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General Geekery: Scalping the Scalpers

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By Jeremy Herrig on January 25, 2011

The secondary ticket market in the United States has exploded in recent years due to StubHub and other online brokerage sites. Sure, there are still smarmy pavement-pounders outside of nearly every popular event, but the anonymity of transacting online has turned legions of people normally too scared to look a fellow human being in the eye and essentially say, “This is going to cost you triple what I paid for it, and I never had any intention of attending the event” into profit-seeking speculators.

Yes, this is America, and capitalism reigns supreme, but there’s something particularly abhorrent about purchasing tickets one has no intention of personally using in order to bilk true fans out of their hard-earned money. The average event-goer doesn’t have the means to pay people to wait in box office lines, write programs to circumvent online security measures, and farm out a team of overseas workers checking for re-releases around the clock.

This isn’t to say secondary markets are unnecessary or should be banned. People can’t attend events for various reasons after purchasing tickets, and although I wish they would sell at cost, it is well within their rights to get whatever price the market will bear. I’m specifically railing against the special kind of scumbag it takes to speculate on true fans for a living.

Fighting Back

Some acts have attempted to fight back by capturing the profits otherwise going to scalpers using tiered pricing methods, but for the most part average artists don’t have the will or the way to go against industry-standard contracts. Pearl Jam (among several others) has established the most successful model (in the music industry) to date:

1) Approximately the front half of the house is allocated to the band;

2) Those tickets are sold directly through the band’s website to fan club members only – fans typically have between 5-20 minutes to purchase before the event sells out;

3) Seats are allocated by seniority within the fan club, with rows 1-2, and 9-10 going by random draw;

4) Tickets must be picked up at will-call the day-of-show by the original purchaser only and seat locations are not known beforehand.

Now, not all acts have a long-established fan club to fairly distribute seats based on seniority, but that can just as easily be replaced by a fully random draw, leaving the rest of the model intact.

This all but eliminates scalping. There are few things more satisfying than seeing scalpers outside of Pearl Jam shows so completely frustrated by the fact they were only able to purchase nose-bleed seats, and the real fans who would be potentially willing to pay inflated prices are sitting in the best seats in the house for face value.

Getting the tickets you want

But what about other acts and events that don’t use this model? What can the average person do to get the tickets he/she wants? The key is studying up on ticket sites, the methods they use to sell tickets, practicing, and if all else fails, persistence. There are plenty of other articles out there detailing such things, so I’ll leave the basic internet searching to you (hey, if I reveal all of my methods, it only makes it harder for everyone).

Regardless, there is always a fair amount of luck involved – refreshing the on-sale page at the right time, getting a good CAPTCHA (the security word entry system that makes sure you’re a human), and if you’re going to a kiosk, choosing the right location.

Let’s just say for events I really want to see, I practice CAPTCHA words and on-sale timing on random events the day before the on-sale, do typing drills, and enlist friends for help.

One man’s absurd success story – the 2011 BCS National Championship Game

I’m an Oregon alumnus and huge Ducks fan, so it goes without saying I wanted to be at this year’s national title game. Unfortunately, a grand total of zero tickets were available to the public.

Each university was allocated 17,000 seats, all of which went to huge donors and long time (20+ years) season ticket holders. The rest (over half of the stadium) were corporate seats or Fiesta Bowl season ticket holders.

Having no other options, Stubhub provided the most reliable way to get tickets. I started looking at prices to the game during the last week of the season, and they were already expensive (more than $500 for nose-bleed seats). Although I wanted to pull the trigger then, I couldn’t risk being surrounded by a sea of opposing fans. After the teams and sides were announced, ticket prices took a huge jump, almost doubling overnight. Resigned that this was a bit too rich for my blood, I became content with watching the game on television like the rest of you.

When I arrived home for the holidays, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find a StubHub purchase receipt for two seats 30 rows up on the 30 yard-line of the Ducks side as a gift from my folks. I have a good friend in Phoenix I can crash with and flights were reasonable, so it was on!

Fast-forward a couple weeks to the Thursday before the game. I have the tickets in hand, and prices have rocketed into the stratosphere with some 50-yard line seats going for over $10,000 each. This single game turns out to be the biggest event in StubHub’s history, and the site is forced to take its sales offline because they didn’t have enough tickets to fulfill orders due to one of their main brokers overselling.

With Stubhub’s “FanProtect Guarantee” reputation on the line, they take decisive action: I receive an email offering a full refund, plus DOUBLE the money back on top. Almost $7,000 in pure profit for doing nothing but mailing the tickets back.

