How Chicago sports teams — and fans — are evolving in digital ticket age: ‘There’s more than one way to frame a memory’

Twenty-seven years ago, a Hanukkah gift produced a memento Jack Silverstein still holds on to, stashed in a box in his Humboldt Park home.

To anyone else, the Chicago Bulls game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 20, 1996, might be meaningless. For the 41-year-old Chicago sports historian and fan, Silverstein’s ticket stub from that game marks the only time he saw Michael Jordan and the ‘96 Bulls play in person: Section 319, Row 10, Seat 7 at the United Center.

“You always hear about a famous game that was half empty, but years later, if you base it on the number of fans that say they attended, it sounds like it was standing room only,” Silverstein said. “That’s a big part of what a ticket stub was all about. It was proof. You could show your friends and say, ‘I was there.’

“In the digital age, every action is logged and time-stamped and able to be confirmed. But the irony is that attending a ballgame is the opposite because now you don’t have that tangible proof, and that’s probably part of the instinct to film portions of the game with your phone because as a fan you yearn for that proof you were there.”

Within the last seven years, Chicago’s sports teams have gone all-in on transitioning from physical to digital tickets. And with it has come the erosion of ticket-stub collecting. Some moves were spurred by a team’s respective league.

Digital tickets’ appeal is largely three-pronged: the security of tickets, ease for fans to transfer them and access to tickets. There is a financial component too — the elimination of printed tickets requires fewer people to man box-office windows before each game.

The Tribune reached out to the Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, Sky, Blackhawks, Red Stars and Fire for insight on the digital-ticket era — and the ripple effect for fans who still desire the printed version.

The Bulls and Blackhawks declined to comment.

The Red Stars “in a pinch” will offer paper tickets if needed, but it’s a small number, chief business officer Michael Ernst said. He wants the soccer team to be able to accommodate fans if necessary. The Fire use Ticketmaster SafeTix and have eliminated all PDFs and printed tickets. They went fully digital for the 2020 season, their first at Soldier Field.

“We do have an exception for printing tickets for large groups of 100 or more when needed,” a Chicago Fire FC spokesperson said. “However, we do still have clients that manage ticket orders of that size digitally.”

The Cubs initially launched mobile tickets in 2017 and went fully mobile in 2019. The White Sox are also all digital now but will print tickets after the fact on Ticketmaster stock for season ticket holders who request it. The Bears moved to an all-digital-ticket format beginning with the 2019 preseason, a decision across the NFL. COVID-19 restrictions prompted the Sky to go completely digital in 2021.

“The response has been mostly positive,” said John Thompson, Sky vice president of ticket operations. “We have tried to communicate and educate our fans about the process early and often to alleviate the struggles of change.”

The security digital tickets provide in essentially eliminating counterfeit tickets and transactional ease have fueled digitalization across all sports.

Cale Vennum, senior vice president of Marquee 360 who oversees Cubs ticketing, wishes the technology had been in place in 2016. Vennum vividly remembers being in the box office at Wrigley Field before the World Series home games when a couple from Ireland, who paid thousands for Game 5 tickets bought outside the ballpark, were denied entry. The bar codes on their tickets were invalid, either already used or sold elsewhere, and ultimately they couldn’t get in.

“They missed Game 5 and there was no replacing that,” Vennum said. “What you’ve seen with mobile tickets is everyone has the expectation that access to their tickets should be instantaneous. And what we found is if you printed a ticket ... it was ripe for fraud.”

The ticket evolution leaves fans and collectors who want a stub to commemorate their experience in a tough spot with limited options. From commemorative items to non-fungible tokens to fandom nostalgia, ticket-stub mementos are becoming obsolete.

Commemorative tickets

Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter created a conundrum.

The Sox right-hander completed the feat on Aug. 25, 2020 in front of hundreds of cardboard cutouts. The pandemic forced teams to play that season without fans, leaving the Sox to find another way for fans to celebrate. They offered a commemorative ticket option for $27.

Brooks Boyer, senior vice president and chief revenue and marketing officer, isn’t sure how many they sold but estimated around 5,000. He believes the ticket was sent to season ticket holders as a thank you for sticking with the team through the fanless season.

“We thought it might be a very unique collectible,” Boyer said. “I always like to say we’d led the league in attendance and ticket sales the year of COVID because everybody was at zero and we sold a certain number of Lucas Giolito tickets.”

The Sox followed a similar approach when left-hander Carlos Rodón threw a no-hitter April 14, 2021. Only 7,148 fans attended the game at Guaranteed Rate Field as part of COVID-reduced capacity implemented by most teams and cities. The Sox offered two commemorative options. For the fans who were there, a $27 ticket could be ordered with their seat location. The team then put the unsold inventory back on sale.

