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Concert Ticket Purchasing a “Fixed Game” that Hurts Fans

You knew all along this was why you didn’t get tickets to that big show.

Late last summer, like countless other people, I sat at my desk at work and frantically tried to get tickets to Paul McCartney’s tour. The show I was desperately hoping to see, in Buffalo—the former Beatle’s first concert in that city ever—sold out in under five minutes, much to the dismay and confusion of people stuck in Ticketmaster’s online waiting room, to say nothing of those lined up outside the venue with fliers that, they assumed, guaranteed them tickets after waiting in line for hours.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Just this week, people were lamenting their poor fortune in trying to buy tickets to Pearl Jam’s upcoming North American tour and coming up empty handed. The same goes for sporting events, too: Big events are selling out faster than ever, and while technology was supposed to make it easier for fans to have access to their favorite performers or teams, it’s technology that’s ruining the fun for everyone.

New York State Attorney Eric Schneiderman has decided to do something about it. In a damning report released Jan. 29, he calls services like Ticketmaster, StubHub and other online sellers and resellers out for their ability to be compromised and outsmarted by bots.

Schneiderman

The report, titled Obstructed View: What’s Blocking New Yorkers from Getting Tickets, could be written for any state.

His office “regularly receives” complaints from fans unable to purchase tickets to events that sell out in minutes, only to see those same tickets seemingly pop up minutes, if not seconds, later on reseller websites at substantially increased prices. In response, Schneiderman’s office, in conjunction with other state-level officials, reopened an investigation from 15 years ago on what was then “New York’s largely underground and unexamined ticket distribution system.” The previous report determined there was a network that provided tickets to fans “on the basis of bribes and corruption at the expense of fans,” and, needless to say, things have only gotten worse, even after enactment of anti-scalping laws in New York in 2007.

“Whereas in many areas of the economy the arrival of the Internet and online sales has yielded lower prices and greater transparency, event ticketing is the great exception,” the new report states. “The complaints NYAG receives from consumers concerning ticketing commonly cite ‘price gouging,’ ‘scalping,’ ‘outrageous fees,’ and ‘immediate sell-outs.’ As one citizen wrote, in a typical compliant: ‘The average fan has no chance to buy tickets at face value…this is a disgrace.’

Ticketing, to put it bluntly, is a fixed game, the report says.

“Consider, for example, that on December 8, 2014, when tickets first went on sale for a tour by the rock band U2, a single broker purchased 1,012 tickets to one show at Madison Square Garden in a single minute, despite the ticket vendor’s claim of a ‘4 ticket limit.’ By the end of that day, the same broker and one other had together amassed more than 15,000 tickets to U2’s shows across North America. Consider that brokers sometimes resell tickets at margins that are over 1,000% of face value. Consider further that added fees on tickets regularly reach over 21% of the face price of tickets and, in some extreme cases, are actually more than the price of the ticket. Even those who intend their events to be free, like Pope Francis, find their good intent defeated by those who resell tickets for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.”

Of course, this isn’t a problem just in New York, or just in the United States. A recent article in the Toronto Star found one of the services identified in the report operates internationally, like TicketBots.net, which offers website-trawling software that allows users to buy dozens, if not hundreds, of tickets with a single click. StubHub sells a similar product, a “spinner bot,” for $990 USD.

stubhub_scalper-500x210“I’ve never used them—never have, never will—but it’s definitely a pretty unfair advantage,” Chris Shea, owner of Bay Street Tickets in Toronto, told the paper. It was a different world 10 years ago when he started his business, built, at the time, around establishing relationships with season-ticket holders.

“One of the reasons Blue Jays ticket were so expensive at playoff time was because American brokers came in and bought all the inventory using bots,” Shea told the Star.

Allegedly, the National Association of Ticket Brokers has a code of ethics prohibiting members in both the US and Canada from using bots, and the organization reportedly has never received a complaint from consumers nor taken any action against its members for using bots, Gary Adler, the group’s executive director, told the paper.

“The perception that all these tickets are out there and brokers are scooping them up with bots is extremely inaccurate,” he said. Last year, the group issued a statement saying customer were actually better served by resellers as it gave them more choice and more opportunity to purchase tickets to events, should they miss out on buying tickets to a seemingly sold out event.

Riiiight.

The report from the New York Attorney General makes several recommendations, including urging the state legislature to act, mandating reforms to the industry including transparency and regulation in the use of bots and the enforcement of ticket-purchase limits. The report also calls for imposing criminal penalties for bot use and a cap on resale markups.

Whether this will make any difference or create some kind of program that’s enacted throughout North America remains to be seen (and, let’s face it, it’s unlikely to result in any real change in the immediate future). It’s a loud and strongly worded step, however, and Schneiderman deserves credit for at least trying to do something. Like many concert and sports fans, however, he’s likely to come up empty handed.

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