SABR Analytics: Teams Going Deep To Attract New Fans

Bill James headlined the second annual SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix last weekend. Brian Kenny from MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential acted as a roving emcee of sorts.  Joe Posnanski was there. Rob Neyer was there. And our own Dave Cameron and David Appelman were there. The three days of sessions led to lively discussions about WAR and knuckleball academies and the mythical analytics-scouting divide.

But this year’s conference wasn’t limited to questions about how best to measure and project on-the-field performance. Analytics have moved to the business side of the front office. And it’s your off-the-field performance in watching, listening to, and attending ballgames that is now the subject of intense study. Sports marketing isn’t new but the techniques used to measure fans, create new ones, and motivate both groups to purchase tickets and merchandise have become much more sophisiticated.

Scarborough Sports Marketing works with teams in all four professional sports leagues and the leagues themselves. Bill Nielsen, Scarborough’s Vice President of Sales, explained the building blocks for the company’s marketing campaigns: identifying each team’s unique fans — those adults who watch, listen to, or attend games in the team’s Designated Market Area, or DMA. In essence, the team’s TV market. The number of unique fans differs from a team’s attendance figures and TV ratings because many fans attend more than one game in a season. Scarborough conducts paid phone interviews and collects detailed demographic data: age, gender, race/ethnicity, job, family income, address, TV and radio preferences, other entertainment interests, and so on. Each DMA is updated every six months.

The New York Yankees lead all professional sports teams with more than 7 million unique fans. The New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are the other MLB teams on the top ten list. In the Chicago DMA, the White Sox actually out poll the Cubs for unique fans because so many Cubs fans live outside the Chicago area, thanks to superstation WGN. The Texas Rangers have had the largest growth in unique fans among all MLB teams — 40% since 2010 — and for the first time ever, had more unique fans than the Dallas Cowboys. The Rangers fan growth, according to Bill Nielsen, shows that team performance is the number one factor affecting fan identification and attendance.

The Cleveland Indians have worked with Scarborough Marketing for years but in the last two years, they’ve stepped up their research and marketing game even more. Working with a company called Think Vine, the Indians have created what they call an agent-based marketing model. What does that mean? Using five years worth of data about fans who bought single-game tickets, the Indians and Think Vine built a model that simulates the ticket-buying habits of the team’s actual fans. The model takes into account the exogenous factors that push attendance higher and lower: team performance, opponent, weather, and other entertainment options in the Cleveland DMA.

With that data in the model, the team then simulates the varying success and profitability of the promotions run throughout the season: dollar hot dog days, bobble heads, kids fun days, hats, concerts, and fireworks. The model tells the Indians which promotions are likely to bring in the biggest crowds in particular days and what the likely return on investment will be. For example, bobble head giveaways are quite popular and raise attendance significantly. But bobble heads are expensive to produce. If the Indians give away 10,000 bobble heads, they maximize attendance and profit; if they give away 15,000 bobble heads, attendance increases marginally over giving away 10,000, and the team takes a loss on the promotion.

The Indians’ model also told them that most fans buy single-game tickets within three days of the game they attend. The team uses that information to tailor the subject and timing of ads, whether on digital outlets, print, billboard, radio and TV. As Alex King, the Indians’ Vice President of Marketing and Brand Management explained, the team has moved from gut-based marketing decisions to data-driven marketing decisions. The change brings the business side of the Indians’ front office in line with analytics-driven baseball operations side. There’s now a consistent data-first approach throughout the front office under the leadership of team President Mark Shapiro.

In the late 1990′s and early 2000′s, the Indians played before sell-out crowds at Jacobs/Progressive Field. The new ballpark, fan-favorite players and winning seasons were all the marketing the team needed.  That at all changed when the economy soured, the losses piled up and attendance fell through the floor. The Indians had no choice but to innovate. Their commitment to data and analytics in baseball operations opened the door to a similar approach on the business side. This season will be a real test of this new data-driven marketing.

Other teams are watching carefully. After his presentation, Alex King was surrounded by marketing representatives from other teams eager to learn more. Perhaps thus time, the Indians will write the book on the next revolution in baseball. I’m picturing Ryan Gosling in the movie version.




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Wendy is also a contributing writer for Sports on Earth. Her writing has appeared on ESPN.com, Baseball Nation, Bay Area Sports Guy, The Score, The Classical and San Francisco Magazine. Wendy practiced law for 18 years before beginning her writing career. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


33 Responses to “SABR Analytics: Teams Going Deep To Attract New Fans”

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  1. Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

    Ryan Gosling is such a talent.

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  2. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Makes you wonder how much money was really rolling in when a business needs to start acting like a business all of a sudden??

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  3. bexleybay says:

    Any other goal than winning the World Series should not be pursued. Bobble head profits??? lol

    Go Tribe!

