- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2002

You own a professional sports team. Your club has not been to the playoffs in years. The economy continues to swoon. There is no buzz in the marketplace. What do you do?
The short answer, of course, is start winning, but that's a long-term process that sometimes can literally require decades. In the meantime, several teams have turned to the classic, time-tested sales pitch pioneered by late-night infomercials: Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.
The Atlanta Hawks, Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators this season each have made an unusual and historic step by guaranteeing playoff berths, backed by either cash rebates or credits toward season tickets next season. The Seattle Storm of the WNBA this past summer also embraced the concept for a handful of games, allowing a full refund of a single-game ticket if a fan complained of a bad experience at Key Arena stemming from anything from bad play to uncomfortable seats.
The Hawks have not made the playoffs in three seasons, the Panthers just once in five years, and the Predators never in four seasons of existence.
Far from a simple marketing gimmick, the money-back offers carry real financial consequences. The Predators, for example, will be on the hook for about $1million representing the return of a 6 percent increase in season ticket prices if they fail to reach the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. Nashville has started the 2002-03 season with just five points in the standings through nine games, the second worst showing in the NHL.
"We knew we needed to increase ticket prices this season," said Gerry Helper, the Predators' vice president of communications and development. "We did a survey of a season ticket base and with that increase, we were looking at about 70 percent renewal, which is low in our business. We went back and asked the same question, but with this added element of the refund, and the figure went up to 90 percent. In actuality, the renewals turned about 82-83 percent, so we definitely saved a significant portion of our business."
Atlanta faces a similar situation as the Predators. The Hawks compete in their market against a perennial baseball power in the Braves, and the NFL's Falcons this year have new and much more engaged ownership, as well as a star quarterback in Michael Vick. In recent years, the Hawks tried to rebuild their fan base with a new arena and importing young stars such as Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Nothing worked, and the team finished last year 27th in the league in average home attendance.
This year, the Hawks' 4,000 full season-ticket holders will either see a playoff team or receive a check for $125 each. That adds up to a $500,000 risk for the team.
"I'm not thinking about the [financial] risk. We have accountants that study that sort of thing, but we're not talking or thinking about that," said team president Stan Kasten. He has instructed the Hawks' telephone operators to answer calls with "This is your playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks."
"We needed a way to reconnect with our fan base and create a little excitement," Kasten said. "But the great thing about this rebate offer is that it isn't really forced. The idea came from our coach [Lon Kruger]. He's really behind this and it's been extremely effective in retaining our season ticket base."
Actually, money-back offers in sports ticketing aren't entirely new. In 1987, the Pittsburgh Penguins raised ticket prices 5 percent and offered to refund that increase if the team missed the playoffs. They did with a pedestrian 36-35-9 record, and Penguins executives took a fiscal hit of nearly $500,000.
Once the '80s gave way to the stadium and arena building boom of the 1990s, money-back ticket guarantees were quickly forgotten. But the ongoing economic recession has brought this element of the sports industry full circle. The Panthers, posting a 65 percent renewal rate for their season ticket base that was among the worst in the NHL, used their rebate offer to boost the percentage above 80 percent. If the Panthers miss the playoffs, again a possibility given their sub-.500 record so far, season-ticket holders will receive a 5 percent price break on the cost of season tickets next year.
"There was definitely some decay going on in our season ticket base," said Jeff Cogen, Panthers chief operating officer. "We took the [partial refund] idea from the Penguins, and it's been a positive tool for us. Some people may call it a gimmick. I prefer marketing initiative. We wanted to go out and show our fans that we have a lot of new things here, not the least of which is new ownership, and we're willing to make a commitment if they are."
The Panthers, Storm, Predators and Hawks say they have not been contacted yet by many major league teams looking for pointers on the refund plans. But the sports industry remains a tight one, and the quartet may not be alone for long.
"I don't know how quickly this might spread elsewhere. Every market is different and I'm not going to predict the future for some other particular market," Helper said. "This guarantee wasn't about us being boastful and saying how great we are. But it's no secret the [economic] landscape has changed and a lot of people are trying different things to keep their business moving forward."

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