Marlins Selling the Fan Experience, Not Wins or Hope
FanGraphs projects the Miami Marlins will finish the upcoming MLB season a National League worst 65-97. The team is expected to score the fewest number of runs in baseball (3.65/game) and finish with the game’s 2nd worst run differential (-146). Marlins CEO Derek Jeter knows he has little to market on the field, so the team has taken an unorthodox approach - at least for pro sports teams - to selling tickets; promoting the fan experience. Jeter recently told reporters “we want people to enjoy themselves. A lot of times people come [and] they don’t [recall] who won or lost, sometimes they don’t even [remember] who was playing, but they do know if they had a good experience and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Howie Long-Short: The Marlins have traded away young talented players Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto over the last 12 months, so one can understand why the club has chosen to turn its focus to the fan experience instead of its on-field product. Chris Lencheski (founder of sports consultancy group Phoenicia and an adjunct professor at Columbia University) believes the team is taking the right approach, telling me “it's always smart - regardless of if a club is winning or losing - to ensure the fan leaves the game feeling that their time and money was well spent. The Marlins want fans to say that the customer service they received [at the park] was off the charts. It’s the Enterprise Rent-A-Car approach. All rental car companies provide roughly the same services, but Enterprise consistently wins business - even if they’re not the lowest priced, or in this case a very good team - because their customer service is exemplary.”
Minor league teams go to great lengths to ensure a premium fan experience, so it’s worth wondering why more major league teams haven’t taken the approach. Chris said that the league’s revenue sharing system “makes it less of a priority for some clubs; they’re content taking what the league gives them. Others simply don’t need to do as much marketing because the team is a draw.”
While some teams may not need to invest in fan interaction and fan engagement during the good times, they should be because failing to do so is a surefire way to ensure the fan base dissipates during the hard times. “The Phillies are a prime example of that. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, the team sold out every game; they had a good team and had moved into a new building. But their failure to engage fans during those times accelerated their decline when the team’s performance started to slide. Those customers were no longer there.”
Fan Marino: There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling entertainment value - sports are supposed to be fun, but as a fanatic the idea that a team’s primary focus wouldn’t be on winning is difficult to swallow. Unfortunately, teams aren’t catering to the super fan. As Chris explained, “avid [fans] will remember the score, but they’re going to come to the game regardless; you aren’t bending the curve for them. You’re doing it for average customer.”
Howie mentioned the team’s decision to trade away several young stars. Some argue it is star power that drives fans to the ballpark and thus the team would have been better off signing Ozuna, Yelich and Realmuto to extensions, but it wasn’t like the team was a league leader (or even average) in attendance with those guys on the roster. That doesn’t mean the Marlins won’t (or shouldn’t) sign high profile players in the future. The team’s previous fire sales are not indicative of future failures, “everything needs to be held in the context of time in baseball.”
Moving your best players typically doesn’t result in an attendance increase (team drew a major league low 10,013 fans/game last season), but that doesn’t mean Miami is going to lose even more money in 2019. It’s feasible that the team’s revamped approach “could raise the KPIs of the individual consumer. They could lower ticket prices, draw fewer fans and still grow revenues by making more money per head.”
Chris added that the team’s decision to lower ticket pricing this year is “the appropriate retail approach. The Marlins are a challenger brand in South Florida (see: many alternative forms of entertainment), so they must take an aggressive approach to the market. Their pricing last year was not aligned with the fans perception of its worth. The rescaling of tickets is a smart and measured approach to re-aligning value for customers - both current and future"
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