Detroit Pistons want to appeal to younger fans. So they’ve assembled a council of younger fans

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons‘ in-game host grabbed the microphone.

“Before we get started, you know what I’m going to do, right?” Kev Knows (his stage name) asked 13 teenagers, who sat at tables separated by Plexiglas and maintained social distance on the second floor of the Pistons practice facility overlooking the basketball court downtown Detroit on Monday.

Silence.

“DEEE-troit!” he said in his best John Mason impersonation. He paused and waited for a response.

Crickets.

Maybe, the teenagers were just being timid. Or maybe, many didn’t know Mason’s famous chant.

Finally, one answered.

“Basketball,” Zackary Melyncheck, a 16-year-old from Lake Fenton, replied hesitantly.

Maybe, that’s the root of the issue.

Does the next generation know about the Pistons, their history and traditions? Do they feel connected to what this organization is doing in the community? What can the Pistons do better to engage them? What kind of merchandise would be more appealing to them?

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They are critical questions because these teenagers represent the future — future season ticket holders, future TV viewers and, most importantly of all, potential lifelong fans.

“Oh, no, no, no,” the in-game host said. “Hold on. That’s the right word. I need everybody to say it. I need y’all to say it the way it’s supposed to be said.”

So he did it again.

Only louder.

“DEEE-TROIT!” he said.

“BASKET-BALL!” the students replied.

The students are members of the organization’s inaugural youth council. It’s part focus group, part advisory board. And the Pistons believe it’s never been done before in the NBA. More than 70 students from around metro Detroit applied for the gig. After a selection process that included interviews with the Pistons management team, 13 were selected.

“Listen, you’re all here for one reason, and one reason only,” Kev said. “That is because we have selected some of the greatest, most talented, most professional, young leaders that this world has to offer. You are not only the future, but you all are the present. This is the first time in the history of the organization that we’ve created a youth council. You are kicking this thing off. That’s exciting. That’s amazing.”

It is such a cool, smart idea on so many levels.

Bring together a group of kids, pick their brains and find out what the Pistons are doing right in the community.

And what they are doing wrong.

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The future is now

Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.

It’s easy to fall in love with a sports team when it’s winning. To feel connected to the ’68 Tigers. Or the ’84 Tigers. Or the Bad Boys Pistons. Or the Hockey Gods Red Wings. Or the Goin’ to Work Pistons. And the, um, well, I’m sure this town would go crazy if the Lions ever won again.

But the Pistons, Red Wings, Lions and Tigers are all stuck in the same place, losing far more than they win, with little to get excited about other than prospects and draft picks.

But all of that rebuilding misery comes with an unseen danger: Are they losing a generation of fans?

The Pistons don’t want to wait to find out. They are trying to attract a younger crowd, implementing a new marketing plan and have tweaked their merchandise to appeal to the younger set.

In essence, they are trying to grab these fans before somebody steals them — another NBA team, or another sport.

But are the Pistons doing the right things? Does their social media presence attract youngsters or bore them? The Pistons hold all kinds of community events, trying to create connections in the Motor City, but are they the right events? To cultivate a lifelong fan? Even when they aren’t winning titles?

“We’ve had some new people come into the organization in our marketing and our creative team,” said Chris Economeas, the Pistons’ manager of community & social responsibility. “We want the Pistons, the name the Detroit Pistons, to be meaningful, whether we’re winning championships or not. We want the Pistons to be like, Hey, man, the Pistons are really doing some cool things. And I think we’re accomplishing that.”

This youth council is a melting pot of diversity. Boys and girls. City and suburbs. White and Black.

Some are Pistons fans and others not really.

“It’s important to make sure that kids have a voice and a seat at the table,” said Erika Swilley, the team’s vice president of community & social responsibility. “Kids never get that. We’re doing so many programs that are geared towards youth. We’re doing a lot of marketing and branding geared towards youth. And so who better to kind of weigh in on what we’re trying to do than the youth themselves?’

The Pistons plan to run just about everything by these teenagers: their community outreach plans, social media strategies, youth marketing campaigns and merchandising ideas. Shoot, maybe these kids can come up with a ticketing plan that appeals to teenagers.

“We plan on putting these kids in front of everybody in the organization,” Economeas said.

On the court, the Pistons have built a young core of players with some intriguing young pieces.

And the organization wants young people from around the area to feel connected with this new Pistons team, to make this their team and grow with them.

Chance to make a change

I was invited to watch the first youth council meeting on Monday night, as a fly on the wall in the back of the room.

And I have one thought: these kids are incredibly smart and socially conscious.

“I wanted to be involved because I know that there’s a chance for us to make change here,” said De’Shawn O’Banner, 16, from Ypsilanti Community High School.

The Pistons have a fantastic community outreach program. They are trying to weave this organization into the fabric of Detroit by doing everything from holding a basketball academy to supporting small businesses to trying to inspire social justice.

When you think of Detroit, they want you to think of the Pistons.

“There’s not that many opportunities to make change in my city, so it was something I had to jump on,” said Victoria Wilson, 16, who goes to Detroit Cass Tech. “Now that it seems like the world is getting involved, it feels like it’s my turn to like actually speak up and try to help.”

She is not much of a basketball fan, but she likes the Pistons.

“They’ve been a huge staple in my household since I was little,” she said. “My stepdad is an avid basketball Pistons fan, so they’ve just been a huge part of my growing up.”

Going to the source

At some point, they will rotate in new kids.

“We want to hear from our youth,” Economeas said. “We want to know what they find engaging, we want to know what they think is cool.”

Because getting some adults in the room, trying to figure out what kids want, just doesn’t work.

The kids have to have a seat at the table.

Or a connection on the same app.

“Do you have Instagram?” one student asked Economeas.

And everybody laughed.

Well, that’s a start.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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