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Sports Tickets Might Actually Get More Expensive, Not Less. Huh?

Either way, it’ll be another weird year

Sports as we know them have looked a lot different since COVID hit, and 2021 is on track to perpetuate this weird, tree-falling-in-a-mostly-empty-forest vibe. That doesn’t mean the product will be cheap, though: Super Bowl 2021 tickets cost tens of thousands of dollars! And even though there will be just a smattering of fans in the stands in stadiums for much of the year, it might cost you more than ever to see an average game. Thing is, though, it’s all a bit uncertain when it comes to sports tickets in 2021 — even according to the experts!

Alongside Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross; Rodney Paul, a sports economist at Syracuse University; and Michael Violi, a ticket reseller in Texas, we gaze into our crystal ball at sports fandom in 2021.

Sports Tickets 2021: The Super Bowl

“We’re losing a great chance to see exactly what will happen when a home team is in the Super Bowl,” Matheson says, as they will be for the first time ever, when Tampa Bay hosts the Kansas City Chiefs versus its own Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I think had we not had COVID, this would have been the highest ticket prices we’d ever seen on the resale market for any sporting event in the U.S.”

That’s because not only are Bucs fans a bit starved for success, unlike, say New England, which goes to the Super Bowl all the time, but Matheson and Paul say that with the big game in their hometown, Bucs fans would be saving thousands on all the stuff that fans normally pay for during Super Bowl week — flights, hotels, meals, taking time off work, etc. 

Adding a wrinkle to all of this is the Super Bowl’s artificially diminished capacity, due to the pandemic, of only about 14,500 paying fans. “Any time you restrict supply, it’s going to have the tendency to push up prices if the demand is there,” Paul says. So far, tickets on the resale market are at least outpacing last year’s Super Bowl. A week ahead of the game, the average ticket price was $14,110, according to Vividseats.com and the Tampa Bay Times. And the ceiling is very high: If the wintery tundra of Tampa, Florida, is too much for you, a plush suite can be yours for only $475,000.

Sports Tickets 2021: Baseball Season

So will all that artificial scarcity due to COVID jack up the price of an average sporting event higher than a share of GameStop stock? Even economists find that a tough question to answer.

“It’s difficult to say because tickets, probably more than any other good in the United States other than maybe airfare, is people buying basically the same thing for a huge variety of prices,” Matheson says. A baseball ticket goes from a few bucks in the uppermost deck to hundreds of dollars for a seat at field level. An example Matheson likes to use is Celtics games at TD Garden, where typically the price of two courtside seats — those seats where they literally put a folding chair on the goddamn court — is roughly the same as an entire section of upper deck seats.

The most important factor will be the local and state laws that dictate whether a team can allow any fans into stadiums. It’s looking like Major League Baseball will once again start the season at very limited capacity, although states like Florida and Texas have been more liberal with stadium capacities for fall and winter college and pro sports events. Everyone agrees that second in importance are customers’ attitudes — in economic terms, the actual demand for the product. In other words, are people going to feel safe going to a sporting event? Will people calculate that seeing the Dodgers in person is worth the risk of dying a horrible, lonely death in the ICU, or not?

On the one hand, Matheson, Paul and Violi suspect there will be a lot of pent-up demand for the product, not to mention more disposable income to spend since people haven’t been able to splurge much on travel, dining and entertainment in the past year. “If the supply is down 75 to 80 percent but the demand is only down 50 ot 60 percent, you’re going to see a spike in prices.” Violi says.

And things will likely change quickly once many people get vaccinated. But on the other hand, Matheson points out that many restaurants still aren’t close to full capacity even when allowed to open, and this hesitancy might carry over to stadiums.

The third component is whether fans decide to take this season seriously. “The other thing that’s affecting a bunch of sports in general is there’s this concept of, ‘Is this even a real season or is this just fake?’” Matheson says. “That it’s got a big asterisk on it, and, ‘How much am I willing to go to watch games when it’s not the ‘real thing’ in the way it used to be a year ago?’”

About Those Ticket Prices

Matheson points out that if teams have a limited number of tickets to sell, they’re going to want to sell the high-priced tickets most. It’s tempting to assume that they’d be interested in trying to sell them at prices to make up for the revenue shortfall, but Matheson says that’s a false economic idea: As in, sure, teams know how much money they’d like to make, but they’ll only be able to if customers want to pay those prices. So teams, in a way, are really at the mercy of the market, which in turn is at the mercy of the virus.

