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Volume 22 No. 12

Leagues and Governing Bodies

The Marlins drew just 6,259 fans to their July 3 game against the Rays en route to becoming the first MLB team to finish under 1 million since 2004.
Photo: Getty Images

Major League Baseball knows it has a ticket sales issue, and the league will be spending much of the fall and winter trying to address it.


MLB attendance this year fell for the fifth time in six seasons, to 69.67 million, the league’s lowest mark since 2003. The 4 percent drop in 2018 also fell well outside the sport’s year-to-year attendance shifts that typically stay within 1.5 percent or less. Baltimore, Miami, Minnesota and Pittsburgh each posted new lows for their current facilities, with the Marlins under new ownership moving to more accurate reporting standards.


League officials in a statement last week cited awful spring weather as a key factor in the decline, with the season’s 54 postponements standing as the most since 1989 and a record 102 April games played in sub-50 degree temperatures.


As spring turned to summer and then fall, the turnstile numbers improved but the overall slide remained. Team and league executives were forced to acknowledge they’ve often made it too hard on many fans to buy tickets between the primary market, the secondary market, and various promotions and discount offers from clubs and their business partners. That situation, combined with the severity of this year’s decline and the heightened difficulty many rebuilding clubs are having selling tickets, has lent a new level of urgency to the attendance issue.


“It’s become too complicated and confusing for fans in a lot of cases and there are a lot of competing offers out there,” said Oakland A’s President Dave Kaval, whose team saw an increase of 97,895 fans this season. In August, the club introduced A’s Access for the 2019 season, a new membership-based program that instead of traditional season tickets offers access to every home game at rates beginning at $240 per year, as well as discounted concessions and merchandise.


“A lot of what A’s Access is about is simplifying our proposition to our fans and reducing some of the noise around our ticketing,” Kaval said.


StubHub, the league’s secondary ticketing partner for more than a decade, similarly said it was working on coordinating its marketing better with clubs for the 2019 season.


“One of the things I think we need to get collectively better at, and represents a huge opportunity for us, is working with the clubs on things like how we time and stagger outbound emails and push notifications to fans. We don’t want a situation, for example, where a team is sending something out and we’re coming in right after that,” said Jill Krimmel, StubHub general manager of MLB, NCAA and other sports. “We haven’t yet reached a point where we are maximizing all of what we can be doing together. But we’ve started a series of conversations and meetings with the teams to plan for 2019 and are optimistic about where it’s going.”


Other ticket sales fixes planned for next season include expanding membership-based ticket products, the creation of more standing-room and themed areas within ballparks that offer something different from traditional rowed seats, and earlier start times for many weekday games. The San Francisco Giants are the latest club to make a move toward earlier starts, shifting its weeknight home games 30 minutes earlier to 6:45 p.m. Pacific.


The 2019 MLB schedule, featuring an unprecedented level of team input in its construction, also features new tweaks such as the creation of several two-game weekend series with Friday off days with an eye toward funneling fan interest to key Saturday and Sunday dates.


Many clubs will additionally be accelerating their analytics efforts to better understand fan sentiment and develop new sales tactics.


“We’re continuing to spend more and more time collecting data and trying to learn who is buying our tickets, how they’re using them, why they are coming, what they want out of their game experience, and so forth,” said Andrew Miller, Toronto Blue Jays executive vice president of business operations. The Blue Jays had the league’s largest total decrease at the gate this year, shedding nearly 900,000 in attendance compared to 2017. Such a drop will result in an estimated ticket revenue decrease of nearly $23 million U.S. based on the club’s prices.


MLB attendance remains a vital indicator of the league’s health, and that of the sports industry at large. Baseball has more ticket inventory than any other sport, and ticket sales have traditionally represented the league’s largest individual revenue source. 


Study of the issue at the league level will touch several senior executives, including Tony Petitti, deputy commissioner for business and media; Chris Marinak, executive vice president of strategy, technology and innovation; and Mark Plutzer, MLB Advanced Media senior vice president of ticketing. MLB holds its annual ticketing summit each June, in advance of the upcoming season-ticket renewal cycle. But prior to that, the ticketing issue will undoubtedly surface in the coming months at owners meetings in November, industry winter meetings in December and offseason league marketing meetings. 


The ongoing attendance declines might suggest the need for more widespread, league-directed change. But ticket sales strategies are still primarily locally driven and likely to stay that way. However, stakeholders do agree more attention will need to be paid to the issue, and if the declines continue in 2019 and beyond, new possibilities could emerge.

Network executives say young quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes have pulled in more viewers.
Photo: Getty Images

League and broadcast executives had to be thinking “here we go again” as the NFL kicked off its season with a lightning delay that ensured low ratings for its opening game.


A moribund preseason had registered a double-digit viewership drop, and after regular-season viewership had dropped 18 percent over the last two seasons, the NFL Kickoff game between the Eagles and the Falcons posted viewer numbers that were down 13 percent compared to the previous year. When that game was followed by a taunting tweet from President Donald Trump, sports executives steeled themselves for another tough season on the ratings front where they, again, would have to answer questions about the NFL’s long-term health prospects.


As it turns out, they didn’t have to worry.


NFL ratings quickly rebounded and at the quarter point of the season are up slightly compared to last year. After that start, a scant 1 percent viewership gain never felt so good.


