Peter Funt Peter Funt, 10/28/2014 [Archive]

The Ticket Game

By Peter Funt

SAN FRANCISCO — As the Giants and the Royals went at it, the bigger game for some fans took place in the hours before the first World Series pitch, playing baseball's season ticket-holder roulette.

Thanks to sanctioned reselling online — via StubHub in baseball, Ticketmaster in the NFL, as well as through eBay and other unlicensed outlets — scalpers no longer spend as much time on street corners as they do on the computer. Speculation in sports tickets has become as mechanical as, say, trading pork bellies.

The World Series is the top prize for teams and ticketholders. But over the course of a long baseball season, the ticket market isn't quite what it used to be.

I acquired my four season tickets in 2000, when the Giants moved to what was then called Pac Bell Park. I purchased a "license" for each seat, meaning I was essentially paying the team for the right to buy its tickets. I soon learned that even for diehard fans, 81 regular-season home games are a bit much, which explains why baseball has an active resale market.

The sport of selling tickets has grown and shifted, particularly here in San Francisco, where the Giants have made three trips to the World Series in just five years. Initially, savvy season ticket-holders could make a tidy profit on tickets they couldn't use. Now there's a glut, with roughly 10,000 seats posted on StubHub for each game — many of them selling below face value.

The biggest winner is the team itself. The Giants sell out every game, in part because they have 30,000 season ticket-holders. And since teams get a share of StubHub's resale commission, the Giants effectively "sell" about 50,000 tickets for each game in a stadium with 41,503 seats.

Over the years I've watched as many original season buyers in my section dropped out and transferred their licenses to guys like Ethan, who has a dozen seats and not only markets them aggressively but even delivers snacks and drinks to his customers during games. Yet, even slick sellers like Ethan are suffering due to the glut of tickets, plus the Giants' pricing policies and, oddly, technology.

For several years the Giants have engaged in so-called dynamic pricing. That means that even before the season, ticket prices are set according to the attractiveness of each game (a Saturday game with the Dodgers is worth a lot more than a weekday game against the Marlins). Then, as each game approaches, the Giants lower prices further for unsold tickets, much as airlines and hotels do with excess inventory.

As on planes, customers sitting in equivalent seats now pay widely differing prices. Dynamic pricing in the stadium also drives down values on StubHub, where sellers are already disadvantaged by commissions added on both the buyers' and sellers' ends of transactions.

But where the game has really changed is in the digital wheeling and dealing. For a playoff game against the Cardinals there were still over 3,000 tickets on StubHub barely two hours before the first pitch. Buyers and sellers watched in real time as the number of tickets available, the prices, and the clock all ticked down. A buyer with a smartphone could stand at the stadium gate, betting prices would plummet before making a last-second purchase — with a digital barcoded ticket delivered instantly to his phone.

In Kansas City, resale prices for the Series games are averaging more than in San Francisco ($955 versus $918, according to the online service SeatGeek). Some writers are attributing that to the Royals long absence from the post season. They may be overlooking the fact that Kansas City has 3,500 fewer seats than San Francisco, and 20,000 fewer season ticket-holders.

Having actually lost money on two of the playoff games between the Giants and Cardinals, I priced my Series tickets at the low end. The first game sold quickly, so I went on StubHub's site to raise my price for the other two games. I kept getting an error message and finally gave up, only to see an email from StubHub congratulating me. My tickets had sold for $9 each!

It took two days and five phone calls before StubHub conceded its error and returned my tickets. Then, they sold at the correct price in less than 30 seconds. I suspect that this time the "buyer" was StubHub itself, faced with the obligation to deliver $5,400 worth of World Series tickets to some guy who paid $36 for all four.

I figure my Series profits will allow me to break even for the season. Next year I might try pork bellies.

——-

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, "Cautiously Optimistic," is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. © 2014 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author

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