I should own a sports team

Sitting at Turner Field last night, watching the Braves and the Nationals try repeatedly to give each other the game, I started thinking about Braves games in general, their place in Atlanta, professional sports in Atlanta, and ultimately professional sports nationwide.

Let’s see if I can get all this out with some semblance of cohesion.

I heartily enjoy attending Braves games. I think it’s a real asset to live in a city with a great ball park and a talented team. What baffles me is that last night’s game, the second in a three-game battle against our closest division rivals, featured 9,471 empty seats (Total capacity: 50,096; Last night’s attendance: 40,625). It’s certainly not news that Atlanta has a reputation for being a city full of fair-weather fans who take their sports teams for granted, but don’t try to tell me that, in a city of over 4 million, you can’t find 50,000 people (that’s 1.25%) on a given night who would genuinely enjoy going to a Braves game. If no more than 1.2 people out of 100 want to see a baseball game each night, then the Braves should move.

As I sat in my seat behind third base, which, admittedly, I did not pay for, staring up at the sea of empty blue seats, I tried to wrap my brain around the tipping point. Where is the disconnect? What keeps people from coming out to the ball park? One of the refreshment vendors came by and my dad waved him over. “Gimme two Buds and a bag of peanuts.”

“That’ll be $19.50” (The total ($6.50 + $6.50 +$6.25) should have been $19.25, but I didn’t say anything.)

My dad handed him a 20-dollar bill and, in a way I can only describe as registering his displeasure with the prices, he said, “Keep it, I guess.” I certainly don’t blame him. I had also used most of a 20-dollar bill to buy two plastic bottles of Budweiser earlier.

I promise this is not some lukewarm rant about the insulting prices of refreshments at sports arenas, movie theaters, amusement parks, and anywhere else the audience is essentially captive. I’m more interested in how we got to one of the biggest games of the year (to date) and there are almost 10,000 seats with no asses in them. That’s the problem.

The Braves’ management is running a business and, as such, they make decisions based on profitability. I’m not even going to try to speak knowledgeably about the P&Ls of a professional sports organization, but I will offer this thesis: The Braves’ number one goal should be to sell out every single home game. (I don’t want to hear about TV markets, I’m talking about the stadium experience). If those in charge would zoom out and focus on A) making people excited to come to baseball games, and B) making attendance as effortless as possible, I think extreme profitability would follow rather naturally. When there are empty seats, all other decisions become secondary. If you are not insulted by the idea that the Braves can be profitable without selling out every game, you should be. Profitability of teams is highly subjective, but, knowing that the Braves make a lot of people extremely wealthy (not just players), it’s hard, having just paid $13 for 2 beers, to look around at empty seats and not call bullshit at the top of my lungs.

It’s a fairly basic manufacturing principle that when you operate at maximum capacity, your costs begin to drop and your profits go up. (Jessica, correct me if I’m talking out of my tuckus here.) Imagine the economies of scale if the Braves could count on a butt in every single chair, every single night. Granted, it’s only natural for management to focus intensely on the tangible revenue generators (ticket sales, refreshments, corporate sponsors, etc), but I think they would do well to focus first on selling out every game, and then address ticket and refreshment prices only as a function of selling out every single game.

Obviously, lowering prices accross the board to attract more fans is important, but it’s only part of the potential solution. The Braves are suffering from a lack of demand. The lack of demand does not stem from a dearth of people with the desire to fill the seats. The problem, I believe, and this goes for the Hawks and Thrashers too, is that people in Atlanta aren’t willing to put up with the inconveniences and insults inherent with professional sporting events in return for the amount of pleasure they get from attending said event. That is the diconnect. If I were in charge, I would see this as a HUGE problem.

My list of possible solutions is little more than brainstorming as I have no idea how to run a baseball team, so I’ll spare you. And someone could probably refute every point I’ve made in this entry with relative ease. I just can’t get over the fact that, when you’re at a Braves game, it seems like the goal of the Braves is to suck as much money as possible out of my wallet when the goal SHOULD be to attract as many fans to the stadium as possible. If you fill your stadium to capacity every night, you can suck on my wallet all you want, because if I chose not to show up, some other victim will fill my seat. But with 10,000 empty seats, I can almost hear the management laughing as I hand over another $20 for two pathetic plastic bottles of Bud.

I’m not a total hater. Some high points from last night’s game:
– Franco throwing not one but two bats into my section.
– Getting to boo Kolb in person. At this point, actually, I think I was booing Bobby Cox.
– Multiple fly-ball bloopers.
– Chipper stealing second. What a riot. He would have been outter than RuPaul if the second baseman hadn’t dropped the ball.

8 Comments so far

  1. Lisa Kessler (unregistered) on July 28th, 2005 @ 5:03 pm

    Some of the reasons people do not attend more braves games:

    (1) Cost of ‘extras’ at the game including food, t-shirts, etc.

    (2) People in Atlanta don’t really give a crap about the Braves. Very little fan support. Many people attend to see the other team play.

    (3) They market the wrong audience. This year they incorporated a cartoon network play area for kids. Are 5 year olds the ones spending money for games?


  2. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on July 28th, 2005 @ 7:02 pm

    The goal of most businesses is to get as much of your money as possible. I don’t think that MLB or the Atlanta Braves are particularly egregious capitalists.

    On the subject of baseball attendance — The typical baseball game doesn’t sell out and it never will. No amount of marketing will change that.

