Same Game, New Strategy: Selling the Twins to a New Generation

When the Twins reopen Target Field, the question will remain: How do you market baseball to fans with no desire to spend the game in an assigned seat?

For Major League Baseball teams like the Twins with modest local television contracts, season-ticket sales remain a significant and vital source of revenue. The Twins had projected a season-ticket base of about 13,000 for 2020, up roughly 1,000 from 2019 but still far short of the club record of 25,000 in 2011, the second year at Target Field.

In the halcyon days before Covid-19, the Twins were nonetheless dealing with a fundamental shift in their business model that will be no less real post-pandemic; season-ticket sales may be the canary in the coal mine. Games take longer. Attention spans are shorter. Tickets, parking, and concessions cost more. And smartphones and 55-inch flat-screen televisions give fans abundant reasons to watch the game from somewhere other than the ballpark—if they watch at all.

“Selling the traditional season ticket in today’s environment is more of a challenge than it was five, 10, 15 years ago,” says Twins president Dave St. Peter.

Before the Bomba Squad turned Target Field into a home-run launching pad, the Twins began rethinking the way they sold tickets. Too many season-ticket holders hesitated committing to all 81 home games, even though secondary markets made unloading unused tickets less of a hassle. And impulse-buying younger fans—millennials and Gen Xers—wanted more for their money than just nine innings (or less) of exceedingly dreary baseball.

So the Twins changed their approach. They began crafting smaller ticket packages, from 40 to as little as 10 games. They created the Twins Pass—essentially general admission to a month’s worth of games for $45. They peppered the promotional schedule with theme nights, tagging university groups, other local pro sports teams, even pop culture touchstones like Star Wars and Sesame Street. Each featured a unique giveaway item—a custom cap, a T-shirt, a bobblehead. Those, St. Peter says, have proven especially popular.

Meanwhile, realizing that younger fans won’t sit still, the Twins organization created spaces in the ballpark where they could gather and socialize. Barrio and the Goose Island Pub in left field, Bat & Barrel (formerly the Metropolitan Club) in right, Minnie & Paul’s in center. Traditional fans may blanch, but there aren’t enough of them to meet demand anymore. Attracting the casual fan—someone who doesn’t keep score and never collected baseball cards—is an emerging Twins strategy.

“Our success on ticket sales in today’s world is measured less on traditional season tickets and more on tickets as a whole,” St. Peter says. “What fans are looking for more is the subscription product, the Twins Pass, some of the other things we’re doing from a single-game basis.

“That’s how the industry seems to be shifting. It doesn’t mean we don’t spend a lot of time and energy selling season tickets in the traditional way, and it doesn’t mean that it still isn’t a significant chunk of our ticket revenue, because it is. But generationally, I think it’s pivoting a little bit, and it’s pivoting to those other products.”

David J. Reibstein, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, was part of an MLB task force assembled years earlier by former commissioner Bud Selig to find ways to keep baseball relevant in the 21st century. He thinks the Twins are on the right track.

“What the Twins are doing makes tons of sense,” Reibstein writes in an email. “It is what appeals to short-term thinkers. I am sure this was not in their plans at the time, but with Covid-19 upon us, the strategy coincidentally makes even more sense. It is clear we can’t plan long-term, but [instead] take every day on its own. Too much is changing day by day.”

The game’s not the thing

Little of this approach originated with the Twins. Ballparks had bars and restaurants long before Target Field opened. Oakland, Atlanta, Texas, and the Chicago White Sox introduced the first digital Ballpark Passes in 2015, available via iPhone or Android. Oakland’s 2017 iteration sold out in a week. (St. Peter says this year’s Twins Pass sold out as well, though he declines to say how many were sold.)

The nearby Kansas City Royals face many of the same challenges as the Twins, says Mike Bucek, Royals vice president of marketing and business development. They pursue those challenges the same way, with theme nights and smaller ticket packages. This season the Royals introduced a Soler Flex Pack, named for slugger Jorge Soler, which is 12 vouchers for $120 to use however you want—take 11 friends to one game, go to 12 games by yourself, go to six games with a friend. (The Twins were offering a flex pass as early as the Metrodome era.)

“Some of our marketing, advertising, and promotions are directed specifically at millennials,” Bucek says. “We have shifted the majority of our advertising to paid social media and digital, which can be targeted. We’ve also expanded our social media team by adding a video team to provide more content, specifically video via social media platforms.”

For today’s younger fans, the game itself isn’t enough. Some aren’t that interested in the actual game at all—too boring, too ponderous.

Fans of a certain age remember when games started at 8 p.m. or thereabouts and took about 2 ½ hours. Now, games often last so much longer—a record three hours and 10 minutes in 2019, per baseballreference.com—that last season the Twins experimented with 6:40 p.m. starts on weeknights. (St. Peter says by 2021 the Twins may shift all night games to 6:40.)

