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Mariners seek to forge new ticketing ground with Flex Membership plan

T-Mobile Park in Seattle, Washington, home of Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners, who recently introduced what they bill as baseball's first fully flexible season ticket

The dramatic new ticketing plan for Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners began with a pair of a simple, yet critical, questions.

What is the future of the season ticket? And how does the club eliminate barriers to fans purchasing tickets?

From that uncertain starting point, the Mariners have created a bold new plan that potentially points the way to a very different and business-altering future for sports ticketing at large.

The new Mariners Flex Membership plan, being billed as the league’s first fully-flexible season-ticket membership, allows fans to choose how many tickets, games, or seating locations they buy throughout the entire season, while still receiving price discounts of 10-to-50 per cent off of single-game prices. The plan also includes other standard season-ticket member perks such as discounted parking and access to other non-baseball stadium events at T-Mobile Park.

Broken into six different membership levels, a fan’s financial spend with the Mariners acts as an aggregate account balance they can draw against during the course of the season. That means, for example, a fan can attend in a group of two in one location for some games, in a group of four in another location for other games, and in a group of six in yet another location for more games.

There have been wide range of other new subscription-based ticketing models across baseball, and US sports at large, in recent years. Notable among them are the Ballpark Pass offers that have been sold all around baseball, offering access to set periods of games for a heavily-discounted prices, and the Oakland A’s Access program that includes standing-room access to every A’s home game and seating options on top of that.

But the Mariners Flex Membership program is the first such offering to allow a fan to dynamically shift which games they attend, their seating locations, and the size of their attending party for any individual date on the schedule. 

“This really started from a very basic place. It was simply about trying to remove all possible objections to buying Mariners tickets,” said Cory Carbary, Mariners vice-president of ticket sales and service. “As we discussed all of that, we kicked around a lot of big ideas, asking some big questions about the future, trying to find the right fit, and create something that would put a lot more of the control back into the consumer’s hands.”

A key element in the construction of the Mariners Flex Membership plan was also technology from the club’s long-time primary ticketing partner, Ticketmaster. The company recently created enhancements to its existing Archtics and AccountManager ticketing systems to allow for far more individual user controls.

“We’ve been playing around with this idea for a couple of years. But we now have made the step to have our system be a more responsive front-end tool with more do-it-yourself controls for our clients,” says Clay Luter, Ticketmaster executive vice-president and co-head of sports. “It’s a big step forward.”

Pushing the envelope

The Mariners historically have not been strangers to being a first mover in adopting new technology around their ticketing and digital presence at large, an unsurprising stance given the Seattle area is an important US tech center, hosting the corporate headquarters of Microsoft and Amazon, among others. 

The team was among the first in the industry to have an official website, have that site available in a foreign language, and then begin to sell tickets online. The Mariners are also among the leaders in MLB in mobile ticketing adoption.

The Mariners’ first public-facing steps toward the new, more flexible ticketing plan came in 2018 and 2019 with a set of Ballpark Pass offers, which touted standing-room access to every home game for $99 per month, with upgrades to various seating locations available at additional costs.

That offering was very similar to what nearly every other MLB club made available in their own markets. And while consumer response was decent and several hundred fans constructed full-season ticket packages through the monthly offers, it did not satisfy the desires of Mariners executives.

“It didn’t address all the concerns we were hearing,” Carbary says. “In particular, it still had a fixed number of attendees attached to the offer and what people bought, which is limiting. You don’t necessarily want to go to every game with the same number of people, and couldn’t really do it even if you wanted to. People’s plans constantly change.”

Those concerns mirrored two years of focus group data the Mariners gathered, similarly saying that the club’s ticket offerings were often too restrictive for fans.

Against that backdrop, the Mariners’ plans then accelerated this past summer after attending a Ticketmaster sports client summit. There, Luter and others detailed the enhanced technical capabilities that would now allow an individual fan to easily manage their ticket accounts online, adjust preferences for each game, and then have the club’s overall ticket manifests respond in kind.

“That made a huge difference. We couldn’t really deliver technically what we wanted to before,” says Malcolm Rogel, Mariners vice-president of ticket operations and event services. “We’ve traditionally had a very liberal ticket exchange plan, and fans have routinely exchanged back tickets they weren’t going to use and adjusted for other games. But we were doing all that manually. The flex plan now takes all that to the next level, digitizes the whole process, and puts all that control with the fan.”

The Mariners then had a timing choice: wait until the 2021 season to roll out the dynamic ticketing controls, or push ahead sooner and in time for next year. They chose the latter, but that meant finalizing all the components of the new plan in about four months. 

The Mariners Flex Membership plan carries a series of spending tiers, beginning at $600 for the season and going up to $20,000. The low-end entry price is designed as a figure that would allow a single person to attend all 81 Mariners home games in 2020 if their account credit is deployed in a certain way.

Additional credit can be applied to account once an original balance is exhausted, but balances will not roll over to a subsequent season. Tickets obtained through the flex plan can also be digitally forwarded, or resold through StubHub, MLB’s official ticket resale marketplace.

The new plan is also integrated with Ticketmaster’s Presence digital ticketing system, and the club in either 2020 or 2021 will also add the company’s SafeTix fraud prevention technology.

“All the pieces, all the things we’re talking about in terms of the future of ticketing are starting to line up,” Luter said. “We’re coming to a really exciting point for the industry.”

The Seattle Mariners do not expect a sizable, immediate bump through its new flexible season-ticket concept, and instead are positioning it as a multi-year effort

Plenty of available seats

Of course, the Mariners’ new plan arrives upon the backdrop of two ugly statistics. First, the club is suffering through a play-off drought at 18 seasons and counting, the longest such streak in MLB. And the Mariners’ annual attendance has fallen by half during that time, sinking to 1.79 million for the 2019 season. In short, there are plenty of available seats at T-Mobile Park to help accommodate the mechanics of implementing the new ticketing system.

But as the Mariners are also seeking to both spruce up the ballpark with a $30m off-season renovation and revive their on-field fortunes, the new ticketing plan is designed as a multi-year plan to boost sales.

Though the Mariners say initial fan feedback to the new plan has been encouraging, they expect their season-ticket base to stay roughly static at about 8,700 full-season equivalents in 2020, and then build from there in subsequent seasons

“Given that we’re still in rebuilding mode, we have to be realistic about our expectations, particularly right out of the gate,” Carbary says. “The first big step is educating our fans about what we’re doing.”

While the Mariners Flex Membership plan is deployed, the club is also selling traditional season-ticket memberships for those who still want a typical, fixed-seat type of experience.

“In this day and age, teams still really need to have a segmented approach to their markets and have resources devoted every different type of ticket layer and every spending level,” says Patrick Ryan, co-founder of Houston-based ticket distribution company Eventellect.

But the fully-flexible ticket concept is quickly beginning to ripple out to other parts of the league. The Pittsburgh Pirates this week introduced a similar, though more modest, version of the Mariners’ offer with their new Bucs Flex Plan. The Pirates’ value-based concept involves sales of 10 ticket vouchers at a flat rate of $190 per set. Each voucher is good for one ticket to the outfield or upper bowl sections of PNC Park, and can be redeemed in varying quantities for any game outside of Opening Day.

Ticketmaster’s Luter similarly expects many more teams across multiple sports adopt similar measures by 2021.

“Everybody’s very curious about it,” Rogel adds. “We probably had seven extended calls with teams across all sports in that first week after our public announcement, asking about what we did and how, and have had more conversations since then. This is something that may not necessarily work if you’re a team in a constant sellout situation. But for those that aren’t, there’s definitely interest around it.”

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