Sports fans win in post-COVID ticketing

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMY has devastated some sectors more than the ticket sales sector, but it is the fans who benefit most when the stadiums and arenas are full again.

After decades of sky-high prices, sky-high fees and unforgiving refund and exchange policies, teams are rethinking prices, adding new types of ticket packages and accelerating the transition to mobile ticketing and cashless payments in stadiums and ballparks. And major online retailers are adjusting their refund and exchange policies, saying they won’t pass on their concerns about the pandemic to fans at the expense of higher costs.

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Many are trying to figure out how to get it back on track, veteran broker Matt Devier of Valhalla Tickets in Ohio told ESPN. Against all odds, everyone has to stick together. We need to win back the fans.

Frustrated fans and even some in the ticketing industry felt that a change was long overdue.

The notes were violated, said Gary Adler, executive director of the National Association of Note Brokers. The situation was really bad and unpleasant for consumers. I’m hoping that when we get out of here, we can get back to the customers.

Most experts agree that April will be a critical month. Normally, this is the month when fans watch the Final Four, the NBA and NHL, the Masters and the MLB season opener.

April is a critical time for many companies, said Maureen Andersen, executive director of INTIX, the international ticketing association. By April, fans should be able to get into the stadium.

More than four dozen industry experts interviewed by ESPN or speaking at the recent INTIX virtual conference agree that the ticketing world will be different – and in many ways better – for fans.

Here are five ways the experience will change when fans return:

1. Lower prices and more freebies

Many experts watched and learned from the NFL’s experiment with limiting the number of spectators at games last season, including teams that struggled to sell seats in the first place.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars are the only teams with fans in the first round.

We wrote the story ourselves because there was nothing better to learn than what Chad Johnson, the Jags’ senior vice president of sales, told ESPN. Our limited number of tickets have not sold out.

The Jaguars averaged 15,919 fans per game during the 1-15 season, about 85 percent of the 18,703 fans allowed during the pandemic, according to ESPN figures. Johnson said part of the problem was that the Jaguars, like other teams, were selling seats in pods that could not be shared because of health regulations, and fans who would normally buy more seats for smaller groups were only buying two or four seats.

The Jaguars averaged 15,919 fans per game during the 1-15 season, about 85 percent of the 18,703 fans allowed during the pandemic, according to ESPN figures. David Rosenbloom/Sportswire Icon

Even winning teams are struggling to sell the reduced number of tickets, several sources in the NFL and the resale market told ESPN.

When Kansas City opened, only 10,000 of the 16,000 available tickets had been requested, Andersen told ESPN. A Chiefs spokesman wrote in an email to ESPN that the team has a policy of not sharing sales figures, but he did not dispute Andersen’s comment.

Several experts said they expected some fans to stay home last year to avoid the virus, but now fear demand will drop for economic reasons. According to a September survey by the Pew Research Center, one in four U.S. adults say they have lost their job or a family member has lost their job as a result of the pandemic.

The demand wasn’t there, said Dave Wakeman, a ticketing and marketing consultant who works with several teams. All these things are falling into place, and to assume that nothing will change is unrealistic.

At the ticket conference, Chris Spano, vice president of ticket sales for Orlando City SC, said that despite the MLS club’s stable prices, I have yet to speak to any colleague who said they were overwhelmed by demand.

Few teams want to talk about their future pricing decisions, but a ticketing insider who has attended meetings behind closed doors with several teams said this year’s prices are a shocker. Chris Spano is telling the truth, according to the source. They should lower prices, but no one will say so. Pricing is probably the biggest issue they face and the one they are most concerned about. The right pricing.

While some of the top 2020 NFL teams, including the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have announced price increases for their 2021 season tickets, many experts say fans should not expect price increases for most sports tickets, bucking a trend that has dominated sports ticket sales for years. The Jaguars, who expect to sell out after recruiting Urban Meyer as head coach and receiving the first pick in the draft, promised season ticket holders they would not raise prices if those fans transferred their deposits from the 2020 season to 2021.

