Jays step up to drive fans back to park

At times last season, Skydome looked eerily like Montreal's Olympic Stadium has for the last decade: cavernous, concrete, and oh yes, quite empty. It's a far cry from 1993 when the Blue Jays set an all-time American League attendance record for...

At times last season, Skydome looked eerily like Montreal’s Olympic Stadium has for the last decade: cavernous, concrete, and oh yes, quite empty. It’s a far cry from 1993 when the Blue Jays set an all-time American League attendance record for the fourth straight year with well over 4 million attendees. In 2000, the Jays managed less than half of that, pulling in only 1.8 million fans.

Paul Allenby, the Blue Jays director of marketing, feels that things are on the upswing thanks in large part to Rogers Communications’ recent purchase of the team. ‘Rogers is very family-oriented, there is a connect there and a level of equity that will allow us to reach the most critical market segments.’

With Rogers on board, a strong retail element will come in to play. For the first time ever, Blue Jays merchandise will be available at 96 Rogers Video outlets, where special offers on videos will be available with the purchase of Blue Jays tickets.

Allenby notes that the Blue Jays ‘Caravan,’ a grassroots initiative that sees players and management go to regional communities, is critically important to re-establishing the ties between the Blue Jays and their fans. Since February, the Caravan has been visiting various communities in a pitch to re-establish the emotional ties between the fans and the ball club that existed during the days when the Jays were perennial playoff contenders and held a number of ‘big name’ players like Joe Carter or Roger Clemons.

All this is necessary to shore up a decline in overall audience but does not remedy the fact that the Jays’ have had a tough time putting bums in seats of late. Critically, they failed to sell out Skydome on opening day 2001.

The club has launched an extensive mass media campaign focusing on the Blue Jays past and present, which is being streamed broadly across a number of channels, including TV, print and out-of-home. Allenby notes that media efforts will further evolve as the season progresses.

TSN’s director of marketing Adam Ashton says that while TSN would be most pleased if Skydome were full night-in night-out, the Dome’s recent failure to attract big crowds hasn’t hurt the network’s numbers: TSN’s Blue Jays games in 2000 averaged an audience of 412,000 viewers, an increase of 8% over 1999.

This season, TSN will carry 79 games, by far the most of any network in Canada. Driven by on-air promotions, its marketing campaign will benefit from cross-promotional opportunities across the CTV network. TSN also focuses on what it refers to as ‘big game’ series, with competitive teams such as the New York Yankees.

Ashton says TSN and the Blue Jays will focus on the team’s 25th anniversary and ‘past moments’ campaign, playing off former intensity of fan support and recreating that enthusiasm in the present and future.

Sean Cunningham, director of marketing and strategic development, at Bronskill & Company, a sports design and entertainment company in Toronto, says the ‘commitment to a winning team is evident. The strategy of re-connecting with fans by promoting key moments in Blue Jays history is a good one.’

Cunningham points to Turner Broadcasting and the Atlanta Braves when comparing the strength that the Rogers and Blue Jays will have in sharing rights and assets. ‘It will enable them to leverage joint resources and create strength.’ (Especially if Rogers is able to secure majority share of CTV Sportsnet from BCE).

When asked what it takes to create an American-style emotional bond with fans, Allenby notes a couple of important distinctions. ‘We did a lot of market research and looked at markets like New York and Los Angeles,’ where the Dodgers and Yankees both enjoy outstanding perennial support, ‘but San Diego turned out to be the one that was closely aligned with the Toronto market.’

San Diego, as Allenby tells it, had new owners who were not local and when the team slipped to below .500 over a period of time, its fan base eroded. When local ownership purchased the team, it tried to reach broad markets in Northern Mexico right up the Californian coast, instead of just focusing on the city of San Diego. The results of those marketing efforts are reflected by the attendance numbers last season, which reached 2.4 million in 2000, thanks to promotional giveaways that lured out-of-towners to San Diego with joint offers at local tourist destinations.

The lesson for Toronto? ‘Fifty-six per cent of our attendance comes from outside the Greater Toronto Area. They come from Peterborough, Lindsay. It is of paramount importance that we re-connect with the community. The critical element is good value,’ says Allenby.

‘One thing that we have not done in the past is recognized [our] geography with other spots in the area. If someone comes to Toronto, baseball isn’t the only thing they will see while here. So we’ve created a number of bundled options in conjunction with venues like CN Tower and Ontario Place.’

That good value, according to Allenby, is further created by stabilizing ticket prices and offering special promotions such as food vouchers at the stadium, along with a number of different giveaway items, such as bubblehead dolls – a popular item in the U.S.

Many of the new efforts stem outward from natural marketing initiatives such as making sure that the game experience is as enhanced as possible in the future. According to Cunningham, this involves, ‘trying to differentiate the TV experience from the live Skydome experience.’ Cunningham adds that his company is trying to, ‘rejuvenate the surroundings at the stadium and set new standards with graphics and banners that celebrate Blue Jays history and current team.’

The Skydome atmosphere is a far cry from halcyon days when the Jays’ were winning World Series titles like they were going out of style. But the future could well be bright according to Pete McAskile, CEO and CD of Second Dimension International, a sports and events marketing company. ‘It’s going to take a bit of time, but I was there opening night and you feel that things are warming up and that huge efforts are being made to bring the crowds back in.’

The road starts with fixing Skydome and getting that roof open this spring.