Leadership / 05.05.21
NBA Ticketing Pros Weigh in on Whether the 2020–2021 Season Was a Slam Dunk
Professional basketball was the first of the major indoor sports to run nearly a full season with fans in seats during the COVID-19 era. With the NBA nearing its post-season, now is a good time to look back with some of the league’s ticketing professionals on what worked, what lessons were learned and what will be their most enduring memories.
The Dallas Mavericks made headlines — and pulled heartstrings — right out of the gate. Shayne Ballard, the team’s Director of Ticket Operations, says, “We used our first eight games with fans back in the arena to honor two particularly important groups of people: the front-line workers who have done so much for our community during this pandemic, and our season ticket holders [Club Maverick Members]. Everyone received complimentary tickets and parking, and the in-game entertainment was focused on letting them know the Mavs appreciated them.”
Like the Mavericks and other teams, the Phoenix Suns had to deal with a limited capacity scenario. The focus early in the season was finding creative ways to increase revenue opportunities and maintain the high standard offerings Suns fans have come to expect. Daren Mitch, Vice President of Ticket Operations, says, “Courtside seating is extremely valuable real estate for an NBA team. And if you’re faced with a decreased capacity of 50% plus, it’s imperative to utilize the space to its fullest potential. We rolled out a premium offering by placing club style sofas and coffee tables on a raised platform courtside. We provided both two- and four-pod options to ensure ample opportunities for groups of various sizes.”
The Milwaukee Health Department approved Fiserv Forum to begin hosting fans at 10% capacity (or approximately 1,800 fans) starting with a mid-February home game against the Toronto Raptors. City officials eventually approved an 18% capacity limit. As with the Suns, all tickets were sold in pods of two to four seats to ensure proper social distancing throughout the arena.
Katie Dempsey-Fischer, Vice President of Ticket Operations for the Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum, says, “We had to rethink our club spaces, especially when considering league-mandated testing that is required for fans within 30 feet from the court. We haven’t run any major promotions or added value scenarios. However, our big endeavor was adopting a mobile ordering system for all concessions, which has been a real game-changer.”
Technology has definitely played a major role in the new and vastly different fan experience of attending an NBA game during COVID-19. In fact, most of those interviewed for this article expect the innovations added or expanded will become standard leaguewide even when everything returns to “normal.” Among those is Garth Webster, Vice President of Ticket Operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. “There will definitely be touchless scanning, fewer printed tickets, fewer tickets sold face to face at the box office, and limited cash transactions,” he says.
Dempsey-Fischer agrees, saying, “I think some of the changes we have made as a building, not league-driven, are here to stay. We are now fully mobile and cashless. We also have seen a dramatic decline in walk-up sales and lean much more heavily on online sales than we have before. I think post-pandemic, our hours of operation will be minimized as customers have really continued to gravitate toward online, self-service purchase options and depend less on face-to-face, in-person assistance.”
Stevie Gray, Vice President of Ticket Operations for the Golden State Warriors, is thinking larger scale. She expects the various NBA teams will see increased digital engagement that will enhance the fan experience. To this end, she pointed to the Warriors’ virtual, reimagined game experience, the Dub Hub. “It has been such a creative opportunity for fans to deepen their communal connection with each other and the team,” she says. “And it has been an especially unique opportunity for us to host in-venue as well as virtual fans. There is the large video board behind the bench, but the virtual fan board positioned in the Warriors’ player tunnel is a unique access point that fans haven’t had before.”
She continues, “Fans get an up-close look at the team’s pre-game huddle and run-out. Players can ‘high-five’ fans and hear them as they run by. With room for 120 fans, Dub Hub participants can purchase merchandise from the Warriors Shop via the platform, choose custom signs to be displayed in game in their virtual fan box, attend VIP rooms throughout the game to interact with other fans and special guests, and watch the game from any one of four broadcast camera angles. Our experience with Dub Hub has allowed us to think more about how we scale, monetize and integrate this with the global fan.”
For such ticketing pros, managing fans’ expectations and delivering exceptional customer service have been two of the keys to success this past NBA season. This has meant calming people’s personal and health concerns. “When we welcomed our fans back, our No. 1 priority was to establish a sense of security to allow our guests a few hours to be entertained and provide them an opportunity to escape from what was happening outside our venue,” Mitch says. “Keeping that in mind, the majority of managing fan expectations revolved around providing our guests with a heightened level of safety by offering substantial and noticeable protocols.
“Prior to welcoming fans back,” he adds, “a strong focus was dedicated to customer service. For many fans, attending a Suns game was their first outing in over a year. For some, there was the natural uncertainty if it was safe to return to public events when we welcomed fans back. With that said, it was critical fans felt the heightened level of customer service along with being certain our health and safety protocols were on point. Communication was more important than ever to ensure our fans felt a level of comfort even prior to arriving at the arena as well as when they were onsite as our guest. We initiated our ‘Suns Fan/Employee Promise’ program. Through our app, fans, vendors and staff are asked to confirm that they are not exhibiting symptoms or have been recently exposed to COVID-19. By passing the brief symptoms and exposure survey via their mobile device, anyone entering the arena would earn a green checkmark to gain entry.”
Of course, there have been bumps along the way, especially with emotions and expectations high after such a long downturn. “As we all know, people don’t read,” Ballard says. “Well, except for INTIX articles, of course. We communicated our mask policy and the health check-in survey instructions through so many different channels, but we still had to deal with upset fans who were surprised by these policies.”
Gray of the Warriors feels Ballard’s pain. Her team’s challenge has also been in developing the communication needed so fans know that safety is truly top of mind throughout the organization. The Warriors sent out four surveys over the last year with two primary objectives: 1) gauging fan sentiment trends; and 2) developing a reopening strategy.
“Among the many things we learned,” she says, “is that we had to spend time earning back consumer trust, and safety had to be at the forefront of it all. Our key findings that helped us develop our reopening playbook were that fans in our market have been the most concerned about getting COVID-19 compared to all other surveyed NBA markets. Another was testing wasn’t a widely accepted precaution when we first started asking about it. But now it is. All this information helped us develop our overall testing plan. We are the first NBA team to offer a molecular COVID-19 PCR test, free of charge, at scale. We are providing tests to every non-fully vaccinated person that enters the arena, fans and staff.”
All of the interviewees agreed that this past season has been a big learning experience. They also concurred that, even though these have been some of the most challenging times of their career, some incredibly positive memories will endure. For Mitch, he will always remember the team effort. “The comradery within our organization between departments demonstrated a true all-hands-on-deck atmosphere,” he says. “Above all, this has stood out as a win and was extremely refreshing.”
Ballard believes the Mavericks and the entire NBA will look back and see that this was the crossroads of mobile technology for pro basketball. “Teams were at different levels of mobile ticket usage,” he says. “But this season has forced everyone into the deep end, and I feel like a majority will stay with mobile tickets moving forward.”
Dempsey-Fischer has the last words, and they are positive, hopeful ones. “I think we’ll look back on this time and be forever amazed and grateful with everyone’s ability to adapt and for their resiliency,” she says. “In 2018, our organization moved into a new arena, and the changes and challenges then seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Cut to just a few years later, and we were right back in it — but, this time, doing it all while working remotely. Suddenly, we were thrown into figuring out rollovers for our members from unplayed games, pod seating an infinite number of socially distanced manifests without stepping foot in the arena, and somehow becoming experts on COVID-19 testing. I could not be prouder of our ticketing team’s ability to rise to the challenge and somehow find a way to keep energy up and keep moving on past the next unexpected curveball thrown our way.”
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Tags: Sports , Stadium , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus