COVID-19, Sports and the NFL

Throughout this COVID-19 crisis, it’s been tragically fascinating to watch how this has impacted sports. Despite it being entertainment, sports remain a foundational pillar of our society, in large part that it gives distraction from the problems in our daily lives, as well as provides a commonality for us to rally around (or against, in the case of the Raiders). Obviously lots of serious things are missing from our social fabric right now, but the absence of sports leaves a unique void.

Likewise, it’s been fascinating to watch how the leagues try to figure out what comes next. Weeks after the abrupt shock that was the NBA and NHL vanishing overnight, it still seems that any sports are months away from returning, even in modified gameplay, sequestered teams, in remote locations, without fans.

Then you have the NFL.

The NFL has a large advantage of being in the midst of their offseason, as well as the ability to turning every league milestone into a major event. They’ve been able to portray “business as usual” more than any sports league. As refreshing it’s been to be reading content that isn’t about COVID-19, it’s not clear whether the NFL realizes that they can also sound tone-deaf about being a contact support involving hundreds of people in the field, in stadiums that typically house tens of thousands of fans – all at a time when people see this as a major risk for virus spread.

For Broncos season ticket holders, the first payment for next season was due on March 11, right when our world seemingly changed overnight. For those that are on payment plans, the remaining half of ticket balances are due in June. Those three months might seem like three years later, at a time when we’ll likely still know less than we do know when it comes to the fall, as well as many fans having experience severe economic disruption and challenge since they made their first payment.

Look, I get that season ticket ownership is a privilege, and in the case of the Broncos, there’s a long line of people who would gladly take your spot. That said, the Broncos and the NFL shouldn’t blame any ticket holder who has major reservations about going to in-person games in 2020. I’ve long thought that season ticket ownership is a years-long partnership between fans and the team, where fans are encouraged to financially contribute in both good times (like the Super Bowls), and bad (like the first back-to-back-to-back losing season in the Bowlen era). The tickets in my stewardship have been with the Broncos since the franchise started, and it’s unfair for the NFL to ask fans to potentially risk their lives in going to games, as well as blindly contribute a significant amount of their income for games that they likely won’t be able to attend.

There’s an easy solution to this problem, one that can ensure that both the fans and the team can continue their partnership: allow season ticket holders to defer their 2020 tickets (and second half payment) to the 2021 season. Ticket holders can elect to apply their previous first-half payment to the 2021 season, giving the team assurance that the fans want to maintain the season ticket partnership. In return, the ticket holders forgo their rights to games in the 2020 season, and their seats are added to the “individual game sales” pool that goes on-sale in July, when the league has a better sense of whether and when any in-person attendance would be allowed. Personally, given the amount of public health and financial uncertainty, I would take this deal in a heartbeat.

However, I remain skeptical that this will happen. Given how ruthless the NFL can be, they’ll continue to expect their season ticket holders to make payments on time, for games that likely won’t happen. They’ve already sent an email stating that they’ll refund any games that don’t happen – but of course after the fans have coughed up the money and the team can make interest off the funds.

Come on Broncos and NFL, these are extraordinary times, take this as an opportunity to do right by your long-time fans.

The Astros, Sign Stealing, and Baseball Innovation

In watching the Houston Astros Sign-Stealing scandal unfold, its punishments getting doled out, and the open resentment from other players in the league, the same question kept popping into my mind:

Wouldn’t it be possible to equip pitchers with a microphone that enables one-way communication to an earpiece in the catcher’s helmet? If the pitcher quietly speaks into the mic with the glove over his mouth, wouldn’t that stop sign-stealing?

I posed the question on Twitter and Facebook (and thank you to those who responded) and received many illuminating responses.

A quick primer to those not familiar with sign-stealing: when a batter’s at the plate, the catcher will relay a series of signals from his hands (typically between his legs) over to the pitcher, seemingly proposing pitches. The pitcher provides non-verbal responses in the forms of head shakes or nods, then throws the agreed-upon pitch. Sign stealing is when the opposite team tries to intercept and decode the signals, then relay them non-verbally back to the batter. Typically this has been done when there’s a runner on 2nd, but players and teams continue to be innovative in employing sign-stealing, with the Astros having team personnel monitor the signs real-time, relay it to the dugout, with players banging a trash can to get the message back to the batter. The scandal now has a Wikipedia entry if you want to learn more.

Technically, sign-stealing is considered cheating, but the culture of baseball tolerates it as long as you don’t cross an invisible line. Under the mantra, “If you don’t cheat, you don’t try.”, players continually innovate to find new and more effective ways to steal signs, which is what landed the Astros in hot water.

This brought me to the above question, wondering why can’t baseball incentivize teams to apply the same level of innovation to thwart cheating. With apologies to the people for not better representing their thoughtful comments, the gist of reasons were:

  1. Catchers are the ones that have all the knowledge and are instructing the pitcher on what to throw.
  2. It would be too much to ask of pitchers, especially relievers, to call pitches.
  3. Teams would try to intercept the transmissions.
  4. It’s not too much to ask teams not to cheat

For the sake of argument, let’s discard #4 and accept that teams will continue to push boundaries. As for point #3, football has been using play-calling radios for decades – and Patriots jokes aside – has not generally had a problem.

