Using strategic partnerships and online technology, athletic departments are coming up with innovative new ideas for selling and distributing game tickets.
Of all the athletic department functions that don't directly relate to student-athletes, one of the biggest is tickets. From marketing to selling to distributing tickets, there are many steps, all of which are critical for robust sales.
In this article, we take a look at some exciting and new ideas in ticket sales. For a high school, this entailed moving the process online. At the college level, one school is experimenting with dynamic pricing and another is promoting and packaging its tickets on a separate Web site devoted to customer service.
By Jim Louk
Jim Louk is Assistant Director of Athletics for Sales and Broadcasting at the University of South Florida, where he has worked since 1983. He heads up all season and group ticket sales for USF Athletics and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org as well as followed on Twitter: @USFjimlouk.
Over the past two years, professional sports teams have increasingly implemented dynamic pricing for single-game tickets. This allows an organization to continually change ticket prices in order to get the most out of sales for each particular contest. During this past football season, the University of South Florida Athletics Department became one of the first colleges to give the idea a try.
Dynamic pricing is designed to maximize revenue and establish a fair market value for tickets. Dozens of factors are considered in choosing the ticket price for a game, including the day of the week, opponent, win-loss records, market economy, weather, and much more. A comprehensive study of those issues leads to suggested adjustments in ticket prices--either up or down--designed to maximize revenue.
"Once I saw that dynamic pricing was having success in Major League Baseball and the NHL, it made me want to dig a little deeper to see if it would work in college athletics," says USF Associate Athletic Director Ayo Taylor-Dixon. "Our goal was to optimally price tickets, sell them for fair market value, and collect data to help us understand our market better."
That thought led to USF becoming the first college client of Digonex, a company that offers pricing solutions through several different products. Once the deal with Digonex was completed, the process of data sharing began between three principals: USF, Digonex, and Ticketmaster. (USF Athletics is a Ticketmaster client, using the Archtics system.)
"It is a lot of work on the front end in getting the system set up," says USF Assistant Athletic Director for Ticket Operations Colin Hargis. "We submitted every price and every price code to Digonex so they had a master list of every possible price point. Then we gave Ticketmaster a list of every potential dynamic price. But once the system is built, it's a very quick and efficient process to make the price changes."
USF receives multiple pricing suggestions from Digonex as game day gets closer--typically altering the price around one dollar up or down. Each suggestion is reviewed by USF, which has the option to make the change or not.
For example, when the USF football team hosted the University of Miami this fall in a cross-state rivalry game, demand for tickets steadily increased in the days before the game. The fan bases were energized and the weather forecast was promising. Digonex submitted suggested pricing adjustments to USF via e-mail twice per week. The reports advised keeping prices in certain sections of the stadium steady and increasing prices in other areas. USF watched seat inventory and sales patterns and accepted most of the recommendations, adjusting prices moderately upward in some areas and making no changes in others.
Making these kinds of constant changes can feel like walking on a high wire for administrators used to setting one price and leaving it the same for the whole season. "We started off gradually, by accepting a single recommendation or two as sort of a test," says Taylor-Dixon. "That worked and we went from there. A lot of it is simply having some good data from economists who are smarter than we are--they analyze the supply and demand with real time data."
Depending on how many dynamic pricing recommendations are accepted, single-game ticket prices can change many times in the days leading up to a game. As a result, USF has tailored much of its single-game ticket advertising away from listing specific prices. Instead, advertisements say "tickets start as low as ..." and buyers are directed to the athletics Web site. The marketing becomes a bit more product-based than price-driven. The belief is that the proper dynamic price will seal the deal when the buyer is ready to act.
The Tampa Bay area has been hit hard in the recent economic downturn, making precise pricing even more important. For USF prices that are too low and fail to bring in the maximum revenue can be as ruinous to the bottom line as prices that are too high and result in not enough buyers being enticed to purchase. In a college football season consisting of a limited number of home games, there are only so many opportunities to get it right.
"When you have a revenue opportunity, you can't leave anything on the table," says Taylor-Dixon. "You only have six or seven home football games per year. You have to put everything under a microscope."
USF has been pleased with the results so far. "The recommendations that we have gotten have been spot on, and it's been a positive in terms of revenue generation," Taylor-Dixon says. "It also helps us understand the market and gives us a history of all the different things that are happening--such as weather, game day, and game time--that affect the number of people attending.
"A lot of us have set our prices by just looking at what we did last year, or what the other guy is doing," he continues. "Now, we have some hard data."
The school's fans have taken the change in stride. "We haven't had any hiccups at all," says Taylor-Dixon. "Part of it is that the secondary ticket market has grown. People buy those tickets at a wide variety of prices. So I think the single-game ticket buyer has become accustomed to the type of adjustments we are making."
"We didn't receive any negative feedback on it," adds Hargis. "A key for us was the advertising, and not specifying individual game prices in advance."
The football team had a relatively successful year at the gate, considering the team's win-loss record. Finishing 5-7 and missing a bowl game for the first time in seven years, attendance still went up from an average of 40,849 in 2010 to 44,693 in 2011. While it is hard to measure a direct impact of dynamic pricing, Taylor-Dixon believes it was part of the attendance upswing.
"It's given us a chance to maximize our opportunities," he says. "We've been able to price some of our tickets in high-demand areas reasonably and fairly. That can increase both revenue and attendance throughout the stadium."
So far, USF has used dynamic pricing exclusively for football, although that will change in the future. The 10,000-seat Sun Dome, USF's basketball home, is undergoing a full renovation. When that is completed, Taylor Dixon says dynamic pricing will be a big part of the marketing strategy for the building.
"We'll take a good look at it then, especially since we play in the Big East," he says. "Both the opening of a renovated arena and the following that some of those Northeast basketball programs have will be factors worthy of analysis."
By Jim Pokrivsak
Jim Pokrivsak is Director of Athletics for the Easton (Pa.) Area School District and an alumnus of the school system. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Here in the Easton (Pa.) Area School District, we have been offering season tickets for home football and wrestling contests for more than 50 years, selling between 1,400 and 1,500 for football and 300 for wrestling each season. Our athletic department also offers individual reserved game-day tickets for those two sports, averaging 4,000 fans per game for football and 1,500 for wrestling.
Up until this school year, ticket sales were paper based and very labor intensive. We used standard roll tickets or pre-printed reserved tickets ordered from a local vendor.
Athletic Ticket Manager Jane Braido, an 18-year veteran of our department, would place ads for season or reserved tickets in our local newspaper, encouraging spectators to clip it, fill in their details, and mail it to our office. She then gathered the orders, penciled fans into a hand-drawn seating chart, and deposited their payments at the bank every few days. With no customer input, athletic office staff decided the spectators' seat locations. To the dismay of some buyers, we did not have the ability to accept credit cards.
After all spectators were accommodated, Braido would stuff envelopes with tickets, alphabetize them, and schedule times for customers to pick up their orders--a process that resulted in near constant office traffic and confusion. Unsold season ticket booklets were torn apart to become individual tickets for game-day sales. After football season, the process started again for wrestling.
Realizing how much time we were putting into our ticket distribution, we wondered if switching to a Web-based ticket management system would be a good idea. I spoke with administrators at a few nearby colleges who use online ticketing systems, researched different companies, and went ahead with the change starting with the 2011 football season. Using a company named UniversityTickets, we transformed a multi-step, multi-visit process into a one-stop purchase experience.
Now our fans may view game details and available tickets online, and then process their ticket orders with credit card payments, anytime of the day or night. They can also print the tickets from their home computers. Spectators who cannot complete online purchases are still offered the same office service they had come to expect, with walk-up sales printed on demand.
I don't know of any other high schools in Pennsylvania that offer a ticketing service like this and I feel it may be the wave of the future, especially with the technology available. But a year ago, I had a number of questions about making the switch: How hard will the transition be? Is it cost effective? How will fans respond?
Setting up the system was very easy. All it took was a few hours of inputting the 2011-12 athletic events into the UniversityTicket system. In working with the online ticketing company, we retained control over all specifics, including prices and advertised availability.
As part of the process, we now have a Web site that is our "ticket center," accessed at: www.eastonrovertickets.com. UniversityTickets creates a unique ticket site for any school using their services, and our technology department linked it to many of our school district Web sites. It lists all the games we sell tickets to, with links to purchase options. This site also has given us a great place to spell out our comprehensive ticket policy, which includes rules of attendance, purchase disclaimers, and other liability language that is important to present to spectators.
