America loves sports, right? Then why are so many pro sports teams struggling to sell tickets? According to a recent article in Slate (“Plenty of Good Seats Still Available,” Aug. 4, 2011), Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, and NHL have all witnessed declines in attendance during the past three years in a row.
Many baseball teams are playing to nearly-empty stadiums. NBA ticket sales have been declining too – some teams have been offering 2-for-1 deals, or even giving tickets away just to put some fans in the seats.
What went wrong, and how can pro sports make their product more relevant?
The immediate culprit, of course, is the economy. According to Slate, consumers have lost nearly $4 trillion in buying power as a result of the recent Great Recession, making pro sporting events an unaffordable luxury for most middle class Americans.
But even after the economy recovers, it’s apparent that pro sporting events need to change the way they are marketing themselves to adapt to changes in consumer behavior. Simply put, the experience of being a sports fan is changing fast, and the pro sports leagues need to keep up with the pace of change.
What are the biggest changes in the pro sports landscape, and how are they hurting the market for sports tickets?
- Technology: In the “old days” before the Internet, ESPN, affordable widescreen HD televisions, and 24/7 sports coverage, sports fans had limited options for following their favorite teams. If you wanted to see the latest heroics on the field, court or ice, the best way was often to go be there in person. Today, people can get instant updates and game highlights on their smart phones, for games happening all over the country and all over the world. The imperative of going to the stadium has lessened as technology has made the latest sporting news available at the click of a button.
- The “in game experience:” One of the challenges in marketing pro sports tickets is that people have more choices of entertainment than ever before, and attending sporting events is becoming more hassle than it’s worth. Why should casual sports fans take five hours out of their busy lives to get in the car, drive an hour or more to the ballpark, pay $20 for parking, wait in line for overpriced concession items, and then wait even longer to get out of the parking lot after the game, when instead they could sit at home on their comfortable couches, watch the game in HD TV, while at the same time multi-tasking on their smart phones?
- Ticket pricing punishes loyal fans: Sports teams have been pricing some of their biggest fans out of the market. If you can’t afford a luxury corporate suite, or can’t afford to pay $20,000 for “personal seat licenses” (like the New York Giants recently charged season ticket holders for the choicest locations at their new stadium), then there’s often very little incentive to buy tickets directly from the team when instead you could buy cheaper tickets on the secondary market, using websites like StubHub, where tickets are often available for big discounts. Instead of paying top dollar for season tickets, many fans are looking for cheaper alternatives, or just buying tickets to a few high-profile games here and there.
There are several ways that pro sports teams can make what they’re selling more relevant to the fans, and get people interested in buying tickets again.
Teams should not try to “race to the bottom” with their ticket prices. Instead of cutting prices, add customer value. Teams should take a hard look at the “customer experience” being offered to the fans.
The Dayton Dragons, a Class A minor league baseball team in Dayton, Ohio, have sold out their 8,000 seat stadium for over 800 consecutive games, even in a down economy, even in a region struggling with high unemployment. They did it by creating a one-of-a-kind in-game experience, with lots of fan participation, access to the players, on-field promotions and games. The New York Times describes the Dayton Dragons as creating a “Disney-like” experience for fans – this is what has kept people coming back, regardless of the final score.
When the Dallas Cowboys opened Cowboys Stadium in 2009, they attracted a lot of attention for the huge, 160-foot long Jumbotron screen suspended over the football field. But owner Jerry Jones insisted on it, because he was concerned about losing fans who would otherwise stay home and watch on TV – even people in the “cheap seats” need to feel close to the action.
Americans’ love affair with sports is unlikely to diminish anytime soon. But pro sports teams need to reconsider how they are staying relevant to their most valuable customers – the fans in the seats.