If White Sox are really banking on the fans, that could be bad

If White Sox are really banking on the fans, that could be bad
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Yup, using this photo again

It's been pretty well-covered that White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's celebrated opening of the pocketbook came with a corresponding plea for an equally generous response from fans.  "$130 million doesn't just get printed off in a secret room in the basement, you half-wits!" they seemed to plead.

From "Talkin' Baseball" on ESPN 1000, and subsequently on espnchicago.com:

"If we draw what we drew last year, we will lose a lot of money. We
decided to make a bet that if we put this team together the way we have,
that it'll contend and that people will come out and support it.
Otherwise, we are definitely going to lose money. Fortunately over the
years we've made a little here, we've made a little there and we can
cover it if we lose. We won't be able to lose money two years in a row."

-Jerry Reinsdorf

Whoa, Jerry, that level of scary language is usually reserved for convincing people not to pour vodka in their eye.

I understand that the Sox have a separate set of finances, and have an
operating budget and all that jazz, but it's kind of hard to hear about
Reinsdorf talk about finances when he also owns a Bulls team that made
bathtubs of money or a decade, and then never left the top 5 in NBA
attendance even in the horrible years after that.  Transferring those
kind of revenues is probably more than a notion, but it's not like the
team will fall into the sea if things don't go right this year, they'll
just never be able to justify this type of expenditure ever again.

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Statheads rejoiced...then spent 25 minutes explaining to their friends who Adam Dunn is

And if they're really depending on a big attendance explosion to save
the bottom line, maybe they've been following a different franchise. 
The Sox haven't drawn 3 million fans in the last decade (maybe ever, but
I'm not going to do anymore legwork), came the closest to it in the wake of
a World Series victory, and have been on a steady slide ever since.  A
2008 division title didn't stop the slide, and neither did the Jake Peavy (so much for name recognition). 
The last big spike the Sox were able to create in their numbers, they
did so by winning the whole damn thing.  Even then, the big dividends
didn't come until the next season when they seemed prime to repeat.  You just don't fill U.S. Cellular Field without earning the hell out of it

More so, while Adam Dunn's a great player, he's also never made an All-Star team
and doesn't endorse donuts or elective surgery or whatever to give himself exposure, and doesn't
serve as a big draw to anyone who doesn't already know baseball.  Anyone who's been to a Cubs, Red Sox, or
Yankees game recently knows you need more than that population to draw the crowds needed to be able to spend with gusto and remain profitable.

The speed at which front offices move is countered by fan-bases that
tend to react slowly, and respond to established sure-things (like
consistent winning).  So while it's admirable that the front office has embraced
courting the bigger attendance revenues they desire by investing in
winning, the White Sox attendance is fickle, and can be sparse until
properly roused.  It's something I've come to accept (I mean, who likes
waiting in lines anyways?) but let's hope the team realizes that the
nature of their fan base is to respond slowly and gradually.

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  • I sure hope someone in the Sox brass reads this. You've diagnosed the disconnect that seems to exist - the brass thinks that they act, fans react, in a 1:1 relationship.

    But the reality is, it's really stinking expensive to go to a game. Even in UDR, you're talking $17 per ticket, and if you eat or drink anything, a family of 4 will be paying $68 plus another $30 for refreshments (not to mention $23 for parking).

    Simply put, there are entertainment options for families that offer a lot more reliable good time (no concerns over winning/losing, weather, parking, dealing with large drunken crowds), such that a baseball game only becomes an attractive option for casual purchasers when a team won 90 games LAST YEAR.

    So what's to be done? If the answer isn't building 90+ win teams over 5+ years (tough to do in a mid market), then the answer HAS to be making games more affordable. In my opinion, "putting fannies in seats" is the key to breaking even. No ticket in the upper deck should be more than $25, ever, and they should be $10, plain and simple, for at least the first three months of the season.

    The money you make on concessions and parking will more than make up for the $10 discount you "lose" on what would otherwise have been an empty seat.