Another aspect of the new online process involves collecting the tickets at the event. For the system to work, we needed to purchase or rent barcode scanning devices for each entrance area to validate the self-printed tickets. We researched our options and decided to rent scanners from UniversityTickets as the cost was minimal.
Using the scanners has definitely been a learning experience, but we improved each week. Internet connectivity issues impacted our first football game and heavy rain made things difficult at the second. By our third and fourth games, though, we were seeing near constant success with our scanning efforts.
A great benefit of barcode scanning is that it has provided us with a host of information we've never had before. It collects data that we can review after each game and season on how many season ticket patrons are actually attending each game, spectator loyalty, and arrival times.
One thing that helped immensely during the transition was having an intern--Deanna Prosper, a student from East Stroudsburg University's Sport Management program--in our office. She input the athletic events and details into UniversityTickets' online system and researched ticket scanners before we made purchasing decisions. She also created detailed information sheets that our staff could reference for inputting information and using the ticket scanners.
In terms of cost effectiveness, we feel going online has been well worth it. The costs incurred are low and the move has allowed me and my staff to spend less time manually handling tickets and more time performing important athletic department duties with coaches and athletes. No more hand-drawn seating charts! We've cut down on paperwork and advertising costs and improved overall efficiency associated with game ticketing. I believe it will save even more time in the future as more spectators convert to online ticketing.
While we have decided not to increase the cost of athletic tickets at this time, we may do so in the future. Other schools and universities have placed the online ticketing and credit card costs on top of the event ticket pricing. They often call it a "convenience" or "handling" fee.
Feedback has been very positive. A majority of our fans are using the Web site to print their tickets from home and enjoy the convenience of the self-service platform. They don't miss having to wait in line for tickets or making repeated trips to the school. Our season ticket holders also like the speed in which we're able to fulfill orders. Others have said they appreciate the real-time view of seat availability and the ability to pick specific seats.
There were some negative comments during our first couple of games associated with slow downs at the entry gates because of problems with our ticket scanners and Internet connectivity. But by the end of the season, the process became second nature--as if we had never used rolled carnival tickets at all.
Our new ticket platform is moving forward with only a few wrinkles. We are looking into using the system for basketball games, as well as our annual Thanksgiving Day football game against Phillipsburg (N.J.) High School, which is held at nearby Lafayette College and attracts nearly 14,000 spectators. In the seasons ahead, we expect to increasingly use online ticketing and for more and more spectators to take advantage of the new system, continuing to reduce the burden on our staff.
By Jason LaFrenz
Jason LaFrenz is Associate Athletics Director for External Relations at the University of Minnesota. He was previously the Vice President of Marketing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until recently, fans of University of Minnesota athletics purchased tickets in a similar way to those at most other colleges. They logged on to our main athletic department Web site, GopherSports.com, looked for a link to tickets, and navigated around to find what they needed, whether it was prices, available seats, parking options, or anything else. Although most of the information was available somewhere on the site, finding it and then actually purchasing tickets was convoluted and confusing to our fans. We recognized that this was not a great customer experience.
This realization was part of a review process conducted by our external relations team. We were analyzing how to create a better online experience for our fans in three specific areas: entertainment, information, and customer service.
We began thinking about ways to package content that makes sense to our fans. Online customers have become accustomed to making purchases on the Web very quickly and easily. That wasn't happening consistently on GopherSports.com.
At the same time, AudienceView, which manages our fan database, customer relations system, and ticketing, fundraising, and online merchandise transactions, had recently enhanced its products to include an integrated content management system (CMS). This system allows an organization to include important game information and customer service content at the point when fans are purchasing tickets or making donations.
From there, MyGopherSports.com was conceived. This Web site would put all ticket and event-related information on one Web site that was focused on customer service. The site would also be where fans could purchase other items we sell, such as Gopher apparel, as well as make donations. The concept itself is simple, but the industry hasn't ever really split out a separately branded Web site dedicated to transactions and customer service. As we started down this path, the following objectives helped guide us:
- Keep the entertainment content on GopherSports.com.
- Create an experience that minimizes the need to navigate between multiple windows or tabs in a browser.
- Produce relevant content for customers looking to purchase and renew tickets, buy merchandise, or make donations.
- Decrease the number of clicks to make a purchase.
- Educate Gopher fans on when and why to visit MyGopherSports.com.
