Ticketing: The Laws of Attraction
What began as an innovative pilot program in baseball in 2015 to help a handful of teams fill their ballparks has evolved into an industrywide practice that is redefining the season-ticket business.
Today, subscription ticketing — selling discounted seats for a fixed monthly fee — and its Netflix-like approach has proved so successful that more than two-thirds of MLB’s 30 teams have offered similar programs to drive attendance and to attract younger fans who prefer the mobile and flexible nature of the plans. Those teams sold more than a million tickets within the subscription-based model in 2018, up from 150,000 in 2016 during the first full year of the program. Through May 31, more than 765,000 tickets have been sold through subscription-based programs this season, up 36% year over year. It’s no wonder that teams in other leagues have adopted similar selling strategies.
While there will always be room for the traditional season-ticket holder willing to pay for the best seats over the course of a team’s home schedule, younger buyers prefer a far more social and flexible ballpark experience, and teams have grown more sophisticated at satisfying the changing consumer demands.
“We have to sell 81 home dates, at least, in a year and it’s a hard job and it forces us to be very open-minded and take a very broad view at the industry as a whole,” said Noah Garden, executive vice president of business and sales for MLB. “As you look at younger generations, [the approach] is how are they consuming sports and what is the best way to attract them.”
The subscription-based ticketing program works like this: Fans pay a fixed monthly fee for typically discounted general admission tickets or for a fixed number of games at a deep discount.
Sometimes, the seats are assigned just prior to the game, allowing teams more flexibility in selling inventory through an entirely mobile operation. In addition, some subscription plans will offer access not to a reserved seat but only to specific social spaces or entertainment areas within the stadium along with discounted concessions and parking.
The program debuted in MLB with the Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s and Texas Rangers. When the A’s first rolled out their subscription ticketing plan, the team offered a basic annual pass to fans for general admission seats in the ballpark for $19.99 per month.
Fast forward to today, where the A’s Access subscription membership plan has evolved into a program that allows fans to buy reserved seats for as few as 10 games and up to 81-game general admission access to eight different spaces in the ballpark. Fans can select different tiers to upgrade to reserved seats. The most basic tier costs $240 for the general admission membership with access to 200-level seats in the stadium. Prices then rise up to the highest premium tier that can cost close to $20,000. The 81-game general admission access is non-transferable to cut down reselling on the secondary market. Discounted parking and concessions are included in the memberships.
“It’s modeled like a gym membership with reserved seats serving like a personal training session,” said A’s Chief Operating Officer Chris Giles. “It is designed for a flexible experience.”
The program has caused some challenges for the team in educating fans about the new approach, but Giles said membership has increased by 44% since the club rolled out its subscription ticketing program a few years ago.
In addition, the average age of the subscription buyer is 11 years younger than the buyers of the traditional season ticket.
“That is powerful for us,” Giles said.
The subscription model is no longer aimed at poor performing teams playing in front of half-empty stadiums. The strategy has evolved to winning teams pushing inventory for a few weeks at a time or for a particular homestand while catering to the changing preferences of millennial fans.
Consider the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins, which in early May put 20,000 seats on sale for the month’s remaining home games for $5 as part of their “ballpark access” ticket option that allowed entry into Target Field but did not include a seat. The team sold out its allotment of the tickets and offered a similar $15 “ballpark access” plan for select June home games.
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The strategy is hardly limited to baseball teams and their plethora of games.
In the NBA, the Sacramento Kings and the Milwaukee Bucks adopted what they call flexible ticketing membership passes in the 2018-19 season.
The Kings dedicated available seats assigned the day of the game in the Golden 1 Center’s upper bowl to the flexible ticketing package for $49 per month, with access to up to seven games per month. The team sold out of the packages, capped at 2,100 per month, and plans to continue multiple versions of the program next season.
The Bucks also have experimented with a subscription plan that charged a lower rate for every game with fans receiving their specific seat assignment on game day. Another version allows fans to buy a five-game package with the opportunity to choose which games they would attend.
“There is a definite place for it and we try to be as creative as possible,” said Jamie Morningstar, senior vice president of ticket sales and service for the Bucks.
While NBA teams have far fewer games than MLB teams, NBA executives see a growing place for subscription plans.
“It fits in perfectly with the strategy of creating products directly for the fan,” said Matt Wolf, senior vice president within the NBA’s team marketing and business operations division. “It is a great way to get tickets to new buyers.”
The NBA’s flexible ticketing model is also relevant to teams with little or no excess ticket inventory. This year, the Golden State Warriors sold limited tickets to Oracle Arena with no view of the court.
“A lot of our teams have phenomenal communal spaces that are perfectly built for these type of packages,” Wolf said.
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In the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams started offering a subscription-based ticket program last season, when the team fortuitously finished with a 13-3 regular-season record en route to a loss in the Super Bowl. The Rams Gameday Pass included tickets to nine home games — two preseason and seven regular-season — at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for $250 total, or about $28 a game.
The team had the ability to do so because it was offering only the number of tickets that it knew it could fulfill based on some of the excess inventory it typically holds for sponsors and other VIPs.
The team sold several hundred of the passes last season and has been able to convert about 66% of them into full-season-ticket holders for this coming season. Doing so was the ultimate goal of the program, according to Dan August, the Rams’ vice president of strategy and ticketing.
“We looked around the marketplace — we’re always trying to see what’s out there and what can entice more fans — and given that we’re still new to the market, we saw this as an opportunity [to create] almost a teaser for season tickets,” said August, who added that sales are predictably going well overall for the coming season after the team’s success last year. “It was an opportunity to get people out to all the games but without many of the benefits that come with season tickets.”
August said the team decided to implement the program last summer after reading more about the subscription ticketing trend. The team will determine later this summer whether it will bring back the program for a second season.
Teams offering Ballpark Pass programs
With approximately 60% of the 2019 season still to play, 17 MLB teams have offered some type (or types) of Ballpark Pass offering.
Chicago White Sox
Kansas City Royals
New York Mets
New York Yankees
St. Louis Cardinals
San Francisco Giants
Toronto Blue Jays
The subscription sales tended to come from younger fans who said they couldn’t yet afford season tickets, including, August said, some students from the University of Southern California, which also plays its football games there. Because full-season-ticket holders get incentives that Gameday Pass holders don’t, the program appeared to whet the appetite for full season tickets. On top of having a set seat in the stadium and not having to wait until 24 hours before a game to get an assigned seat, incentives for full-season-ticket holders include the ability to resell seats and get a guaranteed ticket for playoff home games.
The Gameday Pass package was available only with mobile ticketing, and the tickets were assigned only 24 hours before the game. Since it was a new package, the Rams figured it should fit the digital ticketing mold the NFL is moving toward.
“We definitely saw interest from younger folks [in the Gameday Pass package]; we saw some interest from older folks, too, with the NFL being back in L.A. and [some of them] had never really bought season tickets and wanted to test it out as well,” August said. “But it definitely leans younger than our typical season-ticket audience.”
The Kansas City Chiefs used a similar concept for the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when they implemented the Bud Light Game Day Pass, which didn’t include a monthly fee but rather a lump-sum $200 fee. The pass was similar to the Rams’ offering in that the goal was to give Chiefs fans who weren’t ready to splurge a taste of what a full season ticket could offer.
The offer included the same seat for every game but the tickets were mobile only, non-transferable, usually located in the top 10 to 20 rows of the stadium and became available only a few hours before the game. The team sold its full allotment of the package in 2017 and almost doubled that number — several thousand, according to the team — in 2018.
However, due to the Chiefs’ recent on-field success, which has naturally spurred ticket sales, the team will not be offering the package this upcoming season, according to Tyler Kirby, vice president of ticket sales.
“We felt it was a way to incentivize fans to commit to a ‘season’ long ticket purchase through an attractive price, but without all of the membership benefits,” Kirby wrote in an email. “Our hope was that they would enjoy their experience over multiple games and consider a full season ticket membership in the future. Additionally, in 2017 we wanted to test the idea of ‘mobile only’ tickets and a more dynamic way of ticket delivery that did our best to ensure the same individuals were utilizing the ticket for every game.”
While the NHL continues to look at potential new strategies around ticketing, it has never considered a similar subscription program. Last season, 26 of the 31 teams across the league averaged at least 90% capacity over the course of the season, which would offer few opportunities for someone with a nonassigned seat to find one. The NHL declined to comment further.
In Major League Soccer, NYCFC and Real Salt Lake offer a ticket subscription that guarantees a ticket to every match in an unassigned seat. But the two MLS clubs limit buyers only to college students.
The evolution of the subscription model also is moving into colleges, as schools see a need to drive attendance and attract younger fans even at the biggest programs.
At USC, officials last year rolled out the Tommy Pass that sold discounted tickets to all six home football games for as low as $149, with seat locations varying from game to game. Schools like Kansas State, Illinois and Virginia Tech are following suit as they look for ways to bring in young buyers.
“We are seeing traction in the pass model not with a monthly fee, but with one low discount fee,” said Deana Barnes, senior director of client partners and e-commerce at Paciolan, a ticketing company that counts more than 130 schools as clients.
“The football season has less games, but nonetheless, schools are still looking for innovations. The buying audience is young, millennial and mobile is everything. We are definitely seeing it emerge in college athletics.”
As teams build new arenas and stadiums that include far more communal and open areas within the facilities, count on an even stronger trend toward the subscription ticketing model.
“With more open designs, people aren’t as picky anymore,” said Jacque Holowaty, vice president of client experience and ticketing at Spectra. “They are more flexible and they want to be more social.”
Ian Thomas and Adam Stern contributed to this report.