Can the Cardinals rely on their brand to sell tickets forever?

Business can be interesting to observe.  As food prices have risen, the Big Mac at McDonald’s is a smaller burger, but costs more than it ever did.  Cars are generally less substantial than they were a couple of decades ago, but the prices are way higher.  Remember buying your first smart phone?  The first iPhone in 2007 was $499.  An Apple iPhone 11 pro costs $999, even though the elements are essentially the same and don’t cost much more.  McDonalds, car companies like Ford, Chevrolet and Honda, and Apple are all strong brands.  Because those brands have been built up over the years, people are loyal to them despite, in many cases, lesser products and increased pricing.

That’s the way I look at the Cardinals now.  They have an amazing brand that people love.  The franchise has drawn three million fans in sixteen straight years and 21 out of 22 seasons.  The Cardinals in St. Louis are one of those things that people have come to just automatically consume.

That’s why 2020 will be interesting.  Before the 2018 season, the team traded for Marcell Ozuna, who had been a silver slugger and gold glove winner the year before.  The franchise enhanced their brand by demonstrating a desire to improve the product.  Prior to last season, they acquired Paul Goldschmidt from Arizona.  In the five years before becoming a Cardinal, Goldschmidt had been one of the five best players in baseball.  They also signed once-dominant lefty reliever Andrew Miller.  Fans responded to the tune of buying 3.4 million tickets each year.

The combination of previous post-season success, eleven straight winning seasons, urgency by the team and optimism of fans, and that brand loyalty allowed the Cards to draw 3.4 million last year.  The Cardinals went into 2019 with a legitimate chance to claim their first National League Central title in four years, and they did.

After the season, arguably their most productive hitter from start to finish, Ozuna, filed for free agency and likely won’t be back.  2018’s most productive offensive player, Matt Carpenter, saw his production fall off the cliff in 2019.  As the Cardinals get ready for 2020, they haven’t replaced that production that was counted on to win a division last year.

Kind of like the Big Mac, you’re paying the same price (for tickets), but there’s less to the product than there was before.

This isn’t to say there’s NO chance the Cardinals will succeed in 2020.  It’s possible young players like Tommy Edman, Lane Thomas and Dylan Carlson will take major steps and be key contributors next year.  But the reality is that Cardinal fans are investing lots of hope in the season.  Carlson, Thomas and Edman have yet to have a full great major league season.  Carpenter, Harrison Bader and Yadier Molina took alarming steps backward last year.  Dexter Fowler performed at his peak, but at this stage he’s not a major impact performer.  Kolten Wong had his best year, but he can’t be a middle of the order bat like Ozuna or Carpenter were.  President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak suggested shortstop Paul DeJong as a fourth place hitter, but he had a .762 OPS last season, and the National League average for cleanup hitters was .836 last season.  In fact, last year was the first of DeJong’s career in which his OPS+ was below league average.  He doesn’t appear to be an answer as a fourth place, or middle of the lineup hitter.

With the way baseball has trended the last several years, the only player that’s shown a consistent and recent ability to be an impact middle of the lineup hitter is Goldschmidt.  Unless the ball is deadened significantly, (and they run the bases as well as they did last year) the Cards can be reasonably expected to be where they were last season.  In 2019, just five N.L. teams-the Pirates, Reds, Giants, Padres and Marlins, had fewer runs scored than the Cardinals.  With the Cards losses and the Reds addition of Mike Moustakas, I think the Cardinals project as one of the worst offenses in the National League.

The Cardinals have a great brand, and it’s well earned.  Under the DeWitt ownership group, they’ve done a lot of well chronicled winning.  But the organization seems to be heading toward what McDonalds or Apple are.  An equal or lesser product that’s costing the customer the same or more.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, they have the ability to turn the tide.  Maybe the kids they’re counting on will turn out to be great.  But it doesn’t seem to be very good business to give customers the perception that your product is receding.  If that continues, I’m interested to see how long that brand loyalty lasts.