IMG-brokered sponsorship deal begins evolution of Olympics ticketing process

In the lead-up to the 1984 LA Olympics, IMG, Sears, and the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) were discussing a major ticket distribution strategy that highlights the rapid evolution of ticketing in the last twenty years. Sears Roebuck and Co, more commonly known as Sears, is a major department store chain that was established in 1892. They were also a prominent client on IMG’s roster in the early 80s. In June 1982, Robert E. Wood, VP of Sales and Advertising at Sears at the time, sent a letter to IMG expressing Sears’ desire to be the sole ticket distributor for the LA84 Games (Exhibit A).

This letter provides a glimpse into sports marketing practices from a bygone era. Wood references Sears’ advertising reach numbers by drawing attention to their “credit file, catalog file, and mechanized service file” which contained an index of “59 million American households,” serving as an early example of database marketing. The initial proposal also highlights the inclusion of a “commemorative ticket” for the opening ceremony, the proceeds of which would go to the LAOOC. This proposed charity angle was suggested by IMG as a way to elevate the partnership and create additional value for the LAOOC.

The LAOOC expressed clear interest in Sears' proposal, leading to a deal point memo that detailed the terms, as shown in Exhibit B. The memo described the ticket purchasing process, anticipating the majority of sales within the initial two months. Additionally, it highlighted a provision for randomly selecting participants in case of oversubscribed events, mirroring the lottery system used for Olympic tickets today. However, an unforeseen obstacle arose when, two days after receiving the contract, Sears sent a letter appearing to withdraw from the agreement (Exhibit C).

Mr. Wood cited his concerns related to the timelines required for printing the materials, and integrating the brochures into Sears’ fall catalog. Another arguably more significant concern arose from a misunderstanding, as the LAOOC was expecting Sears to pay an additional rights fee in addition to bearing the cost of printing the ticket materials. This fee, however, was not mentioned in the initial deal point memo, which led to Sears’ decision to back out of the deal. 

The deal point memo was followed by an official contract one month later, where the exact terms of the deal were fleshed out, as shown in Exhibit D. The mechanics of the ticket sales outlined in the contract highlight the drastic transformation that has occurred in the sports industry over the last two decades. As part of the deal, Sears would print ticket-order brochures which customers would be able to use to purchase tickets at over 3,300 stores across the country. Once ordered, the forms would be processed by the LAOOC and tickets would be allocated on a “first-come-first-served” basis. There were a total of 5.6 million tickets on sale for LA84, with prices ranging from $3 to $95.

Approximately six months following Sears' decision to opt out, the LAOOC eventually accepted the original terms of the deal, excluding any additional rights fee, and signed the contract. However, the timeline considerations outlined by Mr. Wood (See Exhibit C) resulted in the ticket application brochure not being featured in the Sears fall catalog as initially anticipated. Nevertheless, the brochures were eventually printed and effectively distributed at Sears outlets. Exhibit E includes a New York Times article dated June 14th, 1983, announcing the formalized agreement.

Fast forward to Paris 2024, and a vastly different industry landscape has emerged. For next year’s games, more than 10 million tickets will be sold exclusively on the official ticketing website of the Paris Olympics. Prices range from $26 to $2900, and fans have a variety of new ticketing options available such as travel and hospitality packages, which will be available to the public for the first time in Olympics history.

The Sears story highlights the radical evolution of the ticketing industry. Young fans today, accustomed to purchasing event tickets seamlessly on digital platforms like Ticketmaster and SeatGeek, might find the notion of standing in line at a Sears store to order tickets via a ticket-order form quite inconvenient … if not annoying! In an age where tickets to sporting events can be purchased with two strokes on a smartphone, this IMG-brokered sponsorship provides a quaint look into how things were done “back in the old days”!