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Ticket prices, sponsors on rise for the Green

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / June 5, 2008

Whether or not the Celtics win this year's NBA championship, the team will see more green next season: It is already raising ticket prices and raking in lucrative sponsorships.

It was a different story a year ago when Celtics executives trudged into the InterContinental Hotel for an awkward event to thank sponsors weeks after finishing another crummy season, losing 58 games, and just hours after missing out on the team's chance at the first or second pick in the draft lottery.

At yesterday's gathering of sponsors at the Boston Harbor Hotel, on the eve of the Celtics' renewing their storied rivalry with the LA Lakers, spirits were flying high among businesses that have backed the team for years.

The Celtics boast the best turnaround in the league's history and team officials are counting on another stellar season next year.

Team executives already have their eyes set on ways to capitalize on their newfound success next season, by increasing ticket prices 10 percent to 15 percent, on average, and signing on more corporate sponsors worth an additional $5 million to $10 million.

The Celtics will also offer at least 1,500 new season tickets and fewer packages, said team president Rich Gotham. Half-season and 12-game packages might be eliminated or reduced, for example.

"Over the past two years, we've been focusing on raising the floor of the business. Over the next few years, we want to be raising the ceiling," Gotham said. "The reality is, we've upped player spending by 30 percent and gone over the luxury tax line. Our owners have been willing to take that financial risk. But we want to commit to spending competitively and that means having strong top-line revenue growth. That's really the goal."

The team, which is fielding numerous calls from businesses looking to become corporate sponsors, will soon unveil a presenting sponsor for the 2008-2009 season - a company that will pay a significant sum to get its name on everything Celtics for several years, from ticket stubs to radio ads to business cards to team letterhead.

These kinds of deals could be worth between $1 million and $3 million, sports marketing analysts say, while typical Celtics sponsorships have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past.

The Celtics hope to increase overall sponsor revenues by 30 percent, outpacing league averages of 8 percent to 15 percent annually. The team currently has about 100 sponsors, up from 70 last year, and they expect to add at least 30 more for the next season.

At the same time, the Celtics are in early talks with Comcast SportsNet about live streaming of the games over the Internet and to mobile devices next season if the NBA hands over the digital rights to teams. These plans, which would also create new advertising revenues, are still in early stages. It is unclear whether the content would be free or a subscription model similar to Major League Baseball.

Comcast SportsNet, which broadcasts the games, is also planning to expand its television content offered in high definition, including pre- and postgame shows, and create new on-demand programming, according to Bill Bridgen, executive vice president and general manager of Comcast SportsNet.

The Celtics hope to follow the lead of the Red Sox, who have made an array of deals trading on the team name, including signing up an official plumber, an official windshield-replacement company, and an official parking lot. Becoming an "official" sponsor gives companies the right to use the Red Sox logo and be the only sponsor in that category.

"It's a very competitive market with the success the Patriots and the Red Sox have had over the past several seasons," said Don Hinchey, a spokesman for Bonham Group, a Denver sports and entertainment marketing firm. "Now, the Celtics success on the court elevates them and puts them in a position where they can be on more equal footing with the Red Sox and the Patriots and compete more effectively for corporate dollars out there in the marketplace."

A few weeks ago, the Celtics announced a multiyear deal designating Shields MRI to be the official MRI provider for the team. Shields, which also serves at the official MRI provider for the New England Patriots, wanted to expand its sports marketing partnerships but was locked out by competition from the Red Sox. Last fall, Shields began talking with the Celtics and firmed a deal up by spring, as the team dominated the league with its star line-up of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.

"People might say we're jumping on the bandwagon, but we think we're getting involved with something that's going to be great for at least four to five years," said John Antaya, Shields's director of marketing. "Of course, it's easier to make the decision to be with a team in the championship than to be with a team in the gutter."

Antaya declined to provide financial details on the sponsorship, but said: "I assume if we did this deal two years ago, it probably would have looked much different. And I'm positive if we did the deal today for next year, it would be much higher."

Because the Celtics don't own TD Banknorth Garden, ticket sales and sponsorship deals are the key drivers of revenue growth for the team. Last year, Forbes magazine valued the Celtics franchise at $391 million, ranking 11th in the league, with $117 million in revenue and $40 million in gate receipts. Even with more wins and soaring merchandise and ticket sales, professional sports teams often don't break even until the playoffs.

Nonetheless, for loyal fans like Andy Papertsian, a season ticketholder for the past 32 years, the price hike for tickets left him a little stunned. Papertsian said prices for his three balcony seats for next season rose from $2,838 to $4,128 for the season, a 45 percent increase.

"I nearly had a heart attack. I couldn't believe it," Papertsian said. "They're doing great, no question. I anticipated them going up some, but not this much."

And unlike in previous years, when he could delay for months paying for the season tickets, the Celtics made Papertsian commit by May 1, the earliest ever.

Team executives insist it's not about making money overnight, with Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck saying yesterday: "I turned down $600 million for the team two weeks ago. The Celtics are not for sale."

Grousbeck added, however, that the team is looking for business opportunities. "There's a real business opportunity in sports. It's a great business; it's a growing business. But you don't just treat it as a business." he said. "You treat it as a love affair."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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