Maximizing Sports Purchases: Tickets, Travel, Apparel, TV and More
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
Following a sports team is both blessing and a curse. Sure, it can lead to moments of sheer ecstasy (as I experienced in 2016 with my beloved Chicago Cubs) but can also drop you to the depths of despair (see: 2003 NLCS).
Being a sports fan is also an expensive proposition. The tickets, the clothing, the special TV packages to ensure you don't miss anything; it all adds up quickly. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to maximize these purchases and cement your loyalty without breaking the bank, and today I want to go through my favorite ways of doing just that.
Attending a game of your favorite team in-person is a rite of passage for most sports fans, but these outings carry a big price tag. It isn't just the tickets; you'll need to pony up for parking, food, drinks and any souvenirs that you (or your kids) just have to buy. For a family of four in 2017, this averaged almost $350 per game across the four major sports leagues, topping out at almost $475 for an NFL contest. Fortunately, there are ways to lessen the financial pain of seeing a game live:
1. Use the right credit card.
For starters, a handful of cards offer bonus points on entertainment purchases, which typically include tickets to things like concerts and sporting events. The most popular are (arguably) issued by Citi and participate in the ThankYou Rewards program. The Citi Premier® Card, Citi ThankYou Preferred Card and the Citi Prestige all offer 2x points on select entertainment, defined as follows (emphasis mine):
"live entertainment, live theatrical productions, concerts, live sporting events, movie theaters, amusement parks (including zoos, aquariums, circuses and carnivals), tourist attractions (including museums, and art galleries), record stores, video rental stores and on-demand internet streaming media"
Based on TPG's most recent valuations, you're looking at a solid return of 3.4% on these purchases by using one of these cards (though bear in mind that points earned on the ThankYou Preferred are only categorized as "full" ThankYou points if you also have either the Premier or the Prestige).
In addition to bonus points, many cards also offer VIP perks that can include benefits at sporting events. For example, all Citi-issued cards with either a Mastercard or Visa logo are eligible for the Citi Private Pass program, offering special access to a range of events. At the time of writing, you can grab discounts to professional tennis tournaments as well as New York Mets tickets.
Chase, meanwhile, offers the Inside Access program for select Chase customers with cards like the United Club Card; one upcoming event includes tickets to an LA Dodgers game followed by a reception and meet & greet with starting third baseman Justin Turner. Chase cardholders can also can utilize a number of benefits specifically at Madison Square Garden. Finally, cardholders of The Platinum Card® from American Express can utilize the By Invitation Only program to gain entrance to unique events like the US Open tennis tournament, as TPG himself did back in 2015.
Keep in mind too that some premium cards offer missed event ticket protection if you're unable to attend the game to which you bought tickets. This includes both the Citi Prestige and the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, which both offer up to $500 per ticket (limited to $5,000 each calendar year) if you're forced to miss an event due to a covered reason like illness, death in the family, jury duty, weather or just losing your tickets. This even includes those onerous taxes and ticketing fees, giving you valuable peace of mind ahead of the event.
2. Explore redemption options with your points.
Another way to make the most of your live sporting events is by exploring any redemption options available through the various loyalty programs. Many airline and hotel programs offer members the ability to redeem their hard-earned points for tickets or experiences, many of which may not be available to the general public. TPG has done this several times in the past, including VIP access to the US Open and VIP seats to see the New York Knicks. Current redemption options at the time of writing include:
- Suite tickets to see the Chicago Cubs this summer/fall through SPG Moments
- Tickets to a Yankees-Red Sox game through Marriott Moments
- Tickets, tailgate passes and pre-game field passes to the Seahawks-49ers game in December through Delta SkyMiles Experiences
- Club tickets to the Northern Trust PGA Tour event in Paramus, NJ through United MileagePlus Exclusives
Some of these packages require a fixed number of points, while others are auctions that run to a certain date/time before being awarded to the highest bidder. Be sure to check out our list of these experiences platforms for additional options.
3. Maximize ticket reseller purchases.
If you don't get in on an initial round of sales, chances are quite good that tickets for your desired event will pop up on ticket resale sites like StubHub. Buying tickets this way does hit you with the double-whammy of seller markups and reseller fees, but if it's a must-attend game, you may be left with no other option. Fortunately, there are a few ways to lessen the sting of paying this premium:
- Online shopping portals: Many of these ticket reseller sites are available on select online shopping portals, mainly those offering cash back (like Ebates or Mr. Rebates). For example, at the time of writing, you can get 5% back at StubHub by going through Mr. Rebates, while purchasing tickets at Vivid Seats through Ebates will earn you 4% back. Another tip: Be sure to use a shopping portal aggregator to quickly compare earning rates across these sites.
- Amex Offers: In addition to shopping portals, I regularly see ticket reseller sites pop up in the Amex Offers section of my various American Express cards. I've seen StubHub and TicketGalaxy just in the last few months. By earning a decent haul of bonus points or a further discount on the purchase, you can bring your cost back down to the ballpark of face value (pun intended).
