It’s been too long since you’ve heard from us. Many of you—artists, event organizers, and ticket buyers—have emailed us seeking refunds, payments, and answers, and we haven’t replied. We’re sorry. You deserve better, and we are committed to doing better. We are committed to being more open and timely in communicating what we know. Here’s
Opening a roller derby business is an exciting, adventurous and potentially dangerous idea. How would I know? I acted on it in 2007 with Flyin’ Squirrel, a novelty t-shirt company. Flyin’ Squirrel closed in 2010 after one of the worst economic crashes in U.S. history.
Exciting and adventurous? Yes. Confidence boosting? Absolutely. I still have the equipment, the know-how and am smarter because of Flyin’ Squirrel. However, unlike playing derby, running a business isn’t something you can jump into with only excitement as your fuel.
The economy improved and so has the success rate of small businesses in the U.S. Fifteen to twenty years ago, only 5-to-10% of small businesses lasted five years. In 2012, approximately 50% of small businesses made it that long. It could be attributed to the popularity of online shopping and various distribution options available for online businesses. A store can sell online with much lower overhead. A creative marketing campaign can have a tremendous impact through social media.
I’ve selected five pitfalls most applicable to derby business from Patricia Schaefer’s article: “The Seven Pitfalls of Business Failure and How to Avoid Them,” which nicely summarizes known start-up issues. I added a few tips from my experience.
1. Starting a Business for the Wrong Reasons
Wrong reasons include: making big money, having more time for yourself and your family or being your own boss.
Unless your product is truly unique, highly technological, has a high profit margin and dollar amount or can be marketed beyond roller derby, don’t expect riches to rain upon you.
A reasonable living or part-time income is more realistic. Furthermore, running your own business is more work than most realize. Design, development, production, order management, fulfillment, accounting, marketing and even employee management is what you’ll face. Don’t go it alone.
2. Poor Management
Poor management is often listed in reports as a leading cause of small business failure. It’s also one of the top reasons people leave their jobs. If you’re not a “people person,” hire someone who is. Sales, customer retention and employee relations depend on it. Good managers know how to reinvent stagnant business, create a positive image of the company and keep competent employees.
3. Insufficient Capital
Remember, it’s not just the cost of getting started; it’s the ability to fund everything for at least a few years. Most businesses aren’t profitable immediately and you need to plan for that. You cannot mix funds for the business with money you need to maintain for living expenses. It’s one thing to close your company and another to jeopardize your everyday life.
4. Location, Location, Location
Depending on the type of business and its structure, location can have a heavy hand in your success. Oftentimes, skate sales are required to connect to a brick and mortar store before they can be distributed online. That said, you shouldn’t open traditional retail shop just so you can start selling online.
• Customer location
• Location of competitors
• Building’s condition
• Area incentive programs for start-up businesses
• The history and community receptiveness to a new business
5. Lack of Planning
Roller derby requires a lot of planning. Though leagues vary on their planning abilities, it’s far from a new concept. Planning is the core of a successful business or league.
Business plan components:
• Goals, mission, vision
• Number of people (employees) to make it work
• Identification of potential problems and their solutions
• Financial analysis
• Competitive analysis
• Marketing and promotional campaigns
• Budget and growth management
• Design of marketing and promotional campaigns
I personally experienced these last 3 pitfalls with my derby business. They are not referenced in Schaefer’s article.
6. Trying to be More Than You Can
I suffered from too-many-good-ideas-at-once syndrome. Not only did I want to sell merchandise online, I wanted to help others sell unique items, post stories about my many trips across the U.S., and try to push forward charities related to derby leagues.
I spent too much time developing material that grew outdated quickly. I should have focused on my business plan to design and sell reasonably priced t-shirts. Instead, I buried myself in projects.
I knew just enough about web sites and coding to be dangerous. The more I learned, the flashier I tried to make the site. Too much time (again) with little payoff. A nice, clean site with easy navigation and payment tools is all you need. Having someone to update prices and prices, or give it a fresh look every year or so takes a big part of the work off your hands.
8. Selling Merch at Far-Away Events
Of course, this totally depends on what type of products you sell. It might work for you if your product is not high-margin or you’re able to take orders and don’t have to provide the product on site.
