Two weeks into baseball’s spring training this year, the Philadelphia Phillies had sold around 10,500 season tickets, up by about a thousand from the previous year.
Not bad. After the bottom fell out of the final two months of the 2018 season, managing partner John Middleton made it clear he was ready to spend in attempt to fast-track the club’s rebuilding. General manager Matt Klentak moved aggressively to sign outfielder Andrew McCutchen, a former National League Most Valuable Player, and trade for a pair of All-Stars, infielder Jean Segura, and catcher J.T. Realmuto.
The customers responded accordingly. But that merely primed the pump for what happened next.
On February 28, news began to break that the Phillies had agreed to terms with outfielder Bryce Harper, one of the sport’s most anticipated free agents ever and already one of Major League Baseball’s most popular and marketable stars following a decorated seven-year run in Washington.
This was the moment the team’s ticketing and marketing departments had been preparing for. Senior vice-president, ticket operations and projects John Weber knew exactly what to do once the Phillies’ 13-year, $330m (€295m) deal with Harper, representing the largest free agent contract in MLB history, became official: “Make sure we had enough people to answer the phones,” he says with a laugh.
Good idea. After getting 2,500 calls the week before, the ticket office fielded 7,400 calls in the week that Harper signed Phillies contract and then 8,100 the week after that.
In a normal week at that time of year heading into spring training, with some level of excitement, the Phillies might expect to sell between 70,000 and 80,000 tickets.
That first week after Harper’s signing resulted in about 340,000 tickets sold including season, group and single game sales. The final season ticket number was approximately 13,500. “Which is just incredible,” Weber says. “It was an explosion. Everybody wanted to come out and see him.”
But preparing for and fully capitalising on the acquisition of a player of Harper’s star power is far more complex than just making sure the phone banks are properly staffed. In fact, that is mere table stakes. The bigger challenge is this: how does a franchise take that initial tsunami of marketplace enthusiasm and then harness it to create sustained benefit, lasting sales, and continued fan engagement?
Nearly halfway through the 2019 season, the Phillies stand easily at the top of the league in attendance increase, with its bump thus far of more than 10,000 people to a per-game average to just north of 35,000. No other MLB team has boosted its per-game attendance by even half that much per game, and it’s helped return a level of palpable energy to Citizens Bank Park that existed when the Phillies sold out 257 straight games between 2009-12.
The ticket sales gains are on top of a nearly 40-per-cent rise in local TV ratings for games on NBC Sports Philadelphia, with Harper in March also fueling the best 24 hours of sales for Fanatics of any jersey debut ever.
But with the now-26-year-old Harper now set to be in Philadelphia through his age-38 season, club officials are still keeping a firm eye on the long-term impact well beyond this debut season.
“There’s a period of euphoria at the onset. And there’s a honeymoon period afterwards,” vice-president, marketing and new media, Mike Harris says. “So our job was to set everything up and get it ready to go.”
That preparation process was largely divided into two parts: areas the Phillies could specifically control, and the ones they couldn’t.
One example of the former is that, when the 2019 promotional schedule was being constructed, well prior to Harper’s decision to join the Phillies, a date was deliberately left open that could be used in case Harper or Manny Machado, the other big-name MLB free agent hitter on the market, ended up in red pinstripes. As a result, on July 28, all children under 14 attending that afternoon’s game against the Braves will receive Harper replica jerseys.
Harper’s presence also helped maximise the effectiveness of the other planned early-season giveaways (knit cap, socks, a variety of T-shirts) and promotions (Dollar Dog nights) already in place. The average attendance for 17 home dates in April was around 38,000, a number that most MLB clubs in the US Northeast and Midwest can only dream of reaching during the early, cold-weather weeks of the season when school is still in session.
“A large part of that was Harper,” Weber says. “It just got people really paying attention to what was going on. Some of the programs we had in place, they seemed to work a little better when we signed a guy like that.”
On Opening Day, a huge banner hung about the third base gates at Citizens Bank Park featuring, of course, Harper in a prominent position. But it also had McCutchen, pitchers Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta, and third baseman Maikel Franco. Which pretty much sums up phase two of the plan to promote their newest star, and another element they can control.
“Harper’s the centrepiece, but they’re equal,” Phillies’ executive vice-president David Buck says. “We’re not going to turn this into the Bryce Harper team. We’re going to have him as part of the team and all the natural things that are occurring are better than just saying, ‘Harper this, Harper that, Harper this, Harper that’.
“When we sit in meetings, we don’t say, ‘How can we capitalise on Harper more?’ We’re past that. It’s, ‘How do we capitalise on the Phillies?’ I mean, [pitcher Zach] Eflin was [just] in USA Today. Segura is hitting the heck out of the ball. So how do we capitalise on all that? And it’s by focusing on the team,” he says.
