Baseball crowds are down, but not at every ballpark
By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY
The best seats in the house are empty. The cheap seats and all-you-can-eat sections are packed. Big markets are struggling to retain attendance while small markets are enjoying prosperity.
Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of Major League Baseball, where teams are battling more than ever to stay ahead of the economic recession.
In Cleveland, they are giving away bedroom slippers. In Houston, young professionals are encouraged to watch an Astros game at the tequila bar while looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right. And in South Florida, being unemployed will get you four free Marlins tickets to selected games.
Attendance is down 5.2% compared with the same number of home games at each park a year ago, according to Baseball-Reference.com, but not for a lack of effort from teams.
TEAMS SEEK SOLUTIONS — 5 FACETS
"We're seeing things we've never seen before," says Pam Gardner, Astros president of business operations. "It's kind of fun now because there's such a challenge."
The New York Yankees have learned that opening a $1.5 billion stadium and spending $440 million on players this offseason doesn't mean folks will pay exorbitant prices to watch them. They cut prices on selected premium seats at the end of April, and attendance remains down 11.9% compared with last year.
"We're not one of the horror stories you hear around baseball," says Mark Tilson, vice president of sales for the Kansas City Royals, whose attendance is up 15.1% thanks to a refurbished stadium and winning team.
No market has plummeted more than Washington, D.C. Nationals attendance is down 35.2%; the team has the National League's worst record.
"I'm not worried about attendance," Nationals president Stan Kasten said. "Our focus is to fix the product on the field, and when we do, the attendance will be there."
Contributing: Mel Antonen, Seth Livingstone
CLUBS COPING WITH A TOUGHER SELL
1 — Promotions punched up for fans seeking knockout
Executives cannot simply market a team these days. Fans want pizzazz. They want a deal. They want, in the words of Team Shop Premiums, "Sports-tainment."
The San Francisco Giants brought in Filipino boxing champion Manny Pacquiao to throw out the first pitch on Filipino-American Heritage Night on April 21 against the San Diego Padres.
The Giants, handing out Pacquiao bobbleheads, drew 39,314, which was swelled by a walk-up crowd of 11,000, flooring Giants president Larry Baer.
"A totally unheard-of response," Baer says.
Team Shop Premiums general partners Scott Nash and Bob Nanberg and accountant executive Jason Kubik sit in their Phoenix office each day brainstorming ideas to boost attendance at sporting events.
They work with eight teams in Major League Baseball, as well as selected teams in the NFL, NBA and NHL.
"Teams are asking us all of the time, 'Give us something new. Give us something fresh. And we want to beat everyone else doing it,' " Nanberg says.
"When you have 6 million people out of work, it's tough to get them to come out and pay money for tickets."
The Los Angeles Angels, perhaps baseball's most innovative team, Nanberg says, have offered retro alarm clocks, with plans of handing out of salt and pepper shakers in 2010. The Houston Astros are giving out a crystal replica of their ballpark this month to commemorate its 10th anniversary. And, of course, there is always the bobblehead doll promotion, a guaranteed winner, which costs teams about $2.25 per figurine.
"The giveaways are old school. Some sort of entertainment to go along with the game experience is new school," Kubik says. "That's where you have sports-tainment. It's the new wave."
2 — Corporate cutbacks affect premium seating
They may be the best seats in baseball, but some fans are having reservations about sitting there.
For the first time since the opening of new ballparks in Seattle and St. Louis, as well as in both new ballparks in New York, premium seats are going unused.
Harry Sloan, chairman and chief executive officer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM), kept his tickets but declined when offered the opportunity to move behind the plate. He says he prefers staying out of the camera's way. Instead he sits several rows back on the third base side.
Joe Strohm, Cardinals vice president of ticket sales, says premium seats left behind in St. Louis are from corporate sponsors looking to save money.
"Corporations that maybe bought bulk tickets in those areas are definitely trimming back on their spending," Strohm says. "We are marketing those on an individual basis, and we're having some success, but at the end of the day it's still going to be down.
"What we're seeing is all fans are looking for added value, not only in baseball, but in all of their purchasing."
Most teams won't release detailed information on premium seat sales, but they are talking about the losses, which are easy to see when watching a game on TV.
The Yankees slashed prices in April on selected premium locations, including cutting some tickets to $1,250 from $2,500. The Mets' prices are cheaper at Citi Field, with their top ticket selling for $595 a game, but David Howard, Mets executive vice president of business operations, concedes about 10% of seats have not been sold.
The Mariners, whose overall attendance has declined by 7.1% compared to last year, also have empty seats behind home plate for the first time in the stadium's nine-year history.
"You just see (empty) pockets," says Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, whose team has finished in last place four out of the past five years. "Hopefully, the economy turns around, but winning helps a lot. If we win, those things will take care of themselves."
