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A’s COO Chris Giles on A’s Access and developing the future of fandom

Giles shed some light on what A’s Access might look like in the new ballpark, among other things.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Besides the team taking sole possession of the second AL Wild Card spot, the biggest story in Oakland A’s baseball this week was the introduction of A’s Access, the new membership program that will replace season tickets in 2019.

The service, which allows members general admission access to every home game with a set number of reserved-seat upgrades allotted, is believed to be the first of its kind in professional sports. But it’s the third time in the past two seasons the club has rolled out a subscription-based service, the first of which was Ballpark Pass, now discontinued, and the second the Treehouse Pass.

Athletics Nation caught up with A’s COO Chris Giles to clarify some details of the new program, find out what worked (or didn’t) about past iterations, and what A’s Access and fandom in general might look like in the elusive new ballpark.

You can read up on the announced program details here, and note that Giles added the following two details in our conversation: that GA seats will be in the plaza level next to The Treehouse, and that plans range from $240 to $18,000 (to have a reserved ticket at every home game in a highly-coveted location).

AN: Can you take us back through the development process for A’s Access, and why/how you realized that the traditional season ticket model needed an update?

Giles: We started off doing a bunch of market feasibility research around the new ballpark to try to understand really what the next generation ballparks should be like. And out of that research really came a couple of key findings, one of which was that there is still a pretty sizable group of folks that want what you would consider to be the traditional, live baseball experience. They’re looking for seat ownership, they’re looking for consistency. They want their seat in the ballpark, and they want that experience over and over and over again. These are the type of folks that sit there and keep score, and spend the lion’s share of their time in their seat. But what we also found was there’s this fast-growing, yet smaller population of folks that are looking for a completely different experience, and the whole notion that you would try to sell them a product that was the same seat, an experience for the entire game, let alone a whole strip of games, was just completely unappealing to them.

And then we looked at broadly: are we, as an industry, doing what’s necessary to evolve our product for the latter group, without losing sight of the fact that we need to continue to provide that core group with the experience that they’re looking for? And so a lot of clubs, and ourselves included in prior years, have said, ‘okay, let’s just build a separate product for this new group.’ And at the end of the day, those were very inexpensive subscription products.

But if you fast forward our business 15 years in, that group continues to grow. That’s a really bad model for us as an industry to say that our product is worth illustratively $20 a month or something like that, for all you can experience. And so we really set out to say 1) not only what should our new ballpark have in its physical elements that would make it different – namely around how do we take what is typically a dirty word in ‘general admission,’ I would say less desirable experience and not make it a general at all, make it a wonderful experience. It’s simply more flexible and more social.

AN: What form, then, do you see A’s Access taking in the new ballpark?

Giles: In a building that’s almost 60 years old, there are certain limitations, there are certain amenities that just aren’t present that would make this program more robust, but we think there’s a significant learning curve in terms of getting people used to this model.

There’s the basic math of the variability of show rate, right? So like whenever you say, ‘Hey, you have unlimited access to something,’ a certain percentage of people are going to take advantage of that and a certain percentage of people for any given game won’t. And so you have to have ample what we call ‘flexible spaces’ in order for that people math to work. So in the Coliseum, we have some of those spaces.

In a new ballpark, we would have more flex capacity. The second aspect is that there’s certain very important, cool exclusive membership benefits that we currently don’t have, like high-end clubs, spaces, all-inclusive food and beverage type of hospitality. If you have, for example, a home plate-level club seat, we may build beautiful field view terrace right behind those clubs seats, so that if you are one of those club seat members and you come on a game that you don’t have a seat, you still have a very high-end experience. We don’t have those differentiated flexible experiences in the Coliseum.

AN: In a span of 15 months, the team has rolled out three new ticket programs in Ballpark Pass, the Treehouse Pass, and now A’s Access. What have you learned from previous iterations?

