SBJ/Jun 8-14, 2015/In Depth

Millennials put ticket strategies to test

Teams and leagues employ non-traditional tactics to target offers to younger consumers

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Amy Howe, Ticketmaster’s new chief operating officer, sees a common thread in all the major changes the ticketing giant is pursuing.

Between mobile ticketing, social media-based selling, increased in-venue engagement, seat upgrades, more powerful tools for event discovery, and last-minute offers, the millennial audience stands at the heart of all them.

“This audience presents huge implications for our entire product road map moving forward, and how we service our customers. It even influences our [merger-and-acquisition] strategy,” said Howe, formerly an executive with Ticketmaster parent company Live Nation.

“A lot of these things represent really big pivots from where we used to be as a company. This group of consumers is even more engaged in live events than their predecessors. But they have a very different set of needs and have exposed a crucial need on our part to find new ways to reach them.”

The Colorado Rockies use The Rooftop party deck at Coors Field to attract younger fans who often value the social gathering as much as the baseball game itself.
Photo by: Colorado Rockies
Ticketmaster, of course, is far from alone. The entire sports and entertainment industry is fervently trying to find ways to more deeply reach consumers now in their teens to mid-30s. Typically defined as the generation born between 1980 and 2000, the millennial generation is by far the most digitally connected and socially oriented group in history. The oldest portion of that demographic is just starting to approach their peak earning years and the youngest is nearing adulthood, presenting a huge opportunity for anyone in the business of selling a ticket. But they are also more demanding, are frequently taking less traditional career paths than prior generations, and are often less brand loyal.

For many teams, leagues and ticket sellers, the millennial audience represents a quarter to a third of their overall revenue base. But as baby boomers begin to die off, and Generation X ages, millennials will soon represent the majority of the industry’s target audience.

“This is a very valuable audience, and obviously the future of our business,” said Brendan Donohue, senior vice president of the NBA’s team marketing and business operations group. “But they consume content and consume live events differently. It’s a unique audience that requires some nontraditional tactics.”

Some of those newer efforts have included the Portland Trail Blazers’ Student Pass, a mobile-based program offering last-minute tickets to college students for as low as $10, and the Orlando Magic’s Fall Fast Break Pass, a promotion that packaged eight preseason and early regular-season games for a total of $49, but assigned the seats randomly minutes before each contest. Three other NBA teams — Atlanta, the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns — also this past season rolled out millennial-targeted, fluid seat programs on a trial basis that were powered by Experience, a dominant player in seat upgrade technology.

Similarly, MLBAM this spring has substantially reworked its in-venue mobile application Ballpark for the second time in two seasons, integrating elements such as ticketing, seat upgrades, loyalty programs and promotions. While not all specifically millennial based, the mobile ticketing elements cater heavily to that audience.

Several MLB teams are using the Ballpark app update to make youth-driven package offers. The Oakland A’s this week are scheduled to introduce a millennial-focused Ballpark Pass offer packaging all 13 of its July home games for a flat fee of $89. Like those basketball programs, the seats are not assigned until just before each game, with ticket holders receiving their seat locations and ticket bar codes on their mobile devices.

The Oakland promotion follows similar Ballpark Pass offers made earlier this season by several MLB clubs including the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves. The White Sox’s and Braves’ promotions each combined tickets to 21 early-season games for $49, representing a per-game price of just $2.33.

Millennials’ influence over the industry also is being seen in facility design through the marked increase in recent years in standing-room areas and other less conventional gathering areas. The Colorado Rockies’ popular Rooftop party deck, which opened last year featuring general admission tickets and a variety of craft beers and local food, is among the more successful recent examples. Those projects, either as newly built areas or renovations within existing buildings, has this demographic squarely in mind.

“If we expect this group to just go to a game, sit down and watch, we’re really missing the boat,” said Dave Butler, chief executive with Paciolan. The California-based ticketing company works with dozens of college athletic programs, each of which actively sells to its current students and recent alumni. “Our task as an industry is to create additional ways and forums to allow this audience increased social engagement.”

All about mobile

Any strategic ticketing plan to reach millennials, not surprisingly, begins with mobile and, depending on the team or property, may not stray at all from that. The smartphone is now such a pervasive source of information and commerce for the millennial audience that ignoring it represents professional suicide. Some companies such as Gametime have almost entirely oriented themselves around mobile-based ticketing for millennials (see story).

The ticketing industry was relatively slow to embrace mobile platforms, and overall fan adoption is estimated to still be in the low double-digit percentages with a tipping point beyond 50 percent still at least two years away. But for the younger demographic, the phone is everything. Ticketmaster estimates that 84 percent of its millennial audience searches for live event information on their phone, and 67 percent will make a purchase on the device, figures each far higher than the company’s nonmillennial audience. (see chart).



