A few weeks ago, I questioned the merit of the New York Red Bulls and other MLS teams using Groupon, the popular group discounting site, to move tickets.
Working in Silicon Valley (and mind you Groupon is based in Chicago), we’re deluged with tech companies and “tech-hopeful companies” (companies who have one feature, but lack a true business model) all the time and there is often a pre-disposition by existing brands to glom on to the latest tech company or partner su jour just for the brand equity value so they can say they’re hip or on the vanguard of technology.
In terms of Groupon–the current tech high flyer–I reasoned that fans would be conditioned to wait to purchase MLS tickets until they became available on Groupon and that season ticket holders would be upset–and clubs would face a backlash when they saw fans could wait and buy hugely discounted tickets and maybe get some goodies to go with it.
Groupon, I reasoned, would only be good for building an email list and marketing to fans after the Groupon offer.
Turns out–as is typically the case–I was half-right, half-wrong. First on the right side, many teams do use Groupon just to build list and question the long-term viability. However, most fans–those I talked to were the hard-core passionate type on Twitter–actually were fine with the offerings just to increase support for their team.
Didn’t expect that.
Given that TSG preaches statistical or experiential evidence above all, we reached out to a few ticket departments at MLS hops and got quite an education.
Below, a compiling of answers from the Chicago Fire, FC Dallas and Sporting KC on MLS ticket sales and ticket philosophies.
A huge thanks to the respective Director of Sales at each organization, specifically Jake Reid of Sporting KC, Kris Katseanes of FC Dallas and Mike Ernst of the Chicago Fire (with support from Communications Manager Brendan Hannan.)
On ticketing sales, have sales thus far been in line with what was forecasted at the beginning of the year? If possible, please offer your season ticket projections versus year to date.
JR, Sporting KC: Right now sales are exceeding expectations for the year for our season tickets. We had hoped to be at 10,000 by the home opener on June 9th, and we have already surpassed that figure.
KK, FC Dallas: Sales have been great, and we have surpassed our renewal and new FSE goals. Through four games, we are a bit ahead of our overall group sales plan. (*TSG note: FSE stands for Full Season Equivalents. It’s the number of seats guaranteed to be sold per game before groups and individuals buy tickets.)
ME & BH, Chicago Fire: The Club set a record for most new season tickets sold in a year. Through four games, our paid attendance is up 19% over 2010.
*TSG Note: Important to remember that the US economy on average is better in 2011 than in 2010.
What’s a challenge that is unique to marketing and selling tickets for your specific team?
JR, Sporting KC: We have at an extremely busy year with the rebrand of the team, the new stadium being build, and starting the season with 10 straight road games. Our biggest challenge thus far has been selling season tickets without having a home game until June!
ME & BH, Chicago Fire: The Fire face the challenge of playing in one of the most saturated sports markets in the United States. Chicago contains a number of storied sports franchises. The competition for the sports entertainment dollar can be a challenge in our market.
KK, FC Dallas: Relevance in the marketplace…going head to head with long-standing traditions of the Cowboys, Mavs and Rangers…we’ll get past it, but it is the biggest battle we face.
On average how does team performance impact ticket sales in MLS soccer in season?
JR, Sporting KC: Certainly team performance will always play a factor. However, I believe with season ticket sales most of the buying process comes down to value (cost savings vs single game tickets), extra benefits, and the level of service they receive throughout the year. It’s tough to judge how team performance has affected us, because our fans have yet to see us win or lose at home.
ME & BH, Chicago Fire: MLS is like any other sport in that there is a correlation between ticket sales and team performance. We feel the biggest impact from team performance in our Ticketmaster and Walk Up sales. (*TSG note: “Ticketmaster” sales are likely those that come from marketing a “Geo”…as in a city…and not the specific team as the Fire do on their tickets page of their web site.)
KK, FC Dallas: I’ve always thought that it can help because the message is easier to sell a winning team, but it shouldn’t ever be a negative reason why sales can’t occur.
What opponents are the biggest draws for your teams and why do you think they are?
JR, Sporting KC: Chicago is a huge game for us. Local Midwest rival for us. LA will always be a big game, most of your casual soccer fans know the household names of Donovan and Beckham.
ME & BH, Chicago Fire: LA Galaxy and NY Red Bulls, all based on star power. Ticket sales for other matches fluxuates based on the day, date, and time of the match.
KK, FC Dallas: It’s obvious for us…LA and NY for the star factor and Houston from a rivalry standpoint
How do you feel about using a site like Groupon–do you use Groupon–which offers discount tickets to fans who may or may not have been to an MLS game before?
