This article was started several months ago–long before I was aware of the #RaisingTheStakes campaign by the IronPigs. We’ll have to wait and see how that fits in…
Long-time readers on these pages know that I often quote attendance figures and find the support of our minor league teams in the Lehigh Valley a point of pride. Several of us around here have even used words like “Mecca of Minor League Sports.” But it’s all quite young, really. What does the future hold?
Story time: Last season, the Phantoms were preparing to face the St John’s Ice Caps up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. A snow storm hit, and the AHL-best sellout streak in St John’s was snapped. It’s not a huge arena, and it’s in Canada, and with all due respect–I can’t imagine there’s that much else to do in St. John’s in the winter other than hockey. But kudos to them for the sell-out streak, you know? They didn’t break the AHL record, though. Who holds that?
I was just there a couple years ago. It wasn’t crowded. It was dollar beer and dollar hot dog night–for six bucks you could get two beers (small) and four hot dogs. Yet this was my view…
What happened? What changed? I’ve been wondering. And then I saw an article…
The Rise and Fall of the Penguins
At this point, it’s important for you to go and read the “Lakso article” (Penguins Working to Curb Falling Attendance). Is it a cautionary tale? Is it a model for what to do, or what not to do? How does it apply to our teams? Is it even relevant? Are there answers?
Anyway, go read it now, I’ll wait.
If that link goes dark, let me know. I’ve got the text of that piece saved and I can embed it here. However, I’d prefer they get the clicks. (You might have to answer the one quick trivia question…)
“Nobody ever goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” –-Yogi Berra
I think one of the factors which influences attendance and ticket sales is that popularity breeds popularity. Sure, folks want to go and check out the new ballpark or the new arena, but when they have a good time plus they learn that it’s a hard ticket to get–word of sellouts will breed demand for season tickets. Season tickets are a good way for fans to guarantee the best seats and in many cases get a better price. Certainly, some of these go unused sometimes, and that’s a big reason for empty seats. You’ll see this at the ballpark and the arena: Some of the best seats are empty because season ticket holders aren’t there.
There is a secondary market for tickets, but it’s not as robust for minor league sports. Folks who see the demand and pony up for a season ticket package figuring they can then sell them–may not last long on the season ticket list. That’s something to remember.
I’ve written several times about how teams should host their own “ticket exchange” sites where season ticket holders could make seats available for purchase or trade either to other season ticket holders or to the public. But that’s another topic, too.
In the early life-cycle of a minor league team, the initial surge of interested fans can often translate into additional fans and additional season tickets if the organization is good. We’ve seen that happen with the IronPigs, the Phantoms, as well as the WB/S Penguins if you look at the attendance figures. Some new teams–the Hartford Yard Goats starting this season for example–will almost require that you purchase a MULTI-year contract to get in on season tickets.
But what happens next?
Hang on. First we need to talk about:
One of the most popular local fan responses to Mr. Lakso’s article was, “Well, we never win the Calder Cup. That would help.” But yet, the Penguins have been in the playoffs every year in recent memory. The playoffs are the first step towards the Calder, and for those fans, they don’t even know if their team may or may not win it THIS SEASON. Sure, it would be nice to celebrate in the off-season and would probably provide a slight boost in season tickets, but it wouldn’t create the sellouts like they used to have.
Certainly, in Major League sports, winning counts. Just look at how hard it was to get Phillies tickets a few years ago. Now, with the team rebuilding, you can walk up to the window any game day and get a seat–maybe a good one. But down here in the minors, winning has much less effect. The IronPigs have made the playoffs only once in their history, and never even had a record above .500 for even a day during their first three seasons. Yet, they were winning ballpark awards and packing the park all along.
How long has it been since the Phantoms made the playoffs? Too long. Yet we’re among the tops in the league in attendance even without the largest of arenas. We’ve seen the winning teams up North struggle to fill their venues: The Pens as well as the RailRiders/Yankees.
Everyone likes a winner. Winning helps. But it doesn’t cure all, and it doesn’t guarantee sellouts. Not in the minors. Not even close.
