12.21.2010

To Comp or Not To Comp?


As close a kinship as Major and Minor League Baseball share, there are some distinct differences in the way that each approach business. Specifically and most obviously, Minor League teams have long been the breeding ground for new and untested promotional concepts.

One of my favorite things about the Minor League model is that it allows for spontaneous creativity- hear something on the news on the drive into the office, talk it over with a few team members in the morning, and you’re implementing a top-of-mind promotion that night or later that homestand. Major League teams simply aren’t built that way. Every idea presented to the public is a risk, and in the Big Leagues, the stakes are simply much higher. Is every promotion then scrutinized to the point of possibly squashing that impulsive spark to act on a good idea?

This week, a Major League Baseball team was faced with one of those top-of-mind situations and their solution was patently Minor League. In the case of the Tampa Bay Rays though, the news story they turned into a promotion was caused by two of their star players. After Evan Longoria and David Price referred to the potential playoff-clinching crowd at Tropicana Field on Monday night as “embarrassing” and "disheartening”, the Rays front office quickly jumped to action. 

Two nights later on Wednesday, 20,000 free tickets were made available to Rays fans. Rather than sit idly by and hope the story went away, the organization moved on that spontaneous idea to turn a negative into a positive. However, their idea revolved around the cardinal sin of professional sports: the mass distribution of comp tickets.

It was certainly a risky proposition for a number of reasons. While the casual fan or media observer may think it’s a wonderfully generous proposition, there are several cons to consider along with the obvious pros of the mass comp strategy. The positives offer immediate gratification, while the negatives present some serious longer term issues that could linger far after the season ends.  Let’s start with the positives, those are easy.

1) PR generator. We’re still talking about them aren’t we? I imagine teams across the country are getting asked why they haven’t done something similar, and everyone is referencing the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s hard to imagine the Yankees getting less attention heading into the postseason. 
2) Ancillary income that night.
Parking, concessions, merchandise, etc. 
3) Exposing more people to the product.
Even though the Rays lost the game, it was an incredible opportunity for their game presentation team to reel in those fringe fans that may be looking for a bit more than a winning ball club.
4) Good will in a bad economy.
Hopefully their fans reflect kindly on the free ticket offer when entertainment budgets aren’t so tight.

On to the big negatives of opening the flood gates of the free ticket bonanza, which are much more complex and present concerns that may not fully maturate immediately.
1) Risk of destroying inherent value of tickets.
Let’s face it- The average Major League Baseball ticket is expensive. By offering tickets for free, you are putting your sales staff at a major disadvantage moving forward. Why would I pay for these if you’re going to give them to me for free? Even if they’re the cheap seats, you are essentially saying that those tickets have no value. You have to hope that the general fan doesn’t see it this way. 
2) Alienation of Season Ticket and Mini Plan package holders.
Maybe there aren’t as many of them as you’d like, but what effect does a mass ticket dump have on paying ticket package holders? They’ve paid full boat for 81 games in some cases and now there are 20,000 folks in for free. At some point, you have to do something to reward your most loyal fans. Vouchers for free food or parking might help to offset any hard feelings. 
3) Perception of Demand.
In the case of the Rays, this turned out to be a moot point. But, what if they made 20,000 tickets available and only 10,000 got redeemed? If you make that many tickets available in hopes of packing the venue, what happens if you don’t? The perception that you can’t sell tickets only gets worse. If you are giving away tickets and still can’t fill the stadium, you’re only exacerbating the problem. That then becomes the headline and it’s a tough one to recover from. Luckily, Tropicana Field hosted a capacity crowd Wednesday night and the perception of demand was not called into question.

It’s a very fine line to walk when considering comp tickets. All teams at some point have to weigh the pros and cons of getting out free tickets to get people in the seats, though it’s usually not this public or on such a grand scale. Though they don’t make the big news splash, there are ways to get out tickets without taking the risks of the mass comp ticket strategy. Donations to community and charity groups through a team’s non-profit arm are easy ways to distribute tickets. Teams can offer their ticket package holders a “free exchange” day where they can return any unused tickets for previous games for a specified game date. If they have large blocks of unused tickets, they can use them to bring a group of friends or coworkers. Instead of just offering free tickets, make the fans purchase tickets for a future game, playoff tickets, or a small ticket package. You can then use the free game as an incentive instead of a straight comp. Allow season ticket holders to bring a friend for a game. This shows your appreciation for their loyalty and lets your most passionate fans share their excitement with other members of the community.

In the end, the risk paid off in the short term for the Rays. They sprang to action after being painted into a corner by two high profile players, and they were able to pack the stadium two days later. It should prove to be a nice spring board for the team as they head into the postseason. However, there may be some longer term concerns that take awhile to manifest. It is those concerns that every team needs to seriously consider before rolling out a mass comp strategy.

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