Revenue / 02.23.23
Flexible Membership Subscriptions: San José State University’s Brave New World
With the COVID-19 pandemic largely behind us, it seems everyone is talking about a brave new world in which many things will look a lot different than they did before. That is as true for the ticketing industry as any other. Indeed, Assistant Athletics Director of Ticket Operations Darren Coelho is spearheading a wholesale transformation of membership subscriptions for San José State University’s (SJSU) Spartan Athletics department.
A big post-pandemic change came in the summer of 2022 when SJSU joined forces with Paciolan to create the first fully integrated intercollegiate membership subscription model that includes fundraising, ticket sales, exclusive multimedia content, events and future revenue streams. Everything is unified under One Spartan Nation.
“It is the first time that anyone has ever tried it to involve ticketing and development,” Coelho says. “The idea was to maximize as much flexibility as we could within people's buying options … Some of [the need to offer greater flexibility], I think, is in relation to being post-pandemic. As people were coming back gingerly, it offered a way for them to return as they saw fit. I think that's why some places, for a long time, especially with sports that have so many games, have offered mini plans or flexible packages. In this regard, it is twofold. It is an answer to the pandemic, and then it is also that people are managing their tickets in so many ways through so many different means that it was a way to do that, and in some regard, not worry about it anymore. Once you opt-in, we will take it from there … We had a new ticketing provider in Paciolan that wanted to take it on for us. It was simple. What did we have to lose?”
While SJSU offers a wide variety of popular spectator sports, Coelho explained that the unified membership plan has been most popular with its largest athletics programs.
“It is really focused on football and men's and women's basketball, which are clearly the three biggest revenue sports here, like a lot of places. That is really where our focus was and [where it remains] as we continue to do this,” he explains, adding that football fans can purchase season tickets, parking and hospitality, then the One Spartan Nation purchase flow encourages them toward basketball as well.
The experience is fully customizable. In the first step, fans choose their season tickets at any price level. Next, they make donations to secure parking and premium hospitality access, then select the billing plan that best suits their needs.
“We did see immediate interest from pools of season ticket holders that perhaps didn't think they were ever eligible to satisfy any interest in different buckets. What I mean is if you are a general admission season ticket holder, you were not at our highest price level to even be eligible for premium parking or premium hospitality the way it had historically been,” Coelho says. “Now, you choose your membership the way you want it, buy the ticket you want, manage the payment [and] the bill plan you want. It can be an annual subscription that a lot of people chose that just said, ‘Yes, charge me in full now, and I'm going to click a box to know that you'll automatically roll me and charge me again when it's time for the next cycle.’ And then there were a lot of people who, based on their needs or their interest in season tickets, parking, and hospitality, chose the buckets that they wanted in relation to either premium parking or premium hospitality and then chose the bill plan that would best satisfy them too.”
He adds, “It is flexible payments within flexible ticketing. It is meeting people's interests. If your traditional season ticket holder doesn't want any part of it, there is no problem. There is no pressure to opt-in for [a payment plan] … If you want to pay full freight in the summer and feel good about that, that's great. Or if you want peace of mind that you pay once and don't have to worry about it again, that is fine too. I think it works twofold. It's meeting the buyer and giving them more options as to how they want to participate.”
In addition to choosing their seat locations from a seat map, fans can choose whether to pay for their subscription upfront or spread payments out over 12 months.
“It is basically an annual subscription where you are going to lock yourself in for a single payment in initially the same seat, and that will roll [to renew] every year. [We basically are telling fans] that we are going to try to be as flexible with you as we can here; you tell us the easiest way for you to participate. And you're all treated equally, whatever you choose. Whether you have paid in full or are a bill plan person doesn't matter. Systematically, we will work through whatever you choose, but you are still a season ticket holder, and you are receiving the same options as somebody who paid in full upfront … [The] seating manifest in football and basketball has a large amount of general admission inventory. We had $72 football season ticket buyers that did opt for a monthly payment plan, and we have some that are just $6 a month. We have others that are, in basketball's case, with more games, men's and women's, maybe $108, so you're talking about $9 a month. So, it was maximum flexibility.”
Coelho says, “From people we talked to in person, on the phone, etc., many of them saw [parking] as more affordable because there was flexibility in their payment [and they could pay over 12 months as a monthly subscription]. And that was pretty cool. We had general admission season ticket holders that now opted for VIP parking and premium hospitality.”
Premium-level hospitality options are available for both football and basketball. The “Gold Room” is a premium space in the Simpkins Stadium Center, and the “Hardwood Lounge” is courtside.
