Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feedback February - The Miami Dolphins

Have you ever wanted to give the Miami Dolphins a peace of your mind?

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a focus group study conducted by the team at Sun Life Stadium last night. The organization has been calling in small clusters of randomly selected season ticker holders -- 15-25 at a time -- in what it's calling Feedback February to gauge the membership experience.

Between the allure of a complimentary dinner and the opportunity to speak to the company's ticket sales top brass, how could I refuse?

Arriving at Sun Life during the off-season is an eerie experience. Park anywhere you want! The orange carpet is rolled out -- for ME!

I checked in at Gate G and was escorted up to the club level where assigned seating for three dozen participants and Dolphin reps wrapped around a projector. A catered buffet of salad, chicken parmesan, and vegetarian penne was set up off to the side. Soft drink cans and water bottles were chilling on ice, free for the taking.

We went around, introducing ourselves. Most of us were already donning the pinned badges with our names and season ticket tenure on them. I've been a season ticket holder since 1987. I'm feeling old, though I seem to be one of the younger lab rats brought in.

A brief video detailing the team's commitment to winning and enhancing the fan experience played while we wolfed down the generous meal.

I'm then called up for a special presentation. For better or worse, I became the first season ticket holder to renew this season. One of the reps had called me to tell me as such a month earlier. The team sent out the renewal notices at midnight. I was online at the time, so I went ahead and completed the process. As bad as the 2010 season ended, I was never going to be a fence-straddling fan. I was going to renew, so why wait?

I didn't realize this was ever a race, but here I was being called the Jesse Owens of season ticker holders for renewing just 10 minutes after the mass e-mails went out. In a season where the organization will be challenged to retain its base given the 1-7 home record, lousy finish, and off-season bumbling, I was somehow planting the flag. Cool! There was a sweet payoff. I was presented with a #1 jersey with my name on the back, and a nice congratulatory letter from team CEO Mike Dee.

After a group photo, the 22-23 of us were split up into three skybox suites. There would be three different focus study sessions: Food/Guest Services, Parking/Membership, Technology/Marketing. The eight of us assigned to 240A would stay in our suites as the team heads would rotate every 15 minutes.

I had a lot on my mind -- all of it constructive. If they were going to feed me -- and now even clothe me -- I was going to earn this. My brain was there for the picking. Let's go!

Food/Guest Services
An exec from Centerplate headed up our group's first powwow. With time at a premium, he quickly opened up the floor for feedback. It got off to a positive start. Two friends that have had season tickets for ages in the same section praised the quality of the food. They had even replaced tailgating some weeks with actually going in to eat at the stadium. Another participant brought up concerns over the scathing report that knocked the food prep and health violations at many of the country's leading sporting venues -- Sun Life included.

The Centerplate exec knew that was coming. He was able to go over the report, picking out some of the petty arguments raised (an oil spray bottle that wasn't labeled, so it could have been confused with a cleaner) and initiatives on others (installing instant hot water so prep attendants can wash off according to code).

Everyone else seemed generally pleased by the food, so I went ahead and tried to earn my chicken parm.

• The quality is solid, but the variety is lacking. There has to be more than hot dogs, chicken tenders, and pizza every third concession stand. At Miami Heat games I'm mowing down chicken chop-chop rice dishes, Mongolian beef noodle bowls, and BBQ pork nachos.
• There's nothing memorable being offered. There's no signature item. I want food so good and original that folks are picking up takeout on the way out! I went to a game at the Meadowlands in November and there is some real variety with dozens of local institutions serving out of carts alongside the still varied concession booths.
• The lines are too long, especially given the lowest-common denominator of food that's simple to prepare.
• Why can't I use Fanvision to order? Why isn't there mobile ordering? I know I can dodge the long lines at Chipotle by ordering from my iPhone and then proceeding to the register. Why isn't there a pick-up queue for orders placed ahead of time?

I had to emphasize the real shame in that last knock. I've seen folks leave with a minute or two left in the half -- and the Dolphins driving -- because they don't want to be in line through halftime and well into the third quarter in these long food lines. There is enough open space at Sun Life -- at least in the 100 section -- to really open up the offerings (and creating shorter lines in the process).

