I’ve heard from a pile of frustrated Trail Blazers season-ticket holders in the last month. They signed on this season with big hopes and now some of them feel as if they’re left holding the bag.
Portland has lost four straight games.
Damian Lillard appears done for the season.
The “tank” is on, but the tickets cost the same. In fact, the Blazers are raising prices for next season for a number of seats in their home arena.
Wrote one long-time ticket holder: “In what other industry could a business operate like this?”
I’m going to present three cases today. You decide which — if any — has the biggest beef. Or maybe the verdict actually does end up that sports teams operate in a different world than the rest of us.
Case 1 — Squeezed Out
Max’s family has held lower-level Trail Blazers season tickets for years. They signed on during the franchise’s first-ever season in 1970-71 and have remained loyal.
The Blazers sent Max and his family an email last month informing them that the NBA has instituted some new standards for seating. It appears the NBA wants to get control of interactions between fans and players who are entering and exiting the court.
The team is removing 86 court-side seats from Moda Center next season. The Blazers are going to reconfigure the baselines and tunnels to meet the NBA’s standards. The seats that Max’s family current owns are being removed.
Said Max: “While disappointing, I can understand this is out the Blazers control.”
A team season-ticket representative reached out to Max a couple of days after the initial contact with an offer of new seats for next season. The price, however, was a whopping $28,000 more than the current cost.
“Right now, with the product the Blazers are putting out, how can one justify spending more money on a subpar product?” asked Max. “What recourse do we have as a fan and consumer? I can’t return my tickets at the end of a game because they lost. Sports doesn’t have a money-back guarantee.”
I reached out to Blazers President Dewayne Hankins on Thursday. He confirmed the franchise is shutting down the arena for three months this summer for the construction project. A few other NBA areas are also undergoing similar offseason construction.
“These upgrades are going to result in a better experience for fans, player safety and court access,” Hankins said.
Max and his family want to support the NBA team and love attending live sporting events. He acknowledges that his issue very much is a first-world problem, but he still feels stuck.
The Blazers delivered the bad news about his seats in an email. I’d have picked up the phone and called. Also, I wouldn’t have followed up with a steep upsell in price. Max’s family has decided not to upgrade. They’re going to relocate to another lower-level section that is more affordably priced.
The Blazers are 32-44 this season. Max’s family is on board anyway. And I’m left thinking about an old quote college business professors like to throw around: “When the customer comes first, the customer will last.”
Case 2 — The “E-Street Band”
Bruce Springsteen is currently touring. I know this because several Trail Blazers season-ticket holders have written to point out that Springsteen’s concert would be canceled and their tickets refunded if Bruce couldn’t perform.
“No way am I paying $150 a ticket to watch the E-Street Band play,” one wrote.
Is there a reasonable expectation when you buy a ticket to a sporting event that the star performers will in uniform? Or is that assumed risk? Lillard’s salary, divided by 82 games, breaks down to $518,201 per game. When he and other star players aren’t in the lineup (i.e. injury or load management), the quality of the experience is diminished. But they still get paid.
“Nothing against the Blazers bench players, but we should get a rebate,” offered a second ticket holder.
It’s understandable that players need rest, but when a box-office star doesn’t suit up, it hurts fans and the league. There have been discussions about reducing the regular-season schedule by 10 games to keep healthy players from sitting out, but owners don’t want to lose the revenue.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at the All-Star break, “It’s an ongoing conversation with the Players Association. This isn’t a new issue.”
Lillard has a calf issue, per reports. The seven-time All-Star has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season, averaging a career-high 32.2 points per game. I’m not sure what the solution is, but if NBA fans formed a union that could collectively bargain with the Players Association or the league’s Board of Governors, this might get solved pretty quickly.
Case 3 — Tank Tax… or Lillard Tax?
On a Monday in late February, the Trail Blazers sent an email blast at 2:18 p.m. to season-ticket holders. Subject line: “Account Update: 23-24 Season Ticket Membership Renewal.”
