Rays VP talks to USF students about Rays market

On Tuesday, I attended the Nielsen Industry Connections 2014 event on the University of South Florida campus. The event was designed to showcase the technology and innovation the Nielsen Corporation is using to better measure what we watch and what we buy, among many other things. Nielsen has data on many, many things and works with many, many companies to provide data and insight.

(As I’m an MBA candidate at USF, I went to learn about Nielsen and some of the projects they are working on.)

One of the companies Nielsen works with is the Tampa Bay Rays. After hearing from two Nielsen employees, to include one of their senior vice presidents, the audience heard from Mark Fernandez, the Rays Senior Vice President, and Bill Walsh, Senior Director of Business Affairs.

Fernandez began by giving an overview of the Rays current market situation. He talked about how broken the Devil Rays brand was when Stu Sternberg bought the team. He then called the Rays the “most popular sports team in Tampa Bay” and gave facts on the stadium location and the surrounding demographics, the corporate ticket sales situation, and the fact that the area lacks mass transit. He then said “the realities are what they are”.

Fernandez then cited a Bloomberg article that called the Rays “the smartest spending team in sports”.

Among the facts he stated were:

  • According to Nielsen, the Rays have a fanbase of 1.62 million fans. This is greater than the fanbase of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have 1.61 million fans in Tampa Bay. The Rays caught the Bucs in 2011 and have been neck-and-neck since.
  • In 2013, the Rays had 774,000 unique visitors. The Bucs only had 204,000 unique visitors.

Fernandez concluded by saying, “we are going to win head-to-head versus other teams in the area.” He then spoke about the Rays community efforts and how they don’t just give money to charities, Rays employees are part of the community helping the charities succeed.

Bill Walsh then took the stage and discussed the “micro level” of innovation. According to Walsh, the Rays are taking the industry lead in knowing their customers. Through the Rays Cards, they are connecting with the fans, learning their habits, and deepening knowledge of the current fanbase.

He also talked about the digital event life cycle: how fans search for information on a game, search for tickets, purchase tickets online, attend the game, then might go out after to Ferg’s, or might post pictures on social media, or tweet about the game. The Rays are trying to understand who does what, when, and why.

According to Walsh, 2/3 of season ticket holders use the Rays Membership cards and 1/10 of all tickets checked in are through the cards. Their next goal, he said, was to introduce loyalty programs, to create “long-term loyalty”.

Response: I didn’t get a chance to speak to either after the event. They both left quickly after the presentation. However, a few things stood out.

1) Every poll I have seen, from the Facebook/New York Times poll to the Quinnipiac University poll in May 2012, estimates the Rays fanbase as far less than 1.62 million. Quinnipiac approximates 780,000 and Facebook/New York Times estimates a bit over 1 million. If the fanbase is 1.62 million, why ask them to go to “one more game”? If each fan went to two games, the Rays would draw 3.2 million. As well, 1.62 million means 57.8% of the population of Tampa Bay are Rays fans. Not just baseball fans, but Rays fans. I think that is way high.

2) I don’t agree the Rays have a larger fanbase than the Bucs. A few months ago, I used Nate Silver’s research to estimate the Rays were 3% less popular based on Google searches. Also, no Rays player is anywhere near as popular as Bucs players on social media. Bucs attendance is 3x higher than Rays attendance – granted for far less games. I don’t see how there are more Rays fans than Bucs fans.

Even the idea that the Rays have more “unique visitors” is faulty. How many of them are fans of other teams? Good luck convincing an area Yankees fan to come to a Rays versus Twins game on a Tuesday in mid-July.

Perhaps if every Rays fan used the Rays Card, the Rays would be able to tell how many Rays fans are coming to the games compared to fans of other teams, who are less likely to purchase a Rays Card.

3) Attendance does not seem to be a big concern. Fernandez’s opening quotes seemed to advocate the reality of the situation. He seemed to accept that the “winning will bring fans” theory was faulty, and that the Rays have moved on to other fan-focused market strategies. He did not state, however, if there are some days they are disappointed only 10,000 show up instead of 15,000. Nor did they attempt to explain why attendance dropped drastically from 2010 to 2011, from 1.8 million to the 1.5 million level. Nor did they explain why Devil Rays versus Yankees and Red Sox used to draw over 30,000 in 2007 and now these games draw only 20,000.

4) If I had a moment to ask a few questions, I would have asked:

  • How do the Rays feel about creating these strong relationships – with the community and with loyal fans – when there is the specter of the lease, relocation, and the constant barrage of media articles theorizing that the Rays should leave the area?
  • Could the Rays put their foot down, rebutt the mass media, and unequivocally state they are staying in Tampa Bay?
  • If the Rays can’t state without a doubt they are staying, why should fans give them their hearts and minds?
  • How do the Rays measure success from a marketing perspective?
  • Lastly, how do they intend on winning new fans and increasing the fanbase? Is it possible?

2 comments for “Rays VP talks to USF students about Rays market

  1. Professor Twain
    September 17, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Nice story. My guess is that 1.62 million fan figure extends outside of Tampa Bay, e.g. includes those who follow games on Sunsport.

    • Mike Lortz
      September 18, 2014 at 4:09 am

      Thanks! You are probably correct. Considering it is from Nielsen, I would guess TV is figured into the mix somehow.

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