Steak with your ticket? MLB teams exploring ways to boost attendance
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TORONTO - Back when baseball fans picked up their home phone and punched in the number of their team's box office, a ticket simply offered access at the gate and a plastic seat inside the ballpark.

Those days are over.

As Major League Baseball grapples with the quickly evolving modern fan and an unsettling dip in attendance, teams aren't just rethinking their season-ticket packages - they're rethinking the idea of what a baseball ticket means.

Executives around the league told theScore that flexible packages and in-stadium experiences are what MLB fans want in 2019 and beyond. And while overall league attendance dipped below 70 million people this year for the first time in 15 seasons, proactive organizations are looking to become outliers.

Few teams are being as aggressive as the Oakland Athletics, whose new "A's Access" package is one of the most affordable and flexible season-ticket plans in major North American professional sports.

The package allows fans to purchase reserved seats for a set number of games, but still have access to the ballpark's unreserved seating and social areas for all other home games. This may not appeal to those who value the traditional experience of a reserved seat - and the community they build around it - but many younger fans are seeking a wider social circle at the stadium.

It's an approach that Athletics chief operating officer Chris Giles - who previously worked for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers and was instrumental in the launch of Levi's Stadium - believes will entice and engage the modern baseball fan.

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"Sitting in a line of seats, like most ballparks are set up, is really conducive to talking to the person on your right and talking to the person on your left," Giles told theScore. "It’s not really conducive to meeting new people or interacting in any meaningful way with a larger group."

Striking a balance between social areas and traditional experiences will be a challenge for clubs going forward, especially given the task of selling tickets to such a high volume of games compared to other sports.

More than anything, the biggest difference between today and 20 years ago is technology, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity for teams. There are more ways than ever to reach fans, but those fans have more ways than ever to watch a high-definition broadcast from their couch or the local pub for a fraction of a ticket's cost.

With that in mind, some clubs are trying to bring the best parts of those experiences together with specialized, non-traditional areas of the ballpark.

"Imagine sitting at a bar with your bartender kind of in a well in front of you, and you're basically having the sports-bar experience," Giles said. "But rather than looking at a TV behind the bartender, the game is behind the bartender.

Andrew Miller, executive vice president of business operations for the Toronto Blue Jays, said the team's found great success with its flexible social areas - like the "Flight Deck" in center field - which it sees as the type of unique experience that can draw fans into the building.

"You can watch our games on a device wherever you are in this city. You don’t need to be within the four walls of Rogers Centre," Miller said. "That means we need to adapt, and we need to provide people with experiences that they can't necessarily get watching the game in some other form.”

The Blue Jays, who saw the biggest attendance drop from 2017 to '18 but still ranked 13th overall, recently rolled out a series of new ticketing packages, including one called "The Leadoff," which gives fans a seat in the upper bowl to all home games in March and April.

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"Ultimately, our fans are our customers and our job is to understand what is driving our fan's needs, who our fans are, when they're coming to games, why they're coming to games, what experiences they're looking for, and how we can enhance that experience," Miller added.

Around MLB, the four most common options for season-ticket packages have typically been a full season (81 home games), a half season, 20 games, or 10 games. But now, most clubs are expanding well beyond that. There are weekend packages, matinee packages, and packages built solely around access to social areas. With some clubs, you can guarantee a ticket to see the Yankees … as long as you buy a multi-game package featuring some less desirable opponents.

Many of these packages are in their infancy stages, but when done right, they're working. Oakland’s membership sales are nearly 10 times stronger than last year's, Giles said, thanks to a fan reaction to the new offering that's been "far more powerful" than expected.

Some teams offer flexibility within their perks and benefits, too. The Tampa Bay Rays are the only MLB franchise to market a package - known as the "Double Play" - that includes season tickets for both 2019 and 2020 with the bonus of picking customized perks.

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Many Rays fans in 2018 chose their own box suite for one game. Others picked the spring training day trip, which came complete with a gas card to get them there, a game ticket, and even a gift card to Outback Steakhouse for the drive home in the evening.

"That enables them to customize their season-ticket holder experience as opposed to machines saying, 'Here is your gift, period,'" Jeff Tanzer, Tampa Bay's vice president of ticketing, told theScore. "This provides them the flexibility of them choosing what they like."

These clubs are selling experiences, and sure, a baseball ticket comes with it.

Of course, Oakland and Tampa Bay must be aggressive with their offers because they ranked 26th and 29th, respectively, in 2018 attendance. But just like their product on the field, both organizations are looking to jump ahead of the curve with their ticket plans.

That's not to say the traditional baseball fan is being completely left behind, though.

Beyond the selfie zones, wine bars, live bands, and lounge seating, MLB clubs still rely on older couples who've sat in the same seats for years, and the young adults who grew up at the ballpark and now have kids of their own.

"We’ve been around for 20 seasons, so what’s exciting for us is to see the kids who grew up as Rays fans,” Tanzer said. "It's really the first generation of Rays fans who have grown up going to Rays games. Now, as they get to the point where they have children that they're bringing up as Rays fans, we're seeing that generational loop continue."

With the Rays - and with every other team around the league - how that next generation of fans consumes baseball, and what they're looking for in their ballpark experience, will help determine the future of a ticket and everything else that comes with it.

Keegan Matheson is the editor-in-chief of Baseball Toronto, which he founded in early 2018 after previously covering the Blue Jays for MLB.com. He appears regularly across sports radio and television networks in Canada as a Blue Jays and MLB analyst. Now living in Toronto, Keegan is originally from Nova Scotia. Find him on Twitter @KeeganMatheson.

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Steak with your ticket? MLB teams exploring ways to boost attendance
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