Charlotte is the eighth-smallest television market in the NBA, with about 1.14 million homes.
But with some support from surrounding markets – Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Greenville-Spartanburg and Columbia – there are more than enough customers to support the Bobcats and the NFL Carolina Panthers.
So the Bobcats are reaching out regionally to better market their product. They’ve improved their television reach throughout the Carolinas. They went to UNC-Asheville for training camp. They held an exhibition in North Charleston, S.C. And Tuesday night they bring the defending-champion Miami Heat to Raleigh, for a preseason game at PNC Arena.
“We know Raleigh is the second-largest city in North Carolina and Raleigh is a hotbed for basketball,” said Bobcats president Fred Whitfield. “We’d love for them to fall in love with the Bobcats by seeing our team live. Then maybe they make the (three-hour) drive to Charlotte more frequently to see us again.”
Bringing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heat to Raleigh (7 p.m.) is a good hook to draw casual fans, particularly with the Carolina Hurricanes and the rest of the NHL in lockout mode. The Bobcats say ticket sales have been strong enough that a sellout (PNC holds nearly 20,000 for basketball) is possible.
More importantly, they hope to widen their audience going forward. Whitfield and chief marketing officer Pete Guelli told the Observer last week that the team would consider moving a regular-season home game outside Charlotte each season if that had marketing impact.
The Bobcats have always had a marketing challenge, in part because of problems related to television distribution. Founding owner Bob Johnson started C-SET, a regional sports network that lasted just the team’s first season. The TV rights then transferred to Time Warner Cable and eventually to SportSouth. SportSouth asked television providers to pay a surcharge to carry Bobcats games that discouraged widespread distribution.
Television penetration has improved to where most Carolinians can watch the games. The team needs to build on that momentum, and Whitfield and Guelli see events like tonight in Raleigh as that opportunity.
The Bobcats have a season-ticket base of roughly 8,000, on par with last season. Considering their brutal record (7-59, worst winning percentage in NBA history) the NBA anticipated a significant drop in sales. But Whitfield says they found over 2,000 new season ticket-equivalent buyers to replace those fans who didn’t renew.
Bobcats research shows about 24 percent of their individual-game ticket sales last season came from outside a 75-mile radius of Charlotte.
“We think if we take our game-day experience to their markets, we can grow that base,” Whitfield said. “We feel like we can take individual-game customers and turn them into partial-season ticket holders.”
It’s worth a try, said a Raleigh-based sports executive.
“I think bringing a game to Raleigh is an excellent move on their part, and it will be successful,” said Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.
“However, the Triangle is going to be a tough nut to crack in terms of breaking through and gaining a foothold. During the same window you’re competing with a very popular NHL franchise and of course three college basketball programs that all have huge followings, intense media coverage and more than a half-century of tradition.”
The Bobcats understand a half-century of tradition. Monday night they scheduled a marketing event in the Triangle, and it was no coincidence which two players were asked to attend: Brendan Haywood from North Carolina and Gerald Henderson from Duke.
Chip Alexander of the News and Observer contributed.