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Volume 21 No. 42

In Depth

Premium customers such as those of Sporting KC seek experiences that most other fans don’t have.
Photo: sporting kc

Teams and venues are searching for a fountain of youth when it comes to their suites, clubs and VIP spaces.

The challenge is how to make those premium spaces desirable to affluent younger fans who are driven by technology and socializing, and how to work with a new generation of companies that might not want the traditional corporate suite or lengthy season-long plan.

“There is no question that the younger generation is looking for that new experience, that cool vibe, and it’s not how I used to watch football growing up,” said Jim Mercurio, San Francisco 49ers vice president of stadium operations and general manager of Levi’s Stadium.

That requires a different mindset in the design, marketing and selling of premium and club spaces to not only younger fans but also 21st century companies. 

Want to deliver your pitch the right way? Try social media channels. Want to get them more familiar with the facility? Hold networking events where they can build their business while you build relationships. Want to get them to sign on the dotted line? Try offering smaller spaces, compelling special events and even opportunities to “test drive” premium inventory. Better yet, build in enhanced experiences that set their event apart.

• • • •

Flavil Hampsten is chief commercial officer of Elevate Sports Ventures, an agency that helps teams and venues sell premium spaces. He remembers a time when telephone calls usually led the way to selling such inventory.

“When I was coming up as a sales person it was literally just the phone,” said Hampsten, who held executive sales posts with the San Jose Sharks, the Charlotte Hornets and the NBA. “Now you can actually do a deal over LinkedIn or Facebook. There were high-level CEOs [that] if we called them 20 times on the phone we probably wouldn’t have heard back.”

Some venues, in the spirit of LinkedIn, cultivate relationships with first-time premium buyers and younger affluent fans through special networking opportunities.

Dennis Bickmeier, president of Richmond Raceway, said the NASCAR track hosts business and professional group events throughout the year. “We really try to get people to come out and walk through the space,” he said.

Bickmeier — whose track is wrapping up a $30 million renovation — has put a focus on hosting events for young professionals involved with local chambers. “Those are the future leaders of Richmond,” he said. “We’re getting to know them when they are in middle management positions.”

The Prudential Center in Newark also uses networking events to attract and retain premium customers, said Natasha Moody, vice president of premium partnerships for the arena and its primary tenant, the New Jersey Devils. The Devils and the arena are owned by Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE), which also owns the Philadelphia 76ers.

“We may host a speaker from an HBSE property, an executive or special industry-oriented speaker,” Moody said. “It works very well and based on the feedback we’ve received, we are growing it this year.”

Prudential Center also holds pregame and pre-concert networking events to give premium buyers and companies an opportunity to meet one another. Moody said arena marketing, sales and executive staff will also facilitate introductions between premium members.

• • • •

Other sports venues are marketing their premium space by crafting VIP and inclusive experiences.

“Total buy-in options should abound,” said Kevin Camper, senior vice president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He sees growth for all-inclusive packages that could include transportation to and from events and more personal VIP interactions with players, drivers, fans and celebrities.

Loge boxes like these below at Las Vegas Motor Speedway provide a more bite-sized premium offering.
Photo: Las Vegas Motor Speedway

The NASCAR track is marketing a new $1,200, one-day VIP package that includes a champagne toast with the race winner, complimentary food and drinks, and garage access.

Greg Kish, vice president for sales and service for sports agency Legends at the new Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, said selling a VIP experience is essential to premium marketing plans for the new $4 billion stadium for the NFL’s Rams and Chargers.

“We know we are going to have to battle and compete with Los Angeles as a market and not just as a stadium,” said Kish.

The stadium, located in Inglewood, is slated to open in 2020 and Kish said some premium offerings are still being developed. It is scheduled to have 13,000 premium seats with seat licenses costing as much as $100,000. For that price point, the experience has to be special. Kish said that means making the VIP experience a VIP journey. The new stadium is set to have 260 luxury suites and a number of all-inclusive premium packages.

