Boston sports fans want more than their teams to get back to playing games. They want their money back.
Based on the latest available Forbes figures, the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Revolution are holding more than roughly $100 million in combined ticket sales for games that have been postponed between March and the end of May because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The road to a refund, however, is something of a roundabout. The fine print says postponed games aren’t eligible for refunds, only officially canceled games are. Teams are telling fans their hands are tied by the leagues, and the leagues won’t say the word “cancellation” because the 2020 seasons remain on hold.
With Massachusetts enduring peak pandemic conditions in the second half of April, coronavirus cases and deaths on the rise nationwide, and public health experts saying that if and when sports resume, they will be watched on TV and not from the stands, the calendar and common sense point toward the reality that tickets for some postponed games at Fenway Park, TD Garden, and Gillette Stadium are destined to be refunded.
Glen Thornborough, chief revenue officer for the Bruins, said there’s been “an awful lot of Zoom calls” between the team and the NHL over ticketing and marketing issues affecting fans.
“It’s such unchartered waters, we’re all trying to do what’s best,” Thornborough said.
The four local teams (because of the timing of the NFL schedule, the Patriots are sitting out the ticket-refund dilemma) all indicated a willingness to answer questions, address concerns, and expedite solutions with their ticket-holders.
The teams emphasized that their leagues have granted them autonomy to resolve a situation involving any ticket-holder who is undergoing economic hardship, possibly including an immediate refund, but it is up to individuals to initiate that discussion.
Zineb Curran, vice president for corporate communication for the Red Sox, said the team is being responsive when ticket-holders let them know of a hardship or an issue.
“Our efforts have been directly coordinated with MLB and we plan to share any formal plans related to the schedule when they are finalized,” Curran said in an e-mail.
“In the meantime, our longstanding ticket policies remain in place: tickets to rescheduled games will be good for the rescheduled contest; games that are canceled and not rescheduled will be refunded at face value.”
Local ticket re-seller Ace Ticket is offering refunds for most tickets it sold to Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Revolution games, but Ace is an outlier in the resale market.
On Monday in California, two frustrated baseball fans, one holding tickets to a Yankees-Red Sox game in May, filed a federal lawsuit against Major League Baseball, all 30 teams, and ticket re-sellers, a case that could turn into a nationwide class-action suit.
Industry giant StubHub faces a federal lawsuit in Wisconsin, with an NHL ticket-holder filing a $5 million class-action case alleging StubHub breached its contract by changing its policy for coronavirus-impact reasons late in March and only offering 120 percent StubHub vouchers for future use rather than the choice of getting a full refund.
StubHub sells and buys tickets from individuals. Ace Ticket’s business model is different; it buys ticket inventory directly from teams and their ticket vendors.
Ace owner Jim Holzman has seen his sales plummet 90 percent since the NBA shut down March 11. Instead of selling thousands of tickets a day, he said he now sells four. He is using the profits he’s made over the last decade to keep his $60 million company moving forward and retaining his 40 employees because “that’s my responsibility as a business owner, I accept that.”
It’s also why he is offering refunds to every possible buyer who bought a ticket to a local game through his company. Sometimes that’s not possible because of transferability issues concerning electronic tickets, but otherwise, Holzman sees it as his duty to have given refunds to “thousands of Red Sox tickets and hundreds of Celtics and Bruins.”
Holzman has processed 13 April Red Sox games and is getting to the 16 games in May next.
“I’m taking a risk there; if the Red Sox don’t do refunds, I’m holding the bag there, but I owe it to customers to do the right thing,” said Holzman. “April games aren’t being played, so how can I hold somebody’s money for games that aren’t being played?
"We’re trying to do the right thing. Even though they aren’t giving refunds, we are.”
Some fans are puzzled
The Red Sox hold the lion’s share of $70 million or more of estimated unused gate receipts from 29 missed games in April and May.
Red Sox season ticket-holder Pat Fenton said he has been receiving Red Sox-themed crossword puzzles and word scrambles in e-mails from the team, but has gotten no word about what will happen with the money he started to pay the team back in December for games that will not be played in April and May.
“I wish the Red Sox were proactive about it,” said Fenton, who spends $3,400 a year for his two season tickets. “I think it would have been nice for them to reach out when games started and say, ‘We know games were supposed to start this week, we’ll be in touch when we have a solution from Major League Baseball.’
"Communication could have been better.”
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office said it has started hearing from people about refunds for sporting events and other event cancellations. Since March 1, the office had heard 107 complaints. The office said it is monitoring all of the complaints closely, and that it is encouraging people with tickets to games and events to deal directly with organizers when asking for refunds.
Not counting 2020-21 season ticket revenues starting to come in, the Celtics collected approximately $18 million-plus for their last nine unplayed games, with the Bruins at $16 million-plus for six postponed games. The Revolution have roughly $2 million-plus for eight postponed games through May.
Jay Pinsonnault paid $3,400 for 174 tickets for a group outing with his son’s baseball league to a May 6 game at Fenway Park. After contacting the Red Sox group ticket sales office, he was told last Monday that his credit card would be refunded.
But Pinsonnault said it’s been “radio silence” from the Red Sox when it comes to the fate of the $24,424 he is paying for his eight 2020 season tickets at Fenway Park.
Along with the Celtics, the Bruins offered a one-month reprieve on 2020-21 season ticket renewals, delaying the April payment into May, because of the coronavirus. The Revolution offered a no-cost deferral option for the April 15 payment due for ticket-holders on a payment plan.
Both the Red Sox and Revolution are still selling tickets to the 2020 season, with May 19 as the first available game for sale on the Red Sox website, June 20 for the Revolution. MLB has postponed games only through mid-May, with MLS’s season on hold through June 6.
Frustration is apparent
Holzman is sympathetic to the teams’ financial losses. If his Ace Ticket office is getting deluged with calls from fans asking about the status of games, then “I’m sure the teams are getting overwhelmed," he said.
“We’re all stressed and irritated, we’re all looking for good news," he said. "Now’s the time to be sympathetic to people who have lost jobs or loved ones. You have to have a heart. Sometimes it’s not just about business; you have to have a heart.
“As the weeks go by, you hear people’s frustrations increasing. They’re mad at Ticketmaster for not allowing them to give them a refund and they’re mad at the teams for not giving them a refund.
“People paid for seats. They’re frustrated at the situation. They purchased a ticket because they really wanted to go to an event. They’re frustrated they can’t go to that event, they don’t know when that event is, and they can’t get their money back.”
While everyone waits, ticket money remains with the teams, not only for this season’s games but for next season as well.
“When the season was suspended, all of a sudden you got an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, your monthly payments for next year start soon’ and you’re like, ‘What the hell, you guys haven’t even finished this season yet. We’re still paying for this season and now you want us to pay for next season?’ ” said Brian Maloney, who has held Celtics season tickets for the last six years.
“That’s my biggest complaint. We’re still paying thousands of dollars and we’re going to be paying that all the way through the summer for next year’s games when this year wasn’t finalized.
"The only communication we’ve received is it’s a ‘fluid situation, we’re waiting to hear back from the NBA on if games are going to be played’ — which they’re obviously not going to be, especially without fans.”
According to a Celtics spokesperson, "Our ticketing staff has been working very closely with our season ticket members to provide payment flexibility to those who have requested it. Our focus is on the relationship with our members and finding solutions that fit each individual financial situation and to make sure the flexibility is clearly communicated.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.