OP-ED: Fill Empty Sports Events Seats With Needy Children, Military

by Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry

Every time I go to a sports event or watch one on television and see hundreds or even thousands of empty seats I think about how children from youth organizations and active military and their families would enjoy sitting in those seats.

The International Olympic Committee heard complaints last week from the media and people who could not get tickets to events in London when the best seats in the house were empty at many events. Do not blame the London organizing committee because the IOC requires that 25 percent of tickets be set aside for their use by members, national Olympic committees and executives of international federations. Many of these tickets ended up in the hands of scalpers. In spite of this image problem, London staged the best Olympic Games since Los Angeles in 1984.

Under pressure from the host committee, the IOC finally relented and television viewers did see active military in uniform occupying some seats. However, in many cases former Olympians and friends of Olympic competitors were unable to buy tickets or were forced to pay outrageous prices. The organizers for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro should take a lesson from some U.S. colleges and universities and professional leagues and teams and define customer service and public relations for the IOC.

Many college and professional teams do have policies in place to help those who otherwise might not be able to afford the cost of tickets to be there to root for the home team. Those who do not have such a free ticket policy in place can take a giant public relations step forward and not let any seat be vacant for a future game or event.

Giving someone an opportunity to see a sports event that otherwise would not be affordable is an inexpensive way for colleges and professional teams to build a loyal fan base. For colleges, in the long run, it might even make the difference of one day getting a top recruit.

My good friend, Seattle attorney John Myer, believes teams should have a system where pre-sold, season tickets also cannot go unused. “Through my ticket broker I bought box seat tickets to a recent Mariners game and there were dozens of empty seats all around me and thousands in the stadium,” he says. “It is a shame these could not have been given to a children’s organization or active military to enjoy the game.”

According to Greg Aiello, vice president of the National Football League, each of the 32 teams can give away up to 17,000 complimentary tickets during the season over the course of 10 home games including two pre-season games. Because ticket sales have declined and attendance is off 4.5 percent since 2007, the NFL is allowing teams more flexibility to fill seats. Once a game had to be sold out before it could be a televised locally. Now only 85 percent of the tickets need to be sold.

The NFL should consider a waiver to allow teams in some markets to exceed the 17,000 number if owners wanted to give free tickets to children and active military and their families. According to STATS LLC, an international sports information firm, the five teams with the lowest attendance in 2011 were Cincinnati (75.2%), Miami (81.%), Washington (83.9%), Buffalo (84.8%) and St. Louis (84.5).

The Los Angeles Lakers sell out most of their home games but still give away at least 100 tickets to every game to nonprofit groups serving children and the military. According to John Black, team vice president, the value of the tickets during a season is nearly $200,000.

Pat Courtney, vice president of Major League Baseball, says the league has a Commissioner’s Ticket Initiative where teams are encouraged to provide tickets to youth groups and the military.

The Washington Nationals baseball team has one of the most outstanding community relations programs I have seen. The team’s mission statement says it all: “The Washington Nationals are committed to enhancing education and literacy; encouraging participation in youth baseball and softball; and improving the health and well-being of the citizens of the Washington, D.C. region.” In addition to providing free tickets for children and active military, the team has a youth baseball academy, participates with numerous charitable organizations for fund raising, awards grants and donations to a score of local nonprofit organizations and even has a pediatric diabetes care complex at Children’s National Medical Center.

“Through its extraordinary support of USO-Metro, the Washington Nationals continue to hit one grand slam after another when it comes to supporting our military members and their families,” said Elaine Rogers, president and CEO of USO of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. “Year after year, all of us at USO-Metro know with complete certainty that we can count on the team to express the love and support of the American people for our troops and their families, especially our military children.”

In addition to providing free tickets to the military throughout the metropolitan area, Maryland and Northern Virginia, the Nationals in cooperation with the USO created several new programs that now are being adapted by teams and USO chapters in other geographic regions throughout the country. Few professional sports teams are as involved with their communities as the Nationals are with the U.S. Military. That commitment to the nation’s armed forces extends beyond the in-game military salute at each home game.

“Me and a Friend” is a program so children of military parents can bring a friend to a game. The Nationals recently gave away 4,000 free tickets for a Sunday game as a way to say thank you for the sacrifices made by military children whose parents are protecting our country and who have to relocate often and make new friends. The team also has a Wounded Warrior Amputee softball team and members of the Nationals make regular visits to military hospitals.

This year USO-Metro honored the team’s extensive efforts in the military community at its 30th annual awards dinner with its Legacy of Hope, named after longtime USO advocate Bob Hope. Established in 2004, the award is presented annually to an organization that exhibits extraordinary dedication to supporting the nation’s service members. The sold-out, black-tie, full formal military dress dinner drew more than 500 guests and raised more than $630,000 for the USO.

“Our centers across the U.S. rely on the generosity of our community to donate tickets to sporting events, amusement parks and theaters in support of our nation’s military and their families, said Jeff Hill, regional vice president of USO Stateside Operations.

If those responsible for ticket policies at professional teams and colleges and universities have any doubts about giving away free tickets, they should review Econ 101 and know that vacant seats translate to lost sales at the concession stands. By reviewing the simple rule of supply and demand it is easy to see that the more people who attend a game or event the greater the sales will be at concession stands.

Papering the house – giving free tickets so there are no empty seats – also looks much better when a game is televised. Teams that use public arenas and stadiums paid for by taxpayers or who receive tax benefits and forgiveness should be required to do so by local, county and state governments.

Broadway Theatres have had such a policy for years and some even provide the USO with free standing room tickets for active military personnel at sold-out shows.

When the marketing and promotion experts fail to sell out a game or event the unsold tickets should be given to the public relations professionals who will make sure there are no empty seats. It not only makes good sense business-wise, but it is the right thing to do.

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Charleston, WV native Rene A. Henry is an author and writer and U.S. Army veteran who lives in Seattle and spent two years on active duty and eight in the active reserve. He spent more than 50 years of his professional career at every level of sports including recreational, college, professional, Olympic and international. Many of his widely-published commentaries are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com.

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