Monday, January 30, 2012

Veeck: Entertainment lives in the present but it also looks to the future.

Yesterday I posted a story (Dolan Family: Lessons From Bill Veeck on Building Attendance) which discussed how Bill Veeck described how a team should operate to draw fans. He described what should be done in terms of what a team should not do. This description of what a team should not do is the narrative, fair or not,  most often used to describe how Larry Dolan has gone about the marketing of the Indians under his ownership.

I had planned on elaborating more on the Veeck strategy but wanted to see the reaction from the original story. The reaction received was that there was not a gap between Larry Dolan and the fans and that winning will cure all ills. The attendance increase of 2011 was proof positive of that point of view. Another popular opinion was that Dolan needs to step up and spend money to get fans to believe he is serious about contending.

Moving forward it is impossible to agree that there is not a disconnect between Larry Dolan and the fan base. Tony Lastoria of Sports Time Ohio and Indians Prospect Insider detailed the gap between Dolan and the fans (even after the rise in attendance of 2011) this way:

It is no secret that there is a huge disconnect between Indians owner Larry Dolan and the fans. He is viewed by many fans as “cheap” and a “liar” and a lot of people simply refuse to get over his decisions to tear down the team not once, but twice during his tenure as owner. This town holds grudges and is not about handing out forgiveness so freely. Larry Dolan made his own bed, and once you make it in this town the way he has, it pretty much stays that way forever. (Indians need to give the fans reasons to support them)

The Cleveland Indians have 100 years of history and a beautiful stadium in a prime location. and I believe that  winning will ultimately get the fans to return to Progressive Field. But I am not so certain that with increased attendance and winning that the fans of Larry Dolan will change to the same degree.  I do not know if the fans will come to Progressive Field when they aren't winning--while they are in the process of building a winner. That is the area that Bill Veeck understood to be of paramount importance as we will see in his own words after the jump.

The following is from Bill Veeck's Autobiography Veeck as in Wreck:

Veeck said he drew his crowds in Cleveland three sweaty unheroic ways and in this order:

1) We gave them a lot of fun and entertainment.

2) I hit the Chautauqua trail, making as many as 500 speeches a year.

3) We built a winning team.

When Veeck took over as owner it was near the mid-point of the season and the attendance was at 289,00. With his energy and marketing the Indians, despite finishing 20 games under .500 ended the year with an attendance of 1,052,280. The following year the Indians barely broke up the .500 mark increased their attendance to 1,512,978. He did this primarily through the first two items above.

Veeck understood that gimmicks without winning wouldn't continue to work. 
We did not draw crowds simply by putting on a show. Cleveland had been without a pennant winner for 26 years, the longest of any American League city, and we communicated our determination to produce one. I agree completely with the conservative opposition that you cannot continue to draw people with a losing team by giving them bread and circuses. All I have ever said -and, I think, proved -- is that you can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long run of silence
Veeck targeted the casual fan because if you depended solely on the people that love the game, you'd be out of business by Mothers Day.
With the casual fan, then, it's not the game, it is the winning or losing. The average fan identifies himself with the home team. If the home team wins, he wins. If the home team loses, he loses. It is not pleasant to lose; we spend too much of our life loosing our own little battles. You cannot expect a man to pay good money to come into your park and be humiliated when it's easy to stay home.

It is the unconscious fear of losing, of subjecting himself to a personal humiliation, that keeps the fan from going to the park, just as it is the unconscious anticipation of winning, of scoring a personal triumph, that brings him rushing in.

Entertainment, beyond its more obvious purpose, softens the blow of losing.It gives the fan something else to think and talk about as he is leaving the park. Instead of the pain of another loss, he can think with pleasure, of the fireworks or the circus acts or the band or the Harlem Globetrotters. And remembering that visit with pleasure,he will not have quite that moment of doubt, of hesitation, the next time he thinks about coming to the park.  Entertainment lives in the present but it also looks to the future.

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