IT'S NO SECRET that sold-out Phillies games have become as common in South Philly as roast-pork-and-broccoli-rabe sandwiches. But what's also increasingly evident is that among the 18-29 set, the Fightin's have become as
as Twitter, Facebook and "Jersey Shore."
For decades, the crowds (such as they were) at Phillies games seemed to fall into two camps: families with children, and older folks who could speak first-hand of the likes of the Whiz Kids and Connie Mack. These days, members of the so-called Millennial Generation appear to be as accounted-for as any other age group at Citizens Bank Park.
"There's no question we've been drawing much more of a younger demographic since we moved [from Veterans Stadium]," said Michael Harris, the team's director of marketing and special projects.
"The opening of [Citizens Bank Park] was the major catalyst in rebranding our organization. We suddenly had a 'cool factor' that didn't exist before. The design of the ballpark helps create a very social atmosphere. There are so many different and unique areas where fans can congregate and socialize, and still have a great view of the game. So the ballpark has become a destination where it's simply fun to hang out."
According to Harris, that was the goal during the stadium's design phase, so in that respect, the team's brain trust hasn't been all that surprised by the interest among that particular audience.
What has floored them, he admitted, is how their expectations have been exceeded.
"We expected younger fans when we moved," he said, "but we had no idea it would be to this extent."
But the Phillies are not so arrogant as to have adopted a strictly "build it and they will come" attitude concerning this newest fan base. Harris pointed out that the franchise has seasonlong marketing and promotional programs aimed exclusively at keeping the iPod generation streaming through the gates.
Among them: T-shirt giveaways, "College Nights" and the insanely popular Dollar Dog Nights that take place several times each season.
"The reality is our younger fans have responded incredibly well to those types of promotions," Harris said.
Thanks in some measure to this exploding demographic, ticket sales and auxiliary revenues (from concessions, merchandising and parking) are reaching historic levels.
Yesterday, as the Phillies played the Boston Red Sox in the 23rd home game of the season, the Phils announced that attendance had surpassed 1 million at the earliest point in team history. The Phillies also became the first major-league team to reach 1 million in attendance this year.
Club officials hope that the 20-something Phans who have helped boost attendance will remain supportive in the decades to come.
"If a residual benefit of this is that we're developing a new generation of Phillies fans, that's wonderful," said Harris. "If we're going to plan for the long term, then we have to hit everybody."
It's not clear whether the phenomenon is limited to Philadelphia. According to Pat Courtney, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of public relations, his organization doesn't break down such demographic data on a team-by-team basis. But Courtney acknowledged that the Phillies are champions in attracting young patrons.
Courtney said the opening of a fan-friendly ballpark combined with the maturation of farm-system-raised stars like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels "has just been remarkable" for the franchise.
"You just have to look around and see they've captured the younger demographic," he said.
Corn Toss in the lots
Before any home game, you can look around the parking lots that ring the Bank and see something that was pretty much nonexistent in the Veterans Stadium era: Countless Millennials tailgating, decked out in Phillies Phinery. They've even put their own stamp on the traditional pregame festivities, introducing Corn Toss to the ritual.
For the uninitiated, Corn Toss, which also goes by other names, is a game in which players, standing 27 feet away, try to toss a beanbag through a 3-by-2-inch hole carved into a slanted, wooden (sometimes homemade) board. And, yes, beer is involved.
An unscientific survey of young people at a recent game found a variety of reasons the Phillies have been embraced by people far too young to remember the Bad Old Days (Decades?), when the team was hard-pressed to play a meaningful game once Memorial Day had come and gone.
Many were quick to point to the team's recent historic run of success, including back-to-back World Series appearances and the epochal 2008 championship and subsequent parade down Broad Street.
"I don't think it's front-running, [but] when they're doing good, everybody comes," reasoned Jimmy Ficca, 23, of Hockessin, Del.
But there are other lures as well.
"First of all, it's affordable, compared to hockey or football games," said Allison Baldridge, 25, of Norristown. "And there are a lot more games; it's the summer."
Baldridge has noticed the Phils' marketing efforts aimed at her generation. "It's almost like it's geared to a younger group," she said. "Chase Utley was in Seventeen magazine, and there are Phillies commercials on MTV and the CW."
Brad Eash, 28, of Manayunk, has picked up on the love the team has been showing people his age. "They're definitely reaching out," he said, referring to the Dollar Dog Nights and other promotions. He said the ballpark plays a huge role, too.
Rebecca Bigwood, 21, of Mullica Hill, N.J., said there's only one reason she has become a Phillies Phanatic. "Chase Utley," she said, forming the name in a vocal equivalent of a swoon. "I wanna marry him - without his wife knowing!"
Phillies marketing chief Harris denied that Utley's sex appeal had been a consideration when the club drafted the UCLA standout in 2000.
"We're not that diabolical," he said with a smile, "but it certainly doesn't hurt."