Despite struggles, Brewers drew well in 2013

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, September 22, 2013

When a team is having a great season, with nearly everything going right, it’s easy to put fannies in the seats if you’re located in a good baseball town with an appealing ballpark.

But, when you’re mired in a dismal season in which whatever could go wrong does go wrong, it’s not so easy to sell tickets. That’s why both the fans of Milwaukee and Wisconsin as well as the Brewers are to be commended for home attendance reaching 2.5 million in 2013 despite the team going off the rails almost from the start.

Yes, we were spoiled when season attendance surpassed the 3 million mark in three of the previous five years. But imagine what attendance would have been in other cities had their team gone 6-22 in May to fall completely out of the divisional race before Memorial Day.

“I will tell you that people from other teams have called and asked, ‘How do you guys draw 2.5 million with a team that basically was out of the race by the end of May?’“ said Brewers chief operating officer Rick Schlesinger.

One envisions some of those calls coming from folks in Cleveland, Oakland and Tampa Bay. All three of those teams are in the thick of playoff races yet have lagged far behind the Brewers in season attendance. Oakland, which is pulling away in the American League West, will fall far short of 2 million. Tampa Bay, an annual playoff contender, will draw about 1.5 million.

The Athletics and Rays have the excuse of awful facilities in poor locations but what about the Indians? At one time, Cleveland had the major-league record of 455 consecutive sellouts. Now, with a revived team and charismatic manager in Terry Francona, the Indians are barely above the Rays in home attendance.

Cincinnati, a supposed hotbed of baseball with a team that has been in the thick of the National League Central race all season, will finish below the Brewers in attendance, as will Pittsburgh, with a team on the verge of making the playoffs — not to mention posting a winning record — for the first time in 21 years.

The Brewers also have drawn slightly better than the Atlanta Braves, who ran away with the NL East race at an early date.

That’s how strong the connection has become between the Brewers and the state’s baseball-minded populace. Yes, club officials are disappointed in drawing only 2.5 million — down nearly 300,000 from a year ago and about a half-million from 2011. But imagine how much worse it could have been.

“Our season-ticket base was at its peak after the 2011 season, for obvious reasons — winning the division title and going deep in the playoffs,” said Schlesinger. “We lost a decent amount after the 2012 season, consistent with what a team would lose after having a so-so year. But it was a good, robust season-ticket base that helped us with advance sales.

“Having said that, if you would have told me in April that in May we were going to lose 22 games, (Corey) Hart was going to be out for the whole year, (Aramis) Ramirez was going to be out for half the year, (Ryan) Braun was going to be out with injuries and also have the PED suspension, I would have been extremely despondent and very concerned about our attendance and our sanity.

“I’m disappointed because 3 million is always our goal. That’s the new normal I want to establish. But I have to be realistic. After we had the difficult May, we had to readjust our thinking. We owed an obligation to ownership and ourselves to reforecast.”

The Brewers were in good shape in ticket sales entering the season, with 1.2 million sold by opening day and the 2 million mark reached May 24. But second-half sales are greatly dependent on how a team fares during the first three months, and the Brewers’ early pratfall could have resulted in cobwebs growing across the ticket windows.

After losing all but six games in May, the Brewers were a whopping 15 games off the pace in the NL Central. St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati pulled far away, leaving the Brewers and Chicago Cubs to battle to stay out of the basement.

Not exactly a great ticket-selling environment for the second half of the season.

“That’s why, candidly, the month of May was very difficult to take,” said Schlesinger. “The months of uncertainty and volatility are April, May and September. We need a good season-ticket base to help April and May sales. June, July and August, because of the ballpark and our fan support, usually we’re going to do very well.

“September is really dependent on team performance. If we’re in the race, ticket sales are going to be strong. If we’re out of it, I could be the greatest marketing genius in the world and we’re not going to draw as well.