I spent the next twenty minutes pulling my hair out. My folks don’t care if I send back their gift and take the money. I talk to any friends who happen to be online at that time asking for advice. Do I potentially give up what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see my team in the National Championship game? The decision: that’s just too much money to turn down. The tickets were going back to StubHub. I paid my folks back and took the profit. However, I was in no way giving up on going to the game.

The next day I flew into Phoenix. I decided that $1000/ticket was my offering price, which was obviously well below market value, but still an absurd amount to spend on one sporting event. iPhone with Craigslist app in hand, I proceeded to send out the same e-mail to every single post selling tickets at any price –- I probably sent out over 500 between Friday and game day on Monday.

Few people responded, and the ones who did were essentially brokers laughing, idiots saying they had my tickets but wanting a ‘deposit’ up front, and a few kind souls warning me that I’d only get counterfeits at that price. I did receive one promising lead, but the tickets were in the last row of the upper deck in the corner – I thought I could do better.

Slight tangent: Craigslist is a general cesspool for humanity. So many people got scammed for buying fake tickets that weekend. The only serious security measure the BCS/Fiesta Bowl took to thwart counterfeiting was a small amount of UV-sensitive/black light writing on the back. With prices so high, and people so gullible, any half-savvy dirt-bag could essentially print money. So with this in mind, I went to a local sporting goods store and bought a pocket black light to verify authenticity.

Game day rolls around, still no tickets, but we still had tailgate passes and weren’t giving up.  After arriving at the stadium around noon. I made a sign that said, “I need 2 tickets” in bubble lettering filled in with green. My buddy made a complimentary one that said, “This guy needs 2 tickets” with an arrow pointing at me.

We worked the lots and tailgates, stood on corners, and generally made ourselves visible to as many people as possible. The main reaction was laughter, either at the signs or my offering price.

There was a caged-off “official ticket re-sale area” with a major police presence near the stadium, so we checked in every hour or so to see what the market was doing. There appeared to be a few dozen tickets around. Prices started off at $3,000 each, went down to $2,500 about 2 hours before the game, and then $2,000 an hour before the game. At that point, pretty much everyone in the lots with tickets was heading into the stadium, so we determined our best chance was to hang around the scalper cage and wait it out.

We decided to hold off until the end of the first quarter if necessary to get our price. Kickoff comes and goes. The price is still $2,000 a ticket. The scalpers refused to go lower, and the people refused to pay. I did not see a single transaction take place the entire day. There was no market.

Towards the middle of the first quarter, things got contentious. One fan shoved a wad of hundred dollar bills in a scalper’s face demanding he sell a ticket for $1,500. The scalper replied that he “will wipe his ass” with the ticket before selling it for that much. That was the moment which definitively confirmed those people have no souls. When you would rather lose your entire investment on principle than take a several hundred dollar hit and let a fan get into the game, well, there’s a special place in hell for you.

The end of the first quarter arrives, and my buddy graciously tells me to just spend the $2000 on one ticket – he would go to a bar nearby and watch. I refused. We were in this together – either both of us were going, or we were going back to his house to watch it DVR delayed on his couch. I mentally prepare myself that I’m not getting into the game, satisfied with my decision to take the money, and we turn to walk back to the car.

Just then, for whatever reason, an idea pops into my head –- let’s walk over to the box office. As we’re approaching, I see a security checkpoint. A lady there asks me if I have a ticket. I blatantly lie and say there’s one for me at will call to get through. As I approach, ahead of me are several will-call lines with people orderly waiting, a bunch of windows labeled “customer service” in the middle with no one there, and then at the far right end, two windows with about eight folks nervously bunched up.

With a move worthy of LaMichael James, I immediately made a cut-back to the right, broke into a sprint and arrive to see a small stack of tickets being sold. I nudge my way into the now expanding mob (I’m sure several people saw my reaction and there are now about 30 bodies pushing and shoving around), wait my turn, and purchase 2 tickets for face value ($300/each).

My (and my buddy’s) reaction when those things hit my hands can only be described as pure, child-like joy. We’re hooting and hollering, jumping up and down like mad men, all the while running at near full speed to our seats – wheelchair section, 3rd row of the upper deck on the 5-yard line of the Ducks side. A great perspective on the game, and all the room in the world to move around and continue going nuts about what just happened.

I’m not the kind of person who views sports as a life-or-death matter and has fits of rage when something doesn’t go my team’s way, but that night was one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. From being resolved I wasn’t getting in, to going 100% bonkers after scoring tickets from the box office, to watching the Ducks play a (mostly) mediocre and frustrating game, to pure jubilation again when we tied it with a two-point conversion late in the 4th, to total desolation after losing at the last second.

Yeah, that’s an insane way to come across tickets, but it wouldn’t have happened without persistence and putting myself in the right place at the right time. All I know is that on this night: Us 2, Scalpers 0.

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