BUSINESS

From turnstiles to Twitter, Blue Jays winning fans despite poor performances

07/22/2013 02:06 EDT | Updated 09/21/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Just past the midway point of the season, the media seem to have given up on the struggling Blue Jays.

"Jays starting to face reality — It's over," the Toronto Star pronounced in its Monday editions after the baseball team fell to 45-52 following a sweep by visiting Tampa Bay.

"Try again next year?" offered the Toronto Sun.

"Blue Jays throwing away a big opportunity," the Globe and Mail weighed in.

Tim Leiweke, the new president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, sees a different story, however.

"These fans in this marketplace are pretty unbelievable," he said in an interview. "I'm looking at the Jays and how they're drawing — win, lose or draw — and it's a real testament to how they've become Canada's team.

"And a great learning experience to us as the Raptors."

While the Jays' high-priced makeover has largely flopped on the field to date this season, the Rogers-owned franchise still has plenty to celebrate.

The team may have a losing record but it is winning fans.

Attendance, over the first 46 home games of the season, was up 18 per cent over last year (league-wide attendance reportedly declined three per cent the first half of this season).

Merchandise sales are strong. The Jays have tapped into a younger demographic and watched female interest grow.

"What always strikes me as I'm walking out of the stadium is a) how young the audience is and b) how many of them are wearing merchandise," said Scott Moore, president of broadcasting at Rogers Media whose Sportsnet channel is the Jays' network of record.

"And that tells me is the team and the brand is cool."

How cool are the Jays? Just look at their new batting practice cap.

While general manager Alex Anthopoulos planned his off-season remake of the Blue Jays roster, the marketing department was mulling over design of the new lid.

There was internal debate over whether to go with a variation of the current logo — which got a facelift last season — or something different.

They opted for something new: a simple, clean blue cap with a jumbo red Maple Leaf on the front above the brim and the team logo on the back.

Good choice. Just how good came in a phone call from a Major League Baseball official.

"It is the No. 1 selling new BP cap across all of Major League Baseball — anywhere," said Anthony Partipilo, Toronto's vice-president of marketing and merchandising. "I had to ask him a couple of times 'Do you mean just in Canada?' He said 'No. Anywhere. That cap is on fire.'"

The new-look Jays have not been as hot on the field, despite a US$120-million payroll featuring newcomers R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio, Mark DeRosa and Maicer Izturis.

TV ratings are slightly down from last year but remain vibrant.

"It's been a fun team to follow," Moore said. "They're more fun to follow when they're winning but they're still interesting when they're not."

As of July 10, Sportsnet was averaging 544,000 viewers (aged two and over) for Jays' broadcasts. That's nine per cent down from the 2012 average of 595,000 at this point of the season but up 10 per cent from 2011's average of 496,000 at the same time.

Breaking it down by month, the 2013 Jays averaged 639,000 in April, 403,000 in May (when the team went 13-15) and 575,000 in June (when the team won 11 straight).

Moore says he is happy any time he sees ratings over 500,000. Some recent 700,000-plus games are "amazing numbers especially when you consider we're under .500 at the moment."

Opening Day, a 4-1 loss to Cleveland, drew a Jays' record average audience of 1.4 million. The Canada Day game, an 8-3 win over Detroit, also drew more than a million.

"I really think in the last three years, the Jays have turned the corner," said Moore. "We're not going to see numbers the way we saw them four, five years ago, which were in the 200 (thousands), 300 (thousands)."

"I'm still confident that these numbers, the three-year trend, will hold up and there have been absolute flashes of brilliance both on the field and on television," he added.

Ratings are linked to wins and losses, but not exclusively. Moore says individual game ratings can depend on a variety of factors, including if the game is close, and if it is close later in the game. Blowouts either way affect ratings.

"But we certainly saw some substantially better numbers through the 11-game winning streak," Moore said.

The Jays have been monitoring to see if the wobbly performance on the field is affecting support.

"We're always looking for signs that there's some trouble in the waters, if you will," said Partipilo. "We haven't really seen that. We've asked ourselves the same question.

"I think it boils down to the fact that fans are in it for the longer term. They know that we've made a commitment from an organizational standpoint. They know we have the players, we have the team. And they know that baseball is 162 games, it's a long season. There's going to be ups and downs. There's going to be a lot of a disappointments and a lot of big highs.

"We've had a combination of those this year. We've had probably far too many of the lows but you know you go on a winning streak and people are invigorated."

Still, the team is keeping a close eye on the interest.

Going into play Monday, Toronto was averaging 31,884 fans this season at the Rogers Centre, to stand 14th in the majors. It ranked last in the AL East standings, however.

"We had pretty high hopes for the team on the field as owners and we had pretty high hopes for the team on our media platforms," said Moore. "I think we would say the same thing, that as good as the audiences are and the three-year trend is really terrific. I think the audiences would be better if we were over .500.

"I think they've had some interesting ups and downs on the field."

Moore calls the Jays' demographics the "biggest untold story."

"The biggest increases in age groups are in the young audiences, particularly in young kids and young females," he said. "I think that's because the team itself is young, they're interacting on Twitter, they seem to be accessible and all you have to do is go to the game and see the age of the audience, which is different than it was certainly 10 years ago."

The 30-and-under demographic "really feel a personal connection with the people they're following on Twitter," Moore added.

"They feel like they're text-messaging them directly. It's a fascinating medium."

