Sports biz: Bar code, please

Like few other sports – quite possibly none – baseball’s appeal often transcends the personas and talents of the individuals playing. Especially on Opening Day. A team full of scrubs, no-names, has-beens, just-off-the-bus Triple A hopefuls and fatigued-looking, seen-it-all veterans with creaking knees and fading bat speed, has no obligation whatsoever to concede hope to a sleekly outfitted club of all-stars and aces.

When the sun is shining and the ballpark is freshly scrubbed and you’ve arranged your workday in advance to feature back-to-back-to-back meetings outside the office during a time frame that coincidentally aligns with the pouring of an Opening Day beverage an hour before the first pitch and extends to approximately the moment when, barring extra innings, it could be assumed that the final out will have been recorded.

This is the charm and enduring attraction of a game that was described to me once by a zealous St. Louis Cardinals fan, with no irony intended or conveyed, as less a sport and more a product of nature.

And it is the game that again will draw the innocent and the jaded alike to a mutual contemplation of possibility – a pennant run! a surprise 20-game winner! an improbable season of comebacks and perfect games and long, arcing, redemptive home runs in the bottom of the ninth! – as fans stream into Coors Field on Friday, April 5, otherwise known as the home opener for the 2013 season of your Colorado Rockies.

There is one longstanding tradition of baseball, though, that is undergoing a rapid fade in the name of progress, and that is the admission ticket.

Last year traditional paper tickets accounted for only one-third of visits to Major League Baseball ballparks. This year, MLB executives believe the percentage could drop to less than 10 percent as fans show up instead with printed e-tickets, ID-coded credit cards and virtual tickets tied to applications like Apple’s increasingly popular Passbook.

Fans like the move to digital tickets because they’re more convenient and more agile. With a few clicks or a few swipes across the touch-screen, you can forward them to friends, return them to teams for resale or manage to get into the park even if you happen to have forgotten yours at home. The loss of a physical memento is for most fans a small price to pay for the convenience.

The rapid decline of physical tickets to baseball games (and other sports events) is startling. But it’s not entirely an organic phenomenon. Teams like the Rockies, that offer a print-at-home service called TicketFast and a paperless admission technology called Swipe-n-go, welcome the move to electronic ticketing, and are encouraging fans to partake. It’s not just about saving a few bucks on printing. The prize is Big Data – the ability to collect, parse, analyze and exploit information about fans and fan habits that physical tickets can’t provide.

Example: For years, you and a friend have made a point of buying single-game tickets to see the Pittsburgh Pirates whenever they come to town. One day, out of the blue, an email invitation to snag two premium club seats for two upcoming Rockies-Pirates games lands in your inbox. Holy ghost of Honus Wagner! You’re in. 

It’s that sort of data mining and personalized marketing teams are going to be relying on to keep ballparks filled and concession sales lively. You’re going to start seeing it more, as an alternative to one-size-fits-all promotions that make no distinctions about what teams are coming to town or what particular fans are being targeted.

Database marketing has special meaning for teams like Colorado that need to find ways to reconnect with fans who are burned out over lackluster on-field performance.

It’s true that for keeping the stands full, nothing still beats winning consistently. But in a rebuilding year like this one looks to be, a precision-targeted marketing approach might be just the ticket.