Giles: So both of those [Ballpark Pass and the Treehouse Pass], as we begun to think about this model, were exactly that – tests to see what we can learn. The Ballpark Pass model was challenging. It actually led to a lot of different issues. We sold a very large quantity of them in a very short period of time and shut it off. We were concerned about maintaining the value proposition for membership and making sure that there wasn’t an alternative to membership that would decay our membership base.

And the Treehouse Pass, we’re pretty happy with. I think it’s a limited set of benefits for a very different experience, at a very reasonable price. And we actually plan to keep the Treehouse Pass as an option going forward.

AN: In developing A’s Access, were there other similar programs within sports the club could look at, or is it unprecedented?

Giles: We’re not aware of any other models in sports, but we’re certainly not the first business model to use this. Think about it as in a gym membership, you have your basic membership, but then you also have the ability to do personal training or add-on classes and those sorts of things in some gyms allow you to do a higher end membership that includes some of those services. While, by all means, we wouldn’t compare our experience to a country club, the business model is similar – so you pay your monthly fees, and then you may have to pay extra to play golf on a certain day or those sorts of things.

The key for us is, is as we step up, just thinking about it from a business perspective. There’s a couple of key challenges in our industry that are not currently addressed by the standard model, and the biggest of which is that fans who are not members of a given club can go onto the secondary market and purchase a comparable experience to one of those that a member would have without committing to anything more than buying a single game on the secondary market.

So most clubs actually bundle the benefits of membership with the actual tickets. So if I go and buy a ticket at a given ballpark, I get all of the member benefits – I may get access to the club, I may get access to all inclusive food and beverage. It’s really hard in that model to provide what you would think of as “exclusive benefits” to your members themselves that are separate from the right to sit in a given seat. Which in our view of the future, that is a ticket. A ticket is something that gives you the right to sit in a given seat, and that’s really the extent of the purpose of a ticket.

AN: Will there be limits on which games or seats are available to A’s Access members?

Giles: So we are not limiting the games; we are limiting the seat locations. So if you want the 10-game pass, you can’t have the best seat locations. Those best locations are reserved for those that are taking more games. So there is an underlying scale system based on which locations are available to which membership types, and the easiest way to think about it is: the more games you’re willing to take, the better seat locations are available to you.

AN: What’s the long-term business goal of A’s Access? Do you see it as a way to increase attendance and revenue in the short term, or is it more laying the groundwork for the future?

Giles: It’s really several fold – that comes out of two key objectives. The first of which is we are committed to building an inclusive experience. In other words, I’m making sure that our products are affordable to our fan base, and it doesn’t turn into an elitist experience. But that’s actually difficult to do from a business standpoint with the traditional model, because you’re constrained by what I would call your “revenue capacity.”

So in a typical stadium, you sell tickets based off of the number of seats. And so for a given game you have the average price of the ticket times the number of seats that gives you your new potential. And the only way to increase your revenue potential is to raise prices, whereas this model is not constrained by that same revenue ceiling, because you can have a bunch of members that are paying for the right to access your product, not actually the right to just sit in a seat. And so a lot of those folks will choose to come, and a lot of them won’t choose to come, but we can actually grow revenue without actually raising prices significantly by just driving more membership. So it’s much more of a volume play.

Our goal is to grow our average attendance by 10,000 fans by the time we move into the new ballpark, which is no small feat. But we feel like this model really makes a membership with the A’s a lot more feasible for so many consumers.

AN: One of the biggest benefits of A’s Access is the steep discounts on concessions and merchandise. How do project that will affect revenue, given that the prices are so much lower, but the demand for those items will likely increase?

Giles: We don’t disclose exact revenue numbers, but it’s a meaningful portion of our business. But we’re really approaching this much like Amazon would approach their prime membership. It’s not about looking at a concessions or merchandise as a standalone line item. It’s about providing the strongest value proposition we can to commit to this organization, and to become a member.

And even if we make less on concessions, but we’re able to grow our membership base significantly, that’s a win for us.