BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Marketers have it wrong, according to Richard Luker: In a time when consumers are hunkering down in a bad economy, they yearn for the community of local events rather than the big national ones advertisers gravitate toward. And at a time when people are making and maintaining friends virtually on the internet (and marketers put more spending there), people actually need more social networking the old-fashioned way -- face to face.
As chief strategy officer of TBA Global, an event-marketing agency, Mr. Luker has a vested interest in more money for community events. But that's not the only reason he's proposing that U.S. marketers divert $30 billion of the $300 billion they spend annually on media and marketing into local events such as Minor League Baseball, small-college and high-school sporting venues and local parks. The case for that shift, to be spelled out in his book, "Simple Community," next year is that social, economic and technological factors have been making community events increasingly important -- with smaller arguably meaning better.
Why support local teams when marketers are stretching budgets and may need to allocate what spending they have to big-league sports that command the most eyeballs? "Major League Baseball, while I like it, is not about me," Mr. Luker said. "Minor League Baseball is about me and my neighbors. I can feel like I am with my community. Reality around us is saying we want and need more of that."
Mr. Luker, who has been tracking people's recreational preferences broadly for more than two decades (in 1994, he launched the ESPN Sports Poll), said one thing that's emerged from recent polls that he's never seen in the past quarter century is a backlash against conspicuous consumption and waste. "There's a general perception in the American population that corporations are less than responsible in the way they spend their money, and it is clearly unacceptable."
So Citibank owning naming rights for the new Mets stadium after getting government bailout money may not go over so well, he said, but support for community events seen as a necessary part of daily life could go over better. "I believe there is a complete misunderstanding of how to play this," Mr. Luker said. "What companies are doing is stopping any kind of investment that has to do with the gathering of people. ... That's a big mistake, because American brands I believe are going to be held accountable for the fact that they withdrew the kinds of things they provided as comfort during good times at the times people needed it the most."
Consider that while attendance for Major League Baseball was down 1.1% to 78.6 million last year, attendance was up 1.1% to 43.3 million for Minor League Baseball. Attendance rebounded to a record not seen since 1949 in 2004 and has continued setting records ever since -- despite there being only half as many Minor League teams today as in 1949.
And while the Arena Football League called off its 2009 season due to financial problems, its minor-league affiliate with 25 teams, Arena Football League 2, continues. Mr. Luker, a consultant to the latter, advised the AFL to get even more local by going with 100 teams. He's also advised the launch of an online portal by which Division II NCAA colleges can attract sponsors and events at their facilities -- DIIcommunity.com -- which he said has surged past initial estimates to attract 300,000 visitors monthly. Now he's advising the National Federation of High Schools in a similar effort to build sponsorship support for high-school sports and theater.
Crises can help
Crises may actually help, not hurt, Minor League Baseball and other largely inexpensive and highly local events, said Mr. Luker, who started tracking attitudes about recreation immediately following 9/11 and continuing through such events as the start of the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and most recently the financial collapse.
Following 9/11, strong majorities ranging from 65% to 75% of people said sporting events and sponsorships should continue as planned. "Americans care about and need times of social gathering," he said. "And it's not just sports and entertainment, but also the holiday parties at work."
Even during the Great Depression, he said, spending on recreation didn't decline, remaining at around 2% to 3% of gross domestic product. That has shot up to 5% in the past 10 years, perhaps fueled by greater need, but also financed by a lot of unsecured debt.
In fact, he sees more opportunity for marketers to step up funding of events at local parks and recreation centers, which will see budgets slashed by cash-strapped local governments in the next year. His surveys have found 31% of adults ages 18 and up typically have visited a park within the past week, and 70% have visited one within six months, creating a potentially huge audience for marketers. "Invest in the things people need and want right now," Mr. Luker said. "They'll tell the story. And when they do, they'll value you."
Moreover, he said, the virtual gathering of people in social networks is only intensifying the need for real community gathering, not supplanting it. "Kids now are able to see the whole world," he said. "It's worldwide, but it's an inch deep. And there's this pane of glass that separates them from experiencing that entire world."