Prior to the end of the 2012 season, social psychologist Dr. Rich Luker was commissioned by the Chicago White Sox to engage fans and learn about their sentiments related to a variety of issues -- particularly ticket prices and the factors that influence attendance decisions.
Luker, who has become the preeminent professional sports researcher in the country over the past 19 years, organized nine focus groups to ask every question within the realm of possibility, trying to gain an understanding of the White Sox fans' attitudes and opinions about attending games. He led group discussions, making it clear that he was going to start from a zero-base knowledge of the team, so that those in the group would be providing all of the information.
"We asked hundreds of questions," said Luker. "We wanted to know what they thought of the experience of attending White Sox games, how it compares to other sports, or shows, or nightlife. The White Sox were really good about not placing restrictions on the questions in order to figure it out."
Information collected from the focus groups helped develop a 100-question survey, which was distributed by the White Sox and drew more than 12,000 responses, of which 8,000 applied directly to the target fan.
"We tried to get underneath why people attend games and offered a number of reasons, from the quality of players, management, quality of the attendance experience, the seats, food, getting to the games," said Luker, who pointed out that 12,000 responses is a high rate of return. "We offered every idea that could have allowed a person to say they did or didn't go to the games because of any one of those reasons."
The data revealed that two-thirds of those surveyed said they attend fewer games because they have less money than last year. Of those two-thirds, the No. 1 reason they did not attend as many games was because the overall cost was outside of the price range they could afford.
"What's important to understand is that the personal-life questions we asked were very thorough and really gave Sox fans the opportunity to say there was something wrong with the team," said Luker. "But no, that wasn't the response. For them, it was affordability."
For one-third of those surveyed, the No. 1 reason their attendance dropped was due to a personal situation. Those reasons included everything from getting married to having a new baby, changing jobs or relocating. The second biggest reason was they didn't have the time to attend the games, due to other commitments.
"When you put those reasons up against the character of the White Sox fan, you realize it's not the product on the field," said Luker. "You have this fan who will support the team but currently just can't afford the money or time."
Given that solid data and a real understanding for the problem behind dropping attendance, the White Sox went to work to determine how they could make attending games more affordable for fans.
In November, the White Sox announced the introduction of Family Sundays for the 2013 season, offering special pricing of $5 to $15 per ticket for Sunday games, plus parking for only $10.
"We wanted to create an opportunity for a family of four, who might only be able to come to one game a year, to come to three games," said Brooks Boyer, senior vice president of sales and marketing, whose game operations team also has worked to continually improve the fan experience over the past nine seasons.
"If fans prefer to sit in the upper deck, they could come to six, seven or eight games each year. Sundays are traditionally good family days at the ballpark. Now, for a family of four to attend a Sunday game, they will be able to sit in the lower deck and spend $70 for tickets and parking. If they would like to sit in the upper deck, that total drops to $30. The new pricing shows great value, but also provides a great experience."
In addition to what the White Sox do on the field, the overall Family Sunday experience can include sampling a wide variety of food, watching the game day entertainment, the Fundamentals Deck giving young aspiring ballplayers the chance to learn more about the game, and autographs from current and former White Sox players prior to the game. In addition, kids will be allowed to run the bases after the game.
"As we continue to closely listen to fans regarding the cost of the ballpark experience, Family Sundays are the next move in creating affordable seating options in both the lower and upper levels of the park," added Boyer. "By welcoming fans of all ages on a day that is traditionally dedicated to family time, we hope Family Sundays become a popular way for fans to share a baseball experience together."
There are 13 Sunday home dates scheduled for 2013. Bleacher, Outfield Reserved, Lower Corner and Premium Upper Box sections will be $15. Upper Box and Upper Reserved Seats will be available for $10, and Upper Corner tickets will only be $5, and those prices apply to fans of all ages.
Recognizing that price is merely a starting point to increasing attendance, the White Sox will continue their efforts to instill the most value in a Major League ballpark experience for each and every fan in the 2013 season. They'll also continue to talk and listen to their fans, a continuous process that should benefit all parties involved.
"I have never seen this kind of across-the-board impact, moving the price point back to make tickets affordable," said Luker, who has worked with professional sports teams in all the major sports across the country over the past 19 years.
With that, the White Sox aim to give every fan an opportunity to make a difference and create a special atmosphere at U.S. Cellular Field in 2013.
John Ruane is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less