NFL ticket sales are affected by lockout


It’s an offseason of uncertainty for the NFL and its locked-out players, and it’s affecting businesses linked to the league both directly and indirectly. (Mel Evans/AP)
June 7, 2011

It was about 10:30 one night last month when Frank Fullerton opened his laptop. He was in the “Panthers room” of his home on the outskirts of Charlotte. While most of the house features neutral colors, in this room Fullerton has a giant 12-foot team logo painted on a blue wall. A custom-made Vinny Testaverde Panthers jersey hangs near the entrance.

Fullerton began typing. “I’m selling my season tickets for the coming season,” he wrote, “if there is one.”

He’s owned the two seats in Section 321 since the Panthers moved into Bank of America Stadium in 1996. His passion for the team hasn’t wavered, despite the team’s dismal 2-14 record last season. But he lost his sales job a couple of years ago. He lived off old stocks for a while and though he’s only 53 years old, he recently began dipping into his IRAs.

“Same thing that’s happened to a lot of people,” is how he explained his situation. “Companies have been cutting back everywhere. It makes it hard for anyone to justify three grand for football games.”

The advertisement for his tickets went up on Craigslist. He was only asking for face value, but no matter how many times Fullerton checked his inbox, there was no response.

It’s a tough time to sell pro football tickets. Since NFL owners locked out their players in March, league officials, ticket brokers and season ticket holders have all reported a difficult time moving tickets.

NFL owners and players are at a stalemate in negotiations for a new labor agreement, and they might stand to lose the most by a prolonged work stoppage. But there is a trickle-down effect that has many others carefully monitoring the dispute, from those in charge of merchandising to the restaurants and bars surrounding NFL stadiums to businesses large and small that depend on the NFL for advertising, entertaining clients and promoting their brands.

“We’re one of the peripheral figures that are affected by this lockout,” said Glenn Lehrman, a spokesman for StubHub, one of the most popular outposts for buying and selling tickets on the secondary market. “Like so many others — vendors, merchants — we’re all in the same boat.”

The two sides have recently begun private talks about a labor deal, and an agreement couldn’t come soon enough for many. While the full impact wouldn’t hit until September, some businesses have contingency plans in place. The lockout has presented large advertisers such as Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch and Mars, maker of the Snickers candy bar, with difficult decisions about budgeting, media buys, in-store displays and campaign rollouts.

‘A huge, huge swing’

Those in the ticket business are already feeling the impact. Ticket sales are down 53 percent from the same time a year ago, according to Don Vaccaro, chief executive of TicketNetwork, one of the country’s leading online ticket exchanges.

“That is a huge, huge swing,” he said. “It seems that a lot of folks on the lower end aren’t buying tickets, and it could be the start of a multiyear problem for the NFL, like we’ve seen with some other leagues.”

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, met last month with the 32 team owners at their quarterly meeting and apprised them of the situation.

Technically, season ticket sales across the league are up, according to league spokesman Brian McCarthy, but it’s hardly an encouraging sign.

While general season ticket sales through April actually were slightly ahead of last year's pace, McCarthy said sales numbers through May now trail last year's figures. Even though figures might've appeared strong in early spring, McCarthy explained that it's not a simple apples-to-apples comparison.

“The big picture is still bad news,” he said.

First, all those tickets aren’t paid in full, as many teams began offering flexible payment plans this season and have only collected deposits by this point. Also, anticipating the lockout, many clubs began making their push for ticket sales several months earlier than usual. And while general ticket sales might be slightly up, the higher-priced club seats and suites are down — in both renewals and new sales — constituting a huge chunk of revenue for many teams.

“The longer it goes, the worse it’ll be,” McCarthy said. “It’s real revenue that’s lost to the owners, but also money lost to the players.”

Many NFL franchise ticketing departments had to get creative to combat the lockout. In Jacksonville, the Jaguars offered prizes and high-end coupon books to fans who bought tickets. Redskins fans who renewed their season tickets received free seats to non-football events at FedEx Field — a college football game, a soccer match or a Kenny Chesney concert.

All but one team — the New York Giants — are requiring at least a fraction of payment from season ticket holders, even with the start date for the new season apparently in jeopardy. With lower revenue than usual, many clubs have been forced to make cuts. About one-third of teams, in fact, have instituted furloughs, slashed salaries, frozen openings or let go some staff members.

