Thank you 3 million Detroit fans! That was the sign behind the batter for the Yankees v. Tigers AL Championship Game in Detroit the other night. 3 million fans made their way, or at least paid for a ticket, for the Tigers over the course of the 2012 season. That is impressive, especially when one considers the perception of inner-city Detroit and the uneasy relationship Detroit has had with its suburban neighbors. Give credit to Mike Illich as well for keeping the team in the city and not relocating to, say Auburn Hills. While there hasn’t been what I would call a boom around the Tiger home park, they are trying and honestly, Detroit could use some more folks trying.
This as you might have guessed, brings me to my beloved White Sox. A couple of posts ago I looked at some of the reasons I’ve heard why people don’t make their way to US Cellular Field, especially this season. As I mentioned in that post, I don’t think it is a fans obligation to go to games and using lack of attendance as a reason for not investing in the team is bogus. I don’t think the White Sox do this, at least not as much as some fans feel they do. All it takes for some White Sox fans to scream about being blamed for lack of spending is for a team official to say the word attendance. They might be talking about their recent attendance to a concert, but the moment the word is spoken you can hear at least one of the following, “I’ll go to games when the team plays better,” or “SEE! The Sox blame the fans,” and on and on. I get it. Fans do not have to attend games. I don’t want to shame anyone into going, and yet I want people to go for my own selfish reasons: fear, the fun of a full house, sharing a good thing, and wanting to see the White Sox do well. I am in no way employed by the White Sox and yet for years I’ve been intrigued with ways to help the White Sox improve attendance. Call it a hobby.
So we’ve come to the gist of this post. How can the White Sox improve attendance? Good question, I don’t think anyone has ever discussed it before. Usually the first answer is having a better team. Seeing how they were in first place for the better part of the 2012 season, that isn’t the elixir of life. For the most part, I don’t think the White Sox need to do any expensive overhauls, but I do think they need to get creative and to buck trends if they want to see numbers go up.
If I had to sum up my philosophy of getting more people into US Cellular I would call it the New Deal of Marketing Operations (I knew that history degree was good for something.) If the New Deal had one overarching idea, one concept that it kept during the decade of the 1930s it was not to be afraid to try new things; if something didn’t work, try something else, but keep trying. This isn’t to say the White Sox haven’t been trying, but I don’t think they have gone outside of the box in a long time. It is odd that the team mostly associated with Bill Veeck isn’t at the forefront of new ideas in baseball marketing.
DON’T SAY ATTENDANCE
Isn’t that the whole point? Well yes it is. But as I mentioned above, one mention of the dreaded a-word sends a certain segment of the White Sox population into a tizzy. Even so, don’t mention attendance when it comes to signing free agents, changing the budget, anything. Don’t engage with the media when they want to discuss this overwrought discussion. Just say that the White Sox are happy with the fans that do come to games and leave it at that.
I would love it if the White Sox decided not to go with a marketing campaign each year. More than anything, they seem to be a point of ridicule for media and fans alike (remember “The Kids Can Play?” turns out they couldn’t). However, I know that is highly unlikely. What I would suggest is not creating something that feels exclusionary like this season’s “Appreciate the Game.” On its face, that slogan doesn’t seem so bad. As the ads rolled out, unfortunately, they set up a dichotomy between being a “baseball fan” and a “White Sox fan.” The ads also made it a point to show that White Sox fans pass down their fandom. What came across was, if you weren’t born into White Sox fanhood, well you just aren’t a real fan. Now how much these ads hurt attendance, I don’t know. But if a casual fan is being told, “You may be baseball fan, but you’re not a White Sox fan.” Well shit, then I guess I won’t go to a White Sox game, but to a Cubs game or one of the several minor league games around Chicago. After all I’m a baseball fan.
Speaking of minor league teams around Chicago, none of them are associated with the White Sox. The Triple A team is in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Double A team is in Birmingham, Alabama and the Single A team, well I don’t really know, but you get the point (yes, I know I can just look it up but I don’t feel like it). In recent years the trend of major league organizations is to move the minor league operations closer to home; the Indians have Columbus and Akron, the Tigers have Toledo and Erie, Minnesota has Rochester and Cedar Rapids. No, every level of the system doesn’t need to be close but I think having one or two nearby is good for three reasons. First, it builds the brand locally. As fans, we would have the opportunity to watch young players mature and move up. I love going to minor league games and getting a program with the intention of looking back in a couple of years and being able to say, “I saw him when.” Admittedly, that hasn’t happened with any great significance, but it’s still fun. Second, it can help build a regional identity. If two of the nearby farm teams are associated with a close major league team, there is a connection from other parts of the area to the big league club. There is a constant buzz from some folks that the Sox should move to the southwestern suburbs. I don’t particularly like that idea, but a double A team in Naperville seems like a good idea. There are plenty more Chicagoland suburbs that could support a minor league team. Third, the inevitable rehab games. If I could catch a top player for a game or two at a minor league park I think it would be a lot of fun, especially a good pitcher getting their groove back.
