As empty stadiums continue to burn holes in the pockets of professional sports clubs and wreck any semblance of orthodox fan engagement, one issue has become a defining factor for many franchises: refunds.

For better or for worse, COVID-19 season ticket refund policies have brought to light sports clubs’ priorities. A move in either direction will likely play a significant role in future fan loyalty… or disloyalty!

While the likes of Premier League football club Newcastle United have incited anger amongst its most loyal fans by continuing to withdraw money from their bank accounts as part of long-term season ticket deals, despite being unable to attend matches, Canadian rugby union club the Toronto Arrows took a different approach.

The Major League Rugby (MLR) team wanted to “create goodwill right off the bat” by offering full refunds immediately following the cancellation of the season in March, just one month after the 2020 campaign commenced.

Single game tickets were automatically refunded, while season ticket holders were given the option to defer to 2021 or receive a full refund. The fan-first policy paid dividends as 95 per cent of those fans requested to keep their money in the club and roll it over to the following year.

Neil MacDougall (pictured below), director of ticket operations at the Arrows, told TheTicketingBusiness that its fan-centric policy in late March and April of this year has led to increased interest and projected demand for 2021.

He said: “When COVID-19 forced the cancellation of games, the Arrows were heading into their second year of existence, while the league was moving into year three. We wanted to create goodwill right off the bat. We openly gave season ticket holders the option to obtain a full refund. We’ve been rolling with that goodwill and here we are building towards 2021 – and I think that’s really paid off.”

Since its original fumble, Newcastle United has in the last couple of weeks announced that it will now reimburse fans in three stages over the season. The first refund, for the first five home league games this campaign, will reach fans by mid-December.

Depending on if and when supporters are let back into St James’ Park, further refunds will come in early 2021 and at the end of the season. Fans can also opt to pay off their season tickets for 2021-22. Despite this delayed response, it is fair to predict that there will be a lot of love lost amongst the fans and the club.

While the Arrows’ MacDougall acknowledged how refunding single game tickets came at a major cost to the young organisation, he said its refund policy would continue on into 2021 if COVID-19 continues to keep fans away.

He said: “It’s in our ethos. Our owner knows times are tough and if we keep having to defer then we want to do what’s right. We’re trying to build something for the long term and we don’t want to burn anyone. We know that a C$50 ticket could go to groceries that week – we get it. We’re blessed that our season ticket holders deferred.

“We certainly lost a tonne of revenue – but because of the stage that we’re at, we still rent our stadiums so if we don’t play, we don’t pay. So all the expenses that came with that didn’t occur – fortunately that’s a way we saved some money.”

The rugby union club has previously split its home games between stadia the York University and Lamport Stadium in downtown Toronto.

However, the Arrows took this as an opportunity to bolster its season ticket holder numbers heading into next season, with a new campaign called the ‘Can’t Wait List’ for 2021 passes. If government COVID-19 restrictions limit attendance figures, the Arrows will give priority to Founders Club Members, of which only one person opted to get a refund, and then season ticket holders will get second priority before going to the general public.

“I would like to have the problem of not having to sell a single game ticket,” MacDougall tells TheTicketingBusiness. “Then we know we have absolutely diehard fans in the stands. The idea is that by kick off, I want 100 per cent of any limited capacity to be season ticket holders.”

The ever-changing environment of live events has led the Arrows to this year team up with AXS in a three-year deal. The AEG-owned company is supporting the franchise amid planning for the return of fans, while also expanding the club’s contactless capabilities.

The 2021 MLR season kicks off on March 20 and if restrictions are gradually eased, MacDougall said the club will look to provide single game tickets to local Toronto rugby clubs as a priority. He said: “We want to cater to those clubs first and managing a group would be easier than hundreds of individuals if guidelines change. We already have a demand list, with lots of groups waiting for the green light.”

In another move to connect with the community while games are absent, the Arrows launched its Matchday Series as a “creative way to switch after losing a large portion of planned revenue from refunding our single game tickets.” The initiative has seen the club partner with several craft breweries and cideries across the Greater Toronto Area and Ontario to create a community-focused range of rotating, limited edition co-branded beers and ciders. At the conclusion of the program, the franchise will contribute a portion of each Matchday Series beverage sales to community-focused rugby and sports organisations.

MacDougall will be joining us for TheTicketingBusiness Forum LIVE 2020 on November 17-18-19. Do you want to be a part of our first-ever online forum? Register here.