Season's Bleatings

Ezra Shaw

Yes, I did borrow the headline from the late Herb Caen, but I couldn’t resist. Today, we delve into the topic of season tickets and how absolutely essential they are to the A’s success.

To understand why the A’s have adopted “dynamic ticket pricing,” and why they are hot for San Jose, you have to understand the importance of season ticket sales. They are easy to overlook in this shimmering, broadcast-oriented culture. Season tickets are the straw that stirs the financial drink of a major league baseball team. (I know the metaphor is a stretch, but Reggie Jackson did play for the A’s.) When you haven’t sold lots of season tickets, as the A’s have not, you just...well, drink.

Let me be even more emphatic: The A’s will have no hope of big TV deals, big payrolls, big anything, until they can sell at least 50% of their seating capacity through “advance multiple-game ticket purchases,” a more accurate description of season tickets.

Season ticket sales are the most important indicator of the financial stability and power of a ticket-selling business. They are also a very sound measure of audience dedication and affluence. (TV people like to see that before they start throwing around big contracts.) While the purchase of a single ticket is a short-term investment in entertainment, the purchase of a season ticket represents a long-term investment in the organization. Because they pay way in advance, season ticket buyers are like investors. Hell, if banks actually paid close to historical rates of interest, the A’s could earn enough on accumulated season ticket revenue to pay Josh Donaldson’s salary!

Season ticket buyers also whittle down the available seat inventory so the single-game sales task becomes more manageable. They show up for the crappy Tuesday night games against last place teams while single ticket buyers only show up for the Giants or the playoffs. Season ticket buyers are the Athletics’ most ardent publicists because they have skin in the game, so to speak. Even when they can’t attend, they give their tickets to interested friends who then get exposure to the experience of live attendance.

Indeed, season tickets are the straw that stirs the financial drink.

I learned how to sell season tickets from a guy named Danny Newman, the long-time press agent for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He’s dead now, unlike Christo. I checked. In 1977, he published “Subscribe Now!” (The preferred term for season ticket buyer in theater is “subscriber.”) It is still the most influential book ever written about the real business of theater.

Danny was a flamboyant guy who dressed all in black, black cape even, and a wide-brimmed fedora. He played the Show Biz impresario to the hilt. But he knew his stuff. His methods transformed performing arts in America. His philosophy was simple: Season ticket buyers get everything; single ticket buyers get a seat.

In Danny’s view, season ticket buyers were everything to the financial success of the organization so, rightfully, they should be accorded every privilege─discounts, seat selection, exchange rights, ability to purchase additional, single tickets before the general public, special audiences with cast members, and anything else he could think of. A single ticket buyer was welcomed, of course, but not rewarded with anything but the opportunity to put his fanny in a seat...behind the season ticket buyers.

Danny’s priority list was 1) get subscribers, 2) keep subscribers, and 3) convert single ticket buyers into subscribers. A big part of the sales pitch was the financial advantage of season tickets. Single performance buyers had to pay full price while season ticket buyers received a 25% or 33% discount. (One show absolutely FREE!)

Danny would have loved the way dynamic ticket pricing escalates the cost of certain games. He would have pitched season tickets as the bargain of the century: Save TWELVE THOUSAND PER CENT over single game tickets! FORTY GAMES ABSOLUTELY FREE! If you read the A’s season ticket pitch, that is precisely the case they are making, although “forty games free!” might be an overstatement.

I can testify that the A’s have gotten far more sophisticated about season ticket sales, despite the lagging results. I first inquired about season tickets in the 1980’s. I found my concept of a season ticket was a lot different than the A’s concept. I had one choice: 81 games, pay up front. The conversation with the box office lady went like this:

Me:

But I work during the week. I have to feed my children. Can’t I just buy Saturday games?

Box Office Lady:

Sir, a season ticket means you have to buy the whole season.

Me:

I can’t afford 81 games! What am I going to do with 162 tickets?

Box Office Lady:

We all have problems, sir.

I was astonished! I was a guy who had to sell season tickets for a living. I couldn’t believe how thick-headed the A’s were being, reflecting the general thick-headedness of major league baseball ever since it was declared a legal monopoly. Requiring season ticket buyers to purchase 81 games was similar to requiring theater subscribers to attend “Showboat” 16 times every season. Kill me now!

By the turn of the millennium, the A’s had wised up and were selling 20-game packages. My Plaza Level deal on Wednesday afternoons even included a minimalist lunch. At least, I think it was lunch. Fortunately, the A’s have continued to innovate. Advance multiple-game ticket purchasers (sorry) get all sorts of advantages, including considerable price advantages, which would have sent the 1980’s Box Office Lady screaming into the night. As our own Billy Frijoles commented:

It makes me feel a lot better being an A’s partial season ticket holder knowing I paid like $25 and my ticket was selling for $78 + service charges. You realize it’s a really awesome deal to have season tickets. If you’re going to just the two A’s-Giants games the base price is already $45; with dynamics it rises significantly. And then now you’ve paid at least $100 for two games (add in another $50 for opening day), and you could have had a partial plan for like $600 that gives you 24 games or 4 games for $150. Even if you wasted half the tickets you’re still getting a good deal.

And with the A’s you’ll never waste your tickets – if you miss a game you can still exchange unused tickets for select games; you can trade in tickets for games you already purchased for other games.

Also, for example, if you have 2 seats you can trade in 3 games and choose 8 seats for one game if you wanted (so long as you do that 3 days in advance). You can even trade in tickets for parking passes. Finally, for example, a friend wanted to go to the A’s – Giants with us. Rather than having to pay $78 I was able to buy the extra ticket at the $45 base price. Just saved my friend $40 (if you include service charges).

In the theater biz, that’s what we used to call a “money” quote. Billy, the A’s sales department should buy you a beer at your next game. In fact, forget the beer. The A’s should cough up your mortgage payment next month.

The point of this article is not to promote season ticket sales, however. I’m trying to illuminate another dimension of the A’s quandary. The A’s need season ticket sales badly but they are stuck. There are simply too few committed supporters like Billy in the current territory. Part of it is the stadium. Part of it is Oakland and Alameda County. Part of it is the wimpy economic recovery from the 2008 meltdown. This is nobody’s fault. Markets change. The A’s must adapt, though. That’s why they seek the greener pastures, and the season tickets, further to the south.

Do you know the way to San Jose?

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