Last week I wrote about the Tampa Bay Rays' turnaround. The team’s performance was stunning this year, going from worst to first in their division, and beating the White Sox in the American League Division Series. And as Alan Schwarz of the NY Times wrote last week, the turnaround was carefully crafted and patiently pursued. Home game attendance this year was up 12 points to 53%, but the team played to a house that was only half full. I ended that story wondering whether this year's performance and other changes are enough to guarantee that the team plays to a fuller house next year.
The baseball insider in my family (my 13 year old son) is sure the Rays' attendance problem is due to the stadium, and that they are going to go ahead with plans to build a new one. Apparently, fans in Tampa and St. Petersburg agree that the stadium is the problem. In an August 29 article, St. Petersburg Times reporter John Romano shared some of the suggestions he received from fans about what it will take to boost home game attendance. Far and away, the #1 complaint mentioned was about Tropicana Field’s location and facilities. Price came up a lot, too, and as the economy grows shakier, all teams as well as StubHub should be concerned about season’s ticket renewals.
While my son and the fans may be right about why Rays home game attendance remains so low, the brand marketer in me wonders if a new stadium is really the Rays’ best solution. As mentioned in my story last week, the Rays have already made many of the changes on the retail CEO turnaround checklist – new management, new talent, new name, new logo and look, improved facilities.
I believe the team still has more cost-effective ways to increase attendance (and revenues) than building a new stadium. Blaming the stadium is an easy out – a new stadium should be a last resort – it’s expensive and disruptive.
The fan experience sitting in a stadium that’s half empty can't be good. We never go into empty restaurants – we assume the food must be bad. Getting butts in seats at Tropicana Field may be more important in generating the kind of excitement that builds an enduring brand franchise than generating revenue off each ticket sale.
According to Team Marketing Report, the Rays’ ticket prices and the cost of a fan visit to the ballpark are among the lowest in Major League Baseball at $17+/ticket in 2008. I suspect the average may not be as meaningful as the actual prices – the least expensive seat at Tropicana Field is on the Upper Deck and costs $14 at "prime" games, a Baseline Box Seat at a “prime” game cost $38 last year and a Lower Infield Box Seat cost $70. Those are expensive tickets, no matter what the Team Marketing Report says about relative prices to other teams. In Tampa and St. Pete, the relevant comparison may be the Yankees A+ Team across town, where $6 buys the best seat in the house.
Rays management can sell and do more to facilitate the sale of partial season’s tickets rather than requiring fans to commit to 80+ home games a season. They can lower ticket prices and rely more on concessions, merchandise sales and parking fees to generate the same or higher average spend per fan visit. They can do goofy stuff at the game to engage the crowd and humanize the Rays brand. In short, they can create a more affordable, fun and compelling fan experience that will build loyalty, increase the amount spent per attendee per game, sell more tickets and fill the stands.
So, before taking the plunge on a new stadium, the Rays might want to take a page out of the Durham Bulls playbook, and make the Tampa Bay fan experience more like what the Bulls offer in terms of price as well as the fun factor. If that doesn’t work, there’s always Plan B.