“In May, our performance pushed us so far behind, it started affecting June, July and August ticket sales. Instead of 43,000 coming to a game on a Saturday night, we saw 38,000. Still, considering the rest of the league, impressive, but if you lose 5,000 fans a game and multiply that by several dates, you’re talking several hundred thousand fans.”

Which creates a tremendous dip in revenue for a team that has the smallest local radio/television package in the majors. If your average ticket price is $20-$25 and you figure each fan is going to spend about that much in concessions and marketing, a drop of 300,000 to 500,000 fans is going to do damage to a club’s bottom line.

Despite that downturn, team principal owner MarkAttanasio and his front-office staff felt compelled to do something for the fans in the wake of the team’s dismal performance and the public relations fiasco of Braun’s drug suspension. After some brainstorming, they came up with the idea of giving fans attending the 12 August home games $10 vouchers to be used at Miller Park.

That gesture was an unqualified success. For those dozen games, attendance jumped from the previous average of around 31,000 to more than 34,000. And those were actual fannies in the seats. The no-show factor was negligible.

As anyone can attest who attended a home game in September, the no-show factor has been significant compared to announced attendances, which reflect tickets sold.

“We had our best month of the whole season in terms of show rates,” Schlesinger said of August. “People who were on the fence about whether they’d use their tickets, they came to the games.

“I give Mark credit. I told him that we’d have an increase in attendance and show rate; that it’s great for the brand; that I thought our fans would greatly appreciate the gesture; and I thought it’s something we needed to do. But, having said that, there’s a financial aspect to it.

“We didn’t make money on those vouchers. We did see an increase in spending per caps but it doesn’t come close to overcoming the initial $10 we were in the hole. But it’s something we needed to do.”

Schlesinger gives much of the credit for fan loyalty to Attanasio, who has kept the payroll at a level more conducive to competing than making money while continuing to improve Miller Park. Though Attanasio lives in Los Angeles, he is viewed by Brewers fans as anything but a carpetbagger because of his family’s commitment to Milwaukee, including various charitable endeavors and his obvious love of winning.

“I think fans have a high degree of confidence in Mark that he knows what he’s doing,” said Schlesinger. “He’s committed to putting a team on the field that’s successful, committed to investing in the ballpark, cares about the fans.

“I do think that the connection that Mark has to the fans is very rare and that is tremendously important to creating an environment where we can draw well even with a bad team. The fans respect him. He’s direct; he’s honest. He wants to win. They also trust his judgment. He’s patient yet demanding. He has high expectations. The fans see that and embrace it, and I think that helps translate into a great environment to sell tickets.”

Then, there is the roof. Never underestimate its impact on attendance in Milwaukee. Knowing every game is going to be played while sparing fans the unpredictable nature of Wisconsin weather is beyond huge.

“In April, when the weather was terrible, we were drawing over 20,000 for every game,” said Schlesinger. “In cities where they don’t have roofs, the weather really hurt them. I think we have a great ballpark. We’ve invested in it to make it better. Mark has spent ownership money and fans’ money to make it a great ballpark.”

So, how do the Brewers get back to 3 million in home attendance in 2014? It will take hard work from the front office and ticket-selling staffs because once fans go away, it’s not a given they will come back.

It’s also up to the baseball operations department to make off-season moves that get fans excited about the team again. Key decisions have to be made on the personnel front, and as always with teams in the Brewers’ market size, there is little room for error.

“There’s always a lag effect,” said Schlesinger. “We’re going to have to demonstrate to the fans that we have a baseball plan that’s going to get this team back to where we’re talked about with the Pirates, the Reds and the Cardinals as a contender. We need to do that because it’s going to be a more difficult sales environment, no question.

“I do have a sense of pride in that the fans continued to support us despite what everybody would admit has been a very difficult and disappointing season, on and off the field. It requires us to do a lot of planning and analysis for 2014 because I want to get back those 500,000 fans that came in 2011 and didn’t come this year.”

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