September 11, 2003
Cotton Eye for the Casual GuyEvery time a shuttle bus back from a game pulls into a stop, the line to pay and get off snags. "How much is it?" people ask, fumbling for more change, and then three fans later, same deal. The Mariners have played 73 games at home so far this season, the shuttles have run for years, and even this late in the season, after years of popular baseball, there are people who don't know it's $2.50. It's another sign of the huge casual fan base teams enjoy.
I see more than 40 games a year at Safeco Field, as part of a season-ticket plan I split plus games I head to on my own. I'm atypical though. The Mariners have about 20,000 season-ticket holders, and they push season-ticket packages aggressively starting just after their annual mid-season failure to improve for the stretch ("Fans, reward your tight-fisted pound-foolish ownership group by sending in a deposit on a 2004 season-ticket plan now, before you get your blood all angried up when the Mariners miss the playoffs"). They sold a couple thousand more when Safeco Field opened, but it's been down since then.
Now from there, there's a ton of ticket-sharing (buy the tickets, split them two or more ways), and the Mariners sell 20-game packages that are cleverly balanced between the good and bad teams. I'm throwing this out there, but I figure that there's a core of 40,000 fans who see 20 or more games a year--at least 800,000 clicks of the turnstiles over the course of a year. Meanwhile, unless the city gets fed up and stops going to see the team, the Mariners' attendance this year will top 3.2 million stubs. So that would be nearly two-and-a-half million tickets purchased by fans far more casual than me. Even if you double my estimate on the core 20-game people, casual fans would still account for only half of the total turnstile count.
Continuing down this path, I've talked to a lot of people at work, in Target buying light bulbs, and other places, many of whom attend five or less games a year. Some, especially people with kids, might not see three games a year. Ballpark guess then: 2.4 million tickets to the casual fans, and each of those attends five games a season. That's a little less than 500,000 casual fans buying twice as many tickets as the 40,000 core fans.
That's a guess based on my chatting people up lately--I'm sure the Mariners have detailed demographic studies on this that break it all down. But already, this explains a lot: if most fans only see a couple games a year, you can show 12 blooper reels over and over and the chance they'll see a repeat is still low. Everyone enjoys hearing "YMCA" once in a while, and for most fans, if they hear it every time they go, that's still once in a while.
What's more, the economic impact of this breakdown is huge. The core season-ticket holding fans spend a huge amount of money on food and beverages, but they're probably not as likely to splurge like a group of friends on a one-day outing are. And the core fans won't buy more caps, and won't buy significantly more player jerseys than the casual fans. Some of the people who ask me which bus to take on the way in have hats, bags, Ichiro jerseys, and it's their first time at a game this year. The rest of the time, they watch on television or listen to the radio. They know who all the players are.
I ran some errands this morning and everyone knew what the score of the game was the night before and how badly Arthur Rhodes has been hit by the first batter he faces in each appearance since the All Star break. They all know who plays where, and that Carlos Guillen has been shifted to third.
One of the great things the Mariners have managed to do is to turn their operations into a giant funnel: some of their TV broadcasts are little more than the announcers roving around talking about how great all the different seat locations at Safeco are. The Mariners get almost every game on both TV and radio, with many TV games broadcast over the air (shocking). And in turn, they use this to drive even more people to a pleasant ballpark experience (and flagship team store) where the team can reach out and shake them down for money directly. What amazed me most as I've talked to people about heading out to games is that everyone seemed to want to go to more; people who see five games were thinking about the 20-game plans for next year.
It will be interesting to see if it's the season-ticket holders or the occasional attendee who abandons the Mariners first if they fail again to reach the playoffs and the blame is laid at the feet of the team's management. In other markets with good teams, we've seen both sides of the fan base devastated. If you go from sold out every season, like the Indians, to drawing 20,000 or less, that's a massive desertion of fans of all stripes. I would suspect that it comes on all fronts, that season-ticket holders give up 81 tickets for smaller packages, and then only come to a few games, while casual fans cut back from five or 10 games a year and stop going at all. But what if the team is competitive--as the Mariners aim to be every year--provide a nice ballpark and a win half the time, while never being good enough to advance in the playoffs without great luck? Do the sometime fans keep coming out, while the season-ticket holders give up their seats in disgust?
If nothing else, this explains why "I'm a season ticket holder, and I want you to stop playing 'Cotton-Eyed Joe' every stinking game" hasn't gotten me anywhere.