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Local initiatives offer solutions to Major League Baseball’s national attendance problem

  • For the first time since 2003, average attendances fell below 30,000 and 70 million total threshold   
  • Attempts to attract millennials has led to innovative ticketing strategies and more social experiences 
  • New York Yankees redesigned their rebuilt Yankee Stadium to react to supporters’ changing tastes 

Major League Baseball set a series of unwanted records in 2018 as its attendance problem accelerated. Average crowds dropped four per cent, to 28,830 – far steeper than the 0.67 decrease in 2017 and 0.81 per cent fall in 2016.

It was the lowest average since 2003, after 14 consecutive seasons topping 30,000, and a 14.4 per cent decline from the high of 32,785 in 2007. Total attendance, meanwhile, fell to 69.63 million from 72.67 million last year and a high of 79.5 million in 2007.

Seventeen of the 30 teams experienced drops, with six – the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays – drawing 5,000 fewer fans per game on average than last year.

Poor weather at the start of the year played its part. At one point in April, overall attendance was down more than 10 per cent compared with 2017, while the season ended with 54 postponements (the most since 1989), of which 26 were higher-drawing weekend games.

MLB is not in a commercial crisis. It surpassed the $10bn (€8.68bn) mark in gross revenues for the first time in 2017, thanks to rising national and local TV-rights deals, merchandise, sponsorship and ancillary income streams.

But the dwindling crowds remain an issue: pictures of empty seats on a nightly basis are a terrible look, and clubs depend on ticket sales for almost 30 per cent of their revenue.

“People have a lot of decisions to make in their life about what they’re doing with their commitments and money and what have you. It’s up to us to give them something they want to embrace,” says Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “Attendance is down. It’s our fault, not theirs.”

A fan holds up a sign for Adam Jones, number 10 of the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park in September. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

A lack of competitive balance, slow pace of play, length of play and changing consumer tastes are among the reasons given by league insiders for the attendance decline. Cost is big factor, too – average ticket prices have risen faster than the median US income over the past decade and more, from $22.21 (€19.29) in 2006 to $32.44 (€28.17) in 2018.

There is a generational problem as well: baseball has the oldest fans of all the major US leagues. According to Nielsen ratings, 50 per cent of the sport’s audience are 55 or older, up from 41 per cent a decade ago.

With no definitive problem and, in turn, no definitive fix apparent, major league franchises have been forced come up with their own strategies to entice fans back. SportBusiness spoke to a number of team executives to discover what MLB can learn from their initiatives.

Creative ticketing

Despite reaching the play-offs this year, the Oakland Athletics continue to be one of the worst-supported franchises in the major leagues, ranking 27th out of the 30 teams, with a late surge pushing the average regular-season crowd above 19,000.

In 2003, Oakland ranked 13th with an average crowd of over 27,000 but there has been a steady decline since. Faced with an ageing and poorly-located stadium, long-standing rumours that the team could relocate out of Oakland and one of the lowest payrolls in MLB, A’s fans have voted with their feet.

It’s a situation that has forced – and enabled – the team’s front office to become far more creative in its ticketing strategy in its attempts to boost attendances. “It was clear that continuing to roll out the same product mix was not going to be an effective strategy for us,” Oakland Athletics chief operating officer Chris Giles tells us.

For next season, the A’s are freezing the prices of single-game, multi-game and full-season seated tickets. But all multi-game seated packages now come with general admission to every 2019 regular-season home game.

A 10-game plan with reserved seating, for example, allows members the opportunity to watch the other 71 home games from social spaces like The Treehouse or Shibe Park Tavern.

The added ‘bang-for-buck’ has had a huge impact on sales: according to Giles, the Athletics sold 10 times more packages in the first week of sales for 2019 than the equivalent for 2018.

Following feedback from the Athletics fanbase, the A’s Access membership plan has been designed to allow both new, younger supporters and older, long-time fans to find the ballpark experience they want, while remaining financially viable.

“We’re seeing a change in the tides of baseball fandom,” says Giles. “In a lot of our research we are seeing there is still a sizable core group of fans who want what you might call a more traditional baseball experience. They want to sit in their seat for the vast majority of the game, they want that seat as close to home plate as possible and many of them want to repeat that exact same experience over and over again. They take a lot of pride of ownership of ‘their’ seat in the ballpark.