“How easy is it to go from curb to curb,” Kish said. “Our goal is to make the customer journey on the premium side as smooth and frictionless as possible.”

That means VIP parking and private entrances and, in the case of Los Angeles, a realization that fans (even the wealthiest ones) are already fighting through traffic.

Zach Hensley, vice president of venue operations and guest experience for the Seattle Seahawks, said CenturyLink Field opens an hour earlier for premium customers. The team also launched a celebrity chef series last season for those customers. The chefs create special menus appealing to the city’s foodie culture and aimed at competing with top restaurants outside the stadium, Hensley said.

Creating a one-of-a-kind experience is what appeals to younger premium buyers and companies, said Elevate’s Hampsten. Those can include exclusive meetings with coaches, players or ex-players or up-close interactions with the event or game.

“It creates those ‘wow’ opportunities no one else is offering,” he said. “If you can provide that experience you can associate that only with your company.”

The Philadelphia 76ers host an annual VIP Hardwood Dinner for premium customers and top-tier season-ticket holders.
Photo: philadelphia 76ers

Jake Reid, president and CEO of Sporting KC, said premium customers are always seeking something that most other fans don’t have, “so we try to provide that feeling of behind-the-scenes access.”

Well-received aspects include giving guests fieldside or courtside access, views of the interview rooms and putting them in close proximity to player locker rooms.

“Yet again, variety is key, so offering a wide variety of beers and craft cocktails, or even a Drink of the Match, can enhance their experience,” Reid said. “These people are paying for premium seating already, but the comprehensive experience — pregame, in-game and postgame — is what puts it over the top and keeps them coming back game after game.”

The Philadelphia 76ers host an annual VIP Hardwood Dinner for premium customers and top-tier season-ticket holders. The event was held this year at the team’s practice facility and included a “chalkboard session” with coach Brett Brown. They also got to mingle with top team executives.

• • • •

Such approaches can help justify the costs of suites and club seats, Hampsten said.

But cost isn’t the only barrier to overcome. Younger fans aren’t looking for their father’s corporate suite or full-season plans.

“They would like to have the flexibility of not having as many tickets. Suites can be daunting in term of tickets,” said Prudential Center’s Moody. “That’s just a lot of tickets to manage.”

Moody said Prudential Center lets prospective buyers take “test drives” of suites and premium areas by creating draw-down accounts where they can put $75,000 to $150,000 and then pay for the use of premium areas for concerts and games as they need them.

“It’s so we can get people in the door to taste the product and then convert them to a full membership,” Moody said.



Chris Giles, COO of the Oakland Athletics, said such bite-size approaches make sense, especially with younger fans who typically have less time and plan less. That means creating packages they will use and value — and not have to spend time figuring out how to use 81 or 41 season tickets or ways to fill larger traditional suites.

“You force your fans to become mini-brokers,” Giles said of the challenge of using tickets or finding takers for excess inventory.

The A’s are rolling out a more flexible annual membership plan over traditional season tickets for the 2019 season. That includes 10, 24, half-season and full-season options with the ability to upgrade seats. “Our game plan is to sell them access and allow them to come whenever they would like,” Giles said. He expects that season-ticket approach to also come to premium areas.

Prudential Center is creating smaller suites that seat eight people and four-person VIP tables to go along with larger suites as part of a five-year renovation. “It’s an opportunity for us to be out in front of different types of companies,” Moody said.

The VIP table concept is also at premium areas at T-Mobile Arena for Vegas Golden Knights games and will be at the Milwaukee Bucks’ new Fiserv Forum.

Jamie Morningstar, Bucks senior vice president of ticket sales and service, said there will be 14 half-moon tables seating as many as four at the new arena. “They get wait service throughout the show or game,” she said. Table packages cost $20,000 for either a season of basketball games or the new arena’s concert slate.

The WNBA’s Vegas Aces also have courtside VIP tables that seat four to six people. The price per seat at a table is $245 per game or $4,250 for the full season for Aces games.

Smaller suites and theater or loge boxes can also be more conducive to newer companies and first-time premium buyers both in price and size.

“You have to be as flexible as you can and provide the customer experience that they’re desiring, that they’re craving,” said the 49ers’ Mercurio. “It means you have an inventory of smaller, more intimate hospitality or experience packages.”

Variety and flexibility are the key drivers for club and other premium spaces in the future home of the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers.
Photo: los angeles rams rendering

Other venues are building out flexible spaces that can be converted from large to small and back again.

The new Los Angeles stadium will have premium spaces that can seat eight to 100 people depending on flexible configurations, Kish said.

Jim Renne, sports principal for the Rossetti architecture firm, said a variety of premium spaces was front of mind for the $100 million renovation he oversaw at Ford Field for the Detroit Lions in 2017. Those include four-seat loge boxes and spaces to socialize.

“Your younger generation typically wants what they want and how they want it. A good deal of thought has to go into how do you offer a diversity of experiences and provide different types of products,” Renne said.  

The Portland Trail Blazers opened the Oro Fino speakeasy-style club.
Photo: Portland Trail Blazers

Whether it’s an exclusive speakeasy with high-end liquor in Portland, table service at the new Bucks arena in Milwaukee, or VIP areas at college football stadiums and NASCAR tracks, venues are debuting new spaces aimed at fulfilling premium fans’ changing desires.

“It’s important to kind of give people different areas to meet their needs, give them more options,” said Anthony Jones-DeBerry, vice president of premium seating and service for the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers have a new high-end club for fans sitting courtside at Moda Center. The 150-person exclusive bar was built out of unlikely space — the offices for the building’s housekeeping crew. Now it caters to a VIP crowd, serving bourbon, brandy and wine that runs $50 a glass or more.

“It’s primarily a drinking area. It’s more of a speakeasy kind of bar,” Jones-DeBerry said. “It’s the only place where you can get high-end liquor and high-end wines.”

The 1,300-square-foot space had a soft opening at the end of last year. It’s open to courtside seat holders and VIP guests, and the Trail Blazers are considering selling 30 private memberships to the club for $1,700 each. Fans now get snacks and small-plate appetizers at the new club but pay for drinks.

Here is a sampling of some of the other new and renovated luxury spaces hitting the market.

Fiserv Forum

Projects: The Milwaukee Bucks’ new $524 million arena opens this NBA season.

The team is focused on offering a variety of premium options and touting their culinary aspects, according to Jamie Morningstar, senior vice president of ticket sales and service. She said most of the premium inventory of 34 suites, 33 lofts and 14 VIP tables has sold out.

The suites seat 12 to 26 people and run between $250,000 and $400,000 per year. Food and beverage are not included.

The lofts seat four to eight people and sell for $80,000 to $200,000 per year. Food and drinks, including beer, wine and liquor, are included. Lofts also get wait staff and menus set by the arena’s executive chef.

The tables seat four people and run between $20,000 and $30,000. Food, beer, wine and soda are part of that package.

The new home of the Milwaukee Bucks, Fiserv Forum, features 34 suites.
Photo: Milwaukee Bucks

 

Richmond Raceway

Projects: Richmond Raceway will debut a $30 million redevelopment of its infield for the Sept. 21-22 NASCAR race weekend.

The infield project includes a new premium area that has rooftop seats overlooking victory lane. The area also has VIP parking and access to victory lane and garages. The Victory Lane Club has an open bar, premium food and visits from NASCAR celebrities.

Ticket packages for the space are $1,200 for the upcoming race weekend or $2,220 for the next two or $3,000 for the next three NASCAR weekends.

 

Auburn University / Jordan-Hare Stadium

Projects: The football stadium’s old press box has been redesigned into the high-end Broadway Club that opens this season. The 10,000-square-foot space includes heated seats with USB outlets and personal televisions and audio. Pricing was not available.

