SBJ/20090907/SBJ In-Depth

Teams tackle tough ticket market

Kansas City Chiefs fans struggling with ticket payments can finance them on a team-issued credit card. Got a dirty windshield? Buffalo Bills boosters renewing season tickets online enjoy a free car wash. Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, claims the NFL’s first all-you-can-eat section. Jacksonville Jaguars supporters choose between a dozen ticket packages. The Oakland Raiders even subsidize the train to the game.

NFL teams, confronting the worst economy many have ever faced, unveiled a rush of new ticket sales initiatives this offseason that just 12 months ago would have been unthinkable in the country’s most popular sport.

According to a SportsBusiness Journal survey of the NFL’s 32 teams (see chart, page 25), only three — the Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans — did not try a new sales push or freeze ticket prices this offseason.

Giveaways, food discounts, flexible payment plans, once the domain of other sports burdened by longer seasons and less popular games, are now seeping into the NFL, whose regular season kicks off Thursday.

“In St. Louis, the days of rolling out the football and expecting to sell out are done, and maybe across the NFL as well,” said Kevin Demoff, the chief operating officer of the St. Louis Rams, which had two games blacked out last season and are struggling to sell out this season. “We are more aggressively pushing single-games seats. It is difficult for us in this economy. Coming off a 2-14 season, it is a double whammy. We have shaken off all the people who were tangential followers.”

The St. Louis Rams are among
the teams that froze ticket prices
and offered payment plans.

Teams failing to sell out within 72 hours of kickoff cannot televise the contest locally, a big hit for sponsors expecting that exposure, not to mention the loss to fans. Last year, blackouts afflicted only nine out of 256 games, but the percentage is sure to rise this season after the league informed owners last month that nearly two out of every five teams were struggling to sell out.

The NFL will never mimic the minor leagues with their well-worn staple of corny sales gimmickry, or even for that matter the NBA, MLB or NHL, whose teams have five to 10 times the number of home games to sell. But football is clearly moving away from its plain-vanilla sales culture.

The most popular response to the recession has been freezing or cutting ticket prices, with 22 NFL teams taking that measure, while another five largely kept prices flat but with some increases elsewhere in their stadiums. Only four teams — the Titans, Eagles, Ravens and Houston Texans — raised ticket prices across the board. The Dallas Cowboys opened a new stadium this year, so price comparisons are not relevant, in part because the club has been selling 2009 for several years.

Other popular approaches to the poor economy are group-ticket packages and flexible payments. Even teams like the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, which sold out easily, said they were more flexible with late payments.

“You have to understand the pain the consumer is going through outweighs whatever cash-flow issues you have from time to time,” said Joe Ellis, the Broncos’ chief operating officer.

The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints hired eLayaway, which manages payments, to allow fans to pay in increments as brief as weekly. Historically, teams require either lump-sum payments, or allowed two installments. The Chicago Bears became the final team this offseason to accept credit cards. “That got a voluminous response,” said George McCaskey, the club’s senior director of ticket operations.

Eight teams this offseason, for the first time in their history, staged town hall meetings or conference calls for season-ticket holders with coaches and executives.

“We are doing a variety of outreach initiatives where season-ticket holders feel a more passionate connection,” explained Mark Wilf, president of the Vikings, which held its state of the Vikings meeting at Minneapolis’ Municipal Theatre.

With every fan precious, no detail is too minor. At an Atlanta Falcons town hall meeting, a fan asked team owner Arthur Blank why the cannons that shoot T-shirts into the crowd can’t reach the Georgia Dome’s upper deck. So the team hired 16 game-day workers to throw out T-shirts in the upper deck.

The Vikings invited ticket holders to
a state of the team meeting and gave
them the opportunity to make
weekly payments.

On Feb. 18, 1,800 people went to a San Francisco 49ers town hall gathering featuring head coach Mike Singletary and Chief Operating Officer Andy Dolich. In another move, the team opened to fans an ESPN filming of a show featuring Jerry Rice, and 2,000 fans attended.

“For many years, as you know, the major marketing program here was to display another Super Bowl trophy,” Dolich said. Now, Dolich has added a 10-person ticket service group, which includes an office at Candlestick Park, and spearheaded renovations to the team’s stadium, including a hall of fame wing.

Another factor driving the teams is central oversight from the league, which created a team services group two years ago. Team executives in charge of tickets have met twice since last November to share best practices information.

“There has been a renewed emphasis in the last 12 to 18 months,” said Neil Glat, an NFL senior vice president who oversees team services. “I don’t know if it is the economy or just how the business is evolving.”

Part of what the teams are trying to accomplish, he added, is to move the business relationship with fans from one tied just to games into a 12-month-a-year endeavor.

Nevertheless, while NFL clubs are certainly trying more than ever, some still have not fully embraced the new world. Take food, for example. Packaging food with tickets is an obvious lure to penny-pinching fans.

“Tickets plus food is a very attractive package if you will in the current economic climate,” said Amy Trask, chief executive of the Raiders, which for the first time this season sold value tickets and created a program so season-ticket holders could earn points toward awards, including free food.

However, only three other teams surveyed by SportsBusiness Journal — the Arizona Cardinals, Lions and Jaguars — offered food discounts. Only six teams reported giving away free items to season-ticket holders for the first time this offseason. The Cleveland Browns employed a contest to give away prizes for renewing season-ticket accounts, while the Miami Dolphins are giving hand-held TV devices to their club-seat holders.

Just three teams — the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and Vikings — added customer service groups this offseason (the 49ers created their division at the start of the 2008 season). Other clubs beefed up fan communications through e-mail, social media and marketing.

As a show of thanks to season-ticket holders,
the Bears gave them special “STH” badges.

Some teams are responding with multigame packages. Many teams traditionally sold only season tickets, with limited inventory available for individual games. But even the New York Jets, surprisingly struggling to sell out, offered a half-season package for the first time, and just two weeks ago launched a viral video campaign to move remaining tickets. The video includes a contest whose winner will run out with the team before the Oct. 18 home game against the Bills.

The Jaguars doubled to a dozen the number of ticket packages they sell, though apparently to little avail as the club said all of its home games will endure blackouts. And the Cincinnati Bengals offered a four-game package, and brought back their two-game package, last sold in 2005.

“The four-game package does not seem to be getting a lot of traction; it is still a lot of money for people,” said Andrew Brown, the Bengals’ manager of ticket sales. “Other sports have had a lot more flexibility in discounting tickets and being more creative. Our teams are being forced to get into that now.”

Some executives worry the discounting and hyperaggressive selling hurts revenue.

“When focusing on blackouts, you are shorting yourself on revenues,” said the Rams’ Demoff. “If you are looking at group sales, you are not looking at the highest level of tickets. Some teams are discussing whether you should sell a group package of 1,000 at a group price, knowing it may hurt your revenue number.”

That is not just because individually those seats prorated are worth more, but to avoid a blackout, teams must sell these seats but do not have to move all the premium ones. Because club seats and suites do not count toward blackouts, Demoff argued teams scrambling to ensure local TV coverage focus sales pushes on low-end inventory at the expense of pricier ducats.

“Maybe this is the year,” Demoff concluded, “people don’t pay to avoid blackouts.”

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