“Baseball has this unique connection with the fans that I would hope in certain circumstances baseball would be leaders and looking at ways to continue with some sort of option of hard tickets that can be safe,” Boyer said. “The important part of the issue is ticket safety. When they’re on your phone, and whether they’re being forwarded, they are very challenging to counterfeit. And with hard tickets, they could be counterfeited. So I don’t see hard tickets coming back.

“But a way to give fans that option whether it’s printed or an at-the-ballpark option, could be unique because it’s baseball — everybody remembers their first baseball game.”

The Cubs are introducing a commemorative ticket feature for all 2023 games. They can be purchased in MLB’s Ballpark app for $8 each plus tax. One template image will be available initially, but the Cubs intend to add others throughout the season and/or for special moments, including a version specifically for opening day Thursday.

The Cubs originally piloted a version of the commemorative ticket program in 2019 when they transitioned to digital tickets because of fan feedback. But it wasn’t very accessible, Vennum said, because the commemorative tickets didn’t exist within the Ballpark app, making it difficult for Cubs fans to find. The vendor the Cubs worked with went out of business during COVID, so the team worked with MLB to integrate the option into the app.

“Honestly, I wish we had had it in place last season,” Vennum said. “We wanted to make it as affordable as possible. This isn’t a program that we’re designing to drive revenue back to the organization. There’s a portion of our fans that it’s really important to, and we wanted to provide an option to them. Maybe it does take off and maybe that audience of people grows significantly from where it was in 2019.

“I’m excited to offer it and get feedback from our fans on if this meets the needs they had for wanting a commemorative ticket and then we can look to see if it can grow from there.”

The Sky did not distribute any physical tickets during their 2021 WNBA championship run. Thompson said the team continues to explore commemorative options.

The Red Stars also are evaluating a stock ticket option for certain games and looking at companies to potentially partner with. Ernst would like the team to be able to create a ticket keepsake for fans who attended a notable games, including those whosaw a record broken or championship game.

“I like to try to put myself in the fan’s shoes, what would rise to a level of importance for me, because there’s different levels of importance of games and memories,” Ernst said. “We have yet to win the NWSL championship. Hopefully that changes in 2023, and that championship, the first one for the franchise, to me would make sense versus maybe if somebody had their first goal. That’s a big moment for that particular player, their family and anybody that supports that player, but maybe not to the whole fan base.”

Loss of ticket stubs a tough sell

Parker Teufel knew something potentially special was about to happen at the United Center.

Every year he heads to the UC to watch the Blackhawks play the Washington Capitals with a good friend who is from the D.C. area. This time history was on the line when the Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin faced off against the Hawks three goals shy of 800 in his career, a milestone only two NHL players had reached. Twenty-four seconds into the Dec. 13 game, Ovechkin scored. By the end of the period, he added another, and Teufel, 31, of Lincoln Park, realized, “Wow, this could happen.”

Once Ovechkin netted the hat trick and 800th goal at the 6:34 mark of the third period, Teufel knew he would go to the box office the next day and ask for his ticket to be printed to hold onto of the memorable moment. Teufel’s request didn’t get far.

“They said that they don’t even have whatever is the ability to print tickets,” Teufel said. “It’s just interesting how technology has made things more efficient to get into the games. I don’t think we should change anything about those methods, like, yeah, I totally agree it’s more efficient and people are less likely to lose tickets.”

Had Teufel been able to get a printed copy of his digital ticket, it would have been valuable among the memorabilia-ticket market given the scarcity. Only one ticket from the Ovechkin hat-trick 800th-goal game has sold on eBay, going for $450 on Dec. 27. The seller revealed in a Facebook ticket-memorabilia group that he arrived at the UC after the first period and told a person at the box office he had left his phone at home. They printed his ticket.

“I feel like we need to get back to some mementos for people to be able to prove they were at the game for themselves, but then also there is obviously a real big dollar marketplace for these things,” Teufel said.

Tom Meade, 30 of LaGrange, will pull out a shoe box every once in a while filled with hundreds of ticket stubs, predominantly from Cubs games in the 1990s. Looking at them sends him back to a time of lower ticket prices, sometimes sponsored by now-defunct businesses, and “specific memories of foul balls caught (and dropped)” with friends and family.

Meade looks forward to sharing the stubs with his kids to give them a glimpse of a past that included him on a whim taking the train downtown to watch JJ Redick and Duke take on Valparaiso at the United Center in 2004 or his ticket for the Cubs’ nonexistent Game 1 of the 2015 World Series.

“It pains me to see these go as they are a complimentary and genuine souvenir for an experience, something you can’t order online for fake validation, especially at a time where ticket websites buy up most tickets and add a 70% up-charge of fees,” Meade said. Being able to think back to physical tickets as the norm reminds me of how precious these events used to be. Back when somebody told you they had a spare ticket, you would jump on the opportunity, regardless of the game or day of the week.”

