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Experts: Sports fans win in post-COVID ticketing

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC Has broken few industries more devastated than the ticketing business, but fans will benefit most when the full crowd is allowed to return to the stadiums and arenas.

After decades of soaring prices, skyrocketing fees, and unforgiving refund and exchange policies, teams are re-evaluating prices, adding new types of ticket packages, and accelerating the transition to mobile ticketing and a cashless experience in stadiums and stadiums. And the biggest online marketplaces are updating their refund and exchange policies, saying they won’t pass their pandemic problems on to fans through higher fees.

“A lot of people are trying to figure out how to turn the machine back on,” an experienced broker, Matt Dewire of Valhalla Tickets in Ohio, told ESPN. “Come to hell or flood, everyone has to be on the same side. We have to have the fans back.”

Frustrated fans and even some people in the ticketing industry feel that changes were long overdue.

“The ticketing was broken,” said Gary Adler, executive director of the National Association of Ticket Brokers. “It’s been a really bad and ugly situation for consumers. I hope if we come out of it there will be a return to the customer.”

Most experts agree that April will be a critical month. In normal years, it’s the month fans grab seats for the Final Four, the NBA and NHL postseason, the Masters, and the start of the MLB season.

“April is a D-Day moment for many companies,” said Maureen Andersen, executive director of INTIX, the International Ticketing Association. “You need to be able to have fans in the stadium by April.”

More than four dozen industry experts interviewed by ESPN or recently speaking at an INTIX virtual conference agree that the ticketing world will be different – and, for the most part, better – for fans.

Here are five ways the experience has changed when the fans return:

1. Lower prices and more freebies

Many experts watched and learned from the NFL’s experiment with limited spectators at games last season, including teams that struggled to sell their pandemic-limited seating on their own.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars were the only teams with fans that were in from Week 1.

“We wrote the story ourselves because there weren’t any best cases to learn from,” said Chad Johnson, Jags senior vice president of sales, to ESPN. “We haven’t sold out every game of our limited number of tickets.”

The Jags had an average of 15,919 fans per game during their 1-15 season, about 85% of the 18,703 fans admitted during the pandemic. This is based on figures provided by the ESPN team. Johnson said part of the challenge is that like other teams, the Jaguars were selling seats in “pods” that couldn’t be split due to health rules, and fans who usually bought more seats for small groups only bought two or four.

Even winning teams struggled to sell reduced ticket quotas, according to multiple sources within the NFL and the resale market ESPN.

“When Kansas City opened, only 10,000 of the 16,000 tickets available were searched,” Andersen told ESPN. A Chiefs spokesman wrote in an email to ESPN that the team has a policy of not sharing sales, but did not deny Andersen’s comment.

Several experts said that while they expected some fans to stay home last year to avoid the virus, they now fear that demand will fall due to economic reasons. According to a fourth poll by the Pew Research Center in September, one in four adults in the US has lost a job as a result of the pandemic.

“The demand wasn’t there,” said Dave Wakeman, a ticketing and marketing consultant who works with a variety of teams. “All of these things come together and it is unrealistic to assume that nothing will change.”

Speaking at the ticketing conference, Orlando City SC vice president of ticketing, Chris Spano, said that while the MLS club’s pricing remained constant, “I haven’t spoken to any of my colleagues who said they were overwhelmed by the demand.”

Few teams want to talk about future pricing decisions, but an insider who attended private meetings with multiple teams said that pricing is causing real dismay this year. “Chris Spano is telling you the truth,” said the source. “They have to bring prices down, but no one wants to come out and say that. Pricing is perhaps the biggest challenge they have and their biggest concern. Getting the pricing right.”

While some of the most successful NFL teams of 2020, including the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have announced price increases for their season tickets for 2021, many experts shouldn’t expect most sports ticket prices to rise – a trend that has been breaking Years the dominated sports ticket. Expecting a sold-out stadium after hiring Urban Meyer as head coach and the No. 1 draft pick, the Jaguars promised subscribers not to raise prices if those fans extended their deposits for the 2020 season through 2021.

