Sports biz: Reviving the horse

One of the more notable tales of corporate turnaround has just been authored by Starbucks, the coffee retailer whose fortunes took a severe tumble starting in 2008 as the economy reeled, the company over-expanded and the brand persona went from hip to humdrum.

Last month Starbucks reported its net income for its first fiscal quarter rose 36 percent from a year ago, to $241 million, as same-store sales rose 4 percent, reversing a string of declines. Credit for the revival goes to CEO Howard Schultz, who reclaimed his former post two years ago in a bid to arrest the Starbucks downward spiral.

A few key ingredients in his recipe for success: Listen to customers, be honest and improve the product. Biz-school students who will be studying the Starbucks case in semesters to come will recognize these as proven remedies for brands that are in peril, which is exactly the unfamiliar state into which the Denver Broncos football franchise has fallen.

The sad statistics are piling up like so many soiled uniforms: TV ratings are down. No-shows are up. Game-day tickets, once rare, can be snapped up at face-value on Saturday afternoon with a couple of clicks from a computer mouse. And of course, the worst numbers of all, 4 and 12, sum up how far a Super Bowl team has fallen.

The biggest question Denver’s E&E (Ellis and Elway) executive team must answer isn’t which players to target for free-agent acquisition or draft-day selection, but what to do to restore the love that seems to have faded between a team and its fans.

It’s easy to identify the prime contributor to the modern malaise. The sorry record, obviously, is the overwhelming culprit. The Broncos need to win games, or at least – and this is critical from a fan psychology standpoint – present a credible possibility of winning games, Sunday after Sunday. It’s an interesting distinction. Restoring the vibe at Invesco Field doesn’t necessarily require an instant vault to a 12-4 record and a bye in week 1 of the playoffs.

If that were the case, 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams would have no prayer of filling up stadiums and selling scads of jerseys. What it requires is more nuanced than that. Fans have to find a reason to believe and to invest something of themselves emotionally. The newer of the E&E duo seems to recognize that.

“This is the first time since I’ve been here that we lost that (emotional) connection,” Elway said during a January press conference.

What else can be done, besides contending late in the fourth quarter? Methinks the Broncos already have taken a big step by hiring Elway to solve a second problem: This team has no public face. Pat Bowlen’s record as an owner willing to invest in his team is unimpeachable, but his is not the sort of persona that invites a familial bond, ala the Rooneys of Pittsburgh or even the lizard king of Dallas, Jerry Jones, whose love of the spotlight imbues his team with a Texas-sized, buck-stops-here accountability.

In a perfect world, players, and not owners, would provide the human attachment, but the rent-a-player reality of free agency and limited-duration contracts leaves fans with little that endures there. In that context, what I like most about the Elway hiring is that for the first time in a long time there is a publicly visible figure of authority in the front office.

Among his many laudable attributes as a player – ask any sports writer who covered the Broncos in the day – was Elway’s steadfast willingness to man up at the microphone with candid replies to questions, even after a wrenching loss. A similar willingness to step into the public spotlight as a decision-making executive already has helped to fill a void.

Within two weeks the guy was setting a record for most tweets by an NFL executive, and fans were lapping it up. The other reason to hope Elway can lead yet another Broncos comeback traces back to two of the Starbucks turnaround attributes: humility and honesty. For too long a sort of predictable boosterism has been the native language of the Broncos’ front office.

Elway’s admission of past mistakes is refreshing. Now if only we can talk the guy into returning the team to uniforms that really are predominately orange. .
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