Experts: Sports fans win in post-COVID ticketing world

ByTisha Thompson ESPN logo
Friday, March 12, 2021

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIChas devastated few industries more than the ticketing business, but fans stand to benefit the most when full crowds are allowed to return to stadiums and arenas.

After decades of increasing prices, skyrocketing fees and unforgiving refund and exchange policies, teams are reassessing prices, adding new types of ticket packages and speeding up the transition to mobile ticketing and a cashless experience at stadiums and ballparks. And the biggest online marketplaces are updating their refund and exchange policies while saying they won't pass on their pandemic woes to fans through increased fees.

"A lot of people are trying to figure out how to turn the machine back on," one veteran broker, Matt Dewire of Valhalla Tickets in Ohio, told ESPN. "Come hell or high water, everybody needs to be on the same page. We need to have the fans back."

Frustrated fans, and even some people inside the ticketing industry, have felt that changes were long overdue.

"Ticketing was broken," said Gary Adler, the executive director of the National Association of Ticket Brokers. "It was a really bad and ugly situation for consumers. I hope when we come out of this there will be a return to customer-first."

Most experts agree that April will be a critical month. In normal years, it's the month fans would scoop up seats for the Final Four, the NBA and NHL postseasons, the Masters and the start of the MLB season.

"April is a D-Day moment for a lot of businesses," said Maureen Andersen, executive director of INTIX, the International Ticketing Association. "They've got to have the possibility of fans in the stadium by April."

More than four dozen industry experts who were interviewed by ESPN or who spoke at a recent INTIX virtual conference agree that the ticketing world will look different -- and largely better -- for fans.

Here are five ways the experience will have changed when fans return:

1. Lower prices and more freebies

Many experts watched and learned from the NFL's experiment with limited crowds at games last season, including teams that struggled to sell even their pandemic-limited seating.

The Kansas City Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars were the only teams with fans in attendance starting with Week 1.

"We were writing the story ourselves, because there weren't any best cases to learn from," Chad Johnson, the Jags' senior vice president of sales, told ESPN. "We did not sell out every game of our limited allotment of tickets."

The Jags averaged 15,919 fans per game during their 1-15 season, about 85% of the 18,703 fans allowed during the pandemic, according to figures the team provided to ESPN. Johnson said part of the challenge was that the Jaguars, like other teams, sold seats in "pods" that couldn't be divvied up because of health rules, and fans who normally would buy more seats for small groups bought just two or four.

Even winning teams had trouble selling out reduced ticket allotments, multiple sources within the NFL and the resale market told ESPN.

"When Kansas City opened, out of the 16,000 available tickets, only 10,000 were actually wanted," Andersen told ESPN. A Chiefs spokesman wrote in an email to ESPN that the team has a policy of not sharing sales numbers but did not dispute Andersen's comment.

Multiple experts said that while they expected some fans to stay home over the past year to avoid the virus, they are now concerned that demand will drop for economic reasons. One in four U.S. adults say they or someone in their household lost a job because of the pandemic, according to a September survey by Pew Research Center.

"The demand has not been there," said Dave Wakeman, a ticketing and marketing consultant who works with a variety of teams. "All of these things come together, and to assume nothing is going to change is unrealistic."

At the ticketing conference, Orlando City SC vice president of ticketing Chris Spano said that while the MLS club's prices held steady, "I haven't talked to any of my counterparts who have said they were overwhelmed by demand."

Few teams want to talk about future pricing decisions, but one ticketing insider who attended closed-door meetings with several teams said pricing is causing real consternation this year. "Chris Spano is telling you the truth," the source said. "They have to knock down prices, but nobody wants to come out and say that. Pricing is maybe the biggest challenge they have and their biggest concern. Getting the pricing right."

While some of 2020's most successful NFL teams, including the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have announced price hikes for their 2021 season tickets, many experts said fans shouldn't expect most sports ticket prices to increase -- breaking a trend that's dominated sports ticketing for years. The Jaguars, who are anticipating a sold-out stadium following the hiring of Urban Meyer as head coach and getting the No. 1 draft pick, promised season-ticket holders they wouldn't increase prices if those fans rolled over their deposits for the 2020 season into 2021.

