After a disappointing 2017 season, but one in which they drew 3.2 million fans, Toronto Blue Jays’ management might be asking themselves one question.
How do you keep your fan base engaged and interested in buying tickets – perhaps as Christmas presents – during the off-season?
It appears one initiative is the introduction of their inaugural Winter Fest.
A fan appreciation event, Winter Fest takes place Jan. 20, 10 a.m-6p.m. at the Rogers Centre.
In a city where the winter sports news cycle is dominated by the Maple Leafs and Raptors, it’s no coincidence the Jays chose a date that falls between December’s Winter Meetings and the beginning of Spring Training in February.
It serves as a reminder to fans that baseball is a year-round sport.
While the Jays are just launching their Winter Fest this year, fan appreciation events outside of scheduled games have become more common in professional sports over the last decade.
“Teams realize that their relationship with their fans has to be a two-way street now, and they have to provide value back to their fans, for sure,” says Ian Ellis, a professor who teaches in the Sport Business Management program at Durham College.
Ellis also says that as the world changes, fans want the opportunity to be more connected to their favourite teams and players.
Events like Winter Fest are also becoming more common because “there’s more of a need and more of an appetite from fans to do so.”
Despite not having a direct fan appreciation event until now, the Jays have done annual winter tours. Their current Winter Tour initiative has seen them visit more than 20 Canadian cities, including Ottawa, Calgary, St. John’s and Regina.
During these excursions, select players have visited charities and hospitals and hosted clinics and meet and greet sessions for fans who may not have the opportunity to see the team as often.
Top Jays players and prospects, along with coaches and alumni will be on hand to take pictures and meet with fans.
These names include current Jays Marcus Stroman, Anthony Alford and Russell Martin, top prospects Bo Bichette and Sean Reid-Foley and back-to-back World Series Champion Roberto Alomar.
Other events and attractions will be at Winter Fest, too, including guided tours, a Baseball Canada exhibit, a kids zone and a gaming room.
Tickets for Winter Fest cost $5 for youth and seniors, $10 for season ticket holders, $15 for game pack members and $20 for adults.
While there’s a cost for this event, Ellis says teams host these events with the goal of creating long-term sustainability and connections with the community rather than turning a short-term profit.
Community connections won’t be forgotten as $5 from each purchase goes towards the Jays Care Foundation, which provides children and youth across Canada with safe and accessible athletic opportunities.
Fans who purchased their tickets on Nov. 27 had the opportunity to purchase tickets for select autograph sessions with players and alumni.
Ellis also believes that incorporating players into fan appreciation events is important because “it allows fans to see the players as human beings and individuals, rather than a player with a number on their jersey.”