It's over, but not forgotten for the Dallas Mavericks.

The most exciting team in professional sports closed its season May 29 in the Western Conference finals during a spirited series with the San Antonio Spurs. While the Mavs came *this close* to the NBA finals, the better story is how Mark Cuban bought a clunker of an NBA team in 2000 and overhauled it into the best, operationally and marketing-wise.

The unrelenting grassroots marketing efforts of Cuban and his back-office team signaled to loyal and new fans that it's OK to be a basketball evangelist again. It's marketing how-to for the record books.

To understand the reasons why is to first X-ray the mind of Mark Cuban; he's a rebel with a cause. He wants to win, certainly, but more importantly, he wants fans to have fun.

That makes Cuban different from other sports team owners. He wants to overthrow the egalitarianism of the NBA, introduce new levels of marketing sophistication to the sport and bring fans closer to a game that has been declining in popularity since 1997.

Secondly, Cuban says his biggest competition isn't other teams. It's entertainment: movies, restaurants, shopping.

Compete against a foe bigger than seven-foot-giant Spur Tim Duncan, such as Hollywood, and suddenly entire strategies change. Cuban's strategy works. The results so far:

  • During the 1990s, attendance was barely half of capacity. In 2002-03, the team sold out every game.
  • Under Cuban, the team's revenues have doubled, to $100 million this season.
  • Forbes says the team's franchise value has skyrocketed from $167 million in 1999 to $304 million in 2002.
  • Merchandise revenues have come out of the basement and now reside in the top 10 of all NBA teams.
  • A survey conducted by ESPN of 64,000 fans across all professional sports leagues ranked the Mavs number one in fan relations.

There are four lessons Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks can teach business owners and marketing professionals about turnarounds and how to create customer evangelists who propel your organization's success:

  1. Connect with customers every day
  2. Focus on the customer “experience”
  3. Create a cause bigger than a championship trophy
  4. Build a responsive and flexible marketing team

1. Connect with Customers Every Day

Mark Cuban is certainly the most visible and approachable professional sports team owner in the past 20 years. He attends every Mavericks game and sits courtside, cheering his team on. He sits in the $8 seats several times per year, hobnobbing with fans and soliciting their input.

During home games in Dallas' American Airlines Center, the scoreboard flashes his email address: mark.cuban@dallasmavs.com. He hosts his own television program, “The Mark Cuban Show.” After games, he's often seen in the arena's two-level bar, partying with hundreds of fans and downing dozens of Diet Cokes.

Ask fans why they're fans, and the answer is usually one given by Dallas resident Todd Walley. “Cuban's the only team owner who comes to games in blue jeans and t-shirts. He's not stuck up. He's one of us, you know?”

Word spreads quickly among customers like Walley, who paints his entire face in Mavericks blue and sports a pretty good rendering of the team's basketball-and-pony logo on his bare belly.

The team scans each ticket that crosses the turnstiles in Dallas and maintains a database of who attended and who didn't. Season ticket holders who don't show up for a game get a call the next day. “We missed you last night. Is everything OK?”

According to Matt Fitzgerald, the team's marketing honcho, customers are usually startled by the call but love the personal touch. “Usually it's because they gave the tickets out to someone at work and that person didn't go. We help them manage the value of their season ticket investment.”

2. Focus on the Customer “Experience”

Cuban isn't shy about soliciting customer input. He does it at every game, with nearly everyone he meets.

His email address is everywhere. An email arrived one day in 2001 from a fan who had trouble seeing the 24-second shot clock perched above the basketball net's glass backboard. The clock was designed for players to see, not fans. How about a three-sided shot clock so everyone in the arena could see, the fan suggested.

Several weeks and $24,000 later, brand-new, three-sided shot clocks were perched above the backboards of each basket. Most of the NBA has since adopted the idea.

At home games, Cuban is known to yell at referees just as much as fans. That's captured on television frequently enough to become modern-day lore. What most cameras don't capture is Cuban making at least a dozen trips each game to the arena's sound effects operator.

“You might see me mad at the refs, but you'll see me madder if it's a critical part of the game and they're not playing ‘Let's go Mavs' or ‘Defense,'” Cuban says. “You'll see me stand up and run over to those people and say ‘Get it going!'”

3. Create a Cause Bigger Than a Championship Trophy

Cuban has little incentive to please NBA commissioner David Stern, who has fined him more than $1 million for speaking out. (It's more than $2 million factoring in that Cuban matches each fine with a donation to charity.)

Cuban's larger cause is making the NBA exciting and entertaining. Average attendance at NBA games has been in decline since 1997. Cuban blames a league-wide ineffectual culture for the decline.

To turn around the Mavericks, Cuban identified the team's culture to everyone on Day One: “Have fun and make money.”

“You have to set the culture because that's how people make decisions,” he says. “If you don't know what your cause is, if you don't know what your culture is and what you're rewarded for and what's respected and what's expected, then you'll make mistakes when you let people make judgments. Then you get all kinds of autocratic environments that don't succeed.”

While winning a championship trophy is certainly a goal for the team, it's not the cause.

4. Build a Responsive and Flexible Marketing Team

Cuban lured marketing honcho Matt Fitzgerald away from Coca-Cola and purposely chose him because Fitzgerald didn't have experience in sports team marketing. “Mark felt the NBA marketing community was too in-bred,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald's grassroots marketing approach is reflected in every aspect of its operation. “We don't subscribe to a lot of the traditional types of research—focus groups—because we see this arena as a giant focus group every night,” he says. “We're not afraid to try things. Quite frankly, a lot of things we do don't work but it's OK because we just move on. It's all about doing a lot of little things.”

Every day, Cuban filters his email for ideas. He forwards the ideas he likes or the complaints that should be heard to the appropriate department head, usually with a brief comment.

“You know how a lot of organizations behave where everybody is filtering up to the top?” Fitzgerald asks. “Here, it's the inverse. Everything comes through him, and he filters it out to the organization. The momentum swings so quickly. You have to be very flexible and ready to just jump on things when they become available.”

Fitzgerald says the flexibility comes from not having an ironclad marketing budget and plan.

“In the world I came from, there was a lot of vacillation back and forth, should we do it, shouldn't we do it. With Mark, it's just an email away. He could say, ‘That's stupid, that sucks, no way.' Or he could say, ‘I love it. Go ahead and do it.' We just move. We move. We move. We move.”

Just like action on the court.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are the authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force.