Yesterday, the Seattle Mariners announced a “make-good” to all who attended last Friday’s Opening Day. The launch of the Mariners 2012 season was, to use consumer electronics terms, a bit buggy. Not only did the team lose, but the Safeco Field credit card system crashed, causing long waits for that critical pro-sports customer, the thirsty beer lover.
Opportunity lost for the Mariners, for whom Friday’s crowd of 46,206 will likely be the largest of the year. Really, the last ten years have been an opportunity lost. The on-field product has been substandard, and an upstart rival has stolen market share.
The Seattle Sounders debuted four seasons ago with a marketing strategy that should seem very familiar. The Sounders targeted hip, young fans. The strategy is that if “the cool kids,” as Sounders’ top executive Adrian Hanauer calls them, go to Sounders games, families will want to follow. The Mariners, who feature fun-for-all-ages schtick like dancing groundskeepers, directly target families.
Guess who’s winning?
Heck, Sounders vs. Mariners makes Apple vs. Microsoft look like a dead heat.
Granted, the Mariners play 81 home games while the Sounders play just 18. Overall, the Mariners sell more tickets. But there can be no doubt that the Mariners strategy ain’t working.
Why the different philosophies? Maybe it’s a personality thing. The Sounders’ top executive, Adrian Hanauer, is an entrepreneur and VC investor. The Mariners’ top executive, Howard Lincoln, is a former corporate attorney. The best-known Sounders minority owner is actor Drew Carey, who, even for an actor, is a ham. The best-known Mariners minority owner is a media-shy former Microsoft programmer, Chris Larson.
It’s not just marketing where the Mariners are taking a Microsoft-like thumping, it’s branding too. You see the Sounders building their brand, for example, by supporting the Sounders Women soccer team. Sounders Women is the story of the April soccer scene, having signed several U.S. National Team stars after the U.S.’s top-tier women’s pro soccer league suspended their season. They’ve played two games, both sellouts.
Sounders FC doesn’t own Sounders Women, but has provided promotional support, and, evidently, jerseys. Consider: Sounders FC is supporting a team that plays the same sport, during the same months, and appeals to the same fans. A short-sighted franchise might see Sounders Women as a threat. The Sounders, of course, see that a successful Sounders Women team increases local interest in soccer and bolsters the Sounders’ image.
The Mariners, even before Opening Day’s debacle, had started the month with a self-inflicted wound, enraging Seattle sports fans with their objections to the proposed SoDo sports arena. Most Mariners customers were also Sonics fans, and the Mariners should have realized that their opposition to the arena would feel like a stab in the back. But Mariners management, clearly, doesn’t care about brand perception. With attendance where it is, maybe they should.
The Mariners have legitimate gripes about SoDo infrastructure. But their thesis–that a more congested SoDo will cost the Mariners fans–isn’t just staggeringly short-sighted, it’s also completely wrong.
The major league teams with consistently high attendance are those in dynamic, urban areas–in the Bronx, in Fenway, in Chicago’s North Side. Sure, parking is challenging. Which is another way of saying that these neighborhoods are packed with bars and restaurants and other fun places to go, rather than acres of asphalt. Teams in stadiums ringed by parking lots–the Dodgers, Royals, the White Sox–are the teams that struggle to attract fans, even in good times.
The Cubs were 71-91 last season, but still played to 90 percent capacity. Fans come not just for baseball, but for the pre-game and post-game experience of drinking in bars in Wrigleyville. When a team’s stadium is surrounded by parking lots, the team is the only attraction. So if the team stinks, why go?
The prospect of a new arena, bringing 200 nights of events that would further enliven SoDo, should thrill the Mariners. SoDo could be a future Wrigleyville or Fenway–especially as Link light rail’s expansion to the U District puts thousands of college and post-college kids a train ride away.
But the Mariners can’t see beyond Edgar Martinez Drive. Instead of promoting SoDo as a vibrant urban entertainment district, they have tried to keep it a parking lot. The team even supported a proposal to push out street food vendors. And while the Mariners have implemented some young-fan-friendly ideas inside Safeco Field, like the wonderful and wacky King’s Court, and the outstanding new restaurant and bar area beyond the centerfield fence, their efforts stop at the stadium gate.
The Sounders have done their part in three-plus years, bringing huge crowds of spendthrift scenesters* to the Stadium District, regardless of the parking situation. (*Myself included–bar tab for four last Saturday morning: $130.)
Last Saturday provides a perfect example. One Saturday afternoons, parking is well-nigh impossible in the stadium district, with street parking not an option because of two-hour time limits. Yet, last Saturday, the Sounders drew 38,160 to a 1 p.m. game. By Saturday evening, with street parking free and accessible, the Mariners opened their gates–and drew 21,701. Maybe traffic isn’t the hindrance the Mariners think it is.
I have season tickets to both teams. And though I’ve lived and breathed Mariner baseball since I was five years old, subscribe to MLB.TV so I can watch baseball on my phone, and only vaguely care if the Sounders win, even I find myself preferring Sounders games. If someone like me prefers the Sounders game experience, imagine how the casual sports fan feels?
We don’t have to imagine, actually. A recent Seattle transplant put it to me this way the other day: “Sounders games are fun, but Mariners games are just so boring.”