Fill 'er up.
Are you a season-ticket holder (STH) or a would-be season-ticket holder? What do you think of the Islanders' new season ticket pricing? I'm a little surprised this topic hasn't gotten more off-hand discussion here, or that people didn't discuss the details in Les Beaver's FanPost. But I have seen a few readers mention they're ready to buy back in, and I'd like to hear more thoughts on that either here or in that FanPost.
Details take some digging [FYI: Eric Hornick shared an image created by an Islanders Mania member comparing price plans here.], and the Isles are obviously packaging hope with the offer, but for what it's worth I think it's both the correct and no-brainer step. I'm one of many who believe last summer's increases were, simply, a mistake. This new initiative is a rather expected step to correct it -- and it's a process I've seen before, in multiple markets.
I start from this premise: Attending hockey games -- attending pro sports in general -- has gotten too expensive for a large core to do it every game, win or loss. By and large, pro sports' dependence on corporate accounts has done that (with an assist to savvy player agents). Hence nowadays the lower bowls of most arenas are filled with either company seats or seriously dedicated (or well-off, or second-mortgaged) fans. In good times, those seats are full; in bad times, not so much. The cost of that is atmosphere and the "it's an event" feel we used to expect from live sports, and it's made worse by the disincentive of HD TV beaming these games into our living rooms. The only way for the "average" fan to afford decent seats is to take a bath or hit the resale market each year to recoup some of his/her investment.
Thanks to modern sports' top-heavy pricing structure, when there is no winning team, there is less incentive for many passionate fans to make going to games a STH-level ritual. Atmosphere is lost at the very time you need people to keep showing up to keep the place alive during tough times.
I don't run a team, but to me the first goal -- especially once you get revenues from concessions under your control, as the Islanders apparently did after last year's lease alterations -- has to be to pack the building first. Make going to the game an event, and then people will feel it's special, and when the team does well -- well, then it's really special.
In today's game, price-gouging and profit-taking is for winning clubs, a natural business move once fan addiction overrides prudent financial decisions and the team reaps the benefits of demand outrunning supply. Every championship team does it, and most fans grudgingly go along because they can't help the addictive lure of that winning season. But before you get to that point, when your team is struggling, you better make it worth fans' time to get to games.
That's why options like season tickets at or below $1,000, as the Isles now have, are a must in my book, like a carmaker offering an entry level model. Hook the fans who don't have much to spend, but have the desire to make it every game (and buy beer). As they get older and make more money, you've got fans for whom going to the game is a ritual -- a ritual they'll pass on to their kids and partners.
Price-Gouge Cart doesn't go before the Success Horse
I've seen a franchise stumble on to this realization in Chicago, St. Louis and, this past weekend, I saw hints of it in a very well attended game in Phoenix.
In all three locations, derelict ownerships ran the team into the ground, leaving new owners to pick up the ashes. In Chicago, a long-sleeping market abused by the elder Wirtz saw new life from some very simple steps by the new regime.
In St. Louis, the new regime of Dave Checketts and John Davidson initially raised prices. ("Hey, we weren't the people who traded Chris Pronger, don't hold it against us" seemed to be the thought. Meanwhile, fans were like, "Are you kidding me? I just sat through a plundering by a wannabe NBA owner and Wal-Mart-in-law, and you come in asking me to pay more for this last place team?") Fans in the "Show-Me State" responded by staying away, making a once-proud market trail the entire league with just 12,520 fans per game.
After accepting that mulligan, the new Blues ownership admitted its mistake and immediately lowered prices -- and fans responded by eclipsing 17,000, 18,000 and now over 19,000 per game in each subsequent season as the team steadily got better, regained credibility, and stocked the system with prospects necessary for long-term health.
The Islanders: Not There Yet
The Islanders face a deeper challenge, because the baggage around this franchise extends back longer, across multiple ownership groups and one quite notorious GM. But most would agree they're building something promising here. The thing is, you need to show proof first. Like the Checketts/JD regime in St. Louis, you can't say "We're doing it the right way now" and expect fans to accept a price increase before they see some results first. The 2009-10 season had its moments, but it hardly was a big enough step to justify major price increases.
This season, riddled from the start by injuries to two premier players, represents another step, but the early attendance drop was a sign it was too much too soon. (ESPN has the average as still at 10,650, still a dip from last season although you can factor two snow games into that figure.)
So course-correcting now is a good sign. It should help fill the building much more next season, in what should be an improvement over 2010-11 and possibly a big step. The growth of John Tavares, Travis Hamonic and Michael Grabner, the signings of Matt Donovan and Al Montoya -- these are things I see kindling excitement and hope for next year. At least among fans I interact with, there is a lot of belief in what GM Garth Snow is doing to build this club for the long haul.
At the right price point, more people will show up to enjoy it. And then, if all goes well, the Isles can jack prices back up in a year or two to take advantage of the new addicts. The way every winning team does.