While pitchers and catchers and hitters and fielders are getting into the spring spirit in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, the hardworking folks in each MLB team's ticket offices are hard at work back at home. Some teams, like the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants, are dealing with crowds of grabby fans, eager to snatch up passes to any game at all. The lesson? Pitching not only wins championships, it puts butts in seats.
Other teams, though, are working hard trying to convince folks that spending a few bucks on a weeknight game against the visiting Seattle Mariners is a worthwhile investment in fun. That's a tough sell.
So let's take a look at how six teams might perform at the box office in 2011. Some are making smart business moves for their fanbase, both in ticket prices and on-field talent.
Others, though, could face a long, hard summer.
We start in the desert, where the Arizona Diamondbacks season-ticket renewal rate has dried up: It's down by about 12 percent from last year. That figure even takes into account 1,000 new season ticketholders who presumably signed up for the chance to buy tickets to the upcoming All Star game at Chase Field, not the abysmal 97-loss season Arizona suffered in 2010. Team CEO Derrick Hall says that season-ticket revenue is up but that's partly because the club raised season-ticket prices between 50 cents and $2 to take advantage of increased interest in the Midseason Classic. Even though this income is up and the team continues to maintain earnings from TV deals and revenue sharing, the player payroll could be down about 25 percent, making the D-Backs the seventh stingiest team in the bigs.
Forecast: Expect big crowds on July 12, but with another last place finish on the horizon, not many sellouts anytime before or after that once-in-a-generation event.
Out in the Midwest, the Milwaukee Brewers are counting on an off-season deal that brought in ace pitcher Zach Greinke to bolster not only the team's win-loss record but also sell some ducats at fan-friendly Miller Park. Part B of the plan seemed to work instantly as the team moved a whopping 1,100 season tickets in just over 24 hours after the trade was consummated in December. This past Saturday, the team held an "Arctic Tailgate" outside Miller Park. Not only did the Brewers sell out opening day at their fan-friendly event, they sold out two other dates (games against the Chicago Cubs, naturally) and moved a whopping 98,000 single-game tickets. This winter wonderland-nee-parking lot where fans camped out to get tickets is part of the draw at Miller Park: Is there any stadium for any sport in the country that draws such enthused tailgaters on a more frequent basis?
Forecast: The team played to over 80 percent capacity last year despite finishing 14 games out of first place. With a fan-first attitude, ticket prices holding steady for 2011 and improved chances at a NL Central Division title on the horizon, expect the team to fill even more seats this season.
How the other half lives: The Kansas City Royals started selling single-game tickets this weekend too, but despite not getting near the interest the Brewers did, they are considering the addition of dynamic pricing. That's where ticket prices go up and down regularly based on demand and some fancy computer algorithms. Rainy weeknight game against the Baltimore Orioles? Prices go down. Sunny weekend game against their interleague rival St. Louis Cardinals? Prices go up. Royals have a winning record past June 1? Well, let's not get crazy, folks. Currently, only the San Francisco Giants dynamically price nearly every seat at nearly every game but the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox are also experimenting with the system in select sections.
Forecast: The Royals could barely fill half of Kauffman Stadium regularly in 2010. I guess the only positive note for the team is that the situation can only get better; the sooner they can introduce dynamic pricing and the sooner their top-rated farm system can graduate to the bigs, the better off financially the Royals will be.
Back to the National League, the Washington Nationals made a splash in the offseason by signing Jayson Werth(notes) to a sizable contract. In terms of ticket sales, though, the team is making a budget option available to fans with their "Buy 2, Get 2" program. Reserving two season tickets in any of three sections at Nationals Park will be worth two more season tickets absolutely free, effectively halving the price. Is that enough to draw fans to a ballpark for a team coming off another last-place finish? With a lower 2011 payroll and ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg(notes) not due back from rehab until 2012, probably not.
Then there's the New York Mets. The team whose owners are being sued for $1 billion by a group of defrauded clients of pyramid-schemin' Bernie Madoff is the same team that desperately needed a $25 million loan from MLB just to pay the bills. Now with an aging and underperforming roster that is one of the highest-paid in the bigs, the Wilpon family has decided that the only way to stimulate attendance is to lower prices by an average of 14 percent. Unfortunately, most of the stimulus comes at the top end of the price matrix; the cheapest seats in the upper deck actually went up in price. At most Mets home games, one cannot get into the park for under $20, unless, of course, one visits the secondary ticket marketplace websites. For a team that did not improve itself in the offseason, it will be hard for the team to stay relevant past July in a division with two playoff teams from StubHub. Demand at those websites will continue to drop.
Forecast: Even with a sub-.500 record, the 2010 Mets still drew 2 1/2 million fans to CitiField in their second season. But save for a dozen or so dates against nearby rivals the Yankees and the Phillies when visiting hordes will show up by the thousands, the Mets will suffer a third straight season of declining attendances. And in terms of bad business news, that's not even the worst problem for the team.
But because hope springs eternal, let's finish on a high note. Out by 1-year-old Target Field, the Minnesota Twins are maintaining a waiting list for fans hoping to snatch up season tickets. The ballpark sold out its share of passes for the inaugural season quickly and started the "On Deck Circle" promotion way back in March of last year. The Twins raised season-ticket prices for 2011 on about 59 percent of seats but hey, they have to pay that $184 million Joe Mauer(notes) contract somehow.
Forecast: The two easiest ways to draw fans to the game are having a shiny new ballpark and pure, unadulterated winning. Now if they can only find a way to win a playoff game ...