Matt Olson of the Oakland Athletics is congratulated after he hit a solo home run at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum in September (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

“But what we’re also seeing is a smaller but faster-growing group that wants something completely different. They want in their ideal baseball experience to have ‘baseball meets food tour meets bar hopping’ and the whole notion that they will sit in their seat for the entire game let alone for an entire package of games is something that is not appealing to them whatsoever.

“We set out at the start of this process to come up with a model that was not only attractive to this new group of fans but also continued to cater to the existing fans and was a viable business model for baseball going forward.”

Specifically, the A’s aim to increase the average attendance by 10,000 fans a game by 2023 when the team provisionally plan to move to a new stadium – based on the evidence that consumers with an existing relationship to the brand are more likely to convert into ticket-holders in the new stadium.

The A’s are able to implement this initiative as they have so many spare seats. But it’s a strategy that other teams faced with similar issues could look to adopt. Some already are. “We’ve had about 25 different teams and leagues from across the globe that have got in touch to try to understand on a more granular level what we’re trying to do,” says Giles.

Attracting the next generation

Early this season, the Baltimore Orioles drew 7,915 fans for their game against the Toronto Blue Jays. It was the smallest announced crowd at Camden Yards, the team’s home since 1992.

It set the tone for a disastrous campaign both on and off the field for the Orioles, who set a franchise record for losses in a season – 115 out of 162 – that has had a direct effect on attendances. Last season the Orioles drew 2,028,424 total fans but average attendance this year was 23 per cent lower.

The arrival of the Washington Nationals in 2005, which took away fans from the Washington DC metropolitan area, and the safety concerns that followed riots in 2015 have also contributed to smaller crowds at Camden Yards in recent years.

In an attempt to help reverse their attendance decline, the Orioles in March announced the ‘Kids Cheer Free’ initiative, which allows two children aged nine and under free admission with every adult ticket purchased in the upper desk. On top of this, smaller (and cheaper) food and drink items have been made available, the Kids’ Corner play area has been expanded and redesigned, and children aged 4-14 will be allowed to run the bases every Sunday.

The programme is specifically designed to boost crowds at Camden Yards but it also addresses a wider issue in baseball: the need to get more children into the habit of going to games to help ensure the future of MLB.

“You make your fans of tomorrow by starting them very young,” Orioles executive vice-president John Angelos tells SportBusiness. “You want kids to have a great experience but you have to get them in the park to have that experience.”

Angelos says the Orioles will probably make less in ticketing and concessions revenue as a result of this initiative in the short term but he believes it is a step worth taking if it helps build long-term relationships with young fans.

“You want to make it barrier-free,” says Angelos. “You are avoiding what are essentially needless negatives. Do you give up a few dollars? Perhaps. But you are creating a whole lot of goodwill. One would think that makes the experience better and creates a lot more in terms of return engagement.

“Whether it will be neutral, positive or negative in the beginning or the middle-term we don’t know but it is an investment in doing things right and meeting the fan halfway – or even going further than halfway – and building relations over a generation.”

The Kids Cheer Free initiative limits the price of families going to a ballgame, which Angelos says is vital. “I think baseball is in great shape but if baseball has a weakness or vulnerability it needs to address it is to keep the next generation interested. That is a lot about price,” he says.

“If you look at [fan] surveys, the Number One response is the price is too high. Some people talk about length of game, the length of season is probably too long, with Spring Training…all these things need to be addressed but we are addressing what is in front of us and dealing with our demographic issue which is about price and value [in 2015 Baltimore was ranked the sixth poorest city in the US in a CBS poll].

“Families are the backbone of all sports and the season-ticket holders of tomorrow – you want to make it barrier-less for them.”

Social-gathering spaces

Even the New York Yankees – a historic, globally-famous franchise in a major market with a huge local population to draw from – haven’t been immune to baseball’s attendance problems.

After drawing over 3.7 million fans when they moved into the renovated Yankee Stadium in 2009, the team’s attendance gradually declined to three million in 2016, resulting in ticket and suite revenues falling by $166m, a 42 per cent loss over seven seasons.

Yankees executives acknowledged by the end of the 2015 season that both the stadium experience and ticketing strategy were not resonating with young adults and that they had not done enough to react to changing consumer behaviour.

“Baseball, I think, has somewhat struggled with the Millennial problem,” Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ managing general partner, told the New York Times in 2017. “We recognised in looking at our fanbase, we recognised in looking at our viewers on [regional TV network] YES, that that age group is not what it could be and not what it should be.”