Most are not moneymakers. If you decide to sell merchandise at an event you have to fly to, consider costs involved:
• Table(s) for your booth
• Shipping merchandise to and from the event
• Flight, hotel and food
In the U.S., with the exception of the top three or four most-attended events, you will likely lose money or break even at best. That might be perfectly fine, if the contacts you make and product exposure pay dividends later on. Let’s do the math: $500 for one table, plus a $650 flight, $90 a night (4 nights) and $200 in shipping would be $1710. That doesn’t even include food. And this is a low estimate, as table fees have probably climbed.
It might be better to attend events close to home with your merchandise. If you can drive and return home at night, the cost equation changes dramatically.
New Derby Project
I wanted to take a moment and recognize an important derby project. Neil Gunner, a derby photographer in the Toronto area released a book of derby photos and stories. Preview the book, Into Battle: The Roller Derby Experience in Photos and Interviews.
I’m honored to be in the book, but that’s not why I mention it. I love Toronto Roller Derby and so I offered Neil help with marketing advice. In particular, my ticket blitzing strategy, where coordinated blasts on social media multiply ticket sales.
In Neil’s words: “Bob’s plan for ensuring that multiple people share the same post on the same day across social media was directly responsible for increasing awareness far beyond what I would have been able to accomplish otherwise. Needless to say, it was a pleasure to be able to include Bob in the book. The book itself owes its success in large part to Bob as well. The marketing ideas Bob has shared with me, developed as part of his role as a Doer, have proved invaluable in spreading the word and generating both interest and sales.”
Eh, sometimes I know what I’m talking about.
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One exception: the holidays. I don’t care if November through December has terrific weather in your area, the holiday season is the best time to make money, raise funds and promote your league.
“Really Bob? Everyone is running around with holiday parties to attend, family functions and shopping to do. Where does roller derby fit?”
1. Don’t Go Without an Event During November or December
I understand you’re skeptical. But consumers spend more money during the holidays. Lots of money. How much?
Enough that retail stores live or die by their fourth-quarter results: sales and profits October through December. In the U.S., holiday sales of consumer goods are as high as 40% (dollar value of annual consumer purchases). And you wonder why retail managers develop nervous ticks. As a retail manager, I recall a single day our department store was to make (raise pinky, make Dr. Evil face): one million dollars. Today, that same store probably projects seven days with sales that high.
Chalk it up to holiday cheer. Remember, you are a business and need to make money. Is that what derby is about? Of course not. Yet as we hear continual stories of leagues in financial trouble, we know money can bring security, keep skater costs low and the league can increase charity contributions if it does well. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy profit.
“Seriously Bob, with the parties, family gatherings and shopping, how would we draw a crowd?”
Don’t let the grinches fool you. You would be surprised how attendance for the arts, professional sporting events, concerts and even alternative sports thrive during the holidays.
Two personal examples:
Twice in my son’s 14 years (good lookin’ like his dad; smart too), the man in red surprised him with event tickets as his main gift. Did he feel slighted? Nope. We had a blast. Last year, the boy wonder’s gift was trip to Minneapolis to see Nitro Circus at the Target Center. This three-hour show featured 50 X-Game professionals and many performing tricks. Best gift ever.
Nitro Circus changed my view on how showmanship, announcing, and production planning can propel an alternative sport from a mall performance to attracting enough people to fill an entire arena. The thrill of the atmosphere turned the audience into immediate fans. Patience, smart marketing and well-executed promotion can accomplish anything. The most interesting part?
It was planned and practiced about three years before it was brought to the U.S. They shot for the long run and it paid off. The shows were sold out worldwide in 2014 and already selling for 2015.
Patience could be 18 months of recruiting, training, business planning and networking within the community before ever skating a public game. What do you think the odds are of long-term survival between a league who practices patience and one whose first game is five months after forming? Who’s to say derby wouldn’t attract large crowds if planning was better? It used to. Derby once sold out Chicago’s old Comiskey Park. Over 50,000 fans.
2. Create a Fun Holiday Game
Derby can achieve success all the way into mid-December. And who’s to say a New Year’s Eve game and after-party won’t work?
A holiday game is a nice start. It could be the first home game scheduled or an exhibition game. Exhibition games, with amusing themes carried through in all of the little details are a blast.