This might be a good time to bring up the somewhat unique situation of the SteelHawks. While they don’t have a direct affiliation (below), they are the only team in control of their roster and their coaches. Much like a major league team, if they want better players, they can go out and get them (to a point). They can fire their coach. (No worries Coach Thompson. Just win.) And, winning might be the most important to them. They only have six “openings” to sell, and a home playoff game would allow them to create another business opportunity–and maybe more as they proceed through the playoffs. Winning might not make a difference in “per game” attendance, but in overall it would be huge for them–and create a buzz in the community to boot.
Promotional Giveaways: “If it’s free, it’s for me.”
Different teams handle promotions differently. The IronPigs put a tremendous amount of effort into making sure there’s something every night. If it’s not a giveaway, it might be a performance, or a theme, or a fireworks show.
One of the criticisms they get, though, is that there are never enough giveaways for everybody. While the Phantoms promotional schedule is somewhat lacking in comparison, they’ve done a good job making sure almost everybody gets served, even with all the different entrances to the arena. Barely anyone can say “I didn’t get one.”
The Scranton teams have taken a somewhat different approach–reserving giveaways for season ticket holders. They’ve changed this in Moosic with the move from Yankees to RailRiders, but they did it like that before. While this is a great way to pump up season tickets a little bit, I don’t think it’s the best way to maximize ticket sales. We’ll come back to this in a few minutes. I do think promotions and themes are important to the bottom line at the end of the season.
One of the advantages our local teams have, here in the “Mecca of Minor League Sports” is that, for the most part, our teams are affiliated–closely–with major league teams just an hour down the road in Philadelphia. As I’ve often said, I don’t think they’d fill Coca Cola Park quite the same way if it was the single-A Brewers.
The IronPigs have the Phillies, the Phantoms the Flyers, and the new Steel FC has the Philadelphia Union–the highest level of soccer in the United States. Even the SteelHawks indoor football team is closely aligned with the AFL Philly Soul–maybe not exclusively, but they’ll visit our arena this summer and they have shared players and scouting at the highest level of indoor football.
So that makes it easier, but it’s not a slam dunk, either. Teams can certainly be successful from farther away. We already mentioned St John in the AHL. Utica does very well and is no where near Vancouver. Even Wilkes Barre–they didn’t suddenly get farther away from Pittsburgh when their attendance started to slip.
So while it’s a factor, it’s not everything in either direction.
Turnstiles, Seats, and Other Shenanigans
Before we start solving the problems let’s touch on this. Selling tickets isn’t the be-all and end-all. Making money and turning a profit is what a business is all about. It can be more important to have fannies in the seats than it is to actually sell the tickets. The food and beverage concession, as well as the merchandise sales, are of utmost importance to these teams. In the big stadiums it’s not such a big deal. The make more from selling more seats at higher prices, and know they’ll have enough concessions regardless, so they’ll often let folks bring sandwiches into the park. They’ve also got TV contracts, and more advertising–not to mention more money coming from their leagues and licensing.
Not so much in the minors. It’s printed right on the front of every ticket. No outside food or drink.
“It’s for safety.”
It’s for profit. But I digress.
Certainly tickets can’t always be free or they’ll cheapen their product. However, the number of people going through the turnstiles is very very important to the teams, and the information is often kept quite confidential. I believe it’s one of the reasons why we get “loaded credit” on our IronPigs season tickets for the early season games; it helps get us out to the park when the weather might not be quite so perfect–and even with the credit, we’ll spend money at the park. But know that the announced attendance isn’t always the gospel truth.
So teams will tell us how many tickets were “sold” but that doesn’t mean how many people are there. There have been a couple of IronPigs games where I suspect more than the “maximum capacity” was in the stadium, too. Sometimes, comp tickets which come with advertising contracts or other promotional opportunities, pumps up the “ticket total” as well. Teams can use this to their advantage to keep the “hottest ticket” status in effect, and keep demand for season tickets high–but that only goes so far.
Lastly, the number of people populating the group areas, luxury boxes, and suites, can be a factor in the final number; I think this is responsible for some of the variation we see in the announced number at the PPL Center.
But as I said above, we’re going to go on the official announced attendance, with a nod to what might be really going on.
