Gregory Levinsky and Jeremiah Kirven Detroit Free Press
Published 6:02 AM EDT Jul 14, 2019
The Detroit Tigers keep losing, and a portion of the franchise’s fan base says it is too.
As the Tigers rally to fill seats amid declining attendance — including with ambitious promotions like last week’s $17.76 lower-bowl ticket deal — parts of their season-ticket base are grappling with the uncertainties of a rebuild that some say devalues their current ticket packages and makes attending Tigers games less of a priority.
“When you’re a crappy team and you’re charging a premium for everything, beer, food,” said Jerry Johnson, 53, of Franklin, who shares season tickets in the Tiger Den with his wife and another couple. “It’s kind of a kick in the balls.”
The Free Press reached out to a handful of season-ticket holders during the All-Star break, and while the fans voiced different levels of frustration with the state of the Tigers, who entered Saturday with a 28-58 record, second-worst in the American League, they agreed there is long-term value in their investment.
As in, the Tigers can’t be this bad forever.
The Tigers ranked in the top-third in Major League Baseball attendance from 2012-14, part of a four-year run of AL Central titles that also included a World Series appearance. But since 2013, average attendance at Comerica Park has steadily declined, from sixth in ’13 (38,066 fans per game) to 24th this season (19,049).
That dip coincides with losing. During the attendance slide, the Tigers’ win totals have gone from 93 to 64. And this season, the Tigers are on pace to lose 100-plus games and, at worst, could challenge the AL record of 119 losses they set in 2003.
“So far, we’ve had a pretty good fan support here at the stadium,” Tigers general manger Al Avila said July 5, during a news conference announcing his multi-year contract extension. “I mean, it’s not 30,000 and it’s not 40,000, but if you look across the league, OK, we’re actually doing good for a rebuilding club.” ”
The rub with promotions
Attendance across Major League Baseball fell below 70 million for the first time since 2003 last season, according to a Forbes analysis, and the league still raked in more money than ever.
Still, the attendance woes haven’t ceased, as 19 of 30 teams entered June with below-average year-over-year attendance, according to the Associated Press. Among the worst: Toronto, San Francisco, Baltimore — and Detroit.
“Given the explosion of entertainment alternatives and the growth of the secondary market,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in June, “it is not surprising that season-ticket sales can be challenging. The clubs are responding to this challenge with creative and effective approaches.”
Perhaps that’s why the Tigers have been so ambitious in their attempts to keep fans engaged this season, with average attendance down more than 4,000 per game from 2018. Yet, the ticket promotions that are designed to put fans in the seats aren’t necessarily designed to benefit season-ticket holders, some say.
“I look at these $17.76 tickets that they sold at the Red Sox games and I’m sitting here with an extra ticket that cost $70,” said Paul Hansen, 64,, a season-ticket holder since 2002 who lives in Detroit. “That stings a little.”
The Tigers sold more than 14,000 lower-bowl tickets for the Red Sox series, according to a team spokesperson, and the promotion worked: The Tigers averaged 26,160 fans, despite inclement weather delaying the first game of the series for more than four hours.
The Tigers also ran a three-day flash sale in June, with $9 seats in the upper bowl and $13 seats in the lower bowl. More than 34,000 tickets were sold, according to the Tigers, and it helped lead to their highest average attendance for any month this season by a wide margin. (The Tigers averaged 21,698 in June, 16,383 in May and 17,071 in April).
Mike Sicilia, 44, recently moved back to Westland from Georgia, near Atlanta. He had Tigers season tickets from 2001-06, and plans to get them again now that he has returned to Michigan. He still has friends in the area who own season tickets, and he says some were irked with the Tigers’ discount promotions.
“I look at it from both sides,” Sicilia said. “[The Tigers] are in a real quandary there. They were pissed with that $9 promotion and rightfully so because they feel it devalues the price they’re paying.”
Kathleen O’Bryan, 62, of Bloomfield Hills, has held season tickets for five years. She’s among those who like affordable prices to attract more fans.
“The crowds definitely change as far as who shows up and who doesn’t, and I like it because families can come,” O’Bryan said. “Some of the promotions I get a little jealous of because I can’t buy the ticket package and still have my seats. I don’t get all the giveaways I could, but I think they’re doing a pretty good job.”
In recent years, the Tigers have added many giveaways that are only available by purchasing special ticket packages. One such success story has been the expansion of their University Days program, in which fans with special tickets receive a university-branded Tigers hat. (Part of the purchase price goes to a charity at the designated school.)
