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The Price of Free Baseball

The Price of Free Baseball

| On 18, Sep 2015

If you had free tickets to an Indians game, would you go?

On the surface, it sounds like a ridiculously simple question. “Free” is the watchword of our culture, whether you’re talking about the Declaration of Independence or BOGO coupons.

But of course, the semester of Econ 101 many of us suffered through teaches us that nothing is actually free. A Major League Baseball game is a prime example. Admission is just one slice of the pie, along with parking, snacks, beers, souvenirs, etc. More than that, though, is the time and energy it requires to go to the ballpark.

In other words – if provided with free tickets, how many people would go because they’re actually excited about the Indians and how many would go just on general principle? And, more telling, even without having to spend a nickel on tickets, how many still wouldn’t deem it a worthwhile enterprise?

Some scary ideas floating there, but questions that the Indians need answers to.

Consider what’s been going on in Columbus this week. Through a perfect (or imperfect) storm of circumstances, the Clippers found themselves in an unenviable position on Monday: hosting an unscheduled makeup playoff game on a weeknight a full week after the season was supposed to be over. When all the kids are back in school, Ohio State football is the primary topic around town, and the thought of spending an evening at the ballpark has been packed away in the closet with the flip flops and beach towels.

So the Clippers, in essence, said “screw it.” They threw open their doors and offered free admission to any and all who wanted to trek downtown on a Monday night. And the results were impressive.

They drew 10,734, filling up the park (and out-drawing the Indians’ crowd at Progressive Field by about 400 that night). By contrast, 24 hours earlier, when the Clippers hosted the previous game of the playoff series and charged admission (at the same start time with identical weather conditions, it should be noted), they drew just 2,468. Clearly, “free” still packs a wallop.

The experiment was such a success, they decided to do it again for their two home games of the Governor’s Cup series. And things got even better. The team’s phone lines literally collapsed and the Clippers went viral on social media.

Tuesday’s tickets were gone by noon, and that night, 11,408 showed up. If you’re keeping score at home, the Indians drew just 10,516. Things escalated even more Wednesday night: 11,894 for the Clippers…and 11,103 for the Tribe.

That’s the Indians getting outdrawn by their triple-A affiliate three straight nights. Despite having a better product in a better ballpark. In the middle of what they keep insisting is a playoff race.

And keep in mind, folks, while it’s free baseball, it’s also minor league baseball. It’s unapologetically inferior in every way, including the reality that nobody really cares if the Clippers win or lose.

On the other hand, free admission isn’t all that was offered. The Clippers also trotted out an all-star lineup of promotions they generally spread out during the regular season: 10-cent hot dogs and drastically reduced prices on beer, ribs, and chicken wings.

Put it all together and it sounds like financial suicide. But Ken Schnacke, the longtime GM of the Clippers, says no.

“We’re not losing money,” he told the Columbus Dispatch. “We don’t count on playoff games when we’re doing the budget for the season. It’s probably a wash considering what we’re making on concessions, even with dime-a-dogs.”

And there’s the silver bullet: deciphering the point at which the loss in revenue from ticket sales is matched by increased revenue from concessions. If you can reach that sweet spot (or anywhere close), and combine that with the free media coverage and community goodwill you’ve created, it’s absolutely worth it.

Which makes you wonder: why couldn’t the Indians do something like this?

For a franchise down on its knees begging people to come to the ballpark season after season, why not go whole hog and have a free night? Or better still, a series of them, targeting weeknights in April, May, and September, when the kids are in school and the weather is sketchy.

The short answer is that they’re likely not permitted to by the corporate warlocks at Major League Baseball, who insist that the American public be charged at least four dollars for every one in actual value. So maybe the Indians don’t offer completely free admission – maybe it’s Dollar Monday or Two Buck Tuesday. The baseball equivalent of a Super Value Menu.

It wouldn’t be altogether unprecedented, even in Cleveland. Remember Marathon Oil Night?

There would likely be a concern that a major league team offering free tickets would look desperate. And it might. But considering that one of the primary selling points of last Sunday’s doubleheader with Detroit was reminding fans that they could watch the Browns on television at The Corner, I think that ship has sailed.

On the surface, even if it works, it’s a flash in the pan. It would artificially inflate attendance totals (though, I would argue, raising your numbers based on cheap hot dogs and bobbleheads is tantamount to the same thing). But even so, wouldn’t it do some long-term good? Let people actually see the improvements to Progressive Field you’re all excited about and be reminded that an Indians game generally is a good time. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll come back again. At full price.

It’s worth a shot. After trotting out all their usual promotional attempts this season, the Indians are still second-to-last in attendance in the American League. It’s time to think outside the box.

The Clippers have been providing the Indians with their young talent for years. Maybe they also just provided them with a brilliant marketing idea that could help alleviate their attendance woes.

Photo: columbussports.org