In 2016, the Yankees visited every other major league ballpark, surveyed 5,000 season ticket-holders and canvased experts in the entertainment, retailing and healthcare industries in order to better understand how to reach adults aged 35 and under and how to better understand how that demographic makes decisions.

And with the lessons learned, they spent $20m introducing a series of new social-gathering spaces designed to attract Millennials, which offer signature cocktails, craft beers, drink-rail locations and power/USB outlets.

To access these communal areas, cheaper and more flexible ticketing options were introduced, also to cater to young adults. In 2017, the Yankees launched the Pinstripe Pass, a $15 standing-room only single-game ticket that comes with a free drink. That was followed this summer by the $49.99 BallPark pass, which offered general-admission access to 11 home games originally scheduled to be played in September. The mobile-phone-only ticket programme will be rolled our further next season.

In response to the fan surveys, childrens’ play area the Kids Clubhouse was also created to further attract families.

“In making our recent enhancements to Yankee Stadium, we spent a tremendous amount of time engaging with fans of all demographics to determine what they wanted from their experience at Yankee Stadium,” Marty Greenspun, the Yankees senior vice-president of strategic ventures, tells us.

“We heard from parents and grandparents, who explained how having a play space for their young children and grandchildren would allow them to come to more games and stay longer while in the stadium. Additionally, millennials and young professionals expressed their need for places to congregate and socialise for extended periods of time.

“Across the board, all fans wanted creative food, concourses with views of the field, and dependable Wi-Fi. But the overarching theme was that everyone wanted more things to do and more spaces to enjoy beyond just their assigned seat.”

This year the Yankees attracted on average 4,000 more fans per game compared to last season, which the front office attributes to a successful campaign on the field – the Yankees recorded 100 regular-season victories for the first time since 2009 – coupled with the warm reception to the new amenities.

Although they are not giving away the exact numbers, the Yankees say they are “extremely pleased with the response” to the reaction to their ballpark passes and have had an increased number of families since the opening of the Kids Clubhouse.

Focusing on group sales

The Atlanta Braves were one of just 13 teams with a higher regular-season attendance this year (2.55 million total fans) compared to 2017 (2.51 million).

The franchise has been helped by several factors: the continued attraction of the SunTrust Park, which opened last summer, the popularity of its mixed-use development site The Battery Atlanta – which has a number of shops, bars and restaurants – and the fact that the Braves performed well on the field, reaching the play-offs.

“Fans want to watch a team that have a realistic chance of winning the game that they are going to. They want to see healthy and strong competition. Winning is something that is valued by fans – but it’s not the only thing,” says Atlanta Braves president and chief executive Derek Schiller.

There is a wider reason why the Braves continue to attract so many fans. The Braves are the only major league team in a six-state region – Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina – and the front office has successfully, and specifically, targeted supporters who are in large groups (such as college alumni and church members) throughout the South East. Last season, 38 per cent of Braves fans came from outside metro Atlanta, including 25 per cent from outside of Georgia.

“It’s important to understand the dynamics of our fanbase as a whole. We’re a regional fanbase, we have one of the largest geographical territories in baseball. There’s a lot of regional draw,” Schiller adds. “We do really well from fans that come from outside of Atlanta – places like Birmingham, Greenville, Charlotte and Nashville.”

The Braves have catered to these fans through a number of initiatives. At SunTrust Stadium, fans can choose the signature food from each of the states in the franchise’s catchment area in the ‘Taste of Braves Country’ programme.

The Braves have also partnered with colleges in nearby states – the University of Alabama, Auburn and the University of Tennessee among others – for themed College Nights that appeal to both current students and alumni. “We target people who, for example, went to the University of Georgia and as part of the ticket package you get a co-branded hat – a Braves hat that includes the colours of the University of Georgia,” Schiller adds.

The Braves are one of the few major league teams that are able to cater to a large geographical territory: the Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox are the principal others. But their success in targeting large groups of fans represents an example for other teams to follow.

“We’re selling initiatives that appeal to large swathes of people. A large segment of our overall fanbase has been groups,” Schiller adds. “We have a team of people who deal with companies or church outings or any kind of group you can think of and try to sell them tickets and create a good experience for them.”

Schiller credits the formation of an analytics department for this success. “We have a huge amount of data that we pore through and gather. It helps inform us on the types of initiatives that are working and the type of things that we might want to go after,” he says. “We have a half-dozen people who work in that department now. Five years ago that department didn’t even exist. Its strength has led to the overall success we’ve had.”

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