I worked a handful of these. The theme dictated the entire production. Teams created boutfits for the event and had names related to the holidays, with a twist: Sugar Plum Scaries for example. Yeah, it was kind of a warped twist, but a fun one. In one instance, each skater created a name just for that night. An announcer’s dream (sarcasm alert).
Money flows during the holiday months. So consider what a game during this time could mean to the league. Then do what’s necessary so both skaters and the fans have a blast. Do some silly things with penalties, change the rules you don’t like (it’s not sanctioned) and win over some new fans.
3. Remember, it’s the Most Wonderful Time of Year…for Selling Tickets and Merchandise
The gate is always important, but less so for a holiday event. Gauge ticket sales and give as many tickets away as you near the date. Why? They will spend money.
Again, the holidays have people in a buying mood and it’s not just for others. If properly planned for, it could be a boon for merchandise, season passes and you’ll love this: a single game ticket voucher.
Every league I know who has instituted the single game voucher has had success. Why wouldn’t they? Season passes sell during the holidays, but the one receiving the pass must either be at the game or know the recipient has a derby habit. I noticed leagues almost getting the idea by offering advance sales for specific dates.
Most people don’t have any idea what game-dates the recipient can attend. Make it easy. It’s simply a ticket good for one admittance to one game during the specific home season. Amazing stocking stuffers. Have them on hand and make sure announcers mention them a thousand times.
Better yet, sell them cheaper than usual game tickets. Why? Many of them will never get used. A sizeable portion of vouchers will get lost, forgotten, so sell more of them. Sell them online too. Use ticket blitzing to push sales. If you use Brown Paper Tickets, call our Client Services department who can help you create these.
League shirts are always important, but make sure you have plenty of standard merchandise inventory, dig out any outdated merchandise, mark it down, separate it from the new stuff, and use your creativity from there. Create a “Stocking Stuffer” section at the merchandise area. I’ve seen league craft clubs make a killing on handmade, one-of-a-kind things with or without the league logo.
Don’t forget kids. Though kids clothing is not always an easy sell and the range of sizes is a real investment, look through sites selling promotional items and find kid-friendly merchandise. There are a million different, inexpensive things you can have made with the league name on it. Never forget your profit margin goals. Choose items that will handle a healthy markup. Kids rule how parents spend money; so make them happy with cool, age-appropriate goodies. A multi-pack of team pins and stickers is perfect for kids and adults.
4. Don’t Take the Holidays Off from Public Appearances
“Well, everyone wanted the time away so we’re taking November and December off. We all need the break.” Yes, you do. Everyone deserves a break, but one or two league commitments during that time isn’t much to ask.
Think about it. Every mall is looking for groups to wrap gifts. Fill a few shifts and have girls in their boutfits. Hundreds, maybe a thousand people, in larger malls, could be easily exposed to the league. Bring schedules if your season starts shortly after the New Year. Go caroling in subdivisions where the fan base is low.
Don’t forget local holiday parades, various charities or supervising a toy drive or giving tree. If you work with a charity, promote it. These activities could produce interviews on TV, photos in the local newspaper or promotion on the radio. The closer the league is to the community, the more success you will always have.
5. Have a Happy Holiday Season with Family and Your Derby Family
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Roller derby is not a hobby; it is a lifestyle. We all know this to be true. Though this blog may sound like I’m a proponent of a never-ending season, that’s hardly the case. I get it. I know the time commitment. My balancing act between derby and my family commitment outside of the sport isn’t easy.
That said, I have a derby family too. You can do fun parties and activities with your derby family while maximizing your holiday marketing efforts.
November and December is my down time as well, yet I help the league take advantage of what the season provides us. Those holiday derby events and functions account for many of my favorite moments. So make it memorable, enjoy each other and if everyone helps a little, you end one year with setting up a better next year.
Peace, love and wheel grease.
Photo credit (1st photo): Papa RazziEvent Tips >
This blog is not self-indulgent nor written to over-justify the role of announcing. It’s to dispel the myth that announcing isn’t all that important. I am going to tell you how a lack of good announcers can hurt your league, what good announcing looks like, why “borrowing” announcers isn’t the solution and one way to try out announcers.