- Gift cards: If you don't have an Amex offer or a card that offers bonuses on entertainment purchases, consider grabbing a StubHub gift card at a local merchant like a grocery store or pharmacy to earn additional bonus points. Just be aware that many retailers will only allow you to purchase a certain amount of gift cards using a credit card.
Of course, getting tickets is just the first piece of the puzzle. If you don't live locally, you'll need to factor in transportation to and from the event along with (possible) lodging while in town. Even if you can score a "deal" on seats, the travel purchases associated with attending a sporting event can quickly spiral out of control. Here are some ways to avoid this escalation, organized by type of purchases.
If you have to fly to attend an event, your airfare may wind up being the largest single expense of the trip. Fortunately, using points or miles can significantly defray these costs. While you are a bit restricted in the dates of your travel, injecting even a little bit of flexibility can greatly help the booking process. Maybe you take a connecting flight instead of a nonstop, or you fly out earlier than you'd like in order to use miles. If you have a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you also have the flexibility to redeem your points on any airline at the rate of 1.5 cents apiece, and if you decide to purchase the flights directly, they're eligible for the $300 annual travel credit.
But what happens if you buy your event tickets and then find no workable paid or award flight options? This is where the powerful combination of transferable points and ExpertFlyer comes into play. If you aren't stockpiling miles with a specific carrier, you can be flexible in the airline and routing you take. A premium subscription to ExpertFlyer allows you to set up alerts on a number of different flights, and you'll receive a notification when award space opens up, which does tend to happen in the weeks leading up to a flight.
A few additional tips to make the most of your flights to sporting events:
- Consider alternate airports: Many larger cities have more than one airport option, so if you're finding limited award availability or expensive flights into one, be sure to check the other(s). The major ones that come to mind include Chicago-Midway (MDW)/Chicago-O'Hare (ORD), New York (JFK)/New York (LGA)/Newark (EWR), Washington-Dulles (IAD)/Washington-Reagan (DCA), Miami (MIA)/Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Houston (IAH)/Houston (HOU) and Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)/Dallas-Love Field (DAL).
- Use your elite status: If you currently hold elite status with Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue or United, you may be able to book a less-than-ideal itinerary and then rebook when a better routing opens up without paying a change fee. Keep in mind too that Southwest always allows fee-free changes or cancellations to both paid and award flights as well.
- Beware of last-minute fees: If you make a last-minute decision to attend an event and need an award ticket, be aware that American and United both impose close-in ticketing fees when you redeem your miles within 21 days of departure (though they are discounted/waived for elite members). There are some great programs for last-minute awards that will avoid these fees, including Delta and its much-maligned, though still valuable, SkyMiles program as well as British Airways and its distance-based award chart.
If there's a major sporting event in town, hotels tend to do one or more of the following: charge astronomical rates, block awards due to "extraordinary demand/special event" categorization (thus skirting a program's no blackout dates policy) or allocate their entire inventories to tour operators to then sell as part of travel packages. As a result, my advice for booking hotels when traveling for a sporting event is simple: book early. I've seen situations where a hotel won't immediately take these steps, so you can snag a room at a reasonable rate or book an award stay before the property cuts these reservations off.
For example, at the time of writing, I see rooms for less than $200 per night at the Radisson Hotel Cleveland-Gateway for next July 16. The same date has award rooms available at the Hyatt Regency Cleveland at The Arcade for just 8,000 points per night. Both properties are just blocks from Progressive Field, the host of the 2019 MLB All Star Game that evening. Most other programs haven't even opened their respective booking windows yet, so now would be a great time to lock in these stays at affordable rates.
Even if you don't book far in advance, locking in an award stay can result in outsized value for your points. Let's take a look at a college football game as an example. If you want to stay in Gainesville, FL during a weekend when my beloved Florida Gators are playing at home, you'll typically find exorbitant prices. Fortunately, points can go a long way. For example, the Home2 Suites just south of downtown wants almost $1,000 for a two-night stay when LSU comes to town (October 6). However, you could redeem 80,000 points for that same stay, giving you a value of 1.24 cents per point, more than double TPG's most recent valuation of Hilton points.
This type of redemption can also be a great use of free night certificates from cards like the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express or Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card.
Finally, consider booked a room at suites-only hotels if you're traveling with friends to further extend the value of your money (or points). Back in 2008, I redeemed 80,000 Hilton points for a two-night stay at the Embassy Suites in downtown Chicago for my Cubs-centric bachelor party. Five of us crashed in the room and enjoyed free breakfast plus easy subway access to Wrigley Field and both airports, ensuring a great time with minimal out-of-pocket spending.
Whether renting a car or using rideshare services like Uber or Lyft, the most important thing to do is use the right credit card. My all-around favorite along these lines is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, as it offers 3x points on virtually any travel purchase (after $300 travel credit exhausted) plus provides primary car rental coverage coverage if your vehicle is damaged or stolen on your watch. As an alternative, you also have $15 in monthly Uber credits ($35 in December) if you hold the Amex Platinum, and Lyft is currently included in the third-quarter 2018 bonus categories on the Chase Freedom (No longer open to new applicants), giving you 5x points on your first $1,500 in combined spending with Lyft, at Walgreens and on gas purchases.
