Luring back the crowds

CHEAP hot dogs, subsidised travel and discounted tickets.

In the teeth of the current economic downturn, US sports franchises are doing everything they can to keep bums on seats and dollars circulating through their businesses.

And as the GAA cranks up for another championship season, there may be some valuable lessons to be learned from across the pond about seeing Gaelic Games through the present recession with bank balances intact.

No matter whether a sport pays its players or relies on their loyalty to club and county, the people that run every sport and team need to know how to best sell their product, particularly when the climate is at its harshest.

“With the tell-tale of no real change in the unemployment rate, then folks are getting a little more tenuous about discretionary spending,” says Rodney Fort, professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan.

So even America’s major leagues, which once felt they were recession proof, are getting creative in their campaigns to lure cash-strapped fans back to the ballpark, basketball arena, ice hockey rink and football field.

Major League Baseball has been perhaps the most proactive in trying to both retain and win back reticent fans. Total MLB attendance in 2009 dropped 6.6% to 73.4 million from 2008, according to, while the previous year, attendance slipped 1.2% from 2007, although that season saw a record high of 79.5 million spectators.

In response Major League clubs are pulling out all the stops, with many of the 30 teams offering $1 dollar ticket or hot dog promotions and others waiving parking fees or subsidising public transport to their stadiums.

And with the 2010 campaign, which started in early April, already producing record-low crowds for struggling teams such as the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals, the feeling amongst ball-club executives is that a short-term loss leader is an acceptable price to pay.

“It is if we can bring folks to the park who might not otherwise come,” Jim Leahey, the Oakland Athletics’ vice president of sales, explained.

Different teams are employing different strategies in order to achieve that. In Oakland, it is free parking on a Tuesday night, when the cost would normally be $17. There are dollar menus in Cincinnati for Reds games and at the Milwaukee Brewers, while the Athletics, Indians, Mariners, Kansas City Royals, Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers (at the centre of a protracted sale by Liverpool FC co-owner Tom Hicks) are all offering $1 or $2 hot dog promotions.

And in Atlanta, the Braves are putting upper deck seats for seven games this season on the market for a dollar apiece. The move may have helped the Braves report a 28% rise in attendance for the early part of the 2010 season, an occurrence also being enjoyed by the Rangers and Reds, while the Minnesota Twins are enjoying life in their new Target Field with attendances up 62.3% on last year’s first seven home games at their old Metrodome, a club spokesman said.

On the ice, the National Hockey League reported its most profitable season in 2008-2009, with Forbes Magazine reporting a rise in team values of $3m (€2.4m) million to an average of $223m (€181m), in spite of reduced sponsorship and fan spending and the figures for 2009-2010 look set to be healthy also, given the boost the sport got from a compelling Olympic tournament in Vancouver.

GRIDIRON’S National Football League is the biggest cash cow of them all, though even the NFL has felt the pinch. In late 2008, as the recession first began to bite, the league announced a 14% cut in its workforce in film production and headquarters staff, as well as a salary freeze for those that remained.

“I would like to be able to report we are immune to the troubles around us, but we are not,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, and that was before the 2009 season saw a drop in predicted revenue by up to $60m (€48m).

Like baseball, attendances are falling among those teams that have been struggling on the field, with the NFL attempting to staunch the bleeding at the gates by pulling the plug on local TV broadcasts of games, known as blackouts, if a team was unable to sell out its stadium, three days before kick-off.

That threat from headquarters led to some teams slashing ticket prices to ensure sellouts, with successful teams such as the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings narrowly avoiding the fate suffered by losing outfits such as the Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders and St Louis Rams, a trio that totalled nine blackout games in 2008.

Last season in Detroit, one of the hardest hit cities by the recession, visitors to Ford Field were enticed by the NFL’s first all-you-can-eat buffet, while in northern Florida, the Jacksonville Jaguars narrowly avoided another blackout when the team’s wide receiver Chad Ochocinco joined forces with mobile phone giant Motorola and bought up the remaining game tickets.

“Our biggest competition is being able to sit at home and watch the game on a 52-inch high-def screen, fridge full of beer or soda right there and having a good time with your buddies,” Jaguars team owner Wayne Weaver said. “The challenge is to communicate why you have to be there.”

To that end, more money is being ploughed into the municipally-owned Jaguars Stadium in this off-season to make the live experience more appetising, up to $3m going on improvements to concession areas with more registers to speed up wait times, electronic menus and the installation of better sound and video systems.

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