MLB’s San Francisco Giants gave their subscribers a 5% bonus for leaving their deposits with the team, said Russ Stanley, senior vice president of ticket sales and services for the team.

“We told customers we would freeze prices for 2021,” said Stanley. “Getting out of the pandemic is not the time to raise prices.”

Dewire, the broker in Ohio, expects teams to cut prices in their upper ranges, especially if they weren’t sold out before the pandemic. Patrick Ryan, co-founder of Eventellect, who works with college and professional teams to manage their ticket inventory, agreed. “I think there will be some teams using the pandemic as an excuse to re-evaluate some zones in their building,” he said.

“You can no longer force fans to buy the future tickets and rainy Tuesday games,” said Derek Palmer of Qcue, a software company that works with teams on their pricing strategies. “You need to be able to tailor packages for fans.”

Fans can expect to see more bundling offers for fewer games. Think of three-game or Saturday-only packages. Healthcare workers should be on the lookout for free tickets as the teams hold special thank you evenings when the games resume. The Giants’ Stanley said the new technology will make it easier for teams to offer special pricing directly to seniors and students – two of the most difficult groups to recruit.

Look for teams that are also accelerating some trends that have already started, such as: For example, general admission areas to compete with bars and your home, as well as trendy “box seating” made up of couches surrounded by televisions.

“That way, you have no problem watching a baseball game on a Monday night because you can watch football Monday night,” said Cory Carbary, vice president of ticket sales for the Seattle Mariners.

Fans can also expect more perks, such as exclusive pre-game experiences (taking part in punch training or holding the flag during the national anthem), better food and drink vouchers, and limited edition collectibles.

Tony Knopp, whose company TicketManager helps companies manage large volumes of tickets with multiple teams, said companies should think beyond the next year or two. “So we’ve done a pretty terrible job in most markets,” Knopp told ESPN. “It’s too expensive for a family of four to go to a game. The teams may have to leave some money on the table because they have to get a next generation of fans into the building.”

Another ticketing veteran, Curtis Cheng of DTI Management, said teams also need to reflect on the growing reluctance to buy tickets well in advance.

“The reason it was so good for Ticketbroker and we worked for five years is because people didn’t buy subscriptions and didn’t want to commit,” Cheng said. “But I would buy a year in advance for the NFL game and then they would buy from me.

“Now nobody will buy tickets in October of last year,” he said. “How do teams solve this cash flow problem? That is the problem. They basically have to accept that they no longer generate 80% of their ticket sales with season tickets. They have to switch to a model where they generate more sales, but not with season tickets. “


2. More flexibility with refunds and exchanges

The ticketing industry used to obey a cardinal law: “No refunds. No exchanges. All sales are final.”

But then Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus last March. In an email, Ticketmaster told ESPN that changes to 30,000 events would have to be processed within four weeks, “more than Ticketmaster had processed in the last 15 years”.

At StubHub, the numbers were even bigger: According to Akshay Khanna, StubHub’s general manager for North America, 40,000 events were canceled in the first month. “They rarely canceled events,” Khanna told ESPN in an interview. “As if an artist had a health problem or a strange game that was canceled due to a weather problem. March was unprecedented and difficult.”

Most teams offered fans a ticket refund or the option to roll what they had already invested in 2021. Teams with personal seat licenses, including the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears, told ESPN that they had refunded, deferred, or credited season ticket accounts through 2021 while protecting seat selections.

Ticketmaster has long had a policy of only offering refunds for canceled events, so fans have little recourse if an event is postponed. The company changed course during the pandemic, with each event organizer determining whether to issue refunds or credits.

“The vast majority of our customers have allowed refund windows with over $ 2 billion in refunds already processed for these reprocessed events,” Ticketmaster said in its email.

However, the situation was more difficult at resale locations like StubHub and Vivid Seats, ESPN’s secondary market ticketing partner. In an interview, Stan Chia, CEO of Vivid, stated that the companies are simply connecting buyers and sellers and only keeping the fees they charge.

“There’s a big misconception that we’re holding onto all of that money,” said Chia.

