- After losing World Series in heartbreaking fashion, several capital projects planned for 2020 season
- New luxury space will be modeled in part after high-end ballpark social clubs in San Francisco and Boston
- Continue push toward expanding choice, optionality in tickets and merchandise
The Houston Astros suffered a double dose of frustration in the World Series, losing a seven-game thriller to the Washington Nationals that included an unprecedented four home losses at Minute Maid Park, and dealing with the self-inflicted chaos surrounding the taunting incident by now-fired assistant general manager Brandon Taubman.
But Major League Baseball’s most successful team over the past three years is quickly looking to hit the reset button for next year and have planned a series of capital projects and new sales initiatives for the 2020 season.
Among the scheduled efforts: A $25m (€22m) renovation project that includes the creation of an exclusive new premium club on the ballpark’s suite level, an overall update of that suite level, and a new standing area in the right field corner; the creation of additional individual price points for 2020 ticket pricing; and a heightened focus on merchandise sales as fan demand for Astros gear continues to surge.
“Fans have bought in and understand that how we’re able to afford the players we have and continue to do what we’re doing is through their support,” says Reid Ryan, Astros president of business operations. “So we’re continuing to try to push our fan experience forward and update what we’re doing.”
The Astros next year will likely have an opening day player payroll at or near $200m, far in excess of the franchise record $160m in 2018, and that doesn’t count what they might do with star pitcher Gerrit Cole, now one of the top free agents on the market heading into the off-season.
“We’ve been reaching all-time payroll highs every year for the past four or five years and that’ll probably continue next year,” says Jeff Luhnow, Astros president of baseball operations. “How we allocate those resources is something we spend a lot of time thinking about.”
Though the Astros fell one game short of their second championship in three years, the club is broadly trying to be more strategic in maximizing business benefits their latest deep playoff run than following their 2017 title.
“We’re trying to take a lot of the learnings from before and be a lot smarter in how we look to take advantage of what’s happened on the field,” Ryan says. “In some cases, we were trying to just hold on before since it was our first title and we were pulled in a lot of different directions. But we now have the opportunity to be more thoughtful.”
The most directly visible changes will be the two new viewing areas in the 19-year-old Minute Maid Park. The Astros plan to take out seven suites on the third base side to build a new private, membership-based social club. The space will be adaptable and is modeled in part after other efforts in baseball such as the San Francisco Giants’ Gotham Club at Oracle Park and the Boston Red Sox’ EMC Club at Fenway Park.
The suite level itself will receive its first-ever substantive upgrade since Minute Maid Park first opened as Enron Field nearly two decades ago. And the right field work will involve the removal of some second-level seats to a standing room space with premium-level food and drink, not unlike prior work that was done above the ballpark’s center field fence.
The effort also feeds in a growing facility trend across MLB to build more communal and social areas for fans.
The Astros are again working with Cincinnati, Ohio-based architecture group MSA, which developed the prior center field renovation. The moves also follow last year’s agreement with the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority Board of Directors to extend the Minute Maid Park lease to 2050.
“This collectively is going to do a lot to help broaden our mix of available experiences in the ballpark,” Ryan says.
While the right-field project will remove a yet to be finalized number of seats, it will be offset by standing room capacity. As a result, the Minute Maid Park capacity is expected to remain at or very close to its current capacity of just over 41,000. Those removed seats will be sold to the public as souvenirs, and a waiting list quickly formed as demand far outstripped supply.
The club, meanwhile, is also continuing to expand its range of available price points for non-premium tickets, continuing on a new row-based pricing strategy introduced for the 2018 season. The Astros are also implementing an average ticket price increase of 7 per cent for 2020. Even with the price increase, the Astros are aiming for a rebound in 2020 attendance.
The 2017 World Series title fueled the club the following year to post its highest regular season attendance since 2004. But without a series of championship-themed promotions in 2019 and a slightly reduced ticket allotment to the Commissioner’s Community Initiative, which supports youth-related charitable causes, the club’s attendance dipped 4 per cent to 2.86 million. But Ryan expects to again challenge 3 million in 2020, a figure that has been reached just four times in the ballpark’s history.
“We expect another really strong year,” he says. “We’ve worked hard to create a situation where the tickets are priced appropriately for the market and come with a lot of choice and optionality.
And even with this year’s World Series disappointment, the club is planning to further expand its retail product and store options, both in and out of Minute Maid Park. Heading into the World Series, the club’s retail sales during the playoffs were up by half from a comparable period in their 2017 postseason run. Three Astros were also among the top 20 best-selling player jerseys in 2019, tied with the Chicago Cubs among any individual.
The efforts to expand product choice somewhat mirrors MLB’s plan to open a retail shop next summer in New York.
“We’ve had a huge uptick in this area, so we want to continue to offer more variety, here, too,” Ryan says.