Mike Crawford, 38, uses MLB’s Ballpark app to digitally record the games he has attended. But the Chicagoan realized the app didn’t fully capture all of his games. So as a self-proclaimed perfectionist, he checked his Ticketmaster app. Then StubHub. Then VividSeats. Crawford used timestamps from emails, photos and social media to piece together the games he went to. And even after all those steps, Crawford estimates he has recorded 95% of them.

But for someone who had held onto ticket stubs as mementos, Crawford said: “It’s a little bittersweet that those are increasingly rare.”

White Sox fan Paul Aspan, 71, who grew up in Garfield Ridge and now resides in Havertown, Pa., is ambivalent to the transition to digital tickets. Although he cherishes his souvenirs, which include framing his Sox tickets from Games 1 and 2 of the 2005 World Series, Aspan enjoys the convenience of having his cellphone serve as his mobile ticket.

In his home office where his World Series tickets hang, Aspan also has photos of Sox lefty Billy Pierce, who pitched in the first game he attended, and José Contreras throwing the first pitch of the World Series. Both images remind Apsan of his dad, who died 23 years ago.

“Until now it’s never occurred to me that I might wish I had another ticket stub from some future ‘big game,’ ” Aspan said. “There’s more than one way to frame a memory.”

Nonfungible tokens (NFT)

Digital tickets potentially could create other avenues to connect fans as teams explore ways to fully utilize this new arena.

Nonfungible tokens (NFT) have gained popularity over the last four years, though Chicago teams expressed varying levels of interest in testing whether they would add value to digital tickets. NFTs exist on a blockchain, can’t be replicated and, depending on the marketplace, often are acquired through cryptocurrency. The NFT space is popular in the art world, but the volatility of cryptocurrency remains a wild card.

The Bears gave ticket holders a commemorative virtual-ticket NFT for certain home games last season, including Sept. 11 against the San Francisco 49ers and Dec. 24 against the Buffalo Bills. It was part of the NFL’s initiative starting in 2021 to expand into NFTs to increase engagement with fans and find added value to a digital ticket.

According to the Bears’ website, fans must scan in at the game with a ticket to be eligible. Within seven days of the game, the email address associated with the scanned ticket will receive more information about how to retrieve the NFT.

The Bears declined to make someone available for this story, instead stating through a spokesperson: “For today’s fans, we try to create unique photo opportunities and shareable moments in and around the stadium. For the fans looking to take something tangible home that is dated and specific to that game and opponent, the game-day program and game-day pin are their best options.”

Other Chicago teams are taking a wait-and-see approach. The Sky haven’t issued any NFT elements yet. The Red Stars, Ernst said, could tap into NFTs in the future, with a possible strategy in place by 2024.

“We want to make sure we get it right because whenever you’re talking about new technology, people want to take time to learn and they want to be able to trust what they’re using,” Ernst said. “We’re just trying to figure out who we think is the best partner.”

The Cubs do not have any plans to incorporate NFTs into their digital tickets. An NFT commemorative ticket was available to fans at the Field of Dreams game in August between the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.

“It seems that the NFT bargain market has not materialized in the way that folks thought it might, especially in the commemorative space,” Vennum said.

Boyer believes NFTs in the sports digital ticket arena are in the starting phases. He does not anticipate the Sox incorporating NFTs for digital tickets this season, noting, “We would be followers, not leaders, on this one.”

“I’d like to see somebody who’s doing it really well where their fans have really engaged on it and see if we could follow the lead of someone who’s doing it with some level of success,” Boyer said.

What comes next

Where do digital tickets go from here?

MLB’s Ballpark app holds tickets in a digital wallet when purchased through a team site. It also allows each team to customize its individual page to provide pertinent ballpark information and post its schedule with a link to purchase tickets. During the regular season, Cubs and Sox fans also can use the app for mobile ordering concessions to their seats.

For major-league teams, the app can lead to more advancements in the fan-team relationship.

“We can always be smarter about how we offer you things that are relevant to you and why you’re coming to the game,” Vennum said.

The data teams can glean from digital tickets represents a potentially untapped gold mine. Unlike paper tickets, the digital realm provides more insight on understanding on fans.

“Generally speaking, the fan has to be at the center of what we do because ultimately those that support us off the field are the thing that is most important, other than the athletes on the field,” Ernst said. “But then also trying to think through what’s the best way to do that in a cost-effective way because at the end of the day, sports teams are all businesses. They’re trying to balance costs with revenue.

“That’s always going to be a challenge to try to figure out how to crack that code.”

And fans are trying to find ways to remember big moments in sports.

“The next generation doesn’t necessarily care about the things the previous generation cared about it, they don’t necessarily view their experience as having been diminished as a result of not having physical tickets and they probably don’t really care,” Silverstein said. “Those little elements that form your identity as a sports fan and make you realize that there’s this whole world that’s about to open up to you — physical tickets were a part of that world.”