Seattle Mariners still a hit with market adults

Panoramic view of Safeco Field Sunset
Photo by Phil Snyder

I’ve been tossing around which topic to tackle first as my opening post in the Seattle Media Maven blog. I received the sign this past week when Amazon announced The Art of Fielding, a bewitching, baseball-themed first novel by Chad Harbach, as the best book of the year. Add to that the Cardinals’ still fresh in my mind fairytale World Series finish, and it seems like as good a time as any to talk baseball (when isn’t?). Over the next couple days, I’m going to take a look at the Seattle Mariners standings, of the market and media variety.

Fans for all seasons

Seattle sports enthusiasts have long enjoyed recognition as being some of the most loyal fans in the nation. In good times, of which there have been many, and bad, of which there have been many more, they show up. Some attribute it to the steadfast Scandinavian influence in the area, but wherever it comes from, hanging in there is part of the fabric that makes up this market.

So I have to admit I was taken aback when I took my annual afternoon off work to attend my first Mariners game of the 2011 season and found myself, with the exception of the Jovial Guy next to me, almost alone in the stands in what turned out to be the lowest attendance ever (12,407) at a Mariners game. Yes, the Mariners lost again, and yes it was nearly freezing out and, ouch! how much fun can one have when beer is priced at $9.85 a short pint, but this was afternoon baseball, for Pete’s sake!

Two days later, Seattle Times baseball columnist Larry Stone wrote the stats-filled piece, “How low can Mariner attendance go?” Turns out it could, and maybe should, be worse. As Bob Aylward, the Mariners’ executive vice president of business operations noted, they have been blessed with “impressive fan loyalty.” Even with two recent seasons of losing more than 100 games, Mariner attendance was more than 2 million those years. And, as Stone noted, while nowhere near those at the start of the millennium, TV ratings (and broadcast revenues) are holding steady; a factor far more important to owners than filling seats in the stadium. According to Scarborough Research, half of the Seattle-Tacoma DMA adults either watch, attend, or listen to the Mariners games, ranking 16th among baseball markets in the nation.

So noteworthy are the Mariners that Safeco field finished 5th in the stadium-sponsorship ranks. If there is any current winner in Seattle baseball, it is Liberty Mutual Group, which purchased Safeco Insurance after it bought the naming rights to Safeco Field. According to a study by Joyce Julius & Associates, which calculates the value of media exposure for naming-rights investments, Safeco yielded $2.6 million in news-media exposure for the $2 million per year sponsorship. That doesn’t include the brand exposure value of TV and radio game broadcasts or any on-site marketing; only volume of mentions (positive or negative) across TV, major print newspapers and online news stories and features during the season.

Misery loves company

This made me wonder: if fan loyalty still is relatively intact, and putting aside for the moment that a winning season could turn things around, is the real deterrent to attendance the lagging economy? According to the recent Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal Misery Index, Seattle ranks as the third most miserable city – behind Phoenix and Portland – based on local unemployment rates, increase in gas prices and change in home values. Yet further analysis by the money site, Bundle.com, indicates that while other markets have retreated, spending in this “miserable” market (and Dallas) hasn’t subsided much at all. In fact, Seattle’s spending on travel and leisure is second highest, behind San Francisco, the 10th most miserable city.

Seattle Mariners Game Attendance 2003 - 2010

So are Seattle’s loyal baseball fans loyal no more? With total attendance down another 100,000 in 2011, I took a look at total market adult attendance through the past decade and, after an initial drop-off in 2006, market adult attendance has remained fairly steady since. It doesn’t appear that visitors to the region have that much of an impact on attendance either. Given that, one might surmise that the baseball fans, while remaining loyal, either aren’t coming as often, or aren’t bringing their friends and families to every game. That brings us back to that $9.85 beer. Could it be that attending a Mariners baseball game simply costs too much?

A rich fan’s game

Mariners’ fans are much more upscale than they were ten years ago. Those with household incomes of less than $50,000 a decade ago accounted for 44% of the market adults attending a game. Today they account for just 25%. Adults in households earning $75,000 or more now account for 54% of the attending market adults, up from 32% in 2001. The tipping point seems to have occurred back in 2006, which might account for the initial drop in attendance, but the new demographics of attendees have held steady since. According to the Team Marketing Report, released in April 2011, the Mariners rank 15th in the Fan Cost Index – just below the average of $197.35 per game, at $183.59. The tab includes four adult average-price tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four regular-size hot dogs, parking for one vehicle, two game programs and two least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps. And that hasn’t gone up (though I would beg to differ on the beer pricing) in the past year.

Still loyal, still relatively affordable for those who can afford to attend – what gives? Could it simply be a drop-off in ticket-buying by the somewhat more fair-weather – and equally economically strained – corporate ranks? Some speculate it is the lack of high-profile players among the young team. Others are happy with watching the team as it develops talent. Given fan loyalty, they don’t necessarily have to win the World Series, but they do have to be fun and exciting to watch!

In my next installment, I’ll be profiling the market’s game-going fans, why marketers might want to be talking to them in the off-season and the media that will get that job done.

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