The O's didn't draw many fans during the week last year when they were 30 games out of first place, but even last month, weekday series were selling fewer than 11,000 tickets a game. So how effective was the Orioles' 1992 Rollback promotion?
Think back to Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. It's the end of another disappointing season. The O's are playing the Rays, and headed in opposite directions. At 60-88, the O's have long ago quashed any hopes of a winning season, and are a soul-crushing 30.0 games out of first while the Rays are battling for a playoff spot. It is a bit warm for mid-September, with the game time temperature at 85 degrees at the 7:05 p.m. start time. And man, are there plenty of good seats available - only 14,669 tickets were sold, and there sure aren't that many in the stadium.
Fast-forward to Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. School is in session just about everywhere in the Baltimore metro area. The Orioles are in the middle of a post-All-Star Game surge, with a 71-58 record, just 3.5 games out of first place. Like one year prior, it's a tad warm, with a game-time temperature of 81 degrees and not much breeze to be had. The O's lose to the White Sox, 8-1, in a game played in just under three hours. And just 13,098 tickets were purchased. The four-game series against the White Sox, played exclusively during the work/school week, averaged just 11,759 tickets sold.
Yet, one month later, more than 26,000 tickets will be sold for a Wednesday night game against the hapless Toronto Blue Jays. Orange t-shirts and jerseys cover the lower bowl, and while the upper deck still features seas of green seats, a respectable number have Orioles fans sitting in them. Much like the other two games referenced, it is 81 degrees, a bit sticky with humidity at the beginning of the game, and not much breeze to be had.
So why did almost 10,000 more tickets get sold to the Sept. 27, 2012 game than the other two? Smart marketing and a fan base beginning to believe could be cited as reasons, but mostly, it was cheap tickets.
After the Chicago White Sox series, the lack of attendance at Orioles games started generating a smattering of articles either bemoaning the lack of fans responding to the team's resurgence or making excuses for it.
Our own Eat More Esskay addressed the problem in stark terms - it's on the Orioles' to increase attendance, and the easiest way to do that is price elasticity. "The easiest way to increase quantity demanded of a good is to lower the price. So why don't they?"
Well, someone at the Warehouse listened, and the marketing department devised a pretty good strategy. A look at the schedule showed the weekend games would probably take care of themselves: only two weekend series remained for September, and they were against New York and Boston, two teams that would need no added incentive to sell well.
But two glaring holes appeared as well - a Tuesday-to-Thursday set of games against Tampa Bay from Sept. 11-13, and a Monday-to-Wednesday series against Toronto on Sept. 24-26. Actual attendance in the high four digits loomed as a possibility for seven of a possible 13 remaining home dates. How could the team get fans in the seats to see and experience a drive to the playoffs?
Once the Orioles decided to act, they acted fast. Almost immediately after the Chicago White Sox homestand ended, the announcement was made that selected ticket prices for weekdays games would be falling, and falling significantly. The ticket promotion tried a half-hearted attempt to tie into the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards (the celebration of which has been muted, to say the least), but the numbers jumped out. Bleacher seats could be had for $4, and lower left field box seats could be had for $8, prices last seen when Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992. It was a 75% discount, and one that frankly smacked of desperation and panic at first glance. E-mails went out to anyone who had purchased tickets online, and the promotion was featured during game telecasts.
The O's hadn't completely panicked, though. They made two very calculated moves in this discounted pricing promotion: targeting mid-week games and targeting good, but not great seats for deep discounts.
The marketing folks shrewdly picked only the games where they knew they needed help - the dreaded three-game series during the week. A similar stretch during 2011, from Monday, Aug. 29 to Wednesday, Sept. 14, saw a stretch of eight straight home games contested solely during the week. Average ticket sales for those games? A mere 16,063. And the White Sox series that had just concluded had shown that number may not be the floor for attendance, even in a playoff chase.
The Orioles also didn't discount the whole stadium. The outfield lower bowl, just extending past each foul pole, was the targeted area of the discounted pricing. Good seats, but not the best, but not nosebleeds, either. Fans were going to be in pretty good seats at a very good cost. They wouldn't be behind home plate for $8, or even between the dugouts, but they weren't hiking up to the top of Section 378, either. For many, it would be the first time to experience seats in the lower bowl for less than $10 a ticket.
It worked. The fans showed. Entire sections sold out, and for some games, all the discounted tickets sold. The Tampa Bay series featured attendance of 23,828 for Tuesday, 26,076 for Wednesday, and an incredible 25,130 for a Thursday matinee that started before 1:00 p.m. That's an average of 25,011 per game, or 13,000 more tickets sold than the White Sox series just one month before.
Shortly after the successful trial run with Tampa Bay, the discounts were extended to the Toronto Blue Jays series. And 31,015 tickets were sold for the traditional double-header on Monday, 30,205 bought tickets for Tuesday and the lowest-sold game of the series on Wednesday still had 26,513 tickets sold. A weekday series with the Jays averaged 29,000 tickets sold in late September for an increase of more than 17,000 tickets per game over the season's previous weekday series with the Blue Jays in late April.
This weekend is expected to be a near-sell out, since Saturday is already confirmed as a sell-out for the Brooks Robinson statue giveaway. Friday and Sunday should both draw in excess of 30,000 even with the elevated prime ticket prices as the Orioles take on the hated Boston Red Sox. Those lower-left field box seats that sold for $8 on Wednesday will sell for $50 at face value this weekend.
But, due to the discount promotion that extended to fewer than 30% of the seats at Orioles Park at Camden Yards, the Orioles were able to more than double the amount of tickets purchased for two weekday series that may have had fewer than 10,000 fans in the seats otherwise. They took a hit on profit margin of each ticket sold, but as EME pointed out, empty seats to a game today can't be sold tomorrow. All value is gone if a seat remains unsold.
And maybe, just maybe, the casual attendance fan, who's stayed away due to cost, travel distance or simply disenchantment with the product on the field, will remember just how much fun it is to see a game at Camden Yards. And maybe that fan will even buy a full-price ticket to come back.