What is a basketball team to do to remain in its fans’ consciousness when there is no basketball to be played?
In the case of the Celtics, the approach is this: Produce enough compelling content across multiple platforms that fans are constantly reminded why they came to care about the team in the first place, and why they still care about it now.
That’s not easy for any professional sports team to pull off during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Celtics last played a game on Tuesday, March 10. It was a 114-111 win over the host Indiana Pacers, a win that improved the Celtics record to 43-21.
The next night, it was revealed that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus. The NBA shut down soon thereafter, and professional sports, like just about every other social activity, has been on hiatus since.
Celtics president Rich Gotham said there were different phases to answering the question of what the organization should to remain connected to fans that were suddenly social distancing with no new games to watch.
“There have been phases to this, and the first one for lack of a better team call crisis management, meaning, ‘The games have stopped, what do we do now, what are the implications, and what are all of the adjustments we have to make?’
“For the first couple of weeks, it was largely dealing with, ‘OK, this is reality, we’re now a company of remote employees, we’ve got to figure out how we go forward.’ We spent a couple of weeks trying to chart that direction. I think one thing that was important to us is that the more chaotic it is, the more you fall back on your fundamentals. For us, that’s servicing our fans, our season ticket holders, and our corporate partners and continuing a dialogue with them.
“And then we entered that next phase, which is ,’How do we continue to keep that flame alive with our fan base between now and when there are games again?’ “
That phase has required the Celtics – and every other sports team with any marketing savvy – to temporarily turn away from being a basketball franchise and primarily become a content production company.
Since the season shut down on March 11, the Celtics – even with that early adjustment phase – have been remarkably effective in keeping the fan base engaged.
“The good news is, there’s no shortage of stuff to do,’’ said Gotham. “Right now, we’re first and foremost a digital content company. Once we adjusted into that mode, and figured out how to do that remotely, we’ve come up with a lot of good creative content and good, creative ideas to engage our fans at every level.”
The “Classic Celtics” broadcasts of vintage games in conjunction with television broadcast partner NBC Sports Boston have been especially enjoyable. The programs have been enhanced by an assortment of guests (via home video hookups, of course) that have joined in to comment on the games during breaks in the broadcast. Among the guests have been Celtics coach Brad Stevens, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, and players of the past such as M.L. Carr, Cedric Maxwell, and Eddie House.
But the Celtics have found other ways to remain engaged with fans beyond reminded them of past glories.
The Celtics have approximately 20 million social media followers world-wide, and they have stayed up on the trends. Tik Tok has become wildly popular – and naturally, so too are videos of Tacko Fall dancing on Tik Tok. On the team’s website, a Celtics Connect calendar serves as a touchpint to let fans know what content is coming up, along with where and when.
Accessibility is a priority, too. Owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca as well as Gotham held what it called a “Banner Briefing” with corporate partners, and there are plans for players to have similar interactions with season-ticket holders.
The last few years, we’ve put a lot of investment into the digital content side of our business, hiring production people, camera people, and support staff,’’ said Gotham. “It’s worked out well to have that in place now, when we’re trying to hit with Celtics fans of every level, the fans who love the classic stuff, the kids at home, and everything in between.”
Gotham, as genuine of a basketball fan as anyone you will find in NBA management, has been enjoying watching the classic games himself, though sometimes the changes in style cannot go unnoticed.
“I find myself watching those games from the ‘80s,” he said, “and it’s funny, that’s when I engendered my love for the Celtics with Larry [Bird] and those guys. But I watch those games now and I’m screaming at guys for passing up open 3-pointers.” He laughs. “Shoot the ball!”