Why can’t White Sox draw a crowd even during a winning streak?
BY DAVID ROEDER Business Reporter May 31, 2012 7:00PM
Why do you think White Sox attendance is low?
Updated: July 6, 2012 10:03AM
What’s wrong with the Chicago White Sox?
“Whadya talkin’ about?” a Sox fan might reply. The team’s got an eight-game winning streak. Timely hitting and superb pitching have worked magic to put the Sox on top of their division.
But yes, something is wrong in and around U.S. Cellular Field. The team is selling barely half its 40,615 seats and attendance is running behind last year’s pace, when the Sox had a sub-.500 season. The club’s per-game attendance ranks 27th among the 30 major league teams.
Across town, the last-place Cubs are running about even with their ticket sales from a year ago and selling 90 percent of their seats.
Partisans for both teams know there’s a difference between the North Side and the South Side baseball experience that goes beyond parking availability.
The Sox must win to have a chance of drawing a full house, while the Cubs prosper from a quaint landmark in an attractive, thriving neighborhood. Wrigley Field and Wrigleyville might as well have roster spots, as they are the star players during the team’s long stretches of misfortune.
“Our responsibility is to give fans a reason to come out,” said Brooks Boyer, the Sox’ chief marketing officer. “That involves winning, a great value and a great experience at the ballpark.”
The problem is that fans can have a delayed reaction to a winner. The Sox won it all in 2005, and saw the payoff with attendance that beat the American League averages for the next three seasons. Years of disappointing performance — just one playoff appearance since the World Series victory — took their toll, and the crowds have declined each year since 2008.
Fan interest was tepid this year because the Sox were projected to be an also-ran. And for about six weeks, they played like it. Their first-place standing is due to two weeks of superb baseball, and Boyer hopes the fans will respond.
As in years past, the Sox are trying to boost patronage with special events and giveaways. Elvis Night is a huge annual winner, and the periodic fireworks nights are possible because there’s no neighborhood just beyond the bleachers.
Boyer said the Sox are using “dynamic pricing” of tickets to spur interest. Dynamic pricing means selling tickets for what the market will bear, and it’s Major League Baseball’s response to online ticket exchanges. It can mean fans pay a premium or a discount, depending on the interest in a game.
Boyer wouldn’t comment on specifics, but a check of the White Sox site showed that for an upcoming midweek series with the Toronto Blue Jays, a traditionally weak draw in Chicago, upper deck seats at the Cell are offered for $5. These are nosebleed seats many fans have shunned since the park opened in 1991.
But when it comes to attendance, winning might not be everything.
Bridgeport is a short walk from the Cell and has spots for a post-game repast, but residents have made it known they don’t want to be inundated by Sox fans either. The Sox have added a bar and memorabilia store across 35th Street from the main gate, and they’ve encouraged tailgating in the parking lots, but it’s no Wrigleyville.
Surrounding the Cell are parking lots, railroad tracks, industry, an expressway and minority neighborhoods that some fans equate with high crime. Without a high concentration of wealth, the neighborhood is thought to be unable to support the year-round operation of bars and stores.
For Allen Sanderson, an economics lecturer at the University of Chicago and a Sox fan, it comes down to proximity to people with money and the time to spend it. “With the Cubs fan base, it’s an affluent group with discretionary time, and a lot of that is within a two-mile radius of Wrigley Field,” he said.
“The Sox don’t have that. There’s not a whole lot to do in Bridgeport and I think most of the people like it that way.”
The Sox used to play with public housing towers on the skyline. Those are gone and nearby Bronzeville was rejuvenated before the housing crisis hit.
Boyer said he doesn’t think racial fears keep white fans away. The White Sox also cite data showing their ticket buyers have become more diverse since 2005, with blacks and Hispanics now accounting for about 20 percent of the crowd.
A recurring concern, Boyer said, is traffic, especially for Sox fans who live west or north. They have to go through downtown during rush hour to make a night game.
“It comes down to competing for people’s time. And a lot of the fan base is suburban, so they have to travel a distance,” Boyer said.
Sox General Manager Ken Williams, among the few black executives in the major leagues, declined in an email to talk about attendance issues other than to say “we must earn our fans’ patronage.”
Public relations specialist Thom Serafin, a Sox fan, said the team has done well with ballpark improvements that have made it more fan-friendly and comfortable. But he said the effect has taken hold with just one generation of customers. It’ll take time to create a better image for the Cell, he said.
In the meantime, Serafin’s glad he doesn’t have to fight a crowd. “It’s kind of cool to be part of the 12,000 or so diehards,” he said.
Even that devotion has been tested, though. Since the start of 2011, the Sox have a better record on the road than at home.