of longevity and triumph.

The Silver Stars of the WNBA and Rampage of the American Hockey League, both celebrating their 10-year anniversaries, have evolved into what officials say are profitable franchises, including marked upswings in attendance and the standings.

In June, the Austin Toros, acquired by SSE five years ago, captured the NBA D-League championship.

Additionally, the organization’s charity arm, Silver Black Give Back, has seen its Team Up Challenge program for youngsters blossom to more than 15,000 participants. Its signature annual banquet, Tux ’n Tennies, netted more than $500,000 for charity this year — about double its previous high.

“We talk about what has happened with the Spurs team as an example and a model all the time,” said Rick Pych, president of business operations for SSE. “We consider all of our business activities a team sport, and it’s the whole of the team that’s more important than any individual of the team.”

For devotees of the Spurs ballclub, modeled after coach Gregg Popovich’s pounding-the-rock philosophy, it’s a familiar mantra.

SSE, with Pych promoted to his current post by owner Peter Holt in 2008, reorganized its landscape to get away from what department heads termed “silos” of operation. While each sports and entertainment entity runs as a separate enterprise, interdepartmental cross-promotion and collaboration is encouraged.

“We’re not competitive,” said Ryan Snider, director of business operations for the Rampage. “The Rampage is its own business unit, but I am just as vested in seeing the Silver Stars succeed as I am seeing the Rampage succeed. I think we all feel that way. We want to help each other out.”

The evidence can be seen at most events at the ATT Center, the Bexar County-owned arena managed by SSE. At each Spurs game, for instance, concerts, Rampage and Silver Stars contests and other attractions are routinely pitched, an evolution of proactive partnership that until recently wasn’t in place.

“It’s taking what Pop and R.C. have created on the basketball side, quite honestly, and applying it to the business side to pound that rock every day,” said Frank Micelli, senior vice president of marketing and sales. “You look at that philosophy, and there’s a game every day and another one tomorrow, when you own what we own.

“It doesn’t always work, and sometimes you say, ‘Today the bear got us, tomorrow we’re getting the bear.’ It’s kind of going right after it, over and over and over.”

There have been tests. Last year’s NBA labor strife, which scrapped most of the 2011 portion of the schedule, left the Spurs’ staff scrambling to fill the 18,581-seat ATT Center.

Without a season schedule available until early December, Micelli’s staff had only a few weeks to solicit individual and group sales to ballgames.

“Normally, from August to October, you have pretty much three months to contact group leaders to decide what games they want to go to and make all the agreements,” Pych said. “With only a couple of weeks, it was not an adequate time.”

As a result, several early Spurs games saw pockets of empty seats in the arena despite the team’s successful start en route to the top seed in the Western Conference. On several discount sites online and through ticket brokers, upper-level seats were available for sharp discounts for some less-anticipated games.

The Spurs rallied solidly, finishing with an average of 18,397 per game — ranking 12th among the 30 NBA teams. The team had 27 sellouts in its final 33 regular-season home games, selling out their final 27 in a row, including seven playoff games.

The Rampage and Silver Stars boasted their own attendance boosts. The hockey club, in reaching the conference semifinals for the first time, set a franchise mark with 7,134 fans per game. The Silver Stars, during their 2011 season, drew 8,746 on average, a 9 percent gain from 2010.

“Everybody is singing from the same hymnal here,” Micelli said. “The old advertising saying is, ‘When you promise the moon, you better have some moons.’ We have that.”
Twitter: @RichardCOliver

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