SBJ/Jan. 13-19, 2014/Opinion

One team’s effort to know its fans and keep them coming back

Customization. The secondary ticket market. Too many games in the ticket plan offerings. Not enough time to attend. The personal and business demands of everyday life. These are all challenges to selling ticket plans. Developing Rays Flex Packs is the Tampa Bay Rays’ answer to these challenges.

A paperless entry system, the Rays Flex Packs card is being offered initially at two price points and is available in three-, six- and nine-game options. The program takes the traditional concept of a flex plan and gives it a modern twist with some technological innovation as well.

Designed to presell tickets in multiples of three, Flex Packs provides benefits for purchasers:
Purchasers can select any games and make those selections up until six hours before the first pitch.
Up to 50 percent discount in certain locations for games, meaning that depending upon the date and the opponent, the bigger the game, the better the savings.
The Flex Packs card contains an RFID chip to track purchases and spending patterns that will enable the Rays to create targeted follow-up offers where the incentive is linked to the demonstrated preferences of the Flex Packs cardholder. For example, a purchase at a particular concession stand might involve a follow-up offer with a food discount.
Express lanes at concession stands.
For the holidays, a Wil Myers Rookie of the Year cap with each Flex Packs card purchased. Other incentives will be rolled out as the Rays approach the season
5 percent discount on concessions.
Early selection to reserve single games in February.
Access to in-game contests and pregame promotions.
In discussing this new plan with Rays President Matt Silverman, it was apparent that the plan was designed to achieve a number of objectives.

The Rays Flex Packs card offers discounts for fans inside Tropicana Field.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The plan:

1. Presells tickets and encourages single-game buyers to commit to three or more games through value and convenience incentives.
2. Offers early seat selection (February), which returns some of the decision-making power to the consumer and offers greater customization.
3. Gives consumers the choice of high-demand opponents, regardless of day of the week.
4. Rewards fans who commit to three or more games by eliminating the tiered pricing based upon opponents and day of the week and passing along the savings.
5. Allows the Rays the flexibility of direct marketing to fans and soliciting those identified customers to purchase additional games and add them to the card, or make other offers that may be of interest to them.
6. Provides the Rays a better understanding of what fans do at the game and what interests them so that future products can be designed for that behavior.
7. Is designed to optimize attendance rather than revenue, so a long-term view rather than a short-term opportunity.

The one planning element that clearly benefits the Rays is the requirement that the pass is intended and designed for the purchaser to buy and attend three games. The traditional flex-book approach would enable the buyer to purchase a coupon book and bring two or more other people and possibly attend a high-profile game such as the Yankees or the Red Sox. In some cases, the flex book was used to redeem all of the coupons for one high-demand game. But the Rays Flex Packs requires each attendee to have his or her own card, making the product less attractive to brokers.

As we are all acutely aware, there is a battle being waged by the teams to encourage the potential buyers to buy directly from the teams, instead of first exploring and subsequently buying the tickets on the secondary market.

Leaguewide sponsorship agreements with secondary ticketers have added to the difficulty. But, first and foremost, a buyer seeking to buy on the secondary market is doing so because of price, and that is a battle that the teams cannot win. Therefore, teams are wisely attempting to create options and benefits that they control, that are not available elsewhere and that provide the buyer a reason, other than price, to make their ticket purchase directly from the team.

This is clearly the case in many of the membership programs that are being offered by pro sports franchises. Access to player-interaction opportunities, special offseason events and activities, such as playing catch on the field or taking batting practice, are all becoming part of the price/value equations teams are considering, hoping to return to the primary source for ticket buying.

The Rays are offering a value-driven option that will also provide a better understanding of fan behavior, which the team hopes will lead to more successful promotional and marketing activities designed to not only increase the number of fans attending but, more importantly, the frequency of their attendance. That is the key to long-term success and attendance stabilization.

The Rays, who have finished near the bottom of MLB teams in terms of attendance for the past several years, are also looking at Flex Packs as a way of creating a stronger fan base that attends more games in 2014 than it did in 2013. So if a single-game Yankee or Red Sox buyer now buys a three-game Flex Packs card, not only are they attending two additional games, they are being exposed to the experience of attending. The Rays hope their fandom increases and they subsequently attend at least three games a year going forward. And, if the Rays are able to study the behavior patterns and motivations of these buyers and to increase each buyer’s attendance by one additional game through some type of incentive, perhaps a food discount, the success of the plans and the results could be even better.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.

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