Thursday, October 9, 2008

Tampa Bay Rays Makeover Delivers

It’s October. And in my house, October means we’re watching even more baseball than we do the rest of the season. Major League Baseball is in its high season.

Like Retail, baseball is full of statistics. MLB tracks everything. And that got me wondering about the handful of stats lay bare the connection between the Tampa Bay Rays performance on the field, the fan experience of the team, fan loyalty and the team’s financial success. In measuring team success on the field and with fans, three statistics tell the story: a team’s win/loss percentage, its home-game attendance and merchandise sales.

Of the teams left in the pennant race, the Rays are clearly this year’s biggest story. For the past six years, the Rays have had one of the worst win/loss records in baseball – between 2002 and 2007 they averaged .388. They have also consistently been in the dumpster when it comes to attendance – worse at home than on the road. At home, their attendance over the same time averaged only about 33% of capacity.

Faced with six years like this, what would any self-respecting retail CEO do? Get a new chief merchant? Overhaul the brand and the merchandise? Run a new ad campaign about being "new and improved"? Remodel some stores and close others?

The Rays did most of the above over the last offseason. They hired a new manager, nearly doubled their player payroll and made several key trades and free agent signings, changed the team name (from the “Devil Rays” to the “Rays”), introduced a new logo (from a fish to a ray of sunshine) and new team colors (dropped green, leaving Oakland as the only team in major league baseball with green in its palate). And major stadium renovations and upgrades were also undertaken in both 2006 and 2007.

And lo and behold, 2008 has been a different story. The Rays are in the playoffs with the third best win/loss record this year. At .599, they are behind only the Angels and the Cubs. And this year for the first time, they played their home games in a stadium that was consistently more than half full. In addition, team merchandise sales are up 75-100% compared with last season and another 25-30% since the Rays secured a postseason spot according to Mark Fernandez, Rays senior vice president and chief sales officer.

Though congratulations are due the team for this huge improvement on all fronts, attendance did not improve as much as the team’s performance on the field did. Their win/loss ratio at the end of the regular season was up 48% over 2007, but home game attendance was up only 30%. Moreover, attendance in the second half of the season when it was clear the Rays were in contention for the pennant race was up only 24% over last year’s second half.

So, what will it take to get Rays regular season home game attendance above 50% next season? The team’s playoff performance should have some carryover effect. What do you think the Rays should do this coming offseason to further boost attendance in 2009?

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