Oakland A's

Have the A’s found a solution to MLB’s attendance problem? An interview with the COO

Oakland Athletics Chief Operating Officer Chris Giles speaks during an interview with this newspaper at the Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.
Oakland Athletics Chief Operating Officer Chris Giles speaks during an interview with this newspaper at the Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Bay Area News Group

He’s the Oakland A’s chief operating officer, with a tall order – attracting more fans. So this season, Chris Giles is trying a novel approach on how to reel them in. And, it appears to be paying off, with the number of A’s fan memberships doubling in a single year.

Giles is pioneering a first-of-its kind membership program called A’s Access. Under the plan, fans buy packages of reserved seats for as few as 10 or 24 games, but get access to the stadium for all 81 homes games where they can soak in the sports scene scene and watch the A’s play from flexible spaces like the Coliseum’s popular Treehouse bar and viewing area. Members also get other benefits including 25 percent off merchandise and half-off concessions.

While Giles says he is basing the program on a gym or country club membership model, he’s also drawing heavily on Silicon Valley attitudes by learning on the fly and listening to customers to shape the next version of the product.

Q: Why A’s Access? What’s the imperative behind this new model?

A: I would say two-fold. One is very much around what fans want, and the second of which is very much a better business model for us as a team. As we went out and did our market feasibility studies around the new ballpark, we got to ask a lot of fans a lot of questions. And what we found is there still is a very vibrant group of fans who want to experience baseball in what most of us would consider a traditional way. They would tell you things like the most important thing to me is my seat location, and I love consistency.

But those that are younger than 35, they said almost the polar opposite. The whole notion that you would try to sell them the same experience for an entire game, let alone over and over again for an entire season, was completely unattractive.

They’d much rather be out at the Treehouse (above the left field bleachers), which in a traditional sense, that’s not a great seat location. But it’s where the atmosphere is, it’s where the vibe is. They’re looking for things that are a lot more social, a lot more flexible. What we really tried to do is develop a program that really welcomed new and younger fans looking for a completely different experience, which really wasn’t attainable before.

Q: How are you tracking fan experiences and engagement?

A: You can’t. Or we haven’t figured out how. We do a lot of observations, but we also do a lot of focus groups, too.

What we’re seeing is there’s varying levels of engagement. They will come and spend an inning out here watching every pitch, and then they’ll go and socialize for a little while, and then they’ll come back out.

Q: How does this A’s Access differ from how baseball teams typically offer fans different experiences?

A: At its core, we are selling access to something, we are not selling something. It is a gym, it is a country club. We’re selling fans access to something they value, the ability to come to the game on a whim.

We want to make sure that those that commit to supporting this organization, and are really crucial to us staying here, we want to make sure they’re rewarded and that they’re rewarded in a meaningful way. Really getting to the place where fans actually feel that their experience is much different as a member is the ultimate goal.

In a traditional baseball setting, if you’re saying hey, come be a member of this organization, but you can only come when you buy a ticket, well I don’t really feel like a member.

Q: How does Access fit in at the planned new ballpark? If it gets too popular, does capacity become an issue?

A: We’re building a ten-acre park on top of the ballpark. There’s a lot of things in our current design that contemplate this flexible model. On the inner rim of the park is tiered seating. We’re not going to sell a reserved seat location to that location, there’s options up there. We’re going to have tons of seats in the new ballpark that we don’t even sell on a reserved seat basis.

Q: The A’s helped popularize the Moneyball approach to drafting players and building winning teams, which many teams use regularly now. Is A’s Access going to similarly revolutionize how baseball clubs around the league attract fans?

A: I have no idea. Honestly, we’re building a program that we feel is a better model for us. We do lots of phone calls with other teams that are interested, and I feel like a couple of them will adopt it, but that’s not why we’re doing it, either.

Q: You’ve mentioned changes on Twitter for Access Version 2.0 for next season, that will include all fans with Access getting access to the whole ballpark, not just the Treehouse. What other changes are coming?

A: Version two is going to be a much simpler version. In version one, if you want to switch from one game to another game, you still have to pay the delta in the ticket price. We’re going to get rid of all that together. You can switch between the games and it’s all just a fixed price.

Q: How do you make money on this program?

A: Our entire goal is to build the fan base back up. So the short answer to your question is volume. And volume is powerful, because if we can sell a lot of memberships, many more so than you could sell in a traditional model, you can keep prices lower and maintain the same top line revenue.

So as we think about what it’s going to take to be successful in Oakland, we have to be inclusive with our ticket pricing. Anyone in the community should be able to come out to an A’s game, we should have memberships that are reasonably priced, and if we stick to a traditional model, you just run out of available capacity to do that.

This year from last year we more than doubled our membership numbers. Last year, under the traditional model, we were just around 9,000, and we’re up over 18,000 members this year.

Q: Is that success? Where are you defining it at?

A: We are very happy with it in year one, but I think it’s important for us to keep in mind where we started and where we need to get to from a membership perspective. I guess the easiest way to think about it is, it was a successful year one.

Q: Will it be enough to overcome the problem baseball is facing of getting fans to continue to come to games?

A: There’s going to be some people that become more or less engaged with baseball, but in today’s environment we need to be customer-centric organizations. We need to listen to what our customers want. The solution may change, the experience they want may change, but if we adopt a mentality that is based on adapting our products to what people want to buy, we’re better off no matter how things evolve.

Chris Giles

Title: Oakland A’s Chief Operations Officer

Current home: Pleasanton

Family: Married to wife Leah, with a daughter and twin boys

Education: B.S. in Finance from Fresno State and a MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley

Previous jobs: VP of sales and marketing for the NFL’s On Location Experience; San Francisco 49ers’ VP of Sales and Strategy, Investment banking analyst for Banc of America Securities.

Five things to know about Chris Giles

1. In spare time, he writes and records country music, has published 13 songs, and plans to release another EP soon.

2. He’s originally from Clovis, Calif., where he grew up doing animal and ranch chores.

3. His favorite food at the Coliseum is helmet nachos.

4. He believes ketchup belongs on a hot dog, but also with mustard.

5. He once went undercover as an A’s guest services employee to chat with fans about A’s Access plans.