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Volume 21 No. 1

Leagues and Governing Bodies

Major League Baseball has broken its three-year attendance slide, ending the 2011 season with a final regular-season mark of 73.43 million, an increase of 0.5 percent from a year ago.

The increase was nowhere near the bullish 5 percent to 7 percent bump league executives hoped for before the season. But after a historically soggy season marred by 51 rainouts, the most since 1997, and with a still-uncertain economy, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig nonetheless was thrilled to see the downward streak end.

MLB saw a 0.5 percent total increase despite a hard year for the traditionally strong Dodgers.
“It’s not just one thing. These numbers are a direct manifestation of everything we’ve been doing, because everything feeds into it,” Selig said. “Having the wild card and these great races down the stretch, how aggressive the clubs have been, [MLB Advanced Media], the [MLB] Network. All of our outreach. They’re all factors, and the end result is that the sport continues to be more popular than ever.”

As always, MLB attendance is a critical indicator on the health of the league, and the sports industry at large. Ticket sales represent the league’s largest individual revenue source, and baseball has more ticket inventory to sell than any other sport.

Eighteen of MLB’s 30 teams posted year-over-year increases in attendance (see chart), up from 14 in 2010 and just eight in 2009. Three teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros — posted declines of more than 10 percent, down from four such teams last year and 11 in 2009.

Indeed, the Dodgers were a large part of the overall MLB attendance story as the club battles through a bankruptcy reorganization, a bitter divorce between club owner Frank McCourt and estranged wife Jamie, and other legal and financial woes. Attendance for the club, as recently as two years ago the sport’s top overall draw, fell by 17.6 percent to a final home total of 2.94 million.

Both the Dodgers’ percentage and aggregate attendance declines were the largest of any team in the league. The club’s drop this year of more than 627,181 was substantially more than the overall MLB increase of 364,487. This season is also the Dodgers’ first below 3 million since 2000.

But amid the woes with the Dodgers, weather and other issues, MLB finished with a historically strong September kick. The final Friday-Sunday of play Sept. 23-25 was the league’s second-highest-attended weekend of the season with a three-day draw of 1.63 million. Saturday, Sept. 24, with two doubleheaders and 17 games played, produced MLB’s highest one-day draw since May 2008 with a total of 626,838.

“This final month was a lot better than a lot of people thought,” said Bob Bowman, MLB Advanced Media president and chief executive. “You usually get some downward slide in a lot of markets toward the end [of the regular season], but we’ve obviously had a lot of games down the stretch that mattered, and it was strong right to the end.”

The Philadelphia Phillies led the league for the first time with a home attendance of 3.68 million. The Phillies were one of four clubs, along with Milwaukee, San Francisco and Texas, to set club attendance records.

NASCAR continues to bolster its communications operations, adding five midlevel managers to its recently created integrated marketing communications division.

The hires address areas where NASCAR hopes to improve its marketing efforts, such as among youths and Hispanics. They are the latest in a series of additions to the communications team, which will expand from 33 last year to 47 by the end of 2011.

Three of the hires are in the competition communications group, which manages public relations at the track for integrated marketing communications. Estefania Acosta-Rubio, who is fluent in Spanish, joins the organization from the ATP; Matt Nordby joins from the Pittsburgh Pirates; and Jennie Long joins from Hunter Public Relations in New York City, where she developed digital strategy for clients such as Hasbro.

In addition to those hires, NASCAR added Nick Kelly to its business communications team and Becky Williams to its sports services group, which does writing and editing across all of integrated marketing communications.

“These were the key midlevel hires we were looking for to strengthen competition and business communications,” said David Higdon, managing director of integrated marketing communications. “What we want to do is get the team in good shape by the end of the season so that they’re able to spend time around the product and key people. That will allow us to hit the ground running pretty hard in January.”

Higdon said NASCAR is still looking to fill key positions: director of social and digital media and director of brand consumer marketing. He anticipates having those hires made by the end of the year, as well as four or five more midlevel manager hires. But he said it will take time before the division is operating as envisioned, with members of the communications team embedded in other departments and working to strengthen NASCAR’s communications efforts both inside the sanctioning body and with the sport’s teams, tracks and sponsors.

“Ultimately, we know there’s still a lot of ground to cover,” Higdon said.

The NFL plans to begin the 2013 season during Labor Day weekend if the league expands the number of games to more than 16 that year, sources said.

The 2013 season is the first year the schedule can be expanded under terms of the NFL’s new collective-bargaining agreement.

While schedule expansion appears unlikely because of player opposition, the league has to consider the issue now because it needs to set a firm date for the 2014 Super Bowl in New York — perhaps as soon as next week, at the NFL owners meeting.

