Price of admission comes as package deal

Tickets: Paying as you go no longer works in the NFL. Many fans are forced to pay for multiple games to see the one they really want to watch.

August 08, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

One weekend each football season, Joe Cooper rounds up his Atlanta Falcons fan club and heads for New Orleans. The 100 or so "Falcons Fan-Atics" often make a pit stop on Bourbon Street, then pile into the Superdome to exhort their Falcons against the New Orleans Saints.

But this season, the annual road trip has been canceled.

Cooper and the gang were stunned to learn this summer that seats for the Dec. 26 Falcons at Saints contest were being paired with tickets for the Seattle Seahawks at Saints game on Sept. 12 - meaning that you had to pay for the Seahawks game to earn the right to see the Falcons.

Most of the Falcons fans had as much interest in Seahawks-Saints as they would in a rerun of General Hospital.

"I think it is an outrage," Cooper said. "This kind of marketing has gone way too far. I believe the sole purpose is to prevent Falcon fans from taking over the city."

It's not just Falcons fans who would like to throw a yellow flag.

Fans wanting to purchase seats for Tampa Bay at Oakland on Sept. 26 - a Super Bowl rematch from two seasons ago that also marks the return of former Raiders coach Jon Gruden - must also buy tickets for the Raiders' home opener against Buffalo and one other unspecified game (but not the popular Kansas City or Denver contests, which are off limits).

Green Bay fans hoping to catch their team in Indianapolis on Sept. 26 are being told by the Colts' ticket office they must simultaneously purchase tickets for a Colts-Bills preseason game.

Around the league, an increasing number of high-profile games are being sold with strings attached by a number of teams - but not the Ravens or Redskins. In effect, fans are being asked to buy something they might be marginally interested in - if at all - to get games they covet.

A variation of the strategy has been in effect for years. NFL teams have long required season-ticket holders to buy tickets for a couple of preseason games - often at regular-season prices - to keep their seats for the contests that count in the standings.

The league, which set an all-time paid attendance record in 2003 for the second straight year, can afford such a tactic because of its popularity. In many cities, season-ticket holders consider preseason tickets a small price to pay for good regular-season seats.

But, like an old injury that flares up anew every preseason, the exhibition game add-ons nag at many fans.

"You would pay steak prices for a McDonald's hamburger?" asked Robert Hutcherson, president of Sports Fans of America Association, a Florida-based advocacy group. "As a season-ticket holder, you have no choice but to buy these overpriced tickets for games that are meaningless. They package them together and do not allow choice because most stadiums would be half empty at these prices."

NFL spokesman Dan Masonson said the league leaves it to its franchises to market tickets as they see fit. He declined to comment on teams' preseason-game sales or regular-season packages.

The NFL isn't the first professional sports league to tie marquee games with less appealing ones, said sports marketing specialist Larry McCarthy.

"In baseball you may find 12-game packages that have less popular teams wrapped in," said McCarthy, a professor at Seton Hall University's Center for Sport Management.

But McCarthy said the latest ticket-bundling packages - such as the one including the Falcons at Saints game - seem to have the effect, intended or not, of giving visiting-team fans a bad deal.

"It's like a fruit bowl," McCarthy said. "You buy the fruit bowl for the apples and oranges and you have to take the grapes, too. But you don't usually get useless stuff thrown in."

In the past, the Falcons-Saints divisional rivalry was characterized by thousands of fans road-tripping to each other's home city.

In 2002, many Saints fans couldn't get tickets to see their team in the Georgia Dome because the game was sold out. Cooper said he believes the Saints' management decision to package this year's Falcons Superdome contest was "in retaliation for the 2002 season ... when buses of New Orleans fans were turned away."

Justin Macione, the Saints' media relations manager, referred inquiries to a team business and marketing executive who was unavailable for comment. In June, Saints officials told local media they were merely using a ticket strategy that had been successful in other markets.

The ticket rivalry cuts both ways. The Falcons' organization isn't making it easy for New Orleans faithful who want to see the Nov. 28 Falcons-Saints game in Atlanta.

"A lot of their fans used to come to the Georgia Dome, but we just don't have the inventory anymore," said Dave Cohen, the Falcons' ticket sales director.

Even if there were seats available, Cohen said, Saints fans would be in the back of the line.

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