The Most Desperate Ways Teams Have Tried to Get Fans Through Door
It's hard to imagine there are any teams in sports for which attendance and finding ways to sell tickets isn't an ongoing concern and a top priority.
It's not hard to attract fans, particularly in large markets, when times are good and a franchise is flush with money. Of course, not all markets are large, times aren't always good and revenue streams are often fickle.
Fan attendance is actually most critical when times are tough; financially abandoning a team usually isn't the best way to get them over the hump. But you can't really blame people for not wanting to pony up the cash to watch a subpar team lose.
Which is where marketing comes into play. Fan promotions and changes aimed at making the live experience more appealing are ways in which ownership attempt to compensate for their poor product. Some are clever and inventive, while others are just plain desperate.
Here are some of the latter.
Rays Massive Ticket Giveaway
Despite being more or less a fixture in postseason play, the Tampa Bay Rays have been struggling with the worst—or damn near the worst—attendance in major league baseball for years.
They've been dead last the last two seasons, but even when they were ninth from the bottom in 2010 they were still desperate to put asses in the seats.
In late September of that season, several Rays players pressured team president Matt Silverman to give away tickets, so they wouldn't be playing to clinch a playoff berth in a pathetically empty stadium.
The team made the decision to give away 20,000 free tickets to a single game, in order to create a "full-house atmosphere."
Overpaying a Washed Up Star
Trying to lure in a star player from the NFL or NBA is one way for a very obscure team to attract national—and sometimes international—attention.
It doesn't even matter if he or she is receptive to their overtures, just making the gesture is usually enough to create a temporary media frenzy. It's truly a win-win situation for them.
In February 2012 the Indoor Football League's Allen Wranglers signed infamously troublesome wide receiver Terrell Owens to a six-figure contract, which reportedly included an ownership stake in the team. Before landing T.O. most people didn't even know the IFL existed.
After his debut was widely covered by the national sports media—including being featured on SportsCenter—the league's profile took a significant bump.
But still not a whole lot. Three months after signing Owens, the Wranglers cut him for "lack of effort" and gave him 50 bucks to hit the road—someone really should've read over that contract better. Wow…if I didn't know any better, I'd guess that was their plan all along!
Wait. Yeah…it definitely was.
And there are other examples of teams extending ridiculous offers to athletes in an attempt to capitalize on their fame.
The Rochester Lancers (an indoor soccer team) offering Allen Iverson $40,000 (plus a $5,000 bonus for each goal scored) to play in two games in early 2012, and a Russian football team offering Tim Tebow $1 million to play in just two games in September 2013.
Jaguars Allow Giant Clear Baggies of Outside Snacks
At most stadiums, you can't even bring in so much as a tin of Altoids without having to plead your case for keeping them to a jagweed security guard on a power trip.
And bottled water? Forget about it. You can throw it away, or you can step aside and shotgun it while everyone stares at you.
Well, prior to the 2012 NFL season, the Jacksonville Jaguars announced several new measures aimed at enhancing the fan experience at EverBank Field, one of which was allowing people to bring outside food into the stadium. Because watching the Jags suck is far more palatable when mixed with a massive bag of homemade Chex Mix.
Unfortunately that new policy didn't carry over to outside liquids, which remain classified as contraband. Phew…you wouldn't want to take away the fan experience of paying $5 for a bottle of Aquafina after being forced to throw away a perfectly good bottle of better water an hour earlier.
Isn't that really the best part of the day anyway?
Kidding. It's rage inducing.
Blue Jays Meat Marketing
According to Sports Business Daily, in 1999 the Blue Jays were looking for just the right way to market the team to women and increase their female fanbase. Apparently the best idea they had was to tout the tushes of the male players rather than anything baseball related.
A 30-second radio spot was produced, which went a little something like this:
"Mmm, check out the buns on [RF Shawn] Green...'Heinie Scout'...just one of the diehard fans at a Blue Jays game."
Yes. Heinie Scout sure sounds like a diehard baseball…fannies fan. Ugh. Any woman who was swayed by that garbage should really reexamine everything about her decision-making process.
Minor League Pregnancy Day!
In July 2009 the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league affiliate of the Mets, went in a decidedly different direction than the Blue Jays did in 1999 in trying to beef up numbers in their female fanbase.
If the Blue Jays were trying to sell sex, then the Cyclones were selling…the aftermath of sex?
That summer they hosted the first (and I imagine last) ever "Bellies and Baseball: A Salute to Pregnancy Night" promotion. It was the ultimate family night—bring the kids…bring the babies…even bring the unborn babies.
They had a few expecting mothers throw out the first pitch, which definitely landed in the dirt at least 15 feet from home plate. The women were also allowed to run the bases, "barefoot and…well, pregnant!" as one participant explained.
But that wasn't all the Cyclones had in store for the big-bellied broads in attendance. They also had "craving stations," which served disgusting things like ice cream and pickles and anchovy pizza, presumably catering to women who were pregnant in '80s comedies.