The program has been a solid success for the Tigers, as Bill Shea of The Athletic noted. But season-ticket holders are left out in the cold on those deals, forced to buy an extra ticket to receive the bonus items. On Friday, the Tigers announced a new promotion: Pink out the Park, with $15 “Go to Bat Against Breast Cancer” tickets available. The tickets don’t include a giveaway item — though the first 10,000 fans into the park, regardless of ticket package, will receive a pink visor — but portions of the proceeds will go to the Karmanos Cancer Institute.
Cheap seats? It depends
Tigers season tickets generally cost more than they did in 2013, the year before the attendance decline began, even when adjusted for inflation. In fact, only upper box infield tickets and lower baseline tickets have decreased in price during that span.
Here’s how the Tigers break down the ticket costs compared to 2013 (cheaper seats in bold):
- On Deck Circle: $6,051 in 2013 ($6,653 after 10% inflation); $6,942 in 2019
- Infield Box: $3,702 in 2013 ($4,070); $3,970 in 2019
- Outfield Box: $2,973 in 2013 ($3,269); $3,184 in 2019
- Lower Baseline: $2,163 in 2013 ($2,378); $2,064 in 2019
- Pavilion: $1,476 in 2013 ($1,623); $1,650 in 2019
- Bleachers: $1,254 in 2013 ($1,379); $1,428 in 2019
- Club Seats: $2,175 in 2013 ($2,391); $2,447 in 2019
- Upper Box Infield: $1,638 in 2013 ($1,801); $1,573 in 2019
- Mezzanine: $1,254 in 2013 ($1,379); $1,390 in 2019
- Upper Reserved: $1,041 in 2013 ($1,145); $1,109 in 2019
Part of the problem with the Tigers’ rebuild, according to some fans, is the lack of star power in the lineup.
Miguel Cabrera, a star attraction in 2013, turned 36 this season and has struggled to stay healthy, and players like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and J.D. Martinez are no longer with the franchise. What’s more, the Tigers are expected to trade off many of their remaining top assets before the July 31 trade deadline, including right fielder Nicholas Castellanos, closer Shane Greene and perhaps more.
Which means, more losing is on the way.
“It’s all a big farce,” Johnson said.
Claude Greiner, of Grosse Pointe Woods, has owned season tickets since 2007 and recently secured seats in the Tiger Den. The 39-year-old has no plans to sell them. “If I give up my tickets, when am I going to get those seats back?” Greiner said. “I’ll probably never get those seats back.”
“I don’t have an issue with the price, I really don’t,” Greiner added, of a season ticket package that can sell for $6,000 per seat. “My biggest issue is that the secondary market is totally destroying the value of the tickets for the season-ticket holders.”
While online resale sites, such as StubHub and SeatGeek, often allow ticket holders to sell for above face value, the Tigers also offer an upgrade program that allows fans who already have tickets to games to purchase seats in premium areas. That program uses dynamic pricing to adjust the cost based on demand, but savvy shoppers are often able to get premium seats at non-premium prices.
In addition to the upgrade program, the Tigers have gone one step further in offering cheaper ways into the ballpark. The team recently adopted an approach used by several other attendance-challenged teams and began offering a “Ballpark Pass,” a program that gives access to every home game in a given month for a reduced rate. Starting at $39.99 a month, fans get standing-room-only tickets via their phones. Other tiers in the month-by-month program feature random upper-level seats ($54.99), lower-level seats ($99.99) and preferred lower-level seats ($199.99).
The “Ballpark Pass” is less of an attempt to goose attendance, however, and more of an attempt to draw in “millennials” who might not want the commitment of a full season-ticket package, or simply prefer the ballpark experience without being attached to a particular seat. As noted by The Athletic earlier this month, the majority of the subscription passes sold across baseball over the past two seasons have gone to fans 30 and under.
Of course, a winning team would solve almost all of these problems, increasing demand and driving up what the Tigers — and their fans, via the resale market — could charge for tickets. Back in the glory days earlier this decade, there was no shortage of fans, millennial or not.
And while not all fans are confident in the direction of the organization — “They’ve taken a step backward in the last couple of years in my mind,” Hansen said. “I’m not so certain how committed the current ownership group is to the franchise.” — there still are many fans who are willing to tough it out until the Tigers are good again.
“For the years that we’ve had these tickets, we’re probably about the only ones left in our section that still have the full season,” said O’Bryan, whose seats are in Section 118, down the first-base line. “People slowly but surely have dropped off because when they couldn’t get there, they couldn’t give them away. … For me, the commitment works. I just like baseball.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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