The Truth Behind NFL Ticketing

As the Bills have avoided a blackout again (via the team buying up remaining seats). The topic of sellouts, blackouts and all things filling stadiums have come up. Having worked in a front office of an NFL Team, I would like to share some information with you pertaining to this. Hopefully you will have a better sense of why teams do what they do.

Knowing Your Market


Time and time again you hear about teams that have trouble selling out games. Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami, San Diego, Arizona, and Oakland come to mind. All of these markets (With the exception of Oakland) have mostly transitional residents. Most of the spending population came from somewhere else and have allegiances to other teams. Whereas cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Green Bay, Buffalo and Detroit are places where new people really aren’t flocking to. Finding people in Arizona who want to commit to 10 games a year is a lot harder than finding someone in a city that has been a fan of their team all of their life.

In these cities (once again Oakland doesn’t count), you are competing with other things to do in that market. Have you ever been to La Jolla beach in San Diego on a 80 degree October day? The transitional resident in San Diego that isn’t fully invested in their team will choose a day at the beach over day in a lousy stadium most of the time.

Team Culture

There are teams that get it and there are teams that don’t. What I mean by that is, some teams don’t care who buys their tickets and there are others that will try and package the more desirable games with the games they know they will have trouble selling out. For Example: Green Bay fans travel really well. The team I worked for didn’t want to have all Green and Yellow in their Stadium, so they would package that game with a Pre-Season game and say, a game against Jacksonville. The only way you were going to get tickets to the Green Bay game would be to either buy the 3 game package or buy season tickets. This rarely works.

In fact, what this did do for me was increase my season ticket sales. Some of my best Season Ticket Holders were brokers (scalpers). I would have brokers buy season tickets by the hundreds for the sole purpose of making a killing on maybe 1 or 2 really desirable games. This also puts them in line for the Super Bowl Lottery. If you are a season ticket holder and wonder why there are different people sitting next to you every game? You now know why.

Ticket Pricing / Pre Season Games/ Waiting Lists

This mainly isn’t about pricing but more about the games you are paying for. What I’m about to tell doesn’t apply for all teams but does apply to the team I was with.

Season tickets and having to pay for meaningless preseason games. The team I worked for had separate pricing for season tickets and individual game tickets. A “Season Ticket” package was only the 8 regular season games and 2 preseason game. If you say bought tickets after the first pre season game was played, you were paying individual game prices for 9 games. Here is an example: Seat A costs $25 per seat under a 10 game Season Ticket Package. For the season, you are paying $250 for that seat. The same seat is $35 for individual game sales. So say you try to be slick and wait for the preseason to be over prior to buying your package. Your 8 “Regular Season” games come to a total of $280. You actually pay $30 more for 2 less games.

Like I said, all teams pricing structures aren’t the same.

Waiting Lists

There are teams that have legitimate waiting lists. Denver, Green Bay and Washington come to mind. Arizona has a semi-legitimate list as you do have to pay a non-refundable deposit but many on that waiting list are current season ticket holders looking for additional seats in specific places. If said seats are not available, they can apply that deposit towards the renewal of their current seats. Then there is New Orleans who at one time claimed a waiting list of over 50,000. Sorry, not legitimate. No non-refundable deposit required.

Those teams that have a 30 year waiting list for season tickets? Call them up and ask if they have any scattered seats available for sale. I bet you find some.

Game Day Experience

Remember when the Bills changed their policy regarding what you can and can’t do and when you can do it while tailgating on their property? How about the Fan Code of Conduct?

Know why these are in place? It is because it is getting harder and harder to get fans out to the stadium. 23 Years ago it was a lot easier to sell out Rich Stadium at 80,000 seats. The alternative was sitting at home and watching the game in standard def. Now we have high def and the Red Zone Channel.

Teams have to offer way more for people to come out and see the action live. More and more people are opting to stay at home than spend an entire day fighting crowds, overpaying for food and drinks and putting up with “Got Way Too Drunk Guy.” This is where tailgating policies and code of conduct policies come from.

The in-stadium experience is important also. Teams like Arizona and Miami have offered Fan Vision in the past to their customers. (At a price of course). With a FanVision unit, you can watch the network broadcast of your game and listen to the homer radio broadcast at the same time. You can cue up replays of plays from your game, you can switch to the Red Zone Channel, or to another game for that matter. You can also track your fantasy team. It is actually a pretty slick devise. Not too expensive either. Big problem is stadiums have to be wired for it. A huge WiFi network has to be in place for something like that to work.

In the long term, Buffalo would be better off with a new stadium where the entire infrastructure can be put in place rather that continuously slapping bandaids on the Ralph.

Sellouts / Non-Sellouts

The myth of an NFL game being sold out is just that. A myth. First of all you would be crazy to think that every scatter single seat in a 60,000 plus seat stadium is sold.

There is also the visiting team allotment to consider. Every visiting team gets between 300-500 tickets for a game. All unused tickets are returned to the home team a couple days prior to the game. These seats don’t usually go back on the map. The only way to get these seats is to call the team and find out if they have any available. They are usually good seats. I was able to attend the Packers home opener against the Bills a few years back this way. I wound up around the 30 yard line behind the Bills Bench, 3 rows from the field.

Now to the dreaded sellout vs. blackout. We all know that teams have 72 hours prior to kickoff to “sell out” a game or it won’t be broadcast locally. We have also seen in the past where the team or a sponsor buys up remaining seats so the game can be sold out. What happens is said team or sponsor buys the tickets for the cost that goes to the revenue sharing. I believe it is 40% of the ticket cost. Some teams are a bit more creative and pick a game that they know they will have trouble selling and have players from the team buy up the tickets and then give to charities.

In my experience, I will look at the seating map and see blocks of seats unsold only to have the whole map go red at 12:45 Thursday afternoon. Then shortly after I would get an email of a press release saying that the team has ensured that the game is a sellout and would be aired on local television. The team does this so that they can say “Look what we did for you! Our loyal fans.” The reason you don’t hear about this more often is that it is not a story unless your team is “troubled.” What I mean by that is a recent history of losing or maybe possible relocation candidate. (Buffalo, Jacksonville, San Diego, and Oakland.)

This is a new NFL. It is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Living out on the West Coast, I would give my right arm to be a season ticket holder for my beloved Bills. Unfortunately in this short attention span, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately age, everybody doesn’t feel the same as I do. We as fans have options and teams are trying to get up to speed.

Of course some teams execute this better than others. The team that employed me had issues. (The left hand never knew what the right hand was doing.)

I would say winning fixes everything, but then I would tell you that we had trouble selling seats coming off of a Super Bowl appearance.

About J Barabasz

Follow J on Twitter at @jtbarabasz.