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If You Wanna Sell Out, You Gotta Sell Out

Steve DeLay's picture

If Yogi Berra was in ticket sales, that would have been his philosophy.

    Here are some recent headlines:
  • "Attendance down for New York Yankees" - New York Times - 10/15/2012
    This headline was in response to the Yankees struggling to sell out its ALCS games and ticket prices on StubHub being 10% lower than they were a year ago.
  • "Talladega suffers severe attendance drop" - - 10/9/2012
    This was related to the NASCAR Sprint Cup that still drew 88,000 people, one of the largest sports crowds of the weekend in the entire country.
  • "Dodger Stadium attendance back up, but maybe not as expected." - LA Times - 9/6/2012
    This headline, after the Dodgers attendance had gone up almost 5,000 per game in 2012 over 2011, a remarkable accomplishment considering new ownership didn't take over until late May.

It always amazes me how the media latches on to attendance numbers. They will write story after story about a team and its attendance struggles, but rarely do you see media stories about attendance going up.

I point this out because no matter what, the media isn’t going to help you sell tickets. You’ll get virtually no positive PR help from them. Selling tickets takes a tremendous focus on the fundamentals we talked about last month. There is no silver bullet.

What the media will latch on to is big crowds. By big crowds, I specifically mean sellouts. I mean games where the concession lines are packed, there is a buzz in the air, not only inside the stadium or arena but in the parking lots and on the streets as you walk to the game. Even jaded beat writers, who most likely have a dead spot in their brain for marketing, will get excited about attending a sold out game.


It’s Friday night. You and your spouse are headed out to dinner. It’s a warm, sunny fall evening. You go to an area of town that is one of the local hotspots where there are 6-8 restaurants to choose from.

As you are walking down the promenade, you notice the first place you come upon is packed. There are people milling around outside waiting for tables. The staff seems to be moving about at light speed, carrying food plates, clearing dishes and delivering drinks. There is a buzz both inside and on the outside patio. Your spouse says, “Let’s go check it out. This place looks cool. Let’s see what the wait is.” Turns out the wait for a table is 45 minutes. You ponder it, take a look at the bar thinking, “We could have a drink or two while we wait,” as you dodge another server walking by with an armful of steaming plates.

You have some time so you decide to keep walking and check out some other options. The next three restaurants are pretty full also with similar waits. Finally, you stumble across a restaurant at the end of the block. There is nobody at the tables on the outside patio. You take a look inside and the tables are about 1/2 full. The staff seems to be moving in slow motion. They don’t have customers so they seem disenchanted about not making any money tonight in tips. You look at your spouse quizzically and wonder, “What’s wrong with this place? Why isn’t anyone here when everywhere else is packed? Is it bad food? Bad service? This won’t be much fun.”

You think about it and decide to head back to that first place with the vibe and the buzz. After all, what’s a 45 minute wait for an experience?

The restaurant you passed up could have had the best food in the entire complex. However, eating out is part food and part ambiance. With a restaurant that’s 1/2 full, the ambiance doesn’t exist.


Just like you and your spouse picking a restaurant, fans are looking for an experience when they go to a sporting event. They want to go to sporting events where there is a buzz. An event everyone at the office will be talking about the next day. Sure, there are some fans that just want to see the sport. They don’t care about the music, the concessions or the crowd. In fact, these fans like half empty buildings. It’s easier for them to park and if they do want something to eat or drink, the line at the concession stand is lickity-split short.

Of course, sports teams, just like restaurants, can’t survive with their building ¼ or ½ full. So what’s a sports team or a restaurant to do?

If you were the un-crowded restaurant above, would you put out half price offers to get people to show up on Tuesday nights? Maybe, but let’s face reality. How many people go out to dinner on a Tuesday night? Even if you could drag in a few hearty souls, how many would choose a restaurant they’ve seen only be ¼ or ½ full on what normally should be a packed Friday or Saturday night?

Or, would you focus all of your marketing energy on getting your restaurant filled for those busy Friday and Saturday nights, the best nights when people want to eat out? Ramping up your direct mail offers, focus on making the music and the vibe hop. Maybe you’d bring in some live music. You’d make sure you had some of your super-popular menu specials on those nights. Maybe you’d create a VIP Club for frequent customers who would get special offers the more often they come. You’d make sure your staff has their biggest and best smiles on those nights. If you filled the place on Friday and Saturday nights, anyone who couldn’t get in would come back on other nights of the week, just to see what the buzz is about.


