Ticket sales in a socially distant environment was initially thought to be an exercise in square footage. Pro teams constructed post-COVID ticketing manifests that would enable them to fit as many fans as possible into their respective venues given local and state limitations. It was widely assumed the more fans a team could cram into a stadium, the more revenue they would generate. But as the industry continues to gain experience with live events in the ‘new normal,’ organizations across pro sports are realizing that selling tickets in pairs—which actually reduces the number of fans the team can host—is the best way to meet customer demand and maximize sales revenue.
Our Take: Orlando City SC was among the first pro sports teams to play games at home, with fans in attendance, since the Coronavirus pandemic shut down mass public gatherings. The club’s initial attempt at a socially distant ticketing manifest (like many others) mirrored the ‘bigger is better’ approach referenced. VP of Sales Chris Spano explained, “The natural gravitation is [to figure out] how to get the most seats [filled] in the building.” By loading up on six and eight ticket pods, the club designed a seating chart that would safely fit 6,500 fans (around 25% of capacity). But the team quickly learned larger blocks of tickets “are just not what people are gravitating towards right now and that the [extra] inventory doesn’t do [the team] any good if it’s out there in six-packs and eight-packs and not being consumed,” Spano said. The MLS club ended up selling just 13% of the venue’s seats to the team’s first home game since March (granted it was played on a Wednesday evening).
Orlando City tweaked their sales strategy for the next two games, breaking down four-, six- and eight-packs of tickets into pairs. The change in approach reduced stadium capacity (to between 5,000 and 5,200 seats), but it ended up resulting in a greater percentage of seats being sold and more revenue being generated. Just 13% of seats were occupied on Aug. 26; that number rose to 15% for the game on Sept. 5 before climbing to 20% on Sept. 12.
While the quality of the game and the market demand have an impact, Patrick Ryan (co-founder, Eventellect) suggested as a general rule of thumb that most teams should be allocating “60% of their [socially distanced] inventory to be sold as pairs because all of the data says that is what consumers want.” The ticketing executive also advised clubs to “stay away from six- or eight-packs. When teams are eating tickets on these events, they’re eating bigger groups.” On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs only sold tickets in blocks of four or more. The team did not sell out their limited inventory.
Spano agreed that teams should be going “heavy on pair seats and have a good amount of fours available as well, because that’s what people are buying.” He indicated that fans who want more than four seats can “likely still be accommodated [by the team] on a case-by-case basis.” For what it’s worth, 33% of tickets sold to the last three Orlando City games were sold in pairs. 38% were sold in packs of four.
Fans’ desire to purchase seats in pairs likely didn’t come as a huge shock to the Orlando City front office. The team’s average season ticket holder controls +/- 2.5 seats. It’s also worth noting that the average purchase on the secondary market is roughly the same size. SeatGeek reported that during the 2019 NFL season, 58% of sales were for two seats. In Jacksonville on Sunday, 61% of the sales on the secondary market site were for pairs.
There are likely several reasons why teams are finding fewer buyers looking for large blocks of tickets. But none are more obvious than the changing needs of the corporate buyer. Corporations buy seats to host clients. Considering that is not an exercise currently occurring, there is little reason for business executives to be buying blocks of six and eight seats (and thus little reason for teams to be offering them).
Colleges permitted to host fans this fall have sold far fewer tickets to football games than anticipated. While that may have something to do with an older season ticket base (at least relative to the pro leagues), it also reasons that many fans are simply not ready to return to large-scale events. If that’s the case, there’s no real reason for teams to worry about reducing the number of available seats by focusing on the sale of pairs over larger blocks. Ryan doesn’t think most teams, on most nights, could sell out more than 25% of their inventory right now anyway.
Spano indicated that’s likely the case in Orlando. “I’m not sure if the state said we could go to 30% capacity that the demand [for tickets] would match. The 20% mark has been a pretty consistent [benchmark] across the industry for the few teams that have had fans [to date],” he said. Remember, when Orlando City drew a near socially-distant sell-out on Saturday night they were playing Inter Miami for the first time at Exploria Stadium and it was the visiting club’s fans’ first chance to see their team in person. The road team is not going to draw like that on most nights.
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