Teams Guarantee Playoffs - or Money back.(SPORTS)(SPORTS BIZ)

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Fisher, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

You own a professional sports team. Your club has not been to the playoffs in years. The economy continues to swoon. There is no buzz in the marketplace. What do you do?

The short answer, of course, is start winning, but that's a long-term process that sometimes can literally require decades. In the meantime, several teams have turned to the classic, time-tested sales pitch pioneered by late-night infomercials: Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.

The Atlanta Hawks, Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators this season each have made an unusual and historic step by guaranteeing playoff berths, backed by either cash rebates or credits toward season tickets next season. The Seattle Storm of the WNBA this past summer also embraced the concept for a handful of games, allowing a full refund of a single-game ticket if a fan complained of a bad experience at Key Arena stemming from anything from bad play to uncomfortable seats.

The Hawks have not made the playoffs in three seasons, the Panthers just once in five years, and the Predators never in four seasons of existence.

Far from a simple marketing gimmick, the money-back offers carry real financial consequences. The Predators, for example, will be on the hook for about $1million - representing the return of a 6 percent increase in season ticket prices - if they fail to reach the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. Nashville has started the 2002-03 season with just five points in the standings through nine games, the second worst showing in the NHL.

"We knew we needed to increase ticket prices this season," said Gerry Helper, the Predators' vice president of communications and development. "We did a survey of a season ticket base and with that increase, we were looking at about 70 percent renewal, which is low in our business. We went back and asked the same question, but with this added element of the refund, and the figure went up to 90 percent. In actuality, the renewals turned about 82-83 percent, so we definitely saved a significant portion of our business."

Atlanta faces a similar situation as the Predators. The Hawks compete in their market against a perennial baseball power in the Braves, and the NFL's Falcons this year have new and much more engaged ownership, as well as a star quarterback in Michael Vick. In recent years, the Hawks tried to rebuild their fan base with a new arena and importing young stars such as Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Nothing worked, and the team finished last year 27th in the league in average home attendance.

This year, the Hawks' 4,000 full season-ticket holders will either see a playoff team or receive a check for $125 each. …