New York loves a winner.
— George M. Steinbrenner III
Though a young, winning ballclub plays every night in the Bronx, New York Yankees ticket sales are down again in 2017. Overall, the decline is not huge — about 3,000 seats per game compared to 2016 — but the multiyear downward trend is severe. Since the franchise’s last World Series title (2009), ticket and suite revenues fell over 40% through the end of 2016.
Certainly, the Bronx Bombers of this decade were not as compelling as those of the “Core Four” era, so you can expect some drop-off, but the story goes deeper. A New York Times report featured interviews with team president Randy Levine and Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ general managing partner, who searched for answers in marketing surveys and brand evaluations.
They should have saved their money. If they asked season ticket holders who jumped ship between 2010 and 2016, they would have heard about a team that ignored its fanbase following the move to the new stadium, one that gave priority to ticket brokers looking for riches in the $2.3 billion ballpark. But the story does not end there.
Between contempt for longtime fans, the slow move to rebuild, and the celebrity farewell the club staged for its last captain, Yankees brass turned diehard season ticket holders into occasional visitors to the Bronx.
Trading down on season tickets
When the Yankees moved to the park across the street from the original site, fans braced themselves for higher prices across the board. However, costs did not skyrocket. The larger problem was value. Whereas a season ticket holder might get an infield box seat for $60 (third deck overhang) in the old stadium, that amount would place them near the foul pole in the second level in one of the back rows — all in all, a steep trade down.
In many cases, fans had to decide between worse seats or more money. From our experience, questioning Yankees ticket officials about this problem was hopeless. They made it clear that others (i.e., ticket brokers) would buy the seats if fans did not. Basically, season ticket licensees could take it or leave it. With the acquisitions of C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira that year, many took the gamble.
Further erosion of value
The gamble paid off in 2009, when the Yankees capped off the first season with a World Series win, just as it had done in 1923. However, the typical gains seen for championship teams did not come through in 2010. Only 513 extra fans saw games the year following the title run. By 2011, ticket sales dropped by nearly 1,400 seats per game (112,000 for the year.)
Clearly, many fans could not justify the added expense coupled with decreased value. For a team headed to the Series, they’d make an exception, but the obstructed views and other inconveniences spelled a subpar experience. Meanwhile, the careers of Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter were on their downswings. New York had not planned well for the next generation, and fans felt no need to pay through the nose for what remained.
The second wave of decline
While 2017 sales are worse than in ’16, this span was actually the third straight season attendance dropped at Yankee Stadium, according to Baseball Reference figures. In 2015, about 2,600 fewer fans showed up per game; in 2016, another 1,600 seats went unfilled compared to the previous year. Since 2014, that means 7,200 fewer fans take their seats every night in the Bronx.
Actually, the ’14 Yankees represented a clear shift in the history of the franchise. As a team, they weren’t much, finishing in second place with 84 wins, 12 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. Brett Gardner (4.0 WAR) was the team’s all-around best player, followed by Dellin Betances and Jacoby Ellsbury. Jeter, in his final year, hit .256 with 4 HR and finished 14th among Yankees position players with 0.2 WAR. Regardless, Jeter started every game at shortstop and batted second in the lineup.
The Jeter gambit
If you don’t recall that season, there were frequent calls for Yankees management to drop the light-hitting Jeter in the lineup and start a younger, quicker fielder at short. They went unheeded the entire season. When the Yankees finished five games short of a wild card, many wondered if they’d thrown away a shot at the playoffs. (Kansas City, which took the AL Wild Card, lost to the Giants in seven games in the 2014 World Series).
While Jeter was one of the greatest Yankees of all time, ownership and management ignored the unifying theme in club history: winning ballgames. Even Babe Ruth couldn’t escape that harsh reality, but George Steinbrenner’s heirs decided to play hero worship that summer rather than push for the postseason. When the flashbulbs stopped after Jeter’s first at-bat, the rest of the game was usually a dull affair devoid of power and any other excitement.
