I read an interesting article about baseball’s continued attendance challenges. The article got me thinking because while I am often thinking about what the challenges are, I never really put them in the context of the lowest announced attendance and the implication of that number.
For many years now, we’ve had to sit and watch as attendance numbers were inflated to the point of absurdity.
While our eyes were telling us one thing, our ears were hearing how healthy the game is and how robust revenues are.
While revenues are high in all sports right now, as we’ve seen with the recent reports of concert tickets being at an all-time high, $16 Budweiser products, and the continual increase in rights fees…this revenue isn’t necessarily coming because sports is doing a better job of attracting fans, it is coming because sports is doing a better job of squeezing every dollar out of the fans that are still sticking around.
Is that a wise or unwise decision?
In the short term, it is likely wise.
As much as I think it is unhealthy for the economy, for businesses, and, especially for sports, we live in a business environment, and a culture, where short-termism reigns.
We’ve seen the idea of stakeholder value refuted pretty consistently and publically by the Harvard Business School, which also pioneered the concept. We’ve seen how skyrocketing prices have led to fewer and fewer fans attending games. And, in my conversations, I’ve heard people that are devoted fans of sports telling me that they don’t attend games in person any longer because of the abusive nature of the relationship.
But the idea of lowest announced attendance really clarified a lot of the ideas that have been floating around in my head. And, it crystalized the challenge that Major League Baseball, specifically, but all sports are going to have maintaining their revenues, developing customers, and keeping people filling their venues.
So I’ve tried to think through what it would look like if I took Major League Baseball through one of my on-site strategy sessions. Which are designed to generate as many questions as answers so that the businesses involved can understand that there isn’t one path to success, but many.
What’s the value?
In organized strategy sessions that I lead for my clients, we always start by looking at the value of what we want to bring to the market.
Over the last week, I’ve been reading Ian Thomsen’s book about the NBA called The Soul of the Basketball. In his book, Ian writes about how football and baseball always had a feeling for what they meant to the American public.
Football was war and baseball was peace.
I thought that was a pretty eloquent description of the two games, but as I started thinking about some of the challenges that Major League Baseball is trying to overcome, I got to thinking about Ian’s description and asking myself, “Have they lost the thread of the story?”
In the past, I’ve written in a number of places about the need for storytelling to make its way back into marketing and sports marketing, specifically. The need for this is no more evident in the way that baseball has been throwing out ideas to attract “Millenials.”
Many of the changes suggested or made in the offseason were centered around this amorphous blob of people known as “Millenials.”
I think this misses a point.
In Baltimore and Birmingham, at INTIX and Ticketing Professionals, there were lots of conversations about “attracting Millenials.” (If history is any indicator, the talk will soon come down to Generation Next, or, whatever their name is settled upon.)
I feel like these kinds of conversations and questions are slightly misguided because they miss a huge point that Alan Weiss talked about in his recent book, Threescore and More. Which is that these kind of blanket groupings are false and used as tools to denigrate groups, instead of asking and thinking about the important issues.
The point that is missed in regard to MLB and the changes that they are making to speed up the game and draw more attention back to the sport is that they are making an assumption that the big challenge is just Millenials. But the reported information, combined with feedback from seeing games on TV or in-person where attendance is significantly lower, shows the fallacy of the “Millenial Myth.”
Which is that if we can just address what Millenials don’t like, we will be all set.
This goes back to value.
The reason that people aren’t paying attention to baseball at the same rate they have in the past is because they don’t see the value of paying attention to baseball.
Part of this is definitely due to changing tastes of consumers.
There is no doubt.
Part of this is also due to the fact that we’ve allowed the game to become considered a never-ending slog, where only a certain key dates matter, where we are just biding our time until the playoffs.
That’s on all of us that have ever been involved in tickets or entertainment.
We’ve failed the game because we lost touch with the beauty of the game.
Baseball is like a big, dense novel.
In fact, my favorite novel has baseball at the heart of it, Underworld by Don DeLillo.
You don’t read a super dense novel in one sitting.
That’s the same way baseball is.
While the simple reaction is to think that our on-demand lifestyle makes the ins and outs of baseball less important. The reality is that if you read the marketing analysis and the surveys of people’s views of the marketplace, two things really stand out that are definitively in baseball’s wheelhouse:
- People value experiences more highly.
- People want more connection.