Miami Dolphins employees saw their salaries cut up to 20 percent, while the Buffalo Bills have stopped funding their coaches’ retirement plans. Arizona Cardinals employees have been forced to take a one-week furlough. In Oakland, team employees — including coaches — can avoid furloughs and salary cuts if they sell a certain number of season tickets.

Detroit Lions President Tom Lewand reported last month that the team’s new ticket sales and season ticket renewals were both “significantly” up from a year ago. Still, that didn’t stop the Lions from beginning two-week furloughs for some team employees, while coaches faced salary cuts up to 25 percent during the work stoppage.

‘People are scared’

It all circles back to fans, who provide the money and interest that fuel pro football’s engine. Internet message boards and online classifieds sites are littered with posts from fans trying to unload tickets. Many have lost jobs, are being relocated by their employers or simply frustrated with the lockout.

TicketNetwork’s Vaccaro says ticket sales on the secondary market provide a direct reflection of fan sentiment. If many are trying to unload tickets — or if many are abstaining from buying them — it’s an indicator of unrest. If tickets fetch high prices and are hard to find, interest is high.

“You see price trends, sales numbers, and it very much matches how fans are feeling,” he said. “Do people want to go to the games? Stay home? Are they eager to get rid of their seats or buy them?”

Danny Matta has run Beltsville-based GreatSeats.com for nearly two decades and typically handles about 500 seats per Redskins game. With the season in flux, Matta says he’s not even buying tickets right now, even though he has plenty of regular customers eager to unload their seats on him.

“If they settle today, my phone is going to fall off the hook — people looking for money,” he said. “Right now, basically a lot of people call to sell me their season tickets, and I have to tell all these people that I can’t pay for them right now. I don’t want to tie the money up until we know we’ll have a season.”

Others are taking a different approach. The selling of sports tickets is not only a billion-dollar industry; it’s also a complex business.

“The thinking is like any other investment, buy low, sell high,” said one Baltimore Ravens fan who uses tickets to Ravens and Redskins games as a money-making enterprise. The fan is a federal government employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because his bosses do not know about his off-hours hobby.

Many teams, including the Ravens, require fans to purchase PSLs — personal seat licenses, which essentially give them the right to then buy a season ticket. These licenses can cost several thousand dollars when a team is winning. The Baltimore fan anticipated the lockout and sold off many of his PSLs last year. But as the lockout neared, he spotted many PSLs selling for low prices — next to nothing, he says — and he couldn’t resist. He now has 32 PSLs. He hasn’t been able to sell any of them but figures when the lockout ends, he’ll eventually see a return on his investment.

“There’s a risk,” he said. “Usually, by this time of year, I’d have dozens of e-mails and several commitments. This year, people are scared. No one will even leave a down payment.”

At StubHub, NFL tickets are being sold as “contingent events” and, Lehrman said, “we don’t really even count it as revenue.” Sales typically increase as the opening week of the season draws near. In July, StubHub and every other ticket dealer will really start to feel the pinch.

“The NFL is big business. I think we’re looking at the double whammy coming up with the NBA,” Lehrman said, noting the pending labor showdown facing professional basketball. “That could be an even bigger hit, because there’s more games.”

Most in the ticket industry — and the other businesses tangentially associated with the NFL — are counting on the lockout ending and fans immediately flocking back. Already, Vaccaro says, fans have found other outlets for their entertainment dollar. While he says football ticket sales are down 53 percent, baseball is up 36 percent and professional soccer is up 55 percent from the same period a year ago.

“We know that damage has already been done,” said McCarthy, the NFL spokesman. “We’ve seen it financially and from a brand and fan perspective. We see it and hear it every day. We see it in our own national sponsorship business, merchandise sales and on the local level. Is there a magic switch that we can throw? Maybe, but it won’t be 100 percent panacea for us.”

Outside of Charlotte, Fullerton, the die-hard Panthers fan, has twice posted a Craigslist advertisement for his two season tickets and has yet to get a response. He wants to keep the PSL, so he can purchase his season tickets again in the future.

If he can’t sell the tickets, he says he’ll try to sell them off game-by-game, if and when the 2011 season begins. And failing that, he’ll slip on his Testaverde jersey and enjoy his seats himself. Like a lot of teams, the Panthers have a flexible payment plan, so Fullerton still has some time before he has to come up with the cash for his seats. Ninety percent is due when the work stoppage ends, though Fullerton still hasn’t coughed up the 10 percent that was due in April.

For now, he figures the NFL and the Carolina Panthers need him more than he needs them. “I think they’re scared,” he said. “They can’t afford to lose fans right now.”

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