#WednesdayWisdom: The Future Is a Niche Market, Part II

Looking for a little #WednesdayWisdom? We’re pulling out past stories that are still just as relevant today. Here’s a pearl from Jim: The Future Is a Niche Market, Part II. [This article was originally published in 2009.]

A recent USA Today article gives a nice overview of how “non-major” sports leagues (like professional lacrosse, women’s soccer and arena football) are doing. Here’s a fairly representative snippet:

“While a few big-league teams defy the economic logic of the times — take the New York Yankees, committing $423.5 million to free agents this offseason as they prepare to move into a $1.3 billion new stadium — franchises in all sports are weighing pricing and other options in an attempt to retain season ticketholders and attract new business.”

The author puts a fair amount of emphasis on the cheapness of things like professional lacrosse, quoting people like fan Patrick Stevens of Denver: “’I was a hockey fan, but I never could afford to go to (NHL) games — even University of Denver tickets are hard to get,’ Stevens said. ‘Lacrosse drew me in with some really good deals. My first game was a Valentine’s Day package — two tickets, two sodas, a snack. At $20, it was cheaper than going to a movie.’”

Fair enough, but every “non-major” sports league in history has tried this, and the success has been modest. No sport, other than arguably NASCAR, has risen to “major” status from a spectator and business point of view in a generation. If anything, the NHL could be said to have lost its “major” status.

So, what is this really all about? Is there any hope for lacrosse, the National Curling Alliance or the American Ping Pong Convocation?

Yes, in a way, there is.

The future is a niche market. Just as I said about Pearl Jam’s slightly sad attempt to sell through Verizon’s V Cast program, the real work is in building an audience. Sure, you’ll pick up a few price shoppers like Stevens, but to make something work, you have to build an interest in the product a little at a time.

It reminds me of a parable Charlie Flateman of the Schubert Organization once told me, and which I’ve since repeated (usually with attribution. Thanks, Charlie).

There was a man who had a boat anchor that he was carrying around the streets of Manhattan. It was a fine boat anchor, worth $100 easily to a knowledgeable sailor. In New York, though, nobody wanted it. No sale.

The problem, the man realized, was that the price was too high, so he dropped the price to $50, which anyone would say is a tremendous value for such a fine boat anchor. It would only be minutes before he could unload it on a grateful buyer.

No sale.

In fact, there was no discount he could give that made someone take the boat anchor off his hands, because despite the objective fact of its value, he was simply trying to sell it where no one wanted it.

How will lacrosse thrive? I don’t exactly know, but I can tell you that it starts with figuring out ways to get an ever-increasing base of people fanatically interested in lacrosse and building from there.

Simple, right? Well, easier said than done, but more than anything, it’s going to take persistence and patience.

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