Apparel and Merchandise
Traveling to a live sporting event for your favorite team may not be a feasible option, so many fans want to display their fandom on a regular basis wherever they live. Some estimates have the worldwide market for licensed sports apparel and merchandise growing to nearly $50 billion by 2024, and fortunately there are some simple steps you can take to make the most of these purchases:
1. Use online shopping portals.
Even though this was already mentioned, it's worth revisiting again in this section. Going through online shopping portals is one of the easiest ways to earn points or miles for something you're already doing: purchasing items online. As noted above, you should use a shopping portal aggregator like CashBackMonitor.com to determine whether the best earning rates come through a cash-back portal like Ebates or a travel provider's portal like American's AAdvantage eShopping (the latter of which frequently runs threshold bonuses). Here are some current earning rates for popular sports apparel sites:
- Fanatics: 2 miles per dollar spent with Alaska/American/Southwest/United, 2 points per dollar spent with Chase Ultimate Rewards
- NFL Shop: 1.5% back at Ebates, 2 points per dollar with Ultimate Rewards
- MLB Shop: 3 points/miles per dollar with Ultimate Rewards/American, 2 miles per dollar with Alaska/Delta/Southwest/United
- Fans Edge: 2 points/miles per dollar with Ultimate Rewards/Alaska/American/Delta/Southwest/United
- Kohl's (which has a big sports fan section): 3% back at Ebates, 2 points/miles per dollar with Hilton/Alaska/Southwest/American/Delta
This is a quick and easy way to boost your earnings the next time you go shopping for your next team-branded items.
2. Use Amex Offers.
Another strategy mentioned above bears repeating here as well. I have been targeted for an Amex Offer from Fanatics a few times before, and I actually currently have one saved to my Amex Platinum:
If I spend exactly $100 on my Fanatics purchase by August 18 and go through the Alaska Mileage Plan Shopping site, I'll earn the following:
- 100 Membership Rewards points through the standard earning rate (worth $1.90)
- 1,500 Membership Rewards points through the Amex Offer (worth $28.50)
- 200 Alaska miles through the Mileage Plan Shopping site (worth $3.40)
Based on TPG's most recent valuations, that's a fantastic return of 34%.
3. Sign up for loyalty programs.
In addition to these bonuses, select apparel retailers offer rewards programs of their own. For example, Fanatics offers 3% FanCash on all items that can be redeemed toward future purchases, though your credits will expire 6 months after you earn them. Another store with its own loyalty scheme is Kohl's and its Yes2You Rewards program, giving you 1 point per dollar spent and a $5 reward every time you reach 100 points. While most retailers don't provide this type of program, it's essential to use them wherever you can!
4. Use the best credit card.
When it comes to purchasing team-branded apparel and merchandise, you'll be hard-pressed to find a card that offers bonus points at these retailers. As a result, you'd want to aim to utilize one with a solid rate of return for everyday (non-bonus) purchases like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Chase Freedom Unlimited (if you're pairing it with a premium Chase card to ensure you're earning full Ultimate Rewards points, not just cash-back rewards).
This would also be a great time to utilize a card for which you're trying to reach a spending threshold for a welcome bonus. For example, I just opened a new Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card to secure not just 30,000 Alaska miles but also to pick up a companion fare for a trip to Portland next year. Even though I'd only earn 1 Alaska mile per dollar spent at the above merchants, lower than the 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points I'd effectively earn on my Freedom Unlimited (transferred to my Sapphire Reserve), I'm also working toward the $2,000 threshold I need to reach in the first 90 days.
One final aspect of your sports obsession involves television. Purchasing the actual TV to watch your favorite team(s) is obviously the first step, and the above suggestions like online shopping portals and Amex Offers apply to that decision. However, the more long-term choice is how to maximize the subscriptions needed to watch the games.
The biggest part of this is selecting the right credit card, and fortunately there's one that stands above the rest: the Ink Business Cash Credit Card. By offering 5% cash back on telecommunications purchases, including cable and satellite TV providers, you're looking at a solid return on these purchases, though that's even higher (10.5%) if you also have the Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
Don't think that you're limited to the major companies to earn this bonus either. Many video streaming services also fall into this category, including Hulu and Sling, giving you valuable flexibility to still earn these bonuses even if you're a cord-cutter.
If you don't currently have the Ink Cash, you can earn $500 cash back after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months after account opening, a nice haul of points to boost your Ultimate Rewards balance.
It takes a lot to be a sports fan, both in mental energy and financial resources. Whether you're cheering your team on in person or watching them at home on TV (in your full-licensed gear, of course), your bank account can quickly feel the effects of your hobby. Fortunately there are some simple strategies you can utilize to lesson the burden of your fandom on your everyday life, and I hope this post has highlighted how to do just that!