Why in the world would Toronto be relevant to WSU? Well, it has to do with the Buffalo Bills and the specific issues they face in the NFL with their hometown. It's becoming increasingly obvious to Pullman leadership and many of us in the booster community that the Tri-Cities is actually our most powerful base of engaged and enthusiastic Coug fans.
So, why does Toronto matter to WSU and the Tri-Cities?
The Buffalo Bills are in a tough spot. The city has been hit hard by the economic downturn and they are undeniably a blue-collar city fighting the march towards globalization and outsourcing of jobs that used to be the bread and butter of the city.
One stalwart has always been their NFL team. The Buffalo Bills benefit from the NFL being the most egalitarian of leagues. The league believes in equal opportunity for all teams….no matter the market size.
Nevertheless, Buffalo still struggles with revenue and they have committed to playing at least one regular season game each season in Toronto. The idea is to help regionalize fan interest in the Bills and also increase revenue for a team that is money starved as a small media market team and with an old stadium.
Does that sound familiar at all to Coug fans? An old stadium…check. A small media market….check. A big league we are trying to keep pace with….check.
So, Buffalo has decided that they have to take the franchise on the road. They hope to expand their fan base and pull more revenue from a bigger market. They recognize that just standing pat won't work as their market isn't competitive with the rest of the NFL markets. The cost of doing business in the NFL will continue to grow while their revenue remains the same. We are at the same juncture in the Pac-10. If we hope to be viable for the next 25-50 years we need to find our Toronto and probably a couple of them. We don't have the luxury of sitting around. We need to do this tomorrow.
Is Spokane the solution?
For years, the Spokane area has been considered an area that should support the Cougs better than it does. It's a mystery as to why there isn't a more fervent following from Spokane. Many have their theories but the bottom line is that the past two basketball games are the perfect example of how Spokane falls short. We played a better opponent (Air Force) in Spokane than the Tri-Cities (Portland State) and still the draw was nearly the same even though Spokane is 4X the size. Ask anyone that attended either event and the level of support in-game was not comparable.
It's not surprising when you think about WSU grads per capita. Did you know that there are only 1,000 more Coug grads in Spokane (10,906) than the Tri-Cities (9,704) today? If you look at that in comparison to total population in each market you see that about 1 in every 42 residents in Spokane is tied to WSU where you look at the Tri-Cities and that number is 1 in 24 residents with Crimson and Gray in their profile. Combine the fact that you don't have a Gonzaga to compete with half of the year in the Tri-Cities and you can see why it "feels" like a better experience for fans and players when they go to the Tri-Cities.
In my mind, it's clear that the people who are going to support WSU that live in Spokane are willing to make the hour and a half drive to Pullman. Spokane alums and fans still form the core of our fan base in Eastern Washington just based on sheer numbers but it's also clear that it's not enough to sustain revenue growth at WSU. We need to find and expand in new markets. The good news is that there are a few to choose from that we've neglected for years.
So, who is the next logical market to attack?
If you look at the NFL they examine two things. Actually any franchised business looks at two things to start with. Market size and distance factor. Here is where it becomes obvious that our Toronto is the Tri-Cities.
Let's look at the two franchise factors:
The Tri-Cities taken in aggregate is actually the fourth largest metropolitan market in Washington State. It's behind only Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane.
Did you know that only 823 season tickets came from the fourth largest market in Washington State for us? That's downright shameful. The fact that the fourth largest market in the state and second closest large market in proximity to Pullman only accounts for 6% of total season tickets is the sort of thing that people should be fired over.
If you JUST look at our alumni base of over 9,000 people in the Tri-Cities you see we have been successful in selling football season tickets to 11% of them. If we just move that number to 15% that would account for 632 incremental season tickets. Now imagine if we just sliced ONE PERCENT of the total Tri-Cities population without including our actual alumni. That would add another 2,261 season tickets to the pie!
Folks, that's not some sort of unattainable sales goal. That's just being competent at your job and focusing on this market. You know what that would add in terms of NET NEW season ticket holders? That would give us 3,716 new season ticket holders and bump us to 17,000 season ticket holders. For context, we have NEVER produced more than 14,000 season ticket holders. That sort of increase would mean a minimum of 1 million dollars to the revenue side of our P&L.
Clearly, the Tri-Cities is an underserved market in our backyard with no local competition for their dollars. The fact that we haven't focused on them is shameful and a HUGE miss.
Let's also take a look at another key element of our ability to sell and grow customers. That is how far away they are from the actual product. Most franchise stores look at how close they'll be to other stores of the same brand and competitive stores that offer the same product. All have various formulas.
The best example is the guidance from the NFL. They believe that their franchises should have a marketing area of 75 miles outside of their home city. Seems like a perfectly reasonable number given each franchise is located in a city.
If you take the Seattle Mariners, they view themselves as a regional team and they market to the entire Pacific Northwest.
We need to view ourselves as a regional team as well. Our region is Eastern Washington. We need to do a fantastic job of catering to each of these markets and that means thinking about the Tri-Cities immediately.
The Tri-Cities is exactly 144 miles from Pullman and that equates to about a 2 1/2 hour drive. Perfectly reasonable to ask someone to drive six Saturdays a year.
The combination of distance and market size make the Tri-Cities a perfect market to grow.
In our next article we'll look at three things you can do immediately to establish a presence and grow the fan base in the Tri-Cities.