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Volume 23 No. 13
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The role of premiums and importance of driving group sales

I have long had an appreciation for the role of group sales in establishing a comprehensive attendance plan. From my time at the NBA through my current consulting activities, having a solid group sales plan is key to the overall attendance health of an organization.

Murray Cohn, a former student who ran group sales for the Orlando Magic and now has his own consulting practice, said it best: “While the industry direction is that full-season-ticket sales and individual game tickets are trending down, there have been significant increases in group sales.”

Poor-performing teams are often more dependent upon group sales than successful teams, and the available inventory provides them the opportunity to be more creative in terms of price and incentives. A successful group sales program can make a building seem and look fuller. I have previously written about the importance of promotional themes and used the example of MiLB and the Copa de la Diversion series (SBJ September 17-23, 2018). 

This year I’ve been particularly impressed by two thematic promotions that drive group (and individual) sales with the use of a quality premium item that can also be enhanced through food and beverage, music, contests and other assets related to game entertainment. Both of these examples come from baseball — because of inventory availability — but are adaptable to other sports as well.

The first of these thematic group sales activities comes from the San Diego Padres and their Heritage and Community Night Theme Game program. The Padres finished second in MLB group sales last year with 443,000 for an average of 5,687 per game over 78 home games (three games were played in Mexico). This season, Heritage nights have accounted for 23,000 in ticket sales with seven of the 17 scheduled heritage night games remaining. This number has already eclipsed last year’s total. According to Curt Waugh, senior director of ticket sales and membership services for the Padres: “A successful heritage night is one where we can combine our marketing and experiential efforts on a game night with the reach and communication of a group leader.”

The San Diego Padres have seen group sales surge with the implementation of Heritage and Community Night Theme Game events.
Photo: san diego padres
The San Diego Padres have seen group sales surge with the implementation of Heritage and Community Night Theme Game events.
Photo: san diego padres
The San Diego Padres have seen group sales surge with the implementation of Heritage and Community Night Theme Game events.
Photo: san diego padres

Success is defined as nights that sell more than 750 tickets. The most successful nights have been Pride Night (5,118 tickets), and ones for Irish Heritage (1,835) Filipino Heritage (1,585) and Portuguese Heritage (1,340). I had the opportunity to attend Japanese Heritage night in 2018 for Angels star Shohei Ohtani’s first trip to San Diego, and because he is primarily a designated hitter and thus wasn’t in the starting lineup at a National League park, the attendees arrived early to watch batting practice. The caps included in the ticket package featured the Padres’ logo in the colors of Japan’s flag. Food, beverage, music, on-field activities and the scoreboard were used to make the evening memorable. (Seems like it might have also provided an amazing sponsorship opportunity for an entity such as ancestry.com.) Waugh mentioned that they’re working on opportunities for fantasy football leagues to use suites for “war rooms” for their draft prior to that night’s game.

My second group theme night also involved a baseball cap as a premium item. A gray Pittsburgh Pirates cap, which is easily customized with a school’s logo and colors on the side and the Pirate “P,” costs about $8 and is incorporated into the $21-$28 ticket price at PNC Park. Astute group planners often select Friday as the night for their group to attend, combining the cap with Free Shirt Friday and $1 hot dogs — an enticing incentive for group leaders to offer to their groups. This bargain hunting is a type of peak-on-peak promotion: great day of the week and a value proposition. That is different from the traditional peak-on-peak — great opponent and great day of the week.  

The Pittsburgh Pirates use customized caps for their University Nights program.
Photo: bill sutton
The Pittsburgh Pirates use customized caps for their University Nights program.
Photo: bill sutton
The Pittsburgh Pirates use customized caps for their University Nights program.
Photo: bill sutton

According to Jim Popovich, Pirates vice president of sales and service: “Our University Nights program, which began in 2015 with seven schools like Pitt, Penn State, WVU, Robert Morris and Duquesne, has now grown to 12 schools that now include Edinboro University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and Slippery Rock. The Pirates are currently averaging almost 800 tickets per game, with 2019 pacing to be our most successful year to date.”

I am always astonished that when team performance goes up, group sales inventory is often cut dramatically or even eliminated. When team performance erodes, the first thing the organization attempts to do is to court the former groups that came and supported them when they weren’t performing well. Group sales has to remain part of the mix that makes up the pipeline of potential buyers if for no other reason than it creates a flow of samplers who become the season-ticket buyers and suite owners of the future.

Cohn has reinforced my thoughts and shared that the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL set the league’s all-time group sales record this past season and sold out 31 of their 36 home games, including the postseason. According to Cohn, this demand on the group sales side was instrumental in helping them increase both their season-ticket sales and their single-game sales buy, not only bringing in samplers who enjoyed themselves and wanted to repeat their experiences either with family or friends, but also by consuming available inventory, creating demand for other ticket options.

If you can be a facilitator of good times regardless of how the team is playing, you will have an audience that can be cultivated and developed.

 

Bill Sutton (billsuttonandassociates@gmail.com) is director emeritus of the VinikGraduate Sport Business Program at USF, dean of Elevate Academy and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com