Solutions Part I: Where They are Now
Before we can “solve the problems” of these teams–or recommend what they should be doing–we need to acknowledge where they are right now. All of our local teams are younger than the WB/S Penguins, but let’s take another look at their attendance history:
In the graphic above, you can see that the first year the Penguins really started to lose attendance was year 9. It then became a downward trend. The IronPigs are in year nine right now. We’ve already seen that they are doing things a bit differently, as we’ll discuss below. The IronPigs do many things very well, and I think they’ll be fine as they approach what I think is a crossroads in their franchise history.
IronPigs Attendance (per game):
The Phantoms are approaching the close of year two, and should see a similar rise in total, overall attendance as compared with the Pens. They’re a “young” franchise in this location, and they’re doing well. For now. Many season tickets are locked into 3- and 5-year contracts. What happens when those contracts are up? The prices are locked in for those contracts, but will have already increased for single-game and single-season plans. Will new contracts be enough to replace the inevitable attrition? Are groups happy with their experience? Are casual fans interested enough to come back out to the arena?
The ‘hawks are somewhat unique, as we said before, and have just moved into a new facility–joining the Phantoms downtown. Some fans who were perhaps closer to the old Stabler Arena have moved on and had to be replaced with new fans, who were willing to drive downtown and pay for parking. They’ve done well, though it’s hard to say whether they’re in year 6 or year 2. They’re still growing, regardless–they do not sell out.
The baby of the group is Steel FC, which will begin play at Goodman Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University this April. I’m sure they’ll do well in their first year, as the curious and the soccer-heads come out to support them and check them out. As the SteelHawks did, the SteelFC will have some struggle to draw folks out to Lehigh as it’s not as centrally located. In many ways, they’re still an unknown.
Solutions Part II: What They’re Doing
Via observations, this is what I’m seeing from our franchises right now.
IronPigs: As we mentioned above, the ‘Pigs have added the “loaded value” perk for season ticket holders the last couple years. In addition, they’ve added new and different ticket plans, including “flex” packs and “four packs” last year and this, respectively.
Just this week, we’ve learned of a new campaign: “Raise The Stakes.” We’ll see what this entails.
Here’s the thing: I remember when our attendance crown was being challenged by Columbus a few seasons ago. A high-ranking IronPigs official dismissed the challenge, pointing out that Columbus does things like having “dollar dog night” every week–that’s $1 hot dogs.
Guess what? This season we’ll have “dollar dogs” every Monday night, and during “happy hour” on Thursdays as well!.
And, they’ve done away with our Philly Pretzel Factory, and will turn down tens of thousands of dollars in rent in order to sell their own pretzels. We’ll see how that works out.
Phantoms: The Phantoms are riding the wave right now. They’re one of the hottest tickets in town and occupy one of the nicest minor league hockey facilities in the world. But, they’re also experiencing some of the natural staff turnover that happens as employees move on to bigger and better opportunities–it’s not just the players who are looking to move up, you know. This is a natural occurrence and not necessarily a reflection on a difficult workplace or organization. In fact, I think it’s a good sign when you have talented and energetic young staffers working for you.
The Phantoms are also leveraging their popularity by raising ticket prices, and by some accounts, making themselves difficult to work with–in groups and advertising and ticket contracts and so on. It’s similar to what we heard about the IronPigs a few years ago, when their popularity was at its apex.
SteelHawks: As mentioned above, the SteelHawks are still in “growth mode.” They’re still trying to add new fans and get folks out to the PPL Center to see the indoor football game on Embassy Bank Field. They’re also trying to win. I know, they all are, but as we’ve already covered, a winning record and a home playoff game (or two…) would be a bigger boon for this organization than for the others.
Steel FC: The newcomers to the field are busy adding first-time season ticket holders, and have begun offering partial-season plans. They’re also busy preparing to roll out additional team-branded gear and they’ve just introduced their “kits”–or uniforms. They haven’t been terribly forthcoming with roster information, pre-season game results, or much of anything else, really. Observers have wondered if they are “over-matched” in this market, or if they just don’t care much because everything will run through Chester. We’ll see, going forward.
