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May 21, 2014

Take me out to the ball game – a great Fan Experience

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The first question my two sons, aged 16 and 11, asked when they heard the news that we were taking a family holiday to New York City, was “Oh, can we please go to the baseball…? And how about the NBA too?” As a long time follower of American sports, I have been fortunate enough to see several different codes live in the States and Canada, albeit in the early ‘90s. So naturally, I jumped at the chance of sharing what may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience with my children. I also saw it as a great opportunity to gain a first hand insight into the fan experience delivered by some of the world’s biggest sporting organisations – a subject I know is of extreme interest to many of my clients.Yankees:RedSox (Paul Marcolin)

Our excitement at the prospect turned to elation when we discovered that the the Yankees were scheduled to play back-to-back series at home against the Baltimore Orioles and then the Boston Red Sox while we were there – co-incidentally the MLB teams that each of my sons follow. Throw in a New York Rangers ice hockey game and to really top it off, my youngest’s beloved Chicago Bulls were in town to play the Knicks on our last day in Manhattan.

How was I going to co-ordinate four events in seven days? It had to fit in with our schedule firstly and then I had to get tickets somehow. I didn’t want to leave it to chance once we got there as I didn’t want to be up in the nose-bleeds, even if it did mean paying a premium – it was all about the experience. Fortunately, the Yankees were playing seven straight days at home and the Rangers twice, so scheduling wasn’t a problem and after a bit of research I found a website which proved to be a massive relief in terms of our ticketing requirements.

Season ticket holders resell their seats to games they won’t be attending on websites such as StubHub.com at whatever price they nominate. While you can normally pick up good deals on premium seats close to game-day, I was more interested in being able to set a budget for each event and then pick the best available seats. Not only could I do that, but I was also able to see a virtual view from all available seats, so the experience had already begun long before we’d even left the country. Tickets were delivered to my email account,Madison Square Garden (Paul Marcolin) so within a matter of a couple hours, we had secured our spots to four major sporting events at two of the world’s most famous venues – Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden – several months before they were to take place.

When the day of our first game arrived, we set out to Yankee Stadium a couple hours prior to the first pitch with great excitement, and slight trepidation, that our tickets might not be legitimate. Given it was a 1pm Tuesday game against Baltimore, we weren’t sure how big the crowd would be and wanted to have a good look around inside and outside the venue before the crowds filed in.

The first thing that struck me as soon as we emerged from the subway was how many merchandise shops and street vendors there were selling official, and unofficial, Yankees items right next to the stadium. The second thing that caught my attention was how many venue attendants were already positioned outside on the concourse surrounding the entrances, with “How can I help you?” signs and attitudes to match. While I was well aware of the importance placed on customer service in the US, I did feel this was taking it to another level.Yankee Stadium 3 (Paul Marcolin)

I had also found in my research that there was a Hard Rock Café at Yankee Stadium which had its own entrance into the arena, enabling you to bypass the queues outside – not that this was a problem for us on that day. We had decided prior to arriving that we would have lunch there before the game anyway and surprise number three was how good the food was. Again, the service was excellent and while we weren’t rushed, you could see how adept the waiting staff were at getting tables attended to promptly so there wouldn’t be a mad rush out the door come game time.

We used the same strategy for the Friday night game against Boston. We did have to wait 45 minutes for a table as it was extremely busy, but they took our mobile number so we were free to wander around or have a drink at the bar while we waited. However, when seated, we were never made to feel rushed in order to get more people through, and comfortably ate our dinner and got to our seats for the start of the game.

Once in the stadium proper, everything from finding our seats, buying souvenirs, purchasing snacks and drinks – from an impressive and varied collection of outlets – was effortless, and in no small part due to the amiable and helpful attendants on hand. The quality of service and the manner with which it was delivered had me seriously wondering if we’d somehow landed in Disneyland rather than New York.

The one thing I hadn’t expected was the price of food and drink. While New York isn’t the cheapest city in the US, the cost of convenience food is still relatively cheap… until you go through the stadium gates. I suddenly felt like I was at home again – ten dollars for fairy floss (with a cheap, felt Knicks novelty hat on top) is a bit rich even by Australian standards.

While we had paid for good seats – right field, ground level, second row – there didn’t look like there’d be too many bad seats in the Yankee Stadium 2 (Paul Marcolin)stadium, even in the top decks. However our section did have padded seats, cup holders and in-seat food and drink service from, you guessed it, very friendly and attentive ‘waiters.’

Even once the game has started, the stadium announcer and big screens are continually encouraging fan interaction, whether it be Kiss Cam, Dance Cam, Get Loud Meters or posting Twitter and Instagram messages from people in the crowd – which was no doubt made easier due to there being no connectivity issues at the stadiums. Even the ground staff who smooth out the diamond in between innings, at one stage performed a choreographed routine to the song “YMCA” to keep the crowd entertained. It all adds to the experience, and the fans get into it, regardless of how their team is performing in the actual game.

The players themselves are also tuned into rewarding the fans – every time a catch was taken in the outfield or they had finished warming up at the start of every innings, they would throw their baseballs into the crowd. That’s a lot of free souvenirs given out every game, especially when you include all the foul ball hits that sail into the stands. We quickly understood why everyone around us had brought their baseball gloves to the game!

While the crowd for the first game we attended was only 35,000, the atmosphere and attention to fan experience was no different to the rest of the events we went to, which were all near full capacity.

The security screening going into MSG and Yankee Stadium (even through the Hard Rock) was far more stringent than anything we encounter in Australia – metal detectors, coat and pocket checks as well as thorough bag inspections, but once again carried out in a friendly, yet efficient manner. Even when there’s five of you all carrying several bags from a day’s worth of shopping in Manhattan… and believe me, they checked all of them.

Everything we experienced at the baseball was replicated at the NHL and NBA games we saw at MSG. Except instead of baseballs, dozens of team t-shirts were thrown into the crowd at various intervals, sometimes with the use of an air-cannon and talk about bringing the crowd to life – it was like a feeding frenzy at the zoo each time. Not even a Martin St. Louis breakaway goal or a Carmelo Anthony slam dunk got the fans as excited. A bit of fun and free stuff goes a long way, especially when it comes to helping create atmosphere and giving the patrons a great experience they can take away with them – win, lose or draw.

And every game was capped off by smiling attendants wishing you a good night and safe travels home.

The fact that we had witnessed some of the best athletes and teams in the world at their respective sports almost faded into insignificance in comparison to the “whole” experience we had. After all, professional sport is supposed to be a form of entertainment for those who pay to watch it, and American sporting organisations certainly embrace that philosophy to the nth degree.


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