The ticketing industry continues to stand as one of the most actively changing segments of the entire sports business. Between the arrival and ascendency of new players to challenge established incumbents, the rise of mobile entry, and advancements in data mining and determining the identity of ticket holders, ticketing in 2018 looks barely like it did even five years ago.
Here are 10 stories to watch as the ticketing industry changes dramatically across sports.
Will an open ticketing framework boost attendance across the NFL in 2018? Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
After more than a year of internal league study, the NFL last fall signed a pair of deals poised to reshape what it means to attend a pro football game. Ticketmaster, the league’s ticketing partner since 2008, signed a five-year extension to retain preferred status for primary ticketing. But the new deal contemplates an open ticketing landscape in which other companies will also be official NFL partners. Indeed, StubHub within days of the Ticketmaster agreement being announced signed its own deal as the league’s authorized secondary ticketing partner. Both agreements will cover the 2018 through 2022 seasons.
The two deals call for a historic level of coexistence and integration between the two longtime and often bitter rivals. This will be seen particularly when purchasing an NFL ticket on StubHub, which will lead to the creation of a new digital ticket, similar to how Ticketmaster’s TicketExchange has operated within its own system and how StubHub has integrated at numerous colleges through an alliance with Paciolan. The agreement will see the installation of Ticketmaster’s new digitally based Presence system, yielding a bevy of new consumer data, at each NFL stadium.
But numerous questions remain as the new agreements take effect later this year:
Can the NFL’s newly open ticketing framework — and the sales data StubHub and Ticketmaster provide — produce a material boost to league attendance that sank in 2017 to its lowest level in six years?
Will Ticketmaster’s TicketExchange, already lagging behind StubHub in sales and consumer relevance in a variety of NFL markets, slip further in relevancy?
And with the deals believed to be collectively worth far more than the $200 million Ticketmaster committed to the NFL for the 2013-17 seasons, will that money represent an overpay as other companies begin to get their own pieces of NFL ticketing (see No. 2)?
SeatGeek’s deal with the Pelicans is its first with an NBA team. Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The ink was barely dry on the NFL deals with Ticketmaster and StubHub, complete with various designations giving them preferred and authorized status for football ticketing, when New York-based upstart SeatGeek narrowed the value of those rights. After previously signing deals with Major League Soccer and several of its teams, the company and its mobile-focused SeatGeek Enterprise platform last November signed its first NFL and NBA primary deals with the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. Both agreements will take effect this fall.
SeatGeek, backed by more than $150 million in venture capital and last year’s purchase of Israeli ticketing software company TopTix, intends to pick up more agreements in the big four of North American sports leagues as individual team deals expire.
“We’re confident this is just the beginning of a movement across the industry,” said SeatGeek co-founder Russ D’Souza.
SeatGeek (New York) Partners ■MLS and LAFC, Minnesota United FC, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City ■MLS National Sales Center powered by SeatGeek (the league’s sales center in Blaine, Minn.)
■New Orleans Saints
■New Orleans Pelicans
■Boston College athletics Source: SportsBusiness Journal research
Geoff Lester last week joined Vivid Seats after only three months at Fox Networks Group. Photo by: JENNABETH PHOTOGRAPHY
Vivid Seats doesn’t have the name recognition or industry stature of Ticketmaster or StubHub. But the Chicago-based company, founded in 2001 and now a significant player in secondary ticketing, over the past several years has steadily amassed a sizable stable of name-brand partners. In 2017, Vivid Seats inked partnerships with ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the universities of Tennessee and Rhode Island and the Preakness Stakes. The pacts added to existing ones Vivid Seats held with entities such as Notre Dame and Duke.
A larger deal last spring saw Chicago-based private equity firm GTCR acquire a majority equity stake in Vivid Seats, with prior investor Vista Equity Partners and co-founders Jerry Bednyak and Eric Vassilatos maintaining equity positions. Terms were not disclosed, but various reports placed a $1.5 billion valuation on Vivid Seats.
The company has made a quick start in 2018 as it last week named industry veteran Geoff Lester as chief commercial officer. Lester, who will lead the company’s partnerships and business development, spent more than seven years with StubHub and was a key player in many of the company’s significant moves, including the combined primary-secondary ticket offering with the Philadelphia 76ers and a series of MLB team resale integrations. His arrival to Vivid Seats, marking a rare move of a veteran StubHub executive to a rival ticketing entity, signals more dealmaking to come.
