I’ve been watching the N.B.A. a lot lately, and not just because the playoffs are going on and I’m a huge basketball fan. I’m also watching the N.B.A. as a league, which is, like many businesses, struggling right now. I’ve noticed over the past year that the N.B.A. and art museums actually have a lot in common, in particular the fact that they both rely on similar membership models: museums have their dues-paying members, and the N.B.A. has its season ticket holders. I think with regards to the development/membership work that I do, there’s a lot to be learned from for-profit businesses that use similar models. I’ve found inspiration in some of the things N.B.A. teams do to acquire and retain their “members” in a tough economy, and I think some of the tactics they’ve used to attract season ticket holders could make sense for us here in Brooklyn too.
If you’re asking, “Wait, how are N.B.A. teams and museums alike, again?” I’ll explain. In the big picture, the N.B.A. has its franchises as the U.S. has its museums: one in every major U.S. city. Museums and N.B.A. teams both inhabit large, instantly identifiable structures that provoke civic pride (for the most part) among locals. Museums and N.B.A. teams both have their star players (either signature works or exhibitions that draw people in), and N.B.A. teams-like membership departments–use those stars in hopes of convincing their fans that the entire experience (collection) is worth a yearly donation. Like the roster of an N.B.A. team, some exhibitions are created internally by curators using the museum’s own collection (or “drafted”) and some are brought in from other cities (“traded”). Like N.B.A. teams, museums have their coaches (directors) and owners (trustees), and-at least in NYC-media that dedicate staff to covering and analyzing the moves they make.
More relevant to my work is the concept of season ticket holders, which are the N.B.A.’s version of museum members. The reason this comparison works especially well is because the N.B.A. and museums both charge money for a product that is inherently fleeting and difficult to quantify: the experience of viewing art and the experience of viewing a basketball game are something to which value is arbitrarily assigned. Since that’s the case, museums and N.B.A. teams are especially grateful to those who care enough to support the team/institution financially, and in this tough economy 27 of the 30 N.B.A. teams have decided not to increase the price of season ticket packages for next year. I can’t think of one museum in the U.S. that is raising membership dues next year, either.
Like museums, N.B.A. teams offer their members a several additional benefits (besides free admission). In addition to free parking, discounts on food and merchandise, and ticket holder cards (our members here at the Brooklyn Museum receive those benefits as well), N.B.A. teams offer and do a lot on their websites that I think we can learn from here in Brooklyn. The Minnesota Timberwolves send game day notes via email to their season ticket holders (wouldn’t it be cool to send a summary of exhibitions to members the day they visited?). The Sacramento Kings announce season ticket holders names on the big screen when it’s their birthday (we have rolling LCD screens in our lobby that might work for that). If the Chicago Bulls allow their season ticket holders to come to a Bulls practice, couldn’t we potentially allow our members to watch a conservator restore a painting? Our hometown New York Knicks even customize their season ticket holder benefits based on what type of fan you are (“Lifer, Family, or Executive“), and the New Jersey Nets put their own spin on our museum’s reciprocal Membership program by offering their season ticket holders free N.H.L. tickets whenever they’re in Florida. N.B.A. teams also capitalize on the excitement of their games to make the idea of season tickets seem equally exciting (as seen in this spectacular 76ers video). There’s no reason, in my opinion, that museum membership can’t be just as exciting a prospect as owning season tickets.
I’m not saying that we’re going to implement any of these benefits right away, or that museums should follow the N.B.A. model since our missions and goals are different as non-profit and for-profit institutions. However, what does seem evident is that now is the time to get creative with membership benefits. Brooklyn Museum Members are our season ticket holders, and they hold a stake in the future of our institution. I am determined to make sure that our membership benefits continue to make each season more exciting than the last.
Will Cary was the Brooklyn Museum's Membership Manager from January 2008 to May 2010. In addition to making sure all Brooklyn Museum Members got the most out of their Membership, he also developed the 1stfans Membership program in order to grow the Museum’s community of supporters. Before joining the Brooklyn Museum in January 2008, Will worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Will graduated from Williams College with a degree in Art History and Economics. Will now works in Membership at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine.