For teams, Game 1 of the season sells itself. What keeps an MiLB GM awake at night is selling tickets to Every. Other. Game. Of. The. Year.
As we discussed last time, smart minor league teams have fun and family friendly ways to sell tickets for the entire season. Sometimes, however, teams run into problems trying to execute those plans, with the usual reasons being lack of promotions, bad weather, poor sales staff, and an absence of media attention.
When that happens, the team has a lot to lose. They need to hit totals in tickets, merchandise, concessions, and parking, and appease sponsors who’ve been promised, “another big year.” To top it off, ownership is likely breathing down the GM’s neck because they’re losing money and their empty stadium is making them look bad in front of their friends and community.
The team needs to hit that revenue quota and get people to attend their games. Somehow.
In order to do that, they begin what is referred to as Papering The House. Plainly, this means giving away tickets for free to get fans in the stands.
Pros & Cons
Papering is risky: giving away tickets is counterintuitive to creating a sustainable business model of building demand, product integrity, and value. Also, teams work hard during the winter to sell tickets and sponsorship. Giving away tickets discredits that.
However, empty seats happen. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. If a team is smart enough to properly sell tickets, they are smart enough to plan for those few unpopular games.
Sadly, the inverse is also true. Poorly led teams have weak ticket sales and subsequently give away tickets in hopes people will show up. This is a devastating circle that further deteriorates their business and market credibility.
There are three very short-term, positive impacts that occur when the house is papered.
1) Fans tend to buy merchandise, parking, and food, leading to revenue for the team that otherwise wouldn’t exist. There’s even an industry expression for it: an empty seat never bought a hot dog and a soda.
2) Those fans in attendance notice the stands are full, falsely assuring themselves that their ticket is more valuable then it’s actually worth.
3) The team can publicly inflate attendance for slower nights. If a stadium has a capacity of 8,500 seats, the team will announce the crowd as 9,500. This is so that when attendance is 2,500, they could announce a crowd of 4,000 so the stadium looks half full. A team will take any edge to publicly increase attendance over the course of 75 games.
While short term, shortsighted gains might be the Band-Aid a team needs to fix an immediate problem, those gains pale in comparison to the long-term damage they usually have on the business.
What Not To Do
I don’t like to criticize teams, as every club has their own market specific challenges, but some methods are universal and consistent in their failure. These methods include randomly and sporadically dropping off tickets at recreation centres, bars, and other local gatherings a few days before a game. I mean actually printing 500 tickets and leaving them at the front desk or with the manager. When people receive free tickets in bulk, those tickets are perceived to have a low value. To any event, no matter the magnitude.
But of all the ways teams give away tickets, these two methods stand out as the worst:
1) A team went door-to-door (literally house-to-house) giving away free tickets for the final series of a disastrous season.
It was a nice thought, as a team brings a lot of traffic and noise to its neighbourhood. It was not taken well, however. Many neighbours already had tickets, so the free ones understandably made them think twice about renewing their season tickets that off-season. That’s not exactly the reputation you want to have, especially in your own backyard.
2) A team offered 750 tickets to its bank sponsor three days before a game and in the final year of their sponsorship contract.
This bad message sent shock waves through the bank’s head office, and distributing these tickets in short order caused a monstrous amount of stress.
Unsurprisingly, the bank spent their marketing dollars elsewhere the following year.
How Smart Teams Paper The House
As mentioned above, smart teams are very strategic and deliberate on how they distribute free tickets: they get ahead of the situation and plan well in advance.
In my experience, the very best way to do this is to involve the team’s large sponsors and donate tickets to local charities.
For example, in their contract, a car sponsor will pay for 250 tickets and hot dogs to donate to the Children’s Hospital for their staff, families, and volunteers.
This can be set up for a few games a season, months in advance, strategically on games that have a hard time drawing well. Families are home during the week, and traditionally weeknights at the ballpark are the toughest to sell. Perfect match.
Multiply that strategy by a few sponsors and a team could move a few thousand tickets per year. The company makes a donation and strengthens its community ties while the team insulates itself by pre-selling to large groups. Win-Win.
Another way is to identify local charities that aren’t as popular as the mainstream ones. Since they fly a little under the radar, they are often forgotten.
Bringing the mascot to surprise an underprivileged school or summer camp is always fun. Once the kids realize they are going to a game that summer, they literally cry tears of joy. A lot of those kids have it hard at home, so enjoying a baseball game with their friends will create memories they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
Sure, it’s tough when the place isn’t sold out every night, but with a little planning, a team could easily turn a negative situation into a positive one.
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