How to Save Broadway's Sinking Attendance

How to Save Broadway's Sinking Attendance
(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Broadway's failing attendance rate — it's gone down for the past three years — has long been attributed to the rising price of the tickets. Making the case that that's something of a shibboleth is Jim McCarthy, the 44-year-old CEO of Goldstar Events, the company which sells discount tickets to live events to its four million, mainly youthful members (membership is free). "Price is important but comes much later in the process," says McCarthy, adding that awareness, convenience, and other psychosocial factors are more critical when it comes to buying a ticket to a Broadway show. "If I don't want to go, it doesn't matter how cheap the tickets are."

McCarthy was in town recently from his home base of Pasadena to host the third annual edition of TEDx Broadway, along with producer Ken Davenport and Damian Bazadona, the theatrical marketing and advertising executive. This year's theme was "What's the best that Broadway can be?" and featured speakers such as Robert Lopez ("The Book of Mormon," "Frozen") and Diane Paulus ("Pippin"). But the results of such a conference will hardly matter if Broadway's audience continues to diminish. McCarthy, however,  is rather bullish about Broadway's future based on a number of surveys his company has conducted. "Over the last generation, as high tech devices are getting cheaper and cheaper to the vanishing point, the low-tech world of the live performance has become more and more valuable because it is so unique," he says.

The problem, says McCarthy,  is that Broadway has been derelict and old-fashioned in generating interest about its wares. "Awareness is the number one factor in erasing the gap between how many times people say they want to have a live experience and how many times they actually do go out," he says.  "Someone may have an impulse to see a show but they have only a vague notion of a place called 'Broadway' or 'Madison Square Garden' and they don't know how to go about it.  Desire falls short of reality.  It's just much more convenient to turn on the television or go to a movie."

Progressive technology and apps, including a free one recently initiated by Goldstar, have changed all that. Gone are the days when one needs to comb the ads of a paper or magazine to see what is available.  However,  McCarthy points out, there is a great deal of friction — what he calls "negative externalities" — that can easily discourage a potential ticket buyer.  "There are the hassle costs — arranging the baby sitter, driving and parking — that means you're already a hundred dollars in the hole before you even go to buy your tickets," he says. "Even if you gave someone free tickets,  they may not go.  They're calculating the negative costs in their mind.  Those negative externalities are very real. You have to somehow bring people to a break-even point."

Another significant obstacle is the psychological comfort level, especially for a first-time theater goer.  "Going to Broadway or the opera can be intimidating," says McCarthy. "People often have some trepidation about it. 'Is it going to be weird?' 'What is going to be expected of me?' 'Am I going to be comfortable?'"

McCarthy admits that cost is obviously a major factor.  But he persuasively argues that  the price of Broadway tickets is  going up not only because of production costs but also because people are placing a higher value on the live experience. One of the most interesting surveys conducted by his company involved this question: "Imagine a show that you have an interest in and then imagine the chunk of money you'd find reasonable to pay to attend it. Now what would you pay if you knew that the memory of the event itself would be erased the next day? McCarthy says, "Some people said,  'Nothing.'  But an equal number said, 'Just the same.' They valued the event and  the immediacy of it on its own terms. That's a positive externality."