“[The Gold Room] is food and beverage in advance of the game. The head coach addresses the crowd, other special guests and dignitaries, our athletic director Jeff Konya and others there,” Coelho says. “The Gold Room is [used] in advance of the game because it's in a space outside the stadium. The Hardwood Lounge [for basketball] is inside the venue behind one of the baskets, so in that case, you're allowed in 60 minutes prior to tip, but you can remain in that space with your food and beverage. You can either go to your season ticket location, wherever that is in the arena, or you can remain in that space. It has provided a unique viewing opportunity for a number of fans. You are basically on the edge of the court. It is allowing us [to offer] hospitality that they didn't have before to enjoy while they're watching, where if this was a pre-game space like it was introduced in seasons past, it was more once that pre-game event is done, you're on your own … In this regard, it is a standing space that is more communal. You see a lot of people standing in there and not even sitting. They are standing and visiting and enjoying food and beverage and cheering.”
While premium parking and hospitality have fans cheering and wanting more, other offerings have yet to spark the same high level of interest as part of a season membership. For example, fans could prepay for football and basketball concessions and draw on the credit anytime.
“This was introduced as a way for somebody to prepay a certain amount and get a discount on concessions,” Coelho says. “It didn't see a lot of action because it just wasn't what people were interested in. I think that is the balance. When you introduce something like this, you want maximum flexibility, but people are still going to choose what they want to choose [to create their membership].”
And, although San José State alumni have won 20 Olympic medals (including seven gold) dating back to the first gold medal won by Willie Steele in track and field in 1948, subscribers did not rush to purchase memberships for Olympic sports. Coelho explains that this has more to do with low get-in pricing and popular walk-up sales than a lack of interest. “Most Olympic sports are $10 and $8 to get in based on adult or youth 12 and younger. For some [Olympic sports], youth 12 and younger are free on Sundays, so it is not a big price point. Pre-paying for that has not really [been something] that people were interested in.”
While it’s hard to report on metrics during the first year, the new One Spartan Nation subscription model appears to be performing like a gold medal winner too. In 2022, SJSU sold a record number of football season tickets and had a highly successful December fundraising campaign. Trends that the ticketing team expected to see are also creating a successful overall fan experience.
“We anticipated that more people would opt in for the payment plan because we have offered payment plans before, but not in 12-month cycles, and we certainly did see that. It seemed like we anticipated and a lot more people did execute their option that way,” Coelho says. “The one [thing] that has been neat is looking through some of our people and the choices they have made. Like I said, we have baseline football season ticket holders who buy GA and opt for premium parking and/or premium hospitality. I think we always hoped for that on the outside, but to see people actually execute that and to see some new people enjoy some of these premium areas has been really cool.”
Coelho continues, “The other thing is that there was this mindset that these things are more affordable, so it's not even that it's accessible, that I wasn't even eligible for that in the past; it is that I can do a premium hospitality payment plan and pay for this for less than $50 a month, or I can park in our main VIP parking area for X amount, and I like that. I like the fact that somebody can do a standard renewal and say hit me for the whole amount and I will see you next year [or they can choose a monthly plan] … It has been a cool concept to follow along and see what people's choices are.”
What does Coelho suggest for schools and organizations considering a flexible membership model?
“[My advice] would be to look at your fan base and see if this is something you think they would absorb. In our case, we felt like, why not? Let's try it and see what happens. It continues to be a cool thing,” Coelho says. “Some schools have contacted me to talk about [it], but I haven't seen anyone take it on full freight like we have … I was on a Paciolan call with some people that we work closely with on strategy, and they indicated that a school had inquired about our model but is modifying theirs to be just nine months. They don't want to see a 12-month cycle because of summer months or some months without action or events … They want to introduce it as a nine-month [plan] where their last [payment] equals the last month of that particular sports competition.”
SJSU’s One Spartan Nation membership model is also garnering recognition through industry award nominations. The university is a finalist in the “Innovation of the Year” category at the 17th Annual Star Awards. All finalists will be honored, and winners will be announced at the PACnet conference on Feb. 28, 2023.
"We are flattered at the consideration and the nomination and are really glad that it was noticed that we were trying to change the game a little bit,” Coelho says. “We will see what happens. Award or not, the reward is in the nomination.”
Indeed, the SJSU team has earned its place in the ticketing history books and in the heart of #AllSpartans fans who want more control over their entertainment experiences.
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Tags: Memberships , Revenue , Subscriptions