Winning doesn't add up for Sox

Although the White Sox were in first place much of this season, they drew fewer than 2 million. David Banks/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- For years, the White Sox's company line has been: Fans will come when we win.

Players have said it; former manager Ozzie Guillen said it, perhaps with a four-letter word included; general manager Kenny Williams has said it with more conviction; and Brooks Boyer, the team's vice president of sales and marketing, practically had to put it on his business card when talking to reporters.

But that piece of conventional wisdom was tested this season as the White Sox drew fewer than 2 million fans for the first time since 2004, despite leading the A.L. Central for most of the season.

Now, the new saying around 35th and Shields is: The fans matter.

In the spring, as attendance lagged while the team defied expectations, the White Sox hired an expert in fan behavior, Rich Luker, to survey and study the team's fans. He held focus groups and polled 8,000 ticket buyers from the White Sox's voluminous database.

What he found was that the conventional wisdom might be wrong and Bill Clinton's 20-year-old campaign mantra was right.

"It's the economy stupid," Luker said during a lengthy, informative phone call Thursday.

His study is part of the reason the Sox are cutting ticket prices again this season. After dropping season-ticket prices by almost 30 percent in 2012, the team announced that 54 percent of season tickets would cost an average of 26 percent less. Bleacher seats are dropping 32 percent and outfield reserved seats by 30 percent. Daily tickets will be cut to $20 in the lower-deck corners and $7 in the upper-deck corners for 2013, among other changes. The cost of the Sox's 27-game plan will drop by 25 percent.

The Sox want to lock in fans for season tickets, but the team is also trying to lure "value seekers," Boyer said. Daily tickets will be cut to $20 in the lower-deck corners and $7 in the upper-deck corners for 2013, while supplies last, he said. Dynamic ticket pricing will still exist for much of the park, though the team has tamped down on variable pricing, because it was confusing fans. And after six straight seasons of declining attendance, the team is desperate to reverse the trend.

"We are listening to our fans, and these cuts are reflective of what they have said to us in our study," White Sox senior VP of sales and marketing Brooks Boyer told ESPNChicago.com. He said that broadcasts next season will "point out the great fan experience that is available at U.S. Cellular Field."

"We have to do a better job of satisfying our fans and selling what we believe is a great ballpark and team event," Boyer said. "This is just the first step forward we will take to reach out to our great fan base."

Luker, who came up with the ESPN fan poll back in 1994, has 20 years of experience probing the minds of sports fans. He recently spent time in Chicago working for Relay Worldwide. He said this is his sixth study of Chicago sports fans and he was surprised with what he found.

"The focus groups were not talking about the Sox, but their life and the economy," he said. "Other places it's like this is the new normal, but Chicago still seems to be suffering a little."

Boyer saw the results and the team made changes in pricing, but he doesn't want to use the economy as an amorphous excuse, pointing out that Detroit sold 3 million tickets this season. He's adamant about that.

But it's not really a fair comparison to say that Detroit is worse off than Chicago. Detroit had a stronger start in selling season tickets and mini-plans, based on the offseason excitement over signing Prince Fielder.

"That created scarcity," Boyer said.

The Sox's fanbase is also different from the Cubs', and Luker's research showed fans' personal economies were a major factor in buying tickets.

The White Sox had a more difficult beginning after a dreadful 2011 season, which culminated in Guillen's leaving for Miami. Robin Ventura and the "Appreciate the Game" sales pitch wasn't going to sell plans. The Sox lost a significant amount of season-ticket holders in the last few years after adding so many during and after the 2005 World Series season. Ticket prices climbed annually.

In May, Boyer told ESPN Chicago that it was going to be a tough year, in terms of sales, and he was proved correct. Boyer doesn't believe the overall economy stopped fans from coming, but admits that some fans weren't finding value in Sox games.
That's the story the research told.

Starting in the spring, Luker led nine focus groups and gave 8,000 surveys to fans who bought tickets in 2010-11 but were going to the ballpark less, or not at all, in 2012. He didn't want to survey current season-ticket holders because they are "less involved in the rhythm of what we're talking about there."

Luker said the data revealed "the strength of the relationship between the White Sox and their fans." He said that 5,000 of the people surveyed put comments on the end, resulting in 400 pages of text. "It was incredible, substantial stuff," Luker said. "Really, really good. Of course, there were 20-30 people who just said 'Go Sox.'"

When Luker and his group narrowed the research to people who bought tickets in last two seasons, he found that 30 percent bought fewer tickets in 2012 and 20 percent bought more. But the group that said it bought "significantly less tickets" in 2012 was 3-1 greater than those who bought more.

The top four reasons fans bought fewer tickets were, according to Luker: 1. Can't afford it; 2. Going to a game is too expensive/the price of the proposition is too high; 3. My life has changed; 4. I have less time.

"Here's where the punchline comes," he said.

What Luker found wasn't a joke, though. He said his research showed that two-thirds of fans going to fewer games in 2012 fell into the first two categories -- economic reasons -- because they felt they had less discretionary income. The other third going to fewer games had the same or more discretionary income, but chose to attend fewer games because of life changes.

So it wasn't the baseball? Well, not this year.

"As it turned out, to the White Sox's credit, the problem was not on the field," he said. "Not even 2 percent said that was somewhat a factor. New manager, Kenny, no, all of them were happy with that. All liked the food, the atmosphere, all of that was fine. The only problem was a slight problem with the pricing of parking."

The Sox lowered parking from $23-$25 to $20, a small concession which could help spur people to make a trip to the game, Luker said.

"We're seeing a sea course change in attendance," he said. "I did research in 1998 that found, all things being equal, fans were 70-30 in going to a game in person over TV. I did a similar poll in 2011 and it completely flipped. Seventy percent would rather watch on TV."

Still, the joys of HD television and parking prices aside, one would still think winning would affect season-ticket purchasing.The Sox added to their season-ticket-holder list during, and after, their World Series run, culminating in a franchise-record attendance of 2,957,411 in 2006. Since then, attendance has gone down every season. This season was the team's worst, attendance-wise, since drawing just over 1.93 million in 2004.

"That's exactly why you do research," Luker said. "You always have an ear to the ground, listening carefully. They heard if they win, they'll come. A quarter way through the season, obviously not hearing whole story, so they got very serious listening to fans. Rather than just making decisions, they wanted to understand and quantify what the problem was."

One positive note from the study was a "real pop in a younger age group." Males ages 18-25 were actually increasing in attendance.

"That's great news," Luker said. "It means the future is brighter than the present. It was unexpected."

Luker said the primary demographic for sports team ticket-buyers is 26-64, and younger fans are often left out of research. It's a trend he plans to examine on a national level.

It's not tough to figure out. Boyer knows why the team is popular among younger fans.

"It's the halo effect," he said. "How old were those fans when we won the World Series?"

Sometimes selling tickets is simple.