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Tampa Bay Rays employ curious strategy for selling tickets

A smattering of fans watch the Tampa Bay Rays game against the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field Monday, May 25, 2015. [ JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
A smattering of fans watch the Tampa Bay Rays game against the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field Monday, May 25, 2015. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published May 31, 2015

It should be a simple task.

Go online, pick out the seats you want, and buy those tickets for some Tampa Bay Rays game in the not-too-distant future.

Except there's a complication you might not be aware of.

The Rays seem to purposefully withhold as many as 1,000 of their best seats until the morning of a game.

Team officials declined to talk about ticket policies, but industry experts say it could be part of a strategy to spur more sales by making fans think available tickets are scarce.

In other words, the team that sells fewer tickets than any other in Major League Baseball might be artificially creating demand by not making all their seats available in advance.

"It sure seems like it could be a manipulation of the market to create the illusion of a scarcity of tickets that doesn't actually exist," said Gary Adler, executive director and general counsel for the National Association of Ticket Brokers. "No matter how you slice it, it seems like an anti-consumer policy to withhold tickets from the public."

Other industry observers suggested the team might be trying to sell partial season ticket packages, and so they protect certain seats so they're available the rest of the season.

Whatever the reason, Bob Stoetzel thinks it's a crummy policy.

The St. Petersburg resident attended the Rays' season-opening series against the Orioles and was thrilled with the tickets he had purchased in Section 116.

Stoetzel tried buying the same seats for future games, but found they weren't available. Yet when he purchased different tickets, he would arrive at Tropicana Field and see the seats he wanted were always empty.

So he began charting which seats were available for purchase in advance both online and at the box office. And he soon discovered that seats that were never available in the days before a game would suddenly show up online eight or nine hours before the first pitch.

"It made no sense. They would only have a few seats available in each section, and then suddenly there were hundreds of seats available," Stoetzel said. "I know there are people who are not going to games because they couldn't get the seats they wanted."

Building on Stoetzel's research, I began making a list of available seats at various points in advance of games.

What I discovered is there are typically 200 to 250 seats available in the 18 sections directly behind the two dugouts and home plate a week in advance. On the morning of the game, the number of available seats increases to anywhere from 900 to 1,400 seats.

Complicating this policy is the Rays' practice of adding a $3 surcharge to any ticket purchased less than five hours before the start of a game. The surcharge is designed, ironically, to encourage people to buy tickets in advance.

Yet if all the available seats aren't put on sale in advance, then fans are only getting a three- or four-hour window to buy the newly released tickets without a surcharge.

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On Memorial Day, the additional tickets did not become available until after 2 p.m., so they automatically went on sale with the surcharge.

And while there are usually enough tickets available to give a fairly representative mix of the inventory, that isn't always the case.

With the team on a long road trip, the next home game is scheduled for June 9. At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, there were a total of 46 tickets available among the almost 4,500 seats behind the dugouts and the plate. Half the sections either had no seats or only single seats available. By noon, the available seats had increased to 115. On Friday, there were 222.

Experts say the ticket industry has gotten increasingly high-tech, often employing large staffs of computer analysts who have a world of data at their fingertips and create algorithms designed to maximize sales.

So the idea that a data-driven organization such as the Rays would employ an unconventional ticket strategy is not necessarily a shock.

"It seems to me they weren't selling many tickets the old-fashioned way, so they've gone to an alternative strategy to get people into the ballpark," said Stephen Happel, Arizona State economics professor emeritus, who has written extensively on the ticket industry.

"I don't know if it was a panic strategy, or if it's actually working for them. It's too bad they're not talking about it, because I'd be curious to know if they're actually selling more tickets this way."

The Rays are last in the majors in attendance with an average crowd of 14,650. That's a drop of more than 3,000 fans nightly from the same point last season.

It's impossible to say whether the ticket policy has anything to do with those numbers. Since attendance has been trending down, and the Rays were coming off their worst season since 2007, my guess is the ticket strategy has had a negligible impact.

And, if that's true, it begs the question:

Why even use the strategy?

The Rays are trying to convince the people of Tampa Bay to join them in a partnership to build a new stadium and ensure MLB's success in the market for years to come.

Playing a cat-and-mouse game with tickets doesn't seem like the smartest way to grow that relationship.