MEET THE FASTEST FIVE-FOOTER IN THE NBA
Nolan D. Archibald had had it. When the chairman and CEO of Black & Decker Corp. in Towson, Md., heard last spring that Washington Bullets season-ticket prices for 1994-95 would leap 30%, he called Bullets President Susan O'Malley to say he was considering canceling his company's order. It wasn't as if Black & Decker would be getting more for its money: The team hadn't made the playoffs since 1988 and was headed for the cellar again this year.
Then O'Malley went to work. She called Archibald repeatedly, begging him to hang on for one more season. A turnaround, she promised, was at hand. Archibald had heard all that before, but O'Malley just wore him down. "If it hadn't been for Susan," he says, "we wouldn't have hung in there."
"BOOBY PRIZES." For O'Malley, such intense nurturing of ticketholders, combined with savvy marketing, has had a huge payoff: soaring attendance. And she is confident her stats will only improve. In November, the skinflint Bullets shelled out millions to sign young basketball sensations Juwan Howard and Chris Webber. Bullets owner Abe Pollin followed that coup by announcing on Dec. 28 that he would finance a new 23,000-seat arena in downtown Washington. If the planned move from the 18,750-seat USAir Arena in suburban Landover, Md., goes through, O'Malley may have a financial alley-oop: a hot team and a spanking new facility to serve as draws.
The 33-year-old Bullets president hardly looks the part of the highest-ranking female sports exec who wasn't bequeathed her post. She sometimes is mistaken for a basketball groupie when traveling with the team. "People never expect to see a five-foot-tall woman walk in and represent a basketball team," says O'Malley, a sailing buff who lives in Annapolis, Md.
And they probably don't expect anyone this candid: O'Malley readily concedes that family connections helped her get where she is. After a three-year stint with a Maryland ad agency, she applied in 1986 for an advertising post with the Bullets. Pollin, the team's owner, who also controls the Washington Capitals hockey team and USAir Arena, is a close friend of O'Malley's father, Peter. Pollin and the senior O'Malley, who was president of the Caps in the 1970s, deny they knew Susan was applying for the job, but she harbors no illusions. "I got the job because my father was good friends with Abe Pollin," she says. "But I like to think I moved up the ladder because of my accomplishments."
They've been impressive. When O'Malley was tapped to run the franchise's business operations in 1989, the Bullets were struggling on and off the court. Former Bullet Kevin M. Grevey recalls that when he donated some team tickets to a charity golf tournament a few years ago, "people were joking they were booby prizes."
STOKING SELLOUTS. O'Malley moved quickly to shore up fan support. The result of her efforts: Renewals by season ticketholders have averaged 90% in the past five years, vs. 61% when she took over.
She also has stoked demand with shrewd marketing ploys. For years, laggard teams used giveaways and other promotions to boost attendance at games against other also-rans. But O'Malley decided that promoting games against high-profile teams could make them sellouts. As the Bullets racked up more sellouts, fans were encouraged to buy 10-packs--tickets for the most popular 10 games of the season--to avoid missing the big ones. The sellouts prompt others to spring for season tickets. Promoting already popular matchups "went against the grain in the NBA," says Detroit Pistons CEO Tom Wilson. "But it's been copied throughout the league."
According to NBA sources, the Bullets lost about $4 million in the 1987-1988 season before O'Malley took over. This season, the team should earn about $1.5 million on revenues of about $33 million. In September, Pollin gave O'Malley responsibility for sponsorship and promotion for his entire sports organization.
For lasting success, however, O'Malley needs a winning team. That's why the Bullets signed rookie Howard to a $41 million, 12-year contract. The team also inked a $2.1 million, one-year pact with Webber, who won rookie-of-the-year honors as a Golden State Warrior last year. While the Bullets' record remains dismal--and a serious injury to Webber on Dec. 22 may delay the turnaround--the team is playing with unaccustomed flair. "They're a much more exciting team to watch now," says Black & Decker's
Archibald. But until the Bullets really catch fire on the court, O'Malley will need to keep doing what she does so well: fanning the flames from the sidelines.By Amy Barrett in Landover, Md.