Hawks Meet Their Match

By Jon Greenberg

Peter Sorckoff’s wife had a very good question for him.

Given his marital status, why was he downloading Tinder, the dating app, on his phone?

“The thing became a fascination to me,” Sorckoff told Team Marketing Report in a phone conversation earlier this week. “I had to over-explain to my wife I kept downloading the app. I needed to understand it. I’m 43 with a wife and three kids.”

Market research can you take you to strange new worlds.

Sorckoff is the Senior Vice President of Marketing for the Atlanta Hawks which recently held a very successful “Swipe Right Night” with Tinder during a game at Phillips Arena.

See, Sorckoff, who has been with the Hawks since 1999, had heard of Tinder, but he didn’t understand it. 

A lot of people have heard the Hawks always have trouble attracting fans, but few understand why.

Now, the Hawks are trying to use Tinder to help connect with fans while they connect with each other. 

The impetus behind the Tinder promotion came during a preseason staff meeting when Hawks executives were trying to figure out how to draw “millennial” fans, starting with the question: How do they interact with each other.

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, himself well out of the dating app’s key demographic, blurted out “Tinder!”

“Everyone chuckled and looked at each other, and thought, ‘He’s totally right,’” Sorckoff said. “We started the conversation on what it would look like. Then we reached out to Tinder. It was very organic.”

For the uninitiated, Tinder is a mobile social networking application that cuts through the B.S. of dating sites. 

Using GPS technology, users download pictures and the briefest of descriptions into a profile, and can find matches nearby by “swiping right” on  other profiles with their touchscreen phone. If two people match with each other, they can communicate in a direct message forum. The rest is up to them.

Of course, Tinder is best known as a “hook-up app.” It’s owned by InterActiveCorp, the parent company of Match.com and other dating sites.

While sports teams are going head-first in joining up with the daily fantasy sports revolution, are they ready to hook up with Tinder?

Well, yes. Because it all depends on how you look at Tinder. 

When you look at it as a social network app, something that “joins” people together, it makes perfect sense. That’s why the Hawks were intrigued.

“In talking to Tinder, they don’t consider it a dating app, but just a quick way for people to meet each other in a certain vicinity,” Sorckoff said.

The Hawks want their fans to think of Hawks games as a social outing. They want younger fans, single fans. Atlanta has plenty of both.

As of this writing the Hawks have the best record in the Eastern Conference (30-8) and the 7th-worst average crowd, as they’re averaging 16,181 fans over their first 19 home games.

Of course, attendance is mostly determined by season ticket sales, which took place after the team barely squeaked into the playoffs.

Koonin, hired last April, and his business staff had been working for months on ways to attract fans, specifically the millennial and “multi-cultural” crowds, when the team was shunted into the limelight in September.

It was revealed that general manager Danny Ferry read a prejudiced scouting report during an ownership conference call. Controlling owner Bruce Levenson then released an email he sent, which revealed his own flawed, racially-loaded thinking on why the Hawks weren’t drawing fans: They’re appealing too much to black fans.

The Hawks’ struggles in getting fans into their arena has been a hotly debated topic in, and out of Atlanta. Is it because of the makeup of the city is full of transplants from other cities? Is it because the Hawks aren’t ever that good? Is it what Levenson wrote? 

I’d argue it’s almost solely the second question, with a little of the first and none of the third, which is patently ridiculous. 

The Hawks agree.

“I think we had a very real relevance issue,” Sorckoff said. “Not so much awareness, but relevance. When everything broke in September, that relevance issue solved, but not necessarily the way we expected. We became very relevant very quickly, and in the process of mending fences, we had to look at it as opportunity.”

The Hawks had already started an “exhaustive study” of their fanbase, using an algorithm to examine “1.6 million online conversations” about the team, among other methods.

Basically, they found out that while some Atlanta sports fans were emotionally distanced from the team, in the under-30 segment, the team scored well. The Hawks needed to appeal to sports fans whose allegiances weren’t already set and prioritized. They found that millennial fans were interested in the team. They found that single black women had very positive thoughts about the team.

“It revealed a pretty clear strategy,” Sorckoff said. “Tinder was one way, tactically, to bring that strategy to life.”

In a must-read piece for ESPN.com, writer Kevin Arnovitz revealed the Hawks refer to the middle-aged white fans as mythical creatures.

"We call this the Alpharetta Unicorn," Koonin told Arnovitz "This is the 55-year-old guy who's going to drive an hour from Alpharetta into the city with three buddies to go to the Hawks game. He doesn't exist.”

Sorckoff said the team is still interested in families and suburban fans, but younger fans, hipper fans, have become “the center of our bullseye.”

“If that’s who we want to appeal to and be relevant to, we needed to think through how they communicate with each other and how they are connecting with people,” Sorckoff said.

The team brought in Atlanta rapper T.I. to play before, during and after the home opener. With so many popular rappers, it only makes sense to integrate them into the team's performances. Most of the team's marketing budget is going toward attracting millennial and "multi-cultural" fans.

Tinder appeals to all demographics, Sorckoff said.

Once it was announced, the promotion immediately went viral, which the team expected and intended. Tinder has a cultural cachet, and this was the first-such promotion with a sports team. But Sorckoff said even they were surprised by how many people picked it up.

“We were ecstatic,” he said.

Fans were instructed to set their Tinder match radius to one mile. The team made up a special room for users to interact and there were dating games at the half. (See: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/01/the-atlanta-hawks-had-a-tinder-themed-night-and-this-is-what-happened)

Tinder wouldn’t release numbers on how many people used the app at the game, a 96-86 win over Memphis, or how many new sign-ups it created. The announced attendance was higher than average, at 17,126. 

“It confirmed what we already knew,” Tinder Vice President of Communications and Brand Partnerships Rosette Pambakian told TMR in an email. “Anytime and place there is a large scale gathering of people, Tinder usage and activity increases in the area.”

The Hawks did not monetize the promotion, aside from offering a $15 ticket that included $10 in a food and beverage credit. That comes next.

“It went from a fun thing, with this dating component, to a much more serious one with a broader appeal,” Sorckoff said. “It’s a tool that shows a dynamic change on how we’re doing business with a younger segment of fans.”

Tinder has received inquiries from other NBA teams, and hopes to branch out to different leagues. Baseball, especially, seems promising.

Sorckoff talked to TMR from NBA marketing meetings in Miami, where interest was definitely piqued.

“We have fielded a lot of questions today in Miami,” he said. “There was some risk involved. Partly because some people don’t get Tinder, so it gets reported in one way. In some sense, it gets typecast a little bit. We’ve been sharing that there was much more there than some cute media attention.” 

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