Sunday, December 02, 2012

Satisfaction Guaranteed?

Coming up this Thursday, the Phoenix Suns are going to finally do something that I have been thinking about for a couple of decades.  They are offering to refund the price of admission for any of their fans who are "unsatisfied."  They are officially leaving it up to the individual customers to determine what that means, but I think the obvious implication is that if the team doesn't win, or doesn't make the game interesting, fans are entitled to demand their money back.

The reason I have been thinking about this for decades is because that's how long I've been going to live sporting events (albeit much less frequently in recent years).  And in my early years of going to games, I saw my favorite teams lose with a great deal more regularity than the opposite.  And it always struck me as kind of weird that the team got paid the same regardless of the outcome.  Fans are quick to complain about individual athletes making money when they are underperforming, but I haven't heard the same kind of criticism leveled against teams.  Once in a while there is a minor rumbling when a losing team raises ticket prices the next year, but most often there is a resignation that pro and major college sports is a caveat emptor proposition.

But a sporting event is also one of the few areas of life in which a customer is expected to pay for an objective failure.  If a manufactured good does not produce as it is intended to, the manufacturer is expected to make good.  Performance arts or entertainment productions have no objective standard for success or failure.  Food falls somewhere in between, but in most cases, if a customer can make a case that a chef failed, the customer doesn't pay.  Granted, this argument assumes that the desirability of a fan experience is predicated exclusively on a the final score of the game, and all teams (even the Phoenix Suns) would argue that it is possible for a fan to enjoy the experience of attending an event even if the final outcome of the game isn't optimal.  And of course this is how teams get away with charging fans the same amount for wins and losses.  But it doesn't change the fact that they are charging fans the same amount regardless of the outcome of what is purportedly the most important thing about the competition.

But how desirable would it be to live in a world where home teams give back gate receipts when they don't win?  As with any economic exchange, the unintended consequences would need to be considered.  It has already been theorized that much, if not all, of the home field advantage that exists in sports is due to officiating bias.  According to the theory, it's not that referees are intentionally biased for the home team, it's just that the influence of thousands of people has a psychological effect on how the officials view reality (I'm convinced that this was a factor in the infamous Packers/Seahawks Monday night game this year).

But in a world where the home team refunds for losses, fans actually have an economic incentive for the home team to lose.  This would probably result in a demolition of home field advantage, which arguably creates a fairer reality, but probably a less satisfying one.  As it is, if fans believe that the only way they can realize a full value for their purchase is if the home team wins, they will, consciously or not, exert all the influence they have in order to derive such a realization.  If the ticket represents a win-win proposition for the fan, the stakes are lowered, and the end result may just be a loss for everyone--dissatisfaction guaranteed.


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