The MLB’s San Francisco Giants gave season-ticket holders a 5 percent bonus if they left their dues with the team, said Russ Stanley, the team’s senior vice president of sales and ticketing services.

We told customers we would freeze prices for 2021, Stanley said. A pandemic is not the time to raise prices.

Dewire, an Ohio broker, expects teams to negotiate down prices in the higher sections, especially if they don’t sell out before the pandemic. Patrick Ryan, co-founder of Eventellect, which works with university and professional teams to manage ticket stock, agrees. I think some teams will use the pandemic as an excuse to tear down certain parts of their building, he said.

You can no longer force fans to buy future Rainy Tuesday tickets and games, said Derek Palmer of Qcue, a software company that works with teams on their pricing strategy. They should be able to accommodate the fan packs.

Fans can expect more deals for fewer games; consider packages for three games or for Saturday. Caregivers should look out for free tickets, as teams will host special thank-you parties when games resume. According to Stanley, the Giants’ new technology allows teams to offer special pricing directly to high school and college students, two of the most difficult groups to recruit.

Expect teams to also accelerate some trends that have already begun, such as B. common entrances that rival those of bars and your home, as well as trendy lounge areas with sofas surrounded by TVs.

So you have no problem coming to watch Monday Night Baseball, because you can also watch Monday Night Football, said Corey Carbari, vice president of ticket sales for the Seattle Mariners.

Fans can also expect additional benefits, such as. B. Exclusive experiences prior to the game (attending a baseball practice or holding the flag during the national anthem), vouchers for better food and drink, and limited edition collectibles.

Tony Knopp, whose company TicketManager helps companies manage large numbers of tickets with multiple teams, says companies should consider moving beyond the next year or two. In that area, we’ve done poorly in most markets, Knopp told ESPN. It’s too expensive for a family of four to go to a game. Teams may have to leave money on the table because they need to attract a new generation of fans to the building.

Another veteran in the ticketing field, Curtis Cheng of DTI Management, said teams should also take into account the growing reluctance to buy tickets much earlier.

The reason Ticketbroker was so successful and we had a five-year run is because people didn’t buy subscriptions and didn’t want to commit, Chang said. But I would buy a year in advance of an NFL game and they would buy me.

Now no one will buy tickets in October, he said. So how do teams solve this cash flow problem? That’s just it. In principle, they must accept that they will no longer receive 80% of their season ticket revenue. They need to move to a model where they get more revenue, but not through season tickets.

2. Increased flexibility for returns and exchanges

The ticketing industry used to follow cardinal laws: No refunds. No exchanges. All sales are final.

But then Rudy Gobert was tested for the coronavirus last March. In an email, Ticketmaster informed ESPN that it had to process changes for 30,000 events in four weeks, more than Ticketmaster has had to process in the past 15 years.

According to Akshay Khanna, StubHub’s general manager for North America, 40,000 events were cancelled in the first month. They rarely cancel events, Hannah said in an interview with ESPN. Like when the artist had a health problem or when some game was cancelled due to the weather. March was an unprecedented and difficult month.

Most teams have offered their fans ticket refunds or the option to return their existing investments through 2021. Teams with personal seat licenses, including the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears, told ESPN they have returned, postponed or credited season tickets through 2021 while protecting seat selection.

The world of ticketing has changed dramatically over the last 11 years. In March, when Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID before the Oklahoma City Jazz Thunder game, he was charged with a major loss. Zach Bicker/NBAE via Getty Images

Ticketmaster has long had a policy of only refunding cancelled events, leaving fans with little recourse if the event was rescheduled. During the pandemic, the company went in the opposite direction: The organizer of each event has decided to refund the money or issue credits.

The vast majority of our customers have consented to a refund. More than $2 billion in refunds have already been processed for these rescheduled events, Ticketmaster said in an email.

But the situation was more complicated for resale sites like StubHub and Vivid Seats, which is a partner for ESPN in selling tickets on the secondary market. In an interview, Stan Chia, CEO of Vivid, explained that the companies simply bring buyers and sellers together and only keep the fees they charge.