The email informed season-ticket holders that their tickets would be automatically renewed for the 2023-24 NBA season on March 17. And fans who “actively renewed” with a commitment before March 3 would get a choice of two bonuses:
A) A credit for one-percent of the season-ticket price that can be used next season at the arena concession stands and merchandise shops;
or B) The opportunity to “join a player photo session” at some point next season.
What the email did not indicate was that prices for season tickets next season were going up. Ticket holders found that out in a separate email containing their invoices. One bill I obtained showed an increase of 9.2 percent for next season. Another showed a 8 percent increase.
Said one long-time season-ticket holder: “Higher than inflation.”
Lillard’s salary will increase 7.4 percent next season. He’ll make $45.6 million. Are the Blazers planning to spend more on obtaining talent around Lillard? Are they signaling to fans that they’d like to pay luxury tax? Or just adjusting upward because costs have risen?
Hankins runs the business operations for the Blazers. He doesn’t control the roster. That’s General Manager Joe Cronin’s job. When I asked about the increases in ticket prices Hankins told me: “We’re investing in the arena and trying to make a better experience for fans.”
A year ago, the Blazers raised ticket prices by an average of two percent. In the wake of that, the season-ticket renewal rate was only 87 percent. I’m a big believer that a market doesn’t lie. I suspect a large swath of Blazers fans will simply renew for next season because it’s what they’ve always done. Some others may push back.
I’ll be interested to see how missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season impacts business. Hankins told me season-ticket renewals are currently tracking in the “95 percent” range.
Maybe the franchise will get lucky and land the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft Lottery. If that happens, Victor Wembanyama will sell the tickets himself. As much as I try to apply real-world business philosophy to this discussion, an NBA team isn’t a Starbucks. A 7-foot-5 barista who can shoot threes doesn’t help sell more coffee but it would routinely sell out the Moda Center next season.
Fans don’t know who will be on the court next season. They don’t know if the team will make the playoffs. But they’re being asked to place their orders and pay their bill. That’s how the season-ticket world works in sports.
I’ve seen email correspondence between Blazers ticket representatives and several customers. Those who complain about price increases for tickets are being told that the franchise didn’t raise prices the season after it appeared in the Western Conference Finals (2018-19).
To that, one customer said, “They didn’t lower prices when they missed the playoffs last season.”
The point of this piece isn’t to blast the Blazers. I feel for the team’s season-ticket reps and those who work on the business side of the operation. Their jobs don’t get easier when the team finishes in the NBA Draft Lottery. And it feels especially tricky when prices rise and the on-court performance doesn’t match.
That said, I’m with fans on this stuff. Those loyal customers are the greatest asset any franchise has. They deserve a voice in the conversation. Especially when they don’t have a playoff game where they can raise it.
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When I lived in Portland I would attend a game every once in a while when the product was worth watching. That hasn't been the case for many years. I can only guess what the average season ticket price is nowadays but I have a hard time generating any sympathy for those who can afford to shell out that kind of coin. No invested ownership, rookie GM who looks like an auto mechanic, no-name coach, etc. I don't watch the NBA anymore. It's just jack up threes or take sixteen steps on the way to the hoop for a slam.
In 1976 -1979 I owned a bar on 6th in Seattle just North of Denny. The monorail ran parallel. The Seattle Sonics played at the arena at Seattle Center and me and a bunch of friends would walk the short distance to watch the games. The cheap seats were....drum roll....$6. We were regulars, never missed a home game or playoffs. I had four season tickets to the Seahawks and Washington Huskies. I believe if memory serves me, the Husky tickets were $110 each for the year and Seahawks more but less than $500. I remember when panty hose wearing Broadway Joe Namoth signed a contract for....drum roll...$400,000, we were shocked.
Now I watch games from my man cave here in Nevada on a 120" screen, the beer, popcorn and snacks are reasonable..delivered fresh from the kitchen. I dropped the Huskies three years ago, my last season tickets, the grandkids were not interested in attending nor my daughters and their husbands anymore. Frankly, the schools and pro leagues and players have ruined the experience, the greed is overwhelming. Screw them.