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Volume 20 No. 41
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Early ticket sales point to rebound for MLB

Major League Baseball is poised to end its three-year attendance slide based on preliminary ticket sales data for the 2011 season, set to begin Thursday.

Commissioner Bud Selig declined to project a specific attendance increase for the season. But after drawing 73.06 million fans in 2010, down 0.4 percent from 2009, this year’s total will likely fall somewhere between 75 million and 78 million, an increase of 3 percent to 7 percent.

Selig has established 80 million as a goal since finishing roughly 500,000 people short of the mark in a record-setting 2007, but that level appears at least another year away.

“I’m really bullish on this season. We’ve got some great empirical data coming in,” Selig said. “I want to see a nice increase this year, and I’m very hopeful, very optimistic and confident that we’re going to do it. It should be a big, big year.”

The pending ticket turnaround owes to several factors: an improving economy, continued aggressive discount offers and promotions by individual clubs, historic levels of competitive balance, and increased involvement by league officials in what has traditionally been a very local piece of the business.

MLB over the offseason formed a new panel called the Commissioner’s Ticket Review Committee that involves several league departments, MLB Advanced Media and senior executives from six clubs: the Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians. The group is exploring numerous trends around ticketing, including dynamic pricing, in an effort to better identify best practices from around the industry. Specific measures recommended by the committee and approved by Selig will then be disseminated to the other 24 clubs.

The committee was established without a time frame and will stay at work as Selig continues to seek out that 80 million mark.

“This is much more macro than traditional best-practices sharing,” said Jacqueline Parkes, MLB chief marketing officer. “There’s a tremendous wealth of knowledge that we’re looking to tap into as we look to learn how we can optimize the fan experience that the commissioner continues to believe is crucial to the growth of the game.”

The hope for revived ticket sales represents a marked reversal from a lengthy period of uncertainty that included those three straight seasons of declines, a crippling global economic recession and calls from Selig for clubs to not get “cocky” on pricing. Even with the recent declines, though, attendance is still at historically high levels: The sport’s six highest turnouts have each come in the last six seasons.

“As we stand here today compared to a year ago, we’re definitely more optimistic, and we were more optimistic a year ago compared to ’09,” said Marc Bruno, president of Aramark sports, entertainment and conventions. The concessionaire works with 13 MLB teams, and its business to a significant extent depends on the amount of foot traffic at the ballparks in which it operates. “There’s a general sense of health around the industry and that people are increasingly willing to spend.”

The Twins are set to defy the sophomore jinx with record ticket sales at Target Field.
MLB ticket sales remain a critical measure of the industry. Gate attendance is the sport’s largest single revenue source, and MLB has more ticket inventory to sell than any other property.

Beyond the aggregate view, local sales are brisk in many MLB markets. The Minnesota Twins have already sold more than 2.9 million tickets for 2011, and are set to defy the industry’s historical norm of sophomore slumps in the second year of a new ballpark by setting another franchise attendance mark at Target Field. The San Francisco Giants’ sales, predictably, have soared after the club’s first World Series title in the city since moving from New York in 1957. Other traditionally strong sellers, such as Philadelphia, Boston and the New York Yankees, also have reported continued strong business.

“We’ve been blessed with another competitive team, a good amount of star power and a ballpark we believe is an absolute game changer,” said Twins President Dave St. Peter.

MLB still has several question marks in terms of attendance, notably the New York Mets, who are battling a nasty clawback lawsuit in the Bernie Madoff financial scandal and have employed an array of price discounts in an attempt to reverse a 19 percent decline in 2010. But other clubs toward the bottom of the league’s ticket sales are also showing revived business.

“Our goals are relatively low compared to a lot other teams. But we’re optimistic we’re going to reach and exceed our budget goals,” said Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff. The club, still seeking to move out of Oakland, drew 1.4 million last year and is projecting at least a similar number for 2011. “We’re definitely seeing the sales pace tracking ahead this year.”