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Volume 20 No. 46
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MLB teams use conventions to stay connected

In an offseason full of firsts for the Chicago Cubs, the club recently found itself with yet another one: a robust secondary ticket market for its winter Cubs Convention.

Even after a sharp price increase from $75 to $108, tying into the club’s 108-year championship drought famously ended last October, Cubs Convention weekend passes were a hot seller on resale markets. And the Jan. 13-15 event itself drew a sellout crowd of about 10,000 at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, an amount constrained by ballroom limits at the hotel, and generated near-stampedes among fans for popular sessions.

“This was the first time I can remember seeing a secondary market for the convention,” said Crane Kenney, Cubs president of business operations. “In the beginning, this in part was about selling tickets for the upcoming season, and now it’s become a very hot ticket in and of itself.”

Like many things in baseball these days since its World Series title, the Cubs stand toward the extreme edge of the industry for their Cubs Convention. But all across the sport, winter fan conventions are reaching new levels of popularity and importance to club operations, with more attention than ever paid to the programming and production of the events.

Simple one-day events with perhaps a few autograph sessions have been replaced with elaborate multiday functions with an array of activities, increased involvement from players and front-office personnel, and in many cases presenting sponsorships.

“It’s a key touchpoint to the fans for us, and something that flows directly into pitchers and catchers and the start of spring training,” said David Samson, president of the Miami Marlins, who will hold their Papa John’s-sponsored fan fest Feb. 11-12 at Marlins Park.

Boston Red Sox fans attend this year’s Winter Weekend.

Nine other clubs held fan conventions this past weekend, in part taking advantage of the dark week in the NFL schedule between the conference championships and the Super Bowl.

The winter fan convention itself is not a new idea for baseball. The recent Cubs Convention was their 32nd iteration of the event, an idea initially forged in 1986 by former club president and current Chicago Blackhawks President John McDonough as a means to market year-round. Encouraged in part by McDonough’s original convention success, many other clubs now have lengthy histories seeking to use an offseason event to generate interest in baseball for the upcoming season and sell tickets.

But as the sports industry has grown more sophisticated and data-driven, the offseason conventions have also begun to serve as an important market research opportunity. “It’s become a really great way to get the pulse of what our fans are really thinking,” said Brooks Boyer, Chicago White Sox vice president and chief marketing officer. The Sox last weekend held their annual SoxFest featuring more than two dozen current and former players and most of the coaching and development staff.

Much of the research comes from a series of town hall sessions and question-and-answer events that fill the conventions. And those sessions serve as a key instrument to communicate club messages.

For most of the Tom Ricketts era, the Cubs owner and the rest of team management used the Cubs Convention each year to convey their long-term vision to rebuild the franchise on and off the field. With the World Series title now in hand, this year’s sessions focused more specifically on construction work in and around Wrigley Field.

“Instead of asking fans to understand and trust the process we were laying out, it was obviously more celebratory in nature,” Kenney said. “But the convention is still a really great chance to speak at length with the fans and lay out our vision.”

The Kansas City Royals’ communication at its fan fest this past weekend took on a more somber note as the club partially retooled its event to include tributes to late pitcher Yordano Ventura, who died Jan. 22 in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.

The convention-fueled interaction also extends to the players in attendance. Not tied down by gameday routines, the convention settings are typically much more relaxed than in the stadium. And as youth development continues to become more important across baseball, most clubs now bring in several top minor league prospects along with veterans and former stars.

“Many fans, even some of our biggest diehards, don’t necessarily know our minor leaguers, so this gives them a chance to get in at the ground floor with them and really get to know those guys,” Boyer said.

In recent years, players have frequently used the winter conventions to serve as their own personal reunion, and in some cases, even an ad hoc mini-camp in advance of spring training.

“We’ve got guys coming into town two, three days ahead of our convention and working out together voluntarily. They haven’t seen each other in most cases since the World Series ended, and use this event as a means to reconnect,” said Curtis Danburg, Cleveland Indians senior director of communications. The club’s Key Bank-sponsored TribeFest was moved this year to a larger hotel to accommodate an expected sellout crowd of more than 7,000.

MLB winter conventions by themselves are not huge revenue drivers. Even gross ticket sales revenue of more than $1 million for a large and popular event like the Cubs Convention is absorbed in part by the costs to stage the event. And portions of the profits that do occur are frequently directed toward club charitable arms, such as the Cubs Charities that has raised more than $4 million over the past three decades through the convention. Title and presenting sponsorships to the conventions are typically folded in as part of much larger relationships with the clubs.

Some clubs such as the Indians and Baltimore Orioles split the cost of attending an event with a low-cost general admission ticket, in many cases $5 or $10, paired with a more expensive autograph session ticket sold as an add-on option.

“We obviously are selling tickets, hotel packages, and the like, but we really try to position this as a break-even thing for us,” Boyer said. “The value is more in all these intangible things and as a PR vehicle to get the season started.”

But Samson called the Marlins’ FanFest “probably our single-best revenue day in terms of ticket sales.”

“I love FanFest as a business driver. I love it as a marketing vehicle. I love it as a means to get our guys together again,” Samson said. “It does so much to help build excitement and energy as we move into the start of the season.”