The Demise of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
After 146 years, the end has come for The Greatest Show on Earth.®
The following commentary is an editorial; one author’s personal viewpoint of what has happened and why. Through these words, I hope to articulate the feelings of many others; people who are shocked, mad, disappointed and sad. Losing this show is, and will continue to be, a time of mourning for Americans and circus lovers around the world. And it is more than just an end to an era; it is the loss of tradition for audiences and the performers themselves.
On January 14, 2017, the producers of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus – Feld Entertainment – announced that both the Blue Unit and Red Unit shows of this longstanding tradition would be coming to an end. On May 7, 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus Xtreme gave its final performance in Providence, Rhode Island. On May 21, 2017, the final presentation of Out Of This World took place in Uniondale, New York.
Performing artists and crews were told of the decision to close both shows only minutes before the public announcement was made (following the evening performances on Saturday, January 14th).
My circus friends told me that it came as quite a shock to everyone. Some are still in shock, especially as they are forced to leave their homes and circus community. The old adage "the show must go on" won't be happening here. It's done. Finished. Nothing left to see.
Now that the show is closed, some performers, cast and crew do have plans for their futures. However, many of those who've lost their jobs are still searching for employment, even though several months have passed since the announcement. It's not easy to have the rug pulled out from under you, especially when your vocation is very specialized. Job opportunities don't magically appear (unless your act is a headliner -- and not always then). This is the real world, yes, but it's hard, no matter how it ultimately plays out. And so it goes ...
Feld Entertainment has issued a statement on its website; a portion of which I have reprinted here:
“Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus and unsustainable business for the company.”
I’m sure ticket sales have dropped but the reason isn’t just because the elephants were retired; there is a lot more to it than that.
Yes ... feeding, caring for and transporting elephants is an expensive endeavor but their absence from the show is not an excuse; most people do understand that retiring these majestic animals was a circumstance deemed to be a sign of the times. The real problem – ownership’s determinable and apparent mismanagement of marketing, concessions, promotions, financial expectations/pricing and, to some degree, production – has lead to the downfall of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. You cannot resolve any of these issues by selling a bag of cotton candy for $15.
Does it cost a lot of money to produce shows like this? Yes, of course it does. But I have a number of never-to-be answered questions about what really went on at Feld Entertainment and how this detrimental decision was made. For an American icon such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to face closure so abruptly after 146 years with no visible attempt to “fix” whatever the problems really are makes me, and others, wonder just what the truth is. An attempt to save this American institution might have included a public offering to sell the show; or combining the two units; or creating a more traditional circus with fewer high tech tricks; or merely cutting expenses overall. If any of this was done, we, the public, saw none of it. The performers and crew saw none of it. Blindsided we were; every one of us.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. But it should.
What Do People Really Want?
It is true that competition for the entertainment dollar has changed over the last several decades. But what people want in exchange for those hard-earned dollars hasn't changed; we all want good value for the ticket price. And with today’s skyrocketing ticket prices, that is a well-deserved expectation.
The faces of Feld Entertainment are telling us that people everywhere want the gadgetry and gizmos of today’s advanced technological world and because of that, the company must stay “modern.” Out Of This World exemplified this ideology; the show was truly awesome yet very different. The reviews indicated that some people loved the changes but others did not and certainly, you cannot be all things to all people. However, for the circus ownership to have assumed that all people want “modern” and highly-technical (and, arguably, overproduced) shows of this magnitude was -- and still is -- a mistake. Yet, that’s what Feld Entertainment decided, opting to focus their money and energies on shows that more reflect that opinion. Fair enough ... it is your money. Still, why did you NOT find a way to SAVE THE CIRCUS? Find a way to keep hundreds of employees from losing more than just their jobs, but their livelihoods? Find a way to restore this 146 year old name and circus tradition? People are asking these questions and so am I.
Honestly, as hard as it it NOT to do that, I don't want to attack anyone personally. Enterprises must make money and if the business model is failing, you do have to change the overall concept. The Felds decided that all people everywhere want high tech wizardry, flashing lights, smoke and mirrors. Ironically, they did not come to this conclusion at the end of the Dragons and Legends tours or before Out Of This World went into production.
But now, instead, they blame the smaller audiences solely on the retirement of the elephants.
Um, no, that’s not all there is to it. And I’m sure there is more that no one really wants to come clean about. That, too, does not really matter. Still, where is the media spin? Buried under a pile of elephant manure.
But again, where were the attempts to fix the problems? More importantly, is it really, truly too late? Yes. Now, it's done. They weren't fooling. The bottom line is, Feld Entertainment didn't fix it and didn't sell it. If there were any attempts to do either, no one knows about them. What the late Irvin Feld brought back to life in the 1960s was thrown under the bus (train?) in 2017 by his son and grandchildren. Dreams be damned. Tradition be damned. Circus be damned.