MLB's San Francisco Giants gave their season-ticket holders a 5% bonus for leaving their deposits with the team, said Russ Stanley, the team's senior vice president of ticket sales and services.

"We told customers we would freeze prices for 2021," Stanley said. "Going through the pandemic is not the time to raise prices."

Dewire, the Ohio broker, expects teams to knock down prices in their upper sections, especially if they weren't selling out before the pandemic. Patrick Ryan, co-founder of Eventellect, which partners with college and professional teams to manage their ticket inventories, agreed. "I do think there will be some teams that use the pandemic as an excuse to reprice some zones in their building," he said.

"You can't force fans to buy the future tickets and the rainy Tuesday games anymore," said Derek Palmer of Qcue, a software company that works with teams on their pricing strategies. "They need to be able to tailor packages for fans."

Fans can expect to see more bundling offers for a smaller number of games; think three-game or Saturday-only packages. Health care workers should keep an eye out for free tickets as teams hold special appreciation nights when games resume. The Giants' Stanley said new technology will make it easier for teams to offer special pricing directly to seniors and students -- two of the most difficult groups to recruit.

Look for teams to also accelerate some trends that had already started, such as general admission spaces to compete with bars and your home, along with trendy "loge seating" sections composed of couches surrounded by TVs.

"That way you have no problem coming to watch a baseball game on a Monday night because you can also watch Monday Night Football," said Cory Carbary, the vice president of ticket sales for the Seattle Mariners.

Fans can also expect to see more perks such as exclusive pregame experiences (attending batting practice or holding the flag during the national anthem), better food and drink coupons and limited-edition collectibles.

Tony Knopp, whose company, TicketManager, helps corporations manage large quantities of tickets with multiple teams, said organizations should think beyond the next year or two. "We've done a pretty terrible job with that in most markets," Knopp told ESPN. "It's too expensive for a family of four to go to a game. Teams may need to leave some money on the table because they need to get a next generation of fans into the building."

Another ticketing veteran, Curtis Cheng of DTI Management, said teams also have to think about the growing reluctance to buy tickets far in advance.

"The reason it was so good for ticket brokers and we went on a five-year run is because people weren't buying subscriptions and didn't want to commit," Cheng said. "But I would buy a year in advance for the NFL game and then they would buy from me.

"Now no one is going to buy tickets in October of the previous year," he said. "So how do teams solve that cash flow issue? That is the issue. They have to fundamentally accept they won't get 80% of their ticket revenue from season tickets anymore. They have to switch to a model where they get more revenue, but not in season tickets."

2. Greater flexibility on refunds and exchanges

The ticketing industry used to follow a cardinal law: "No refunds. No exchanges. All sales are final."

But then Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus last March. In an email, Ticketmaster told ESPN it had to process changes for 30,000 events within a four-week period, "which is more than Ticketmaster has had to process in the last 15 years."

At StubHub, the numbers were even bigger, with 40,000 events canceled within the first month, according to Akshay Khanna, StubHub's general manager for North America. "You seldom have events canceled," Khanna told ESPN in an interview. "Like an artist had a health issue or an odd game getting canceled for a weather issue. March was unprecedented and difficult."

Most teams offered fans a refund on tickets or the option to roll what they had already invested into 2021. Teams with personal seat licenses, including the Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears, told ESPN they refunded, deferred or credited season-ticket accounts into 2021 while also protecting seat selections.

Ticketmaster had a long-standing policy of offering refunds only for canceled events, leaving fans little recourse if an event was rescheduled. The company changed course during the pandemic, with each event organizer determining whether to issue refunds or credits.

"The vast majority of our clients have allowed refund windows, with over $2 billion in refunds for these rescheduled events already processed," Ticketmaster said in its email.

But the situation was trickier for resale sites such as StubHub and Vivid Seats, which is the secondary market ticketing partner for ESPN. In an interview, Vivid Seats CEO Stan Chia explained that the companies simply connect buyers and sellers, keeping only the fees they charge.

"There's a big misconception that we're holding on to all this money," Chia said.

