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A ticketing conundrum in the post-Covid world

Nick White, partner at Charles Russell Speechlys

Nick White, partner at Charles Russell Speechlys, discusses the implications and impacts of the Covid-19 hiatus on ticketing.

The coronavirus pandemic is creating logistical issues across all areas of sporting businesses. Spare a thought, though, for those hardworking but often overlooked folks in ticketing. Not only have sales slowed to a trickle – or been stopped completely – but they have the unenviable task of processing refunds, dealing with postponement admin and answering hundreds of questions from fans. All this in the face of constantly shifting challenges and fact patterns.

With ticketing for team sports administered by clubs themselves (rather than being done centrally through leagues, as is the case with, say, broadcasting revenues), there is also a lack of uniformity in the response. We are seeing a kaleidoscope of different ideas – but is there a right and wrong way to approach ticketing at this time?

The law

It is useful to say something about the thorny issue of the law. The starting point for each club is ticket terms and conditions.

Often, Terms and Conditions are drafted aggressively in favour of the club as regards their rights to cancel or postpone matches. We can however expect many clubs to adopt a softer and more generous position in reality, especially in the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves. One only needs to think back to the furore generated when Liverpool and Tottenham announced they would take government money to furlough non-playing staff to understand that, in football especially, there is so much more for clubs to consider than simply what their legal rights might be.

In any case, the actual wording of the T&Cs is not the be all and end all. Consumer legislation gives fans additional protection and requires clubs to ensure that their T&Cs must be fair. Amongst other things, that means that if ticket holders have not received what they expect when they bought the tickets, they can require the club to reduce what the ticket holder must pay by an “appropriate amount” – whether for an individual match ticket, or for a season ticket.

While “appropriate amount” is left purposefully open to interpretation, doubtless many consumers would argue that, where a match is cancelled, it must mean a full refund for that match. That is fairly straightforward to calculate for a single match ticket, but harder for a season ticket, where only a proportion of the total expected matches have been delivered.

What approaches to ticketing can clubs consider?

At present, there is little uniformity across and even within sports on when matches will resume. What seems certain, however, is that fans will not be attending matches for some considerable time yet. Across top level football, rugby and cricket, the current general message is broadly the same: stand by until we know more. Many clubs are promising refunds if fans are unable to attend rescheduled fixtures; others are staying tight-lipped for now.

At all levels, ticketing and commercial teams will be assessing their options and looking to retain and generate cash insofar as they fairly can. Yet, at the same time, there are PR considerations and clubs will want to keep fans onside.

Chelsea have impressed in the latter regard, having to offered to reimburse the 3,800 supporters due to travel to Munich for the cancelled Champions League match for up to £350 of non-refundable expenditure, whether or not they booked with the club.

For most clubs, the priority is dealing with season tickets. As to the current season, in many cases refunds will be simply inevitable. There will be a focus though on what cash the clubs can generate and retain.

Virtually all clubs will be thinking creatively about how to incentivise fans to buy season tickets for the 20-21 season. This may include freezing prices, offering additional credit for 19/20 season ticket holders against 20-21 season tickets, or offering free tickets to other matches to fans renewing/purchasing 20-21 season tickets.

A more novel possibility is to stream any matches played behind closed doors for season ticket holders. It has been mooted that the English Football League may be streamed for free to season ticket holders via its “iFollow” service.

It is not yet clear whether this is technically viable, whether agreement from broadcasters can be secured and whether The FA will ease the prohibition on matches being shown live on television on Saturday afternoons. But even if this can all be achieved, will fans feel that the ability to see a game streamed live is an adequate replacement for the usual match day experience? As to the Premier League, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has said he would like to see matches made free to air, so any special “rights to view” for season ticket holders seem unlikely.

We are in uncharted territory. If we do see a return to league action this season, we hope the various powers that be and their commercial partners will work together to find some bold solutions. Whatever approaches are eventually taken, the trick will be to balance commercial viability with ‘doing the right thing’. Those ticketing teams will really be earning their corn.

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