When we were kids, a couple of times a summer we would get out of church and, if the weather was good, my dad would say, “How about a ballgame?” And we would all pile in the car and head for Municipal Stadium. Of course, unless the Yankees were in town we were certain that we would have 70,000 empty seats to choose from, so there was no sense of urgency to get tickets in advance.
In designing Jacobs Field, the Indians intentionally eliminated the option of the spontaneous ticket purchase. They put in a bunch of corporate boxes that could be reserved only before the season, and they limited the number of seats so that fans would feel compelled to get season tickets or at least order their tickets well in advance.
It worked out great in the 90’s. Everyone got on the phone the day tickets became available, lest they miss out on the games they wanted to see. The Indians had all that money in the bank before Christmas, and they often used that money to pursue free agents that helped the team win division titles and draw even more fans for the following year. It looked like a never-ending cycle. Until it wasn’t.
Nowadays I believe that perceived scarcity of tickets is hurting the team. In the 70′s and 80′s, the Indians would draw fewer than 10,000 fans for many of their weeknight games, but would often draw 30,000 or 40,000 on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday if they got a break on the weather. I can’t prove it, but I would assume that much of the additional fans who attended the weekend games were walkup fans, if for no other reason than that in pre-internet days it was not easy to get tickets in advance.
The striking thing about the Indians’ attendance in the past five or ten years has been that they draw almost the same size crowd every day of the week. Until the past few seasons, they seldom drew fewer than 15,000 on weeknights, even early in the season, and they seldom drew much more than 25,000, even on fireworks nights. A marketing consultant would look at those numbers and conclude that the there is a loyal core group of ticket buyers, but that the casual fan who might buy on impulse has been lost.
It makes sense, given the way the market has evolved. We were all conditioned in the 90s that if we did not have tickets way ahead of time there was no point in trying. Assuming most families work like mine, once an option is eliminated from the list of possible things to do on a Saturday, it doesn’t rejoin the list unless there is some impetus, and the past few seasons have not provided the casual fan with an impetus to consider an Indians game on a Saturday afternoon. Given the fact that April and September are generally lost causes attendance-wise because of school, weather, and competition from the Browns and Cavs, it is critical that the Indians come close to filling the stadium on summer weekends.
This is not an unsolvable problem, but it is probably resistant to conventional marketing strategies. One potential tactic would be to announce that any ticket not sold three hours before game time would be sold for five dollars. It seems like a ludicrous strategy to sell good seats for such a low price, but the marginal cost of selling one more seat is nearly zero, so any walkup sales at all are pure profit, and there is a good chance that the person who buys a five dollar ticket will also buy a hot dog and a T-shirt. The key objective of this strategy would be to get first-time families into the ballpark for the first time, in the hope that they would enjoy themselves and buy tickets to additional games at full price.
I would significantly decrease the prices of all of the upper deck seats at Progressive Field, as well. Most of these seats—particularly those beyond the dugouts—are almost always empty these days. Again, remembering that any ticket sales in these areas would be total profit, I would find a way to market these seats to families. It costs a family with three or four kids almost a $100 to go to a movie these days if they buy snacks, and a trip to Cedar Point can easily drain $500 from your wallet. If a middle-class parent with a carload of kids can entertain them for an evening at an Indians game for less than $50, he would certainly consider it.
I would also partner with RTA to offer discounted transportation to games. There are certainly families in the suburbs that would be more likely to attend games if they did not have to pay for parking and gas. This would also make the games more attractive to high school and college students, many of whom have disposable income but no transportation.
I am enough of a believer in the charm of baseball to think that anyone who goes to a game once will come back if the product is inviting. The Indians have done a good job this offseason of improving the product on the field, but now they need to close the deal by pricing their product more creatively and attracting the generation of fans who have abandoned them back to the ballpark.