SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
Sports has a problem. Ticket sales are down. Major League Baseball is hurting especially badly. Attendance is down 11% from a decade ago. But this sales slump is happening across most major sports, even college football. With the exception of the NBA...
CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
HERSHIPS: ...(Laughter) Football, baseball, hockey - they are all suffering.
GARCIA: And this sales slump is happening for a few reasons. No. 1 - television - or video, at least. See, way back in the day, if you were a fan, you had to show up to the stadium to watch a game live. But after multiple evolutions in the technology of watching stuff on a screen, there are now so many different ways you can see a game - Sling TV, YouTube and good old-fashioned cable.
And for major league sports teams, the money you stand to make from a TV contract is just way more than what you would make just from ticket sales. So team management can sometimes be a little less worried about selling tickets at live games and more focused on signing broadcast deals.
HERSHIPS: Reason No. 2 ticket sales are slumping is that today's sports fan is changing. They are younger like you and me, Cardiff.
GARCIA: Yeah, yeah - just super youthful.
HERSHIPS: We are so young. Of course fans want to see their teams win, but these younger fans want new things. And not every stadium is giving them what they want. Today's season ticket holder doesn't want to have to sit in the same seat at every game. They want more flexibility, and that is not always possible. And they want better food and better prices at the concession stand, something I think we can all get behind.
And we know this because not only have we been to games ourselves, but also because we put out a call on Instagram. And we got a ton of responses. @Mrs.pinkcoffeecake (ph) writes, Aloha Stadium charged $11 for a domestic beer in a plastic cup.
GARCIA: Yeah. Then there was at @Amymegan (ph) who writes, why did I spend $12 on a kid's-sized hotdog and subpar fries and still end up hungry? Should've gotten the adult-sized dog, I guess.
HERSHIPS: That's a problem.
GARCIA: Yeah. Reason No. 3 that ticket sales are down at games - God or the universe. I don't know. Some mysterious supernatural force maybe doesn't want you to go to the game because last year it rained a lot, and it was cold. And the Major League Baseball Association told Forbes that bad weather kept fans from a lot of games.
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GARCIA: I'm Cardiff Garcia.
HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships. On today's show, we look at solutions that teams are trying to sell more tickets in the face of declining sales to their own fans.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: High fly ball into right field. She is gone.
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HERSHIPS: In order to cope with their problem of declining ticket sales, sports teams are trying out a number of new and different strategies. One strategy I think that we can all agree is probably the most important - if you want to sell more tickets, offering better food and drinks at better prices.
GARCIA: Yes, please.
ROB COMSTOCK: One of the pet peeves - I will call this one out - is the price of water when you go to a sporting event. The bottle of water is always some X factor of what you'd pay outside of the facility.
GARCIA: Rob Comstock is a founder of Riptide Partners. He helps companies that run live events gather and understand feedback from the fans. He says the Atlanta Falcons have been doing an especially good job at offering reasonably priced food and drinks at the concession stands.
COMSTOCK: And I know - I don't know their exact pricing there, but I know they've been very fair in pricing across the board, including a bottle of water.
GARCIA: I just want to hydrate, Sally, all right. I don't want to pay half my weekly salary just to hydrate.
HERSHIPS: And it's so frustrating because you have to empty your bag when you're on your way into the stadium, and then you are, like, forced to buy water inside.
GARCIA: Right. About two years ago, the Falcons cut prices on concession items by 50%. And as a result, the team says sales went way up. So this spring, the team lowered some prices yet again. You can now buy pretzel bites or a waffle cone for $4.50. So strategy No. 1 - lowering the prices of food and drink.
HERSHIPS: Strategy No. 2 - it is one you have seen elsewhere - getting rid of set prices for tickets.
COMSTOCK: Yeah. The clear trend is dynamic pricing, which - it's a phrase you'll hear often. And it's really that ability to use the Uber model.
HERSHIPS: Oh, the Uber model, one we know well. Just like with Uber, when there is less demand, a sports franchise can also lower prices to try to drive up ticket sales. And if there's a day where there's gorgeous weather or a big rival team is in town and there is high demand, the team can increase prices to try to take in more profits. But this strategy can also come with some risks. Season ticket holders sometimes can't make all the games they bought tickets for, so they sometimes want to sell their extras. But if an algorithm sets prices too high, there could be a problem.
GARCIA: Yeah. They might not be able to sell those tickets.
HERSHIPS: That is right.
GARCIA: Too expensive.
COMSTOCK: And if all of a sudden they can't make a little bit of margin on that seat, or worst case they take a loss on that seat, that's going to create some unhappy fans as well.
GARCIA: It's kind of like how there's a lot of customers who will not take an Uber if it's raining or whatever and the prices go way up. And then the fans who had those season tickets who can't sell them are kind of like the Uber drivers who now find themselves without people to ride in their cars because nobody wants to pay those higher prices.
GARCIA: So if a baseball or a hockey team sets prices too high, then season ticket holders might not be able to sell their extra tickets either, in which case, yeah, everybody loses. So yeah, there are risks. But for now, at least, teams are trying that dynamic pricing model. That was strategy No. 2.
HERSHIPS: The next strategy teams are trying, strategy No. 3 - get ready for it, it's exciting - flexible seating. Going to a game and not having an assigned seat - I don't know how I feel about this, not having an assigned seat. So this is actually something I asked Rob about.
Are any teams actually doing that, like, letting fans come in and not having assigned seats? It seems like the potential for, like, anarchy or chaos.
COMSTOCK: (Laughter) There are some, I mean, when you think about it. So the Oakland A's, that's a great example. They've done some experimenting with more of a membership-type approach because they have a much larger stadium than they can typically fill. They have the flexibility to designate space that is more open, allows for flexible seating as well as standing room.
HERSHIPS: He said standing room.
GARCIA: Yeah. I'll be honest. It sounds kind of stressful. It's like when you don't have an assigned seat for a plane flight or something, and you just have no idea where you're going to end up.
HERSHIPS: It's like the Southwest Airlines of baseball games.
GARCIA: Yeah. Unless you're super-dedicated to get there really early - maybe.
GARCIA: But yeah, flexible seating, that is another strategy that teams are trying. Strategy No. 4 - the subscription model. So if you are a fan of, let's say, the Atlanta Braves, you can pay a flat fee every month - about $39. And then you can go to as many home games as you want, although those seats are also standing room only.
HERSHIPS: Yeah. I don't know. Still, to be fair, a spokesperson for the Atlanta Braves says there are a lot of options available. And the team is offering this service because it's what younger fans want. They want subscription models. I mean, you can subscribe to almost anything now. There are subscription beauty products, razors, clothes. Even Walmart has a men's grooming box. Subscriptions are a really popular way for people to pay for things now, so why not tickets to a game?
GARCIA: Yeah. The Oakland A's, they also have a subscription program. And the team says, for now, it's working well. And I guess that's a good thing because, for now, while sports teams can count on ad sales from TV deals, there's also a whole lot of cord-cutting going on. So teams may end up having to count on live events once again.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: You talk about a roll of the dice - this is it.
GARCIA: This podcast was produced by Darius Rafieyan, edited by Paddy Hirsch and fact-checked by Emily Lang. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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