Sox pulling out stops to bump attendance

CHICAGO -- Brooks Boyer said they have a new motto in the White Sox ticket department.

"Strategically, the big thing we're saying internally is, 'One more game,' " said Boyer, the team's senior vice president of sales and marketing, at SoxFest over the weekend. "How do we get people to attend one more game?"

Attendance is always an issue at White Sox games, as the team tries to reverse an eight-year slide that has seen their average attendance decrease by 42.7 percent.

The Sox averaged 36,511 fans in 2006, thanks to the World Series bump, but only 20,896 in 2014, the third-worst number in baseball.

To get 2005 World Series tickets, fans who didn't have season plans had to purchase a one-year plan for 2006. Every year since, the Sox have drawn fewer people compared to the year before.

Boyer, who has been with the team since coming over from the Bulls in 2004, promises that trend will end this season.

"As we stand right now, our season-ticket base is higher than it was at the end of last year," Boyer said.

When asked for specifics, Boyer smiled and said, "Higher."

When the White Sox signed Melky Cabrera to a surprise contract in mid-December, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn credited the early returns on increased ticket sales for full-season and mini-plan ticket packages.

In previous years, the Sox added payroll in the offseason, or during midseason trades, and asked the fans to support a team with middling results.

In 2011, Ozzie Guillen's last season, the Opening Day payroll was $129 million, and the team finished 79-83, drawing more than 2,000 fewer fans per game than in 2010.

But while the payroll has dipped in recent years, the Sox continue to be aggressive without guaranteed revenue to support some of these moves.

With little demand for seats, there is an abundant supply and little need to buy tickets in advance. The Sox have tried cutting ticket prices, and adding variable pricing, in recent years, but it hasn't made much of a difference.

But maybe this time is different. The Sox have a better product to sell, from the team itself to an engaging schedule, which includes a 2005 reunion weekend in July and a weekend series against the Cubs in August.

The early ticket sales jump came in part from the excitement of trading for local boy Jeff Samardzija and signing closer David Robertson at the winter meetings, and signing Adam LaRoche the month before.

Manager Robin Ventura said he didn't think they could afford Cabrera, but chairman Jerry Reinsdorf approved the three-year, $42 million deal. The Sox's payroll is already north of $110 million.

Thanks to the new additions, not to mention returning stars such as Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, the fanbase sold out the three-day SoxFest. Is it a good omen for what's to come?

Season-ticket and mini-plan sales are the main drivers for attendance. But the Sox have to be aggressive in the way they market this team.

Once season tickets are sold, the Sox have to attract casual fans, and they don't get the tourists who flock to Wrigley Field.

The Sox have made "Free T-shirt Mondays" a regular giveaway this season, and seem to be pushing most of their marketing dollars to weekend games.

Boyer said for the past few years, the team has focused on fewer giveaways with better quality. Last year for "Star Wars Night," for example, the team gave away R2D2 winter hats with a Sox logo.

On the flip side, last season's two-game Cubs home series was on Wednesday and Thursday. The Sox drew 21,075 for the first game and 26,332 for the second. Both teams were awful, and there was negligible buzz for the series.

But this year, both teams are billed as playoff contenders and the Sox are hosting three weekend games with the Cubs in mid-August.

Boyer also pointed to their 2014 July home schedule as a detriment to the numbers. The Sox had 12 games, including one doubleheader. They averaged 23,770 fans that month, despite having a July 4 home game and two Friday-Saturday-Sunday series. While they drew 30,297 on Friday, July 4, the next two days, they drew around 23,000 fans.

In 2015, the Sox have 13 home games in July and 18 in August.

To understand their fans' behavior, the Sox have built a new "data warehouse" to analyze ticket data. Before you think they're getting too fancy, a Grabowski (Beth) is in charge of it.

"It's analyzing everything," Boyer said. "Not only how do we get them to attend and buy one more game, but the people who have tickets, we can make sure that they're using them."

The team has beefed up its sales staff, hiring more full-time workers instead of interns. Group sales are pushing hard in areas like Northwest Indiana, where Samardzija is from.

When the team traded for him, the next day they put a full-page ad in the Times of Northwest Indiana, and Boyer said it resulted in more mini-plan purchases.

The White Sox have done away with paper tickets, going to an all-digital delivery service. Fans can use smartphones or print out tickets, which makes for an easier way to send tickets to other people.

With their "data warehouse" program, the front office is also tracking fan activities to an intense degree.

"We have 13 data points that come into our platform and we can see what happens on a Tuesday night between 7 and 8," Boyer said. "We can see what's going on with sales of hot dogs, then be able to analyze who's using their tickets, how often they're using their tickets and be able to push promotions."

Boyer said the team was in the beginning stages of building a true incentive program to reward loyal fans.

"You bought your tickets and your tickets are digital," he said. "There are ways to know if you bought two hot dogs. If I know you're a season-ticket holder and every game you're coming in, sitting in your two seats and you're buying two hot dogs, how cool would it be if when we know you're in the ballpark, for one of our reps to come down and say, 'Jon, here's some free hot dogs on us.' "

Boyer was told it sounds as if he has all the answers.

"I don't know if they are all right," he said. "But we'll find out."