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Packing the House: Behind Harvard's Rising Sports Ticket Sales

Harvard is unlikely to be confused with the powerhouse revenue generating state schools who routinely fill 100,000-seat football stadiums and make headlines for their latest TV deals.

However, behind the scenes, Harvard’s athletic department is working to push its ticketing operations into the digital age and has quietly instigated a steady rise in attendance over the past five years, bucking trends that have set in at other schools.

The recent success of Harvard’s football and basketball teams has increased excitement around athletics, and the athletic ticketing office has worked to capitalize on the momentum. The ticketing office is staffed by five full-time employees who oversee everything from season ticket holder outreach to game-day sales. Increasingly over the past few years, technical projects and active outreach to potential customers have taken on a larger portion of the department’s resources.

“The whole ‘getting to work in the morning and mailing tickets for two hours and answering the phone all day’ routine has evolved into so much more,” Nicholas Majocha, Director of the ticketing office and Assistant Director of Athletics, said. “We’re managing a web page, working with our marketing team, working with our outbound sales team.”

These priority shifts have, thus far seen success. Since 2012, average home attendance across Harvard’s six ticketed sports—men’s and women’s basketball and hockey, football and men’s lacrosse—has increased by 10.6 percent according to Majocha. Over the same period, free undergraduate ticket distribution has more than doubled.

FILLING SEATS

Increasing athletic attendance can't be taken for granted; the Super Bowl-winning and locally beloved New England Patriots saw a roughly 16,000 person drop in attendance over the past year. Despite a competitive local market—there are dozens of colleges in the Boston area—Harvard’s ticketing operation has continued to innovate and reach new fans as it proactively seeks new customers.

Harvard athletics has seen a 10 percent increase in average attendance over the past five years, driven by strong performances in a few of the sports to which the ticketing office has devoted significant sales resources.

The men’s basketball team has been a huge draw, and along with a pair of NCAA tournament appearances, attendance for games has increased by 30.4 percent since the 2011-2012 season, from 1,415 to 1,845 fans per game. This represents the largest increase for any ticketed sport, Majocha said.

Men’s football has also been a major driver of ticket sales for the department, with a more than 11.1 percent in ticket sales. The football team’s annual night game, which drew only 888 undergraduate fans in 2011, drew over 2,000 last fall. In total, over this period average game attendance grew from 11,520 to 12,799. Majocha added that last season’s Dartmouth and Princeton games were the highest-grossing non-Yale football games in program history.

Men’s hockey attendance has grown 12.7 percent since 2011, and women’s hockey has seen modest increases as well, even setting a new program attendance record when more than 2,100 fans attended this season’s Harvard-Yale game.

While women’s basketball attendance has not grown at the same rate as that of the men’s team, the women’s team boasts the second highest average attendance for its games in the Ivy League, Majocha said.

As ticket sales have increased, the revenue they provide the athletic department has grown accordingly, although Majocha declined to provide a number, citing a departmental policy on disclosing budgetary information.

Only a few teams generate significant revenues for the department, but these revenues are then disbursed to a wider array of Harvard teams, according to Majocha. “We have six ticketed sports that generate revenue, and three of those ticketed sports generate a significant portion of that revenue,” Majocha said. “But that money helps support a broad range of programming in all 42 sports.”

Majocha added that the revenue these teams generate also helps the department cover other less obvious expenses that would be more difficult to afford without these revenues.

“Any revenue we generate goes into a pool,” Majocha said. “Some of it goes toward field maintenance, and some of it may go toward electric bills, and some of it goes toward operational costs for our teams.”

Majocha explained that increased revenues were also important because of naturally increasing departmental expenses. Additionally, he said ticket revenue accounts for only a small percentage of the overall budget.

Despite these revenue increases, Majocha explained that ticket revenues do not comprise a substantially larger portion of departmental revenues than they have in the past.

“Our ticketing revenue has seen steady growth,” Majocha said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s suddenly becoming a larger portion of the pie.”

Timothy J. Williamson, associate director of athletics, added that the athletic budget is subject to fluctuations in many variables, and that although ticketing revenue is important, many other department sources of revenue like concession sales contribute significantly to the department’s budget.

FROM PAPER TO EMAIL

The uptick in ticket sales comes as the entire ticketing operation embraces technological change after years of customer feedback, along with innovations in sales strategy that have led to a more proactive approach.

The transition away from paper tickets towards online ticketing came first. Then came the implementation of a web design overhaul, interactive surveys, and an updated ticket-purchasing platform. The slate of changes have been in keeping with the department’s pivot to digital technology.

“Over the past few years, their roles here have changed,” Majocha said of his staff. “It’s more about refining the customer purchasing process than it is picking up the phone and having someone mail in a check.”

More 80 percent of tickets are now issued online through email, limiting the number of hard tickets mailed and stocked at will call. Majocha said electronic tickets have delivered the dual-benefit of reducing costs and easing the purchasing process for customers.

This past year marked the first the office implemented gameday ticket scanning to facilitate the increased number of customers with electronic tickets.

The introduction of email tickets and scanning represents a significant infrastructural investment, according to Majocha. “It’s not as simple as snap your fingers and all of a sudden you can do email tickets,” said Majocha. “You have to have a capable ticket system, you have to buy the scanning equipment, and there is infrastructure to go through.”