Solutions Part III: What They Should be Doing
Are these teams doing everything they could, or should, be doing to maintain or gain attendance? What could they do better? What would I do if I were in charge? To reiterate, I don’t have all the information (ie. they could be doing these things–or they could be un-doable for whatever reason), but these are the things I’d be doing on “day one” if they put me in charge:
IronPigs: I think the IronPigs are on the right track, despite the fact that I also think they’re at a crossroads in their franchise life. They need to maintain good relations with their corporate partners and their season ticket holders: Folks aren’t lined up for plans any more, and not to sponsor things around the park, either, I’d guess. If there were times in the past when they were able to operate on the advantageous side of the supply-demand equation, perhaps their situation isn’t quite so solid right now. I’m not sure I agree with their decision to oust Philly Pretzels–a ballpark staple most of us love. They’ve got a new campaign just announced. We’ll wait to see what that is.
Promotions are important, and the ‘Pigs need to continue to live up to their own high standards of having a giveaway, entertainment, or theme every single game night. Folks have come to expect it, and night after night of “nothing” will be noticeable, and nobody wants to be on a sinking ship.
Another thing the IronPigs have done over the years is add something new–a seating area, or urinal games, or new uniforms or the like–to keep things fresh. As we’ve written on these pages several times before, the next new thing that needs to be done at Coca Cola Park is a new video board. Is that what’s coming? Let’s put it this way: If you’re still watching a TV you purchased in 2007 or before, you know it’s not the best. It might work just fine–but it could be better. Moosic, Reading, Philadelphia–PPL Center too of course–all have newer, nicer video boards. And, some of the cost could be defrayed by the ability to sell more and different advertising via the new display. I hope they’re working towards that.
The IronPigs do many things very well, and I expect them to be able to stall and curtail the down-turn in attendance even if they don’t take my advice. The biggest thing is to make themselves easy to work with: easy to solve tickets/group ticket/or season ticket problems, easy to purchase advertising, and flexible when needed.
Phantoms: As the Phantoms ride the popularity wave, they need to proceed with caution. As an organization, they haven’t made the playoffs in the past seven seasons–that’s even longer than the lovable losers at Coca Cola Park. Hockey fans are a bit more demanding in this area than baseball fans, I’ve observed. The local organization isn’t wholly responsible for this part, but they need to be cognizant of it as fans are ravenous for a Calder run. If they haven’t done so already, they need to make it clear to the Flyers organization that seven years without playoffs isn’t just bad luck, it’s malfeasance. Negligence. Malpractice.
They also need to be careful about burning bridges with their corporate sponsors and long-term season ticket holders. They could see things take a precipitous drop when 3- and 5-year ticket holders and corporate sponsors start to reevaluate. The Phantoms are operating on the power side of the supply/demand curve right now, but if they poison the well, they could see relationships dissolve in a hurry, with no fans lined up to replace them. Remember, Scranton had a waiting list some 800-deep for season tickets, and things still fell off rather dramatically. The Phantoms need to think just as much about two- or four-years from now, as next year.
They’ve also seen some of their staff leave recently. And, while I think this is normal, as written above, those staffers need to be replaced. In fact, I think many of the problems the Phantoms have experienced in their young franchise life in Allentown can be attributed to not enough staff. It seems they’re always over-worked and behind on things, and when that happens the ball gets dropped (the puck jumps over the stick?). I know about running a business and being lean and all that, but if customer service is lacking, you’ll lose bigger in the end. Staff need to have a defined chain of command and responsibility. They need to be empowered to make decisions within their scope. When challenged with a problem or an issue, sales staff and others need to follow up to make sure things get handled properly, even if it does have to move up the chain. Accountability. Responsibility. Customer service.
They used the, “We’re opening a new building” excuse a ton last season, yet this year the promotion schedule was late again, and many games have no theme or promotion at all. Maybe they don’t need to. However, I think they need to get a solid, expanded staff in place in order to maintain the successful relationships they have on the ticket, group, and corporate levels, and make sure the quality of the experience at the PPL Center improves rather than decays. Of course, many things are out of their control–like the quality of the food or the size of the rest rooms. But, they’ve been entrusted with perhaps the nicest minor-league arena in the AHL; they need to work to make sure they take advantage–chiefly by maintaining good customer service with their guests, ticket holders, and sponsors rather than taking advantage of the “hottest ticket” position they currently enjoy. Just like the IronPigs of a few years ago, there are rumblings of poor customer service, mis-representation, and “difficult to work with” that need to be rectified. Through hard work, softening their stances on some things, and good customer service, the ‘Pigs have been somewhat able to overcome that to this point. Pretzels notwithstanding. The Phantoms need to tread lightly and not chase people away.
