26 February 2010

The High Price of Deception

While fans of normal major league clubs anticipate Cactus & Grapefruit League action, word weary followers of the Diamondbacks brace for this spring's iteration of Baseball's Most Byzantine Memo, courtesy of President Derrick Hall. The headline, if history holds, should look something like:

DBACKS REDUCE OR HOLD TICKET PRICES on 84% OF SEATS FOR FOURTH YEAR IN A ROW

The percentage deviates from year to year, but the underlying con job is the same. What the above construction has basically meant, in English, is they raised prices on the 16% of seats sat in by season ticket holders, and raised individual game prices on half a million, unaccounted for, single game buyers. Yeah, I know, that sounds incompatible with the headline, but in spirit, that's what they've done since 2005. Regularly raising prices where fans are most likely to sit - then leveling, and more recently reducing, rates in weak selling sections.

On a fundamental and important level, neoclassical supply and demand, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the last part. It makes perfect sense, actually. What's wrong, and exasperating, is the lengths Dback deciders go to dress up this for profit strategy in a righteous, almost altruistic cloak. One reason, perhaps, is that it uncomfortably contradicts Mr Hall's airy service mantra of "rewarding his most dedicated fans". By reducing prices in only low demand areas, it's generally not diehard package accounts who benefit, but discerning holdouts who may be enticed by select reductions in less than stellar seats.

The larger contradiction is simply the hikes themselves. When you rely on tenuous and misleading "evidence" to brazenly prop your franchise up as "the most affordable in baseball", raising rates every year creates dissonance in your base that must be smothered, spun or simply smiled away.

Single tickets go on sale a week from tomorrow, yet remarkably, not a hint of individual game rates appear anywhere on dbacks.com. Despite grotesquely comic divorces that have compromised Dodger and Padre focus, both found time between sniping and court filings to prominently display prices - and the relatively amicable Rockies and Giants have been hawking regular season tix online for some time.

So why are the Diamondbacks "priceless" and arguably, clueless here? Could they be less customer focused than the Moores and McCourts? Does Mr Hall need extra time to craft this year's intricate crannies within The Memo? Is he the lone priest entrusted to upload this normally rudimentary information to the great unwashed? Is he running behind, or has he temporarily misplaced his remarkable gift of distortion? Hall might be otherwise engaged, managing fallout over the sour choice to abandon Tucson for Casino Park, and his awkward injection into Mesa's proposal to build the Cubs a new spring complex - a performance for which he was roundly pummeled by fans, media and state legislators. Whatever the "priceless" reason, it seems like a curious way to sell tickets.

Which brings us to something else Mr Hall said this week. According to beat writer Nick Piecoro, the CEO relayed that the club's 2010 attendance goal- provided that they win - is 2 million fans. I'm aware the economy is struggling, but this minimum target of theirs is lower than any annual gate realized in Diamondbacks history. Lower than 2005, when certain geniuses decided to increase prices after losing 111 games the year before. A half million lower than 2004 itself. And lower than last season, when the economy, poor play and ongoing value erosion conspired to drop attendance more than 4000 per night. Their goal is to be lower than that? Seriously?

With a team virtually guaranteed to perform better, probably much better, than last year? With the Dodgers and Giants poised for potentially significant regressions? With the Yankees on tap? With [snicker] the lowest prices in baseball? With the golden carrot of the 2011 All Star Game driving package sales? With enormously popular lightrail gliding to and from Chase Field's doorstep - from Mesa, Tempe and points north and west? With a Metro population twice as large as during the Diamondbacks' inaugural 1998 season? I'll say it again, because I know it's important - the economy is very weak. Fair enough.

But a goal of two million, in this town, is still a joke. It's an indictment. Not of fans, who averaged 3 million under Colangelo, whether he won or lost a hundred, without Mr Hall's fireworks, concerts or the city's light rail. In a Valley 20-50% smaller, with prices far cheaper than Moorad and Kendrick's - even after adjusting for the Dept of Labor's and Mr Hall's respective inflations.

In the same chat, Hall unintentionally revealed more on the subject, in that sideways manner of his:

Fans need to have confidence in the talent on the field.

That's true, certainly, and I'd go farther and predict locals will be pleasantly surprised by this year's hardball model. But Hall's tautology distracts from a more troubling, overarching ennui inspired by his "team". Phoenicians lack confidence in this ownership group, whether it be an ability or willingness to fashion a competitive product at market driven prices. In addition, baseball loving Phoenicians dont particularly like this ownership group either, which Diamondhacks has tirelessly (and tiredly!) documented since the rift went public, in 2004.

There's no denying Derrick Hall has ingratiated a personal fan club - encouraged by leadership to distract from unpopular principals, principles and not ready for prime time teams. He works hard at it and his cheerful energy can be infectious in small doses. Look no further than the insular circle of ostensible adults gushing how great it is to have "access" to a club president, who deftly schmoozes them for maximum PR exposure, while Barnuming our much larger, potential market into submission.

The profit from this targeted salesmanship is the adoration of a few hundred fanboys, and maybe a few thousand others, who think Derrick Hall's uncommon enthusiasm and people skills merit allegiance to - or very light treading upon - unpopular policies and methodically dishonest salesmanship.

The price? How much has relentless obfuscation from Hall and phony "entertainment" from talented underlings like Daron Sutton cost this franchise? It's not all their fault certainly, but two million is a nice round number. Where there used to be three.

At the end of this year, Ken Kendrick will have essentially run this franchise for as many seasons as Jerry Colangelo before him. Six years and change. Colangelo created the enterprise from essentially nothing, shepherded it to its greatest competitive heights, and bequeathed a lucrative farm system for his usurpers to exploit and mismanage. Mr Kendrick's legacy? He's managed to stabilize his rate of return by fielding a second division product in an historically weak National League. Yet even today, misguided fanboys parrot boilerplate it was Colangelo who ran "the operation" aground.

It is, at heart, a self interested, corporate deception. Fans in the nation's fifth largest city are on to it, and exacting its price on the appropriate parties.

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