Friday, March 2, 2012

Building a Fan Base for Future Success

Brothers and sisters:

I am happy to welcome long time friend and brother, Firefighter Rob Beattie of the North Plainfield, NJ, Fire/Rescue Department (NPFD) to my Journal. I met Rob 15 years ago when I started to run with the NPFD. While I was the Chief of Merck Fire Department (MFD), I began volunteering in North Plainfield along with Rob who was a young, 20-something volunteer waiting for the opportunity to jump at the chance for a career position. Rob followed his Dad's footsteps who retired as a Captain from the NPFD years before. He's been on the job now for 13 years, is a FF/EMT, holds numerous NJ certifications and is active with his IAFF Local. He also coordinated an annual activity through the firehouse for the past 8 years to raise money to fight childhood cancer (St. Baldrick's Foundation) and to his credit, has raised over a half-million dollars through his tenacity, dedication and leadership. It gives me great pride and pleasure to welcome Rob to my Journal as a "guest blogger" for the month of March, 2012. Check out his comparison of the American fire service and professional sports.

Enjoy and be safe. Ronnie K

Building a Fan Base for Future Success
By Rob Beattie

I hate to admit it, but I waited until late in life to appreciate professional sports. When I did start paying attention, I found it addictive. Not just the playing of the game, but the culture that follows it. As a firefighter I have been told that ours is a performance-based profession, to which I agree. Like football and hockey players, we wear heavy equipment and perform under adrenalin driven, adverse and pressure filled conditions. Like a relief pitcher seeking a win from a deficit, we battle against great odds to prevail in our objective. Like athletes in the moment, our evolutions require focus, determination and physical exertion; our physical and mental conditioning contributes to improved performance and success. The only hitch is that we never know when our game day will be, unlike the professional athletes who get to schedule their adrenaline rush. The other main difference--no one pays to watch us play the game.

There are more similarities between our fire service and sports. Not in the playing of the game or the performance of our duties, but the connection between the teams, players and fans. Sports teams and their talent enjoy an intimate relationship with their geographical home base. Beyond the game, athletes are engaged with their surroundings and the people in it, and do not necessarily live in the city where they play--even fewer are "from" there. In reality, many don't even live in the same State or even the same country during their off season. But the locals in the host city/town/village, etc. know who they are and a lot about them. Even people who live near the stadium, arena or ballpark who aren't fans of the home team likely appreciate the contribution and positive impact of the athletes and the team in the neighborhood. A connection at almost any level is recognized and endears the team and the players to the communities they play in. If an athlete isn't doing the right things in the team's home town, fans and non-fans alike let them know about it. You will read it on the sports page, see it on the news, and maybe even on a t-shirt. It is bad for the athlete, but worse, for the team. A firefighter is a public figure and hopefully a role model, held to a higher standard and I believe rightfully so. Do the wrong things and you'll make the papers or the 6:00 news. It may or may not end your career, but it will certainly impact you and your Department... your team!

What if the General Manager or Team Owner is looking to trade a popular player, one the fans are particularly fond of, one who performs well for the team and is connected to the community? There is no mercy-- management will be haunted by the decision, like the "Curse of the Bambino." Sound familiar?

The firehouse is an institution in your city, town, and neighborhood much like the venue hosting the game. The firefighters who work there may not live there for any number of reasons, but they are connected to the community by the nature of the work they do. Where you work is "your town" whether you live there or not, whether you were born there or not, or grew up there or not. You are sworn to protect and preserve it just like an athlete is signed to perform, play and represent it at home and on the road. The fire department is the home team, and could be the source of civic pride as long as they play the game right. The members of the team--the firefighters, should be loved by the fans and shielded and defended from those with dangerous motives that could compromise the integrity and performance of the team. A threat to the make-up of the team should be met with opposition from the fans-- our citizens. We should expect open and public defense of the firefighters. If those against us are successful, the decision should haunt the decision makers and the fans shouldn't let them forget it. Each instance of coming up short after a politically motivated bad decision is made should be highlighted and known until the integrity of the team is restored. Don't underestimate the fans; they will know who is at fault.

The fire service has had a tough time building a fan base; we are late to the game. Some cities and towns across the Nation have had localized success. We experienced the power of the fans after the tragic events of 9/11/01, but that has unfortunately faded through no fault of our own. What we can learn from sports teams is how they treat their fans and why. The franchise knows they need a solid fan base, especially at home. They can't sit back and wait for those fans to materialize. They have to reach out and win them over, season after season, year after year. Even a team which isn't winning can maintain their fan base with effective marketing. How do they do it? They bring the fans closer; they make them feel like they are part of the team, and the team part of the family. Yes, it is a business and it is about making money for sports teams. Selling tickets and putting fans in the seats is why they play at the level they do and why they pay professionals a lot of money to play the game. But, is that all? We should be able to relate to the franchise's need for public support when the city puts their needs to a vote. Check out the case history that follows:

The New York Islanders (NHL hockey team) needs a new arena. Their current home is the second oldest in active use by an NHL team. They don't want to leave Nassau County, Long Island, and the owners don't have the money to build a new arena on their own. So it came down to the taxpayers who would have to approve a taxpayer-funded replacement for the Nassau Coliseum. In August of last year, the voters rejected it. Now, the team's future on Long Island is uncertain. The supporters of the plan failed to gain the support of the community, they didn't convince them the benefit of a new arena would bring in revenue, civic pride and commerce. Even with the N.Y. Rangers and N.J. Devils supporting the initiative, it still failed. The voters focused on the immediate increase in taxes, not the big picture and benefit of the investment. Where were their fans? Does any of this sound familiar?

