The Toughest Gig in Baseball: Selling the Astros to Houston
One afternoon a few weeks ago, my cell phone rang. The screen read “713-259-8000 Houston, TX”. Given it was a local number, I decided to answer. It turned out that the person on the other end of the line was my new ticket representative from the Houston Astros. He was, as you would expect, a charming young gentleman who was very interested in finding out about my relationship with the Astros. We chatted for a few minutes and he offered to bring me down to the stadium for a tour of the facilities followed by a conversation about the options available to me as a potential new season ticket holder at the Houston Astros. We were unable to come to agreement on a mutually suitable time so we left the conversation there and he resolved to contact me again before the start of the 2015 season.
I, as I suspect will be the case with many of you, have been here before. I took one of these “clubhouse” tours last year, which ended up being a walk around Minute Maid Park to look at a few places where I could sit, were I to purchase a season ticket. I don’t know about you, but having been to more than one game at this particular ballpark, I have a pretty good idea of what the view is going to be like wherever I sit.
On both occasions that the Astros have attempted to sell me a season, or a half-season, ticket, the same thought has gone through my mind: this has to be the hardest job in all of baseball.
Many of us have worked in sales at one time or another and the recurring issue of a job in sales is how you go about convincing someone to buy something that they didn’t previously need. This is surely all the more difficult when you are asking people to commit a large amount of money to secure (or “lock in” as seems to be an Astros sales buzzword) your seat for the eighty-one games that will be hosted at Minute Maid next season. There are two very significant challenges that the Astros need to overcome in order to achieve this.
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Firstly: eighty-one games is a HECK of a lot of baseball. I find it hard to believe that very many people in the United States (and Canada, don’t forget the Blue Jays!) attend every single one of their teams home games. Baseball games are typically long, but as a season ticket holder you could easily stop in to the ballpark, grab a bit to eat and watch a couple of innings before heading home. This is clearly infinitely easier when you live near to the ballpark, or perhaps when the ballpark is on your way home from your workplace.
Secondly: it’s not difficult to get tickets for an Astros game.
One million, seven hundred and fifty one thousand, eight hundred and nine people walked through the gates at Minute Maid Park in central Houston to watch baseball games involving the Houston Astros. Roughly half a dozen of that number were me. That averages out, over the eighty-one home games, as 21,617. The stadium capacity is 40,963.
Anyone reading this who attended even a handful of Astros games last season will know for sure that there were not twenty-one thousand people at every game. The stadium was far from half-full on many, many occasions last season. Those figures were undoubtedly boosted by two weekend series against the Texas Rangers, a game that typically attracts Dallas-based fans as well as Dallas natives resident in the Houston area. The home opener against the New York Yankees and the chance to witness the Derek Jeter retirement circus undoubtedly helped those figures as well.
The Houston Astros are so poorly attended that they actually draw more people to road games than they do to games at MMP: 24,409 come to games involving the Astros at other ballparks.
Major League Baseball is still a major sport in this part of the world. It still attracts a significant number of fans who spend significant amounts of money on the sport. Look at this link detailing MLB revenues in 2013. That is a lot of money! The Astros sit just above the middle of the pack, well above their on-field performances and, crucially, well above their in-stands performances.
With all that in mind – the number and length of games (or perhaps the attractiveness of baseball as a product to consumers) and the relatively high supply of tickets for games, not to mention the relatively poor quality of baseball that Houston fans have been subjected to over recent seasons – it seems highly irregular to me that the Astros have made the decision to actually increase ticket prices for the 2015 MLB season. There had been no increase for season tickets since 2008, whilst a “dynamic” pricing system was brought in for the 2013. “Dynamic” because it allowed the team to charge more for the games that more people actually wanted to see. The $5 ticket becomes $15 for those games.
Rumors over the off-season have linked a number of free agents, both marquee and mundane, with the Astros. So far, Hank Conger has arrived from the Angels. With four catchers on the roster – all of whom are under 30 with the exception of the 30 year old Carlos Corporan and none of whom hit above .235 last season (Stassi did hit .350 but that was in seven games) – it seems likely that at least one will be traded on.
The team continues to argue that the promising young roster that is in the process of assembly will continue to provide value for money for those fans who do invest in Astros season tickets. The friendly voices on the other end of our phone conversations will almost certainly struggle to convince many of this.