Working the crowd: Despite overall attendance decline, MLB teams finding strategies for success
While Major League Baseball suffered a fourth straight season of declining attendance overall, individual clubs have found some success at the gate by increasingly relying on a new strategy: providing more inexpensive ticketing options and emphasizing the ballpark’s social experience even more than the game itself.
The new vision of access to a ballpark, said Oakland Athletics COO Chris Giles, is akin to a gym membership, a one-stop shop for entertainment. Those social and entertainment experiences serve as “bait in the water,” he said, to bring fans through the gates, with the game as the backdrop.
That strategy certainly worked in Oakland, which boosted its overall attendance by almost 89,000 fans this season, the second biggest jump among the American League’s 15 teams, behind only the 101-win Minnesota Twins.
When formulating a plan to expand the A’s fan base in recent years, Giles said, “there was a lot of concern from some of our peers around the league: ‘Hey, are we putting the experience before baseball?’ We spent a lot of time thinking about that. It was this notion that they are in game-connected spaces, not full game-view spaces, and at the crack of the bat they’ll run up to the rail and see what happens. But they are there to have a social experience as well.”
The A’s Access subscription model — which for as low as $33 per month offers access to all 81 home games (the option to sit in general admission seating) and 10 reserved seats for games — has been successful. Compared with traditional season-ticket numbers from 2018, the club more than doubled its season-pass numbers by adding almost 10,000 members. And the average age of the A’s Access members is 11 years younger than the average age of their 2018 season-ticket buyers.
Eighteen of MLB’s 30 clubs now offer some variety of a subscription-based ticketing option in an effort to help combat declines. Per-game attendance has dropped 13.6% from its high of 32,766 in 2007 and overall attendance fell 1.7% year-over-year in 2019 to just under 68.5 million.
MLB is hardly the only league confronting attendance woes, as societal trends shift and more competition emerges for fans’ time and money. Perhaps no MLB club faces attendance headwinds as much as the Miami Marlins, who have posted the worst record in baseball this decade and play in a market with plenty of entertainment options.
Before the 2019 season, the Marlins reset ticket prices in an attempt to eliminate cost as the primary reason why fans didn’t purchase a ticket. They launched a “3-o-5” concessions menu, offering $3 and $5 food options. Despite losing 105 games this season, seven more than in ’18, Miami’s average attendance (10,016) per game, still the league’s lowest, actually improved slightly. What’s more, they increased their percentage of new buyers by 10% over 2018. Next season, they will continue to respond to feedback from fans by lowering parking prices by as much as 25%.
Adam Jones, the Marlins’ CRO, said baseball’s often deliberate pace “creates unique opportunities for baseball to serve as the social sport. As we look to new consumers and audiences, we look to how the sport serves as a backdrop for a much broader social entertainment experience.”
The St. Louis Cardinals, a playoff team with one of the nation’s most loyal fan bases, also didn’t want ticket prices to be the reason for empty seats. So at 90% of their home games at Busch Stadium, you can now find a ticket for cheaper than $10. The Cardinals also now have 45 gate giveaway nights and have increased the number of fans who receive gifts from the first 25,000 to 30,000. They have some 60 theme nights. And they allow fans to bring food and beverages into the ballpark. Their per-game attendance rose 2.3% in 2019.
“Our belief,” said Joe Strohm, the team’s VP of ticket sales, “is that an unsold seat in this stadium is a missed opportunity to grow the brand.”
The New York Mets also experienced an attendance jump after implementing an Amazin’ Mets pass, a digital-only monthly subscription for $39 during the season that granted fans a standing-room-only ticket to any game except three (Opening Day and two New York Yankees games). Lou DePaoli, the Mets’ executive vice president and CRO, said 88% of purchasers were new names in the Mets database. Overall, the club saw an 8.4% increase in attendance this season.
For DePaoli, taking a minor league marketing approach isn’t new. While working in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ front office, DePaoli saw the Pirates experience the fourth-largest percentage increase in attendance between 2009 and 2012, even though that coincided with the last four years of the team’s 20 consecutive losing seasons.
“Fireworks, concerts, lots of bobbleheads — make it fun for people,” DePaoli said. “All of a sudden, our attendance went up more, and more teams are saying, ‘Hey, you can do all that and have it move the needle enough where it is worth the experience.’”
While clubs increasingly focus on marketing the entertainment element, concerns loom over what the MLBPA views as the competitive integrity issue — too many clubs entrenched in rebuilding — significantly affecting attendance. Ten clubs this season lost at least 90 games. When asked recently if he considers it an issue, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred noted that a handful of small-market clubs had again reached the playoffs, adding, “I don’t see it. I think the competitive integrity is a synonym for the MLBPA thinks that 33-year-old free agents should get paid more.”
In response, Tony Clark, executive director of the players’ association, told SBJ, “I think that is a farce,” later adding that “competitive integrity means having the best players on the field at all times and every team being committed to winning. Anything short of that, let alone ignoring the issue altogether, is against the industry’s best interests.”
But Manfred is heartened that minor league baseball attendance is up and Little League Baseball participation is strong.
Even the sport’s deliberate pace can be beneficial, Los Angeles Dodgers President Stan Kasten said, because it makes baseball uniquely positioned to engage and entertain fans, especially casual ones.
“When we watch at home, we are all with a second or third screen,” said Kasten, whose Dodgers set a single-season franchise attendance record in 2019. “When we figure out the right way to engage fans during the breaks in action — whether it’s trivia or texting or video highlights — we’re better positioned going forward as a product to appeal to fans and our future remains very, very bright.”