There is a misconception that we keep all this money, Mr Chia said.

Before the pandemic, most resale sites sent the seller, often through a broker, a check or wire transfer once the buyer received the ticket, multiple insiders told ESPN. If a game was cancelled or it rained, the sites did not ask sellers for a refund, but deducted the cost from future sales.

But when the coronavirus struck, that was the end of future sales. With millions of fans asking for refunds, most major sites have changed their policies and required agents to refund all or part of the money received. At the same time, resale sites have announced that they will no longer pay for events before they take place. This means that for at least a year, and in some cases for years, agents were not paid for tickets they had already sold.

Brokers are still disgruntled, of course, but the changes mean sites can now offer refunds. According to Chia Vivid, it has decided to offer its customers two options: a cash refund or a gift card worth 110% for a future event, with the remaining 10% going to the non-profit organization MusiCares. In fact, more than half of our customers were happy to take advantage of our credit option, he said.

Initially, StubHub told fans that they would receive a voucher for 120% of the original ticket price to use on future orders. However, the policy has been changed to allow fans to receive a cash refund upon request if the buyer’s payment address or event is in one of the 14 states with consumer refund laws.

You can’t force people to take 120% credit. They need to give people their money back, advisor Wakeman said.

Many ticket resale sites and other booking companies, from hotels to airlines, are now being sued over their refund policies.

The new refund practices will also ensure that there will be no more unfair promotions that end up in the newspapers for ripping off fans. Before the pandemic, anyone with a credit card and a computer could act as a broker, according to Adler NATB, which represents 200 professional resellers. I think there will be a drastic reduction in these people.

According to Adler, NATB’s intermediaries offer their customers a 200% refund if the reseller is unable to provide a guaranteed ticket for an event that is taking place. If the event is cancelled, they will refund the ticket price in cash.

However, Adler added that most NATB dealers will work with the customer if the customer prefers to receive credit for a future sale. We’ve had very few problems because our resellers want to work with their customers, he said.

According to INTIX’s Andersen, all these returns have fundamentally changed the industry. We spent 10 months saying yes and giving people their money back, which means we can’t talk about trading anymore. No refunds. All sales are final.

This was one of the most discussed topics at the ticket conference. Many have said that teams and events have had to change their trading policies to bring the fans back. The big question was how.

Several insiders have pointed to two teams, the Seattle Mariners and Orlando Magic, who have begun to take note of some of the most innovative and creative ticket exchanges, according to ESPN.

The Mariners don’t even call them season tickets, but offer reserved, flexible memberships. Reserved subscriptions work in the same way as traditional subscriptions, with the added ability for members to return tickets they can’t use. The new flex plan works like a Starbucks card or a savings account. Fans can deposit a dollar amount in advance, starting at $600, to purchase a variable number of seats at a discounted rate at various locations throughout the season, if they so choose. The more fans charge their membership, the more discounts they will receive on tickets, food and merchandise.

The flex system is especially useful in the event of a pandemic, as the team tries to plan the season without knowing how many fans will actually be able to show up this year. We had a renewal rate of 92%, Karbari Sailors said. The beauty of the program is that its flexibility makes it much easier to adapt to a pandemic.

The Orlando Magic still sell traditional season tickets, but participants get a special bonus called Magic Money. For example, if a fan can’t use two tickets with a face value of $100, he will receive $200 in magic money, which he can use to buy extra seats, food, merchandise and souvenirs, such as an autographed Shaquille O’Neal T-shirt, access to exclusive suites and vacation packages, and special experiences, such as attending a post-game interview.

Before the pandemic, the Magic also introduced a ticketless pass, the Fast Break Pass. Fans are guaranteed a seat, but they don’t know where it is until they enter the arena. You can be at the bottom of the ladder and the next game you’re at the top, said sales manager Michael Ford. This allows us to bring in a client at a time that is convenient for them, knowing that they will not be attending every game.