Prior to the pandemic, most resale websites would send the seller, often a broker, a check or wire transfer as soon as the buyer received the ticket, several insiders told ESPN. If a game was canceled or rainy, the sites did not reclaim money from the sellers, but rather deducted the cost from future sales.

But when the coronavirus hit, there were no more future sales. With millions of fans asking for refunds, most of the major websites have changed their policies, requiring brokers to return all or part of the money received. At the same time, the resale websites announced that they would only pay for events after they were held. That meant brokers weren’t getting paid for tickets they’d been selling for at least a year, and in some cases maybe years.

The brokers are still upset, of course, but the change made it possible for the sites to offer refunds. According to Chia, Vivid has decided to offer its buyers two options: a cash refund or a voucher worth 110% of the value for a future event. Another 10% goes to the non-profit MusiCares. “Over half of our customers were actually happy to take advantage of our loan option,” he said.

StubHub initially announced to fans that they would receive a voucher worth 120% of the original ticket price on future orders, but changed the policy to state that “the buyer’s billing address or event is in one of 14 states with consumer refunds “. Fans could get a cash refund if they ask for it.

“You can’t just force people to take out a 120% loan. You have to repay people’s money,” said ticketing advisor Wakeman.

Many of the ticket resale websites, as well as other reservation-based companies, from hotels to airlines, are currently facing litigation over their refund policies.

The new refund practices have also stamped out nightly goings-on that hit the news for ripping off fans. “Anyone who had a credit card and a computer called themselves a broker before the pandemic,” said Adler, of NATB, who represents 200 professional resellers. “I believe these people will be drastically reduced.”

According to Adler, NATB brokers offer their customers a 200% cash refund if the reseller does not provide a guaranteed ticket for an event that is taking place. If an event is canceled, the price of the ticket will be refunded in cash.

Adler added that most NATB resellers will work with the customer when a customer wants credit for a future sale. “We have had very few problems because our resellers want to work with their buyers,” he said.

All of these refunds have fundamentally changed the industry, according to INTIX’s Andersen. “We spent 10 months saying yes and giving people their money back, which means we can no longer say, ‘No exchanges. No refunds. All sales are final.'”

This was one of the most discussed topics at the ticketing conference. Many said teams and events would have to change their exchange policies in order to get fans back. The big question was how.

Several insiders pointed to two teams – the Seattle Mariners and the Orlando Magic – who have started to figure this out with what they called ESPN as some of the most innovative and creative ticket exchanges.

The Mariners no longer even call them season tickets, but instead offer “reserved” and “flexible” memberships. Reserved plans work similarly to traditional season tickets, with the added option of allowing members to return tickets that they cannot use. The new Flex plan works like a Starbucks card or a health account. Fans can pre-load $ 600 or more to purchase different seats in different locations at a discounted rate throughout the season if they choose. The more fans charge their membership, the greater the discounts they receive on these tickets, groceries, and goods.

The Flex system is proving to be especially helpful during the pandemic as the team is trying to plan a season without knowing how many fans will actually be able to attend this year. “We had a 92% rollover rate,” said Carbary of the Mariners. “The nice thing about the program is that the flexibility that comes with it makes it much easier to adjust to the pandemic.”

In Orlando, the Magic still sell traditional season tickets, but members receive a special benefit called “Magic Money”. If a fan can’t use two tickets with a face value of, say, $ 100, they’ll receive $ 200 in Magic Money that goes towards upgraded seating, groceries, merchandise, and memorabilia like a signed Shaquille O’Neal t-shirt and Access can be used to exclusive suites and vacation packages and special experiences like an interview after the game.

Before the pandemic, Magic also introduced a “seatless season ticket”, the Fast Break Pass. Fans are guaranteed a seat, but they won’t find out until they enter the arena where that seat is located. “You may be deep down and next game you will be in the top bowl,” said sales manager Michael Forde. “It allows us to get a customer for a relatively cheap price, knowing that they won’t be playing every game.”

