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Teams in prime US travel destinations mine tourists for ticket sales boosts

Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals are among the pro teams in the American capital, a prime tourist destination, that mine visitors that may have toured the US Capitol (background) for additional ticket sales

  • Pro teams in key US markets working more closely with tourism groups
  • Out-of-town visitors represent critical source of group, individual sales
  • Even successful clubs see tourists as key wave of future attendance growth

Washington, District of Columbia, is often overrun with tourists. Nearly 30 million people annually hit the famed monuments and museums of the US capital. Eight million climb the Lincoln Memorial steps each year while nine Smithsonian museums each gain more than one million entrants.

But then night falls and Washington becomes a city rather than a destination. Museums close. Monuments darken. And suddenly many visiting school groups, business travelers, and conventioneers seek entertainment rather than education.

And become a fertile source of new ticket sales for the city’s six major pro sports teams.

“Our sales pitch for years has been that D.C. is an unbelievably great town, but there’s not a lot to do at night,” said Darren Montgomery, senior vice-president of Washington Capitals sales and arena events at Monumental Sports and Entertainment. MSE is the parent company of the National Hockey League’s Capitals, National Basketball Association’s Washington Wizards, and Women’s National Basketball Association’s Washington Mystics.

“[Our games are] a great way to keep kids together. Overall, a great opportunity to get in front of those tour operators,” Montgomery said.

But Washington is hardly alone among US sports markets seeking to cash in on their local travel and tourism crowds, above and beyond the local die-hards that represent their core fanbases, and work much more closely with travel industry operators.

The New York Yankees enter the 2020 season with a new promotional agreement with ticket provider Broadway Inbound to boost ticket sales with the city’s 13.5 million international and 51.6 million domestic annual travelers, many of whom attend nearby theater shows.

Even the Yankees, with 21 straight years of at least 3 million in home attendance, look to siphon off typical non-sports visitors for further growth. After all, the Yankees drew 178,000 fewer people in 2019 than the previous year, despite another 100-win season, a trip to the American League Championship Series, and status as the top draw in the American League.

But unlike the Washington teams that are targeting the travel and tourism market for growth in nighttime games, the Yankees have 25 afternoon games in 2020 that serve as a counterbalance to Broadway’s typical evening offerings.

Broadway Inbound, which has relationships with travel industry distribution partners around the world, will be making Yankees home game tickets available to its clientele, and buying seats from the club’s live ticket manifest, but at pre-arranged prices.

“Attending a game at Yankee Stadium is a quintessential New York City experience,” said Marty Greenspun, the Yankees’ senior vice-president of strategic ventures, in a release. “Our partnership with Broadway Inbound allows us to reach travelers as they plan their trip, providing them with improved access to desired Yankees game dates, seating locations and amenities.”

Added Greenspun: “We think there’s a big untapped market for us in the travel space. We’re just at the beginning of this, but it has a lot of potential.”

Las Vegas, another prime US travel destination, this year is adding the National Football League’s Raiders to its unending entertainment options following the franchise’s move from Oakland. The National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights arrived in 2017, and thanks to a first-year run to the Stanley Cup Finals quickly became a popular draw for both locals and tourists taking a break from endless arrays of casinos and theatre shows.

Las Vegas draws 43 million visitors annually with US sports leagues flocking to it following a 2018 US Supreme Court decision legalizing sports gaming nationwide. After years of rejecting Las Vegas for its long-time national monopoly on gambling, leagues are embracing sponsorship deals that encourage fan attendance.

Indeed, with a city population of only 641,000, Las Vegas knows needs tourists to fill sporting events and continue to grow its sporting profile. Even the city’s local minor league clubs have done well catering to visitors. And to underscore the importance of sports as a marketing vehicle to tourists, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has a $80m naming rights deal with the local minor league baseball team, the Las Vegas Aviators.

“Las Vegas is turning from the entertainment capital of the world to the sports and entertainment capital of the world,” said Brett Lashbrook, owner of the United Soccer League Championship’s Las Vegas Lights, last year.

The lure of Las Vegas to tourists, and their ability to help support both primary and secondary ticket markets, also was likely an important factor in the Raiders selling out the personal seat licenses and nearly doubling initial revenue projections from those licenses, hitting $478m. Team officials said out-of-town buyers have purchased roughly 40 per cent of those licenses.

Back in Washington, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” replaces the US national anthem as welcomed relief for tourists overloaded with American history and heritage. The city’s six professional teams – the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics, Major League Baseball’s Nationals, the NFL’s Redskins and Major League Soccer’s DC United – have varied ways of reaching out to tourists.

Tourists make up relatively small, generally single-digit percentage, but still critical sources of revenue in both group and individual ticket sales. The visitors are often one-and-done buyers, as expected, representing a stark contrast to typical team marketing initiative meant to create lifelong fans.

But those out-of-town buyers also represent also easy money and a way to fill seats that otherwise would likely go empty. Who doesn’t want one or more of the city’s yearly 200,000 tour busses filled with 50 fans each pulling to the curb?

“Group business is a small piece, but very important,” said Bill Hanni, Wizards senior vice-president of ticket sales and service. “I’d love to see where we’d drive more traffic from [conventions.]”

One of the bigger buyers of Washington sports tickets is WorldStrides, a national leader in student tourism. WorldStrides bought 3,000 tickets to Nationals games last year. It also purchased 2,000 tickets for to nearly MLB club the Baltimore Orioles when the Nationals were on the road.

“We see a sporting event as a great way for the group to do something relaxing and fun after a busy day of learning,” said Beth Campbell, WorldStrides vice-president of content and communications. “It’s a fun bonding experience and a great way for students to get a little free time in a safe and fun environment.

“Our groups come from all over the US and the world, and many of the teachers who lead our trips view the experience of visiting a major league ballpark as another way to let students experience [something] they might not see or do at home. And, of course, many program leaders are sports fans who know their students are, too,” Campbell said.

Yankee Stadium, shown here, will be marketed this year to New York theater-goers and other tourists to the city as part of a new relationship between the MLB club and ticket provider Broadway Inbound.

The Nationals, thanks to their spring-to-fall schedule that matches up with the summertime peak of Washington’s tourist traffic and baseball’s heavy slate of 81 home games, are the biggest beneficiary of tourist sales.

The Wizards and Capitals, conversely, only catch the early spring tourist surge and late fall groups. The hardest ticket for travel operators to obtain is for Capitals games, which have been largely sold out for much of the past decade, almost entirely through season-ticket purchases.

“We’re at the stage now that we have limited group sales inventory, so traditional groups like Boy Scouts and churches aren’t looking to spend the kind of money a Caps ticket gets on the primary market,” Montgomery said. “We don’t have blocks of 10-to-20 tickets together. We do a lot of online [sales] as a group opportunity, but are very up front that you’re not going to [have large groups seated together].”

The Wizards play in the same venue, Capital One Arena, where season tickets comparatively comprise only 80 per cent of sales.

“We have lots more inventory [than the Capitals] to sell on group sales,” Hanni said. “Groups are still a relatively small part of the picture. It’s interesting that the market is shifting. The traditional season ticket is less of a popular option, [but] it still drives our business.”

Washington conventions that largely run from late February to October are often steered to local sporting events by Destination DC, which markets tourists on behalf of more than 1,000 Washington businesses. Tourists spent $7.8bn in the city in 2018, which translated into $851m in city taxes. Several team officials cited Destination DC as invaluable to long-term sales forecasts.

“We work closely with Destination DC,” Hanni said. “We’re able to get a lot of offers out to tour groups and convention business. It gives us a good understanding of what’s coming.”

Teams in the market also expect sizable sales to visiting rival fans, generally coming as individuals and small groups as opposed to large, organized gatherings. The Nationals, for example, know large groups of New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies fans will always come, partly because Washington has always been a transient city filled with those relocating along the East Coast. A 2014 US Census report showed five per cent of Washingtonians are former New Yorkers.

“We’re always going to see a lot of people from New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles,” Hanni said. “The NBA is such a star-driven league, so individual driven. But large markets that are close to D.C. are going to bring large groups.”

While many tourists are a one-time sale for teams, Emily Dunham, Nationals vice-president of corporate strategy, said the experience may still spark a lifetime of fandom.

“It’s definitely a different audience – the students, business travelers, convention travelers,” she said. “Any of those people are often a one-and-done buyer. They may come to a game once in a decade. But if they don’t have a major team in their town they may become fans for life. It helps expose people to the national game, and what better place to do so than the nation’s capital?”

Washington is also an international city with 20 per cent of city residents born in another country. Coupled with 177 embassies, the highest number of any city worldwide, teams often market international players to visitors, too.

The arrival of Japanese-born Rui Hachimura to the Wizards last fall sparked group nights from embassies and local universities. Hachimura will also be part of the cherry blossom festival night on March 25 when the 3,000 flowering trees that were a gift from Japan in 1912 typically draw more than one million visitors to town.

The Wizards have 10 cultural nights this season, including French heritage night, Chinese New Year, Latvian and Slovenian heritage night against Dallas featuring the Mavericks’ Latvian forward Kristaps Porziņģis and Slovenian guard Luca Dončić plus the Wiz’s Latvian forward Davis Bertans and Greek night against Milwaukee with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Nationals, similarly, market star outfielder Juan Soto of the Dominican Republic, whose Washington embassy placed a large “Juan Soto’s House” banner by its entrance during the 2019 World Series.

The Capitals, meanwhile, have Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin, who is perhaps the most beloved D.C. sports star. Last year,Washingtonian magazine named Ovechkin the city’s greatest living athlete. Given the often-tense US-Russia relations, Montgomery said the Caps reach out to local Russian community and heritage groups rather than the Russian embassy.

“Let’s celebrate Ovi, but we don’t want to jump into politics. It’s a fine line,” Montgomery said. “The two [biggest international groups] for us are Russian and Canadian.”

Wherever they’re coming from, it’s always a win for teams when it comes to enticing tourists.

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