When Michael Yormark and his identical twin, Brett, were seven, their mother schlepped them from northern New Jersey to Manhattan to see the circus. The brothers remember the Madison Square Garden extravaganza as a gaudy procession of clowns, death-defying stunts and wild-animal acts that left them wide-eyed with wonder and gasping in astonishment.
"From the moment we entered the arena, we were overwhelmed," says Michael, now 39. "So much was going on. That's when we first began to think about the customer experience and how to program events."
Today the Yormarks are two of the most successful marketing ringmasters in pro sports. Michael is the COO of the NHL's Florida Panthers; Brett is the president and CEO of Nets Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the NBA's New Jersey Nets. Each is the great propelling force that has driven a low-draw franchise into new territories and profitability, with methods that other teams are now just starting to explore.
In two years under Michael's whip the Panthers have reorganized as an entertainment company to diversify revenue. The franchise weathered the recent lockout by adding 22 new sponsorships, doubling the previous season's total. The team retained 88% of its season-ticket holders, thanks to Michael's offer of a two-year price freeze, free tickets to rock concerts and a Halloween event for ticket holders' kids that featured suite-to-suite trick-or-treating at the BankAtlantic Center.
During Brett's 12-month stewardship the Nets have signed 60 new sponsors, persuaded 94% of season-ticket holders to re-up and increased overall ticket sales by 23%, the third-largest jump in the NBA. He has helped fill the empty seats at Continental Airlines Arena by doting on season-ticket holders--even organizing pancake breakfasts for them at a local diner with team president Rod Thorn and giving them commissions for referring new ticket buyers.
His signature marketing tool is the Influencer, a party--including a cameo from a player or a coach--thrown at the home of any season-ticket holder who can produce 20 or 30 potential customers. So far the 17 get-togethers have resulted in an average of $75,000 in ticket sales.
Most impressively, Brett has begun to change the Nets' fan-unfriendly image. The team not only paid tolls for one hour at Exit 16W on the New Jersey Turnpike before last season's final home game but also staged a contest in which the winning six-year-old got to bring a very special show-and-tell item to first grade: star guard Jason Kidd.
The Yormarks are salesmen of inexhaustible energy, which is good because they tend to work 18-hour days. On weekdays Michael leaves the house at 3 a.m., gets to his office by 3:25 and sends out a motivational e-mail to his staff at 4:30. Brett is more of a slouch: He usually doesn't get up until 3:50, and his motivational e-mails often don't arrive until after 5. "We've got understanding wives," says Michael. "They realize we're dreamers."
Michael, who has a master's in sports business administration from Ohio University, came to the Panthers by way of the New York Yankees, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Brett, who has a bachelor's in business management from Indiana University, has had three stints with the Nets--this one coming after seven years with NASCAR, during which he landed a title sponsorship with Nextel worth $750 million. Which may be why there's now more branding at the Nets' arena than in an entire season of Bonanza.
Last month Brett and some underlings flew to Miami to brainstorm about facility management with Michael and his staff. (The Nets intend to move to a new arena in Brooklyn by 2009.) It was strange for coworkers to hear the Yormarks finish each other's sentences. "Even I found it eerie," says Michael. "I almost forgot who was who."