Three-plus hours is a long time to ask kids to sit still, or adults to endure endless 3-2 counts and repeated pitching changes. Overall MLB attendance fell 14 percent since 2007 according to The New York Times, from 79.5 million to 68.5 million. Attendance at Target Field dwindled from 3.22 million in the inaugural 2010 season to 1.96 million in 2018, before rebounding to 2.26 million for last season’s AL Central champions. (Before Covid-19 delayed the start of the season, St. Peter was hopeful the Twins could draw 2.3 million or more.)

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While the Twins have no problem moving premium seats—dugout boxes sold out for 2020, St. Peter says, and there’s a waiting list for the Thomson Reuters Champions Club—filling the rest of the ballpark can be problematic. Seeking the view of the casual fan they’re trying to attract, a year ago the Twins hired Heather Hinkel, 35, as senior director of brand marketing.

Unlike almost everyone else on the Twins business side, Hinkel, originally from Chicago, did not grow up a seamhead. She played tennis. (Pressed about her childhood allegiance, Hinkel says she rooted for the Cubs.) “I don’t have the baseball background that a lot of the folks here do,” she notes, “but it brings an interesting perspective and a different dynamic to a lot of the conversations that we have.”

A St. Thomas graduate with a degree in advertising and communications and a mother of two, Hinkel identifies herself as the kind of fan the Twins need to attract—under 40, more interested in a fun night out than sitting in the same seat for nine innings.

“I hope people don’t want to sit in their seat for all nine innings,” she says. “That’s the casual fan in me speaking. I hope they’re going out and experiencing all the different, as we call them, “neighborhoods” sometimes that Target Field has to offer.”

Hinkel’s job includes monitoring trends and social media, seeking new ways to lure younger fans. Twins theme nights have proven wildly successful, especially among colleges, with the University of Minnesota topping the list. (St. Peter says Wisconsin and Iowa also approached him about theme nights; St. Peter has hesitated scheduling those for fear of bruising Gopher feelings.)

“The theme nights are easy to market to different demographics, because you’re sort of speaking their same language,” Hinkel says, “or talking about something they’re interested in beyond just baseball.”

“When it comes to the theme nights, a lot of that comes down to having a [finger on the] pulse of what’s culturally relevant. We do a lot of surveys, but we [also] look at what are young people chattering about? What are they looking at on social media? What are some of those timely opportunities that we can bring to them?”

With social media so ubiquitous, the Twins are upgrading Target Field’s WiFi; the work will be completed by the time fans return to the ballpark.

The transient fan

In the early years of Target Field, St. Peter says the club began noticing an increase in “transient” fans, more interested in hanging out with their friends than staying in their seats. Even on the coldest nights last season, Barrio and the Goose Island Pub were packed, young and old elbow-to-elbow under overhead ambient heat. (Barrio was renamed Gray Duck Deck for 2020.) Bat & Barrel opened in 2019 and gave the right-field restaurant space an open-air, more youthful vibe than the more formal Metropolitan Grill.

“We actively built out destinations within the ballpark that are geared [to] being places where people can congregate in a social manner,” St. Peter says. “Connection to the game is important for some, but not for all. I expect you’re going to see more of that than less of that over time, because those are the destinations a lot of fans are seeking. Frankly, they want more of it, not less.”

That desire was also the impetus for the continuing evolution of the area inside Gate 34. Last season it was a market for food and local makers, with a green space for kids. This season the market was to be replaced by a tavern-style venue and the green space enlarged and supplemented with chairs.

“It’s about the experience and making sure we have a place for everyone,” Hinkel notes, “whether it’s your family with two young kids who need some space to run around while you kick back, or whether you’re hanging out with your friends and you want to grab a finer cocktail or a nicer hamburger.

“We’ve changed the product on the field. That’s no surprise to anybody. We’ve changed the way that we market the product on the field. And so all of those things work together for us to attract more of that casual, younger, new fan.”

Twins 2020: All Systems Maybe

The Twins will likely not have an opportunity to showcase their marketing innovations for the 2020 season.

Due to Covid-19 impacts, Major League Baseball went on hold in mid-spring training and at press time was set to resume for the 2020 season’s final third, with opening Day was set for July 24. The shortened season will consist of only 60 games instead of the usual 162, only 30 of them at home.

Other than the season’s breadth, the most notable impact will be its relative quiet. The Twins, like all MLB teams, will play in stadia that are empty save for a limited media contingent. Though team President Dave St. Peter tweeted in mid-July that he is in regular contact with the Walz administration and hopes to admit a limited number of fans at some point during the shortened season or playoffs, the situation remains unpredictable. So unpredictable, in fact, that serious virus outbreaks among one or more clubs could still threaten the season’s integrity.

As dramatic are the changes the Twins face in their traditional business model, 2021 will seem like a relative panacea if the season merely starts in April, ends in October, and contains bodies in the ballpark.

Adam Platt

Fans at a Twins game enjoying themselves
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn

Pat Borzi is a freelance writer and former chairman of the Twin Cities chapter of the Baseball Writers of America.

Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn

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