Ticket stubs to major sporting events could soon become a thing of the past. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
A couple of months ago, I went to my parents’ house to collect some sports memorabilia for a home office I’m building in my basement. After poring through cards and bobbleheads and books, I stumbled upon a collection of my old tickets. There must have been a few hundred there -- from baseball games and concerts, basketball lanyards, football media passes -- which I'd forgotten I still had. I completely diverted my attention from what I was originally doing, sitting on the floor like a kid with a new Christmas toy.
That’s what tickets do. They bring us back to where we were. They provide a touchstone to our memories and our histories as fans. And soon, they might not be around anymore.
“Tickets are tactile with ripped edges and art,” said Stadium Journey founder Paul Swaney.
Stadium Journey is a website devoted to the fan experience, and Swaney and his team of reviewers detail everything from parking to food at venues all over the world.
“When you hold a ticket in your hand, it brings back a real variation of memories from the event. It might be the restaurant I went to before the game, a fan I talked to, the game itself. The ticket is a gateway to a memory.”
With the rise of paperless ticketing spearheaded by the Cleveland firm Veritix, which owns Flash Seats, a 2,500-year-old tradition appears to be dying a slow death. Tickets have been around for nearly as long as there have been shows or events, something evidenced by early tokens found in Turkey. Still, in the history of ticketing, there have been no truly disruptive shifts.
“Veritix was founded to do nothing short of making history,” Veritix CEO Samuel Gerace said. “I don’t mean in the Abraham Lincoln sense, but in the basic definition of the word. We want to cause something to appear in the historical record that’ll be evident for generations to come, or more accurately to cause something to disappear from the historical record that’s been there for 2,500 years. In 2,500 years, nothing’s fundamentally changed. Whether it’s stone or leather or four-color paper, we’ve been giving someone a physical token that was evidence of their right to get into an event.”
In 2006, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert brought in Gerace in to oversee a new project. Gilbert’s investment group had purchased the patent to a digital ticketing software solution and wanted to build a company around it. The result was Flash Seats, which ultimately led to Veritix. The company isn’t just concerned with convenience getting people through turnstiles; it also aims to understand fan behavior and the relationship between the venue and the attendee.
This idea may seem basic in principle, but it's a notion that has been neglected for a long time. Gerace indicated that an average venue knows the identity of approximately 30 percent of attendees at a given event. Flash Seats allows a venue to up that number to 100 percent, which can do a lot for demographic and psychographic information. This info is incredibly useful to a school like the University of Miami, which recently launched a new Game Pass card for season-ticket holders.
“We recognize in all sports and especially in our market here there is a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar,” University of Miami assistant athletic director for digital media strategy Brian Bowsher said. “Our season-ticket holders are supporting us in every game, and we definitely want to protect them first and say thank you with this program. We want fans at every game and coming early. The more fans we have earlier, that lessens the congestion at the gates and creates a better atmosphere for the student athletes.”
The Game Pass card is tied into a new loyalty program, in which Miami season-ticket holders earn points for attending games, going into the stadium early and buying merchandise and concessions. When a person has acquired enough points, he or she can redeem them for a variety of rewards, ranging from a spring practice invitation and signed footballs to seat upgrades and limited meet-and-greet experiences.
Miami is hoping more people take pictures of their Game Pass than of an empty Sun Life stadium in 2013.
While Bowsher hasn’t seen anyone else in college with a similar practice, Miami is modeling its program after the one used by various MLS franchises, including the Vancouver Whitecaps’ “Caps Card.”
It's an interesting parallel between the MLS, which is constantly looking for ways to develop fan loyalty, and Miami, which has weathered a relative storm of inconsistency, coaches, NCAA sanctions and disappointing performances since Larry Coker’s inaugural year (the 2002 BCS championship loss to Ohio State). The 'Canes are searching for ways to get fans inside the gates early and often, and their efforts seem to be working: With the heightened buzz surrounding the program thanks to coach Al Golden’s rebuilding job, season-ticket sales are up more than 30 percent. According to the Miami Herald, the game against Florida on Sept. 7 will be the 'Canes' first home sellout in almost three years.
Bowsher says 6,500 of the close to 30,000 season-ticket holders have opted into the program so far, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. People have taken photos of the pass and shared them socially, much in the same way people used to take pictures of their season-ticket books. He indicated the Hurricanes are sending out a non-use commemorative ticket to season-ticket holders, for those who long for collectable tickets as well. There is a website fans can visit to print, donate or give their tickets to friends, which would invalidate the Game Pass bar code for that particular game.
It’s clear Miami’s focus with this program is on the fans, but as is the case with all paperless ticketing options, it won’t hurt to gather additional information on season-ticket holders’ consumer behaviors. A simple swipe lets the university know when a fan is through the gates, what they typically order at concession stands, how many games the fan is attending and if he or she is purchasing merchandise. It’s a practice Gerace calls a “marketing information system,” and he sees it as the future of event venues as a whole.
Flash Seats is being used by a number of NBA and MLS teams, as well as the Detroit Lions and the Colorado Avalanche. But college is the next frontier. Last year’s Final Four was the largest digital-ticketing event ever, and Veritix has four schools signed on (Texas A&M, UT-Arlington, Duquesne and Boise State) with more set to come.
The college market is one in which Veritix has barely touched the surface. Gerace realizes fanaticism and donations go hand-in-hand when it comes to college athletics, and by organizing an integrated system, schools can more readily track donating and attendance behavior so they can speak to individual fans with a more well-informed voice.
But what about the fan experience in general? It’s clear not everyone wants to be thought of as a number or a guinea pig. People are already sold things in practically every facet of their day-to-day lives. Should schools really know more about fans, especially at the expense of the memories associated with ticket stubs?
“I would hope that if this becomes a trend all the time,” Swaney said, “and no stadium is issuing tickets at all, I want there to always be an option for fans to get something as a reminder or a souvenir for the occasion. There is less of a soul to paperless tickets or commemorative tickets. Maybe 50 years from now, our kids are going to have these plastic cards they got for something like this, and they’ll hold onto it like they do ticket stubs. By then, we’ll have retinal scans, and they’ll look back and think ‘Wow, these were so much cooler.’”
Technology often moves faster than we fully appreciate. We look back in a blink and realize everything is different than it was five or 10 years ago. We take it for granted that there is WiFi everywhere, that we can access anything on a tablet or smartphone, and that we can pull up a player’s entire biography in the time it takes to say “Fran Tarkenton.”
The things we see as a strange now may just become a reality we were surprised didn’t come along sooner. Those experiences will find a way to be remembered; they’ll just take a different form, just as physical photographs have made way for Instagram.
“We seek out meaningful experiences and we want to have memories,” Gerace said. “One thing we’re very cognizant of is commemoration is an important part of the fan experience. However, somewhere along the way our industry combined ticketing and commemoration. And those two things are in fact separate. What we’re seeing is our venues are being very creative in realizing it isn’t a detriment but an opportunity when you separate the two.”