Before the pandemic, most resale sites would send the seller, often a broker, a check or wire transfer as soon as the buyer received the ticket, multiple insiders told ESPN. If a game was canceled or rained out, the sites didn't demand money back from sellers but instead deducted costs from future sales.

But when the coronavirus hit, there were no more future sales. With millions of fans clamoring for refunds, most major sites changed their policies, demanding that brokers return all or some of the money they'd received. At the same time, the resale sites announced they would no longer pay out for events until after they took place. That meant brokers wouldn't get paid for tickets they had already sold for at least a year, and perhaps years in some cases.

The brokers, needless to say, are still upset, but the change allowed the websites to start offering refunds. Chia said Vivid Seats decided to offer its buyers two options: a cash refund or a coupon worth 110% of value toward a future event, with an additional 10% going to the nonprofit MusiCares. "Over half of our customer base were actually happy to take our credit option," he said.

StubHub initially told fans they would get a coupon worth 120% of the original ticket price to use on future orders but tweaked the policy to state that if "the buyer's billing address or event is in one of 14 states with consumer laws around refund," fans could get a cash refund if they asked for it.

"You can't just force people to take a 120% credit. You have to refund people's money," ticketing consultant Wakeman said.

Many of the ticket resale websites, like other reservation-based businesses from hotels to airlines, are now facing lawsuits over their refund policies.

The new refund practices also have weeded out fly-by-night operations that end up in the news for ripping off fans. "Anyone who had a credit card and a computer called themselves a broker before the pandemic," said NATB's Adler, who represents 200 professional resellers. "I believe there will be a drastic reduction in those people."

Adler said NATB brokers offer customers a 200% cash refund if the reseller fails to deliver a guaranteed ticket for an event that takes place. If an event is canceled, they provide a cash refund for the price of the ticket.

But Adler added that if a customer prefers to receive a credit toward a future sale, most NATB resellers will work with the customer. "We've had very few issues because our resellers want to work with their buyers," he said.

All of these refunds have now fundamentally altered the industry, according to Andersen of INTIX. "We've spent 10 months saying yes and giving people their money back, which means we can no longer say 'No exchanges. No refunds. All sales are final.'"

At the ticketing conference, this was one of the most widely discussed topics. Many said teams and events had to change their exchange policies to get fans back. The big question was how.

Multiple insiders pointed to two teams -- the Seattle Mariners and the Orlando Magic -- that have begun to figure it out with what they described to ESPN as some of the most innovative and creative ticket exchanges.

The Mariners don't even call them season tickets anymore but instead offer "reserved" and "flex" memberships. Reserved plans operate much like traditional season tickets, with the added option of allowing members to return tickets they can't use. The new flex plan operates like a Starbucks card or a health savings account. Fans can preload a dollar amount starting at $600 to buy, if they want, different quantities of seats in different locations throughout the season at a discounted rate. The more fans load on their membership, the bigger the discounts they get on those tickets, food and merchandise.

The flex system is proving to be especially helpful during the pandemic as the team tries to plan a season without knowing how many fans will actually be able to attend this year. "We had a rollover rate of 92%," said Carbary of the Mariners. "The beauty of the program is it makes it a lot easier to adjust to the pandemic because of the flexibility involved."

In Orlando, the Magic still sell traditional season tickets but members get a special perk called "Magic Money." If a fan can't use two tickets with a face value of, say, $100, they get $200 in Magic Money that can go toward upgraded seats, food, merchandise and memorabilia such as an autographed Shaquille O'Neal T-shirt, access to exclusive suites and vacation packages, and special experiences like sitting in on a postgame interview.

Before the pandemic, the Magic also introduced a "seatless season ticket" called the Fast Break Pass. Fans are guaranteed a seat, but they don't find out until they enter the arena where that seat will be. "You may be down low and the next game you're in the upper bowl," said chief sales officer Michael Forde. "It allows us to bring a customer in at a fairly low-cost point, knowing they won't attend every game."

