The New Way to a Sports Fan's Heart Isn't Through Success
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Teams are turning to innovative social engagement strategies to keep fans on their side.
The man seated in front of me is dangerously close to spilling his Fuku chicken sandwich onto the concrete where I’ve been spitting peanut shells. If the sandwich goes, so too will his cocktail. Courtesy of Citi Field’s Jim Beam Bourbon Bar, says the cup. With thinning gray hair, a pressed Brooks Brothers button-down and his floppy blue “dad hat,” this New York Mets fan doesn’t seem to fit the ballpark social media promotion demographic. But as he snaps an iPhoto of the $25 meal balanced on his knee, one stereotype is put to rest. Soon, a hashtagged Instagram post will follow.
In the 300-level bleachers, in a roped-off section called the Bud Light Landing overlooking left field, social media influencers rub elbows with lubricated fans as part of a promotion with a popular sports blog. On this Saturday night, Mets fans show up in droves even as their team loses for the fifth straight game. But, an experience was had. To the Mets, that itself is vindication of a strategy.
There was a time when $1 hot dogs and 24-ounce “souvenir” cups filled with frothy light brew qualified as ballpark promotions. Now, organizations are scrambling to develop fresh ways to provide fans a comprehensive game day “experience” — boring T-shirt giveaways and modest concessions don’t cut it anymore. And leading the way are organizations whose teams are struggling on the field or are novices trying to make a mark. Whether by bulking up culinary offerings, hosting social-driven watch parties or borrowing from political strategies, their next wave of ticketing operations hinges on the belief that fans crave communal experiences and involvement.
The Oakland Athletics are constructing a party deck called the Treehouse, with two bars and a 1,000-person capacity that, unlike in-stadium VIP areas, offers subscription-based tickets — $29.99 per month for six months or $149.99 annually. Oakland routinely ranks in the bottom three of MLB attendance, and this season, average attendance has plummeted from 18,446 in 2017 to 15,500. A far cry from the Coliseum’s 63,132 capacity. But with the subscription model, the A’s are calculating that much like an unused gym membership, fans who stay home can still bolster business.
When the product on the field is unreliable, it helps to have another source of entertainment.
Mike Shafland, Mets fan
Over at FC Cincinnati, a 3-year-old professional soccer club in the tier-two United Soccer League, president and general manager Jeff Berding is trying to engage supporters through a fan advisory council. The cabinet of 30 season ticket holders “from varied walks of life” gets to weigh in on a range of issues, from the club’s uniform design and international friendly schedules to plans for a new stadium.
And while Yankees fans may turn their 27 World Series–winning noses up at the Mets, in New York City it’s the Queens club that reigns supreme in fan engagement. From chicken and waffles and mouthwatering barbecue to melted raclette over bratwurst on a baguette, Citi Field boasts impressive culinary efforts the Yankees can’t match. Hell, the Mets have even opened an in-stadium craft brewery — by Danish microbrewery Mikkeller — that can accommodate non-ticket holders.
“For fans, there’s no choosing another team,” says Mike Shafland, 29, a lifelong Mets fan who lives in Brooklyn. “When the product on the field is unreliable, it helps to have another source of entertainment.”
To be sure, it isn’t as though innovative fan-engagement strategies have emerged only now. Way back in 1979, the Chicago White Sox held a now-infamous promotion for rock-and-roll purists called “Disco Demolition Night.” When a local disc jockey detonated a crate full of disco records in the outfield, thousands of disorderly fans rushed the field and a riot ensued. Years later, in 2004, the NBA’s Washington Wizards introduced Singles Nights — where single fans could attend games, and perhaps find romance — to attract younger audiences.
But such innovations are no longer isolated initiatives separated by years. Now, unique fan-engagement strategies are emerging as the lifeblood of efforts to stay alive for teams struggling to keep their support base excited.
The strategy is simple. Take the Mets, for instance. In a food-forward city like New York, the taste buds are as good a way as any to get fans into the stadium — even if they’ll only watch from inside a brewery. “We’re helping make Citi Field more of a destination ballpark,” says Patrick Schaeffer, senior executive chef at Aramark, the company that brings restaurants to Citi Field. “Instagrammable food,” as Schaeffer calls it, may feel at odds with the hollering hot dog vendor, but these new offerings have fans marketing the business themselves. “When the team sucks, at least we still get to have fun,” says Shafland.
At the Oakland Treehouse, a pass admits fans to every home game, on the Treehouse deck only. “We are committed to enhancing the fan experience and delivering dynamic and new ways to enjoy A’s baseball,” says team president Dave Kaval in a statement.
Still, drawing fans to the stadiums — and building relationships with them — remains important. That’s what Berding is trying to do at FC Cincinnati. “We know that people want ownership and they want to be a part of something special,” says Berding, who, before launching FC Cincinnati in 2015, worked in the Cincinnati Bengals front office for 19 years and was elected three times to the Cincinnati city council. His young team is on the anvil of a big leap — after two seasons of USL record attendance, FC Cincinnati was invited to join Major League Soccer (MLS) as an expansion team in 2019.
For the politically savvy Berding, growing an already passionate fan base requires “running our club with a civic mindset and authentic accessibility.” Ranging from $10–$40, FC Cincinnati’s tickets offer a welcoming entry point. And though a television deal for every game for the team’s first three seasons cost the club “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” it was worth it, he suggests. “It was an advertising investment,” Berding says. “The teams with their games on TV are the ones that get covered on the news.”
Amid this razzmatazz of initiatives, it’s impossible not to ask: “Is anyone watching the game?” To the teams leading these efforts though, the answer may matter only so much.