However, the pandemic forced the team to temporarily suspend the Fast Break Pass and Magic Money. Instead, a “Flex Bank” was created, similar to the Mariners’ Flex membership. It’s so popular that Forde said there was a good chance the team would keep the flex-bench option.

Stanley, with the San Francisco Giants, said he expected the pandemic will cause most, if not all, MLB teams to introduce a flexible ticket option this year. “We’re all going to do it this year. We’ll see if it works and if customers like it,” he said.

The leagues watch out for these new ideas. “The pandemic is accelerating where we’ve moved, this idea where there’s some degree of flexibility,” said an MLB source. “If you bought a ticket for Tuesday but want to switch to a Thursday, we want to be flexible with that.”

Even NFL teams that have far fewer games to sell pay attention to these experiments, knowing that fans may expect flexibility.

“We’re not under the same pressure in Jacksonville because we don’t have an NHL, MLB or NBA team,” said Jaguars’ Johnson. “But if you live in Florida and it’s now part of your normal buying habit, you may want that from the other teams that support you.”

Now that the door is broken open, fans will keep pushing, Andersen said. “It will take a generation to get past it,” she said. “But it’s good for the fans. It’s driven by the fans.”


3. Farewell to cash and paper tickets

One of the most tangible changes fans will see when they return to the Games is the almost complete disappearance of cash and paper tickets.

“From the minute you park to leave the stadium, you can do whatever you need on the phone,” said Jeff Rubin, CEO of SIDEARM Sports, during the conference.

Many venues wanted to move in this direction before COVID, but digitization had two major hurdles: technology and the unwillingness or inability of fans to use it. The pandemic has accelerated solutions for both. Over the past year, people of all ages have become more 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 was a crazy roller coaster ride,” said Michal Lorenc from Google’s Ticketing & Live Events department at the conference. “We have really seen 10 years of innovation in 10 months.”

Fans can expect the changes to begin in the parking lot, where they will soon feature a phone with a QR code or sticker with radio frequency technology. “Parking has innovated more in the past two years than it has been in the last 100 years,” said Chris Elliston, ParkHub senior vice president, at the conference.

According to Elliston, the Miami Dolphins have already started using a digital “paid pass”, with an adoption rate of 25% among their customers this year. He explained that data sent back from these devices can tell teams how often fans use their spots and how early they come to games. “If we know the average fan arrives two hours in advance, we can put $ 10 in their mobile wallet to motivate them to get to the stadium a little earlier,” he said.

Fans will also use their cell phones to scan their way through a turnstile, order food and purchase goods. At the same time, the phone sends data back to the team about fan movements and spending habits.

“We think of your phone as a remote control for the arena,” said the Magic’s Forde. “To be honest, the data is the advantage for us. It gives me an insight into who is in my building.”

He explained the tricky balance between delivering customer satisfaction and avoiding “the creepy factor of overdoing it.”

“You want to surprise and delight,” said Forde. “Building a business model that relies on a 24-year-old taking a free throw if you think about it is a bad business model. I can’t control whether we win or lose or if he takes the shot. But I can control the customer experience Taxes. “

Until the pandemic completely ends, expect technology to be used to track the health of fans. The Magic is among the teams that have signed up with biometrics company CLEAR to help fans complete a health questionnaire before participating in games. Fans with tickets within 30 feet of the pitch are also required to provide the app with a coronavirus test result. The teams cannot see the health data of the fans, only a red or green screen shows whether a fan is allowed to participate.

Speaking at the ticketing conference, Drew Martin, Executive Senior Associate Athletic Director at the University of Texas, said the Longhorns had hoped to move to a cashless system within the next five years, but security concerns this year had sped those efforts. “We tore the pavement off,” he said. “It was a big paradigm shift.”

The cashless trend has raised concerns about discrimination against those who do not have access to credit cards or who do not have digital devices. Some cities, including New York City and San Francisco, have banned cashless businesses after studies found that around one in ten New York residents, for example, does not have a bank account.

To address those concerns, Martin said an Austin credit union installed cash-to-card kiosks at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium last year where fans can exchange cash for physical cards that can be used for groceries or Goods can be used.