However, the pandemic forced the team to temporarily suspend the programs Fast Break and Magic Money. Instead, he created a flexible bench, much like the Mariners’ flexible roster. He’s proving so popular that Ford said there’s a good chance the team will keep a flexible bench option.

Stanley, along with the San Francisco Giants, said he expects the pandemic to prompt most, if not all, MLB teams to implement some kind of flexible ticketing option this year. We’re all going to do it this year. We’ll see if it works and if the customers like it, he said.

The leagues are listening to these new ideas. The pandemic is accelerating where we’re going, this idea where there’s a level of flexibility, said an MLB source. If they bought a ticket for Tuesday but want to change that to Thursday, we want to be flexible with that.

Even NFL teams that sell far fewer games pay attention to these experiences because they know fans can count on flexibility.

We don’t have the same pressure in Jacksonville because we don’t have an NHL, MLB or NBA, Johnson said of the Jaguars. But if you live in Florida and it has become a part of your buying habits, you can get it from other teams that support you.

Now that the door is open, fans will continue to push, Andersen said. It will take a generation to process this, she said. But it’s good for the fans. It’s fan-driven.

3. Goodbye cash and paper notes

One of the most tangible changes fans will notice when they return to the games is the virtual disappearance of cash and paper tickets.

Once they park and walk out of the stadium, the idea is that they can do what they need to do over the phone, Jeff Rubin, CEO of SIDEARM Sports, said during the conference call.

Many institutions wanted to move in this direction even before COVID, but the move to digital came up against two major hurdles: the technology and the reluctance or inability of fans to use it. The pandemic has accelerated both of these problems. Over the past year, people of all ages have become increasingly comfortable using mobile apps to buy everything from paper towels to fitness equipment, while the industry has had a year to improve the infrastructure that supports these apps.

It’s been a crazy roller coaster ride, said Michal Lorenc of Google’s Ticketing & Live Events division at the conference. We’ve really seen 10 years of innovation in 10 months.

Industry experts say the pandemic has accelerated the transition to cashless transactions and electronic notes. Kim Clement/US Sports

Fans can already expect the change in the parking lot, where they will soon introduce a phone with QR code or a sticker with radio frequency technology. Parking has seen more innovation in the last two years than in the last 100, Chris Elliston, senior vice president of ParkHub, said at the conference.

Elliston said the Miami Dolphins have already begun using the digital plan, which has been adopted by 25 percent of customers this year. He explained that the data sent by these devices can tell teams how often fans use their seats and when they come to games. If we know that the average fan arrives two hours early, we can put $10 in their mobile wallet to encourage them to get to the stadium a little earlier, he explained.

Fans will also be able to use their phones to go through the turnstiles, order food and buy merchandise. At the same time, the phone sends data back to the team about fans’ traffic and consumption habits.

We treat your phone like a remote control, Ford told Magic. The advantage for us is, of course, the data. This gives me an idea of who is in my building.

He explained the delicate balance between the client’s desire and the need not to overdo it.

They want to surprise and delight, Ford said. Building an economic model that depends on a 24-year-old making a free throw is, if you think about it, a bad economic model. I can’t determine if we win or lose or if he makes the shot. But I can check customer service.

Until the pandemic is completely over, some use of technology to monitor fan health should be counted on. The Magic are among the teams that have signed an agreement with biometrics company CLEAR to allow fans to fill out a health questionnaire before attending a game. Fans with tickets within 30 feet of the field must also submit coronavirus test results to the Court of Appeals. Teams cannot see fans’ health data, only a red or green screen indicating whether a fan can participate.

At the ticketing conference, Drew Martin, athletic director at the University of Texas, said the Longhorns hoped to move to cashless payments within five years, but that this year’s security problems have accelerated that effort. He said we wrecked the road. It was a major paradigm shift.

The trend away from cash raises concerns about discrimination against people who don’t have access to credit cards or digital devices. Some cities, including New York and San Francisco, have banned cashless transactions after studies showed that about one in 10 New Yorkers, for example, do not have a bank account.

According to Martin, the Austin-based credit union set up kiosks at Darrell C. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium last year with kiosks where fans can exchange cash for physical cards that they can use to buy food or merchandise.

