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Researcher helps White Sox understand fans

CHICAGO -- The Chicago White Sox announced major price reductions for tickets and parking on Thursday, but the evaluation process that led to that decision began in June, when the club sought out the services of Rich Luker.

Luker is known as the creator of The ESPN Sports Poll, author of "Simple Community," and the Up Next trend columnist for Sports Business Journal. He also is a social psychologist who has studied American social life for the past 30 years, and sports for the past 25, leading him to a number of national projects and approximately one a year on the local level.

What Luker found through extensive research will have far deeper and long-ranging ramifications for the White Sox and the organization's connection to their fan base.

Tackling the White Sox challenge helped provide a local research test case for how the economy has been influencing national sports choices over the past 10-15 years. In 1998, Luker's research determined that 70 percent of people preferred to watch a game in person rather than on television, with all things being equal. By 2011, that trend was completely reversed, with 70 percent preferring to watch it on TV.

Luker considered the White Sox a very good research organization among sports teams and knew they were a team ready to make changes.

"My hands were untied by the White Sox," Luker said. "They talked with me and worked with me about what we were doing. As an example, in the survey portion, there were 15 rounds of revisions. We wanted to be sure we were capturing questions in a way that answers would be allowed to stand in a way the White Sox would act on."

Nine focus groups were put into use by Luker, ranging in size from six to 12 people. The club wanted to know how fans saw the White Sox, decided to follow the team and invest their time, energy and money in supporting it. The Sox also wanted to understand what was going on with their fans economically.

As part of the project, there was a survey of 8,000 fans in which the last segment was left open for fans to add any comment. Luker said that if 3 percent respond to that question, it's considered a bad survey. Ten percent is a good survey and a 20 percent response makes it "awesome."

In this White Sox survey, there were an astounding 4,900 comments -- almost 60 percent -- generating close to 400 pages of feedback that were then given to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

"A vast majority of those were thoughtful and honest, not extreme in yelling at them," Luker said.

One thing Luker learned about White Sox fans is that they are "true believers, the real deal."

"They are for baseball what the Green Bay Packers are for football," Luker said. "Packers fans are far more visible. It's Green Bay, and that's all there is.

"The [White Sox] are in Chicago, one of the three biggest markets, and the other baseball team in the city, the Cubs, people know better. They don't talk much about the White Sox and don't realize how engaged and dedicated their fans are."

One telling find for Luker came from a question about why White Sox fans go to games. Their No. 1 reason is to support the team, much the same as it is for the Packers.

"Generally, the No. 1 reason to go is more selfish," Luker said. "My observation from the research is that White Sox fans are always on board. They are not going to start bragging until something is accomplished or recognized.

"Living in a city where the other team is the national darling and never wins, White Sox fans have to be careful not to be cocky. They are not calling attention to themselves or go crazy down the street until after the World Series is won."

The second reason for attending was the overall experience at U.S. Cellular Field. In examining teams such as the Bears and Cubs, or even concert attendance, the White Sox held up fine.

So the biggest issue came in changing the pricing structure to entice more individual ticket buyers. The dynamic ticket pricing used by the White Sox was not an issue for the fans, but roughly 30 percent of fans attended fewer games in 2012 than 2011, and just 24 percent attended more. For every additional game attended by a fan who said they attended more games, there were three fewer games attended by fans who said they attended fewer, resulting in a net reduction in attendance.

The surveys revealed that 50 percent of the individual ticket buyers said they had less money to spend in '12. And of those attending fewer games, two-thirds said they had less money available, while only one-third had the same or more. So, affordability clearly emerged as the No. 1 issue for this particular group.

With Thursday's announced ticket prices dropping, as well as parking being reduced, the White Sox quickly addressed that issue for those feeling pinched but still wanting to attend games. The team is far from done addressing the issue of making a White Sox game the best possible experience for everyone involved, with Luker's work moving forward, so stay tuned for more changes to come.

Chicago White Sox