KK, FC Dallas: We’ve used Groupon four times in the past two years…it’s moved about 1,000 tickets on average for us. The only way it makes sense is if someone has distressed inventory, but if you do it’s a great avenue. I would also caution someone about being specific in negotiations when securing these deals (exclusivity clauses, actual reach of the offer, primary v. secondary offers, etc.) because it can prove to be less effective if you don’t get the right arrangement.
JR, Sporting KC: We used Groupon once last year, and it shifted 1200 tickets in roughly 24 hours. I believe in the right situation, it can be useful, and beneficial to drive new fans to your stadium. However, overall I’m not a firm believer in price slashing. I think you need to protect your price integrity, and drive new fans through added value. This also helps you protect and ensure season ticket holders always have the deepest discount on tickets, which is vitally important.
ME & BH, Chicago Fire: We have been an avid users of Groupon since their inception in 2009. We have found that it is a great opportunity to drive paid trial of our product. This often times leads to long-term fans. For example, this past offseason we did a season ticket offer via Groupon for the first time, we sold 400 season tickets in 3 days.
React to this statement. Sunil Gulati recently, tongue-in-cheek perhaps, said that MLS ratings may lag because diehard fans are going to game. Do you think this is the case?
JR, Sporting KC: Not at all, I believe that similar to college football 10-15 years ago. As the fan base and popularity grow, you will see attendance increase, and TV rating go up. I believe the two go hand in hand, and one is not counterproductive to the other.
ME & BH, Chicago Fire: No. With increased marketing and media awareness ratings will continue to improve. The Chicago Fire drive fans to attend matches at TOYOTA PARK and take part in the exciting, engaging game day atmosphere, however, we continue to encourage supporters to watch our matches live on Comcast SportsNet Chicago and My50 for all home and away games.
KK, FC Dallas: I do think diehard fans are going to the games more as we continue to put more emphasis on them being the primary target. It makes sense I guess, but wouldn’t have any foundation for supporting or refuting it.
Some of you are opening new stadium this year or recently have, what’s the “most sellable” aspect of a new stadium? The view? The food? Alternate entertainment?
JR, Sporting KC: Our stadium will be the most technologically advanced in North America when it opens in June. The views are outstanding, the sightlines are tremendous no matter where you sit. We have a one of a kind supporters club for our 2000 fans sitting in the members section, the first of its kind in MLS. We also have a 360 degree canopy which provide coverage from rain for every seat in the building. The canopy will keep the sound in, therefore creating a loud, very intimidating home field advantage for our players, and an exciting atmosphere for all of our supporters.
KK, FC Dallas: I was part of opening Rio Tinto in Salt Lake as the Director of Sales. The most sellable aspects were investment in long-term seat location–someone being able to secure a seat for life that would not otherwise be available in 5-10 years–and new seating perspectives, amenities, experiences that weren’t available in the previous stadium, especially premium options.
I can imagine that parking would be a big factor for some even though it wasn’t as big a deal for us.
What one improvement you’d make to your league or your team that you would say would dramatically improve ticket sales? An answer of “winning the Supporters’ Shield” or “winning the MLS Cup” is disqualified.
JR, Sporting KC: Promoting the young talent in our league. I think we need to promote the stars of tomorrow more. Right now the casual fan doesn’t know our players, therefore they don’t understand how many phenomenal athletes we have in this league. You look at the NBA/NFL/MLB…each team has players that are household names to even casual sports fans, we don’t have that.
KK, FC Dallas: More ticket sales people who are well-trained (which we have been the beneficiary of here and it’s working!). See more on this topic here.
ME & BH, Chicago Fire: Increased exposure in the market place would improve ticket sales. The Fire garner publicity from a number of local and national outlets, however, additional coverage and exposure across all media platforms would help increase ticket sales revenue in the Chicagoland area and across ML
TSG: Could not agree more on Jake’s sentiments on promoting young talent. To me, in terms of league exposure, it’s a crucial one for MLS to get right. The main challenge of course being, with young talent in MLS getting better by the year, how much promotion can and should you give to a player who may jump to Europe for a better salary and allure of playing in a better league.
The league saw this with a player like Sacha Kljestan, who was featured in a set of Adidas ads and then jumped the pond. Stu Holden himself–as we see with the scheduling of a Houston-Bolton friendly–would have been an ideal ambassador to fill the new Dynamo stadium. Specific to this column, Teal Bunbury is a critical marketing fixture already for Sporting KC, but might he one day soon go to Stoke City?
Big challenge there and more discussion in an upcoming column. Oh and on a note, wholly different, and cyclical, challenges for the US national team. Current sales for the US-Spain friendly are just shy of 6,000 off for a record in New England. 52,000 sold. Record is 57,407.