Marketing and Promotions
One of the biggest problems with this show (and it’s not just my opinion) was the lack of proper marketing and promotion.
For example, on the Ringling Bros. website, there was a list of performances for each of the Red and Blue unit shows. This list was different from what I found on TicketMaster, which had omitted shows (OOTW performed in Philly? Who knew!) The show listings were also different from what was on the RBBB Facebook page which, as of this writing, had both units playing at the same venue in Georgia on the same dates and times. Not a good thing and why is this important? Because Feld Entertainment decided that the internet and social media are major and primary sources for promoting and marketing. The internet is, indeed, a great source for information ... but only if someone knows to look for it.
What a mess it was. Seriously.
How were people in any city, anywhere expected to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus if they did not know that it was coming to town?
In addition to being a journalist, I have experience in public relations, promotions and some marketing. So, given that, I ask these questions:
Could the fact that ticket sales were declining have anything to do with:
- Limited numbers of “outside” advertisements, or none at all? By “outside,” I mean those opportunities beyond social media or the internet which include billboards, radio, print, and newspaper advertisements, posters, fliers, e-blasts and the like. In my area, I didn’t see anything beyond an email from the venue where the show was to take place, and only because I’m on their mailing list. How can people plan to attend an event that they know nothing about? To be fair, perhaps the show did have some type of non-computer oriented advertisement but if so, it wasn’t showing up in my world. Subsequently, it was NOT advertised on any of the social media pages I engage on a daily basis.
- Not understanding your audience? Contrary to what the production and marketing teams at Feld Entertainment think, not everyone under the age of 30 is glued to their social media accounts and cell phones all day. Influences do indeed come from everywhere. Disregarding the “grandparent generation” is a serious mistake ... as is assuming that “children of all ages” have short attention spans. Millennials, teens and children DO have interest in things that don’t involve flat screens, data plans and text keyboards. With a good and open-minded production and marketing team, any show can reflect that ideology.
- Weekend promotions; nice, but not enough to rely on. The circus is in town and the local TV stations want to do a segment. The listing finally hits a newspaper’s weekend events column. Circus-lovers will enjoy those clips – perhaps they'll buy tickets to the show – but you cannot depend on a 2-3 minute media story or a last-minute news item to fill the house for that evening or the next few days.
Focusing on one kind of marketing plan does not work for an entertainment business that reaches audiences from age one to 90 and beyond. It is more than just "too bad" that Feld Entertainment didn’t come to that conclusion before they decided to put these family shows out to pasture. It is, indeed, detrimental. One Size does NOT fit all.
The Positive ... However ...
The social media and promotions clips that RBBB has shared with viewers are excellent. It is wonderful to see show pictures, video and interview segments with the performers. From the big cat trainers to the cannon lady to the aerialists, clowns, iconic ringmasters and more, the RBBB promotions team created excellent pieces in an attempt to bring audiences closer to the performers. Kudos to the photographers and production crew for these stunning pictures, graphics and videos.
So, then ...
Did these video clips lead people to access the Ringling Bros. website? Quite possibly. Did people sign up for email notifications? Yes, probably. Did these folks buy tickets to a show? Maybe.
The pictures and video are excellent but when it came to sharing them every couple of days on a few social media sites, it wasn't enough; that realization should have been apparent early on. This marketing plan was not, and could not be, sufficient to fill venues at every show in every city. The internet is a great marketing tool ... but it cannot be the only marketing tool.
What's that again about the elephants?
Entertainment is expensive these days; live shows are costly to produce. That’s a given and understandable for any show, anywhere. Tickets prices for Ringling shows varied in each city but the real problem is the fees that get attached to the purchases. For example, I bought two “premium” seats for the show in my area (which had special pricing because of the advanced notice I received from the venue), but with the fees for “purchasing convenience,” use-of-venue facility and tax, the amount added about $25 to the cost of these two seats. $25 in added-on fees for two tickets!!!
Imagine how this pricing schedule affects families; a venture that could turn into several hundreds of dollars for a two-hour show. Taking one’s family to the circus should not be financially destructive! No matter what the show is, it seems to be a reasonable expectation that producers, venues and ticket agencies come up with a formula that will work for them but not drive away potential customers. For families who want to attend the show, pay for parking, buy concessions and souvenirs, the cost of going to an event rivals making a car payment.
Can you really expect a full house this way?
Concessions and Souvenirs. Really???
Of course, we all expect concessions at shows and games to be rather expensive; you’ll pay more for simple things. No one says you have to buy any of it, but that’s hard to explain to children. Still, $12 for a cup of lemonade? Yes, it comes in a thin plastic souvenir cup. But $12? How many do you actually sell at that price? $12 for a box of popcorn! Small-scooped Sno-Cones come in souvenir mugs but the cost is prohibitive; it far outweighs the purchase value. Oh, and my favorite; the $15 dollar bag of cotton candy – complete with a flimsy, colorful top hat souvenir. (I wanted to buy some cotton candy when we got there; after all, it was the circus! $6 or $7? A bit pricey for spun sugar but I’m good with that. However, the show’s concessionaires did not offer that option. It was $15 to which we said ‘no’).
The vendors did not have large print, easy-to-read prices on their uniforms; the prices were printed in tiny fonts on tags that were hidden behind the items for sale. At the show we attended, I saw a lot of other people saying ‘no.’ Perhaps if Ringling Bros. had offered fair and competitive pricing options, they would have sold more items – more sales is a plus, yes?
This type of price-gouging is not limited to the circus, that’s true. Still, the producers at Feld Entertainment should have known that they could not resolve their financial issues by selling cotton candy for $15.
The costs for souvenirs vary; some were fairly priced but others, not so much. For example, children tend to gravitate toward those plastic light-up wands and as such, the show charged a lot of money for each of them. Can families actually can spend more than $100 on souvenirs? Maybe yes – but probably not. So, what happens, then? Parents also say ‘no.’ They say 'no' to everything.
High-end production costs money; amounts are in the millions of dollars. Building special props, creating and rehearsing new acts, utilizing advanced technological resources ... it all adds up to what will hopefully be an awe-inspiring and financially successful production. Feld Entertainment knew all of this during the planning stages for its shows that came to fruition the last several tours. They knew this for the recent shows; Circus Xtreme and Out Of This World.
And yes, these presentations were awesome.
How can Feld Entertainment, or any business, expect to make a profit by cutting the shows off more than a year prematurely? Even if there was no chance to change the outcome, wouldn’t it have made sense to play out the full season and promote another year as the finale, so that people all over the country can come out to see the final edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus?
The show has closed and the reason is simple, she said sarcastically. Blame everything on the elephants.
A couple of my thoughts on Out Of This World
Most elements of this show were amazing. Ice skating on stilts -- wow! The opening aerials, Big Cat presentation, Cossack riders, acrobatics, trapeze; that was circus! If this show was produced under a different kind of branding for Feld Entertainment (and marketed appropriately), it may have done very well. The problem was ... they called it "circus." They tried to convince people that this is what circus is, or should now be but there were too many forces against that concept. This show could have been part of the Feld Entertainment presentations that they currently have in their stable. The problem was, in my opinion, that they put the Ringling brand on it -- that was a huge mistake. As good as elements of this show were, the entire production was not what people want to hold onto as "circus." Sure, not having elephants kept some people away but that is exactly the reason to make the rest of the show a more traditional draw. Hindsight is, indeed, 20/20.
It's done; it is now too late for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Feld Entertainment wanted to keep the name and marketing rights and they will push for more profits on those. It's business, of course -- that's what you do. But the body wasn't even cold when, before the last presentation of Out Of This World (which was broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube), the Ringling Bros. media team began the pre-sale push to sell commemorative t-shirts ($35).
Not for me. I must now say Rest in Peace; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
And, sorry, no "Monster Jam" or Marvel comic stuff for me; thanks anyway.
But -- yes -- thank you, Feld Entertainment. We loved our circus. Who knows, maybe you'll find a way to bring it back to life. Because ...
There are so many of us that want traditional circus and it will continue to thrive in America. Circus shows are traveling the country right now -- albeit on a smaller scale -- but they are affordable and entertaining. Although Feld Entertainment seems to think that circuses are "old news" and cannot hold their own against highly-produced "modern" extravaganzas, people still do want to experience this form of family entertainment. America came to the Ringling circus and we will continue to support the smaller shows. Why? Because we want -- and love -- circus. It's that simple.
So, sure, who really knows ... maybe a future Feld generation will think circus is "cool" again. Irvin loved this sector of show business, that's for sure. There was a time when his son Kenneth did too -- It was business, but it was circus. Kenneth Feld has turned over the reins to his family business to his children. Although the Feld girls grew up with the circus, it would seem that they never truly buried themselves in sawdust.
If the Feld name is to continue its attachment to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, perhaps Irvin's great grandchildren will read the stories, look at the pictures and video, and want to bring back the glory days of the Greatest Show on Earth.
Hey, it could happen. There's a little 'PT Barnum' in all of us ...
Thank you to my friends who’ve suggested that I write this editorial; you know who you are.
And as always, May All Your Days Be Circus Days.
© 2017 Teri Silver