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    • Simon says:

      Right, because spending the extra money on high quality baseball players wouldn’t help with that winning the World Series stuff, would it?

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  4. TKDC says:

    “The Texas Rangers have had the largest growth in unique fans among all MLB teams — 40% since 2010 — and for the first time ever, had more unique fans than the Dallas Cowboys.”

    But those aren’t real fans.

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  5. Dave S says:

    If I brought my kid to a game for a bobblehead, and they didn’t get my kid one because tehy only made 10,000 instead of the needed 15,000 (or whatever number they needed to make sure every kid got one)… I’d be pissed. And that would be the last time I bought a ticket for a promotion.

    Penny wise, pound foolish.

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    • byron says:

      They always say how many fans are going to get one, so you wouldn’t be pissed, you’d feel stupid for getting there too late.

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      • Dave S says:

        Yeah, I admit I’d feel stupid… for about one nanosecond before I got pissed and vowed to never attend another ballgame just because of a stupid promotion. LOL

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        • Jason B says:

          It only takes one nanosecond for that dissonance to kick in – “hey wait, this can’t possibly be my fault for not arriving early enough! Those jerks should produce more free stuff to give me!”

          (Don’t worry, we all do it.)

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        • vivalajeter says:

          Jason, they’re typically not free. Tickets are more expensive to bobblehead games than they are to non-bobblehead games at many ballparks.

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      • Deelron says:

        I’d feel stupid for picking the wrong line to get into the stadium? Or for stupidly not leaving 4 hours ahead of the game time to avoid accidents to have my family wait for hours around a ball park because they didn’t want to make more? I’m pretty sure I’d be pissed at the team, not all of us can sit at a bar for hours before a game or can ditch work early, or even live close enough to a ballpark to make travel times trivial.

        I’ve been at a stadium when the gates opened and by the time I got through security I’m watching them open the last boxes with a load of people behind me. That’s not great for anyone, particularly for people who are actually enticed by the promo.

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        • MrMan says:

          When you CHOOSE to attend a game BECAUSE of a limited giveaway of a promotion and said limited number runs out before you get one….you did not choose wisely.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      In 2002 or 2003 I drove to Montreal for a Gary Carter bobblehead (my favorite player growing up). Got to the stadium early, and it turned out to be a lottery system. You got a card that said your giveaway – and I got a free soda. Needless to say, I was pissed. Even moreso when I saw someone walking around with garbage bags filled with bobbleheads for $50 each.

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    • Rich A. says:

      You (and many other fans) being pissed is built into their model. The marginal benefit of producing fewer bobbleheads outweighs the cost of late-arriving fans’ negative feelings towards the organization.

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  6. philosofool says:

    I’m just waiting for a team to figure out that beer promotions are actually going to get me to the game.

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  7. Kyle says:

    The Indians have also lowered their concession prices this season.

    $4 dollar domestics for the 2013 season. Last season they were 5.50. That’s a free beer every 4 you drink

    The 2012 Major League averager was .41 an oz or about 6.50 for a pint, Tribe although serving 12 oz beers, would still be under that if you were to price it out to a pint (5.30 a pint)

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    Bill James headlined the second annual SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix last weekend. Brian Kenny from MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential acted as a roving emcee of sorts. Joe Posnanski was there. Rob Neyer was there. And our own Dave Cameron and David Appelman were there.

    I believe the ladies refer to this as a “meat market”.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Bill James headlined the second annual SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix last weekend. Brian Kenny from MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential acted as a roving emcee of sorts. Joe Posnanski was there. Rob Neyer was there. And our own Dave Cameron and David Appelman were there.

      I believe the ladies refer to this as a “meat market”.

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  9. china_dave says:

    one thing the indians can do to get fans out to the game is to play football. ideally in 1958

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  10. brendan says:

    “The Rangers fan growth, according to Bill Nielsen, shows that team performance is the number one factor affecting fan identification and attendance.”

    I don’t think this single piece of data shows/proves anything. Do you, wendy? I would expect fangraphs to challenge that statement.

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  11. Scott says:

    I want to hear more about knuckleballer academies.

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    • Lenard says:

      How can I join one? I’m 24, so I have about 15 or so years to practice before I hit my prime. Scott Boras, I’m waiting for your call!

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  12. El Vigilante says:

    Minor correction: it’s “ThinkVine” – one word, not two.

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  13. slipperysteve says:

    Funny story I got for you guys. I was at a White Sox Frank Thomas bobble head game in which my wife and I took the train down. At the end of the (bad) game we left to wait for our train. The supervisor at the station told us to get on the other side of the tracks.

    Of course we were on the right side all along and the supervisor steered everyone wrong. The train stopped but didnt wait for anyone to run under and over to the other side.

    As the train took off I screamed TAKE THIS!! and launched my Frank Thomas bobble head right at a train window.

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