“The ability to come and help build their brand and take them to the next level, particularly when I see them now at a big inflection point, was a big part of the allure,” said Lester, who left a job with Fox Networks Group and former colleague Danielle Maged after just three months and with their blessing to take the Vivid Seats role. “You could see us look to build a bigger consumer brand like StubHub did, but I think we would look to go about it in a different way.”
Vivid Seats (Chicago) Partners ■SI Group portfolio of sites, including SI.com, Golf.com and Fansided.com ■ESPN
■Duke, Notre Dame, Rhode Island and Tennessee athletics
■Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers ■UFC ■WWE ■Rose Bowl Stadium ■Preakness Stakes Source: SportsBusiness Journal research
Scott Cutler was promoted last summer. Who will succeed him at StubHub? Photo by: ERIC MILLETTE
A leadership vacuum was created at StubHub last summer when corporate parent eBay promoted Scott Cutler, StubHub’s president since 2015, to senior vice president of the Americas, running the entire marketplace businesses for the tech giant. In just 27 months at the helm, Cutler made huge strides in restoring StubHub’s reputation as a trusted business partner with teams and leagues, and he was a key figure in market-moving deals with the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Yankees, among others.
Since Cutler’s promotion, the company’s operational momentum has continued under the leadership of Perkins Miller, general manager of North America, and Chief Financial Officer Ajay Gopal, a period that has included new deals with the NFL and Major League Baseball. But the company has remained tight-lipped about the status or process of the president search, and it’s not known whether Miller or Gopal are candidates for the post.
Ballpark Pass products sold more than 900,000 tickets last year.
The top story for MLB attendance in 2017 was fairly dour, with the league sliding at the gate for the fourth time in five seasons, and the final regular-season figure of 72.67 million standing as the sport’s lowest since 2003. But last year also marked the season that the sport’s Ballpark Pass products hit mass availability and fan acceptance.
Started several years ago by four MLB clubs as a way to move excess inventory in soft parts of the schedule, the subscription-based ticket products were offered last year by 23 MLB clubs. The remainder were largely constrained by facility or schedule issues, and that number is now expected this year to move closer to all 30 clubs. The passes collectively sold more than 900,000 tickets last year, and proved to be particularly popular among millennial fans.
Most of the 2018 Ballpark Pass offerings have yet to be announced. But a big push this coming season will be to expand the concept beyond lower-demand inventory and standing-room access into higher-quality levels of seating and broader ranges of experiential components.
The single-team subscription ticket offers in baseball are further supplemented by ongoing efforts by Experience and new President and CEO Junior Gaspard to expand the multisport offering Inwego. The service, billed as sort of a Netflix for live sports, is slated for expansion into more areas this year beyond test markets of the mobile technology company’s native Atlanta and Phoenix.
“There’s also a lot that can still be done here to more deeply integrate with corporate sponsors,” Gaspard said.
For many years, pro teams working with brokers to offload some risk in selling tickets had been at best a poorly kept trade secret. Then for many teams, the broker-as-partner strategy was scattershot at best, with little alignment between primary and secondary pricing and some teams working with literally hundreds of resellers, many of which had conflicting agendas.
Those days, however, are now quickly ending. The norm within many leading U.S. sports is becoming a much more targeted, data-driven approach where a team will strike formal partnerships with a select handful of larger, established distribution companies such as Eventellect or Dynasty Sports & Entertainment, marked by a regular sharing of data and price controls.
Major League Baseball, given the sheer volume of games it plays, is predictably a prime mover in this emerging trend. An estimated 10 of 30 MLB clubs last year held a deliberate ticket distribution and resale strategy, a number expected to grow sharply in 2018. And league executives said they plan to look at various individual team deals with ticket distributors in a more holistic fashion.
“It’s really helped us, giving us a lot of data and a lot more insight into an area that was behind the black curtain before,” said Mike Bucek, vice president of market and business development for the Kansas City Royals, which dropped from 227 season-ticket accounts to brokers to two in the span of three years.
Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan technology will move from concerts like Taylor Swift’s upcoming tour into high-demand sports championships. Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Outside of sports, the most talked-about element of ticketing over the past year has been the advent of Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan technology. An attempt by the ticketing giant to thwart automated bots from illegally scooping up large quantities of sought-after tickets, Verified Fan seeks to analyze every registrant in Ticketmaster’s system and ensure they are a real person. That process typically involves a pre-registration in which a fan ultimately receives a code allowing him the opportunity, but not the guarantee, to buy tickets.