During our discovery phase, we discussed at length whether this Web site should be differentiated from GopherSports.com. We decided it would be easier to drive customers to the right place if we chose to call the site something new. We toyed around with names involving "tickets," but felt this was too narrow since we wanted to promote the idea that Gopher fans could buy anything they want (and manage one account) in one place.
We thought deeply about what name to give it. The recurring theme of what our fans can see and do on this Web site kept coming back to the same principle--it is a site for their interests as a customer. This is how we arrived at MyGopherSports, which debuted on Aug. 1, 2010.
From there, we began marketing the new concept to our fans: When you want to buy something from us, simply visit MyGopherSports.com. The new site actually allows us to simplify our marketing message. Whether we are promoting ticket offers, season renewals, or other consumer actions, we direct our fans to MyGopherSports.com. It is promoted on billboards and highlighted in television commercials, game announcements, and radio spots. We have even launched a customer service-related Twitter account for MyGopherSports that has more than 1,000 followers.
Along with providing our fans an easier shopping experience, MyGopherSports is allowing us to market our tickets and other products in exciting ways. Because we have full control over this site, we have been able to do whatever we want, whenever we want. These new ideas have included:
Integrated Merchandise: This past August, we chose to migrate our entire online store onto MyGopherSports with our partner, Goldy's Locker Room. Our fans can now purchase tickets, merchandise, memberships, and gift cards and make donations in one single transaction. This strengthens the MyGopherSports brand and gives fans even more reasons to visit the site.
Migrating the store also boosts sales in all areas, since at the site, customers are in shopping mode, not fan mode. The numbers speak for themselves: Merchandise revenue online increased 124 percent in one month over the previous year, and the average order size on MyGopherSports was 233 percent greater compared to the previous year. The idea of integrating online merchandise with all online ticket sales and donations seemed obvious--consumers today want to buy everything in one place (think Super Target and Costco)--yet no one else is doing this in college athletics.
Further, the integrated approach allows us to dynamically market to individual fans based on their interests. For example, if someone comes online to purchase hockey tickets, they will see suggestions for hockey merchandise. If a customer is buying football gear, they are reminded that there are tickets available for the game that weekend.
Black Friday: On the day when America is focused on finding great deals, we capitalized on a huge sales opportunity. We advertised that the site would have a ton of deals on Black Friday--everything from a Gopher Getaway hotel package to discounted tickets to stocking stuffer merchandise items. We created a compelling consumer experience while not impacting GopherSports.com. And we generated over $35,000 in ticket sales, merchandise sales, and donations through the online Black Friday promotion.
Ready for Anything: We are excited about the future possibilities that MyGopherSports will allow us. Whether we grab a huge win against a rival school, advance deep into postseason play in a sport, or secure a date to play a football game on New Year's Day, everything we've done prepares us to capitalize by having one place to send Gopher fans. Our goal isn't to have Gopher football fans go to MyGopherSports and just buy bowl tickets. We want them to shop for bowl packages (tickets, airfare, hotel), select their favorite bowl gear, sign up for our special events leading up to the bowl, and purchase anything else we have to offer.
Beyond the new integrated marketing ideas, the site is proving itself in many other ways. To start, our customer service has improved. We get fewer phone calls, and we've received great feedback on how easy it is to purchase tickets now. Second, our online season ticket renewals from 2010 to 2011 increased by 15 percent. We created a "Season Renewal Central," where fans are able to learn about everything related to season tickets and renew in the same place. This is a key difference compared to other season ticket renewal microsites that are so popular these days.
We are also happy to report that our fans are finding and using the site in a big way. We had 4.9 million page views on MyGopherSports in the first year, and in the second year, direct traffic to the site increased 40 percent.
What we've accomplished so far is only the beginning in our eyes. By having all customer data in one database, the packaging, cross-sell, and up-sell opportunities will allow us to create compelling offers to every type of Gopher fan. Whether she is a major donor and season ticket holder, or he lives in Hawaii and attending a game is rarely an option, our goal is to have something that resonates with each fan.
We are very lucky in college athletics to have such dedicated fans, but I think we are at a critical juncture because they are starting to compare us to their other consumer experiences. We need to offer our fans first-class purchasing experiences like those they find at Amazon, Apple, and Nike. MyGopherSports was a big step forward in our quest to provide the same level of excellence our fans both deserve and expect from the University of Minnesota.