Friday, July 25, 2008

The Subway Series of Public Relations

In the high-power media capital of the world, the two Major League Baseball teams have one thing in common: they both have brand new baseball stadiums opening in spring 2009. They also both face huge fan backlash when they eventually unveil the absurd prices they will charge for tickets and season plans to these venues.

It will take a carefully planned communication strategy from each team to anticipate and hopefully dissipate the greed accusations bound to come, especially in the microscopic fishbowl known as New York City, where the fans are extremely passionate and vocal, and sportswriters love to stir up trouble at the slightest provocation. Just wait until this one blows up -- you can see it coming a mile away.

On one hand, the Yankees' new stadium hold the same amount of people as the old one, is running over-budget at $1.3 billion, will still be called "Yankee Stadium" and the team executives have kept next year's prices close to the vest. In addition to their in-house communications staff, they have been counseled a long time by New York crisis legend Howard Rubenstein and his firm.

On the other hand, the Mets' new stadium will hold 13,000 less people than Shea Stadium, is right on budget at $800 million, Citibank is paying $20 million a year for naming rights (Citi Field), and word is just leaking now about next year's season ticket fees.

However, the Mets have notoriously been public relations stumblers. Their recent overnight firing of manager Willie Randolph was such a public relations debacle, that it will probably be taught in college courses for years as an example of why timing is everything. The Mets top PR guy, Jay Horwitz, either seems to be over his head or overruled by top management, which raises the odds for inept communications. As far as I know, they have no outside communications counsel.

Those smaller seat numbers at Citi Field loom very large for thousands of fans. Baseball has always been a sport where the average guy can buy cheap nosebleed seats to many games. The view may not be great, you may be seated in the stratosphere, but you were inside the stadium for the ballgame. You could bring your family and enjoy the game -- baseball was always an "everyman's" sport.

It was just a matter of time before the press jumped in to this Citi Field equation of accommodating many less fans for way more money.

NY Post sports media writer Phil Mushnick opened the doors on July 11th when he reported that a friend of his who holds Mets full season tickets will see the price rise from a present $33,000 to $56,700 when Citi Field opens next year. Three days later, Mushnick continued his tirade: "It's new ballpark gentrification: Throw out or move the moderately wealthy and replace them with the indiscriminate stinking rich and corporate buys. So long, folks, and thanks for all you've done for us all these years, you suckers. Arrive home safely and don't come back."

When I was at Shea Stadium last Wednesday, the fear of Citi Field ticket prices was the topic du jour. "We should enjoy this now why we can still afford it!" said one guy in front of me.

The signs already do not look good for a smart PR plan in place for the inevitable fan backlash that sportswriters are beginning to stoke. The NY Daily News fired their first anti-Mets ticket shot by interviewing fans about pending out of this world prices and lack of ticket availability. One fan says: "They're [fans] going to lose interest in the Mets. I know I will if I won't be able to see the game."

What the Mets executive VP of business operations Dave Howard said in response tipped me off that the team's PR wizards are already unprepared and stumbling: "That's almost like 'No one goes to that restaurant anymore because they can't get in.' I don't think that's going to be the case." Howard adds that ticket marketplaces such as StubHub (the official ticket marketplace of the NY Mets, incidentally) would provide sold-out CitiField game tickets.

Last week, Crains NY Business went to town with more specific ticket price increase information and more fan complaints, including from affluent ones. The Mets' response? The Mets did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

If this is the company line, this is going to make the Willie Randolph firing look like a Catskills warm-up act.

Comparing the smaller amount of seats to not getting into a popular restaurant? Does Mr. Howard realize that while people can choose to go to many, many restaurants -- ones that have available seating at all kinds of prices -- there is only one NY Mets team and a stadium they can be seen locally? Talk about bad comparisons. And then steering fans to StubHub for sold-out game tickets, as if that will remove the pain of the situation? Those prices will be only higher than the exorbitant ticket face value, and a piece of that goes into the Mets' pocket as commission.

Mr. Howard demonstrated that his organization is out of touch with reality, and implied greediness.

The Mets need a serious public relations shakeup now if they plan on intelligently dealing with the oncoming damage control once they reveal all their ticket pricing options to current plan holders and fans. How are they going to explain where Citibank's $20 million annually is going to in a smaller stadium?

Blog backlash is already picking up steam too and that's where the fan voices are really going to break out ("Is This The End of Baseball in New York City," "Read This and Weep," "...every seat [at Citi Field] will be a club seat," and "Today's young Mets fan won't be able to follow their team tomorrow from anywhere other than their TV or radio").

When the NY Giants football team recently announced a "personal license program" -- where each season ticket holder will be charged $1,000 to $7,5000 to buy the tickets in the team's forthcoming $1.6 billion "state of the art stadium," team family owner John Mara went all over local radio to explain the pricing, how they wanted to work with each plan holder to accommodate them, and present at least some sense of sympathy.

While there was howling outrage, compare this outreach to the Mets' PR plan of action so far and you know this team is going to have a very huge problem on its hands.

Whatever they say, it will be compared to the Yankees' communication when they announce their ticket pricing. So far for the Yankees, silence is golden, but that will change.

You can call it the Subway Series of Public Relations, a championship played off the field -- who has the better damage control plan? Who will get the fans on their side and knock it out of the park? Who will choose their words correctly?

Stay tuned as this will have more long lasting effects on fans than any current race for the pennant.

No comments: