San Diego, Our Polis

One of the topics I remember former Padres CEO Tom Garfinkel talk about most was the importance of fans having a good ballpark experience on days our Padres don’t win. This goal became evident in, among other improvements, the restaurants and events he and his team brought to the ballpark. But there’s another less discussed, at least less discussed by team by team executives, aspect of a game experience that makes watching losing baseball at the park an excruciating ordeal. Sharing the stands with lots of loud fans of opposing teams is absolutely awful.

Your city is so great? Go Home!

This is an issue somewhat unique to San Diego as it’s a great place to visit and live. Transplants and visitors bring team allegiances from other cities with them. It’s those visitors and transplants that flood Giants, Dodgers, Cubs, and other games and often turn attending a losing Padres game from a disappointing but fun experience into emotionally charged challenge to our honor as San Diegans.

Ron Fowler refreshingly characterized attending Tim Lincecum‘s no-hitter against the Padres at Petco Park half full of cheering Giants fans. “It SUCKED,” he said. We needed to hear it, as various Padres ownership groups have been busy playing pull my finger tournaments the past four and a half seasons while fans turned over our dollars in exchange for watching a not so great baseball team.

I don’t remember any Padres executive address this issue directly, at least until Fowler did. Maybe those owners appreciate the extra revenue from visiting fans? This is probably partially true, but you have to think (and figure ownership agrees) that this thinking is shortsighted, as a strong support base of friar faithful will generate more revenue in the long term.

Maybe they don’t think anything can be done about it? Please stop yelling, I’m hearing your thoughts loud and clear. If the team wants a loyal Padres following to drown out and convert visiting fans, they need to establish a tradition of winning. Tom Garfinkel understood this, and also understood that fans wanted to hear that he understood it. I would also like to think that other ownership groups are pretty aware of how important winning is as well.

So aside from the obvious answer of not fielding a terrible baseball team, is there anything else that can be done? I have a few ideas:

  • The Padres can’t win every game against the Dodgers, but they can create the feeling of doing so. Using the magic of television (and video tapes, and probably some other electronic things) the Padres should play clips of past victories over visiting teams. They do this sometimes for historical games, but should a lot more often. Sure you can’t repeat highlights from the Padres clinching the 96 division over the Dodgers all the time, but how about come from behind wins? Or walk off wins? The Padres have played hundreds of games against their rivals, lets get Padres fans reliving the feeling of beating them every time they play.
  • The Padres need to establish more fun traditions of crowd involvement. Red Sox fans sing Sweet Caroline. Braves fans have the (admittedly not so appropriate) Tomahawk Chop. It needn’t be complicated, and considering the often subdued Padres crowds, probably shouldn’t be. “Beat LA!” is a decent start, but focusing on other teams isn’t the best idea. Playing Bro Hymn by Pennywise after wins is nice as well–high energy and tradition are awesome. Even leading a simple chant like “Keep the Faith!” at opportune times could work. The Pad Squad leads cheers by bribing fans with free stuff, have them get a tradition started a few sections at a time if need be.
  • This final suggestion is the most important. The Padres need to establish the message that being in San Diego means rooting for the Padres. Real San Diegans root for the Padres. Bringing your team’s loyalties to San Diego makes you an outsider, even if you do live in our city. This directly addresses cultural issues that marketing folk who haven’t lived in San Diego long don’t understand. Identifying rooting for the Padres as a core part of being a San Diego “local” really resonates. A couple years ago I introduced a shirt for The Sacrifice Bunt that said “Your City Is So Great? Go HOME!” It absolutely struck a nerve. I get tons of comments wearing it to games because San Diegans identify. Of course that isn’t the wording the Padres can use, they simply can’t be as rude as I like being. And visitors to the stadium should feel welcomed by the team. But the message also can’t be whitewashed. In the early 2000s the Padres used the slogan “Our Team, Our Town.” That’s along the right lines, but it’s missing emotion!┬áMarketing is about connecting with people emotionally, and this is the emotional string the team needs to hit to grow their fan base.

Different executives have differing views I’m sure, but I’m suspicious that too many top Padres executives don’t understand the unique situation of the San Diego sports fan. Many marketing decision-makers were born and raised in other cities, which makes some amount of sense as baseball positions are hard to come by. You take these jobs when you get the chance.

I originally wrote about the importance of connecting emotionally in the third bullet point above, but it applies to the others as well. Creating an emotional response is a requirement of effective marketing. Watching a huge group of opposing fans take over what’s supposed to be our house, our home, our polis, is emotional. Use that emotion to create loads of passionate Padres fans, and don’t let your competitors ruin the fire of current fans.

I’d feel left out if I didn’t politely suggest following me on Twitter.

Update: Thanks to Russ in the comments.

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