Apparently it attracted quite a few expecting mothers, who don't mind being treated treated like a sideshow at a circus.
Bobcats Go BOGO!
The buy-one-get-one-free sale is generally considered one of the most bargain-basement, desperate tactics in marketing. There's nothing that says "we're selling crap" like giving away half your crap for free.
So if any team in professional sports was going to resort to a BOGO offer on season tickets, it's fitting that the Charlotte Bobcats would be the one. Undoubtedly the NBA's worst team in the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, the Bobcats won just seven games.
The one bright spot was that their historically wretched season gave them the best odds at winning the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft Lottery. When they lost out to the Hornets (now the Pelicans), the Bobcats decided to take drastic measures to keep fans interested in the seasons ahead.
In a stunning bit of discount pricing, they announced "Purchase seats for the 2012-13 season at regular price and get the 2013-14 season completely FREE!!!"
Wow. Anyone else feeling a little smothered by their desperation and neediness?
NASCAR's 12,000-Member Fan Council
There may be no sport that took a bigger hit during the recent recession than NASCAR, which has also had the most difficult time trying to dig its way out in the aftermath. Attendance remains down even today, and those who are coming aren't spending near what they used to.
Struggling to fill those empty grandstands, NASCAR formed a 12,000-member council of fans, which is regularly consulted. Slashing ticket prices, working with local hotels to cut costs and add free dining options, and even offering seriously discounted 99-cent gas to fans are just a few of the measures NASCAR has taken in recent years.
Earlier this year they finally moved into the 21st century, with the Michigan International Speedway announcing it would become the first NASCAR track to offer free WiFi to fans. More are expected to be added throughout 2013 and for years to come.
The merciful embracing of the digital age is expected to come with even more improvements to the fan experience. Interactive maps will help navigate the event and various apps will allow spectators to order concessions and have them delivered to their seats, so they don't miss any of the race action.
Obviously many of these changes are long overdue, but after resisting them for so long, caving on pretty much everything certainly makes NASCAR look a little desperate.
New York Islanders Invite Fans to Relive a Disgrace of a Game
The New York Islanders have been abjectly wretched for so long that it remains an ongoing struggle to get fans excited about anything they do. Generally ranked near the very bottom of NHL attendance (or dead last as was the case last season), they're joining the Nets in hoping that a move to Brooklyn will change their fortunes.
Given the club's loathsome attempt to drum up fan enthusiasm in August 2011, a change of scenery probably couldn't hurt. The promotion in question invited fans to a re-airing of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins from earlier in the year—a game the Isles actually won, 9-3.
The win would have been impressive had the game not been a brawl-filled spectacle in which the two teams amassed a total of 346 penalty minutes. How they even managed to score 12 goals in between the 15 on-ice fights is a mystery. The game resulted in 23 suspensions, and the Islanders were fined $100,000.
It was such an embarrassment that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux criticized the NHL for not sending a stronger message with the discipline handed out and publicly questioned whether or not he wants to be involved in the league.
Well, at least one party was appalled.
The other party just wanted to party. The depressingly desperate marketing ploy was not just a showcase of pervasive violence that still plagues the sport, it was also a showcase of human nature at its worst.
Iron Pigs Celebrate Life by Giving Away a Funeral
Pennsylvania is one of the most aged states in the country, a well-documented fact that did not go unnotice by the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, and their very unique fan giveaway night in August.
Rather than the standard toys or t-shirts given away by many teams, the Iron Pigs partnered with a local funeral home to offer one special prize for one lucky fan. They dubbed the evening a Celebration of Life, which culminated in the giveaway of a funeral valued at $10,000.
As well meaning as the promotion may have been, it was a very strange decision to go with a giveaway in which the happy ending was a (very deserving) man, recently diagnosed with ALS, winning a funeral.
End-of-life decisions and terminal illnesses aren't usually night at a ballpark stuff.
Tennessee Launches "Flex Pricing" Model
There are reports that college football attendance has been declining all over the country, particularly in the SEC for several years, but nowhere has it been a bigger problem than at the University of Tennessee.
To be fair, Neyland Stadium has a capacity of over 102,000. The stadium is located in Knoxville, which has a population of 182,000. Even with fans traveling in from outside the city, that's still an awful lot of seats to fill with people willing to pay money to see an awful football team.
But they do manage to fill up a great deal of it—if you don't include the student section on the upper decks. Tennessee students are allotted 24,000 tickets per game, but rarely in the last several years has the student section been more than half-full.
About half of the allotted tickets are usually sold, but a substantially fewer number of people actually show up to the game.
Despite the fact that student tickets can go for as little as $10 a game, the university decided cost was the major issue impacting attendance, and in August 2013 announced a new flex-pricing model for seats in the upper deck and south end zone.
The new supply-and-demand system will, theoretically, increase ticket prices for games against high-profile opponents like South Carolina and Georgia, but decrease them for games against duds like Austin Peay and Western Kentucky.
