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Defending the Value of Live Attendance

With most of the sports world excited about and focused on the return of fans to live games, the experience of buying a ticket and attending an event took a couple of unexpected, if not necessarily intentional, knocks recently.

First, Triller Fight Club purchased the right to stage and broadcast an upcoming lightweight championship boxing match that will have no fans in attendance. At first glance that may not seem odd given COVID restrictions on indoor events. But the upstart TFC’s revenue model is predicated on not having paid attendance at any of its events. Ever.

As quoted by JohnWallStreet, Triller co-owner Ryan Kavanaugh said, “The way we shoot and light these [events], we’re basically building a movie set [around the ring], so it’s harder for us to have a live audience. Creating the perfect look for the home viewer is long-term what is going to drive people to see Fight Club events.”

Set aside for a moment the fact that TFC will have more competition for the rights to future matches from traditional promoters such as Matchroom and Top Rank when conditions allow those companies to recoup millions of dollars through the live gate. Even if Kavanaugh’s formula (which includes adding bouts featuring social media, NFL and UFC figures to the card) allows for a highly profitable venture—with hundreds of thousands of PPV purchases from a demographic that typically wouldn’t sniff at a boxing match on top of $49.99 buys from hardcore fight fans—it seems short-sighted to not at least try to figure out a way to have amazing production quality and a live audience.

A less expected dis came from a more traditional corner of the sports world, namely Monumental Sports & Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis.

According to Sportico, in a discussion on the potential impact of blockchain technology, the owner of Washington, D.C.’s NHL, NBA and WNBA franchises imagined the possibility of bundling an event ticket with a collectible NFT:

“What if [the Caps were] selling a ticket along with a memory of the night Alex [Ovechkin] scores his 717th goal?” Leonsis said. “Now, people in Russia are buying. They’re [keeping] the memory and then reselling the actual ticket entry into the business. [Our] TAM [total addressable market] is the world—not just people who are Caps fans who want to come to that game.”

While that possibility may make sense from a short-term revenue standpoint, what does it say about the value of attending a live sports event? Including a ticket with a collectible runs the risk of the ticket being dumped for cheap, lowering the worth of all tickets and diminishing the status and potentially the experience of season-ticket and other regular attendees.

In Triller’s case, the company seems to be dismissing a major lesson learned from the pandemic that sports events without crowds pale in comparison to the atmosphere, energy and passion of an arena full of engaged and cheering fans. TFC’s sole focus on content viewed on a screen also ignores the fact that the younger demographic it is targeting prioritizes experiences above all else.

As for the Leonsis scenario of making access to a live event a secondary benefit of a ticket purchase, rights holders should proceed with great caution, keeping in mind the multiple negative impacts to the fan experience, the brand and the long-term bottom line that could arise from devaluing attendance.

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