Goldstar, a discount channel for live entertainment, says 70 percent of its total traffic now comes from mobile platforms, twice the total from two years ago and up from a negligible amount five years ago.

“Any marketing strategy that doesn’t include mobile, and really have mobile at the heart of it, is going to leave a lot on the table,” said Jim McCarthy, Goldstar chief executive.

MLBAM has packaged its Ballpark mobile app so that the phone is at once a fan’s ticket, his access point to content such as in-game video highlights and facility wayfinding, and the storehouse for personal loyalty data. And much like Ticketmaster, the millennial audience is a nexus among many of MLBAM’s key initiatives over the past several years, including the installation of beacon technology, a comprehensive effort to improve wireless connectivity at ballparks, and its relationship with Experience to provide mobile-based seat upgrades.

“A lot of those other pieces also needed to be in place so it can be a much fuller overall fan experience than just digital ticketing,” said Mark Plutzer, MLBAM vice president of ticketing. “So much of this is interrelated.”

Secondary ticketing giant StubHub said its mobile-based sales grew 40 percent last year across all demographics, with millennials playing a key role in that growth. The company is targeting further growth this year in part through a new set of redesigned mobile apps that include greater personalization, event discovery features, and integrations with outside content and social media brands such as ESPN, Foursquare and Yelp.

“The millennial audience has really high expectations when it comes to mobile and the kinds of things you can do on mobile,” said Kate McGunigal, StubHub head of consumer insights. “But the flip side is that they’re really open.
They’re open to downloading an app and giving it a try. They’re open to considering an event they haven’t thought about that you might have sent an alert about.”

Price sensitivity

With the overall earning power of the millennial audience still relatively low, discounts are the order of the day.
Low-cost programs such as the ones offered by the Trail Blazers and Magic are rapidly being copied elsewhere.
And similar ones, such as the Boston Celtics’ Girls Night Out offer, add in credits for Uber rides or other amenities disproportionately popular with millennials.

Ticketmaster’s current data indicates that millennials spend on average 13 percent less for sports and 19 percent less for concerts than their nonmillennial counterparts.

The Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers are among the teams that have employed deeply discounted ticket offers to attract a generation early into its earning potential.
Beneath some of those surface-level indicators lie deeper, more impactful realities. The discounts, of course, are designed to build bonds with younger fans and pave the way for larger purchases in the future. But even now, Ticketmaster and others are actively targeting millennial fans they consider “influencers.” These are not celebrities or other traditional high-profile brand advocates. Rather, these are simply young, engaged consumers who typically serve as the ringleaders for their social groups and often handle many of the logistics for outings with their friends.

And where older consumers might buy a ticket for their spouse, children or a handful of work associates, a young influencer might pave the way for a group of five, 10 or even 20 friends to attend a game.

“Our programs where we’re trying to identify those millennial influencers represents a huge opportunity,” Howe said. “You find the right people, and you essentially get access to their entire broader social network, since they will typically attend with friends, tweet and post about it, and so forth. It’s a really big gateway.”

Furthermore, Ticketmaster has found this audience doesn’t care at all about the company’s past troubles, such as its highly debated purchase by Live Nation or its battles with rock band Pearl Jam in the 1990s. But if a ticket search doesn’t immediately generate attractive results, a millennial consumer is also much more likely to venture elsewhere to find what they want.

“The good news is that they’re completely unencumbered by the past. It’s all about finding the ticket they want right now,” Howe said. “But they’re also incredibly resilient, and if they don’t find what they want with us, they have no problem going elsewhere to look and keep trying. They’ve also grown up with Apple, Amazon, that really great one-click online purchasing experience once they do find what they want. And it’s the type of thing we have to deliver as well.”

Season-ticket purchases also have started to become more common with the millennial audience. Thanks to various promotions such as 12-month billing and other flexible payment plans, teams in numerous sports have made a season-ticket purchase possible for a younger fan.

“I don’t agree that the millennial fan is just buying cheap, last-minute tickets,” the NBA’s Donohue said. “We’ve seen a lot of customization in how offers are put together to get this demographic to embrace the membership route.
Something like $80 a month, sometimes even less, can make you a season-ticket holder, and those kind of offers have been well-received.”

Price sensitivity, however, can also exist on the team side of the ticket sales process. While targeting millennials with discounts and package deals such as the Ballpark Pass program can be effective, clubs must ensure they are not undercutting other more traditional sales channels. It’s a similar thought process as dynamic pricing where many teams do not lower single-game prices through that technology below existing season-ticket rates.

“In order to protect your season tickets and regular single-game sales, you often have to set it up a little differently,” for the millennial audience, said Steve Fanelli, Oakland A’s executive director of ticket sales and operations. “The price with Ballpark Pass is really great, but it doesn’t guarantee a specific seat. Some of it might even be standing room if we get to a sellout. So it’s a different product. But it does encourage sampling around the ballpark and, ideally, will give us a set of new names into our system.”


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