What this means is that the school is banking on the fact that students will want to pay more money to see the Vols get steamrolled.
Avalanche Apology Letters
The Colorado Avalanche were among the league leaders in attendance during the 2000-01 NHL season, and had been in years prior.
Then they began a slow and steady descent to the bottom, dropping a few spots every season or two.
An Avs game in December 2009, which was a divisional showdown against the Calgary Flames for first place, attracted an audience of just 11,448—meaning there were nearly 8,000 empty seats at Denver's Pepsi Center that night. And the game was deeply discounted for "Family Night," with a ticket and meal averaging less than $25.
By the end of the 2012-13 season, which was shortened by the lockout, they were fifth from the bottom. Avs ownership and executives have been well aware of the unsettling trend and last January came up with a plan, which they hoped would prevent attendance from falling any further, which obviously didn't happen.
Instead of going the traditional route with an attention-grabbing promotional event, they opted for more of a grand gesture. The Avalanche handed out an apology letter to every fan in attendance at the home opener last season. An interesting strategy for sure, one that literally defines the least you can do.
Oh…sorry we've been hopelessly terrible for a decade and have taken you for granted. So here's this form letter we had printed up!
We're good now, right?
Bobcats "Promotions" Are Just Excuses to Unload Free Tickets
The Charlotte Bobcats BOGO giveaway on season tickets was pretty bad, but even though fans were only paying half-price, at least the team was given an "asses in the seats" commitment of two years. Other recent promotions have been more shortsighted, to say the least.
In February 2012 the Bobcats offered a free ticket to every fan in attendance at a game against the 76ers if the home team made a single three-pointer in the fourth quarter. One blogger called it, "The saddest promotion ever. Thanks, Bobcats."
At least he said thanks.
A few months later in May, team COO Fred Whitfield announced a continuation of their "Pay-the-Pick" promotion on season tickets, which began earlier that month. Basically it allowed fans to purchase season tickets for $1-$4 dollars per game, depending on the results of the NBA draft lottery.
So, if Charlotte got the No. 1 overall pick, fans would have been able to purchase season tickets for $43. Worst-case scenario would be the No. 4 pick, which would've set someone back just $172.
Maybe the Bobcats should start playing hard to get? This stuff clearly isn't working.
Marlins Desperate Diehard Dollar-Ticket Giveaway
Just weeks into their second season in their brand new Miami ballpark, the Marlins were forced to close the upper bowl of the stadium due to dreadfully poor attendance. Something that plagued them through the entire 2013 season, thanks to the team's offseason fire sale.
In July, the Marlins concocted a promotion that could best be described as too little, too late. The Marlins attempted to get "diehard" fans excited about a home game with the Dodgers by offering $1 tickets to fans who visited the website and used the coupon code: HASHTAG
It's for the best they didn't use an actual hashtag on Twitter for the gimmick, because taking a public inventory of diehard fans in Miami would do more harm than good.
Let's hope that guy in the stands was one of the people who got a $1 ticket—he deserves one.
Jaguars Promise to Get You Drunk for Free
Everyone is well aware of the sad state of affairs in Jacksonville right now.
With the Pittsburgh Pirates finally ending their decades long reign as the most pathetic team in sports this year, the Jaguars have been making a solid case to ascend to the throne.
The Jacksonville team is terrible and attendance is abysmal. The Jags have been attempting to increase attendance with various promotions for years now, but in September they may have finally stumbled upon a giveaway that could make showing up for a game worth it.
The Jags announced via Twitter that for two hours during their home game against the Indianapolis Colts, they would be giving away FREE BEER. This assumes you think Bud Light qualifies as beer. An interesting marketing ploy for sure, but boy did it reek of desperation.
Especially when it turned out to be not quite as advertised.
The "one-time promotion" was not an all you can drink situation by any means, with fans receiving two drink coupons to be redeemed that day. The giveaway was supposed to excite fans, but it was more successful at exciting Mothers Against Drunk Driving—MADD was reportedly displeased.
Yeah. Good luck getting drunk off two Bud Lights. And yes, this means the Jags would rather give away alcohol than sign Tim Tebow, so that's obviously never going to happen.
The Not-so-Great Zamboni Caper
Considering the Thrashers no longer exist in Atlanta, you can imagine times were tough for the team's dozens of fans in December 2010. Of course, no one was taking their struggles harder than Thrash the mascot, who was desperate to save the club.
So desperate was he that he stole a Zamboni from the team's practice rink and was later arrested for grand-theft Zamboni by the Gwinnett County police. The Thrashers posted a news bulletin on their website, announcing the mascot had been found guilty and would remain in custody until the team sold 5,000 more tickets to games that month.
Yes. The whole ridiculous thing was nothing more than an elaborate marketing ploy, which was far more desperate than it was creative. And it's a good thing for Thrash that it was, otherwise he'd still be locked up.
**Speaking of desperation, I'm desperate for you to follow me on Twitter: Follow @blamberr