Presuming the game is set on the first Sunday in February 2014, and the season is later expanded to 18 games, the league expects to squeeze in the two extra weeks by starting the 2013 campaign a week early — which would put it on Labor Day weekend — and then eliminating the week off between the conference championship games and Super Bowl, the sources said.

John Mara, the New York Giants co-owner, would not confirm the scenario but agreed that it sounded reasonable. He added, however, that player opposition to expanding the season rendered the issue moot, in his opinion.

Mara is one of the few owners on record opposed to expanding the season from the current 16 games to 17 or 18 games.

Alfred Kelly, CEO of 2014 NY/NJ Super Bowl Host Co., told reporters last week he expected an NFL vote to set a date for the game at the owners meetings in Houston next week, though one source said it might occur instead by the end of the year.

The NFL generally had a Labor Day weekend start through the 1990s, but broadcasters protested, said Mike Trager, a sports TV consultant who previously worked for NBC Sports and recalled arguing with then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to move the opening weekend later.

“The networks complained about it because of the ratings,” he said. “It was a very difficult weekend to start. But the biggest issue [now] would be the disruption of the existing schedule of programming that might overlap.”

CBS, for example, broadcasts the U.S. Open Tennis Championships over Labor Day weekend.

The players vociferously opposed schedule expansion earlier this year because of the increased risk of injury, and conventional wisdom before the owners and players reached a new CBA this summer was that the NFL had abandoned its quest for a longer season. The CBA, however, does include a provision allowing the league to expand the season starting in 2013, though the NFL must have player consent.

It is not believed that a Labor Day weekend start is something the NFL wants to plan for in future years. Instead, if the season were expanded, the league might move the Super Bowl later into February. That scenario would have the game on Presidents Day weekend, which could put it up against the NBA All-Star Game and the Daytona 500.

That is not an option for the 2014 game because the date for that game needs to be set very soon for logistical planning, such as reserving blocks of hotel rooms. If the game were scheduled in mid- to late-February and the season did not expand, the NFL then would have more than two weeks between the end of the playoffs and the Super Bowl.

The NHL has increased its base of full-season-ticket holders for the second consecutive season.

With 90.3 percent of season-ticket holders renewing this year — a 2.5 percent increase — the league will raise its total number of season tickets sold by 4 percent. This year the league will average just over 9,500 season-ticket customers per team, with 20 of 29 clubs improving their renewal rate from last season.

The league data does not include sales numbers for the Winnipeg Jets, who sold 13,000 season tickets on June 4 after relocating from Atlanta.

Team and league sources credited the increase to the NHL’s on-ice performance last season. Others, though, pointed toward new pricing structures and value-adding benefits for the boost in sales. Of the 19 teams that divulged season-ticket sales, 10 clubs raised prices, eight remained flat and one club, the Anaheim Ducks, lowered prices.

“In the last 12 to 18 months we’ve seen a lot more creativity in the packaging of value to create new benefits for [season-ticket] holders, especially experiential events and customized communication,” said Jeff Morander, vice president of club consulting and services for the NHL. “Clubs are also putting more thought and strategy in their pricing from a choice standpoint.”

The New Jersey Devils, who kept overall ticket prices flat for the season, debuted a new entry-level season ticket at $968, down from $1,320, which was the club’s entry-level price in 2010. The low-priced seats are in the team’s new soccer-style supporters section in the upper bowl, where fans are expected to stand and cheer during the entire game.

The club also rolled out a new menu of 22 benefits for season-ticket holders, such as a barbecue with players and a reception with owner Jeff Vanderbeek. The club saw its renewal rate jump from 77 percent last season to 87 percent this year. It also added 1,900 new season-ticket holders to bring its total to just under 10,000.

“You can’t rely on people buying individual tickets the way they used to because of the secondary market,” said Rich Krezwick, president of Devils Arena Entertainment. “You have to invest in value-added events and perks.”

The Anaheim Ducks restructured prices for season tickets in the $40 to $80 range, dropping prices between 4 and 16 percent on those seats and 4.1 percent across the board. One year after seeing its season-ticket base drop by 5 percent, the club increased its overall base by 10 percent.

Even clubs that traditionally have little problem selling tickets debuted packages that included value-added perks. The Vancouver Canucks, who renewed at 98 percent and raised prices by 3.5 percent, offered benefits that include seat upgrades for preseason games, access to pregame skate sessions and customized ticket designs. The Nashville Predators, who raised their total prices by 6 percent and renewed at 92 percent, offered season-ticket holders a rewards card that can be used for concessions, apparel and additional tickets. The Montreal Canadiens, who renewed at 99.4 percent and have a waiting list of 4,400, included VIP parking and visits to the press box with their high-end season tickets.

“We’ve run out of things to sell,” said Canadiens COO Kevin Gilmore. “There is high demand for our product and so we’ve tried to find different ways to meet it.”