Put up or pay up
My new favorite college football team is Stanford, all of 4-8 last year and 2-2 this season. Surprised? So am I, but there's a good reason. Stanford understands that, in these difficult times, I have a limited budget for sports purchases, unless the government plans to bail me out too.
That's why the school's new Gridiron Guarantee is appealing. Here's how it works: If you feel you haven't received your "entertainment value" from your season ticket (average price: $130), Stanford will refund your money. The only caveat: You must do it before Nov. 15, which happens to be when USC comes to town.
Still, that gives buyers 2 1/2 months to "return" Cardinal football. I've bought household appliances with more restrictive warranties. Sure, Stanford struggles to fill its new 50,000-seat stadium and the deal smacks of desperation, but so what? "We're saying, Hey we've got a great product -- come out and sample it," says Bob Carruesco, the athletic department's marketing director. "And if you're not satisfied, then we'll take care of you."
Now that's something you don't hear often in sports. Can you imagine L.A. centerfielder Andruw Jones, he of the $36.2 million, two-year contract and the .158 batting average, announcing that because of the dissatisfaction of Dodgers fans he'll be refunding his salary? Or how about the Arizona Cardinals' cutting a check to each of their paying customers to cover the last, oh, decade. Or maybe it could be like the auto industry, and a team would just notify ticket holders of a recall. We are writing to inform you that we are recalling New York Knicks part #3, model name Stephon Marbury, as he has been deemed defective. Expect your new part, model name LeBron James, to be installed in July 2010.
Why stop there? Coors Light promises "the coldest-tasting beer," but that puppy was lukewarm when I bought it in the bleachers last week. What does "coldest-tasting" even mean, anyway -- is there a "loudest-smelling" cheese? I want my money, and my sobriety, back. And while we're at it, I'd like my brain cells back from ESPN after enduring Around the Horn last week.
Sure, this all sounds fanciful, but why should it? The magic of sports may be in their unpredictability, but when it costs half a grand to take a family of four to an NBA game, isn't some "entertainment value" expected? (Hey, it's not unheard of; in 2002 the Atlanta Hawks guaranteed season-ticket holders a playoff appearance, which is sort of like Rasheed Wallace guaranteeing to never make another guarantee. That set the Hawks back $500,000.) Even some athletes like the money-back concept. "I think it's the most outlandish idea I've ever heard, but I love it," says San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson. "It's almost like an honor system for fans: Am I entertained or not?"
Why not demand some accountability? So I called the Oakland A's. Jim Leahey, the VP of marketing, was sympathetic -- especially when he heard that I attended a game soon after GM Billy Beane's Great Starting Pitcher Purge of '08 -- but still didn't offer a refund. "We're building for long-term success," Leahey said. "There will be bumps along the way."
Next I tried the San Francisco 49ers. Would you ever give a ticket buyer his money back? "I'm going to have to say no," said Andy Dolich, the team's chief operating officer. "The NFL is the No. 1 sport in the galaxy, and the game itself should be enough to guarantee a sports fan's investment."
Maybe I needed to ask not as a journalist but as a customer. So I phoned the Washington Nationals' ticket sales department about a refund for that 4-0 loss to the Phillies I attended this month, when the home lineup looked like nine guys the Nats found down at the bus depot. No dice, said the rep, adding, "That would never go over in any pro sport." (Whoops, tell that not just to the Hawks but also to the Charlotte Bobcats, who offered a money-back guarantee for five games in 2005.)
Discouraged, I finally called Coors. I told the customer relations representative, Stephane, about that ballpark beer and how, despite the promises, it was not particularly "cold-tasting." He took my complaints seriously. Where was the beer purchased? Was it a bottle? And what was that "taste" question again? Finally, he broke the news: "The best I can do is send you a six-pack as a goodwill gesture." Then he took down my address.
And with that, my faith was partially restored. There are people who do stand by their product. So if you head to a Stanford game this fall, look for me. I'll be the guy stretched across four seats, assessing the value of my entertainment experience and drinking the freest-tasting beer in the land.