Auburn and architecture firm HOK also unveiled a new two-level premium and event space called the Tiger Walk Club. The air-conditioned space offers views of the Tiger Walk where Auburn players, coaches and fans walk to the stadium together. The 11,500-square-foot space is open before, during and after the game and can host special events. Memberships for that club are $1,575 per person annually. They include food and non-alcoholic drinks. A cash bar is available.

 

Las Vegas Motor Speedway offers the exclusive Blackjack Club.
Photo: Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Projects: The NASCAR track has added 180 loge box seats along turns one and four, remodeled its club levels and added a social area called the Draft Bar.

LVMS debuted some of those loge boxes for the March race weekend and built more for this month’s race. The boxes cost $1,799 per person for two race weekends a year. The price includes food and drinks, including beer and wine, and in-seat wait service.

Club-level tickets for the South Point 400 NASCAR playoff race were $999 per person and included food and beverage.

The track also offered a new $1,200 VIP package for the race that included access to the premium Blackjack Club, VIP infield parking, garage access, private restrooms and all-inclusive food and drinks.

 

Upgrades at Arkansas’ football stadium include a new club.
Photo: populous

University of Arkansas / Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium

Project: Arkansas has built 40 new suites, 68 loge boxes and 2,150 club seats as part of a $160 million stadium renovation. Populous is the architecture firm on that project. One new club seating area has an all-you-can-eat buffet. Other areas have access to new premium food and beverage areas. Pricing was not available.

 

Atlanta Hawks / State Farm Arena

Projects: The NBA arena is finishing up a $192 million renovation for the 2018 season. HOK designed new and renovated premium areas for the Hawks.

Atlanta Social is a new premium space where cabanas, tables, couches and lounge seats replace traditional seating. It has all-inclusive food, beer and wine.

Loft Suites are also debuting this season. They seat eight to 12 people with a club area behind them.

A new Topgolf Swing Suite is also opening that features a golf simulator and high-end food and drink. Topgolf is opening a similar suite at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

New lower-level Veranda Suites have communal, all-inclusive food and beverage areas, and a concept called the SWAG Shop will open this year. The SWAG shop is a partnership with Killer Mike’s Barber Shop and has four barber chairs with views of the court. Tickets include a shave and haircut.

The original building had 1,500 club seats, bunker suites and four levels of 20-person suites. “There were only three products,” said Hawks COO Thad Sheely. “It’s being replaced with seven different products with a huge diversity of products of how you entertain.”

Sheely said premium packages debuting this NBA season will have pricing that includes food and beverage, including beer and wine. The HawkBar courtside club has an exclusive bar where tickets include beer, wine and liquor.

Specific pricing was not available.

State Farm Arena in Atlanta will feature the unique HawkBar courtside club.

 

University of Missouri / Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium

Project: Missouri is rebuilding the south end zone at its football stadium. That part of the bowl is being taken out and replaced with a 2,500-person premium area and a new football training center.

The new South End Zone will feature new suites, club seats and a 750-person, membership-only, field-level club.

Construction is underway on the $100 million project, which is designed by architecture firm Populous, with completion in 2019.

Buyers of suites must make a $100,000 capital donation to the school, on top of the annual suite fees and ticket prices. That suite fee ranges between $40,000 and $45,000.

Missouri spokesman Nick Joos said more than half of the suites are sold and Legends is helping with the sales. Missouri was still figuring pricing for new club seats, he said. Food and beverage are not included in the suites or club packages.

Missouri upgrades include a 2,500-person premium area.
Photo: populous

 

Chicago Bulls, Chicago Blackhawks / United Center

Project: HOK is renovating the 5,000-square-foot premium restaurant, bar and premium space called the Ketel One Club. The redesign coordinates with a new Ketel One marketing campaign for its botanicals infused vodkas. The Ketel club is a members-only restaurant and bar. Memberships cost $375 per person per year.

The refurbished space, featuring a “farmhouse industrial” vibe, according to HOK, opened Saturday.

The Chicago arena also has opened the new Atrium bar. The bar will open before and after events and replaces mobile vendor carts used in the gathering and events space. The social space is open to fans on game nights but also hosts private and VIP events on other days.

The United Center’s 8,000-square-foot club suite level have also received new finishes and upgraded technology for the upcoming NHL and NBA seasons.

 

ISM Raceway

Project: The Phoenix area NASCAR track is going through a $178 million renovation that includes multiple premium upgrades.

The 300-person Dos Equis Curve area is among the upgrades. Curve includes an open bar for beer, wine, soda and water. Liquor is available at a cash bar. The space includes VIP parking and a private outdoor patio. The area is sold out for the NASCAR playoffs semifinal in November. Prices for that package were $1,399. The package will sell for $1,099 for the 2019 spring race.

The track also has a new two-person table option featuring padded chairs, USB ports and garage access. A three-day weekend pass runs between $599 and $699 for two people. Food and beverages are an additional charge. — M.S.

WHAT ARE THE TRENDS?

 

Dan Meis: People are far less interested in being secluded in the traditional suite with rows of fixed seating in front of a mostly enclosed “box.” We are designing premium areas with a much more communal experience with different types of free seating, stand-up tables and often open loge concepts out in the bowl itself. There is also a huge trend in courtside/pitchside boxes across all sports. While not considered the best viewing perspective, these fans value the exclusivity, proximity to the game and connection to the players through pitch-level clubs and boxes.

 

Chris Giles: I’m most interested in flexibility. Are teams offering their highest-value clients the ability to move across premium products and move in and out of games?

 

WHO’S SPEAKING


Dan Meis,
managing principal, Meis architects

Chris Giles, COO, Oakland A’s

Anthony Jones-DeBerry, vice president of premium seating, Portland Trail Blazers

Gerardo Prado, sports group director, HNTB

Jake Reid, president and CEO, Sporting KC

Lonny Sweet, CEO, The Connect Group

Ryan Gedney, senior principal, HOK Sports + Recreation + Entertainment

Scott Rovn, vice president of sales and marketing, ISM Raceway

Kevin Camper, senior vice president, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Anthony Jones-DeBerry: There definitely seems to be a move toward both smaller spaces, i.e. theater boxes, as well as more quarter and half-shares of leased products. It seems consumers are looking for more “bite-sized” ways to entertain as opposed to spending all of their entertainment dollars in the same place. From a food and beverages standpoint, local and sustainable food and drink options seems to be the hottest currently.

 

Gerardo Prado: We see three categories that are being expanded in the future: inside the venue, outside the venue and virtual. Fans have greater access than ever before to stats and team info through their mobile devices. The fan experience is expanding to a multiday experience with hotels, bar districts, retail and residential complexes being developed around the venue hub. All of these spaces ultimately drive team revenue and bring people out from their in-home theaters to join in the fun. The thought that you can control your experience with your fingertips is only progressing to develop the ultimate fan experience.

 

Jake Reid: Variety in premium seating is key, as no one size fits all. Stadiums need to provide a mix of all-inclusive spaces, a la carte areas, standard suites and more intimate premium options, such as terraces, table tops and small-group VIP spots. Premium VIP seating continues to be extremely popular, as does fieldside and courtside seating. Food and beverage has become more important than ever for fans seeking a premium experience. They want high quality, locally sourced food from local chefs, and plenty of variety. We would recommend a high percentage of premium seating within any new building. Children’s Mercy Park currently sits at around 20 percent premium, and we wish we had more.

 

WHAT ARE THE AMENITIES?

 

Lonny Sweet: Not only do I think access to better ingredients, chef-driven restaurants and exclusive areas are important during the games, but how and what you can offer a premium-seat holder on non-game-days has become an important part of the overall relationships teams have with their premium-seat customers. Be that celebrity chef/athlete experiences during the offseason, access to cultural destinations/restaurants or fan club-type engagements, teams are doing a better job of thinking about how they can engage with their premium-seat holders year round.

 

Ryan Gedney: Mobility and choice will continue to shape the fan experience. Perhaps during a single event, a spectator may be able to experience the event from four or five different locations because of innovations in how tickets are sold and premium is packaged.

 

Prado: In-seat ordering and local restaurant involvement has elevated the food service experience. Bringing in top-tier chefs for customized menu options is drawing in more diverse appetites and furthering the range of price points for all fans. We are implementing more self-serve food and beverage concessions that cut wait time and are easier on the capital investor.

 

Meis: The premium customer is often younger and far more savvy about exclusive experiences than in past generations. The premium experience has to compare well to a high-end experience in a great hotel, restaurant or club with unique, authentic food, high-end liquors, craft beers, etc. Same for access to unique/authentic team merchandise. They consume not only the game/event they are attending but are often following other games/events/social media across several platforms. Connectivity and technology is critical. While a bit harder to define, a clear “cool” factor is critical. The days of leather club chairs and a photo of a player on the suite wall doesn’t cut it any more.

 

DeBerry: The Portland market is unique and doesn’t respond very well to cookie-cutter approaches to most anything. For that reason, we lean toward more individual, custom amenities tied to our Pacific Northwest culture.

Ties to local restaurants and customized menus have elevated food service.
Photo: houston texans

WHAT’S THE FUTURE?

 

Gedney: The technology shaping the way we communicate and engage with one another and an event will have the most radical impact on the sports and entertainment experience. If the smart phone is replaced with the next type of technology, we’ll be designing premium spaces to embrace that. I anticipate premium seating will have digital offerings that are sold as part of the experience — perhaps you’re sitting in a loge box but are able to “upgrade” to a virtual seat on stage using VR. There will be this blending of the real and virtual environments, allowing fans to interact with athletes and artists in new ways.

 

Reid: We don’t envision the product offering to change very much. Suites are still commonly used and very well-liked by team partners and other companies. Premium clubs and fieldside/courtside seating remain in high demand, even if it’s a smaller offering of four- to eight-seat boxes or tables. Having said that, the experience and expectation level of what comes with these products will continue to evolve. Food and drink variety — ranging from decadent and indulgent to healthy and organic — will continue to become more and more important. Utilizing technology to enhance this experience will be instrumental in the coming years. Can you view the team walkout from a player’s perspective from your seat wearing a VR headset? Can you choose one of the stadium cameras as your live feed? These are the things that will continue to differentiate and enrich the experience for fans.

 

Scott Rovn: Premium seating will continue to bring fans closer to the action than ever before. Whether it’s through increased access, advanced technology or an elevated social experience, fans will have more unique opportunities to connect with their favorite sport.

 

Kevin Camper: Total buy-in options should abound where you purchase a package at any level from personal pickup at home to helicopter to the event and back with all the bells and whistles included, with very communal areas available, but small intimate breakout areas for them to use privately.

 

Prado: With generating a diverse menu of premium options we predict there will no longer be a general fan but there will be premium amenities available to all fans. With that said, developing hyper-
exclusive experiences and creating opportunities for fans who desire to take part in those experiences will further change the game day and drive revenue. This hyper exclusivity can be driven by sight lines into clubs, creating a “jewel box” effect, or club within a club and will make the average fan desire to be a part of that exclusive group.

 

Meis: I think the trend toward openness will continue, and the desire to be closer to the action. This creates a challenge in how we design the typical lower tier in any venue. I think we will see the experience feel much more like the lobby of an Ace Hotel or a cool tech startup than the typical suite product we have seen for the last 20 years. I think we will see a greater sense of personalization in the premium areas. People want to feel they “own” that space. I suspect that will lead us to look to ways we can customize much like a premium customer does when they order a car.

 

Giles: They won’t require purchasing a full-season plan and amenities will include premium, flexible viewing spaces. All premium amenities will be exclusively available to members and their guests. Buyers of premium tickets on the secondary market will get the ability to sit in the seat but will receive no additional amenities. Premium amenities that accompany premium tickets today will be exclusively available to members and their guests.