Tensions are starting to simmer between professional sports teams and some of their best customers.
After postponing games indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams from the NBA, NHL and major league baseball are effectively keeping the money of customers who bought tickets to those games. Instead of giving cash refunds, these businesses have operated under their normal ticket policies for postponed or rained-out games – holding the money as credit to be used whenever their games resume.
But these aren’t normal times, and these are not normal postponements. And with the nation’s economy continuing to crater, ticket holders want their money back in cash, even if those games haven’t yet been officially canceled.
“It’s a disaster," said Tony Knopp, CEO of TicketManager, which helps companies manage tickets for entertaining clients.
More than $1 billion in consumer capital is tied up in tickets to games that are stuck in limbo because of the pandemic, according to conservative estimates. It affects ticket holders of all stripes and trickles downstream to the secondary markets, such as StubHub, which faces its own financial reckoning if games are canceled.
Many fans have shared their complaints on social media.
“Absolutely ridiculous tickets can’t be refunded because there might be 'make up’ games,’” a Twitter user identified as Mitchell Coleman wrote to the NHL. “Come off it. Not everyone can just jump on a plane and travel to the location to see a make up game. Wake up and refund me for my tickets purchased for Vegas.”
Knopp, whose company works with several large businesses, said that even large companies who bought tickets to entertain clients are losing patience. “People are losing their jobs and they’ve got money tied up in these tickets, for games we don’t know when they’re going to happen,” Knopp said.
Ticket holders also are banging on the virtual doors of Ticketmaster and StubHub, which has a policy of not refunding games that haven’t been officially canceled.
“If the event is postponed, ticket buyers can choose to either attend the event on the new date or resell the ticket,” StubHub said in a statement. “If the event is postponed to a future, undetermined date, StubHub will email the ticket holder as soon as the details are announced.”
If an event has been canceled, StubHub will provide a full refund, the company said. Other ticket sellers also are expected to offer refunds if events are officially canceled. The problem for ticket holders is these events have not been canceled. They’re postponed indefinitely as part of the national effort to keep the coronavirus pandemic from spreading and spiking beyond the capacity of the U.S. healthcare system.
Growing concerns over the economy have changed consumers' needs in the meantime.
“People are out here unable to get basic necessities and @StubHub refuses to issue refunds until @MLB 'cancels’ games that tickets have been purchased for,” a Twitter user identified as Adam Erickson wrote last week. “I’m not getting what I paid for and in times like these, your companies need to do better. Do the right thing!”
StubHub’s Twitter account responded to this complaint by saying it was sorry for his frustration but noted that tickets remain valid for a later date when the games are rescheduled. This reply didn’t go over well with the customer.
“People can’t get water, toilet paper, daycare and your (sic) keeping millions of consumers dollars over a technicality,” Erickson responded back to StubHub.
The teams and ticket marketplaces have their own financial obligations and staffing issues and aren't always eager to give back cash until it’s necessary. StubHub, for example, makes money from transaction fees and could lose that revenue if games are officially canceled and they have to give it back to customers.
StubHub and other re-sellers are “rooting for postponement” and rescheduled games because of this, Knopp said.
The tension stems from teams and ticket marketplaces engaging in a business-as-usual postponement policy at a time that is decidedly not business as usual for consumers.
Refund policies can vary by team, but many team websites and messages essentially tell fans to "hold onto your tickets" for possible future use.
"NBA (you're) losing a lot of fans who need their ticket refund money," a Twitter user identified as Jimmie Huddleston wrote last week.
The Los Angeles Lakers have a slightly different message, stating that tickets will be refunded at the point of purchase "if you have travel or health concerns related to any of the upcoming games."
Other season-ticket holders bristled when their accounts were charged as normal by teams that collect money from them on payment plans, including this month by the Cleveland Indians.
“Our season-ticket holders who are on a payment plan had their March payment processed because Major League Baseball is currently still planning to play a full season of games,” team spokesman Bart Swain wrote in an e-mail. “We will not be charging any additional payments unless MLB provides guidance at that time that we plan to play a full season of games. As soon as we learn a game is cancelled and not rescheduled by MLB, we will offer fan-friendly value options to season-ticket holders to either exchange cancelled games or receive a refund.”
Likewise, NFL teams have deferred payment schedules on season tickets, including the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins.
“Games and concerts have always been a break from daily life,” said Patrick Ryan, co-founder of Eventellect, a ticket sales strategy company. “ I think people miss them badly. And therefore with the uncertainty around live events they are wanting new dates to get set or the ability to get their money back.”
The indefinite wait is the big issue until then. And even if games are canceled, many of these teams and ticket sellers are still going to try to hang onto the money through enticements, such as offering credit for next season with perks thrown in, Knopp said. StubHub said that “given the current environment, if an event is canceled, customers can opt to receive a StubHub coupon valued at 120% of the original purchase. This coupon can be applied toward a future event of their choosing.”
In previous years, teams addressed mass cancellations of games by offering refunds plus interest, including for the NHL lockout of 2004-05. The NBA, NHL and MLB didn’t respond to requests for comment or referred questions on refund policies to individual teams.
The Chicago White Sox, as one example, sent a message to fans recently. Baseball’s opening day had been scheduled for March 26 but is on hold until at least May.
“To date, no games have been canceled,” the letter said. “Please hold onto your tickets until an official policy is announced.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org