The next thing they need to do is continue to court the casual fan.
Yup, I said it. My hockey fan friends are groaning, but I think that was part of the downfall of the Penguins. The key is, you have to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate the hockey fans in the course. While baseball fans may be willing to deal with the “carnival” or “pinball game” that goes along with a night at the minor league park, hockey fans not so much.
So, I’m not advocating for the return of “sweaty guy throwing T-Shirts” –but maybe more along the lines of teaching the game of hockey and encouraging the “casual” fans to become “hockey” fans. Because hockey isn’t quite as universal as baseball–at least not in Pennsylvania–this means flooding the airwaves with everything hockey. Rules, regulations, history, how to play, learn to skate, team standings, history–then constant blurbs on how to be a good fan at the arena, and the like. Make it fun. No, it won’t take with everyone, but for those for whom it does, they will have potential new fans to take over season ticket contracts and purchase groups and walk-up customers and so on. Casual fans are fungible. Just look at what happened in Scranton.
or fans who already know about all the rules and other hockey stuff, they’ll enjoy hearing about it rather than hospital visits and parades. Not that it’s unimportant to be involved with the community (see also: Steel FC) but don’t be afraid to talk about hockey to the casual fans–they want to know, trust me.
One thing the Phantoms seem to be doing well with is embracing the fan club. Having an official fan club–your most dedicated fans–out in the community representing you and your game is a good start as a way to gather the casual fan and convert him/her to a “hockey” fan. That’s what will make the Phantoms’ attendance stand up. That’s what they have in Hershey–hockey fans–and why they’re perennially among the tops in attendance. Yes, their Calder runs help, but they show up for the hockey as much as the winning.
SteelHawks: Just win, baby! A playoff run that results in a couple extra home games, to possibly go along with a championship, would go a ways towards continuing to build a fan base. Like hockey, arena football is different in person than it is on TV–and there are many football fans in the Lehigh Valley. For the most part, I think just getting them in the door to give it a try at the arena is part of the challenge. The visit by the Soul–the Philadelphia AFL team a level above the ‘Hawks–might be an opportunity for expanding the fan base.
Now in the sixth year of SteelHawks football, and in light of the league changes with the AFL contracting and the PIFL going on hiatus, one has to wonder if the SteelHawks could eventually ‘graduate’ to the AFL as one of the more established arena organizations in the country. It’s an interesting question, and might involve a significant investment in franchise fees for all I know. However, with some increase in fan base it could be within the realm of possibility.
Bethlehem Steel FC: As the opening day approaches for the inaugural season of the USL franchise, I’ve got a laundry list of things they should be doing. Perhaps they are, and I’m not aware, but I’ve no evidence. So here goes:
- Release game information from the preseason matches, including player information. If you’re not willing to do it yourself, at least formulate press releases for local outlets and blogs (ahem!) to do it for you.
- Help educate the public on who the players are, where they’re coming from, and where they might go
- Get in touch with the local soccer clubs (I’ve heard nothing from mine…) to arrange group nights, on-field exhibitions, promotions, and the like. It’s not too early to start–the schedule is out.
- Soccer clubs are always looking for ways to make money (as are all youth sports clubs) so put a plan in place whereby they can sell your tickets and take a small profit for themselves. Reading does this with baseball, and it would be a great way to get your name out in the community and sell some tickets all at the same time. It’s smaller scale than selling a group–just sell 10 tickets for each family and a chunk of money goes back to the club. Plus, everyone gets to see a soccer match as well!
- Run more stuff through Allentown. They have a local office, but it seems everything from players to coaches to media to tickets goes through Chester. At least hide it better. I know some of it is by design, but it feels like they’re not part of this community–just taking advantage of a cool name and squatting at a local stadium until they get a better offer. Perhaps this will improve. The affiliation with Lehigh Valley Hospital seems to be a good start and represents a firm tie to the community.
- They could also start by having their own, separate website. They could be more active on social media, too, which costs very little other than an employee and a computer. Overall, I think the average soccer fan is younger than baseball or hockey, so they need to communicate with these fans better.