The convenience of online ticketing is as notable to Majocha’s staff as much as by their customers. “In years past we’ve had two or three boxes of will call tickets on game days, but now people walk right past us,” ticket operations associate Greg Collins said. “We don’t have to rush through those will call orders now and have more time to focus on bigger-picture projects.”

One such project is the ticketing office website redesign. In response to customer feedback that the check-out process for online sales was “cumbersome,” Ticket operations associate Matthew Crawford helped lead an effort to retool the platform. Now, for instance, fans can choose individual seats at football games rather than general admission. Such features of the website redesign have also subsequently reduced game day staffing costs.

“These aren’t revolutionary things,” said Majocha. “These teams aren’t sinking millions of dollars into our ticketing software because it doesn’t generate that kind of income. So we’re trying to figure out what works for our customers and what works with our model.”

ASPIRING FOR SALES

Staff have also used the time afforded by streamlined ticketing sales to more directly target customer groups. Their primary target is also the most obvious; Harvard undergraduates, who have traditionally been reluctant to pick up tickets directly from the Murr Center ticket office located across the river.

“I could see it being a deterrent for people who don’t go to games frequently to have to go all the way to the Murr Center to pick up tickets for games,” frequent football and basketball attendee Matthew Goodman ’18 said.

Over the past few years, department staff have distributed student tickets directly in House dining halls and in the Annenberg freshman dining hall to make it more convenient for students to pick up tickets.

The office has bolstered its presence in the broader sales realm as well. “We have two people now that are spending all day target marketing, calling people on the phone and being proactive with sales rather than just being reactive and waiting for people to call us,”Majocha said.

The two person sales team proactively looks for groups and organizations to reach out to in an attempt to bring in new customers, Majocha said.

According to Majocha, who started with a full-time staff of 3, the two new staff members marked a significant leap. “We didn’t have the staff size to really do the proactive outbound outreach, which you see a lot from the bigger professional organizations or larger athletic departments.”

The sales team was brought over from sports business company the Aspire Group, according to Director of Harvard’s outbound sales operation and current Aspire employee John Rivers. Majocha said Aspire’s direct marketing expertise has helped Harvard modernize its ticket operations.

Rivers said he already counts many direct marketing initiatives under his watch such as email tracking, Qualtrics survey technology, and individualized outreach.

He also said the sales team has changed the product it is pitching; last year it began to combine group ticket packages with “on field experientials”, such as halftime scrimmages and post-game photos on the field. It also began to offer partial ticket plans to targeted segments of the Harvard athletics customer base.

“We look at individual customers from our database,” Rivers said. “Maybe you’re a Princeton graduate living in the area and are interested in a plan that has all the Princeton basketball and hockey games. Or maybe you’re on a timeframe where you just want to attend one game a month, so we try to hand pick games on the schedule and cater it as best we can to our fan base.”

Last year, the outbound sales team sold 80 such partial season tickets for just basketball and hockey. The addition of these plans, according to Rivers, accounted for a 15 percent increase in hockey revenue.

KEEPING CUSTOMERS SATISFIED

Technology or not, the athletic ticketing industry is still client-facing and driven by customer service. Well aware of this reality, Majocha and his office have worked to make sure the game experience keeps customers coming back.

The office provides various benefits for its most loyal season ticketholders. At the home finale for the men’s basketball this past March, a row of specially designated chairs could be seen dotting the perimeter of the court. Above them, in the Lavietes Pavilion lounge, a halftime reception was set up for the VIP ticket holders.

Enhanced gameday features for season ticketholders are part of a deliberate strategy to cultivate a specific customer base.

Along with various special amenities available at basketball games, the athletic department also sells all-inclusive food packages for the Bright-Landry Hockey Center’s Boynton lounge—the “VIP spot” for season ticket holders, according to Majorcha—and on-field seating for the annual Harvard-Yale football game.

“The VIP experience is something we’re looking at to reward our most loyal ticketholders and also to create new revenue streams,”Majocha added. “What the revenue does is go back to support all of the programs.”

Gordon Leslie "Skip" Freeman Jr. ’70, a former hockey player and longtime season ticket holder, praised the ticket packages as a good deal for customers.

“They always have a buffet there, by the time you [purchase the package] it’s not a huge extra expense. It’s a closer, more social environment than it used to be.”

On top of gameday VIP services, there are priority purchase periods for tickets to special events such the annual Boston hockey-tournament Beanpot. Locals without direct ties to Harvard are also turning into customers for the athletic office.

Basketball courtside season ticket holder Robert Crawford, who has no direct ties to Harvard, said the athletic department has turned VIP packages into “an awesome experience.”

“I take my kids to coaches clinics, practices, and now the VIP lounge is open for non-Ivy games too,” Crawfod said. He added that he views his subscription—four courtside season tickets for $900 each—“as good, or even better entertainment than the pros.”

Despite the revenue-generating goals of such initiatives, broader customer service remains at the heart of the ticketing office.

“Our focus is on customer service and on attendance growth,” Majocha said. “While we try to maximize revenue, finances don’t drive our decision making.”

Freeman added: “It’s more a concierge service right now than it is just ticketing. They really do the job and take care of what they see as clients and not just customers.”

—Staff writer Nathan P. Press can be reached at nathan.press@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Samuel E. Stone can be reached at samuel.stone@thecrimson.com

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