0

Fan base for Force growing
Arena football team slowly selling itself to Gwinnett

When Georgia Force President Dick Sullivan announced the return of the team to Gwinnett he used the words "options" and "value" as the buzzwords to explain the reasons behind the move.

Specifically, the major selling points were free parking for tailgating, low ticket prices, proximity and access to players and the promise of entertainment beyond sports for all fans. As the Force prepare to play their first playoff game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, those are still Sullivan's and the team's bullet points for the product.

Those reasons, as well as the team winning seven of its final eight games, defending its Southern Division title and winning more games than it did in either season in Gwinnett in 2003 and 2004, appear to be making an impact. Albeit slowly.

From a pure ticket sales standpoint, this season is the Force's most successful at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. By far. Average ticket sales for the 2003 and 2004 seasons were 9,160 and 9,126, respectively. Through the regular season this year, that number is up by more than 1,000 - to 10,292 tickets sold per game.

But ticket sales and attendance are not synonymous. For an arena with an 11,200 capacity, empty seats peppered the lower level on game nights, down to the first few rows. Somewhere between the ticket office and kickoff, ticket holders made a choice not to attend.

Looking back on the regular season, Sullivan admitted the struggles with the team's rebranding in Gwinnett.

"When we announced we were coming back to Gwinnett, it was September 2007 and all we had was six months to be able to sell the product," Sullivan said last week. "Once we got into month seven, eight, nine we were able to build momentum, but in that same time the team was 3-4, 3-5. Now that we have had time, the response has been positive."

The poor start especially stung since local fans' memory of the Force was a 15-17 team over two seasons with no playoff appearances. But that was before Falcons owner Arthur Blank bought the team and reinforced it with the resources of an NFL team.

"I think (the NFL partnership) has been an advantage to what (original team owner) Virgil (Williams) had," Sullivan said. "It is great to see him at every game."

Beyond the team's slow start and limited preseason lead time, bad timing and bad luck struck the Force. Georgia's second home game, when the team was 0-2, fell the day after a tornado ripped off the roof of the Georgia Dome and other storms rolled through the state. It kicked off a game at 8 p.m. on a Monday night during the school year, limiting its appeal to families. Even its playoff opener falls on a Monday night after the Fourth of July.

"We are still trying to determine what the best night is," Sullivan said. "We think Saturday night is. We have to determine what day and what the start time should be.

"I don't know what Monday night will bring (after) the Fourth of July, but I expect 9,000 to 10,000 in the building."

For Sullivan, getting people in the door, especially in the first season is a key.

"We like to say, in two and a half hours of entertainment a football game breaks out," Sullivan said. "We have a great product. People have to come out and see it.

"(At $9 for a ticket), we are basically the same price as a movie. For people to be able to go to a sporting event, be that close to the product, I may be a biased, but it is fun. We do everything we can to make it interactive."

Part of the experience is created in cooperation with the team's corporate sponsors, which Sullivan said are strong and growing as the team carried its sponsors from the years at Philips Arena to Gwinnett and forged new ones with local businesses.

"There were concerns about moving from downtown to the suburbs, but we have such great corporate sponsors from downtown and in the Gwinnett area," Sullivan said. "The corporate community has really, really stepped up in a big way and supported the team."

And the fan base is slowly following. The last Force game was its best of the season in terms of tickets sold (11,073), and sales for the playoff game have been on par with most of the home games this season, according to the Force's communication coordinator, Brian Cearns.

Of course, winning helps, but if you ask Sullivan, it only matters to a point.

"We are like a restaurant, we don't control the food, but we control everything else," Sullivan said. "We control the experience.

"We want to give everything we can to make it fun. It is entertainment."

Specifically, the major selling points were free parking for tailgating, low ticket prices, proximity and access to players and the promise of entertainment beyond sports for all fans. As the Force prepare to play their first playoff game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, those are still Sullivan's and the team's bullet points for the product.

Those reasons, as well as the team winning seven of its final eight games, defending its Southern Division title and winning more games than it did in either season in Gwinnett in 2003 and 2004, appear to be making an impact. Albeit slowly.

From a pure ticket sales standpoint, this season is the Force's most successful at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. By far. Average ticket sales for the 2003 and 2004 seasons were 9,160 and 9,126, respectively. Through the regular season this year, that number is up by more than 1,000 - to 10,292 tickets sold per game.

But ticket sales and attendance are not synonymous. For an arena with an 11,200 capacity, empty seats peppered the lower level on game nights, down to the first few rows. Somewhere between the ticket office and kickoff, ticket holders made a choice not to attend.

Looking back on the regular season, Sullivan admitted the struggles with the team's rebranding in Gwinnett.

"When we announced we were coming back to Gwinnett, it was September 2007 and all we had was six months to be able to sell the product," Sullivan said last week. "Once we got into month seven, eight, nine we were able to build momentum, but in that same time the team was 3-4, 3-5. Now that we have had time, the response has been positive."

The poor start especially stung since local fans' memory of the Force was a 15-17 team over two seasons with no playoff appearances. But that was before Falcons owner Arthur Blank bought the team and reinforced it with the resources of an NFL team.

"I think (the NFL partnership) has been an advantage to what (original team owner) Virgil (Williams) had," Sullivan said. "It is great to see him at every game."

Beyond the team's slow start and limited preseason lead time, bad timing and bad luck struck the Force. Georgia's second home game, when the team was 0-2, fell the day after a tornado ripped off the roof of the Georgia Dome and other storms rolled through the state. It kicked off a game at 8 p.m. on a Monday night during the school year, limiting its appeal to families. Even its playoff opener falls on a Monday night after the Fourth of July.

"We are still trying to determine what the best night is," Sullivan said. "We think Saturday night is. We have to determine what day and what the start time should be.

"I don't know what Monday night will bring (after) the Fourth of July, but I expect 9,000 to 10,000 in the building."

For Sullivan, getting people in the door, especially in the first season is a key.

"We like to say, in two and a half hours of entertainment a football game breaks out," Sullivan said. "We have a great product. People have to come out and see it.

"(At $9 for a ticket), we are basically the same price as a movie. For people to be able to go to a sporting event, be that close to the product, I may be a biased, but it is fun. We do everything we can to make it interactive."

Part of the experience is created in cooperation with the team's corporate sponsors, which Sullivan said are strong and growing as the team carried its sponsors from the years at Philips Arena to Gwinnett and forged new ones with local businesses.

"There were concerns about moving from downtown to the suburbs, but we have such great corporate sponsors from downtown and in the Gwinnett area," Sullivan said. "The corporate community has really, really stepped up in a big way and supported the team."

And the fan base is slowly following. The last Force game was its best of the season in terms of tickets sold (11,073), and sales for the playoff game have been on par with most of the home games this season, according to the Force's communication coordinator, Brian Cearns.

Of course, winning helps, but if you ask Sullivan, it only matters to a point.

"We are like a restaurant, we don't control the food, but we control everything else," Sullivan said. "We control the experience.

"We want to give everything we can to make it fun. It is entertainment."