Poor pro teams should pay fans back

I have tickets to the Knicks versus Nets game at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 17. With the Knicks and Nets at the exact opposite ends of the Atlantic Division standings, however, I’m not holding my breath for a Hudson River rivalry classic. But it costs quite a pretty penny to go to a Knicks game, and if I’m going to shell out that cash only to see a pathetic display of basketball, I want something in return.

I want my money back.

And while that may sound far-fetched, several sports teams are in fact turning to ticket rebates to maintain or boost fan interest.

I don’t mind that the Knicks are going through a rebuilding period. I’m going to love the Knicks no matter what, and to be honest, I love to hate them just as much as I love to love them. That’s what makes them the Knicks. I do mind, however, that the Knicks are 1-6 on the season because of what’s happened off the court and not what’s happened on the court.

Although Latrell Sprewell has had to answer to the Knicks’ front office for his off-season shenanigans, he has not had to answer to the fans. Sprewell was issued thousands of dollars in fines for failing to report his broken hand to the team, but have you ever wondered where that money goes? I think it should go directly to the fans.

There is precedent. This past Saturday, the players for Sigma Olomouc, a Czech pro-soccer team, had to foot the bill for every one of the 12,119 tickets for the team’s game against Sparta Prague. Management decided to punish the players for their poor record and 13th place standing in the 16-team league. If Sprewell continues to be a thorn in the Knicks side, make his fines go directly toward cutting the cost of tickets.

Alternatively, if that’s too radical, teams could follow the example set by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins 15 years ago or the Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks today.

In an effort to lure season-ticket holders back to their seats despite several losing seasons, the Penguins management implemented a “playoff or payoff” policy. When the Penguins didn’t make the post-season in 1987, the front office refunded season-ticket holders the five percent price increase that had gone into effect at the beginning of the season.

The Panthers have made a similar deal with fans, promising season-ticket holders a five percent rebate if the team doesn’t continue on to the playoffs. The Hawks have vowed a $125 rebate if they are shut out of the post-season. If the Hawks miss the playoffs for their fourth straight season, the total refund could come to as much as $500,000. And the Predators have pledged approximately $1 million in rebates if they miss the playoffs again.

Ticket incentives also can help boost interest in teams. Over the summer, the WNBA’s Seattle Storm offered a three-game promotion: if fans were not satisfied with their experience, they could have a total refund. One man actually got a refund because he thought the game started an hour later and he missed the first half. The Storm had the worst attendance in the league and that incentive, coupled with other promotions, did result in a slight increase in attendance.

Everyone complains that professional sports today is about money and not about the fans. People clamor about wanting a fans’ “Bill of Rights” and wanting the Barry Bondses of the world to acknowledge their presence. But it’s unlikely that the monetary focus of professional sports leagues will ever go away.

And like the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If the fans are going to bankroll the high salaries and expensive stadiums, they should get a say in financial matters. And ticket incentives, whether rebates, refunds or promotional events, are a way for the average sports fan to say “show me the money.”

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