The Red Sox look at a lot of stats in their quest for success. What’s a player’s strikeout-to-walk ratio? How often does he ground into a double play? Steal a base? Get hit by a pitch?
But increasingly the team is also driven by numbers that measure what happens off the field.
Statistics showing that kids are playing less baseball than they once did, and that those who don’t go to games as children are less likely to go to as adults, have prompted the Red Sox to ramp up their marketing efforts to kids — and parents.
The team is eliminating the $30 fee for membership in Kid Nation, the Sox’ official club for fans 14 and under, and will give the first 25,000 children who sign up, starting March 16, a free ticket to a game. The team is also making available more $9 SRO tickets for older students.
Sox senior adviser Charles Steinberg says the team’s outreach is an acknowledgment that baseball is at risk of losing ground with the next generation of fans.
“I think we all recognize that we can’t live by the long-held premise that a child will automatically fall in love with baseball,” said Steinberg. “We have to recognize that we are one of many options.”
In an added attempt to make Fenway family friendlier, Sox executives have also started wooing mom bloggers from around New England. They’re plying them with opportunities — the bloggers have taken a field-side yoga class and tried on the Sox’ World Series rings — and seeking their advice.
“As a thought leader & conduit to New England families & children,” read one blogger’s invitation, emblazoned with pink socks, “we’d like to meet you & hear your thoughts on how we can enhance the ballpark experience.” (John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, also owns the Boston Globe.)
The ballpark experience, it turns out, is crucial.
The team’s research, from 2013, found that people who go to games as kids are 2.9 times more likely to become “core” fans later on, or at least take their own children to an annual game or two.
Another study found that a child who is taken to see a baseball game before he or she turns 5 attends 58 percent more games per year as an adult than a child who does not go to a stadium until he or she turns 14, according to surveys of Chicago White Sox fans done between 2012 and 2014, by Rich Luker, who conducts the ESPN Sports Poll.
The Sox’ newly expanded “Calling All Kids” promotion comes at an unsettling time for the sport. A recent list of the Top 30 most-admired athletes doesn’t include an active Major League Baseball player. The game is facing competition not just from other sports, but from PlayStation, Xbox, and apps. And the television audience for the World Series skews about a 12 years older than the Super Bowl crowd, according to Brad Adgate, director of research for Horizon Media, a New York-based research firm.
Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor, sees the Sox’ efforts as a smart way to build a fan base for the future.
“Throughout baseball there is an increasing problem with a demographic imbalance,” he said. “It is still a very cool sport for people who are over 45, but over the last 20 or 30 years it’s lost ground to basketball and football.
“I don’t think the Red Sox are concerned with selling out Fenway today,” he said, “but a team needs fans to sustain it when it’s not exciting, and no team wins year after year after year.”
Even those who are interested in seeing a live game can feel shut out. In 2014, with an average price of $52.32, the Red Sox had the highest average ticket price in the major leagues — higher even than the Yankees, according to the Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based sports-marketing publishing company. (The 2015 ticket-price comparisons from the report are not yet out). The Sox announced in September that the average ticket price for 2015 would not change, but that prices for more popular games would rise and others would fall.
The new free-ticket program for kids may help families afford games, but costs remain steep. Sydney Fuller-Jones, a Mattapan widow with 13-year-old twins and an administrative assistant’s salary, says the high prices have locked her out of the ballpark.
“It’s expensive all the way around,” she said. “It’s not just the tickets, but the parking, and the kids want to eat. By the time you get a hot dog, peanuts, and a cold drink, it’s unreachable. I’ve researched it, and I’ve had other people tell me the same. My son is on a football team and we wanted to take the boys to a Red Sox game, but I’m like, it’s not going to happen.”
Price is just one hurdle. As part of efforts to stoke fan interest, MLB has adopted rule changes to speed up the pace of play in a sport that has come to test kids’ (and adults’) attention spans.
But the Sox are going a step further to keep kids amused. They’re planning to offer face painting and magic shows and Simon Says during every home game. The “Kids Clubhouse” — located in a new Kid Nation Concourse — will be open from innings three through seven, an escape hatch not just for kids, but also for parents when the hot dogs and ice cream stop working. The team has commissioned an approximately $15,000 eight-foot tall Wally bobblehead to preside over the concourse
Several games in April are slated to start at bedtime-friendly 6 p.m. instead of 7:05, and the team hopes to use part of Gate B, near the corner of Van Ness and Ipswich streets, to create a new, kid-themed “Gate K,” pending approval from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and other agencies.
The Sox are not the only team in baseball eager for new young fans. A spokesman for MLB, Patrick Courtney, would not compare the team’s outreach to youth to what other clubs are doing. “But,” he said, “the Sox are obviously focusing their efforts in a very strong way.”
The objects of all this attention are kids like the Edge-Wallace brothers, Tafari, 10, and Mekhi, 15, of Boston, athletic boys who are blase about the National Pastime.
“If the Sox were in the World Series I might watch,” said Mekhi. “But the game is too slow. It’s too simple.”
As for Tafari, given the choice between watching real baseball players and playing a baseball video game, he went with the video game. “Watching is boring,” he said.