“If you build it, he will come.” That was the advice that Shoeless Joe Jackson shared with Ray Kinsella in the 1989 baseball classic, Field of Dreams. In the film, Shoeless Joe was – in a way – haunting Ray in an attempt to get him to build a baseball field in his cornfield, so that deceased ballplayers could come back for another chance to play a game they loved.
And that advice held true at the end, when Ray’s departed father joined him on the field for a father-son catch, and when a long line of cars was seen on the rural streets and driveways leading up to Ray’s farm – all supposedly filled with tourists eager to see the diamond and relive a part of their childhoods because, “it is money they have and peace they lack.”
Unfortunately for Major League Baseball (MLB) teams, drawing an audience is a bit harder than simply building a baseball stadium and waiting for fans to pile into their cars and make the drive to the games. Today, MLB teams face more competition for the entertainment dollar and attention of their fans. New technologies are also creating competition to traditional revenue streams – such as season ticket sales.
These new challenges were among the topics of discussion with Valerie Camillo, the Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer of MLB’s Washington Nationals, at the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Growth Conference.
The Mid-Atlantic Growth Conference is the preeminent event for the best and brightest business minds in the National Capital Region, and across the Mid-Atlantic. The event brings corporate leaders together for a day of networking, sharing of business best practices and learning from the area’s top executives. Valerie was one of the featured speakers at this year’s event, where she detailed the increasingly competitive landscape facing MLB teams, and how teams are adapting to meet their challenges head-on.
One of these new challenges comes from new technology and online companies – such as StubHub – that are disrupting the traditional ticket purchasing process. With easy access to tickets for select games, secondary market ticketing providers are making it increasingly easy for fans to shirk season ticket packages and only buy tickets for select games that they want to attend. According to Valerie, “The secondary market is an industry disruptor, since fans can go online and find tickets just for the games they want to go to. With the emergence of sites like StubHub, teams found they simply couldn’t compete just on the tickets alone.”
That’s unfortunate for MLB teams like the Nationals, because season ticket holders are an extremely important part of their revenue base that also delivers additional benefits to the team. “A [season ticket] plan holder base is very important for any sports franchise,” Valerie explained, “you’ve presold a large number of games, you get the best engagement [from the fans] and can acquire important data from season ticket holders.”
These new online services and technologies have forced MLB teams to adapt – finding new ways to increase value for season ticket holders and drive additional season ticket sales. As Valerie explained, “[To compete with the secondary market] we have to provide a differentiated value to make sure that we retain our [season ticket] plan holders. One of the ways we’re retaining our season ticket holder base is by evolving the relationship between the team and the season ticket holders to be much more than just tickets, which is all it used to be five years ago.”
As part of this evolution, the team has worked to change the perception and experience of being a season ticket holder. “Now, there is a relationship between the team and its season ticket holders that makes being part of the season ticket base feel more like being in an exclusive club. It’s about exclusive experiences, special rewards, access to special high demand events – such as Opening Day, the Playoffs, the MLB All Star Game – that’s how we’ve created differentiation that keeps our season ticket holder base happy,” Valerie explained.
But new technologies have had more of an impact on operations than just reshaping how people buy tickets. Although it’s known more for shaping how baseball teams scout and recruit players and build their clubs, Big Data and advanced analytics are increasingly becoming an essential part in making business decisions and shaping the fan experience during baseball games.
The sports world is working to sell an entertainment product to a fan base that has more choices than ever for its limited entertainment time and budget. To better compete in this environment, they needed to get more aggressive and progressive in their approach to business – this meant they needed executives with a different set of skills and experiences.
“There was a time when most sports franchises across all of the major sports were very ‘mom and pop,’ and they didn’t bring to bear what many would consider to be true business best practices,” Valerie explained. “Now, these teams are hiring a new breed of people to run their business operations. My background was very nontraditional in sports, I came from a strategy and business consulting background.”With the introduction of a more business-minded executive came the integration of new business tools and practices. This included the introduction of Big Data and advanced analytics.
According to Valerie, “Analytics started on the sports side of these organizations. But then, [teams] have started working to integrate it into other aspects of the business – as well as other more progressive business practices.”
As a former consultant with deep expertise and experience in analytics programs, introducing analytics into an organization that relied heavily on anecdotal evidence in its business decision making has been a top priority for Valerie since joining the Nationals. Today, Big Data and analytics are shaping and informing most – if not all – of the decisions they make when it comes to sales, marketing and game day operations.
According to Valerie, “[The Nationals] built a really robust customer data warehouse and have used that data to help us sell. We’ve used it to improve the efficiency of our salesforce. We’ve built profiles for our customers so that we can more accurately target our marketing efforts. We are using tons of research to inform our marketing campaigns – designing them to appeal to our core demographic and who our core buyer is, as defined by research and data. There is no facet of what we’re doing at the Nationals that isn’t being driven first and foremost by analytics.”
Technology is creating new challenges for MLB teams, but it’s also giving them new tools to help meet and overcome them. Although the times may force the Nationals and other sports teams to reevaluate how they do business and generate revenue, intrepid and innovative business people are working to utilize new technologies and innovate in both game day and business operations to help keep these teams profitable.
If the discussion at the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Growth Conference is any indication, the Washington Nationals are in good hands, using technologies, tools and business strategies of the future to keep America’s pastime relevant in the nation’s capital.