The Atlanta Braves are also transitioning to a more mobile platform, but at the conference, Anthony Esposito, the team’s vice president of ticketing, said sporting events will never be completely paperless.

We’re not naive, Esposito said. There will always be people who do not own a smartphone or do not have the ability to make a purchase on a mobile device. There will always be printed notes, but over time there will be fewer and fewer of them.

4. Goodbye to bots

Bots have long been the bugbear of the ticketing industry. They disgrace the entire industry when a major event sells out within seconds, but those same tickets magically appear at higher prices on resale sites a few minutes later.

Ticket bots, a problem for sports and concert promoters, became a problem in 2015 after it became nearly impossible to attend the Broadway hit Hamilton without paying astronomical prices. In 2016, Congress passed the Software Ban Act. At the time, it was hailed as a welcome solution to the ticket problem.

But then… nothing.

Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department never enforced the BOTS, despite a large number of complaints. But two days after President Joe Biden was sworn in, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission announced the first application of the law and a $31.5 million fine against companies that used software to buy and trade thousands of tickets.

According to the government’s indictment, Evan Kohanian and his company Just In Time Tickets used bots and 12,500 different IP addresses and 450 different credit card accounts to illegally purchase more than 48,000 sports and concert tickets from Ticketmaster.

The pandemic has long-term implications for the entire tourism and entertainment industry, including the closure of historic and iconic sites such as the Lighthouse Theatre in New York. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Just In Time Tickets earned more than $8.6 million from ticket sales, according to the complaint. Cohanian did not respond to ESPN’s request for comment. The Justice Department agreed to suspend all but $1.6 million in fines on the condition that he stop using ticket bots, hiding IP addresses and buying tickets under someone else’s name.

My hunch was that they initiated the biggest ticket change, said Ken Lawson of TixFan. We are on the threshold of a fan renaissance in ticket sales.

Lawson has spent the past few years unraveling the mysteries of the bot industry after pleading guilty in 2010 to wire fraud in a federal investigation into his former ticketing company.

Lawson expects the government to crack down on more firms, which will drive brokers to an army of poolers, real people who buy notes with an allowed limit.

He is so convinced that during the pandemic, Lawson set up a website to connect huge economists with brokers.

We bring the fans together and ask them to buy tickets, and they can get commission while we teach them all the tricks so they can get tickets themselves, Lawson said.

5. The inability of major retailers to implement planned commission increases.

The three largest ticket exchanges – StubHub, Ticketmaster and Vivid – told ESPN that they have no plans to increase fees charged to customers to make up for losses caused by the Corona virus.

Ticketmaster has no plans to increase its share of fees because of the pandemic, it said in an email. Ultimately, most fees are set by the venues and the promoter, but we are not aware of any significant changes to their share of the fees.

I don’t see a world where we would say: Because of the pandemic, we’ll have to pay. That’s not true, says Chia of Vivid. We have built a business that allows us to be competitive. So no, I don’t see us raising rates.

A 2018 analysis by ESPN found that Vivid and StubHub were charging up to 25% of the base price of a ticket for some major sporting events, while Ticketmaster was charging 20% at its peak. The airlines also charge the sellers a fee, which the brokers often include in the price of the ticket. A $100 bill can suddenly cost more than $140.

Asked about pricing, Chia said Vivid’s prices are in line with industry standards. I think it would be different if there were very different rates, he said.

Hanna told ESPN that StubHub took advantage of the drop in sales to remove one of the biggest obstacles to ticket sales: Allows fans to purchase tickets for multiple matches in a single transaction.

I believe we are the first ticket company to introduce a multi-point trolley offering, Hannah said. It was a long and difficult process that we are incredibly proud of.

Does less trading mean lower commissions for the amateur? Khanna wouldn’t give a definitive answer.

We are still working on the rate structure, he said. Of course, there was no way we were going to pass on the problems of 2020 to the supporter of 2021 at the expense of training camp.

ESPN’s Tisha Thompson can be reached at [email protected]

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