    Then, you have to tell people about your pricing program. Advertise that it's a cheap night out!

  • Good Blog!

    I think as White Sox fans and even members of the front office we become such big White Sox enthusiasts that we forget to look at the good and the bad. It is inevitable that no matter the team that is put on the field attendance will be VERY low in April and May. Additionally, the Sox draw a lot families. Like Matthew said baseball games are not priced to be very family friendly. Especially when there is a ton of free and educational things to do in Chicago. No matter how many games this team wins this season I doubt attendance will soar. I am not sure what makes JR believe that just because he is spending a lot of money fans will come out.

  • Wow, great comments. I think you both brought up a salient point that in many ways the Sox (and other teams like them) have priced their own fans into the prudent state they're currently in. Some people are going to be willing to take a chance on a team for $35 a bleacher seat, but not a great percentage, and when you have a team that admittedly has a smaller base than others, you're going to need to be more proactive in drawing them in.

    For example, in line with some of the promotional ideas Matthew floated, I bought an Ozzie-plan this year that only stayed under $400 per seat because I filled it with half-price Monday games. Knowing that April and May are going to be leaner months, why not half-price some of those games, if only in the sections (upper deck) you can't fill as is?

  • James, Keep up the good work, I really enjoy the blog. I've been lurking for a while, but you've hit on a topic that is near and dear to me - my wallet :)

    Part of the problem, besides price, is fan knowledge. How many fans have any inkling of the "Family Pack," for instance (if it still exists in 2011)? In 2010, you could get a UDR ticket, plus hot dog drink and chips, for $17 a seat. If they actually bought commercial time advertising this, they might fill some of those seats in April and May.

    They really ought to tier their parking prices, too. Is it really fair to charge the same price for the lot that is by the Green Line, or the lot over on Pershing? I suppose they fill those lots either way, so we're unlikely to see any real change in pricing there.

    But any idiot can go to a game on a half price Monday and see a distinct difference in actual game attendance, especially in the early months. It is clear that a 50% reduction in price results in 10,000 more butts in seats, vs. any given other weekday. So what if you met the fans halfway, and made the Upper Deck effectively "half price" for three straight months?

    I have tended to buy only HP-Monday games, and then mooch off of my Dad's communal office season ticket plan. But now that the economy has tanked, those tickets may go away. If that's the case, I simply can't justify spending the money for a non HPM date, which means $34-$44-$64 plus 2-way train fare, for me and my wife (with no dinner or drinks). And I LOVE the White Sox, to the tune of 15-30 games per year since about 1998. I consider myself at least a "devoted" fan, if not "obsessive."

    How do they think casual fans feel, especially ones who live in the burbs and have to drive? They're simply out of touch with their fan base. They're trying to price themselves up to the Yankess or Red Sox (or Cubs) level, instead of trying to price themselves to a point that maximizes return for the given fanbase. They're actually leaving money on the table in their attempt to grab more (let's say $140k per lightly attended game, for the sake of argument - 7000 fans x $10 per ticket+$10 ancillary expenses per fan =$140,000). Those extra fannies could generate $10 mil or more per year. That would pay for filling two bullpen holes, or pay for the expansion of payroll from last year to this year.

  • In reply to MatthewWeflen:

    I think I could have dismissed claims of obsession prior to starting a blog...now there's no pretending.

    I don't think there's anyway the team's claims of financial risk aren't oversold. Reinsdorf's been an owner of sports franchises for decades, so the idea that he's spending money he's not sure he has seems fatuous. With the investments the team has made the past few seasons, I'd say it's clear they've found a way to make themselves profitable without filling U.S. Cellular.

    With the markup they have on concessions (which are tremendous), it seems like they could price the stadium to fill and be a good bet to make it back and then some, but that might come at the price of the cost certainty they have at charging their reliable 25,000 average crowd top-dollar.

    I really don't think Reinsdorf is anywhere as risky as he wants to seem.

    Thanks for the great feedback.

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