The Cal Athletics "Gold Standard" and One Man's Quest For A Place To Sit

When California Memorial Stadium finally reopened earlier this month after an 18-month renovation, it was to the acclaim of many. The old stadium had been refurbished and updated in many badly-needed ways, and what was once a cramped, crumbling facility is now, in many ways, state-of-the-art. After a year-long sojourn awkwardly shoehorned into a baseball park across the bay, the words "Welcome Home" were sweet relief.

But for a few unlucky fans, their homecoming joy was tempered by an uncomfortable modification; in a few sections, certain seats at the end of the rows were missing! Seats that had been bought and paid for, many by loyal season-ticket holders, no longer had a physical location, as sticker renumbering forced the recently replaced benches to end a seat too short. I was one of those unlucky few -- I held tickets for seats 20, 21 and 22, but the row ended abruptly at seat #21. For most of the first half, my wife and daughter and I made do with two seats when we were owed three, but in the end, overcrowding and my daughter's need for a nap were too much, and we made our way home well before the game was over, angry and disappointed for reasons that had nothing to do with the poor play on the field.

However, this is not the story of how Cal Athletics screwed up and sold seats that didn't exist -- that story has been well-documented elsewhere. This is the story of what Cal Athletics did to (eventually) make things right. Earlier this year, Cal Athletics had announced a new program they dubbed the 'Gold Standard', by which they meant to offer a more courteous, more helpful, and more responsive brand of customer service. With a relatively quiet summer since that announcement, the grand re-opening of Memorial Stadium would, by itself, have been the first major test of the Gold Standard; dealing with a mistake of this magnitude only made the need for a swift, effective response more urgent.

So, how did Athletics do? Was their response appropriate? Let's recap:

Cal vs. Nevada - Opening Day

I've heard that the benches were only put back in the stadium less than a week before the first game, and I have to believe that that's true, because the missing seat issue seemed to catch Athletics completely flat-footed.

By late last week, as seat numbers were being assigned to the benches, Puri said they realized sections V, UU and U in the northeast corner of the stadium were tighter than anticipated.

"We didn't oversell it. We realized the error in our ways," Puri said. "I don't have an exact number -- no more than 100. I doubt if it was even that many."

Even if you're scrambling, there were a number of last-minute things Athletics could have done, such as:

a) Call or email people who purchased affected seats
b) Place customer service representatives in or near the affected sections, with knowledge of the situation
c) Affix signs on the edge of affected benches, directing people to customer service agents who could help them
d) Given that the game was sold out, it might have seemed difficult to try and reseat all of the people affected, but I distinctly recall there being plenty of available seating over in the ESP section.

According to the Mercury News, Cal made some effort to alleviate the problem:

Cal put customer service representatives at the top of every affected section on Saturday and relocated some fans who held tickets for seats that weren't available. Other fans chose to squeeze more tightly together for the Nevada game.

However, if this is true, they never made it around to me. I never encountered any customer service representatives, and I looked. All I was able to find was a rent-an-usher at the top of the section who had no knowledge of the situation whatsoever.

All in all, there's a lot of 'fail' here. The initial screw-up was bad, but that there was no effort at remedying or even acknowledging the screw-up until after the game was over disappoints me all the more.

Follow-up - The Next Week

Puri encouraged anyone whose seating issues have not been resolved to call the Cal ticket office at 1-800-GO-BEARS on Tuesday.

Now, I'm sure that plenty of other season ticket holders were calling 1-800-GO-BEARS that Tuesday, because I gave up after being on hold for 15 minutes, and I'm pretty sure the Bears performance vs. Nevada didn't generate a sudden rush of regular ticket sales. However, since I had been speaking to a customer service rep (Jenna) just last week regarding basketball season tickets, I figured I'd give her a call instead. Good move. Even having had a few days to gain perspective, I may not have been the most pleasant caller, but she was both polite and knowledgable, even while explaining that the whole customer service team had been in meetings for the last couple days, and would be calling everyone by Thursday, once they finally hammered out a plan. Ok, fair enough.