The pandemic, however, forced the team to temporarily suspend the Fast Break Pass and Magic Money. Instead, it created a "flex bank" similar to the Mariners' flex membership. It's proving so popular that Forde said there's a good chance the team will keep the flex bank option.

Stanley, with the San Francisco Giants, said he expects the pandemic to prompt most if not all MLB teams to introduce some kind of flexible ticket option this year. "We're all going to do it this year. We will see if it works and if customers like it," he said.

Leagues are paying attention to these new ideas. "The pandemic fast-tracks where we've been moving, this idea where there's a level of flexibility," said an MLB source. "If they bought a ticket for Tuesday but want to switch to a Thursday, we do want to be flexible with that."

Even NFL teams, which have far fewer games to sell, are paying attention to these experiments, knowing that fans may come to expect flexibility.

"We don't face the same pressures in Jacksonville because we don't have a NHL, MLB or NBA team," said the Jaguars' Johnson. "But if you live in Florida and it's now part of your normal purchasing habit, you may come to want that from the other teams you support."

Now that the door has cracked open, fans will keep pushing, Andersen said. "It will take a generation to get past it," she said. "But it's good for the fans. It will be driven by the fans."

3. Farewell to cash and paper tickets

One of the most tangible changes fans will notice when they return to games will be the near total disappearance of cash and paper tickets.

"From the minute they park to exiting the stadium, the idea is that they can do everything they need to do on the phone," Jeff Rubin, the CEO of SIDEARM Sports, said during the conference.

Many venues wanted to move in this direction before COVID, but going digital had two big hurdles: technology and the fan's unwillingness or inability to use it. The pandemic has accelerated solutions to both. In the last year, people of all ages have become more comfortable using mobile apps to purchase everything from paper towels to gym equipment, while the industry has had a year to improve the infrastructure supporting those apps.

"This has been such a crazy roller-coaster run," said Michal Lorenc of Google's Ticketing & Live Events division at the conference. "We really have seen 10 years of innovation in 10 months."

Fans can expect the changes to start in the parking lot, where they'll soon present a phone with a QR code or a sticker that contains radio frequency technology. "Parking has innovated more in the last two years than in the last 100 years," Chris Elliston, senior vice president of ParkHub, said at the conference.

The Miami Dolphins have already started using a digital "toll-timed pass," with a 25% adoption rate among its customers this year, according to Elliston. He explained that data sent back from these devices can tell teams how often fans are using their spots and how early they're arriving to games. "If we know the average fan is arriving two hours before, we can stick 10 bucks into their mobile wallet to incentivize them into coming into the stadium a little early," he said.

Fans will also use their phone to scan themselves through a turnstile, order food and buy merchandise. At the same time, the phone will be sending data back to the team about fan movement and spending habits.

"We view your phone as a remote control to the arena," said the Magic's Forde. "Candidly, for us, the benefit is the data. It gives me insights about who is in my building."

He explained the tricky balance between providing customers what they want while avoiding "the creepy factor where you're doing too much."

"You want to surprise and delight," Forde said. "Building a business model that depends on a 24-year-old making a free throw, when you think about it, is a bad business model. I can't control if we win or lose or if he makes the shot. But I can control the customer experience."

Until the pandemic is completely over, expect some use of technology to track fans' health status. The Magic are among teams that have contracted with the biometrics company CLEAR to help fans fill out a health questionnaire before they attend games. Fans with tickets within 30 feet of the court must also submit a coronavirus test result to the app. Teams are not able to see fans' health data, only a red or green screen indicating whether a fan may attend.

At the ticketing conference, Drew Martin, executive senior associate athletic director at the University of Texas, said the Longhorns had hoped to move to a cashless system within the next five years, but safety concerns this year fast-tracked those efforts. "We ripped the Band-Aid off," he said. "It was a huge paradigm shift."

The cashless trend has raised concerns of discrimination against people who lack access to credit cards or don't have digital devices. Some cities, including New York City and San Francisco, have banned cashless businesses after studies found that roughly one in 10 residents in New York, for instance, don't have a bank account.

To address those concerns, Martin said a credit union in Austin installed "cash-to-card kiosks" this past year at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium that allow fans to exchange cash for physical cards that can be used for food or merchandise.