Having a long-standing love of baseball, I can tell you that some of my formative experiences and most cherished memories are from the summers of 2000-2002 at Safeco Field in Seattle.
I hung out with all of my friends, watching the game, had a conversation, drank a beer, ate garlic fries, discovered who I was.
As I got more heavily involved in tickets and entertainment, the scene shifted, but the experiences and value of going to baseball games increased.
The first Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.
My Sunday afternoons in the centerfield bleachers at Shea Stadium.
Taking my son to his first baseball game at Nats Park.
Taking my lady to her first game at Fenway Park.
I’m belaboring the point a bit, but the fact is that these examples all highlight the two key things that people want more and more of experiences and connections.
This is the issue…if people don’t see the value of attending the games or watching, it isn’t their fault. It is ours.
Just like a marketing message, if your target market doesn’t react to the message…that’s your fault, not the consumers.
Understanding the customer
The second question I ask and we discuss in these strategy sessions is about the customer.
The question goes: “Who can use and buy this value?” Or some variation.
In the world of creating more customers and fans of Major League Baseball, this is a good question to ask.
Because over the last several years, we have seen the average age of a fan steadily increase by about a year every year.
This means that baseball’s fans are getting older…fine.
But more importantly, it means that they aren’t really renewing its fan base.
This is important because going to a baseball game for most of my life always meant that you’d see a wide diversity of people, ages, and backgrounds.
Anymore, that’s missing from most baseball games.
This is a huge missed opportunity.
Because the longer we wait to introduce people to the game, the more expensive and difficult it becomes to get people to care at all.
In sports, we’ve always heard the refrain, “Winning will solve everything.” But we have seen over and over that it won’t and it doesn’t.
Don’t believe me?
Look to the Nationals that have been struggling in the middle of the pack in attendance for years, despite having a team that is always competing for a title and that has some of the most exciting players in baseball.
Look at the Yankees who struggled last season to get fans to come back once they were filled with exciting, competitive young talent.
Or, go to the article linked at the top where the Red Sox are struggling to fill Fenway this year, even with rabid fans and a 1st place team.
My feeling from looking at the pricing of tickets, merchandise, and food and beverage is that baseball games have become like a Rolex or a Mercedes.
While there is a place for that if that is all you are selling, good luck. But you don’t need a 45,000 seat stadium for that. A high school sized stadium would likely be more appropriate.
The thing about the customer, or ideal customer, here is that you have to realize that you have any number of customers and appealing to them is a tightrope, at best.
Having been a part of opening a national nightclub chain, a museum funded by the 3rd richest man in the world, and creating the supply chain for the Centurion Card Members to buy tickets anywhere in the world, I can tell you definitively that creating offers that touch multiple communities and allow people to come together can be done.
But it is hard work.
My fear is that we’ve become so inured with management by spreadsheet that we have lost the ability to look at our fans and customers as people.
One of the core ideas that Tom Peters’ has talked about over the years is the idea that soft skills are the hardest thing is especially true when we are talking about throwing open the doors to our venues and our games.
We must keep in mind those two keys of modern consumers that they want connection and experiences.
Just look at Detroit where one of the most popular tickets to Comerica Park is a bar that has a little or no sightline to the field but people go to hang out.
Let’s go down memory lane for a moment to the times I spent at Safeco Field, I loved the bar next to the bullpen and a Thursday afternoon game in the centerfield cutout was the best.
Understanding the customer means more than just switching up the food and opening up a new SRO section, it means thinking about the entire experience and how you can improve it for everyone because you not only need one set of customers to come back, you need all kinds of customers to come back.
Where are these customers?
The final question we always discuss is: “How do I reach people?”
This is typically the most fun because it revolves around marketing.
In this case, MLB has one of the great marketing vehicles going…TV!
I was listening to Bob Lefsetz talk to Shep Gordon on his podcast yesterday and Shep talked about how he was able to break so many chefs into fame. He discussed the power of TV.
So before we dig any deeper into thinking about reaching new customers or lapsed ones, it pays to look at the relationship between TV and attracting fans.
Due to the large amounts of money invested by networks into being able to broadcast games, it can often feel like the tail is wagging the dog.
The important question to investigate is, “Are we doing enough to ensure that people aren’t just tuning into the games on TV, but are also incentivized to come out to the games?”
This is one of the pressing questions because you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, as the saying goes, but you also need to be cognizant that you have a responsibility to deepen the connection between the game and the consumer, viewer, fan.
