Are the Green Bay Packers really puzzled about their playoff ticket sales problem?

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The Green Bay Packers are surveying their season ticket holders to try to figure out why they had 40,000 tickets left to sell and were flirting with a television blackout, just days before they dropped a 23-20 game to the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau in the first round of the NFC playoffs. What is surprising to me is not so much that it was a struggle to sell out – (and actually, they didn’t, in a traditional sense. Some white knights bought blocks of tickets after the NFL extended the deadline) – but that they don’t clearly understand why that happened. We’re not talking about rocket science here. We’re talking about economics and customer value.

First, the Packers sent out their invoices for the tickets at a time when it didn’t look like the team had a snowball’s chance in hell of hosting a game.  It seemed very likely that the Pack would probably finish third in the NFC North and it was only thanks to a late season collapse by the Detroit Lions and a 2-4 finish by the Chicago Bears that Green Bay ended up as a division champion with an 8-7-1 record. What was pretty clear was that in the unlikely event that a game would be hosted by Green Bay, the visiting team would be the one to bet on. The NFC North stunk this year, but somebody still had to win it.

The Packers didn’t have much choice about the timing of playoff ticket invoices, but then there was a cavalier little change they made in their playoff ticket purchase policy: If you bought these tickets for games that would probably not be played, you would pay immediately and there would be no refund. The payment could only be applied to next year’s season ticket invoice. This is the kind of stuff that sounds fine at the country club, but can go over poorly elsewhere, as it did:

Remaining Credit Balance *** REVISED THIS YEAR*** 

  • In the event one or both games are not played at Lambeau Field, and/or the Wild Card game is played instead of the Divisional Playoff game, your remaining credit balance (less the $3 handling fee) will be automatically applied to your 2014 season invoice, to be sent in early February. This change is being implemented in an effort to simplify the refunding process, to be consistent with other NFL teams, and because there is minimal time between the end of the playoffs and the onset of invoicing for the next season.

Actually, the change was being implemented as yet another manner in which the Packers would like to use their fans’ money for free, which is something they are pretty good at doing already. The Packers said they didn’t think this was a big deal, since half of their season ticketholders did that anyway. (What about the OTHER half, one might ask? Well, that apparently didn’t occur to the organization, since the policy change was made to benefit the PACKERS – not their customers.)

Contrast the Green Bay Packers’ policy with that of the Seattle Seahawks – the team that is going to the Super Bowl to represent the NFC:

“Season ticket holders have first right of refusal to purchase their same season ticket location for all potential playoff games. Our “Pay as we Play” plan allows you to reserve your seats without making a payment until each Playoff game is confirmed. Simply go to My Account Manager, select your Playoff tickets and enter the credit card you would like to use.”

That is a CUSTOMER-FOCUSED policy and it comes from a team with a far stronger record this year in a much more populous metro with an annual household income that is almost $18,000 higher, with private team ownership.

Now, I will be the first one to tell you that you couldn’t have paid me $115 to cart myself over to Green Bay and freeze my butt off watching the Packers end their mediocre season in a playoff game that never should have happened – and that is without the distraction of having to pre-pay for next year’s season. But let’s keep in mind that the weather was not as much of a factor when the season ticket holders balked on a December 4 purchase deadline.

I don’t have season tickets to the Packers and I’m not on the waiting list, either. But I did hold season tickets to the Minnesota Vikings for more than a decade and so I’ve purchased hundreds of NFL tickets over the years, including some for the Packers on an individual game basis in Green Bay and others as part of the Minnesota Vikings season ticket package. And I’ve also heard all of the snarky comments about the Vikings never winning a Super Bowl and how if the team isn’t winning, there will be empty seats in Minnesota, both of which are absolutely true. Because unlike the situation in Green Bay, the deal in Minnesota — and for a lot of other professional sports franchises — is that it is a performance-based system. There is a real cost for a team not performing well and really, there are worse things than that.

