Until the Washington Nationals started winning last year, the team’s Red Carpet Rewards program was one of the few bright spots for its season ticket holders.
Those fans earned thousands of points that could be redeemed for seats all around the ballpark, or even access to the Lexus President’s Club, where they could dine on roast beef or salmon, sample fancy desserts, then stroll to their seats behind home plate, where more food and beverages were delivered by a waitstaff.
But with no preseason notice, the Nationals front office for the 2013 season significantly diluted the Red Carpet Rewards program, and the number of points needed to buy extra benefits increased dramatically. For example, a game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday, May 25, costs 1,000 Red Carpet points for a field MVP or club seat, which is 10 times what it cost last year. The Nationals also shortened the window in which tickets can be redeemed ahead of time to one month; last year points could be used to buy a ticket for any game in the season.
Nationals fans are crying foul.
“With no announcement or heads-up, they upped the redemption levels to the point where your rewards were cut by about 80 percent,” said Tom Snedeker, a businessman who has owned season tickets every year since the team arrived in Washington from Montreal in 2005. “It’s kind of a slap in the face for those of us who have had season tickets since day one and supported the team through all the lean years.”
The program was particularly loved by fans who would buy tickets for a full season and use points to buy extras for friends and family or better seats to watch some games up close.
The outcry is a problem that many teams in baseball would envy.
The simple reason for it is the Nationals’ success on the field last year resulted in a surge in season ticket sales — and fewer seats to give away.
“We’ve had the largest increase in Major League Baseball in season ticket sales,” said Andrew C. Feffer, the Nationals’ chief operating officer. He declined to say how many season tickets the team sells but said, “We are in the top tier of the league in season ticket sales.”
Feffer said the team has expanded the options available to rewards members to include autographed merchandise, meeting players, viewing batting practice — even throwing out the first pitch — as a way to create value for season ticket holders.
“It’s not like we said, ‘Okay, you can’t buy President’s Club seats or Diamond Club seats or dugout box,’ ” he said. “Those are still available. They just cost more points to get because there are fewer of them.”
In some cases, the points needed to redeem tickets have increased by a factor of 10. Some games are blacked out altogether, including several weekend games, Opening Day and a game against Interstate 95 rival Baltimore.
Snedeker and others are irked, in part, because the 2013 season ticket down payments were due last fall, before plan holders knew the Red Carpet Rewards would be less generous.
The Red Carpet brouhaha is a primer for economics, especially supply and demand: When demand is great and supply is low, inflation follows — as it has with the program.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College and an expert in sports business, said team loyalty programs began as a way to get fans off the couch and into the ballpark or arena, where they spend money and add to the excitement.
Zimbalist said it’s no surprise that fans may be disappointed with reduced rewards because past seasons created an expectation that the benefit was part of their plan.
“One can understand the point of too many points chasing too few seats, so the [Red Carpet points] price of the seat goes up,” he said. He added that “it’s perfectly understandable that fans may think the tables are being moved on them and [think] it’s not legitimate.”
Feffer said the idea of the rewards program was to create value for loyal fans and help them fall in love with the team. It apparently worked. Forbes magazine estimates the Nationals have been among the consistent moneymakers in the league since 2006, with positive operating income every year. The team’s value is $631 million, according to Forbes.
When the Red Carpet Rewards program started several years ago, “we had a low season ticket base. The question was, ‘How do you create loyalty and affinity beyond just a season ticket?’ ” Feffer said.
With stars Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman on the field, the Nationals now enjoy plenty of fan loyalty and are in the top half of the league in attendance per game — and one of the few with an online loyalty program, Feffer said.
He added, “If you were a season plan holder in the rest of Major League Baseball, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.”
Heath has been a Nationals season ticket holder for several years.