Enter the suites
As we detailed in another post, Yankees officials also erected a barricade between fans and the game in the form of high-price suites in 2014. Though fans would not see a team fighting for a playoff spot in earnest, those who shelled out for a private suite could enjoy the game from an enclosed section that happened to block the view of anyone passing through the stadium’s open concourse.
This message went out loud and clear. Rather than protecting the integrity of the stadium and the overall fan experience, Yankees management obstructed views in order to please corporate clients and other groups who chose to pay for the honor. These suites may be the least popular element in the new ballpark.
The product Yankees ownership placed on the field in 2014 was the opposite of the slugging, winning club that opened the new stadium in ’09. It was only natural for longtime fans to feel shortchanged, and it turned out to be a losing gamble for the team as well. The following two seasons featured no Jeter and an otherwise aging roster that made just one playoff game (the 2015 wild card loss).
By the time 2016 rolled around, Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez could not summon the power to support the club, and the Yankees finally started their rebuild. Yet three straight years of counting contract money on aging players already sealed the fans’ decision not come to the Bronx. At the prices they paid, the tickets were no longer worth the money. Nonetheless, the arrogance of Yankees executives held steady.
Lonn Trost to core fans: Drop dead
If there was any mystery about what Yankees officials thought of middle class fans at the Stadium, COO Lonn Trost cleared it up in 2016. Commenting on the team effectively neutering ticket sales by reseller StubHub, Trost told WFAN, “The problem below market at a certain point is that if you buy a ticket in a very premium location and pay a substantial amount of money…it’s frustrating to the purchaser of the full amount [when] a fan picks it up for a buck-and-a-half.
“And quite frankly, the fan may be someone who has never sat in a premium location. So that’s a frustration to our existing fan base,” Trost concluded. Translation: Fans who can’t afford the full price of the best seats ($1,250 and up) shouldn’t be allowed to sit with those who can. Furthermore, anyone who found a cheap ticket online would not be allowed to buy it and enter the stadium — no matter the section.
The ‘millennial problem’
Hal Steinbrenner described the issues with ticket sales as part of a large “millennial problem” in the New York Times. “It’s obvious that looking at things — baseball has been talking to us about it as well — that’s the age group that is less interested than other age groups in the game,” Steinbrenner said. That may be true in general, but Yankees fans who opted out of season ticket packages were not coming out of college.
Likewise, millennials who would have liked to attend games at reasonable prices heard from Trost that StubHub’s deals were not welcome. On game nights at the stadium in 2017, affordable bleacher seats are full; box seats remain empty. When a sports franchise keeps raising prices and wonders why people who aren’t rich don’t come, it’s not a millennial problem. It’s a management problem.
For 2017, the Yankees made an effort to clean up some of the more offensive mistakes of the new stadium. Officials began by removing obstructed bleacher seating from the outfield. In its place went standing room seating for fans for can enter for $15 and get a free beer with the ticket. (The deal is known as the Pinstripe Pass.) That’s a good start, but these seats are about 500 feet from home plate.
We expect Pinstripe Pass seating to become popular with younger fans as the summer wears on and the team continues playing well. But the much bigger problem is filling those seats in the outfield in the second and third decks. These seats, if more affordable, would find more takers for season ticket plans. It doesn’t take another marketing study to understand how.
It’s the ticket prices, stupid
The biggest gift of all to the organization: The Yankees prospects who are developing ahead of schedule. An exciting product featuring Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez is already on the field, and there is plenty of buzz in the stands. Club officials will have to admit they overpriced the less desirable seats in the stadium (maybe the most desirable seats, too). Unless fans see these prices drop, they will continue buying the occasional ticket for single games.
So box seats will remain empty and the Yankees will continue looking for ways to cover the huge debt package taken out to finance the stadium. For fans, the only thing most care about is seeing their team play competitive ball at a price they can afford. Old Yankee Stadium was like that. Now it’s time to fix the problem with the new cathedral in the Bronx. Until Yankees executives do, they’ll wonder why more people won’t come.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY