The Case for Season Tickets: How to Revive a Pro Sports Mainstay

Today’s guest columnist is Chris Babu, founder and CEO of TiqAssist.

Season tickets are a time-honored tradition, dating back to the 1870s. The first reference appeared in the Morning Herald of Titusville, Pa., which reported that the Chicago White Stockings, now the Chicago Cubs, had 150 honorary members for the 1870 season, each of whom paid $10 for the year and received a season ticket.

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These days, there are many reasons why people become season-ticket holders—from families passing down legacy tickets, to businesses sharing experiences with clients or employees, to die-hards whose purchase is a testament to their fandom. Emotional aspects aside, there are value-added benefits that come with season tickets. You are guaranteed a ticket for the games you want to attend, including playoff games that can sell on the resale market for 15x the season-ticket-holder cost. Owning season tickets also spares you from the time-consuming and stressful process of searching for tickets for every game that you want to attend. Moreover, season tickets come with exclusive experiences. For example, premium Dodgers season-ticket holders once a year get a chance to take batting practice on the field, field balls, pitch in the bullpen, and get a behind-the-scenes tour of the clubhouse. Lastly, as season-ticket holders gain tenure, their account rep will often facilitate player meet-and-greets or even upgrades to the best seats in the house for a game.

Still, the season-ticket model is facing challenges. Fans have become more comfortable with buying single-game tickets from the team or resale sites. Season-ticket prices are rising, so that giving away tickets for games fans can’t go to is unsustainable. And fans have less tolerance for trying to resell games they’re not attending. MLB season ticket sales are down 10% in 2022, and various front offices are noting the shift away from full-season ticket packages to smaller plans. Chicago Blackhawks executive VP for revenue Jamie Spencer was blunt on the topic earlier this year. “The days of (fans) buying a full-season ticket plan and hoping they can use them all or resell them, those days are gone,” he said.

This trend will have significant implications for a team’s cash flow, as season-ticket holders often pay large one-time seat-license fees, as well as paying up front for a full season. And these fans continue to purchase those tickets during the down years, whereas single-game buyers are more likely to fall off once the team stops contending. A shift away from reliable season ticket holders toward single-game buyers creates a large financial risk when team performance goes south.

Given how critical the season-ticket holder experience is to fans—and to clubs’ bottom lines—there are some steps teams can take to preserve and improve it:

Make the experience more special. Seat licenses, yearly renewals and upfront payments make each season ticket holder worth orders of magnitude more than a single-game buyer, and teams should more consistently recognize that value. For teams with decreasing retention rates or fans opting for smaller packages, there are cost-effective ways to drive retention that other teams are employing that could be duplicated or be points of inspiration.  Season ticket holders value perks such as opportunities to step onto the court/field, being mailed the complete set of bobblehead giveaways, or discounts on concessions.

Ensure a differential between season-ticket and single-game cost. Teams’ aggressive season ticket price increases too often leave season-ticket holders pre-paying more for certain games than the tickets are worth on the resale market. If the resale market is low, the team usually has to drop the price of its remaining unsold single-game tickets to price levels near the season ticket holder cost. This is extremely frustrating to season-ticket holders, many of whom pay for seat licenses on top of the ticket costs.

Make resale more frictionless. Season-ticket holders are often on their own to resell tickets to games they can’t attend, which can be a challenge for those who are busy or technologically challenged. On top of that, there hasn’t been much improvement in the selling tools season-ticket holders have access to. Offering more options for ticket resale can more effectively address their needs.

Be more realistic with resale limitations. Certain teams have instituted extremely restrictive resale restrictions against season-ticket holders. It’s perfectly understandable that teams want to prevent brokers from scooping up seats, because brokers often flood the resale market with inventory, which depresses prices for anyone trying to resell. That said, there is a huge difference between brokers selling nearly 100% of their inventory and season-ticket holders who sell 20-50% of their games. There are myriad legitimate reasons for season-ticket holders to need to sell, be it their ticket partner backing out before the season started, personal or family commitments, or unforeseen work demands. We’ve heard from certain season-ticket holders that their team told them they could only have two or three games listed for sale at one time, or not to have more than 30% of their games listed. Teams should focus on penalizing brokers, not long-time ticket holders who need to sell more than usual in a year due to unusual circumstances.

I still believe season tickets are the best way to experience and support your team. There really is nothing like the community it fosters, and the fandom it satiates. Maintaining a healthy season-ticket base is crucial to the product on the field, and teams should double down on innovating the experience to keep their biggest, most passionate and renewable customer base happy for years on end.

Chris Babu is founder and CEO at TiqAssist, leading the overall operations of the business including managing TiqAssist’s resale optimization strategy for customers. Prior to founding TiqAssist, he worked in both the analytics and ticketing industries with roles at Itron, eBay and Stubhub.

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