What Happens When You Don’t Develop Announcing
A heck of a lot. Six things that could happen if your announcers are underdeveloped or do a poor job:
1. The crowd disconnects from the game. Announcers connect the game to the crowd. Don’t downplay this idea. If you do, please ask someone to kick you. Kicking yourself is totally ineffective. I’ve tried. Takes balance. Doesn’t leave a mark. ‘Nuff said.
2. Nobody knows who you are. The crowd may not know your name or it may be pronounced incorrectly, enunciated poorly, or purposefully “played on” all night. For example, imagine the horror of fans yelling, “Lyin’ Fart” instead of “Lyin’ Heart.” And heaven forbid if the league’s name is never mentioned.
3. The game remains a mystery. The crowd has no idea what’s going on.
4. Spectators will not return. If spectators leave not knowing anything about the game, league or skaters, odds are they’ll never return. Spectators are one-timers while fans come back. Sure, you get their money once, just not twice. Spectator and fan retention is at an all-time low.
5. Long-time fans leave. A change to less-developed or less-known announcers could alienate long-time fans.
6. Sponsors will not renew. Let’s just say, solely as an example, your sponsors never hear their names (I know, that never happens). Worse yet, the name was pronounced incorrectly or used as part of a “harmless” comment. (Now I’m swinging with full sarcasm.) But it’s important. You lose revenue and the goodwill of a local business.
“Bob, What IS Good Announcing?”
I’ll forever feel strongly about my time with the Mad Rollin’ Dolls, ten years go. Our co-founder understood the importance of announcing. The league absorbed Baam Baam, my highly esteemed co-announcer and me. We had roles within committees and league operations open to us, and I loved it.
Based on my routines and ideas adapted from announcers all over the world, here are three ways I define good announcers:
1. They come prepared. It takes me 8 hours to prepare for Brewcity league night. I compile all the information into one document with everything in the evening’s timeline. Rosters, order of introduction, the charity (including what they represent), team records, standout statistics on skaters, every sponsor (with reads, not just names), names of staff, the entertainment for all three halftimes, upcoming games and appearances. I also add news regarding the travel teams, groups in attendance, anyone we should thank and even the name of our national anthem performer.
Having all this prepared and in order of flow means Doc (my co-announcer) and I rarely miss anything.
2. Good announcers not only know rules, they know the officials’ hand signals. Every announcer should know these. They can be found as rules appendix at the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Knowing the signals allows announcers to explain the infraction.
3. Great announcers explain the game. There is so much focus on explaining what skaters can’t do (fouls), it can overshadow explaining the game. Explaining the game can be done without coaching from the mic. Early on, announcers were hounded about knowing skater names, rules and penalties. I realized we were leaving out why the skaters did certain things: basic dynamics and strategy. Since then, most of the compliments I receive from fans go something like this, “I learned so much about the game.”
Announcers with great emcee skills own the crowd. By pitching what’s next, keeping excitement levels high and entertaining the crowd, people are less likely to leave early and more likely to return. Plus, they always push merchandise, another under-utilized profit center I’ll cover in an upcoming post.
How Announcers Learn the Game
If you close practice to your announcers, how on earth do you expect them to reach their potential? It’s impossible. An announcer’s ability to learn the game relies on the league. I’ll defer, again, to the Mad Rollin’ Dolls who gave me total access to practice. In fact, coaches allowed us to step onto the track as they were teaching skating techniques, moves and strategy. I would never have known nor continue to dig into the game if not for that experience.
“Bob, we solved the issue. We borrowed good announcers from up the road.”
Here’s where criticize my own. Most dedicated announcers work for too many leagues. They love it, find more opportunities and hone their skills. So why am I being critical? It’s OK for a while, but it hurts the growth of the overall announcing pool. They take the place of others who should be developed. Eleven years later, I bet the sport still does not have enough accomplished announcers to permanently staff half its leagues.
Borrowed announcers are not yours. An announcer’s home league takes priority. If your game conflicts with the home league, you’re stuck.
Worse, after years of travel, many burn out and stop. Remember, they don’t have a travel budget either. They love you; you show them more appreciation than their home league, who is used to their excellent self (yes, that’s a “Bill and Ted” reference), but you will wind up back at square one.
