Selling Sports Ticket Sales Might Not Exactly Be The Elusive Alchemy We Think

Cheaper prices and like winning are never bad ideas.
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What’s a sports team to do when not enough people come to the games? It’s a question being asked all over this week, as the Ottawa Senators did not sell out Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and The New York Times ran a lengthy piece about declining attendance at Yankee Stadium.

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The situations are different in Ottawa and the Bronx. In the Senators’ case, their arena is far from downtown and arguably the least convenient to the team’s fanbase in the entire NHL. Combine that with jacked-up playoff prices, a capital city full of transplants who often are fans of other teams, malaise about ownership, and a team that – even in the playoffs – doesn’t exactly capture the imagination, and you have a recipe for low attendance.

One of those problems is easily fixed: the ticket and parking prices. If you really care about getting people in the door, charging less money is a good way to make it happen. If that clashes with your plan to maximize profits at every turn, to a point where you’re willing to take a public flogging for not filling the building, that’s your call.

The easy way around this is to take any unsold seats by the night before the game, donate them to local charities, and voila, full building without taking a dime less from those customers willing to pay the big prices. It might mean sacrificing a few hundred ticket sales, but that’s the winning move in such a situation.

The Ottawa case is simple supply and demand. The demand wasn’t high enough to sell out Game 6 at the set prices, and the Senators were too stubborn, stupid, or both to figure out how to unload those unsold seats and avoid the embarrassment of having a less-than-capacity crowd for a conference finals elimination game in the capital of Canada.

The Yankees share one element of their problem with the Senators, too many seats priced too high for people to want to buy them. More important, though, is the product on the field. The Yankees have played one (1) playoff game in the last four years, getting shut out by the Houston Astros in the 2015 American League wild card game. Attendance has declined from 3,542,406 in 2012, the year of New York’s last division title, to 3,063,405 last season.

The Yankees’ drop pales in comparison to what’s happened in Philadelphia, where the Phillies went from 3,680,718 in 2011, the year of their last National League East title, to 1,831,080 – the lowest figure since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004 – for a second straight last-place finish in 2015.

The fact that the Yankees’ attendance is down further this season, from 37,819 per game last year to 36,280 (both sixth-highest in baseball, for what it’s worth) should not come as a surprise, even for a team that has been no more than a game out of first place for the past month.

Last year’s Yankees were one of the most boring teams in baseball, and finished in fourth place in the American League East for the first time since 1992, when the division had seven teams compared to the current five. They made a late run at the wild card after a rare trade deadline selloff, but the young talent that fueled that run was expected to endure growing pains this year as New York embarked on a quasi-rebuild that should position them to contend again soon, then be of the dominant teams of the 2020s.

So, while Aaron Judge is bursting into superstardom before our eyes, it’s happening with a team that had the lowest expectations for a Yankees team in a quarter century. Baseball ticket sales are built on expectations, and the Yankees are no different.

From 1996-2000, when the Yankees won four World Series in five years, they averaged 2,826,913 fans at the old Yankee Stadium. Over the following five seasons, they averaged 3,487,441 in a period that included the arrival of the game’s premier player, Alex Rodriguez.

This is not just a Yankees thing. The winners of the 2006-2015 World Series saw a 2.9% attendance increase the following season, with the biggest jump coming from the Giants, at 11.5%, from 2010, when they won their first title in San Francisco, to 2011. The Yankees even increased 1.5% from 2009, their first year in their new ballpark, to 2010, the post-championship year.

The two exceptions in the past decade are the 2013 Giants seeing a barely perceptible decline of 0.2% in a ballpark that’s pretty much always close to capacity, and the Royals dropping 5.6% last year after their World Series win in 2015. That one might be a little misleading because the Royals took the Giants to Game 7 in the 2014 World Series, and their attendance went up 38.4% in 2015, setting a franchise record at 2,708,549. Last year’s Royals attendance was the second-highest in team history.

The solution for the Yankees, then, is pretty simple. Win more now, see more fans later. In the meantime, changes to the ballpark to give it more character and better ticket packages are a good step for a team that still draws more fans than 24 others in the major leagues.

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