The Armor Are Winning in the Ways That Matter MostAlex Schwerin says there a number of ways to measure the success of a minor-league sports franchise like the Springfield Armor, which he serves as president.
And the won-loss record, while certainly one of them, wouldn’t be near the top of his list.
“The record on the court goes up and down, but that’s the nature of minor-league sports,” he explained. “Some years you’re good; some years you’re bad. In our league [the NBA’s Developmental League, or D League], the rosters turn over every year. Some years, you’re going to have good players; some years, you’re going to have bad players. One year, you make the playoffs; the next year, you’re not as good.”
He said the more effective barometers are found off the court, in overall ticket sales, sponsorships, merchandise sales, and the broad category of community involvement. And with these metrics and others, the Armor’s team — meaning those in the franchise’s office in Monarch Place — have been able to consistently move the needle in the desired direction.
“Every year has been a little better than the year before, and in pretty much all aspects of the business,” said Schwerin as he talked with BusinessWest a few months before the start of the Armor’s fifth season. “We’re gaining ground — not by leaps and bounds; it’s not like we’re selling out every game now — but each year has been a little better.”
And while it doesn’t say as much on his job description, continuing this pattern is essentially Schwerin’s primary assignment as president. And he believes he and the rest of the staff are in a good position to do just that.
One big reason why is the nature of the club’s affiliation with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, the parent club. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, the Armor have been in what’s known as a ‘hybrid’ affiliation, he noted, adding that this is the D League’s version of the relationships that exist between major-league baseball teams and their minor-league clubs.
The team is still privately owned, he explained, but it is affiliated with the Nets, who essentially handle all aspects of the basketball operation, from setting the roster to hiring the team’s new coach — Doug Overton, who was an assistant in Brooklyn for many years — to establishing a system of play.
“The Nets basically oversee the basketball side of the organization for us, and this leaves us to do the things we do best — ticket sales, entertainment, community involvement, sponsorship sales, and marketing the team,” he went on, adding that, prior to the establishment of the hybrid arrangement, management was involved in drafting players and hiring a coaching staff.
With those responsibilities now being handled by the brass in Brooklyn, Schwerin and his staff of 10 can focus on those off-the-court metrics he mentioned earlier, including something called the Read to Achieve Program, which may be the most intriguing measure of the team’s place in the region.
Launched in 2011, this initiative invites area elementary schools to essentially partner with the club to provide incentives for students to read, he said. When specific goals set by a participating school are met, students can win prizes provided by the team through sponsors. The big prize, earned when goals are hit for all four weeks of the program, are tickets to an Armor game.
Last year, 15,000 students enrolled in 45 schools across 12 communities took part, said Schwerin, and very early into the signup phase for the upcoming season, 14,000 students in 38 schools across 16 communities are set to participate.
“This program works on so many levels,” he said. “It’s a good community initiative — it promotes reading, and it’s helping schools incentivise kids to do what they should be doing. But it also drives additional attendance to the game and helps us introduce the Armor to more families.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Schwerin about the Armor, the progress the team has made in its first four seasons in Springfield, and how the pieces are in place for continuing and hopefully accelerating the pace of progress the franchise has enjoyed.
Court of Opinion
As he talked about his club, Schwerin also made a number of references to the parent team in Brooklyn, which is generating a good deal of talk in the NBA, and for a number of reasons.
These range from the club’s move last year from New Jersey to the now-thriving borough of New York, to the blockbuster trade made with the Boston Celtics earlier this summer. That deal sent a number of draft picks and a few players (including one who spent most of last year with the Armor) to the Celtics, in exchange for three players, including future hall of famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
The deal is expected to help the Nets become contenders and perhaps push league champion Miami as it goes for a three-peat in 2013-14, but it is not expected to do much in terms of the Armor’s fortunes, said Schwerin, who noted that one scenario could change that equation dramatically.
Indeed, the current NBA collective bargaining agreement stipulates that, if veteran NBA players recovering from injury agree to do so, they can be assigned to the team’s D-League affiliate for a rehab stint. When asked about the prospect of having Pierce or Garnett (both of them older players who have been nagged by injuries in recent years) in Springfield for a game or two, Schwerin smiled broadly but quickly acknowledged that such a development is unlikely.
What is likely, though, is a continuation of the club’s pattern of continuous improvement in most matters off the court, said Schwerin, adding, again, that the club’s place in the standings is something mostly beyond the Springfield-based management’s control.
What that staff can do, thanks to the hybrid affiliation agreement, is focus all its energies on things it can control — and its basic overall mission, said Schwerin, which is not necessarily to win basketball games, but instead to provide “affordable family entertainment.”
This has been Schwerin’s assignment since he became the Armor’s first employee in the summer of 2009, after he left a job with the Modesto Nuts, the single-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies, to be closer to his then-girlfriend (now wife), whom he met while they were both attending UMass Amherst; he was in the school’s Sports Management program.
