One of the keys for any event to find success in the crowded New York sports and entertainment calendar is to find an annual hole that is unencumbered by competing events and stick with it, thus building brand equity and casual fan interest over time.
The US Open is just as successful because of its time on the calendar as it is because of its quality tennis... it is the only major event, at the same time, in the same place in New York that marketers and brands can point to without question every year. The Harlem Globetrotters always make President's Weekend their annual stop in the area. The New York City Marathon grabs the first Sunday in November. Another circuit event that has placed a claim and is building equity around it in the Apple is the Professional Bull Riders. Yes, the PBR, in New York, in the second weekend in January every year, is successful, and for a niche experiential sport, Madison Square Garden couldn't be a better place to start the year, every year.
Why MSG in January? Even with the dip in the economy, the PBR still pulls some major brands with Madison Avenue ties, from Ford to Wrangler to Cooper Tires, and the Tour needs a way to garner the major media and partner exposure that only New York can bring. Early January is very much a transition time in New York sports... football (even with the Jets in the playoffs this year) is in its last local stages, baseball's Hot Stove is taking a respite, the Knicks and Rangers are in midseason, the Olympics and NBA All-Star game are just far enough away on the calendar, and college hoops in the area are not what they once were. Families may be looking for a post-holiday event to attend that is both affordable and a bit different, and the casual sports fan is looking for some live event that is not of the norm and is a ways away from a normal trip to "The World's Most famous Arena." Then, add in the NASCAR-like appeal of the the bull riders, the spectacle and drama of the bulls and a little celebrity... this year Garth Brooks will be in town to promote the PBR and his charity... and you have an event that can actually draw attention and pull in a strong weekend crowd in a very fickle environment.
Aside from the spectacle of PBR, the fact that it is a stand-alone East Coast event for the sport, at the same time every year, can even make the weekend a destination spot for staycationers in the burbs, but also for fans of the sport from up and down the east coast and parts inland. All that works because of the consistency of the calendar, and a willing partner in Madison Square Garden. If the event moved from time to time, or if it had to go up against better weather or any host of other events in the crowded New York schedule, the event would be nowhere near as successful. Casual fans would not seek it out, or be able to circle the date with consistency. Even die hard fans would have to adjust from the rigors of daily life, and any stretch from annual consistency could spell doom.
Could the area stand two PBR events, maybe one to start the year and one to finish? Maybe, but the fact that the sport can point to this weekend for ownership for yea's on end makes for a very effective marketing, fan activation and branding tool at a time when discretionary dollars are tougher than ever.
That formula remains the best way to spell success for niche touring sports like the PBR or tennis or golf. Consistent and effective year in, year out branding and timing leads to a good churn of the casual fan and builds brand loyalty for the core follower, which translates into three days of an enthused, supportive and engaged fan, which is what all events strive to deliver in these challenging times, especially in the largest media market in the country.
So is the PBR season opener a model for branding success for niche events? By all measuring sticks for events... consistency, fan engagement, ticket sales, buzz... it would seem so. And that type of success in 2010 is certainly not bull.