Selling Baseball - A life raft for the grand old game

Monday, June 3, 2002

Last winter, commissioner Bud Selig appeared before Congress with his pockets turned inside out, singing a song of sadness as he reported losses of $232 million for major league baseball.

And that was before the fans stopped coming.

Imagine what Selig would tell the lawmakers now, with attendance off by 5 1/2 percent across the majors. According to figures released by his office, 22 of the 30 major league teams are down at the gate, some of them by huge amounts.

Cleveland, Texas and Colorado have drawn more than 150,000 fewer fans than last year. Pittsburgh's dip is nearly 200,000. Most alarming, perhaps, is Milwaukee, a franchise near and dear to the commissioner's heart, where attendance is down by almost 300,000. If that keeps up, the Brewers' attendance will drop almost 35 percent, a modern baseball record.

Quick, somebody, throw a life raft to the grand old game.

Behinds in the buckets

Welcome to Selling Baseball 101, the art of getting fannies in the seats. Tom Boyd, a sports marketing professor at Cal State-Fullerton, is at the podium.

"Baseball marketers are acting as if they have a mature product that simply needs to maintain sales with promotions and minor tweaks to the product," Boyd said.

That's wrong-headed thinking.

Instead, he believes baseball has to look at itself as something brand new, because as fan populations change, that's exactly what it is.

"The nature of baseball is such that each new generation of fans must be introduced to it and then adopt is as their preferred form of entertainment," Boyd said. "In essence, each new generation 'discovers' baseball as if it were a completely new idea."

Focus on the future fans

Boyd's advice: Cater to the kids. Let teams make players available to shake hands and sign autographs at every game. Let youngsters run the bases after games, not once or twice a month but once or twice a week.

He thinks the sport needs to arrange promotions that will appeal to youngsters, make them fans early and make sure they come back often. He wants them craving autographs of ballplayers instead of snowboarders.

Make prices more affordable, both at the gate and at the concession stands. Try a fan-friendly approach.

Some teams get it. Many players routinely flip foul balls or last-out balls into the stands. That's good.

Last week at Shea Stadium, umpire Doug Eddings flipped a ball into the stands. A fan, perhaps stunned by this act of largesse, dropped it and the ball rolled back to Eddings. This time, he put it in his pocket. That's bad.

Then there is the matter of giveaways -- everything from umbrellas and magnetic schedules to bobblehead dolls.

Boyd has no problem with all the trinkets, just the timing of the promotions. Typically, they occur on weekends. But attendance is routinely higher on Saturday and Sunday. A better idea might be to schedule the giveaways for weekday games, providing some incentive to get out to the ballpark at a time when the casual fan might not think about doing that.

Speaking of schedule, there was the matter of Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer. There were just four games in the American League on the holiday. What's up with that?

Because he is a native of Detroit, Boyd is particularly attuned to what goes on with the Tigers. What is going on isn't good.

Cost up, attendance down

"In 2000, the average price of a ticket to a Tigers game was $12.23," he said. "But since Comerica Park opened last year, the average price more than doubled, to $24.83. Oh, and guess what? Attendance fell by more than 23 percent from 2000 to 2001. That's hardly a coincidence. And you can bet it wasn't the corporate folks who stopped coming. It was parents and their kids."

Further complicating the landscape is the labor situation. Owners and players are snarling at each other again, threatening another shutdown.

This is not good news for an industry whose boss talks about teams vanishing and whose union threatens another possible in-season shutdown, the third in 20 years.

It will take an awful lot of bobblehead dolls to make up for that kind of catastrophe.

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