Verified Fan Select clients ■College Football Playoff ■U2
■"Springsteen on Broadway"
■Demi Lovato ■Pink ■Trans-Siberian Orchestra ■"Hamilton" Source: SportsBusiness Journal research
The technology has been deployed for some of Ticketmaster’s most coveted inventory, including Bruce Springsteen’s ongoing Broadway show and upcoming tours by U2 and Taylor Swift. And Ticketmaster says it has posted a 90 percent success rate thus far blocking bots. Industry terminology has dubbed efforts such as Verified Fan as “slow ticketing,” indicating an effort to sell high-demand events in a much more organized fashion.
But Verified Fan also has been beset with troubling technical issues including faulty fan codes, server crashes and algorithm errors. Many fans can’t help but notice much higher prices in many instances compared with recent tours by the same acts. Some Swift fans were also put off by an additional pay-for-play component in which fans could boost their place in the virtual ticket line by purchasing merchandise. And a new secondary market of Verified Fan codes has popped up in response to Ticketmaster’s efforts, along with vibrant resale markets for those popular tours.
The early focus for Verified Fan has been on concerts, given the high demand and low inventory dynamics of a typical short-run music tour. But Ticketmaster has said that its anti-bot efforts will ultimately extend throughout its entire network of events, meaning the technology will work its way into sports, particularly for high-demand championship events. But sports also relies on repeat fan business much more than concerts, meaning the early hiccups will need to be solved before a broader rollout happens.
Historically, major league sports ticketing has operated in a vastly different universe than minor league sports. While dominant players such as Ticketmaster and StubHub and their advanced tech-driven features and multimillion-dollar deals have moved the big league market, minor league levels of baseball and hockey and other sports have still relied heavily on traditional paper and print-at-home tickets serviced by smaller entities such as Glitnir Ticketing and TicketReturn.com.
This, too, is changing quickly. Minor League Baseball last summer signed a multiyear agreement with MLB Advanced Media-owned Tickets.com, the first league-level ticketing deal for the affiliated minors. The agreement was premised heavily on implementing features such as digital ticketing, real-time analytics and virtual seat views. Subscription-based offers are also being discussed.
NATHAN HUBBARD ■ Age: 41 ■Education: B.A., politics, Princeton University, 1997; MBA, Stanford University, 2004 ■Career: CEO of e-commerce and ticketing platform Musictoday when it was purchased by Live Nation in 2006; named president of Live Nation Ticketing in 2007; promoted to CEO of Live Nation Ticketing in 2008; named CEO of Ticketmaster in 2010 after it merged with Live Nation; Twitter vice president of global media and commerce 2013-16; currently an occasional contributor to Bill Simmons’ The Ringer podcast.
The next career move for Nathan Hubbard, formerly Ticketmaster chief executive and Twitter vice president, is a closely guarded industry secret. Hubbard, moonlighting as an “unpaid intern” writing for Bill Simmons’ The Ringer, has indicated his forthcoming project is in stealth mode. Given his pedigree working with and for entertainment industry heavyweights such as Irving Azoff and Michael Rapino, it’s expected that it will make a major impact.
In the meantime, Hubbard’s columns, Twitter feed and occasional podcast appearances have been hugely entertaining and often provocative. They come with all the liberating freedom and insight from a smart Princeton and Stanford-trained executive not under any pressures from Wall Street, corporate decorum, contractual restrictions or other trappings. One such proclamation last summer: “The season ticket is dead.”
The Rockets are one of AXS’ clients using its FanSight product blending primary and secondary ticketing. Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The traditional lines between primary and secondary ticketing have been eroding for several years through efforts such as Ticketmaster’s TM+ and, more recently, StubHub offering an all-in-one destination for the 76ers with the aid of longtime partner Paciolan. AXS has now thrown its hat into the ring with the arrival of its FanSight product that blends primary and secondary into a single purchase flow combined with advanced, row-by-row seat views.
The offering, roughly a year in development, is being rolled out for several AXS client NBA teams, including the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, and will ultimately become the company standard. “For us, it’s all the train tracks coming together,” said Brian Peunic, AXS senior vice president of sports. “We think it’s a big deal to remove as many barriers and allow a fan to purchase in a single flow like this.”
AXS (Los Angeles) Partners ■AEG Facilities* ■Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy*, Real Salt Lake
■Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers*, Minnesota Timberwolves
■Los Angeles Kings*, Vegas Golden Knights
■WNBA Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx ■Five AHL teams ■Ford Field ■ Infinite Energy Arena ■Staples Center* ■StubHub Center* ■Target Center ■Valley View Casino Center* ■ATP/WTA BNP Paribas Open* ■College football DXL Frisco Bowl Source: SportsBusiness Journal research