That approach is neatly illustrated by the e-mails the Phillies regularly send to a database of season and group ticket buyers, as well as individual customers. These communications feature the player or players who are making headlines at the moment.
At first, not surprisingly, it was all Harper, all the time.
“From an advertising and marketing and social media perspective, obviously we blitzed as much as we could out of the gate,” Harris says. “One of our jobs is to strike while the iron is hot…I can’t imagine you could have walked through Philly [then] without seeing a billboard or a digital ad or some reference to Bryce.”
Once the season started, though, that changed. “If (first baseman Rhys) Hoskins hits homers in 10 straight games, Hoskins goes to the top. Our TV commercials might say, ‘Come see Hoskins. Can he make it 11?’. Take advantage of what’s hot, what’s going on,” Buck said. “If Harper hits homers in 10 straight games, Harper goes to the top. Not because he’s Harper. Because he homered in 10 straight games.”
An analysis of its new ticket data following the Harper signing frenzy showed that 60 per cent of all accounts that purchased tickets this year did not buy in 2018, with those buyers helping fuel the ongoing attendance increase. That wave of new buyers, however, remained steady from 2018 in its geographic spread, with 67 per cent of buyers from the state of Pennsylvania, 26 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively, from neighboring New Jersey and Delaware, and 3 per cent from other states.
“Obviously, it’s always great when you’re getting new customers into your database,” Weber says. “Some of those people may have purchased in 2012, 2013, 2014 then took a couple years off. But it’s great having new customers, or maybe customers who haven’t purchased in a while coming back. Then hopefully they’ll come back, not just one or two times but multiple times.”
To encourage that repeat visitation, the Phillies are emphasising greater contact between its ticket sales and marketing staffers and the fanbase, and not just through social media or outward promotional spots. During the first week of June, the team hosted customers at Citizens Bank Park to thank them for buying tickets in April and May. And the ticket renewal window for the 2020 season that, like many other MLB clubs, typically would begin in August is now being moved up to earlier in the summer.
Weber described the moves as amplifications of pre-existing sales strategies.
“Just making more of a concerted effort,” he says. “The good news this year is that, when you’re calling people, they want to talk to you. They want to have a conversation. They want to know what’s going on. They want to know how you’re going to fill McCutchen’s injury spot, or who we’re going to call up next. There’s a lot more buzz. People are glad to see ‘Phillies’ come up on their phone.”
The element that is far less controllable by the front office itself is Harper himself, both in terms of his demeanor and his on-field performance. Fortunately for the Phillies’ front office, Harper has immediately embraced the city of Philadelphia and the club’s notoriously outspoken fanbase.
When Harper took his outfield position for the first time on Opening Day he turned to the right field stands and bowed deeply. He was wearing green spikes adorned with images of the club’s popular mascot, the Phillie Phanatic, and, later, presented an oversized replica of those shoes to the costumed creature.
Harper then took part in a “ring the bell” ceremony before a NBA Philadelphia Sixers game, referencing the city’s famed Liberty Bell, and then watched the contest from the Wells Fargo Center seats with Hoskins and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. He also spoke at the press conference announcing that Philadelphia will host the 2026 All-Star Game, an event tying into the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Not long after the signing, a picture of Harper wearing an Eagles shirt popped up on Twitter, despite his status as a lifelong fan of hated Philadelphia rival the Dallas Cowboys.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) April 30, 2019
“Bryce is doing a lot of this on his own right now,” Buck says. “It’s a legit, sincere effort to immerse himself into Philadelphia. And that works. So that’s the stuff that will enable this to keep going.”
Added Harris: “He’s clearly endeared himself through interaction with the fans, social media, the brotherly love with all the other local sports teams. The longer he’s here, the more he’ll assimilate into the community, culture and fabric of the city. And part of our job will be to amplify that connection and, hopefully establish – over time because he’s got to earn it – but over time he’ll become a true Philadelphian.
“There’s a danger of pushing it too hard in a non-genuine way. So you’ve got to thread the needle a little bit. But he gets it. He’s created the foundation of who he’s going to be in this city. And that’s a really exciting thing,” Harris says.
The biggest wild card, of course, is whether or not the Phillies win and what kind of numbers Harper generates. And the early results have been promising. The Phillies have spent much of the 2019 season atop the NL East division and remain firmly in contention for a playoff spot. And after a slow start personally, Harper is now hitting at a rate approaching his perennial All-Star days in Washington.
“The ebbs and flows of ticket sales are obviously impacted by overall team performance,” Weber says. “It’s a long season, we’re off to a good start and our fans have responded. Ultimately where we end up will depend on many variables outside of our direct control. So our goal is to entertain our fans when they come to [Citizens Bank Park] and to always be improving our relationship with our fans.”