NFL's new game: travel packages.

By Adam Thompson, The Wall Street Journal
Published: Monday, January 29, 2007

Just as everyone seems to be getting out of the travel agent business, the National Football League is jumping in.

Since last season, a bank of phones in the middle of the league's headquarters on Manhattan's Park Avenue has been devoted to taking orders for packages of game tickets and hotel rooms. It is a tiny enterprise -- there are four people staffing the phones -- amid the giant television and merchandising machine that is America's most successful sports organization.

But even the mighty NFL is looking for ways to diversify and grow, and the all-American game remains an iffy sell in most overseas markets. As the league focuses on its expanding Web presence and nascent cable network, it also saw an opportunity to seize some of the revenue generated by trips to the Super Bowl and other football events.

Internet travel sites have wreaked havoc on much of the industry, but NFL On Location, as the unit is called, says it has a few innate advantages. The most important: The league controls access to the games. It has expanded to 2,600 four-day ticket packages for Sunday's Super Bowl XLI in Miami, up from 2,000 in its debut in last year's championship in Detroit. The NFL blocked out about 27,000 hotel rooms in the greater Miami area years in advance; skimming off some of those high-end rooms for this program was easy. As of Sunday, about 500 packages remained, a league spokesman said.

Other perks for fans who book their trip through the NFL include plum parking spots, an exclusive security entrance to Dolphins Stadium, a party area inside the stadium, and a chance to visit the stadium months ahead to scout specific seats. Because of its control over the inventory, the league can also offer the assurance that their tickets will not be counterfeit, will not be scattered throughout the stadium and will arrive to buyers faster.

Three outside companies are working with the NFL in the venture: QuintEvents LLC of Atlanta, Dallas Fan Fares Inc., and Chicago-based Intersport Inc. Chuck Johnsen, vice president of Intersport, says the league's imprimatur guarantees attendees that they will avoid the worst-case scenario: "You're down there with your best customers and there's nowhere to turn because Al's Ticket Broker said you'd have seats on the 50-yard line, and where's Al?"

The six color-coded packages are not cheap. Aimed at business hospitality buyers and the most diehard fans, they range from $4,299 to $9,949 without airfare. But those prices are competitive. Premiere Sports Travel LLC of Cary, N.C., offers three nights (with four people in one hotel room), transportation to the stadium and a ticket -- but no airfare -- for $5,385 per person. One of the largest competitors in the field of high-end sports travel and hospitality, Los Angeles-based RazorGator Experiences, a subsidiary of RazorGator Interactive Group Inc., starts its packages at about $5,100. Tickets with a face value between $600 and $700 are soaring past $3,000 apiece on eBay, no travel included.

The NFL says it eliminates the middleman. "You're not buying it through three sets of hands, which brings ticket prices up and up and up," says Frank Supovitz, the league's senior vice president for events.

RazorGator Experiences President David Lord counters that his company couldn't have less in common with Al the Scalper. PrimeSport International, a sister company, has paid to be known as an official travel and hospitality consultant of both teams involved in the game, the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts. That means the company gets some of its tickets directly from the teams, though it does dip into the second-hand ticket market, too.

Mr. Lord says he welcomes the league to the marketplace, saying it only adds legitimacy to the industry. But he hardly welcomes the NFL with open arms: "We have an entire company of 250 individuals. That's what we do. There's no way that they can pay the same attention and care and services to corporate sponsors and fans that we provide. ... It's not that there's a middle man. We're a service provider."

Due to the league's low-key marketing strategy, the program still is little-known, and some early callers to the NFL offices asked if it was a scam. But the NFL sees this as a real business-to-business opportunity. PriceWaterhouseCoopers' Rob Canton estimates corporate spending will account for more than half of the $195 million the company believes will be spent in the Miami area this week in conjunction with the Super Bowl.

The NFL hopes smaller businesses will be drawn to the program. "It's (for) somebody that doesn't have the ability or the wherewithal or size or need to be a sponsor of the NFL, but they want to entertain their top producers at the Super Bowl or Pro Bowl," says Brian Learst, president of QuintEvents.

One company that has taken advantage of the program is the job search Web site, which purchased over 100 of the two priciest packages.

The NFL has spread the word to its partners about the program, and also operates a Web site. Beyond that, the NFL sent blast emails to a list it has culled of big spenders on its Web site's shopping pages, along with satellite TV and radio subscribers and owners of NFL-themed credit cards.

The NFL had partnerships in the past with travel agencies to sell packages to the Pro Bowl, its postseason all-star exhibition in Hawaii, though that game has a fraction of the Super Bowl's cachet.

The NFL isn't alone in trying to tap into this market. College football's Rose Bowl used RazorGator to sell travel and hospitality packages. Bill Flynn, chief operating officer of the Tournament of Roses, which puts on the game, called the company "very professional and efficient."

The NFL is already taking deposits for Super Bowl XLII in Arizona, and Mr. Supovitz expects a larger inventory. The league, which sells packages to the Pro Bowl, hopes to expand to the college draft in New York in April, the preseason China Bowl in Beijing in August, and the Hall of Fame Weekend in Canton, Ohio.

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