The Atlanta Braves are also moving to a more mobile experience, but at the conference, the team's VP of ticket operations, Anthony Esposito, said sporting events will never be entirely free of paper.

"We're not naive," Esposito said. "There will always be people who don't own a smartphone or have the ability to purchase on a mobile device. There's always going to be printed tickets out there, but it will be smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on."

4. Bye-bye to bots

Bots have long been the scourge of the ticketing business, giving the whole industry a black eye whenever a high-profile event sells out in seconds, only to have those same tickets magically appear a few minutes later on reseller sites at higher prices.

An issue for sports and concert venues, ticket bots became a problem in 2015 after it became nearly impossible to attend the Broadway hit "Hamilton" without paying astronomical prices. In 2016, Congress passed the BOTS Act prohibiting the software. At the time, it was lauded as a long-needed solution to ticketing's troubles.

But then ... nothing.

Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department never enforced the BOTS Act, despite plenty of complaints. But two days after President Joe Biden was sworn into office, the DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission announced the first enforcement of the act and $31.5 million in fines against companies that used software to buy and flip thousands of tickets.

According to the government complaint, Evan Kohanian and his company, Just In Time Tickets, used bots along with 12,500 IP addresses and 450 different credit card accounts to illegally purchase more than 48,000 sports and concert tickets from Ticketmaster.

Just In Time Tickets made more than $8.6 million in revenue by flipping the tickets, according to the complaint. Kohanian did not respond to ESPN's request for comment. The Justice Department agreed to suspend all but $1.6 million of the fine on the condition that he no longer uses ticket bots, conceals IP addresses or purchases tickets in another person's name.

"My gut reaction was they've fired the starting pistol on what is the biggest change in tickets," said Ken Lowson of TixFan. "We are looking at a fan renaissance in ticketing."

Lowson has spent the last several years exposing the secrets of the bot business after he pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge in 2010 as part of a federal probe of his former ticketing company.

Lowson expects the government to bring actions against more companies, prompting brokers to turn to an army of "pullers," actual human beings buying the allowed limit of tickets.

He's so sure he's right, Lowson built a website during the pandemic to connect gig economy pullers with brokers.

"We will gather fans and have them pull tickets, and they can get paid a commission while we teach them all the tricks so they can learn how to get tickets for themselves," Lowson said.

5. No expected fee hikes on major reseller marketplaces

Three of the largest ticket reseller marketplaces, StubHub, Ticketmaster and Vivid Seats, told ESPN they don't plan to raise buyer fees to compensate for their coronavirus losses.

"Ticketmaster has no plans to increase our portion of fees because of the pandemic," the company said in an email. "Ultimately the majority of fees are set by venues and the event operator, but we aren't aware of any significant changes on their portion of fees either."

"I don't see a world where we are going to say, 'Because of the pandemic, we're going to pass on fees.' That's not right," Vivid Seats' Chia said. "We've built a business that allows us to compete. So no, I don't see us raising fees."

An ESPN analysis in 2018 found that Vivid Seats and StubHub charged as much as 25% of the base ticket price for some major sports events, while Ticketmaster maxed out at 20%. The companies also charge sellers a fee that brokers often bake into the ticket price. All-in, a ticket with a face value of $100 can suddenly cost more than $140.

When asked about fees, Chia said Vivid Seats' prices fall within industry standards. "I think it would be a different thing if there were fees that were massively different," he said.

Khanna told ESPN that StubHub used the lull in sales to crack one of ticketing's big hurdles: allowing fans to buy tickets to more than one game within the same transaction.

"I believe we're the first ticketing company to introduce a multi-item cart transaction," Khanna said. "It was a complex and time-consuming process that we're incredibly proud of, and I think it will have significant ramifications for when we come back in the aftermath of a vaccine."

Will fewer transactions equate to lower fees for the fan? Khanna wouldn't give a definitive answer.

"We're still working on the fee structure," he said. "There's certainly not been a conversation that in order to defray the issues of 2020 we're going to pass them on to the fan in 2021 through fees."

ESPN's Tisha Thompson can be reached at