In the NFL, there's nothing like the mystique of the Green Bay Packers, a storied franchise nestled in a small, snowy city with little flash to offer new coaches and players beyond Packer football itself.
The Packers have not only survived, but thrived for almost a century—thanks to the incredible passion of their loyal fans, the only NFL fanbase that owns its team.
So how come the NFL just granted the Packers a 24-hour extension to move about 3,000 unsold tickets for this Sunday's playoff game, per WBAY-TV sports director Chris Roth? It's because of a fan-unfriendly cash grab that's as ubiquitous in the NFL as it is obnoxious.
Legendary Lambeau Field seats 80,750 fans, about 80 percent of the population of Green Bay, Wis. Together with nearby Appleton, Wis., according to StationIndex.com, Green Bay is the 70th-biggest television market in America—by far the smallest NFL city.
Still, fans have been slow to pick up single-game ducats for what will likely be the fourth-seeded Packers' only home playoff game.
Some speculate it may be because of the cold, or the high, league-set price of the tickets, but these factors have rarely stopped Packer fans from turning out. Instead, as Richard Ryman of Press-Gazette Media wrote, a change to the playoff-ticket refund policy is scaring fans away.
The Packers charged season-ticket holders for tickets to every potential home playoff game well before Aaron Rodgers' dramatic division-clinching Week 17 comeback, and will refund games the Packers don't qualify for only as credits toward next year's season tickets.
Fans had to order up tickets for their (typically) multiple seats, for two games—quickly tying up hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars out of the pockets of the Packers' mostly blue-collar fans.
"This change is being implemented in an effort to simplify the refunding process," explained the Packers' letter to season-ticket holders, "to be consistent with other NFL teams, and because there is minimal time between the end of the playoffs and the onset of invoicing for the next season."
According to Ryman, "about half" of Packers season-ticket holders ordered their playoff tickets with that option in the past (as opposed to a true refund), and the Packers thought it "wouldn't be a big deal."
Packers spokesman Aaron Popkey told Ryman, “We got that feedback," apparently referring to Packers fans letting the team know it is a big deal, not just the slow sales. "That’s something we’ll take a look at." If the most loyal fanbase in the NFL can't put up with a policy that's standard almost everywhere else, you know something's not right.
At least Packers fans got an actual playoff game out of the deal.
Detroit Lions fans had to order their playoff tickets when the team was still tied for first place in the NFC North. They couldn't know the Lions were in the middle of a 1-6 slide that would not only cost them the division crown but the playoffs, a winning record and head coach Jim Schwartz's job.
Oops! The Lions sent playoff tickets to some fans: http://t.co/heHqCGqgOv— USA TODAY Sports (@USATODAYsports) December 24, 2013
Many Lions fans received their worthless playoff tickets the day after the team was eliminated from playoff contention, yet their money would stay tied up in season tickets for a team they might not feel like paying to see anymore.
Why are NFL teams pulling a fast one on their fans, essentially locking them into next year's season tickets well before this season is even over? The short answer: because they can get away with it.
The long answer is that the team gets ahold of some of next spring's season-ticket cash this winter, which is great for the balance sheets, and helps earn a few months' interest on several millions of dollars.
What? Millions? Oh yes.
According to Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the average Packers ticket is $83.54 this year. Multiply that by 80,750 and you have a staggering sold-out gate of $6,745,855. Sell a stadium's worth of tickets for a game that doesn't happen—and therefore no game checks, bonuses, game-day expenses or 40 percent revenue share with the visitors—put that in the bank a few months, and the interest will leave you sitting pretty.
The problem here is that NFL teams are sitting pretty anyway. Unlike any other team, the publicly owned Packers must issue financial reports; they pulled down $54.3 million in profit for the 2013 fiscal year.
NFL teams don't need to soak their fans for millions of dollars just before the holidays.
In fact, the Seattle Seahawks—whose 11-1 start gave them more right to charge ahead of time for playoff tickets than anyone—sold tickets on a "Pay as We Play" basis, where a customer's credit card will not be charged for an ordered playoff ticket until the Seahawks confirm they'll be playing it.
As lucrative as tickets are, the NFL's real bread-and-butter is its television revenue. When teams play with plenty of empty seats in plain view, it not only dampens the in-stadium atmosphere, it gives viewers at home the impression that nobody really cares. It's in the best interest of the NFL to show packed houses on television—which is why the league has its reviled policy of blacking out games that don't sell out.
If legendary franchises like the Packers with hugely visible stars like Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews can't sell out a home playoff game on Lambeau's frozen tundra, they've finally squeezed fans too hard for their own good.
It's time for NFL teams to stop this practice, and make sure that if they're charging fans in advance, they'll get the product being purchased—or a full cash refund.