That leaves us point #1 and #2, which to a baseball skeptic like me translates, “It’s always been this way and it’s asking too much for pitchers to change”.

This is the crux of why I struggle with baseball. The double-edged sword of being steeped with tradition also has the ill effect of being resistant to new ideas and methods.

I’m not saying that the sport needs to force every team into doing this, but if they changed the rules to allow for this, you might see some teams taking advantage of the technology, even if it’s just for playing certain teams suspected of cheating. We’ve seen this play out in other sports. When a team finds success, the copycat league will try to adopt and further the methods. Instead, many baseball purists seem to accept that the players will work this all out, with their own form of vigilante justice – taking a few pitches to the ribs. At least through enabling and promotion innovation, you at least give teams an alternative than resorting to physical retaliation.

This also boils down to the fact that Commissioner Rob Manfred opted not to punish the players, in part to achieve their cooperation in the investigation, but also to avoid drawn-out appeals from the Players Union. There wasn’t a great solution to this, but as players have been reporting into training camps it’s been obvious that many harbor vast resentment towards current and former Astros. Perhaps Manfred should consider placing a permanent asterisk on the Astros 2017 championship. Outright stripping the title opens a can of worms (Who would get the title instead, no one? Do the players have to give back their championship rings?), but placing an asterisk allows people to view the 2017 World Series in their own light and allow history to ultimately pass judgement.

The way baseball views sign-stealing is not unlike hockey views fighting: they pay lip service to being against it, but through their inaction they don’t do anything to actually thwart it, relying on some invisible line. People then clutch their pearls after it gets crossed.

Ultimately this is indicative of the decisions that are relegating the National Pastime into a distant third in popularity. The NFL and NBA have their own sets of problems, but they don’t seem to be afraid to promote new ideas and innovation to help the game evolve. I get that baseball is a timeless, individual-statistics-driven game that favors the record books, but this seeming apprehension to evolution is going to be the sports undoing.

Why the Broncos preventing ticket printing is evil

Broncos embrace mobile ticketing for 2018 season

In which by “embrace mobile ticketing”, they mean they’re taking away the ability for season ticket holders to print tickets from home, requiring you to use their ticketing system to broker not only re-selling the tickets but any transfers as well.  I always love the PR spin that acts like they’re giving you something when they take something away.

One one hand, I can understand their justification for doing this, and the selling point that this will cut down on high-margin scalping and counterfeit tickets, which is all well and good, but when I heard about this policy change, I couldn’t stop thinking about two formative stories that shape my view of mobile ticketing.

  1. Back in the fall of 2017, I purchased tickets to Mumford and Sons, only available as a moble ticket. It turned out that I had to travel for work the week of the show, and tried to transfer 2 of the four tickets to my wife and the other two my friend. The ticketing system was so shoddy that it ended up taking days of attempts before I believed the transfers went through. Fast forward to the night of the concert, when I got a call from both of them stating that the tickets I transferred to my friends weren’t coming up.  So there everyone was, in line and stressed out about not being able to get in, while I was far away and essentially powerless to help them out.  The concert attendants weren’t particularly helpful, and who can blame them when they have a compounding line of people eager to get in.  We finally solved the whole problem by me re-claiming the transferred tickets, screen shooting them from my phone and texting the image over to my friend – which I should have just done, to begin with.
  2. This time the last year, the Broncos went on a massive audit of season ticket holders, establishing a newly-formed policy that they would revoke tickets to people who didn’t go to any games that year. They used the only data point that was convenient at the time – the NFL Ticket Exchange and tracking the electronic tickets. I detailed my concerns about this last year, but the bottom line was that for all practical purposes, my tickets should have been revoked and the only thing that saved me was the wherewithal of “selling” (and by selling, it was at-cost to friends and family) the tickets through the printed tickets.

Make no mistake, this is about making sure the Broncos and the NFL have the data points for all ticket transactions and can harvest the data for their own purposes, especially for retroactively enforcing policies that they just made up.  I wouldn’t be surprised after next season they’ll take tickets away from someone who wasn’t able to go, transferring the tickets to friends and family. And yes, I understand that there are fans that abuse their tickets by massively upselling them and not attending any games for years at a time. It would be fair to call their fandom into question. However, there are also many other fans that simply may have had a life event (like a birth, a sickness, a temporary job relocation) disrupt a single year of their attendance, and despite devoutly attending games for a decade before, they’re subject to the same revocation.  The Broncos have every right to do that, but it doesn’t make it a complete jerk move and fan-hostile.