Thursday comes around, and another rep, Travis, gives me a call. Again, he was both polite and patient as he tried to find an amiable resolution to my seating issue. His opening offer wasn't bad -- we'll move your whole group to a comparable part of the stadium, and for your trouble, we'll provide you with Stadium Club passes for one game this year (except 'Furd or Oregon, which were sold out or something). We could have moved somewhere else in our current section (U), or moved over to Q and retained an aisle seat (aisle seats are important when you have a toddler).

However, I just had to go and be difficult. Now, I may have 3 season tickets, but my 'group' actually consists of us and 18 or so other friends of ours who have tickets in our row, the row below us, and the row above us (another CGB'er, paleodan, had the aisle seats directly in front of me, and was also affected). Could Travis manage to move the whole group together? Even as I was explaining my dilemma to him, that just didn't seem likely. However, to his credit, he heard out our issue, and didn't force me to take a bad deal just to settle things. I hemmed and hawed over a couple of less-desirable possibilities for a while, then said I'd think things over, and he agreed to call back the next day.

For those of you who are wondering, he also explained that the Cal Ticketing Office was initially were told that, on the East side, they could sell this year's season tickets based on last year's seating arrangements, since there wouldn't be any major renovations over there, just some bench replacements. However, when the benches were finally put in, the seats had to be re-stickered according to current building codes, which means that the seats on the same bench area are further apart than they were in the 1920s or whenever, and some rows lost a seat. Basically, America got fatter (alternately, better nourished) over the past century, and I got pushed off the edge.

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Actual seats that actually exist. See, I've got evidence right here!

The next morning, Travis calls back, and we come to a temporary solution: I'll exchange my tickets for 3 seats near my current section (a couple rows up, basically) for the Southern Utah game only, and my existing two seats will be left open in case I want to travel down and squeeze in. The plan then would be for us to work on a permanent solution between then and the Arizona State game three weeks away, when some other seats near our group might open up that would lead to a better solution.

Overall, not a bad experience. Both representatives I talked to were polite and knowledgable, and more importantly, seemed actually motivated to solve my non-routine request. Moreover, they both actually remembered talking to me during subsequent phone calls, something that I really, really appreciate from customer service reps. (It also helps when you are able to call back and get the *same* service rep several times over.)

Cal vs. Southern Utah - Game Two

Now came the test: would game number two turn out better than game number one? The beginning was not auspicious.

To get my new tickets, I first had to go to Will Call to exchange my current set of tickets. Easy, right? It was especially thoughtful that Athletics set up a special line at Will Call just for these kind of exchanges, so I didn't have to wait behind other random people. However, I did have to wait about 20 minutes, and when I did get to the window, the girl working the booth checked her computer, and...no records found.

Excuse me? Nothing?!?

Yep, nothing. She told me to head on in to the stadium with my current tickets, head to the top of section UU, and there would be a table there, and they'd have my tickets waiting.

OK, waiting in line for twenty minutes when it turns out I didn't have to kind of sucks, but at least I'm heading in the right direction. I get to the top of section UU, and there's the table, manned by Travis, who does remember me when I mention my name. (Jenna, helping him out, also remembers me from the basketball re-seating event, where you get to sit in the actual seats before you pick them out, so you can be sure that they exist. But I digress...) Travis, unfortunately, doesn't have the tickets on him, but is sure they should be at Will Call, so I should probably head back down there...

"Uh, no. I was just there. They didn't know what I was talking about."

It was at this point that I may have started to get frustrated. The hot sun and carrying around a two-year-old who was going to need a nap soon weren't helping. But to his credit, Travis heads the anger off at the pass, and to make up for this second miscommunication error, immediately pulls out three tickets to the Field Club, way over on the west side. OK, that'll work. Problem solved. For now.

