By: Holly Horning
The AL Central. Traditionally the division within MLB that got no respect since its founding in 1994. The division that was, and remains, quite frankly, boring and forgettable for many. That is, until Mr. I envisioned a different plan and brought in Dave Dombrowski to help facilitate it.
Under Dave’s masterful acquisitions and with Mr. I’s wallet, the Tigers evolved from one of baseball’s least desired teams into an elite organization. A middle market that decided it wanted to play with the big boys. But was it all done solely in the quest for October baseball? To bring a ring to Detroit?
While winning and World Championships were undoubtedly desired, the master plan was originally built around marketing and building attendance. Afterall, if you want to make Comerica a regular destination, you have to add proven, high-profile players. And if you get these players, you better have a plan to increase attendance, because that will be your primary source of paying for these players. Attendance, on average, accounts for 40% of revenue.
So what did the initial marketing plan include? It was a strategy to draw as many fans to Comerica as possible. And large numbers mean that you have to draw a variety of fans – not just the diehards or knowledgeable baseball junkies. You need the casual fans, the fans who rarely attended in the past and the social fans who desire crowds, noise and excitement.
And how do you do that? You put a sexy team on the field.
Ok, so the thought of Miguel Cabrera or Bruce Rondon doesn’t immediately bring the word “sexy” to mind. In this case, sexy is about excitement. About loud noises and the roar of the crowd. And it’s about speed and sudden jaw-dropping feats of power.
So over the past 10+ years, the Tigers went shopping. Buying guys with big muscles and booming bats. Guys known for the home runs. Pitchers with blazing speed and high strikeout totals.
And they did this because the masses increasingly favor big visual impact events. They want to see balls leaving the yard. They want to hear the crack of the bat. And often. They also want to hear the ball pounding the mitt.
But what about the perfectly laid down bunt? Taking the extra base? Pitches with extra movement? Eh, not so much.
Chances are if you’re reading Totally Tigers, you’re not a casual fan. You enjoy a good game, pitchers’ duels, an appreciation of fundamentals and even some “small ball.” But believe it or not, we, as fans, are in the minority. Most baseball fans who attend games are there for the entertainment factor. They want excitement and they want to be wowed. They don’t live or die by the standings or wonder obsessively about October baseball.
And in this case, Mr. I and his marketing department did a bang-up job. The Tigers have been blessed with one of MLB’s top attendance records for many years. Left unsaid is the additional boost to revenue that Mr. I receives from his related businesses but summarized here: https://totallytigers.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/baseball-trends-changing-revenue-resources/
But a price has been paid as well. Undoubtedly, the experts who review attendance stats have seen that teams with less-familiar players don’t do as well with attendance. That young teams, with solid fundamentals and a focus on “small ball” or stringing together a number of singles and doubles to score runs pull in far fewer crowds than the higher-profile organizations. Some of the most successful teams in recent years have been met with lots of empty seats in their stadiums.
And unfortunately, this has become a double-edged sword for the Tigers. The expensive, high-profile players have worked out well for a number of years in garnering great attendance figures and worthy entertainment for the masses. But it’s come at a cost.
In an era where it’s said there are only a handful of true 5-tool players, the Tigers have serious gaps in certain aspects of the game. A lack of skills and experience in certain disciplines that have come back to haunt them in the playoffs and World Series.
A beyond-bad bullpen, poor baserunning and until the past couple of years, shoddy defense. An inability to win games in multiple ways, especially when faced with superior pitching, and too much of a dependence upon the long ball. Fundamentals that have not been seen in more than a decade and an inability to play “small ball.”
And while there is recognition in the Front Office that these are issues, the signings of one-dimensional high-profile players like Prince Fielder and Justin Upton have continued. Numerous reports have the Upton signing as the response to falling season ticket sales and the departure of Yoenis Cespedes.
It would appear that the Tigers’ goals are in direct conflict with one another. A need to keep attendance figures up vs. that infamous closing window to win it all. And unfortunately, given the future payroll commitments of approximately half a billion dollars (the second largest in MLB), the Tigers have to keep those turnstiles spinning.
Once you commit to a “sexy” strategy, it becomes harder and harder to acquire the solid players – the multi-dimensional players – who can make a real difference in whether your team makes it to October.