SBJ/20090202/This Week's News
MLS ticket renewals bucking the economy
Published February 2, 2009
Less than two months before the start of the MLS season, the league’s clubs are reporting that ticket sales are keeping pace despite the economic downturn.
Business executives at 10 of the league’s 15 clubs who could be reached for comment reported that season-ticket renewals were flat or ahead of last year. Only the Houston Dynamo reported being behind compared with renewals at the same time in 2008, while several clubs reported being ahead, including the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake.
“We’re cautiously optimistic because I believe there will be a flight to value and we offer value,” said Jeff Plush, Rapids managing director. “That’s important in times like these.”
Like Major League Baseball, MLS will be one of the first leagues to have its gate revenue tested by the recession. The majority of ticket sales for the current NBA and NHL seasons were completed before the markets collapsed last fall.
Clubs’ ability to keep renewals flat so far hasn’t stopped them from looking for ways to add value to tickets in order to drum up new sales and retain season-ticket holders.
D.C. United, which averaged 19,835 fans last season, has an 82 percent renewal rate right now, slightly behind the same period last year, said Stephen Zack, executive vice president. As season-ticket holders decline to renew, the club plans to reach out to them on a game-by-game basis throughout the season to encourage them to buy individual tickets.
“We believe people who can’t afford season tickets are still fans and will want to attend games,” Zack said. “We’re hopeful that will help us get through this economic downturn.”
The New England Revolution, which sells a 20-game season-ticket package for $375 to $400, has increased its season-ticket base with new sales and is renewing at a 70 percent rate, said Chief Operating Officer Brian Bilello. To improve its value proposition, it has developed deferred payment plans for the first time and a formal ticket exchange policy that allows season-ticket holders to turn in tickets to a game they can’t attend in exchange for tickets for a game they can attend.
The San Jose Earthquakes are working the youth soccer ranks and the Hispanic community to unearth new season-ticket sales. The club is working with hundreds of youth soccer clubs to sell tickets in exchange for a percentage of the sales, and it partnered with local Hispanic grocery stores to have them sell season and group tickets, as well as a Mexico match to which the franchise is playing host.
The Chicago Fire’s effort to drive new ticket sales relies heavily on a $99 season ticket that gives fans general admission seating in the upper level of the stadium for 15 games. And the Los Angeles Galaxy has begun giving discounts to season-ticket holders who provide a lead for new season-ticket prospects.
Three MLS clubs are weathering the recession without any problems. Toronto FC, which sold out its first two seasons in MLS, renewed 95 percent of season-ticket holders by October and sold 5 percent of remaining inventory in December. Expansion franchise Seattle Sounders FC has sold more than 18,000 season tickets. Real Salt Lake, which opened its new stadium with just two games left last season, also is weathering the recession. The interest in its new stadium has put its renewal rate at 83 percent and new business ahead of last season, President Bill Manning said.
Executives at Chivas USA and FC Dallas didn’t return calls for comment. Spokespersons for the Kansas City Wizards and New York Red Bulls declined to comment.
“It’s harder now,” said Chris Canetti, Houston Dynamo chief operating officer. “I’m not sure if it’s an excuse or a reality, but what I’m sensing is people are doing less or waiting a lot longer to make a decision.”