3 — In Detroit, sales down; Phoenix holding steady
Detroit's auto industry is in shambles, and the housing market has hit the skids in Phoenix. But the teams in those two cities are getting different results at the ballpark.
"We anticipated a difficult time, and we're seeing it," says Detroit Tigers President David Dombrowski, whose attendance has declined by 27%, nearly 10,000 fans a game. "Our downturn started last year. We're still not sure exactly where it's all heading.
"But I still believe that people in tough economies are looking for escapisms."
The Arizona Diamondbacks, whose $35,000 per capita income is the lowest among the 26 metropolitan markets that have a major-league team, are holding steady though, averaging 28,205 per game, down 0.6% from last year. Not bad considering the team entered Monday with a 13-19 record and fired its manager last week.
"We've got challenges and at times like this," Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall says, "you have to be creative.
"We're hoping too that with the economy the way it is, maybe families will stay home this summer, and let us entertain them."
4 — Phillies, Rays, Brewers defy 2009 trend in stands with help of '08 success on field
You can schedule giveaways, throw concerts and have all the player autograph sessions you want, but the best way to get people to the ballpark hasn't changed: winning.
The defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies have already drawn more than 725,000 fans this season, tops in baseball, and an increase of 10.2% from last season. The Tampa Bay Rays, coming off the American League pennant and their first winning season, have had their attendance soar by 61.6% to 26,413 fans a game, the biggest increase in baseball.
But the Milwaukee Brewers are showing it doesn't take a World Series appearance to excite fans the following year. They reached the postseason last year for the first time since 1982, losing to the Phillies in the first round, and this season have sold out half of their home games. They are averaging 36,581 fans a game, an increase of 3.3% from last year.
"Just winning, getting to the playoffs," says Brewers executive vice president Rick Schlesinger, "was the best marketing tool we had all offseason. We've had a 20% jump in our season-ticket base to about 27,000, an all-time high.
"We know we're trending against the grain. But this team was down so long, and after people supported it all of these years — emotionally and financially — they're ready to embrace the team fully. And now that they got a taste of postseason, people want the whole meal."
The Rays drew 1.8 million fans last season, despite their incredible last-to-first-place run. Yet, even with a 15-18 start this year, folks are still buying tickets like never before in Tampa Bay's 11-year history.
"Hopefully with our success and our World Series appearance, we'll see a significant jump," Rays President Matt Silverman says.
5 — For the frugal fan, it's BYOF: Bring your own food
Every dollar counts in a recession. Outside the New York Mets' new Citi Field, Patti Lettieri is using an old money-saving trick: bringing her own food and drink to the ballpark.
"For me, to spend $7 on food and $8 on a beer is ridiculous," says the native New Yorker. "The money I save on food allows me to come to an extra game or two."
Nearby, Beth O'Brien from Bay Shore, N.Y., and Claire Schmaeling from Levittown, N.Y., are toting in soft-sided coolers packed with food and water from home. "If you have a family with four kids, you have to do it," O'Brien says.
Most teams don't publicize it, but at least 21 of 30 major league clubs allow fans to bring some food and drink items to ballparks, according to a review of team websites. Another eight allows fans to bring their own bottled water. One, the Houston Astros, prohibits all outside food and drink.
Some such as the Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners are touting their Bring-Your-Own-Food (BYOF) policies on their sections of the "Fan Value Corner" at MLB.com.
"Obviously, we're in business to promote our products — including our food. However, we'd rather folks come to the game than not come at all," says Jim Leahey, the A's vice president of sales and marketing. "If that means bringing their own food, we're certainly OK with that."
Brown-bagging rules vary from club to club. Subject to inspection, fans are generally allowed to bring food in see-through bags, single-serve water and juice boxes, baby food and soft-sided coolers.
What can't you bring in? Anything hard that can be thrown at players, or each other, such as glass bottles, cans, and hard-sided coolers. All clubs ban outside beer and alcoholic beverages.
Budget-conscious fans can always pack their own grub, then splurge for a few "treats," notes Washington Nationals spokeswoman Chartese Burnett. "Maybe you treat your kids to cotton candy. And bring peanut butter and jelly."
Despite the economy, there are plenty of fans who consider hot dogs and Cracker Jack part of the ballpark experience, notes Tampa Bay Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn. "It's one of the most endearing things about baseball," he said in an e-mail.
Thanks to the popular "Taste of the City" food court, lower prices and better quality, average fan spending on food and drink is up 40% at Citi Field compared to Shea Stadium, says Dave Howard, Mets executive vice president of business operations.
"We think we're offering enough quality and value that, even if people bring things in, they'll still be attracted to what we're offering," he said.