- They’ve got to solve the other problems of not having a local team shop, and not selling beer at the games. I know they’re working on this, but since it’s not done yet it remains on the list.
- Sell more groups. Seriously, soccer clubs alone won’t do it. Go to the youth athletic associations next. Then the Cub Scouts and the Girl Scouts. Churches and communities. Fire companies and the like. You’ve gotta sell the groups to fill the stands. All the other teams are doing it, and without a constant local presence, it’s going to be more difficult for BSFC.
Kram Fixes the Penguins
Okay, so you think just level the Mohegan Sun and send them West to Monroeville? 🙂
Just kidding. And I’m not saying this would work perfectly, but here’s what I’d do:
- Promos for everybody. Have a theme and/or giveaway every night and make each game feel like an event. Sure, hard-core hockey fans will complain a bit, but they’re not going to leave you as long as it’s not over the top and it stays centered around the hockey game. You might need the sales staff to get out there and sell sponsorships for the promos. Make sure you have enough staff, and get out there. Full arenas are for closers. You need to bring back the casual fans.
- They’re already doing this, but: Continue to market to Allentown and Hershey and Binghamton. I know it’s a drag for the three or four teams to play so often, sometimes, but reach out to the fan groups from the drive-able foes to attract ‘away’ fans.
- Introduce something new each season. It’s a page out of the IronPigs book. I know you can’t always justify the expense of a building project, but improving a certain seating area, adding a new concession, making a splash in the local media–it will keep the casual fans from forgetting about you.
- Market outside the immediate Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area. It’s been a challenge for the RailRiders, I know. I grew up exactly mid-way between Scranton and Binghamton. Over the holidays, I asked around at the parties: For hockey, every single person talks about driving up to Binghamton for games, but nobody to Wilkes Barre. Why? Not like they have a better team. More established, perhaps? Not like there’s a bunch of Ottawa fans around. [Incidentally, when asked the same question about baseball, all mentioned the RailRiders over the B-Mets. One of the reasons the Binghamton baseball team will be undergoing some changes in the next year, perhaps. But I digress.] It’s all about marketing, I think.
- Play up the winning. Point out the playoffs constantly even if you have to make fun of the silly orange team to your South. It’s not all about Hershey. Binghamton’s horrible too. It won’t work by itself, but the combination of winning plus additional promotion might bring some casual fans back.
- Keep selling the groups. I know they have some group folks, but that’s what fills the parks and the arenas. Make sure groups get good deals and enjoy the game–and collect their info so you can market to them (see also: IronPigs “Pig in a Poke”).
- Buy some coverage. Minor league teams don’t always get coverage for free. I haven’t been up there a ton, but last time through, no billboards or other ads for the team were evident. I get stuff from the RailRiders all the time, but only occasionally from the Pens. Do stuff to get your name on the top of the minds of your former fans who used to fill your arena–even if it means spending a little money. Be nice to your local media and make sure they have the tools to cover your team and put a nice write-up in the paper and on the web every single game–not saying they don’t already do this, but it’s important.
- Support your die hard fans. The Pens have a couple blogs that cover them, and may have a fan club as well. Make sure those folks are willing and able to sing your praises in the community, and where possible, leverage them to increase attendance. Bring a friend night?
- Market to those you lost. Still got phone numbers for those long-lost season ticket holders? Give ’em a call in the off-season and offer an “come back” rate on season ticket plans–and a variety of choices to combat excuses they might have. Maybe additional flex and partial plans if needed. Payment plans. I know you’re doing some of this, but are you doing it the best?
Conclusions, Disclaimers, and Excuses
Go ahead and hammer me for any of this if you want. I’m just thinking–I’m a keen observer and just trying to help. As I pointed out, there may be things going on behind the scenes which I don’t know about. Perhaps some things have been tried, and failed. Perhaps there are other issues.
I’m not employed by any team and never have been. Nobody gives me free tickets. I pay for parking (usually) and food (always) and never sit in the press box, even when I have access. I’m not looking for anyone to fail; I find the business of minor league sports very interesting–because it helps explain “why.”
“Why can’t I bring food into the stadium?”
See you there,