SBJ/July 16-22, 2012/Opinion

How teams can best manage season-ticket-holder relocation

Kevin Shulman is not entirely happy about MetLife Stadium.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Shulman has been a New York Jets season-ticket holder for almost half a century — an “original sinner,” as he told me. He and his family had seven seats in rows 3 and 4 at the Meadowlands, just behind the Jets’ bench.

When the new Jets stadium came along, Shulman says, “For 46 years of loyalty, I got a gun put to my head.”

Shulman was paying $125 per game for each of his seats before the new construction project was completed. The new price tag for MetLife Stadium? Seven personal seat licenses at $35,000 each, game tickets at $350 each, and instead of being in the third row from the field, his seats are now nine rows from the top of the lower bowl. “Every single game I go to, I resent it,” Shulman says.

Ouch.

For those who are building new stadiums, the danger of alienating longtime supporters is one of the most delicate situations to address. How can teams best deal with the imminent displacement of many of their best fans when a new stadium is built?

RELOCATION ADVICE

Market research: Teams must be sure they understand what they should be charging relative to the market and to others with similar situations and venues.

Communication strategy: Current supporters should be the first to know about new developments, new opportunities. Teams must over-communicate through multiple channels (email, online, snail mail, phone calls).

Human touch: Fans want personalized treatment, especially if they’re feeling displaced. Proactive, one-on-one interaction is critical.
 
The right people: From the sales staff to the customer service staff and support roles, train them well, and cross-train on operations, service, and sales so that each one can field questions and act when necessary.

Lead time: The displaced season-ticket holder can’t feel rushed or bullied; give that person information and space to make an informed decision, with enough lead time to give everyone the same courtesy.

“There is no perfect solution,” says Rob Sullivan, senior vice president of consumer and premium sales and service for the Jets. Their 18-month process started in February of 2009, with a 30-page glossy “playbook” sent to each season-ticket holder — a good initial move, especially for older, more-traditional fans.

“It was a lot of information to give them at one time,” says Sullivan in hindsight. “It was a good piece, but it had so much in it, it was overwhelming to some.”

A website component was also created, using Ballena technology to allow people to view the seats’ sight lines. Season-ticket holders could either buy their seats over the phone or were invited to visit a special preview center at the construction site.

About one in four chose to visit the site, but Sullivan says they underestimated the time fans would need to decide. “We had planned for 30 minutes each, but it took closer to 45 to 60. People had lots of questions, and we didn’t want to rush them.”

To help fans understand the new PSL concept, Sullivan made sure the sales staff was well-trained in sales techniques as well as the details of the new stadium and the improved game-day experience the PSLs would ultimately provide.

It’s easy to criticize after the fact, but overall, the Jets did a good job of communicating with their longtime supporters to help ease the pain of change. The reality is that passionate fans will often skew the best efforts of any team to clearly communicate, choosing instead to hear what they want to hear.

The San Francisco 49ers are trying to avoid that perception, as they move from Candlestick Park to a new venue in nearby Santa Clara in 2014. Jamie Brandt, vice president of ticketing and suites for the 49ers, has been involved in similar projects at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in 1998 and University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006.

“Right or wrong, PSLs have had a bad rap ever since they were introduced in the mid-’90s,” says Brandt. “The key to the transition is communication: Give the fans an honest view of the situation, communicate the benefits, and make each season-ticket holder feel special in the process.”

The Niners call their product a stadium builders license instead of a personal seat license — a good idea, adding to the perceived transparency to fans of what the money is for. The No. 1 communication tool they’re using is the official website dedicated to the project (www.NewSantaClaraStadium.com), along with emails, personalized letters and telephone calls.

Dynamo fans hungry for a new stadium didn’t complain about price increases or seat relocation.
Photo by: DON MURET / STAFF
Passions are bound to run high in football, the nation’s No. 1 sport in fan avidity and cost per event, but is it easier to relocate fans of other sports? The answer appears to be yes — especially if you don’t have to sell a seat license.

The Houston Dynamo unveiled its new, privately funded BBVA Compass Stadium in May without requiring fans to buy seat licenses. “We didn’t hear any complaints about price increases or being displaced,” says Steven Powell, the Dynamo’s executive vice president of business development.

The franchise had been playing at Robertson Stadium on the campus of the University of Houston since its move from San Jose in December of 2005, and fans were hungry for a new facility. Indeed, the Dynamo’s inventory of 1,100 seats was sold out from marketing only to its current season-ticket-holder base.

The Dynamo was also dedicated to over-communication. The team partnered with IOMedia to construct a virtual online venue (houstondynamo.io-media.com), and through a strong positive sales effort, according to Powell, the Dynamo was expected to have 12,000 season tickets sold when the team played its first match at its new home, more than double its prior season-ticket-holder count.

The bottom line? A new stadium is a once-in-a-lifetime event for a fan, and passions are bound to run high, both positively and negatively. Start early, be transparent, train staff well, and communicate often to your best supporters, and most every fan-transition challenge can be minimized.

Bill Guertin (bill@The800PoundGorilla.com) is CEO of Stadium Gorilla, a professional sports ticket sales training and consulting company.

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