This is where the plot thickens like an old batch of stadium nacho cheese. Since most teams have more season ticket holders than they’ll likely have tickets to sell, due to attendance restrictions, those tickets will not only be hard to get, they might end up being very high-priced indeed. Even though teams have a sort of symbiotic relationship with the big ticket resellers in any local market, they’ll be inclined to offer their limited tickets to their season-ticket holders first. That’s because, from a team’s perspective, “You don’t necessarily want them to go to the resellers if you have diehard fans that you could build up for the long run to be able to sell season tickets to,” Paul explains. So at this point, the real question becomes: Will these season-ticket holders, suddenly in possession of a very rare ticket, hold onto them, or sell them on?

Teams might also hold onto a few single-game tickets that they decide to price dynamically. That means they’ll keep one eye on the secondary market to know how to price them, so as not to leave any money on the table for the secondary market to take for itself. 

Sports Tickets 2021: The Secondary Market

Paul says that for many season-ticket holders, it may be as simple as going onto StubHub and seeing what the going rate is, then deciding whether to go to the game or make a bit of money and watch it on TV. Also, wherever there’s a limited supply or enough demand, resellers will be willing to swoop up tickets from season ticket holders and sell them for market value.

This is where there will likely be a big difference between, say, Dodgers, Red Sox or Cubs games, which are tougher tickets to get in normal times, versus, well, Marlins or Rays games. “For a bunch of markets, reducing your number of tickets by two-thirds doesn’t make any difference at all on a lot of nights because they’re only a third full in the first place,” Matheson says. But games at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field are tougher to call: Any reduction is a financial hit to them. On the other hand, he says that in normal times, several thousand tickets are sold every night to tourists, and the reduced travel that COVID has wrought will factor in here. Again, it comes back to how safe people will feel coming back to the ballpark.

“There are a lot of unknowns and moving pieces with this,” Paul says. “It might be very different one week to the next. We might be going ‘Wow,’ then there’s an outbreak and prices will drop. It’ll probably be a very fluid situation.”

The Atmosphere

Without the camaraderie, the buzz of the crowd and the pageantry, will people even wanna go when the nearest fan is like 20 seats away? Paul says that having looked at data in the past when teams will close off a section of the stadium, it all depends on what the game feels and sounds like. Anecdotally, Paul has attended several minor-league hockey games in Florida recently, and says it’s still plenty loud. The recent Buffalo Bills playoff game — the team’s first in what seemed like forever — was very loud, he mentions. “A big part of attending a game is the atmosphere,” Violi tells me. “If that’s missing, that can cut demand out quite a bit.” 

Another wrinkle to consider is the different laws in different states. Paul says we might see weird situations where a large group of fans travel to watch their team play a game against a team in a nearby state with more relaxed attendance laws, and effectively turn a road game into a home game.

Sports Tickets 2021: Fall Football and Beyond

So will the entire year be weird? Matheson and Paul don’t think so. Baseball and basketball may be slow to let fans back in and have some pretty meager seasons, but by the time football season rolls back around in the fall and many more people will be vaccinated, the NFL is looking at a windfall from that pent-up demand. In fact, Matheson guesses that even if football stadiums are able to go back to full capacity, they might still be able to increase their prices across the board.

And Those Big Games

Opening day, playoff games — those are gonna be hard tickets to get in 2021. Take that recent Bills game: Bills season ticket holders weren’t going to miss a special occasion and, as Violi points out, to get in, you had to get a COVID test, plus it was mobile-only entry, so the tickets were almost impossible to pass on.

As for how hard it’ll be for the average fan to get a ticket to an average game, again, a lot depends on the team and the allowed stadium capacity. If your team stinks and the champions aren’t rolling through town, it shouldn’t be hard. But if you’re trying to catch the Dodgers — or even an up-and-coming team like the San Diego Padres, which have a reenergized fan base that hasn’t gotten to watch them in person since they got good again — those will be a whole lot tougher. Overall, weekday baseball games, which are historically sparsely attended, won’t be hard to get tickets for, Violi says. Weekends, though? Tickets will be both expensive and difficult to get — especially if a good team comes to town.

Sports Tickets 2021: The Highest Prices in History?

Will prices be as high as ever? That’s up to the virus, how quickly people can get vaccinated and how soon things will “get back to normal.” After that, it’s all down to the laws of supply and demand. Any time you restrict supply and retain demand, prices will go up. And as long as people still want to watch sports in these strange and dangerous times, there’ll be demand — maybe more demand than ever, as long as the stadium vibe gradually gets its groove back. 

In that case, be prepared to pay a lot more than usual to once again experience the simple joy of watching your team chase a little ball around in person with thousands of your closest friends — this time sitting a little farther away.

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