The exec explained that the Heat -- managed by rival Levy -- was able to drum up original high-quality eats because they built too few permanent concessions. This forced the Miami Heat to open up several standalone carts. I get that, but why can't the Dolphins do the same thing? Could it be because the Heat knows it has to be good and varied since it's right next to dozens of decent Bayside restaurants. Sun Life is only competing against itself here.

The first session ended and the second group was still tied up. This turned out to be a fatal tactical flaw, because the eight of us began talking among ourselves. While we were all generally displeased by the performance on the field, three of the eight in our group were threatening not to renew their tickets. They were upset that CEO Mike Dee, General Manager Jeff Ireland, and coach Tony Sparano weren't there.

I'm not sure what they were expecting. They wanted to vent over the frustrations of the bumbling of the Harbaugh situation, the need for a franchise QB, and the 1-7 home record. I figured this would end once the second session started, but things were just getting started.

Instead of talking about parking or the membership experience, they decided to carve out a big chunk of the 15 minutes allotted to vent. I'm not sure what they were accomplishing beyond getting a load off their chests.

"We're not talking to the people who will decide between Mark Ingram or trading up for Cam Newton in April's draft," I said at one point.

Getting back on track, they talked down the orange carpet, celebrity partners that Ross has brought on, Fins Up, and Jimmy Buffett's Fins song replacing the original anthem after every score.

These are legitimate knocks to certain extents, but they are also symptomatic. When I went to the Jets-Bengals game in New York over Thanksgiving it had the same high-energy entertainment and celebrity-pandering that we have down here. If the Dolphins were playing the theme to SpongeBob SquarePants after every score -- and we were winning -- everyone would love it.

I had issues with parking and membership, so I brought them up.

• I come in from the flyover lane to enter the orange lot, and I have to arrive earlier and earlier to games to avoid being sent off to the faraway gravel cash lots. Why is that lot taking in cash-paying customers without permits when there aren't enough spots for those who have pre-paid for the parking vouchers? The rep explained that this is the only lot that takes cash drivers for logistical reasons (it's too hard to sort them out from permit danglers coming down the ramp), but cash parkers are sent to the less appealing canal-side lot.
• I also complained about the poor policing of tailgaters. They are only supposed to take up a single allotted space, but the early birds wind up pitching charcoal grills or seating on vacant spots when there isn't enough room behind their cars. He agreed that it's a problem, but noted that the company is ultimately doing a good job. From an eagle's eye view of the lot at game time, he pointed out, I would see that every spot is occupied.
• As for traffic struggles getting out (which is the opposite for me, since I'm out of the stadium in 5-10 minutes -- getting in is the chore) I suggested having more post-game events like the Heat does with their Dewar's Club or the Marlins do with base-running for kids on Sundays.

As for the membership experience, I had an easy vent on this one. I've been a Heat season ticket holder since 2004, and I get ridiculous access for free. The previous season I was invited to a private event at Gameworks where all of the Heat players played alongside the season ticket holders. I raced NASCAR alongside Udonis Haslem and Dorrell Wright. Udonis won, by the way! I shot hoops with Carlos Arroyo. There were folks playing billiards with Michael Beasley. Toward the end of the season there was a casino night at the arena where the Heat players were manning the table games. I'm now 24 years into my tenure with the Dolphins and I have yet to be invited to a single event like the ones the Heat -- and even the Marlins -- host. I pay more for my 8 Miami games than I do for my 41 Heat games, yet I feel more a part of the Heat family because of the value they pack beyond the hardcourt.

The problem, I was told, was that the team's top brass didn't make the players accessible. Parcells was notorious for this, but if Stephen Ross is so flashy about parading Fergie, J. Lo, and the Williams sisters as partners how can he back operations that separate paying fans from meeting the players?

One of the season ticket holders in my group pointed out how a Buffalo Bills backup -- during pre-game warm-ups took out several kids onto the field to play catch during the Miami game -- and apparently does it at all games. Wow. Our organization has built this wall where the players are sheltered from folks shelling out four-figure investments every year in support. Sitting in Section 156 where the players go in and out I have noticed how the away team players are the ones throwing up most of the wristbands, caps, jerseys, etc. into the stands in recent years. Boy do I miss how Jason Taylor always heaved a ball to a kid in 156. How can Ross support this kind of emotional detachment?

Even if you're going to go skimpy on the players, what's wrong with serving us up with some former Dolphins? There's a difference between 50k Dolphins season ticket holders and 15k with the Heat but just have more events and spread them around. The Heat do this to keep events intimate.

When that Dolphins waterpark opens next summer, there better be season ticket holder appreciation days. Even if all you give us are some of the cheerleaders, Dolphin alums, and T.D., it's clear that the Fins are being schooled by the other teams in town here.

And now that the Heat's winning and the two-time World Series champion Marlins are moving into a new field, the Dolphins need to step up their game.

I was told that the Dolphins do hold about 10 VIP functions a year for season ticket holders.

"You're not talking about Nat's pre-game BBQ," I joked.

Nope. Well, now entering my 24th season I can safely say that I have never been invited to a free fan function that's exclusive for shareholders. I'm not counting the draft parties or events like that where the general public is invited (and everyone pays for food or drinks).

The final focus group session was on technology. Once again, the performance-venting took up the first half of the meeting. How does this help the IT department exactly? Why are they saying the same things they said 15 minutes earlier?

I had to get this group back on track.

• Why isn't there complimentary Wi-Fi in the stadium? If the infrastructure isn't there, why can't we do more with the Fanvision devices that do have the bandwidth for 25k units?
• What's the deal with AT&T? The moment the stadium fills up, my iPhone is dead. This is obviously a problem with AT&T and its lack of towers and repeaters, but when I can't get the viral machine going by bragging to my friends that I'm at a Fins game through Facebook or Foursquare, it becomes the team's problem. When someone can't go to a game because they fear that they'll miss a call, it becomes the team's problem. When an AT&T subscriber can't enjoy the game because they fear missing a call about a family emergency back home, it becomes the team's problem!
• Why can't we use Fanvision outside of the stadium? It can't be the outlandish to embed a Wi-Fi chip for hotspot access between games even if I have to deal with the Bud "Here We Go" vibrating ads.
• I love the Dolphins and cheerleader Facebook and Twitter status updates, but why is it that the MiamiDolphins.com page doesn't have Facebook or Twitter buttons on the every page? Every player or news page should have these buttons to get folks excited about the team, virally. The Fins are only getting one part of the social media strategy right -- and I know this from experience.

It's at this point where one of the fence-straddling fans had enough.

"Facebook," she shouted. "You're at a football game!"

There's a disconnect here. A football game is a three-hour experience. Just a third of that time is on the clock. What are you supposed to do during the other two-thirds? The lulls for television timeouts? Halftime? At any given time there are thousands of people in concession lines. If I choose to check my fantasy football score, catch up with my email, or tap into Twitter to see where the food trucks will be later that night when the networks are rattling off a half-dozen commercials, more power to me. There's only about 11-12 minutes of actual gameplay during a three hour game once you back out all of the huddling and clock watching.

I want to be entertained. I may not agree with all of the music choices. Boy, did they burn that Enrique Iglesias song to the ground this past cursed season!

I may never go to LIV, but I like that it's there for those who do go. As long as the distractions fade in time for the next snap, I dare management to over-stimulate me.

Toward the end of the final session I began to realize that the town hall meeting that some of these fans thought they were attending would never happen. If eight of us in a skybox were enough to fume this kind of discord and uncertainty about renewing, I can't imagine the team chancing hundreds of us together with Jeff Ireland and an open mic in the middle. It would be catastrophic case of flying vegan penne.

Before heading out to Sun Life, my wife -- who has patiently been part of this 24-year tenure dating back to 1987 when we were teens and dating -- suggested that I complain about the product on the field.

Maybe I'm in the minority here. I told her that if the team wanted ideas for turning its fortunes around they would have brought in two dozen retired GMs and coaches from winning programs. They invited me -- and other longtime paying fans like me -- to gauge the quality of the experience.

Last night was the third time that team had held this feedback summit. I don't know if there will be more. I don't know if we can expect to see any changes suggested implemented next season.

I still enjoyed the opportunity to dream out loud -- even while too many around me were too busy reliving a nightmare.