Indians’ playoff run is driving season-ticket sales for 2017

Courtesy of Crain’s Cleveland Business:

As the final three home games of the regular season approached on Friday, Sept. 23, the Indians were headed for a fifth consecutive season with an average attendance that fell short of 20,000.

The Tribe’s playoff run in 2016, however, already is making an impact on the club’s 2017 gate numbers.

Tim Salcer, the club’s senior director of ticket sales and service, said the Indians have sold the equivalent of 700 full season tickets (FSEs in professional sports lingo) since Aug. 1. From Sept. 12-18, when the Indians’ chances of making their first post-Wild-Card appearance since 2007 became a near-formality, the club sold more than 200 FSEs. In the last two weeks, the total is 300.

“It has not stopped since the (14-game) winning streak in June,” Salcer said. “It has been extremely intense from then on.”

The Indians have long thought that pumping up their season-ticket base was one of the most critical steps they could take to improve their attendance, which has ranked in the bottom three of Major League Baseball each year since 2011 and hasn’t been among the top 20 clubs since 2002. In 2008, when the Tribe was coming off a trip to the American League Championship Series, the team had 15,000 season-ticket holders and averaged more than 27,000 fans per game.

This season, even as the club has been among baseball’s best from June on, the Indians’ attendance norm heading into the final weekend series was 19,442. The average marked a 9.2% jump from 2015, an improvement that was the third-largest in MLB, but still ranked above only the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays.

The reasons for the club’s attendance problems have been well-chronicled, but a key factor in the Indians’ low numbers this season is they started the 2016 campaign with about 8,700 FSEs. (For accounting purposes, four fans who purchase 20-game ticket plans would count as one season-ticket holder, since the Tribe has 81 home games to sell.)

The season-ticket base has hovered in the 9,000 range for each of the last two seasons, which is about 1,000 above the 2014 total and 3,000 ahead of 2012, but well below many other big-league clubs.

Salcer said the recent sales surge — which has been boosted by fans being guaranteed the first chance to purchase 2016 playoff tickets — means the Indians are “far ahead of where we were last year.” The club’s season-ticket holders have renewed their seats at a 95% rate, and the Tribe is already approaching 9,000 FSEs for 2017 — with a postseason trip and an entire offseason still ahead.

“Everything is going well,” Salcer said.

The Indians’ relatively low season-ticket base is most often evident during weeknight home games in the spring, when school is still in session and the weather often is less than pleasant, and late summer/early fall, after school has resumed, football season has started and schedules get even more hectic.

From July 4 to Aug. 15, the Indians had eight Monday-Thursday home games draw more than 19,000 fans, and five of the eight crowds were above 23,000.

Conversely, the team’s 13 Monday-Thursday games at Progressive Field from April 5 (the day after the home opener) to June 2 produced an average crowd of 11,009. The 10 Monday-Thursday games from Aug. 29 to Sept. 22 weren’t much better — an attendance norm of 12,926, and all but two of the games under 14,000.

A large season-ticket base protects a team on nights such as those, when the weather or opponent might not be as desirable, and the demand is much lower.

Jim Kahler, the executive director of the Center of Sports Administration at Ohio University and a former Cavaliers senior vice president of sales and marketing, said being able to offer postseason priority is an easy way for teams to give their season-ticket sales a jolt.

“I think it’s huge,” Kahler said. “There’s only so many teams that are going to make the playoffs. When teams haven’t been there in a while, it becomes bigger. There’s no better time to renew a season-ticket base and acquire new season-ticket members than a playoff run.”

Kahler said teams that renew their season-ticket holders at a 90%-or-higher rate are in the best position to grow their base.

“If you lose more than 15% of your season-ticket base, the demand just isn’t going to be there (for it to increase),” Kahler said.

The Indians shouldn’t have to worry about that type of attrition following a season that could produce their largest win total in nine years. Salcer — who, like many members of the Tribe’s business team, has a background in consumer goods — says the exciting, young team is the organization’s greatest selling point.

“I would say selling a good product is the same for any company,” said Salcer, who spent 14 years at Chattem Inc. before joining the Tribe after the 2014 season. “You have a good product to sell, which we obviously do, with four consecutive winning seasons and pushing it to the next level with playoffs (in 2016). We’re hoping to capitalize on that and help drive the attendance, and build a great atmosphere for this team, which deserves it.”

Turning back the clock

Kahler said one of the Indians’ biggest obstacles is “the number of occurrences” — i.e., their 81 home games.

“If you could ever inherit a pro franchise, you want to inherit an NFL team,” the former Cavs VP said. “You only have eight games and two preseason games to sell. You start playing 80-plus games, that’s a lot of seats to fill.”

Troy Kirby — the founder of the National Association of Athletic Ticket Sales & Operations, and better known for his Tao of Sports website and podcasts — says a problem many professional sports teams run into is that by pushing season tickets, “they are still trying to find a long-term solution with people who want one-offs.”

Giving season-ticket holders increased access is great, he says, but there’s also “an assumption that will lead to them buying in a huge swath. I think that swath-type mentality is over.”

Any business, though, obviously would prefer to sell something — whether it be a ticket or a product — in large amounts, and season tickets, as former Tribe president Mark Shapiro liked to say, “represent the greatest certainty” in an MLB market that is too often unpredictable.

Playoff priority is one of many incentives the Indians use to bring in season-ticket holders (others include the first crack at Opening Day seats, cheaper per-game prices, autograph sessions with players, team shop discounts and STH-specific gates). In this case, though, nine years removed the organization’s last division title, it might be the most coveted thing the club can offer, aside from a guarantee that Cleveland’s championship “streak” will extend to a second season.

Salcer said a lot of the Tribe’s customers are purchasing 20-game plans for 2017, or partnering on a full-season plan and splitting the tickets among a group. The latter move was popular in the 1990s, when the Tribe made two World Series trips in three years and routinely sold out then-Jacobs Field.

“We’re excited to see them doing something similar now,” Salcer said.