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Volume 21 No. 2


D.C. United is already more than two months into the MLS regular season, but another training camp opened last week. It was led by United players Chris Pontius, Robbie Russell, Nick DeLeon and Joe Willis for several dozen fans of the team, along with a few prospective customers looking for an intense workout or unique experience — for a $150 cost.

The one-day camp was the latest example of D.C. United’s partnership with LivingSocial, the Washington, D.C.-based social commerce provider. D.C. United, like a few other MLS franchises, has offered a range of deals through LivingSocial. An April 7 promotion for a game against Seattle at RFK Stadium sold 3,685 vouchers, ranging from $17 sideline seats to $131 packages that included a sideline pass to watch warm-ups, a midfield seat for the game and a post-match event. Offering options that included tickets, a tailgate party and six-pack cooler at price points ranging from $17 to $65, the team sold 2,888 vouchers for its May 16 game against Colorado.

For D.C. United, having LivingSocial as its official social commerce provider is a way to reach local consumers looking for entertainment deals but who are not necessarily soccer fans or even traditional sports fans. Both sides make money via a split on the revenue generated from every voucher sold.

In addition to reaching LivingSocial’s deep customer base, D.C. United’s partnership includes promotional and advertising elements for LivingSocial, such as signs and digital media assets.

In the second season of its partnership with LivingSocial, D.C. United has learned the most effective practice is the offering of — as LivingSocial brands them — “adventures.”

“We have great synergy with Living Social because we want to expose people to our team that maybe haven’t been to games yet,” said Dawn Ridley, D.C. United’s vice president of business development. “We want to go beyond straight ticket deals. By offering them an experience, like a training camp or a sideline pass, maybe someone going to their first game becomes a fan for life.”

LivingSocial shares D.C. United’s goals.

“Our programs are effective because we know a lot of our customers are going to an MLS game for the first time and then they’re buying seats in the stands for many more,” said Brendan Lewis, director of corporate communications for LivingSocial. “That’s one of our premises: to provide something new. If they become D.C. United fans, whether they purchase tickets through LivingSocial again or not, we’ve been successful.”

LivingSocial and Groupon are the industry leaders in the daily deal provider category. Groupon has a partnership in Washington with Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics and Verizon Center. LivingSocial has worked with teams in leagues outside MLS, including the Denver Broncos and Charlotte Bobcats.

MLS teams, including Seattle, the New York Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy, have found success in partnerships with LivingSocial. For a July 24 friendly with EPL’s Tottenham Hotspur, the Galaxy is offering two packages: for $179, fans get a ticket, access to Tottenham’s “closed” practice two days earlier and a commemorative scarf; a VIP deal for $499 comes with an additional meet-and-greet with the Spurs’ players.

The Galaxy believes premium packages are the best activations with LivingSocial.

“We want to maintain the value of season tickets, so more things we do with LivingSocial will include experiences and price points that go beyond a basic ticket deal,” said Kelly Cheeseman, senior vice president of ticket sales and service for AEG Sports, the Galaxy’s majority owner.

When Stephen Ross bought the Miami Dolphins four years ago, he talked about merging entertainment and sports. He brought in celebrity investors like Jennifer Lopez, had a red carpet ceremony before games, and plowed money into an interactive handheld device for club seat holders.

But now the team is painting its new marketing campaign as revolving around football only. Even last week’s announcement that the team will be featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” was portrayed as a football decision.

“It is a football-first theme,” Mike Dee, the team’s chief executive, said of the ads, which will appear on TV and radio and in print. “We have worked hard to broaden the fan base here, incorporating entertainment, but our general branding position this year is football paradise.”

The team has struggled to sell out in recent years, with a mediocre team and high-profile off-field failures, like the unsuccessful pursuit of head coaching candidates and free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning.

The ads, carrying the tag line “There is no offseason,” feature players, coaches and fans. One shows new coach Joe Philbin in his office late at night studying game tape. Others show lineman Jake Long getting into an ice bath; a player training with ropes; and three generations of Dolphins fans walking through a tailgate before a game, the eldest wearing a Larry Csonka jersey, the middle one a Dan Marino jersey and the youngest a Reggie Bush jersey.

The team unveiled the campaign last month to sponsors during the annual team business summit.

The club also is reintroducing its fan club, after Dee discontinued it when he arrived in 2009. Calling the old one antiquated, he said the new version would offer discounts for purchases inside Sun Life Stadium. Membership is free.

As MLB enjoys an attendance spike to start the 2012 season, the two clubs with the league’s longest consecutive sellout streaks are experiencing increased no-shows and heightened local scrutiny on the veracity of their records.

The Phillies, despite empty seats, still lead all MLB clubs in average attendance.
The Boston Red Sox own an MLB-record 737-games-and-counting sellout streak at Fenway Park, and the Philadelphia Phillies are second-best in the sport with an active streak of 228 straight games at Citizens Bank Park, both through May 29. Both, however, sat in last place in their respective divisions at press time.

Amid their respective on-field woes and player injuries, empty seats have become much more frequent sights at both ballparks, a startling reversal from years of regularly packed houses.

Both the Red Sox and Phillies acknowledged no-show rates increased in the season’s early going, especially for weekday and weeknight games and those played in uncertain weather. The Red Sox’s no-show rate now stands at 13.6 percent, roughly equal to a similar point last year, and the club’s season-ticket renewals and single-game advance ticket sales each are slightly trailing last year’s pace.

As the empty seats have multiplied, local media in Boston most notably have called the integrity of the Fenway Park streak into question, in part pointing to the inclusion of complimentary tickets in the totals. Similar questions have been raised to a lesser degree in Philadelphia, and the Phillies last week employed a buy-one-get-one-free ticket offer for certain seats to Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“The inquiries are understandable and natural. The visual isn’t always good,” said Sam Kennedy, Red Sox chief operating officer. “So we have certainly seen an influx of questions so far this year on how we’re doing selling tickets. And fortunately, the answer on a game-by-game basis on the primary market is that we’re still doing well, and I’m very optimistic about the summer.”

The situations in Boston and Philadelphia contrast somewhat with attendance leaguewide, which at press time was up by about 6.5 percent over the same point last season, even stronger than the 3 percent to 5 percent projected by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

The secondary ticket market is also softer for both the Phillies and the Red Sox. The average listing price for the first 25 Red Sox home games this season was $117.47, down more than 11 percent from the same point a year ago, according to TiqIQ, a New York-based ticket aggregator that researches ticket resellers. Twelve of those initial Boston games had ticket listings below $15 a seat, compared with six such games in the same period last year. The Phillies, according to TiqIQ data, have also seen average secondary market listing prices fall by 11 percent to $70.28 a seat, and 10 games with sub-$15 tickets, compared with just two in the same period last year.

Still, officials for both clubs argued that the rancor over the unfilled seats is perhaps overstated. The Phillies once again are leading all MLB clubs in average attendance, with a mark of 44,937 a game at press time, remaining in the top overall position it held last year. The Red Sox rank seventh, with an average of 37,598, inhibited in part by the smaller capacity of Fenway Park, and actually are slightly up in per-game attendance.

And both clubs say they are adhering to typical industry practices of reporting tickets distributed for their attendance figures, including complimentary tickets, as opposed to actual turnstile counts.