Upgrade - The ESP Experience

Suddenly, instead of squeezing into section U, we're headed over to the ESP seating section. Now I feel much better. However, I do get lost heading over there, as section G doesn't even appear on the upper concourse, going straight from FF to H. I ask a security person posted by a stairwell, who directs me upstairs. We go up a flight, only to find our way blocked by another security personnel, who is standing basically in the middle of a completely empty, completely enclosed stairwell of unfinished concrete, with nothing the least bit interesting to look at. Even after he pointed us in the right direction (back down to the bottom of the stairs), I wanted to come back and bring him a book or something -- he must be so bored!

So, we get our wristbands (toddler: "Yay, bracelets!"), head on in through the Field Club, and to our seats. 10th row, literally on the 50 yard line. Chairback seats, with cupholders. We have the entire row to ourselves, so I don't even bother folding up the stroller. Toddler tries to take a nap in the shade between the seats.

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This is the first time at a Cal Game that I've been able to see card stunts without craning my neck at the video board.

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Look at all this room!

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Wake me when we stop with the silly turnovers.

When it gets hot, we head back into the Field Club, but don't miss any of the game because of the copious number of televisions in the area, pretty much in any direction you care to look. I order some sushi mostly for the sheer novelty of it (pre-packaged stuff, made-to-order sushi is coming soon) and because there is literally no line. It feels rather wasteful, actually, when I consider the packed concession stands over on the East rim and look over to see three people standing idle behind the Field Club concession stand, eagerly awaiting any customer that might still want service. Then I get over it and go order a $9 whisky sour (because I can) and watch a bit of the Giants game (not all of the TVs are showing the Cal game, but I do keep an eye on those that are). By the time we head back to our seats, they're now in the shade, which is much appreciated.

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The wristband gets me into the Field Club, the bear stamp allows me to buy alcohol, and the wedding band is what I tell myself keeps the ladies away.

Overall, the ESP experience was fantastic. I'm not sure how much I'd be willing to pay for it on a regular basis, but after having experienced it, the amount I'd be willing to pay has gone up significantly (I think it still falls short of the $4k+ per seat that Cal is asking for those particular seats). Still, I did mention to Travis the idea of providing 'samples' to existing non-ESP donors as a way of enticing some buyers, and while the idea could have merit, they're currently working on reaching out to local businesses as a way to find buyers who are willing and able to make long-term commitments as an investment in entertaining their clients.

Monday - Resolution

As it turns out, playing wait-and-see has paid off, as by Monday morning, Travis has found a couple free seats contiguous to our current group location. Paleodan and his wife will move to those seats and I'll end up taking the one actual seat below us (remember, only one of his seats exists), thus allowing us everyone to stay together as a group, both for now, and for future seasons when ticket renewal time comes up. And, we're both still getting comped passes to the Stadium Club for a future game this season, which is like the Field Club, but ritzier, and all the food and drink is comped. I anticipate feeling quite out of place there, at least until I've got a couple of free drinks in me.

What started out as a disaster from the customer relations standpoint has turned into a rather decent experience. Did you notice how I kept mentioning the names of the service reps? It's because I was able to continue the conversation, over multiple days, with the same people, who would remember earlier conversations. They were polite and knowledgable, and more importantly (and somewhat unusually, for front-line service reps), were actually empowered to do something to fix a real, unexpected problem, instead of having to escalate to a manager or whomever.

While Cal Athletics has made plenty of mistakes here, which I hope they learn from, they've also made real, demonstrable strides in building relationships with their customers, and not just the big-time donors (Full disclosure: I am in fact a very small-time donor, although I may look slightly more impressive in their computer system because I donate to the Cal Band on behalf of CGB). I don't think we're ready to brand this sort of experience as "The Gold Standard" just yet, but I can definitely see that they're headed in the right direction.

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After all that, we're finally happy campers.

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