Mobile ticketing ENABLES season ticket audits. I’m all for preventing scalping, but if you were serious about punishing scalpers you could send an intern out on game day, pretend to consider a scalper’s ticket and note the seat #, call the ticket holder the next day.  Sure it takes a little more work, but it punishes those who are egregiously violating your policies, rather than the low-hanging fruit of new parents that sold the tickets to their next-door neighbors.

If you go read the article and the FAQ, they’ll tout that 35% of their fans used mobile ticketing last year, conveniently forgetting that 2/3 of their other fans have never used this process.  I’d get it if 80-90% of the fanbase were using their phones to get into games, but don’t pretend they’re not trying to ram something down fans throats that they didn’t even ask for. Don’t piss on my leg and then tell me that you’re making me fire-retardant.

What about for friends who buy my tickets or if I can’t go? Now they’re all going to need TicketExchange accounts and I will basically need to handhold their app experience. Where’s the convenience in that? Now the Broncos are making their season ticket holders your front-line support for your app. I imagine that many more fans are going to have a similar experience to my Mumford and Sons story from above. Emailing tickets to my friends wasn’t a problem that needed solving.

I went back & forth on Twitter with one of their PR reps (and to their credit, they were at least responding – unlike last year), and he was quick to justify that other teams were doing this and that the NFL is moving over to this.  However, the Avalanche, Nuggets, and Rockies are still providing paper tickets with nice commemorative designs.  Even if many more teams were using this system, just because others (don’t) do it, doesn’t make it right. This is a race to the bottom for the fan experience. Commemorative tix aren’t the issue – introducing a barrier (preventing printing) to my “honest fan” experience, all to collect data to possibly punish me later on – is.

This isn’t about being a luddite or not embracing technology, this is about protecting yourself from data harvesting that is only going to be used to punish you, as the Broncos and NFL continue to squeeze blood out of turnips for their money-printing machines.

More proof that the NFL doesn’t love you back

Good news for those at the front of the Broncos’ nearly 75,000 season tickets wait list:The team is not renewing season tickets for those who didn’t attend a game in 2016

Good news everybody! The Broncos want to make sure those greedy bastard season ticket holders won’t be able to make profits off of their tickets any more!

Oh shit, we actually didn’t go to any games last year.

Granted, we sold all of our tickets at face value, to friends and family. In fact the whole time we’ve bought four tickets, two of the seats have always gone to other people. In all the years we’ve been buying tickets, we’ve never sold a ticket for more than face value, and have made every effort to avoid selling them to fans of the other team. I realize that not every season ticket holder is as altruistic. There are people who make quite a bit of money off of their tickets, rarely go to any games and probably laugh all the way to the bank.  The problem is that those people won’t be punished.

The people who will be punished will be the poor saps that used the NFL’s Ticket Exchange.  If you’re not familiar with the service, Mike Shanahan will tell you all about it.

Over the last few years, the NFL and the teams have made huge efforts to get season ticket holders to use the Exchange to broker tickets. They’ll tell you it’s to ensure authenticity and combat scalping, but the reality is that the teams want to double-dip ticket revenue and take a cut for selling your tickets again. The irony here is that all the fans that thought they were doing right by using the Exchange, when now all they’ve done is give the teams ammunition to build a revocation case against them.

Right now my family is in the dark period of our season ticket stewardship.  With two kids under 4, it’s become increasingly difficult to go to games.  Between the packing, traveling, tailgating and finally seeing the game, seeing the Broncos is easily an 8-10 hour event. With the kids that gives us three options: cash in one of our coveted “free babysitting” cards, one of us leaves the spouse watching the kids all day while the other goes and parties (and feel really guilty about it, despite that we’re both happy to watch our own kids), or stay at home with the kids on one of the two family days we get each week. In addition, there are no more family events and obligations that prevent us from going to games. The one game we were planning on attending (the Patriots game), conflicted with Clara’s first dance recital.

However we know that before we know it the kids will have grown to a game-attending age (although stadium behavior now convinces me that it’s now 25, but that’s a post for another day), and our “dark period” will be followed up with a game-going renaissance where we’ll romantically pass our fandom onto our kids.  In the end, isn’t this the point of season ticket ownership? Rather than invest in a team for a single season, fans are taking stock in the family experience that spans multiple years, hopefully into generations?

The other aspect that’s not considered is the fact that the NFL jacks up playoff ticket prices as well. A playoff run (of 2 games, mind you) typically cost season ticket holders 1/4-1/3 of what they paid for the season, which is always due right around Christmas when money is already tight for folks. A lot of people resort to selling next year’s tickets to recover the costs for the previous year’s playoff glory.

I get that there are people who abuse their season tickets, but these tactics aren’t going to punish those guys. If the Broncos wanted to punish them, they would be conducting stings of people selling on Craigslist or even on the street corner outside the stadium.  You don’t even need to buy the tickets, just look at the seat numbers and flag the owners.  Instead the Broncos are going to go with the low-hanging fruit and punish people that likely mean well and used their sanctioned scalpin-errrr-ticket-reselling tool.

More proof that the sport you love doesn’t love you back.