The Atlanta Braves are also moving towards a more mobile experience, but at the conference, ticketing operations team vice president Anthony Esposito said sporting events will never be entirely paperless.

“We’re not naive,” said Esposito. “There will always be people who don’t own a smartphone or who can’t buy it on a mobile device. There will always be printed tickets, but they’ll get smaller and smaller over time.”


4. Goodbye to bots

Bots have long been the scourge of the ticketing business, black eyes the entire industry when a high profile event sold out in seconds, only to magically make the same tickets appear on reseller websites at higher prices a few minutes later.

Ticket bots, a theme for sports and concert venues, became a problem in 2015 after it became almost impossible to take part in the Broadway hit “Hamilton” without paying astronomical prices. In 2016, Congress passed the BOTS law banning software. At the time, it was hailed as a long-needed solution to ticketing problems.

But then … nothing.

Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department never enforced the BOTS law, despite numerous complaints. Two days after President Joe Biden took office, the DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission announced first enforcement and $ 31.5 million fines on companies who used software to purchase and flip thousands of tickets.

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

Just In Time Tickets generated more than $ 8.6 million in revenue by flipping the tickets, according to the complaint. Kohanian did not respond to ESPN’s request for comment. The Justice Department agreed to suspend the fine up to $ 1.6 million if he stopped using ticket bots, hiding IP addresses, or buying tickets on someone else’s behalf.

“My gut reaction was that they fired the starting pistol at the biggest change in tickets,” said Ken Lowson of TixFan. “We’re seeing a fan renaissance in ticketing.”

Lowson has spent the past few years uncovering the secrets of the bot business after pleading guilty to wire fraud charges in a 2010 federal investigation by his former ticketing firm.

Lowson expects the government to crack down on more companies, leading brokers to turn to an army of “pullers,” who are actually people buying the limit on tickets allowed.

He’s so sure he’s right. Lowson created a website during the pandemic to connect gig economy pullers to brokers.

“We’re going to collect fans and let them draw tickets and they can get a commission while we teach them all the tricks so they can learn how to get tickets for themselves,” said Lowson.


5. No expected fee increases on major reseller marketplaces

Three of the largest marketplaces for ticket resellers, StubHub, Ticketmaster and Vivid, told ESPN that they have no plans to charge buyer fees to offset their coronavirus losses.

“Ticketmaster has no plans to increase our share of the fees due to the pandemic,” the company said in an email. “Ultimately, the majority of the fees are determined by the venues and the organizer, but we are also not aware of any significant change in their share of fees.”

“I don’t see a world where we’re going to say, ‘Because of the pandemic, we’re going to pass on fees.’ That’s not right, “said Vivids Chia. “We’ve built a business that allows us to compete. So no, I don’t see us charging fees.”

On ESPN analysis In 2018, Vivid and StubHub found that some major sporting events were charged up to 25% of the base ticket price, while Ticketmaster hit a maximum of 20%. Companies also charge sellers a fee that brokers often incorporate into the ticket price. All-in, a $ 100 face value ticket can suddenly cost more than $ 140.

When asked about fees, Chia said Vivid’s pricing is within industry standards. “I think it would be different if there were fees that were massively different,” he said.

Khanna told ESPN that StubHub took advantage of the slack in sales to overcome one of the major hurdles in ticketing: fans could buy tickets for more than one game in the same transaction.

“I believe we are the first ticket company to introduce a shopping cart transaction with multiple items,” said Khanna. “It was a complex and time-consuming process that we are incredibly proud of, and I think it will have a significant impact when we come back from a vaccine.”

Will fewer transactions result in lower fees for the fan? Khanna wouldn’t give a definitive answer.

“We’re still working on the fee structure,” he said. “Es gab sicherlich kein Gespräch darüber, dass wir die Probleme von 2020, um sie zu behandeln, im Jahr 2021 durch Gebühren an den Fan weitergeben werden.”

Tisha Thompson von ESPN ist unter erreichbar tisha.thompson@espn.com.

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