In the SEC, some pleading appears to have paid off. After urging University of South Carolina season ticket holders to show up last month, or at least give their tickets to someone who would, coach Shane Beamer credited the home crowd with helping the Gamecocks upset Florida Saturday.
Then he was back to selling. “We need you,” Beamer said, hawking a $20-off promotion for the school’s upcoming game against Auburn in a video posted shortly after the victory.
USC is far from alone in its hunt for butts in seats. In 2019, three NFL teams averaged less than 90% capacity. So far this year, seven teams are below that mark, according to ESPN’s count. In the NBA, half the league is currently averaging below 90%. The same is true for 15 NHL teams, triple the number from the 2018-2019 season.
“I think the narrative that everything is back to normal, which I continue to see, is just a head scratcher,” Legends VP for business operations Tim Statezni said. “There’s not a team I’ve talked to that has not had challenges with moving tickets.”
And, industry experts say, the situation is often more troubling when you go beyond simple attendance marks. Attendance numbers generally track the number of tickets distributed, whereas scan rates are used to see how many fans actually show up. According to a 2019 study in The Wall Street Journal, for instance, scanned numbers could be 50% of announced attendance for college football programs. Even at Alabama, the numbers increasingly didn’t line up, as the scanned-to-attendance ratio dropped 12 percentage points between 2014 and 2019, to 70%.
TicketManager CEO Tony Knopp said that in 2019, a scan rate around 70% was typical. Now, he’s seeing scan rates dip below 40% at times.
“That’s how we know demand is soft,” Knopp said. “A lot of the teams are playing the Aaron Rodgers game, like, I’m immunized, where they’re saying we distributed 16,000 tickets tonight, and 6,000 people showed.”
Eventellect cofounder Patrick Ryan chalked up some of the declines to COVID-related confusion, as different events and arenas follow different protocols. In Las Vegas, for example, Raiders fans are required to show proof of vaccination, while the Golden Knights require masks at home games. A single arena could host four concerts with four different policies in a month. Sometimes, fans may balk at onerous demands. Others may not find the requirements stiff enough.
“The pandemic continues to present challenges as fans and teams adapt to new routines,” the NBA’s SVP for team marketing and business operations, Jonathan Tillman, said in an emailed statement. “Many fans are still working from home … and fans across each market are still adjusting to what it means to attend a sporting event in a pandemic.”
TicketIQ founder Jesse Lawrence also pointed to group sales, which have been the last thing to return, especially children’s groups. Plus, many NBA and NHL fans likely bought tickets or renewed season-long packages before the Delta variant changed their calculus, leading to more no-shows.
“While it has been a long journey dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, seeing enthusiastic fans filling our venues during the 2020-21 NBA Playoffs and then cheering our teams at all our arenas this year gives us confidence that the league will continue to have success with attendance,” Tillman said.
An NFL spokesperson said the league’s season and single game ticket numbers are up compared to 2019. As for tickets going unused, they said no-show numbers are “moving in a positive direction” on a week-to-week basis.
But the dips sports are seeing this season also fit with some years-long trends. Ten years ago, brokers “were just making piles of money” reselling tickets, Stage Front head of partnerships and marketing Mike Guiffre said. Teams understandably started raising prices to collect more of that value. But that led to season ticket holders dropping off, especially as fans grew more comfortable buying tickets as needed on secondary marketplaces. “Then COVID put the pedal to the metal on that,” Guiffre said, “and now there’s just too much supply out there.”
Of course, increased supply and dropping prices will only further encourage season ticket holders to flee, exacerbating the problem. Many are already opting for partial-season offers. “If the pricing continues the way it is now with this supply,” Guiffre said, “it’s just going to be a race to the bottom.”
Today, teams are left playing a dangerous game. They’re attempting to fill seats—and in many cases recoup losses from a year without fans—without flooding the market or upsetting season ticket holders. The economics of supply and demand will always be complex, but this year’s factors only make it harder for teams to balance their short-term and long-term interests.
Statezni said clubs are increasingly interested in selling discount tickets without them showing up on secondary marketplaces like StubHub, directly targeting specific fan groups like students or employees. They’re also working more closely with distributors, like Eventellect, to establish more deliberate sales and pricing strategies across platforms.
“The market has really started going from brokers and scalpers to partners,” Ryan said. “It went from working with brokers out the side door or the back door. It became working with brokers through the front door.”
Staff reductions forced by the pandemic have only made those relationships more important. “The inside sales teams have been decimated,” Lawrence said. “So there’s less people trying to sell more.”
The real test of how well the sports ticket market will bounce back from COVID will likely come next year. Teams often let season ticket holders defer their 2020 tickets a year, decreasing volatility for now and leaving a big question mark for 2022 when a wave of season ticket decisions get made.
For the time being, teams can prove their worth on the field. “When LeBron James and the Lakers come to town, COVID isn’t a factor,” Ryan said.
They’re also trying to show season ticket holders additional value beyond the games by offering access to players, merchandise discounts and more. It may prove easier to court fans now rather than plead with them later.