He told BusinessWest that, while he certainly knows basketball, he’s more than willing to hand over all personnel and other game-related matters to the Nets, an operational development that brings a number of benefits for the organization, and is certainly a stronger affiliation than when the team had ties to three teams — the Nets, New York Knicks, and Philadelphia 76ers — for its first two seasons.
“The Nets, because they’re hiring the coaches and hiring the athletic trainer, will have a much higher comfort level with sending their players down on assignment to Springfield during the season,” he said. “Also, the players who are playing in Springfield are playing in their [the Nets’] system, with the same terminology on the court, the plays, and defensive schemes.
“So if they do call a player up,” he continued, “the learning curve is much shorter in terms of getting them in the flow; the player already knows what it’s like to play in the Nets’ system.”
But the biggest benefit is that the Armor’s Springfield-based staff can devote its energies to the business side of the ledger, meaning everything from booking flights and hotels for the team’s many road trips, to making the very most of the team’s 24 home dates, especially those that fall on weekends.
There are 16 tilts in that category, including some Sunday contests, said Schwerin, adding that, while his staff doesn’t ignore those contests that fall on the other days of the week, there is simply little that can be done to make those games lucrative.
“We’d love to have 24 Friday and Saturday nights because those nights are clearly better from a business perspective, and it’s much easier for fans to attend, but the reality is that there are only so many Fridays and Saturdays to go around in the wintertime,” he said, adding that the MassMutual Center’s primary tenant, the Springfield Falcons, also covets those evenings. “Our philosophy is basically to focus on the big nights, focus all our resources on those, and make our big nights bigger.
“We have 24 home games, and the approach we take is that we have 24 opportunities to entertain the fans and hopefully make sure they have a good time,” he continued. “If we’re successful, they’ll want to come back and see more games, and they’ll also tell their friends.”
Overall, attendance has been rising steadily, if not dramatically, since the first tipoff in the late fall of 2009, and is now averaging roughly 2,700 per game, he said, adding that, with the Armor (and the D-League in general), attendance isn’t determined by the roster, its record, or a given night’s opposition. Instead, it’s driven by just how well the organization delivers that aforementioned product — affordable family entertainment.
“Most of the people who are coming to our games are not necessarily coming because the team wins or loses or because they like the point guard,” he explained. “They’re coming because their daughter is in a dance studio that’s performing at halftime, or their son is on a youth basketball team that’s going to get to high-five the players before the game on the court.
“It’s the experiences that we’re providing that drive attendance,” he went on. “So we have to make the product appeal to more than just basketball fans — it has to appeal to families.”
There are a number of specific initiatives geared toward making the team and its games family-friendly, he said, citing appearances by the team mascot at events across the region and throughout the year; entertainment before games, at halftime, and during timeouts; and T-shirt giveaways during contests.
All of this and more is designed to bring people to the MassMutual Center, and then, hopefully, back again.
One key to making the Armor a known commodity and an attraction is community involvement, said Schwerin, adding that it has come in many forms since the team debuted — from tornado-relief efforts two years ago to recognition efforts for fallen police officers; from toy drives during the holidays to promotions designed to support the fight against breast cancer.
The team has been recognized by the league for making more than 100 community appearances in each of the past two years, he went on, adding that the mascot and/or players have appeared at some event — from fall festivals to the July 4th parade in East Longmeadow — almost every weekend.
But the most visible, and effective, initiative within the community is Read to Achieve, he went on, adding that the cause is an important one, and the team’s efforts in this regard build visibility and credibility with its most important constituency — families.
“When the kids come, we parade them around the court and recognize them,” said Schwerin, noting that the winners from a specific school all come on the same night, and their parents and friends can purchase discounted tickets for the same contest. “This recognition increases the interest level of the kids and prompts them to use their free ticket — they want to get recognized — and it also increases the involvement from parents, family, and friends, who want to see their son, brother, niece, or nephew honored on the court.
“This program ties in very well with our grassroots marketing efforts,” he went on. “We don’t have a lot of resources to buy a bunch of TV advertising, billboards, and print ads to help become ingrained in the community and have everyone know what we’re doing. Read to Achieve allows us to get in front of all these kids and, in turn, their parents. We get more exposure from this program than from anything else we do.”
Based on the strong interest expressed to date, Schwerin expects that the team will likely sign up at least 70 schools for the next year of the program, and in communities stretching from Hartford (the team draws well from Northern Connecticut) to the Berkshires.
While he likes to think about the possibility, Schwerin acknowledged that it is highly unlikely that Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce will be coming through the door at the MassMutual Center this winter.
But there will certainly be many less-sensational ways for this now-established franchise to continue moving the needle in the right direction when it comes to attendance, sponsorship, and awareness within the community.
Success on the court is important to any basketball team, but for this operation, there are, as Schwerin noted, many other, more effective ways to measure success in this league.
And by most accounts, the Armor are winning in the ways that matter most.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]