Football clubs eye bottom line with ticket refund options

Football clubs are finding creative ways to stem losses by offering season ticket holders alternatives to refunds for games being played in empty stadiums.

Empty ticket counter

Football clubs across the globe have been forced to play their matches without fans because of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.   -  REUTERS

Football clubs are finding creative ways to stem revenue losses by offering season ticket holders alternatives to refunds for games being played in empty stadiums because of coronavirus pandemic.

The restrictions have hit some balance sheets harder than others. Liverpool is simply refunding supporters, for example, while Scottish club Motherwell FC asked fans to “consider leaving your money with us.”

Supporters are often willing to help. Teams are offering live streams of matches, retail discounts, free tickets to cup games, and credit for 2020-21 season tickets in exchange for refunds.

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Crystal Palace’s 17,800 season ticket holders have four options. The first is to direct refunds toward redevelopment of the south London club’s youth academy. This option includes an invitation to a first-team practice, a training facility tour, and a season ticket to the under-23 squad.

"I could afford to do so, and the academy is a massively important project for the club,” said Chris Waters, a member of the Crystal Palace Supporters’ Trust who opted for the donation. “It’s one of the keystones of our future. It’s something tangible - bricks and mortar - and you can say, I played a small part in that getting built.”

Waters was due 110 pounds ($137) for four remaining home matches. The investment is worthwhile, he said, because without an elite “Category 1” academy the club has missed out on attracting local talent like Jadon Sancho.

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Many clubs also give the option of sending refunds to a charity. Everton announced that fan donations from its season ticket holder and lounge member refund process raised close to 400,000 pounds ($500,000) for a club charity helping community members impacted by COVID-19. The club’s owners then matched that amount.

Leagues in Germany, Spain, Italy and England have returned to action under restrictions that include no fans in stadiums as the death toll from the virus in Europe has passed 180,000. France canceled its season.

Broadcasting and commercial revenue in the “Big five” leagues amounted to 86 percent of total revenue last season, according to accounting firm Deloitte. With the remaining 14 percent from matchday revenue under threat, Deloitte said clubs and leagues “must do everything they can” to strengthen relationships with fans and partners.

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"There are substantial implications for the European football landscape over the coming seasons, including potentially significant and lasting impacts on the financial strength of the clubs and leagues,” Dan Jones, a partner in Deloitte’s sports business group, said in the report published this month.

Swansea has dangled a 50 percent discount on the 2020-21 season ticket - if it is promoted to the Premier League - for current season ticket holders who leave their refunds with the club. They club will throw in the live streams, 70 percent off team gear and a thank you card signed by players.

Swansea chairman Trevor Birch had last month estimated the potential cost of refunds and lost hospitality revenue for the club's four remaining home games at close to 1 million pounds ($1.2 million).

Although it’s not clear when fans will be able to attend games, many clubs are hoping to lock down revenue for next season. For buying 2020-21 season tickets now, Motherwell is offering a free ticket to its first home Europa League match, if fans are permitted.

In a recent letter to fans, Motherwell chairman Jim McMahon said the club would lose more than 130,000 pounds ($160,000) if every season ticket holder claimed their refund. He said refunds left with the club can be considered donations, which allows the club to seek potentially 22,000 pounds ($27,500) in reclaimed VAT.

"For that reason, we ask you please to consider leaving your money with us,” McMahon said in his letter. “We do not have a rich benefactor.”

- Menu of options -

In Spain, Real Betis has presented several options for five missed home games. So far, less than 10 percent of season ticket holders have requested a straight refund, according to consultant Marshall Glickman, the CEO of G2 Strategic who talks to clubs frequently.

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Glickman, a former president of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, has encouraged Spanish teams to give fans a menu of options.

"When you empower your customer to decide, instead of imposing, I think you get a better result,” Glickman said.

Indeed, inflexibility can backfire. German club Schalke initially asked season ticket holders to demonstrate why they need a refund but relented when fans balked.

Meanwhile, Spanish clubs Getafe, Espanyol and Leganes went in the other direction. They announced that current season tickets will extend through next season free of charge, with a few exceptions like cup games.

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Leganes took the extra step of honoring its season ticket holders who died during the height of the pandemic by placing flowers and a team jersey on their seat before the June 13 home game against Valladolid.

In England’s second division, Luton said approximately 90 percent of season ticket holders gave their five-game refunds back to the club, which resumes its season on Saturday.

"While the situation remains serious,” the club said, “your generosity at this time will help to reduce the impact significantly as we continue to steer the club through these treacherous waters.”

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