My rules? I only do events for my home league (Brewcity in Milwaukee), and will help Madison on occasion (my first league and in my backyard). Otherwise, I will only announce for a league if it’s their first-ever bout or if they have dedicated announcers to train. I will arrive early and talk about roles, bring them training materials, work with them that night and be available to mentor at any time. This way, I’ve fixed the issue, not contributed to the problem.
Finding Permanent Announcers
One of the more popular ways is to get the league together for a night at a sponsor bar. Bring in a DVD of a recent bout and give every applicant a set number of minutes, or jams, to call the action as they see it. It’s not about accuracy; it’s about how quickly they think on their feet. Hand them some sponsor reads to throw in between jams. You can teach them the game later; just make sure they have the skill and personality first.
Make sure every new announcer understands the rules. Download the WFTDA/MRDA rule set. The Association of Flat Track Derby Announcers (AFTDA) also has some helpful material, including the official Announcer’s Handbook (an invaluable resource), which can be downloaded from the front page. It provides an expected code of conduct, and the forums are a great place to learn of upcoming events, to ask questions and keep up with derby changes. They also certify announcers, a requirement to work major WFTDA events.
If questions go beyond that, simply contact me at bob [at] brownpapertickets.com
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“Bob, we use social media all.the.time. And nothing happens.”
I don’t doubt it. But when it comes to social media, it’s not how much you use it. It’s how well you use it.
Common Issues with Leagues and Social Media
-Posting upcoming games is inconsistent.
-There isn’t a link to the ticket sales page.
-You spread the word using only the league’s social media.
Online Sales aren’t Gravy; They’re Meat and Potatoes
“Bob, who cares where ticket sales come from? Online sales are just the gravy on top compared to sales by skaters.”
You can market your event or you can market tickets to your event. Marketing a derby game is like farting into the wind and hoping someone takes notice. Fliers vanish or become unnoticeable. Money spent on late night radio and TV spots has marginal effect. Plus, these efforts don’t provide data for future marketing.
Marketing tickets is totally different. There is a focus on funneling customers right to the “cash register” (purchase page). The goal is measurable and you have data to pinpoint the strongest and weakest geographical areas for ticket sales. Using that knowledge, you can adjust marketing and social media efforts leading up to the event.
Social Media isn’t Over
Don’t put a fork in social media just yet; it’s far from over. Sure Facebook usage purportedly dropped 25%, but that is because of teens moving to Snapchat. Twitter continues to thrive.
Most leagues post to Facebook and Twitter once or twice to promote upcoming games. Fans don’t see this. And what is more compelling? League social media accounts or those of skaters and staff? Skaters and staff are more personable and viable “friends” to sell tickets.
Keep in mind that both Facebook and Twitter promote trending topics. If 50 members of your league post the same Facebook message and ticketing link on the same day, your overlapping friend circle will see the post prominently positioned in their feeds. Maybe those friends share the post to their friends. Use hashtags to target interested parties. It’s as easy as #onetwothree.
Ticket Blitzing for a Standard Game Night
Ticket blitzing is an organized social media campaign where the entire league and all the event participants coordinate social media efforts, with a designated point person.
One person emails the copy and ticket sales link to the entire league. The language should be creative, under 140 characters and include the tickets sales link (to accommodate Twitter), so that fans are more likely to make a purchase decision.
The coordinator should spot check to see who is participating. The fewer participants, the less effective the campaign.
Establish dates for the social media campaign ahead of time. Three pushes are about right for upcoming games.
Prepare the first big push for immediately after the last game. Get a jump on sales with early bird pricing.
Second push a week prior to your game.
Final push two days prior to the game.
“Sure, Bob. But how do I get league members to get in on this brilliant ticket blitzing campaign?”
Sell the idea to the league. A few points to help make your case:
-Ticket blitzing with social media can save time spent on less fruitful guerrilla marketing tactics.
-If it’s successful, leagues and event producers may no longer need to ask members to sell tickets.
-Blitzing fills their venues and they can buy a small lot of stock tickets for walk-up customers.
You didn’t just hear it from me. A few words from a grateful ticket blitzer:
“Event is today. Wanted to extend all the gratitude in my heart to you. Your ticket blitzing idea was brilliant. I was unable to coordinate the timing of our team within your advised method, yet tripled the amount of pre-sale online tickets within 3 days. That, by the way, is a record for us. My little 100-person event has turned into an invaluable lesson for 500-person future events.” ~ Saved in SoCal
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Brown Paper Tickets is proud to present our new roller derby blog series. Take a rink-side seat as we explore the business side of derby with Bob Noxious, a veteran of modern derby. Bob will share lessons learned, advice and tips to make your team or league even more fierce. Our resident “Derby Answer Man” has a BBA in business management and over a decade of experience announcing bouts. Read more about Bob Noxious.
Take it away, Bob.
Derby’s biggest recruiting issues
Today, I’ll dispel roller derby recruiting myths and provide improvement tips. And at the bottom of the page, you’ll find a four-minute video created by Brown Paper Tickets. Watch it and feel free to use it during your functions or share on social media.
Finding fresh meat is one of the most difficult tasks a roller derby league will face, especially in the beginning. Successful recruiting is a continuous, machine-like process. You probably already know the biggest contributor to recruiting breakdowns: letting it stop.
Don’t push the league so quickly
“Bob, though we have a mix of both new and tenured skaters, we’re proud we took time to build our membership, train patiently, and design a method of continual recruitment to keep skater numbers where they need to be.”
Yeah, right. And I’m a 24-year-old Brad Pitt.
1. Leagues push too quickly to play. Once they begin play, they lose focus on recruiting. It takes 30 skaters to sustain an inter-league team. You will start with 20 trained skaters. You roster 15, play a few bouts, skaters get hurt, quit, can’t travel and suddenly that 20 skaters becomes 10. You’ll skate 10 and that number quickly becomes seven or eight. Now you can’t skate without borrowing skaters from another league – and don’t do that or you’ll never fix the problem.
2. You push new skaters to play too soon. Under conditioned and under trained equals injury.
3. And as you face these issues, what recruiting is happening? After years of seeing this same problem, I’m guessing none.
Recruiting never stops
Remember, training new skaters doesn’t have a season.
4. Generally, the core group of original skaters will produce ones who can teach skating and conditioning all year.
5. Some leagues have a separate “new skater” practice night for training, which works well. There’s no competition for practice space and new team members tend to feel more comfortable around those with the same learning curve.
6. If these practice nights have skaters coming in and advancing to the tenured group with regularity, the class can go on all season. You shouldn’t waste time, energy, and potential space rental on training two people, but small leagues can maintain a group of 5 to 10 newbies.
My experience with skater trends
7. Derby doesn’t have a strong history with universities, as undergrad students rarely surface. I spent nearly six years in Madison, WI, one of the largest university towns in the Midwest (student population over 40,000) and can only recall one undergrad skater from the school.
8. The college students who join leagues are typically non-traditional students working on post-grad degrees or returning to school at a later age.
9. Reach beyond your immediate community. Skaters are willing to go the distance to play with a league. A 60- to 90-minute commute to practice is not unheard of.
Want to attract new team members? Hire a babysitter
10. It’s shocking how few leagues cater to athletes with kids. This deters many from starting or causes them to start and quit. Offer free babysitting during practice hours as a perk. Moms skate too. Well ok, not my mom.
For crying out loud, reach out and sell your sport.
11. Host a “Skate with the Skaters Night.” Roller derby leagues charge about a $5 entrance fee to skate with derby women or men over a 3-hour period. Anyone can attend, but it’s also a way to get league members talking to curious skaters about signing up.
12. Make appearances at town/city functions. A table at a local festival is cheap, if not free. You can recruit at these town functions and they give you more exposure to the community, which grows your audience. Wear your uniforms, including your skates. Do short, demo scrimmages in the parking lot or street and become part of the entertainment.
13. Prepare a kit and take the following to your recruiting events:
–Photo album from bouts, with your best shots. Try to include photos with fans and kids.
–Recruiting info for skaters, refs and volunteer positions
–Newsletter sign-up sheet
–If there will be power, take some of your better bout footage to play on a small TV.
14. Be creative in your recruiting. Have themed recruiting events: bar party, rummage sales, restaurant tasting event or “Ask a Derby Skater” nights.
(Photo credit: Feed My Kids Productions)
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