The White Sox did perhaps the smartest thing they could have done to get more people to come out they lowered prices for the next season. It was something I thought was a bit over due, truly. I mean, the Sox usually do really well on Half-Price Mondays, but on regular priced days, or even worse “prime” days they have trouble getting half of the park full. That should have been an indicator that the price point was too high. I’m not saying reduce all tickets by half, but somewhere in between needs to be explored. I think the announcement of the 2013 prices, after a winning season no less, was a great move along with the lower pricing for the corners of the field. Those seats are notoriously empty and making them cheap (a few years ago someone suggested they be called the “Sox Drawer” which I still think is cute) should help out. It is a bummer for me because I like having a section all to myself, but it is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
I mentioned somewhere before that the parking lots around US Cellular Field are a double-edged sword; on the one hand, ample, convenient parking; on the other, prohibitive to developing a “scene” around the ball park. What the White Sox need to do is get creative with the parking lot. Maybe not all at once, but here are just a few ideas; Bring a grill, park for free! I think enough people would take them up on this offer and the nascent tail gating scene that is in the lots would grow. Being a veteran of many, many Phish shows, allowing some kind of vending in the lots would be awesome. Obviously I’m not encouraging drug sales in the lot, but more food and “black market” clothing (of course with the White Sox actually approving of it all) around the lot, making it a sort of bizarre might be fun. In addition why not some kind of carnival in Horner Park? Free admission to the carnival, with day of tickets on sale. Even better and I know this is crazy, but play a game in the park. Can you imagine an Adam Dunn home run with nothing to rein it in? Again I know crazy, but it would be fun.
Speaking of doing things in the parking lot, why not a Dead Head Night? Set up vendors in the parking lot, get Phil and Bobby to do the National Anthem, you get the idea. And that is just the beginning. Looking back at the Veeckian era, the guy would try just about anything to get people to the park, many of which have become standard throughout baseball, fireworks, giveaways, and all sorts of things. The White Sox still have some great nights on the schedule, but they haven’t introduced a lot of new things in recent years. I’ve thought with the sizable Latino population in Chicago that the Sox should go beyond Latin Culture Night and have the entire experience in Spanish; all announcements, all scoreboard notices, everything done in Spanish for one night. I’m sure some fans would flip out, but I think it would generate some positive media buzz. Kind of in the same vein, have a Technology Free Night; no electronic scoreboard, no flashing signs or introduction music, just the PA announcer and the organist. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the amenities of a modern ballpark, but one night with nothing to distract the crowd except baseball, I think it would be a lot of fun, maybe a bit too much like Wrigley, but one night isn’t going to make the team the South Side Cubs. I’ve always thought a “Get Treated Like a Ball Player Day” would be fun as well. One lucky fan gets what Paul Konerko makes in one game (no, Paul Konerko doesn’t have to put up the money). But it doesn’t stop there the fan gets a parking spot in the player lot, a locker in the locker room and a seat behind the dugout. I could keep going, but you get the idea. Try out some new ideas to generate a new buzz. Dog Day and Elvis Night are great, but they aren’t reaching any new customers, time to take a different tact.
The Cubs are synonymous with the Wrigleyville/Lakeview neighborhood. I don’t get the sense that the White Sox are considered the same way with the Bridgeport neighborhood. They seem to be lumped in with the great amalgam that many people use called the “South Side.” In general it is a catchall for the entire area of the city south of the loop, with no real distinctions. I would encourage the White Sox to make an effort to show off their side of the city more. Sponsor architectural/historical tours of south side neighborhoods (PhD in history, right here! Hint, hint!) Do an entire home stand focusing on a different neighborhood each night, Monday- Bridgeport, Tuesday – Chinatown, and so on. Basically become a champion for their area of the city, beyond charitable donations. The more people that discover the south side in general, the more willing they become to return and buy tickets to the South Side team.
Obviously, a lot of this is just wishful thinking, probably not the most practical either. I would, however, encourage the White Sox to try new things. There really isn’t anything to fear, except fear itself. (see, history PhD, hard at work.)
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