If you’re the President or VP of Sales for a pro sports team or college that is struggling to sell tickets, you should have one, single-minded, all-consuming obsession.

Increase the number of sellouts for your team.

I’m not talking about giving away tickets or discounting seats on a Tuesday night. I’m talking about focusing all of your energy on selling full-priced tickets for your best games. Don’t worry about your Tuesday night games or your overall average attendance. By increasing the number of sellouts, you’ll naturally increase your average attendance. More importantly, with sellouts, you’ll be creating an environment where your fans have a good time and they are more likely to come back.

Let me repeat that.

With sellouts, you’ll be creating an environment where your fans have a good time and they are more likely to come back.

Think about it. If your team has less than 40% of your building sold on season tickets, you’ll have to move heaven and earth to get a sellout on a Tuesday night against a lesser opponent. If you’re playing in a 20,000 seat building and have only 8,000 season tickets (which by the way is a pretty good number in this economy), you’d have to sell 12,000 tickets to get a sellout. Even if you create one of the all-time greatest single game promotions ever seen and sell 5,000 single game tickets, you’ll still only be at 13,000 people. Assuming a 90% usage (unlikely on a Tuesday night), you’ll still only be at 60% capacity. That’s not much better than the restaurant above.


Every team and every market is a little bit different but here are some of the fundamentals in getting sellouts.

  1. Ticket Packages with just your best games – If you have less than 40% of your building sold on season tickets, you need to sell thousands of partial ticket packages to get a sell out. Use your best games to leverage selling out your next best games. If you’re in the NBA and have the Heat, Lakers and Thunder coming to town, don’t try to sneak in a Tuesday game against the Bobcats and a Wednesday against the Rockets. The fans aren’t dumb. They’ll catch on that you’re trying to sell them some less popular games. They’ll figure out a way to just buy the big games on StubHub. You need fans buying tickets to more of your best games, not paying more for just the game they want. I’m always stunned when I get calls asking for my opinion on why certain ticket packages didn’t sell. It’s usually because the team tried to sneak in 2-3 dog games with their top attractions. Do it and you’ll sell less packages and get less sellouts.
  2. Value added for Groups on big nights – Let’s face it, most groups want to go out on weekends. They also are used to getting discounts. Don’t try to shoe-horn them in to a Tuesday or Wednesday night by giving them a bigger discount. Instead, sell them a full-price ticket on a Friday or Saturday night and give them some additional value. You can buy hats in China for $1 that look as nice as what fans would pay $25 for in the gift shop. Don’t give them a $1 off the ticket price for a group. Instead, give them a hat that’s worth 20-25 times more.
  3. Your best entertainment on your biggest games – Every year Sports Business Journal runs a survey of which premium items and special attractions increase ticket sales. Bobbleheads and fireworks are still the mainstays. They work best when they are put on the best nights. Try giving away a bat, bobblehead or do a fireworks show on a Tuesday night and you’ll see a dramatic difference in walk up sales compared to a Friday. Most likely, the cost of the extra promotion won’t even pay for itself in incremental ticket revenue. Put your best single game promotions on Friday and Saturday nights to drive sellouts. This way, all your ticket package buyers and your group buyers get to enjoy them as well, making the game even more fun.
  4. The more sellouts you generate, the more people talk about your team. Fans attending the game will tell their friends how much fun it was. Those that didn’t go but watched on TV will marvel at the crowd and hear the announcers talking about the buzz in the crowd. Anyone who missed out and hears about it the next day at the office will wish they were there and make sure they don’t miss the next big game.

    Heck, even the media might start writing headlines like this.

    • “Portland Extends Sellout Streak…” – Soccer America – 5/22/12
    • “Dragons the Hottest Ticket in Sports?” – – 7/9/11
    • “Out of the Gate, Dash post impressive attendance numbers’ – Winston-Salem Journal – 4/25/10
    • “Staten Island Yankees Now a Tough Ticket to Get” – Staten Island Advance – 7/29/08

    Now the media is on your side by accident. They are helping you create the expectation that fans need to buy tickets in advance or they’ll miss out.

    Steve DeLay has spent 20 years in the sports industry selling tickets and sponsorships in Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL and minor league baseball. He presently works as a revenue consultant for sports teams. He can be reached at or on Twitter @SteveDeLay2.

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