    Click the link below and you’ll see that even the most popular team, the Yankees, leaves 15% of its seats empty each night.

    http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/attendance

    When you talk about filling 50,000 seats in a metro area of 4 million, I think you’re focusing on the wrong numbers.

    Yes, Turner Field has 50,096 seats in a metro area of 4 million. But there are 81 home games each season. That’s 4,057,776 home games seats in a season. Compare that to the Falcons. The GA Dome seats 71,149. With just eight regular season home games, that’s 561,192 home game seats.

    Also consider that MLB’s move to a playoff system had the effect of devaluing regular season. Now that a team can make the playoffs without winning the division, the regular season is less meaningful (it’s not quite as bad as hockey or basketball yet, though). Remember when there was such a thing as a penant race? Attendance goes up in the playoffs not because Atlantans are fair-weather fans, but because playoff games matter more.

    Another factor worth noting (it’s not something I can quantify exactly though) is that, yes, we’re a city of 4 million, but we’re very spread out. Turner Field is not very close to the middle and upper-middle class suburban ‘hoods in which baseball has the strongest appeal.


  3. kendall (unregistered) on July 28th, 2005 @ 8:19 pm

    yeah…what ‘The Dish’ said!

    Seriously though,

    I’m sooooooooo sick of people complaining about the fair weather fan base here in Atlanta.

    It IS what it is!

    Only a Championship is going to change that and even that will be slight.


  4. Tony Simon (unregistered) on July 28th, 2005 @ 8:45 pm

    The Yankees may have had the highest number of attendees, but I would be more concerned with what cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and LA are doing where attendance percentages are in the 90s.

    And I agree that there are far more offensive capitalists than MLB and the Braves.

    I don’t think Atlanta fans are fair-weather fans. I said as much: “The lack of demand does not stem from a dearth of people with the desire to fill the seats.”

    The point that I was trying rather inarticulately to make is that filling a large chunk of those 10,000 empty seats each night is not an insurmountable task. If the Braves made some targeted attempts to get attendance up (price slashing, free shuttles that actually work, etc), the payoffs would be huge. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, and if people started hearing that regular season weeknight games were actually getting crowded, they might think, “Hmmm, maybe all those people know something I don’t. Honey! We’re going to the Braves game!” Snowball effect, economies of scale, etc.


  5. Greg (unregistered) on July 28th, 2005 @ 11:17 pm

    Todays game’s attendance was also around 40,000 which blew me away for a day game during the working day and in the high 90’s temp wise

    It was probably the third highest attended game I’ve been to after game 5 in the NLDS against Houston last year and this year’s July 4th game


  6. shoobiedoobie (unregistered) on July 29th, 2005 @ 10:17 am

    ya tony, i think your article was just kinda bad timing. i would say that at almost any other season in the past 5 years, your column would have been fine…. but i was at the same game you were at and i could not believe 40,000 people showed up 3 days in a row on a weekday series where you had to take care of swall issues every inning.

    also, the braves have been playing from behind, which is completely different than most seasons where we just ride it out on divisional play. for a team to tie it up and then sweep makes for a good story, and i am glad so many people did show up.

    on a side note, what was the MLB’s oldest Grand Slam hitter’s deal that night? how do you lose the bat in the stands twice in the same at-bat?!

    fucking humidity.


  7. Jessica (unregistered) on July 29th, 2005 @ 10:24 am

    You’re attributing more expertise to me than I suspect I actually have, Tony, but here’s my shot at what’s going on.

    I suspect the issue is marginal cost. Yes, the Braves could fill the 10,000 remaining seats, but what would they have to surrender in return? I suspect a lot of their revenue is semi-fixed — the licenses paid by the vendors, for example — or independent of the stadium (TV revenue). To lure more fans in, they’d have to cut into their non-fixed sources — ticket and parking fees. The marginal cost of adding each successive fan may not be worth it. It would depend (and again, I’m guessing, guessing, guessing here) how the contracts with the vendors work. If they’re negotiated yearly, then the vendors profit from the increased food- and beer-buying and the Braves themselves can’t get a cut of it until they renegotiate.

    Another question would be whether the team was making a “profit” (baseball books being so closed as to make outside estimates of profit and loss nearly arbitrary) in the 1980s, when maybe 7,000 would show up to watch Dale Murphy play.

    It may not matter to the Braves how full the upper decks are, as long as they have a certain minimum attendance and a certain number of corporate patrons who are guaranteed to buy a box every season. The more interesting question is whether the Thrashers’ owners try and make any moves (such as lowering ticket prices) to increase attendance, or whether they try and pin their hopes on having a competitive hockey team.


  8. Mic G (unregistered) on October 23rd, 2005 @ 1:27 pm

    You totally miss the boat dude!
    No MLB team expects to sell out EVERY game!
    You miss all the obvious explainations, ie; Winning all the time gets boring! ALL teams who have had long stretches of success see their attendance decline. Atlanta has done way better then most!
    Go to a SELLOUT game. They are not at all fun. If you don’t arrive an hour or more before game time you will not get parked and in your seat by game time. The traffic is horrible before and after the game. There is not enough parking. You stand in line for everything and you are packed like a sardine in your seat. That’s why all games can’t be seelouts, because if you went to several of those sellouts in a row you would not want to go back until the Brewers came to town!
    As for you that bad mouthed Braves fans you are a dip sh!t! The Braves outdrew the Yankees, Red Sox, Cards at home in the 90’s! There fans surely suck Right?



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