In a typical Major League Baseball season in mid-July, the Oakland Athletics’ ticket sales department would be hard at work trying to sell seats to the remaining 40 or so home games.
But in 2020, those staffers are selling a different product: cardboard cutouts with pictures of fans on them.
In the last couple of months, fan cardboard cutouts have become something of a sports sub-industry. As a response to not being able to have fans in stadiums due to the coronavirus pandemic, teams in South Korea’s KBO League and Germany’s Bundesliga began using the displays to maintain a connection with supporters.
Now, U.S.-based teams are leaning into the effort as well with leagues returning to play.
In Oakland, team employees first experimented with different types of cutouts to make sure they could create as durable a product as possible. Now that the program is up and running, fans pay for the cutouts online and then upload photos of themselves. The images are sent off to local printers who create the cutouts and delivered to the ballpark where they’re placed around the stadium. There are cutout zones for Oakland fans as well as opposing fans – and even the opposing fan section is garnering sales, according to Athletics President Dave Kaval.
“It’s like a totally new division of the company that we didn’t have before,” said Kaval of his reoriented ticket sales department.
The effort has been widely embraced across MLB, which is set for a late opening day start on July 23. In addition to Oakland, the San Francisco Giants, Milwaukee Brewers and others have all announced cardboard cutout fan programs in the past few weeks.
It goes well beyond baseball – minor league soccer team the Oakland Roots has a program, and the Premier Lacrosse League has also embraced the idea. Two private companies – Be at the Game and My Fan Seats – say they’ve been in talks with NCAA teams to implement cutout programs when those leagues start again. My Fan Seats has also had conversations with NBA teams, according to founder Lara Smedley.
“Everybody’s looking for ways to show your allegiance and loyalty to a sports team,” said Brewers President of Business Operations Rick Schlesinger. “And since we’re missing a lot of those connection points, this is something for the fans to enjoy and feel like they’re still part of the organization.”
Programs vary across teams in cost, from just under $30 for PLL cutouts to $299 to some of the Dodgers cutouts – but they’ve all been wildly popular among fans, who in some cases have even brought the idea to their teams. The Premier Lacrosse League had already sold more than 400 of their 500 cutouts days before their deadline, according to PLL Senior Manager of Operations Courtney Ellis. The Giants already had a few thousand cutouts ready to go by July 9, said Executive Vice President of Business Operations Mario Alioto. The Brewers reopened their program after it sold out – and so did the A’s, who sold out of a program in which fans would receive a foul ball if it hit their cutout.
Executives agree that the cutout programs primarily help maintain relationships with fans during such an unusual season rather than generate revenue, as the pandemic has cost leagues billions in lost ticket sales. For example, the PLL made sure its cutout program was profitable, but the economic damage caused by COVID-19 is already done. “We’re not looking for this to make up ticket sales,” said Ellis. “We won’t be able to do that with this initiative.”
MLB teams, like the Brewers, Dodgers and A’s, are using the initiative to support local charities – Kaval emphasized that the A’s, in particular, felt it was important to donate cutout money to organizations working to combat COVID-19 and support Black Americans. But he’s generating extra revenue for the team by selling sponsorships for different sections where the cutouts will sit. Tom Hickson, co-founder of Be at the Game, noted that the revenue stream could provide a notable boost for minor league teams in particular.
While large major league teams like these have robust front offices to handle the fan cutout programs themselves, smaller teams need help, said Lara Smedley, who founded My Fan Seats due to a new COVID-19 sports landscape. Smedley said her company coordinates the production of the cutouts and is built to minimize costs for teams. Hickson’s company, which worked with Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach to fill their stadium with cutouts in May, similarly handles end-to-end production. Hickson recently announced a partnership with The Oakland Roots and is looking to continue expanding.
“There are lots of sports fans across the world that will be looking to try to engage with their sports teams … in this challenging time,” said Hickson. “We could provide them with a support service that allows them to do that with the cardboard cutouts.”
Despite the lack of massive profits, executives and company founders alike believe there may be a future in paper fans beyond COVID-19. Hickson noted that the cutouts could be used as a safety measure to slowly increase stadium capacity and promote social distancing in the seats. Kaval and Schlesinger said the promotion could even continue in post-COVID times for fans who don’t live in their team’s cities. Smedley mentioned a similar promotion might be possible for college programs where parents can’t travel to watch their teams’ games.
“I think we’re all tasked to be extra creative and do things that may not feel normal, or that may seem a little bit odd,” said Alioto. “But sometimes that’s where you find a gem.”