MLB ticketing in focus
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.