When the fire department needs something important, we rely on the community we serve--the taxpayers and their votes. We know that the upfront cost may be daunting. We also know the big picture and the benefit to the community that the Department's investment will bring, namely improved service delivery, compliance with established standards, and safety of the department's most important resource--its firefighters. So, we react to whatever it is that is confronting us. We hit the streets and pursue a public education campaign to inform our customers of what we do, why we do it, how and why we need them to step-up and support us in the best interest of the community. It is never easy because we usually wind up playing catch-up and more often than not, are marginally successful. So, what if they were already our fans? Wouldn't it make the buy-in easier to gain when it matters most? I think it would.

In public budget battles our competition is the police, private sector providers in EMS, the Board of Education, Department of Public Works and all other municipal agencies. We're all vying for the same pot of money. The cops have their own unique angle; "support us or crime will go up and we can't stop it." No body likes crime, especially the police. Their fans are the "good guys" who don't like crime either. It's an easy sell. Remember, everyone believes that sooner or later they will be a victim of a crime, but no one believes they will ever be a fire victim. Just ask around. EMS for profit: "Hey, our service won't cost you a single tax-dollar." Who doesn't want to save tax-dollars? The EMS-for-profit fan is the bandwagon hopper who buys the jersey after the championship is won. They will raise ticket prices and parking next season after they win you over. I guarantee that your research of this issue will confirm my suspicions.

So we are left justifying our jobs and pleading for support. With fire activity down we get, "What do you guys really do anyway?" These are the times we really need our fans. Bring the fans in early and ask them to be a part of us. After all, fans breed fans. Bring them closer and educate them on what the fire department can do before the emergency happens and the value it brings to the community.

Capitalize on your opportunities to connect with your existing and potential fans. There are things happening around us every day that have nothing to do with the fire department and everything to do with the community. Simply showing up and being there can make an impact and turn the casual observer into a fan, maybe even an enthusiast.

I don't follow basketball and I never really have. Maybe a casual observer is how I would describe myself. No loyalty to a team, a division or even a league. I was given an opportunity to attend a college game with a friend. The game was great, fast paced and exciting. It was a close game featuring a hard fought, back-and-forth battle trading the lead several times. I left the arena that night a fan of the team. They showed up to play and performed well, exceeded my expectations, and earned my support. (I'm confident my rooting for them lead to their victory.) Win or loose, they captured my attention. Now, theirs is the only basketball score I look for on the sports pages.

My son, Robbie, and I were at a football game one night. This young guy sitting next to Robbie was very in to the game. I don't remember how, but we learned he was a professional baseball player. He played for a team nowhere near us and honestly, I had never heard of him. With some encouragement and a little prodding on my part, my son worked up some courage and introduced himself to the ballplayer/fan and they started talking baseball. This guy was very cool and not bothered at all by the questions of a ten-year old. He could have just answered them patiently until the questions ended, but instead he began asking Robbie questions about his little league team. Not what I expected. That guy gained a brand new "biggest fan", and a fan in the biggest fans Dad!

When someone has an emergency and they call for our help, we respond. When we show up we have the opportunity to gain a fan, like that college basketball team that "got me" at the game. We show up to play and we expect to win every time. Winning is really our only option after all. The caller has an expectation of what we will do when we get there. It is our job to meet that expectation, and many times surpass it. We are professionals, volunteers and career alike. We do what we do and we do it well, better than anyone else. We know it and we have to show it. Our attitude and our disposition are on display every bit as much as our skills, abilities and talents. We are going to gain that fan when their emergency isn't as bad as they think, when we make them feel valuable for reaching out to us for help. Without their call we wouldn't be there. They gave us an opportunity to win them over so we must. "It is OK ma'am; it's what we are here for." "Everything is fine. It all checked out and YOU ARE SAFE." Guess what? You just gained a fan for life! And, if we have a lot of fans in the community, the people that our fans vote into office will need to be our fans too, for fans are loyal and demanding. Even a good politician can't convince a Red Sox fan that the Yankee's are better (even if in this writer's opinion, they are).

The stakes are higher for us than any sport, at any level, for any league. Ours comes down to life and death, and that is simply a reality. While fans live and die for their team, we live and die for our fans....and non-fans alike. If that fact isn't lost on us, we should be able to communicate it to them.

Make the most of your opportunities; be a professional every time, on every run. Do right by your fans and they will be there for you when you need them. Prepare for the game and show up to play. Stay safe and return with the victory!

Rob Beattie, FF/EMT
North Plainfield, NJ Fire/Rescue