On a Wednesday night in December at Halas Hall, the Chicago Bears' Lake Forest headquarters, spec samples of playoff tickets were passed around among a select group of season-ticketholders, invited by the team's marketing department to offer feedback at regular meetings. If the team defeated archrival Green Bay four days later, the tickets were to be sent out within a week.
Needless to say, they were never mailed.
As all of Bears-dom knows all too well, a 7-1 start in 2012 became a 10-6 finish, and the Bears failed to make the playoffs set to begin this weekend. Lovie Smith was axed as head coach because, as General Manager Phil Emery explained, "We have to make the playoffs on a consistent basis."
In sports — as in business, if that's not redundant — no one can afford to sit on a lead.
And Emery's message can't be stated too often or too emphatically for the benefit of those outside the organization as well as inside. No matter what a star linebacker might say in a fit of pique, the customer must be assured of the quality of the product, or the brand connected with it will suffer.
That's why Smith had to go. That's why the ticketholder advisory board was brought in to help address other aspects of fan interaction. It's as much about consumer confidence as anything else.
"We are very focused, clearly, on trying to be better on the field — that's Phil's job — and I'm very focused on how we make (fans) feel valued in every way possible, separate from wins and losses," Chris Hibbs, the Bears' vice president of sales and marketing whose initiatives included launching the advisory board in 2011, said Friday.
The Bears, and the National Football League, are acutely aware that for all the popularity they now enjoy, corrosive factors are always at play. Baseball once was the national pastime. Pro bowling was among the top-rated sports on TV. People flew Pan Am, listened to E.F. Hutton and snapped Kodak pictures too.
"When I (became) commissioner and addressed the ownership, the first thing I said to them was our No. 1 challenge is to not become complacent," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told The Economic Club of Chicago. "Just because we've been successful doesn't mean we'll continue to be successful.
"This last March I put a number of (once-successful) companies on a board and said, 'These companies don't exist anymore.' So you cannot assume success is going to continue. I like to look at it as: You may be No. 1, but you better act like you're No. 2."
No one who has heard Goodell speak would ever confuse his dry recitation with that of a coach rallying the players at halftime. His point, however, has an inspirational pull of its own, even among a collective in which all 32 franchises split billions of dollars in national television money regardless of win, lose or market size.
"Some of this, I wonder what the point is. I've had my tickets for 30 years, some up and some down, and I'm not going to give them up," said Jim Tancula, a Chicago lawyer who is a member of the Bears' ticketholder panel. "You know what's most important to us. It's the thing we have no input on."
The Bears have a consecutive-game sellout streak that dates to 1984, although that includes a few last-minute buys by those eager to avoid a potential TV blackout and thousands of returned tickets during the "spare Bears" labor dispute of 1987.
They have a season-ticket waiting list that the team said is 7,523 names long. That translates to $100 deposits for each of more than 21,000 seats most prospective buyers are unlikely to land for years, thanks to the churn of only a few hundred accounts each year.
On average, a little more than 1 million Chicago households, or 52 percent of all those watching TV, tuned in to Bears games this season. That number is flat over the last three seasons, but nationally, while the NFL remains the most popular TV sports attraction, the league's TV ratings are down for a second successive regular season.
And the very popularity of the NFL on TV poses a danger to the sport in that it's feared the always improving home-viewing experience may lessen the appeal of fans paying to attend a game. Goodell recounted his beer freezing at a Bears-Packers game.
"The NFL has been a marketing dynamo in recent years in cultivating females, ethnic groups and younger viewers with fantasy leagues," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media, even as he noted the ratings decline. "It may be that the ratings have been impacted by gravity. This has happened before and they were able to overcome it. … That said, any scripted program would love to have the audience profile of the NFL."
Then there's the specter of an increasingly devastating accrual of research showing the long-term effects of head trauma, which has those connected with football at all levels scrambling to make safer a sport beloved for its hard hits.
Resulting calls for changes in officiating, attitudes and policy have those on the field sometimes uncertain how their game should be played and, those watching, sometimes uncertain how comfortable they should feel.
So the NFL selling machine chugs on.
Tancula and other board members, male and female across demographics, say they were won over to an unexpected degree when Bears Chairman George McCaskey at their very first meeting — much like Emery at his Tuesday news conference — stressed the aim of winning championships.
"It was good to hear … that really was the goal because, let's be honest, the family doesn't have the best reputation," Tancula said.
Even in a long-standing marriage — and I confess to being a third-generation Bears ticketholder, though not a member of Hibbs' panel — a spouse can ill afford to take the other for granted.
It's always nice to get something special in the mail at Christmastime. It shouldn't be too much to expect playoff tickets.