March 6, 2018

Is Wizards VIP Dead?

We are now a couple of weeks into the annual Wizards season ticket renewal period. I published a post last week on this blog offering my thoughts on my almost 20% increase in cost for next year. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about my renewal, but while pondering if I really want to spend about $2K more for season tickets next year, the Wizards have slid back into 5th place on the heels of their first three game losing streak of the season. Great timing!

One of the subtleties that I didn't pick up on at first when the renewal information was posted (blame it on sticker shock!) was the changes to the all-inclusive VIP program for next year. While this doesn't really affect me at all when it comes to ponying up some dough for the next season, it will affect me in a big way one or two nights next season and I assume every season after that. I tried not to be too melodramatic in the title of this post but I think starting next year, VIP access for the average fan is going to effectively end. And I think that's really too bad.

So let's pull back a little. Whether you know it or not, during every Wizards home game, there's a bunch of people seated in the areas closest to the court who have access to an all-inclusive food and drink area on the lowest level at Capital One Arena. At the east end of the arena, there's the Etihad Airways Lounge which was redesigned a couple of seasons ago; at the west end of the arena, there's the slightly more dressed down and utilitarian space sponsored by MGM National Harbor. Both areas serve the same sort of food and drink so the biggest difference between the two spaces is the décor unless they only have your favorite flavor or beer at one end, which happens sometimes.

For a Wizards fan, this experience, if you can manage to get it once or twice a year, is really special. I'm a moocher at heart so I love the all you care to eat and drink experience (I can eat and drink a lot when I put my mind to it) but more than that I love the fact that you get to walk along the edge of the court just feet from the players warming up. It gets you connected to the game experience in a different way than just sitting in your seat elsewhere in the building.
Over the past several seasons, I've been able to make it to a game as a VIP one or more times per year. Years and years ago, our account representative was allowed to get us a pair of wristbands to games about once per year if we requested it as a perk. When the Monumental Rewards program went into effect, the once per year courtesy experience went away but VIP wristbands were available for purchase using reward points. Eventually, the team limited purchases to once per month then moved to the auction system and then eliminated them entirely once the VIP area was renovated and reinvented as the Etihad Airways Lounge. I quizzed my account representative about the removal of all-inclusive access via Monumental Rewards and he pretty much told me the people who paid for VIP seats didn't want other people (read: riff raff) who hadn't paid at their level in the space.

I spent one season (the 2015-2016 season) effectively locked out of the VIP experience. Then the team introduced the Fluid Tickets Program, which allowed season ticket holders to turn in seats they can't use in exchange for account credit to use towards the purchase of other seats. Lo and behold, there would be some all-inclusive tickets available from time to time. Last season the program worked great; this season the opportunities have been more limited as people (I think) have found there's very little use in turning in high priced tickets because there are few occasions where you might actually redeem your credit.

Now, just as the opportunity for reasonably affordable access to the Etihad Airways lounge seems to be getting squeezed again (I've even resorted to buying tickets on the secondary market to enjoy this experience this year) via reduced availability on Fluid Tickets, the team appears to have shut down access almost entirely through changes to their ticket policies.

Let me summarize.

This season, anyone who holds tickets inside the hockey boards gets access to the all-inclusive experience. That means the courtside seats at the two ends and north (non-scorers table) side of the court; the Owner's Seats and the seats behind them right next to the players' benches; the three rows behind courtside at the north and south sides and one row behind courtside at the two ends; the four corner boxes of 12 seats; and the 10 or so rows of seats behind the baskets beyond the walkway in the end zones. Next season, the 9 of the 10 rows of seats behind the baskets are going to be shut out of the VIP areas; only the first row beyond the walkway will retain all-inclusive access. By my math, that reduces the number of people with VIP access from 1,122 per game to 718.
So what? Who cares, right? Well I do. And if you ever get to experience the all-inclusive lower bowl treatment and want to do it again, so should you because the price point is going to be way higher. That means the price point on the Fluid Tickets Program is going to be that much higher (plus the inventory is lower, remember) and the price point on the secondary market is going to be higher. How much higher? I'm thinking double. And I'm really thinking there won't be any on the Fluid Tickets Program.

The lowest priced VIP tickets next season? The strange fenced-in corner areas the team added a few years ago.
This season the cost for VIP tickets on the secondary market has been between about $110 and $190 for a game against a reasonably unpopular opponent. That's for tickets sold to season ticket holders in the mid-$100s. Next year the lowest price for a season ticket with all-inclusive benefits is $230 per game and those are in the strange caged in sets of seats in the corners of the arena. Keep in mind there are only 48 of those in the entire building. The next lowest price is $300 for the first row of seats behind the basket beyond the walkway at that location. The prices are going up from there. The odds of any of those seats being available on the secondary market for less than $175 or so? Way low. And forget Fluid Tickets having these below season ticket discount value (if they even have them at all).

The bottom line here? Fans not willing to spend $250 or more on a seat with lousy sightlines (because these seat DO all have lousy sightlines) ain't getting into the VIP area next season. Honestly, for the average fan (or riff raff, if you prefer) being able to get a reasonably affordable all-inclusive experience on the lower level in what will now be a pretty empty Etihad Airways Lounge (with 1/3 of this season's folks kicked out!) just won't be possible any more. Congratulations, Monumental Sports, you've finally made this experience about as exclusive as you can get. If you aren't paying a lot for this, they aren't going to let you have it any more. It pretty much sucks! This one hurts way more than the other benefits I've lost over the years.

The lousy view from this year's end zone seats. The best thing about these seats was the all-inclusive benefit.
While I'm wallowing in self pity about this issue, I have to say that I feel terrible for the people who have been sitting in the seats where the all-inclusive benefits are going to be removed. Yes, they are getting a price break this year and a few bucks per game of concession money (not really much consolation for losing all-inclusive) but they are now forced to pay a lot of money for seats with view just not commensurate with the price point or go find some seats elsewhere. The irony of this second option of course is all the good seats by now are pretty much taken. The team has totally pulled the rug out from under these folks.

For a team that seems to every so often advertise that they value loyalty to their season ticket holders, killing this benefit just so people with a lot of disposable income can have a little more elbow room in their all you can eat and drink room just doesn't seem consistent with that ethos. I guess there's not a whole lot we can do here, right? Just not a fan at all of this move.

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