So beginning with TV, we must demand more of our TV partners.
It isn’t just enough that they broadcast the games because we know that they need the content, but they must also take responsibility for making sure that the health of their investment is certain.
This may require pushing back on certain ideas and push for greater involvement in other areas like selling tickets, promoting stars with stories, etc.
Other than TV, there are numbers of ways that you can reach your target market and your potential consumers.
Obviously, we have the usual suspects in radio, TV, and digital.
They all play a role, but I do think that the emphasis is often on the wrong things like discounts, giveaways, and other sugar highs that spike demand but don’t help with the long-term stability of the game.
The better concept of reaching new and old consumers revolves around two ideas…reaching people in person and with stories.
As I wrote about above, baseball is a sport that is like a long novel. Which should indicate pretty clearly that one of the best advantages that baseball has is the ability to tell stories around the teams, the game, and the players.
If you go back to my childhood, my favorite player growing up was John Smoltz. This was at a time when TBS was the superstation and Braves games were pretty ubiquitous.
In this regard, John Smoltz’s story was one of promise. He was the hope that all long-suffering Braves fans held onto.
He was part of the young guns.
The thing was, there was a story that accumulated over time. The trade that brought him to the Braves from his hometown team’s farm system. The promise of his potential. The ups and downs of youth. The way he was clutch in the playoffs. Over time, a profile built up and a story was created.
You see the same sort of storytelling and myth-making in the Premier League where you know that if you are a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, you celebrate the day that you clinch finishing above Arsenal in the league table. This isn’t just one story either because there is the history of the club in the FA Cup, the underdog status that is likely akin to the way Mets’ fans feel towards Yankees’ fans, and the history of White Hart Lane.
Stories and sports go hand in hand because it isn’t just about entertainment, it is about identity.
One of the big concerns about the rise of fantasy sports at the expense of team focus is that it lessens that identity.
This is important because the history of baseball is really passed down from generation to generation in those stories that should be shared.
My son tells anyone that he follows the Mets and the Mariners because those are his dad’s teams.
That’s important, just like the first time you play catch with your child or you watch a game together. It is all a thread that connects families to the sports and teams.
That’s why the in-person aspect is so huge, or, the personal.
Last season, the Washington Capitals ran a partnership activation that gave every child born at their partner hospital a Caps’ giftpack at birth. I don’t remember everything about the promotion, but there was a onesie and a beanie and some other stuff.
This was a really cool promotion and one I am surprised isn’t used by everyone, everywhere because it connects people at a very emotional point.
Unless you are diehard Penguins fan, you likely dressed your kid up in a Caps’ onesie. You likely took a lot of pictures and you likely posted those pictures on social media, or, at the least, shared them with friends.
That story will live on, connecting the family to the team for the rest of their lives.
Now think about if MLB and the local teams came together around partnership activations that would get people into the stadium or engaged with the game?
Think about this:
If you are a sponsor of MLB, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of a Father’s Day promotion that said something like, “Bring your dad to the park!”
Maybe you don’t do it on the day of the game, but maybe you do it the week before or the week after.
Same thing with mothers.
Or, why wouldn’t a childcare focused company want to do an activation similar to the Caps?
The list of these ideas goes on and on.
What we do know is that interruption marketing doesn’t work nearly as well as it used to.
We aren’t even certain it works at all at this point.
But what we do know is that people want connection and experiences and that reaching new fans and lapsed fans through connections and experiences is likely a very powerful way to engage and convert people.
Especially as you consider how powerful stories are to us as humans.
Once we are done, I like to get some takeaways and action items on the table to codify learning.
Here are 3:
- Let’s rethink the value of baseball in the context of all the people we are trying to reach and not allow our value to be defined by the revenues we are trying to generate or what our spreadsheet might tell us. Lead with people based insights.
- Focus on connection and experiences as reasons to go out to the ballpark. We realize that we have been inundated with the idea that Millenials need things NOW. But what if that isn’t true? What if they were willing to offer their attention for something valuable? While we are at it, why don’t we just get rid of the idea that this is solely at the foot of Millenials and realize that it isn’t just a Millenial issue?
- Be creative in how you connect people to the sport. Can you push further than just the way things have always been done? What creative ideas can you come up with to get people to engage or connect with your sport or your teams? What are other sports or teams doing well that you want to do better?
What do you think?