A pass-happy league with wide-open offenses and gunslinging young quarterbacks, combined with far fewer player protests, has helped to stabilize viewership, according to several top television executives.


“We got off to a difficult start with a 45-minute weather delay in Philadelphia that hurt our opening number,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “Short of that, we’d be in a stronger position.”


Overall, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is down 1 percent compared to last year through the first four games, a significant turnaround considering how soft its opening night ratings were.


“We thought we’d be a little bit behind where we are now at this point, so we’re pleasantly surprised,” Lazarus said. “But we’re not shocked. It’s the strongest product in the land. … We’re feeling even more bullish on where we would be than what our real number is because of that little handicap and how much that affects our average rating with this few games in the bank.”


CBS has seen big gains thanks to key games such as Giants vs. Saints on Sept. 30, which was cross-flexed to the network.
Photo: Getty Images

CBS is setting the pace with its Sunday afternoon schedule showing a healthy 8 percent jump. CBS has benefited from strong games, including an AFC Championship rematch between the Patriots and Jaguars and, thanks to cross-flexing, a highly rated NFC matchup between the Saints and Giants.


“It’s still early in the season, so nobody should jump to conclusions,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “But the trend is positive.”


Viewership for the three “Thursday Night Football” games is up 1 percent from last year; Fox’s Sunday afternoon schedule is down 2 percent; and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” schedule is down 4 percent, though ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro said his network’s schedule is back-loaded, with the traditionally highly rated Cowboys, Patriots and Giants still with games to play.


“When we look out at what’s to come, we’re pretty optimistic,” Pitaro said. “We’re in a good spot right now … When you compare the first four games to where we were at this point two seasons ago, we’re actually up.”


TV executives point to reasons why NFL ratings have rebounded this season, with each network citing young quarterbacks, such as the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Browns’ Baker Mayfield.


“Every leaguewide statistic related to the passing game is tracking at a record high,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy. “If we’re in this year of the quarterback, it makes for a really compelling cast of characters at what’s probably the most significant position in sports. The efficiency of the passing game, the characters that you have at that position, that’s helping keep people tuned in a little longer.”


CBS’s McManus agreed, adding that rule changes that helped open up NFL offenses this season are helping the ratings. “It’s like home runs in baseball — people like seeing touchdowns,” he said.

The executives also said the player protests that have been a big part of the past two seasons have not materialized as a storyline this season.


“It’s largely a resolved issue,” Mulvihill said. “That’s one of the reasons we are seeing stabilization in the numbers. There’s not a lot of new information there for fans to digest. Everyone has reached their own conclusion on it.”


NBC’s Lazarus agreed. “People who decided that they were going to leave left,” he said. “But I also think that some of those people maybe felt like they made their point and now their love of football is overriding it and they are coming back.”


McManus believes the fact that protests have not become a regular story in the league is one of the reasons for the ratings rebound.


“One of the things that our research has showed is that when people are watching football games, in a perfect world they view it as an escape,” he said. “They want to get away from the politics and the other storylines that are dominating the media landscape.” 

At 126 years old, Stanley still gets around, and this summer he even tried out a few new vacation spots. And he finally got to tell the world all about it.

The Stanley Cup had a typically busy summer, but in addition to its expected stops around the United States and Canada, the most famous trophy in sports visited China and Denmark for the first time. That was part of a four-month offseason journey across the globe that began in Las Vegas when the Washington Capitals won their first title and ended when the Cup returned to D.C., where the Caps saw the freshly engraved version with their names on it on Oct. 3, the night they opened defense of their title.

Where in the world did Stanley go this summer?

8 Countries
Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden, United States

14 States
Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia (plus Washington, D.C.)

6 Canadian Provinces
Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Quebec

Throughout those travels, the Cup was given a voice on social media for the first time. During last season’s playoffs, the NHL launched a Twitter account for the Cup, and while its previous presence on Facebook had been to distribute content, this time the aim was to give it a personality.

“The Stanley Cup is very special, and we take a lot of pride in it and all the history it represents,” said Sean Dennison, NHL director of social media and the person who is tasked with tweeting on the Cup’s behalf. “We knew if we wanted to personify it on social media, we had to do it carefully to respect the history and its reverence, but also we wanted to have some fun with it.”

Some tweets this summer included the Stanley Cup on a float in a Las Vegas pool getting some “R&R,” and telling the 2016-17 champion Pittsburgh Penguins that it was “time to see other people.”

The account further came to life during the Cup’s annual summer tour with the champions, helping to chronicle the moments that Washington Capitals players and executives had on their day with the trophy. That ranged from having star Alex Ovechkin eat caviar out of its bowl in his native Russia to its appearance in Denmark alongside center Lars Eller — all moments recounted on the Stanley Cup’s Twitter timeline. While Dennison didn’t travel with the trophy, he kept in close contact with the Cup’s handlers and the Hockey Hall of Fame to make sure he was providing updates and amplifying their content through the account. The Cup now has over 62,000 followers.

“The Stanley Cup is really always on the job, always meeting new people and traveling to new countries,” Dennison said. “It brings so much happiness to people’s lives when they get to see it and touch it for the first time, so we want to tell those stories.”

Note: All map images courtesy of Getty Images