Ticketmaster has new software that makes it easier for venues to sell tickets for events with reduced seating. (Courtesy Ticketmaster)

NFL teams, NBA arenas use social distance tech to sell tickets

Ticketmaster has developed a new social distance seating tool to help sports and entertainment venues selling tickets for events with reduced capacity during the pandemic.

The proprietary software, designed by Ticketmaster Chief Strategy Officer Dave Scarborough and his crew, essentially uses customized algorithms tied to variables such as the total number of seats and distance between seats, plus the percentage of capacity that arenas and stadiums are allowed to hold under local government restrictions. 

Some big league arenas are in the early stages of adopting the tool, such as American Airlines Center in Dallas; Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., and Moda Center in Portland, Ore., according to officials with those three buildings. NFL teams are using the technology for the coming season as they gear up for reduced stadium crowds, confirmed Ticketmaster President Amy Howe. She declined to identify them, pending their approval.

Live Nation, Ticketmaster’s sister company, plans to use the tool for social distance seating at its 46 amphitheaters once it’s safe to reopen those outdoor venues, said Ticketmaster spokesman Steven Clark.

There is no additional fee to use the tool. It’s part of the services Ticketmaster provides as part of its agreements, Howe said. Suites are a separate entity and not part of the new system.

“The great thing about this is it’s working on a lot of the technology and platforms we already built, such as Virtual Venue, our integrated seat map,” she said. “It’s pretty much plug and play, where you can run literally tons of different scenarios to meet the (seating) requirements.”

The tool can remap a seating bowl in two minutes, separating it into smaller groups of seats spaced apart, while adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and local restrictions. Venue officials can see in real time when they have reached the limits for capacity in their market.

“It can get very granular in the way that it maps those seats,” Clark said. “It can tell what the horizontal distance is as fans walk by — the nose-to-nose distance. It’s specific in its algorithm.”

American Airlines Center officials have created the parameters for ticketing three events starting with a show in November, which will most likely be the first event in the building since the national shutdown of live entertainment. The date has not been announced. They’re waiting for Ticketmaster to complete the final touches on the technology before activating the tool, said Caroline Zalman, the arena’s manager of ticket operations.

“It gets real specific with the parameters,” said Eric Bruce, American Airlines Center’s director of ticketing. “We entered the pitch of each level, the seat width and some other physical dimensions they asked for. We had to get all that info from our operations folks.”

The tool can adjust seating depending on the type of event and its demographics. 

“For a family show, we might want to have a higher percentage of seating pods for six to eight people, as opposed to other events that aren’t quite as family oriented,” Bruce said. “For those, we might stick to smaller pods of two and four seats with spacing between them.”

Howe said the tool was driven by feedback from clients as they prepare to reopen with the possibility of partial attendance for events. Ticketmaster works with teams across all the big leagues and had lots of conversations during the shutdown for how things will unfold in the future and potential solutions given the risks of COVID-19. 

Those discussions extend to task forces in which Ticketmaster is participating, she said.

Ticketmaster’s research indicates fans will adapt to restrictions. Over the past five months, Ticketmaster has surveyed more than 50,000 active ticket buyers across sports and entertainment, and 70% stated they plan to return to venues within four months of a reopening with restrictions put in place, Howe said.

“The other piece of this is we also have to make sure that fans feel comfortable coming back into a venue,” she said. “It gives that fan greater peace of mind that the venue has been thoughtful about managing it. Everybody has their own risk profile when it comes to returning to live events. We’ve tried to help restore that confidence.”

It’s up to the venue to determine whether the economics work to effectively use the tool, Howe said. The facilities establish capacity and safety protocols. Teams and promoters set ticket prices under those restrictions, which is one variable that hasn’t changed during the pandemic. 

Many venues have formed their own social distance seating diagrams without using Ticketmaster’s tool, and some determined the economics don’t work with limited capacity. Chase Center in San Francisco, home of the Golden State Warriors, is one example.

“We’ve done our social distance maps and it reduces our capacity so severely, it’s not a business model that works,” said Kim Stone, the arena’s general manager. “It certainly doesn’t work for Warriors games.”

Moda Center did the same thing before Ticketmaster rolled out its new software. Under state restrictions, arena officials came up with 16% capacity for a building with 19,980 seats, said Amanda Mann, senior vice president and general manager of Rose Quarter operations. 

Later, using Ticketmaster’s system, they were able to bump the number up by roughly six percentage points, she said.

“We’re planning for it, but have no idea where this is going to go and how we’re going to reopen,” Mann said.

Ticketmaster’s tool carries additional flexibility. As municipalities ease restrictions on mass gatherings and allow a greater number of patrons to attend events, those numbers can be plugged into the system to reflect the increase in capacity, Howe said.

“We’ll see how it plays out, but I assume they’ll vary as we go through different re-entry phases,” she said. “They might start with 10% to 20% capacity, and as the situation improves, we’ll start to see that ramp up.”

American Airlines Center is bullish on the technology as officials integrate the tool into their reopening plans.

“We’re going to be ready to open way before anybody is willing to take the risk to get out,” said Dave Brown, the arena’s chief operating officer and general manager. “Facilities have been working hard and doing all they can; it’s just a matter of who wants to take the leap of faith and what local authorities will allow you to do.”