Organizers of NFL pre-season game at IG Field scrambling under pressure to sell tickets

It's fourth-and-long for organizers of next week's NFL exhibition game at IG Field. And it appears moving the goalposts and throwing up a last-minute Hail Mary isn't bringing them much closer to finding the end zone.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/08/2019 (1315 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s fourth-and-long for organizers of next week’s NFL exhibition game at IG Field. And it appears moving the goalposts and throwing up a last-minute Hail Mary isn’t bringing them much closer to finding the end zone.

Normally, a sea of blue would be most welcome at the home of the Bombers. But in this case, it’s bad news for those who were hoping for a packed house on Aug. 22 when the Oakland Raiders play host to the Green Bay Packers in the first — and I suspect last — four-down football game to come to Winnipeg.

A search of Ticketmaster shows thousands of available tickets, displayed as blue dots, in pretty much every section. It’s even more pronounced in the mostly unsold lower bowl, where the most expensive tickets are clearly keeping customers far, far away.

How grim is it? I’d love to be able to tell you, but On Ice Entertainment Ltd., the Toronto-based third-party promoter behind the event, won’t give specific sales numbers. They didn’t return my messages on Tuesday seeking an update but did tell The Canadian Press last weekend they’re currently at about half of stadium capacity, which is officially listed at 33,134.

I’d take that with a giant grain of salt, considering the Ticketmaster map appears to show more than 50 per cent of seats still up for grabs. Safe to say their ultimate goal of a sell-out is going to come up painfully short.

What’s more, after vowing there would be no price reductions following initially slow sales, they called an audible last week and slashed about 6,000 tickets from the original cost of $164 to $75, plus taxes and fees.

They tried to save some face by touting it as a sponsorship arrangement with Molson Coors by dubbing them “Miller Lite End Zones,” but in reality this was the equivalent of breaking the glass in case of an emergency. For what it’s worth, those tickets don’t appear to be moving very quickly, either.

Even that attempt has been botched badly. How do you imagine the people who’d already paid full price felt when they heard about the fire sale, then initially called Ticketmaster and were told “Sorry, no refunds.”

Alienating and angering your most loyal customers is not usually a recipe for a successful business venture. John Graham, the president of On Ice, has since been quoted as saying the ticket-selling agency “will handle it.”

But it’s not clear exactly what that means.

Winnipegger Mike McPherson bought two of those $164 tickets in section 202 when they first went on sale to the public, only to learn about the sudden discount through news reports last weekend. Naturally, he called Ticketmaster, hoping to either be reimbursed the difference or offered a full refund so he could repurchase new tickets at the cheaper price. He even cited Graham’s quote to the person on the other end of the phone.

“I spoke twice to a Ticketmaster manager who said tickets were final sale and the promoter hadn’t authorized any refunds. He told me he was going to write an email to the promoter requesting authorization to refund my tickets and would call me back to confirm,” McPherson told me Tuesday.

He’s still waiting for a reply.

“I’m assuming I might have to call Ticketmaster again to resolve this. It’s not about the money as much as it’s about the principle of what’s happening here. The tickets were bought as a Father’s Day gift, with my dad being a life-long Packer fan. When I purchased them these tickets were the most affordable option available,” said McPherson.

Naturally, McPherson is a bit sour at the whole process, although he’s going to the game no matter what and intent on enjoying the experience with his pops.

There was plenty of sticker shock when prices were rolled out in early June with eight ticket options ranging from $75 to $340, not including taxes and fees. Many, including yours truly, predicted this was doomed to fail.

Sure, the cheapest upper-deck ones — available in very limited numbers — sold out quickly. But save for the 40 corporate suites, which are apparently occupied, the rest are still available in large quantities.

The eight pricing options average out to $226.88, which, if you multiply by the 33,000 seats they hoped to sell, would have come to $7.5 million. That figure would actually be much higher, considering there are far more tickets available in the four highest-price ranges than in the four cheapest ones. Throw in parking and concessions and local consumers were being asked to dig very deep.

As a Week 3 pre-season NFL game, there’s a good chance the regulars such as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will get an extended look, which promoters hoped would be a major selling point. But unless something changes dramatically in the next week, this is shaping up to be a multi-million-dollar gamble gone bad.

Although the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are partners in this enterprise, they are no doubt thrilled they absorbed no direct financial risk. If anyone is going to take a bath here, it’s Oakland (the home team gets gate revenues) and On Ice Entertainment.

Some will try to paint this as a failure on the part of Manitobans, but don’t be fooled by that. This is a healthy sports town, with more options than ever, and football fans are already being well-served by a talented Bombers club that has yet to lose at IG Field this season and have provided plenty of bang for their much-cheaper entertainment buck. A crowd of 25,354 took in last Thursday’s win over Calgary that moved Winnipeg to 6-2, alone on top of the CFL’s West Division.

Even Friday’s exhibition basketball game between the men’s teams from Canada and Nigeria drew a near lower-bowl sellout of 8,000 fans at Bell MTS Place, despite a lack of obvious star power on either squad.

If anything, it’s a rejection of an overpriced cash grab in what was already a saturated market, with only so much disposable income to go around. It’s worth noting a previous Canadian NFL experiment, in which Toronto hosted eight games between 2008 and 2013, saw prices slashed significantly once fans realized they were being played for suckers.

It’s also worth noting you can find NFL exhibition game tickets for as cheap as US$12 available to see the Minnesota Vikings just a seven-hour drive south of here at beautiful U.S. Bank Stadium. In fact, a quick search around the league shows just how inflated these Winnipeg prices truly are.

The obvious question is where do they go from here? A half-empty IG Field (or half-full, if you want to think positively!) is not going to be a good look for anyone, so you wonder if another wave of wholesale price reductions are on the way. Or, perhaps they’ll try to quietly paper the place with giveaways.

Whatever the case, an event that was being touted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has been fumbled from the start and might well end up being remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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