The Jays say fans aged 18 to 34 represented about a third of their fan base in the late 90's and early '00s. Now it is 50 per cent.

Break that down even more and the majority of fans 18 to 24 "skews very highly female (57 per cent) and is one of the fastest-growing segments of our entire demographic slice," according to Partipilo.

He says the Jays "spike significantly higher than average across all major league teams" when it comes to 18- to -34 year-olds.

Sportsnet says more women started tuning in as the Jays reeled off wins in June. Viewership for women aged 18-34 increased by 61 per cent (24,000 to 39,000) and 52 per cent (54,000 to 82,000) for women 25-54 when compared to May 2013.

Jays broadcasts have attracted an average audience of 24,000 for the teen age group 12-17, up 26 per cent from the same point in 2012, up 26 per cent compared to 2011 and up 53 per cent from 2010.

Team owner Rogers, which also counts the Rogers Centre among its assets, continues a full-court press approach to coverage.

From online to TV to radio, Rogers promises everything Blue Jays.

And its cast of reporters and analysts have helped keep the team in the news, from accusing Boston pitchers of cheating to having catcher J.P. Arencibia use a Rogers radio station to rip a critical Rogers TV analyst.

Having a 162-game season helps "feed the content-gaping maw," Moore acknowledges.

"There's something new to talk about every day. In the business of sport, we're all in the business of selling hope and the great thing about baseball is that if you lose hope, there's always a chance to regain it the next day.

"And with this team there have been so many interesting, intriguing storylines."

Rogers' commitment to the team was shown at spring training when a temporary but sizable hanger was erected in the outfield of the team's pre-season home to shoot the promotional videos that continue to be aired.

On the merchandise level, Toronto had profited from a change of uniform and logo last year, re-embracing the Blue Jays name and moving to a modernized version of the first logo used from 1977 to '97.

The logo is the seventh in Toronto's 36-year history and its third major redesign.

"We saw numbers that put our team in the top two of per capita sales of any team in major league baseball," said Partipilo. "There's no question that we got a big bump last year. This year we continue to be very strong. We're up over last year, not by a lot. But that is saying a lot, that in your second year you actually continue to be up over the first year of a new uniform launch."

The arrival of players like Dickey and Reyes helped boost sales, joining perennial favourites like Jose Bautista.

"These players came in and they were immediately, incredibly well-received by the fans," said Partipilo. "And we saw that in our merchandise sales which spiked up dramatically with player product shortly after the (trade) announcements and continue to this day."

And what about popular shortstop Munenori Kawasaki?

"We didn't foresee that one," Partipilo said with a laugh.

But within days of the Japanese livewire joining the big club, Partipilo put out a call for more merchandise in the stores.

"You could see how exciting a personality he was and how he was reinvigorating the players on the bench and how the fans were reacting to him."

The team doesn't normally jump in so quickly on unknown players when it comes to merchandise.

"We took a chance, got in early and the fans were demanding his product like crazy, probably more than any other player for a short period of time there. We were very amazed by that."

Kawasaki, who filled in for the injured Reyes, is currently with the Jays' triple-A farm team in Buffalo.

Online retailer Fanatics.com reports that sales of Blue Jays gear is up more than 60 per cent compared to the same time last season and up more than 140 per cent compared to the same period in 2011. Both are among the top-10 year-over-year increases among MLB teams on the site.

While most of the interest in Toronto gear on Fanatics.com has come from Canada, Jays merchandise has also been ordered from all 50 U.S. states since the beginning of this season.

Fanatics.com says its current top-selling Blue Jays players in terms of merchandise are Bautista, Reyes and Brett Lawrie.

Like other teams, the Jays look to social media to further build a bridge with their fans, especially young fans.

"If that's where they are, that's where we want to be as well," Partipilo said.

Twitter and Facebook also allows fans to interact with the club and players regardless of where they are, which is crucial for a franchise that sees itself as Canada's team.

The team currently has some 303,400-plus Twitter followers, well below the Yankees' 936,900 or Boston's 502,400 but close to the Dodgers' 325,900. The Jays compare favourably to the Maple Leafs (364,600), Toronto FC (48,000) and Argonauts (29,700).

The Jays' Facebook page has some 531,250 likes.

Players like Bautista (378,800 followers), Lawrie (196,600), Dickey (170,500), Arencibia (149,500) and Reyes (86,300) have proven popular with Lawrie and Arencibia both using their personal accounts in recent weeks to make news.

On Sunday, as former slugger Carlos Delgado officially joined the Blue Jays' Level of Excellence, the Jays, Delgado and Level of Excellence were all trending on Twitter.

Partipilo says Toronto was the first major league franchise to incorporate social media into the game experience when it debuted Tweeting Tuesdays three to four years ago. The time has probably come to freshen the promotion even though it continues to be popular, he added

Asked why the team is adding more female fans, Partipilo points to the draw of the players plus social media.

"Females are more socially active in the sense that they're more engaged on a social media level than any other group," he said.

Add to that the growing number of condos around the stadium. But Partipilo says the trend towards young and female fans is more than local, pointing to national TV ratings.

"So I think it's the combination of a young, energetic, cool team. I believe that the brand and the logo represent a very, very significant part of that as well because fans feel they can be part of this movement by wearing blue, by wearing the Blue Jays logo, by wearing apparel ... People are having fun doing it."

Partipilo also points to the oft-criticized Rogers Centre for increased attendance. While other franchises have paid for the unpredictable weather, the Jays have benefited from playing under a dome.