While most of Wisconsin glories in the fact that the Green Bay Packers are practically a religion, what has finally happened in Packerland is that the team may have to figure out that it truly can go too far in taking their crazed fan base for granted.  After years of jacking up their ticket prices, charging seat licensing fees that that essentially amount to an interest-free loan to the team, flogging worthless stock upon which a profit can never be made, a state income tax check-off for donations, vanity license plates and assuming that they can blow off any inconvenience to their many blue collar fans who know that having season tickets makes them some of the chosen few, they’ve finally found the tipping point. It’s not cold weather, it’s not the ticket price and it’s not even having the weakest playoff team in the field.

It’s the resale value, stupid.

For many Packer fans, their willingness to cough up thousands of dollars every year for season tickets – because they are bought in groups of tickets, not single tickets for single games — is based on the knowledge that even if it’s pretty pricey entertainment for a modest household budget, buyers can invariably recover and even profit by turning some of their tickets. Those holding the 7-game or 3-game packages could generally count on getting face for pre-season and a decent margin for regular season games. Sell off a game or several at a profit and you’re a long way toward going to a few games for free every season or at the very least, making the cost a whole lot more manageable.  But combine 40,000 tickets for a playoff game coming on the market with a week to move them to anyone who will buy, a miserable weather forecast, a likely loss — and the chances for hedging the bet with a resale opportunity being lower than the icy temperatures — and it’s an entirely different matter.  All of the sudden, the ticket selling function isn’t the occupational equivalent of working as a tree surgeon in Death Valley. You’re back to a classic market that moves on fear and greed.

“In announcing the sellout on Jan. 3, Packers president Mark Murphy spoke of the team’s intent to follow up with a survey to determine why fans stayed away from Lambeau Field.

As for why fans didn’t go to the game, the survey gave choices of cost of tickets, playoff fatigue, quality of TV broadcast and the weather forecast. Kickoff temperature for the game was 5 degrees.”

My take is that the Packers can survey their fans all they want, but the 800 pound gorilla in this year’s rebuff of playoff tickets by the club’s most ardent fans starts and ends with people understanding that the secondary market is critical to the success of the primary market. There were already storm clouds gathering with falling ticket resale prices after Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone Nov. 4 – a full month before the deadline for the Pack’s season ticket holders to pay up for playoff games, which the team led up to with three more losses and a tie. The secondary market for playoff tickets was essentially gone a month before the game. The Green Bay Packers knew it and even more importantly, their fans knew it. The Packers also knew weeks earlier that they would have a ton of playoff tickets to sell into an unrestricted market if they ended up hosting a game. That would have given other potentially interested fans a chance to plan for the possibility of a game, but why make a big deal out of the soft sales to season ticket holders when there was a very good chance it could end up being a moot point?

Adopting a fan-friendly policy would mean not holding up fans a few weeks before Christmas to pay early for next year’s games and it would have gone a long way toward preventing the need to sell 40,000 tickets to a poor matchup on a lousy day under the threat of a television blackout. And if they want to go even further, they could cut the price of pre-season games and spread the cost of the discount over the eight regular season games to make it revenue neutral, but a far more honest pricing model. (The Badgers already did this in 2013 with $45, $55 and $65 tickets for the very same seats at games, with the price varying based on the quality of the opponent.)

When I was in the utility business, I tried to advocate for customer policies that presumed customers had a choice, even though they may not realistically have had one. The Green Bay Packers would do well to consider the same, since it is just about the time you begin thinking you’re invincible that you tend to find out you’re not.

JR

Semi-related: Ticket prices to the cold weather Super Bowl are dropping:

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/football/super-bowl-ticket-seekers-snow-article-1.1593428

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2 Responses to “Are the Green Bay Packers really puzzled about their playoff ticket sales problem?”

  1. March 24, 2014: It looks like the NFL won’t be waiting for the Packers to figure it out:

    http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/sports/251994941.html

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