For more than a decade, Citizens Bank Park was a place to see and be seen. Crotchety old Baby Boomers, grungy Gen-Xers and entitled Millennials packed the Bank, elbow to elbow, to watch their heroes bash homers.
It all began with Jim Thome. He became a Phillie in 2003, but in 2004 he opened the Bank with a bang: 42 homers, an All-Star appearance and 86 wins, as many as the franchise had seen in more than a decade.
Thome made Phillies baseball sexy again.
Bryce Harper is bringing sexy back.
Since the lantern-jawed slugger agreed to a 13-year, $330 million contract on Thursday, the Phillies have seen a record surge in sales: 100,000 tickets from 2-6:30 p.m. Thursday; 80,000 from 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Friday; and 40,000 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.
In about 48 hours.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said John Weber, the team’s ticket czar, after he’d had lunch Sunday. “This is kind of like a volcano erupting.”
Of course, there are different types of volcanic eruptions.
Harper is like Krakatoa, the 200-megaton blast in Indonesia that changed the world in 1883.
Thome was more like Kilauea, the Hawaiian monster that began its longest eruption a century later and continues to ooze today.
Both produced a preseason windfall that affected sales for years to come. Thome boosted season-ticket sales from about 11,000 in 2002 to 14,000 in 2003, Weber said. Thome played only two more seasons in that Phillies stint, but his arrival established the platform for the steady rise to 28,000 season tickets from 2010-12.
With Harper’s arrival, Phillies season-ticket sales already jumped from 9,500 in 2018 to about 11,800. Weber hopes the Phillies hit the 14,000 mark this season, as they did in Thome’s first year, and, eventually, 28,000 season tickets. What’s the immediate goal?
Three million fans this season.
The Phillies drew about 2.15 million fans last season, so that would be a jump of about 850,000 tickets -- almost 40 percent.
“Clearly, we’d like to get as close to that number as we possibly can,” Weber said.
Why not? It’s happened before. Thome sparked the most recent surges.
When Thome signed the richest deal in Phillies history in December 2002, for six years and $85 million, there was a months-long crescendo. The Phillies drew more than 2.25 million to Veterans Stadium in 2003, an increase of 641,481 over 2002 -- almost 40 percent. In 2004, when they moved into Citizens Bank Park, they drew more than 3.25 million. That was another increase, of almost 44 percent.
The 2004 spike was the biggest jump since 1993, when the Macho Row edition of the Phillies made its World Series run and drew more than 3.1 million, or a 63 percent increase over 1992.
Weber, the team’s senior vice president of ticket operations, experienced that era, too. This is different. He has worked in the ticket office for 32 years. He’s seen it all. And he’s quick to point out that, as with Thome, it’s not just Harper selling tickets.
Weber said that, before the Harper news broke Thursday, the Phillies already had sold about 200,000 more tickets than they had at the same point in 2018, on the strength of the arrivals of shortstop Jean Segura, catcher J.T. Realmuto and outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
“If we don’t add Realmuto, Segura, and McCutchen, it doesn’t have the kind of impact it’s having,” Weber said. “Our fans were already excited.”
They must be more than twice as excited now, because that 200,000 number is at 420,000, and rising.
Don’t worry about product availability. Only the opening-day game, March 28 against the Braves, is sold out (unless you buy a season ticket), so plenty of good seats remain for the rest of the season.
That’s even true in right field, where Harper will play. Weber said he didn’t have exact numbers on right-field seats sold, but fans are asking about that area more than any other.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Weber said. “We want people to realize we’ve got 17 home games in March and April. We want them come out. We want them to see the whole team.”
Weber is seeing the whole team at spring training in Clearwater, Fla., both this week and next. He entertained a flock of suite owners on Saturday night, and he did more hobnobbing Sunday morning and afternoon, but he’s running his operation like a general behind the lines.
On Thursday afternoon, Weber tripled the number of open ticket windows at Citizens Bank Park and pulled all available staff off other projects to answer phones. The office stayed open an extra hour-and-a-half Thursday, was open an extra two hours Friday and opened from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.
“Imagine: Being open on the first Sunday in March,” Weber said. “It’s amazing.”
Even more amazing than it was 16 years ago. The 2002 season was marred by an ugly contract feud with third baseman Scott Rolen, which left the Phillies cast as a franchise of cheapskates. Thome changed that. The boost was more gradual.
He signed in early December, so fans had a long time to hop aboard. They bought tickets as Christmas presents, birthday presents. They made anniversary plans around Phillies games.
“It’s a little different. We’ve got four weeks to go to opening day. It’s kind of a sprint here at the end,” Weber said. “We had three months to sell in 2003.”
They also had a wealth of talent to market.
Before the 2003 season, Pat Burrell, 26, signed a six-year, $50 million extension, a year after Bobby Abreu, 28, had signed for five years and $64 million. Charismatic shortstop Jimmy Rollins had gone to the past two All-Star games before he’d turned 24, and a trade had added Kevin Millwood to a starting rotation that already featured the electric young arms of Vicente Padilla, an All-Star in 2002, and a home-grown blue-chipper Brett Myers. And everyone was eager to see this Chase Utley kid, who spent 2002 in triple A.
Thome boosted the brand.
It needs another boost.
The 2.15 million last season was the fourth-lowest total attendance since the ballpark opened in 2004. All five of its lowest seasons came in the past five seasons, when, ravaged by injury, age, and incompetence, the team averaged slightly more than 2 million.
It was a stunning change from the Bank’s first 10 years.
The Phillies averaged more than 3.2 million fans in the first 10 seasons the Bank was open, even though Thome played there only two seasons. That’s OK. Thome had done his job.
He’d made baseball sexy again.
Now, Harper has brought the sexy back.
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