This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Get their investigations emailed to you directly by signing up at revealnews.org/newsletter.
In April, the rap star Bad Bunny fired off a frantic tweet: “PEOPLE!” he wrote in all-caps Spanish, “THE TICKETS FOR MY TOUR AREN’T EVEN AVAILABLE YET!! THE TICKETS AND SECTIONS YOU SEE OUT THERE AREN’T REAL.” He pointed his followers to a Ticketmaster link. “THE SALE BEGINS FRIDAY EXCLUSIVELY HERE.”
His tweet was a response to confused fans who’d seen marked-up tickets advertised before they were officially available on Ticketmaster. In all likelihood, these were so-called speculative tickets: Brokers sell seats they don’t actually own yet, try to acquire them at a lower price later and pocket the difference.
Expect more of this confusion in 2021. As the U.S. inches out of the pandemic, a perfect storm for consumer entrapment is brewing on the other side. High demand for sports, concert and theater tickets, stoked by restless fans, will collide with limited supply. All of this stands to drive up prices – for Bad Bunny shows, as well as baseball, basketball, hockey and other hotly anticipated concert tours.
Meanwhile, a legion of ticket brokers and resale marketplaces are reeling from a $30 billion collapse of the live events industry. It all adds up to a buying climate that may be particularly treacherous for consumers.
We’ve been investigating a series of practices that leave fans feeling duped by the secondary ticket market. Their complaints have persisted for years, despite regulatory efforts designed to make ticket buying less confusing. So as live events ramp up once again, it’s important to know how to protect yourself. Here are some tips.
Know who you’re buying from
Legions of fans have reported feeling tricked into buying a ticket from a third-party website rather than the venue that’s actually hosting the event. On these so-called white-label websites, you might see photos of the arena, a replica of its seating chart, a section about its history, Google Maps directions and more. But really, you’re on a site run by a ticket reseller, where prices are often far higher than face value – even when you could get a ticket directly from the venue for a much lower cost.
Although resale sites are required to disclose their status as such, they are free to make those disclosures small and hard to find. And while resellers are prohibited in most cases from using the word “official” in any ad or URL, they still frequently use the venue’s name – in web addresses, splashed across their homepages in bold font and elsewhere.
So what you end up with are websites like madisonsquare.garden-ny.org, which a consumer might confuse for the iconic arena’s official box office. Or ticketsmeters.com, another third-party marketplace whose font and design resemble Ticketmaster’s to an almost comical degree. FooFightersTour.com, another white-label site, has no affiliation with the rock band at all.
What you can do: Never assume you’re on a venue’s official site. Scan the homepage closely for disclosures indicating you’ve arrived at a “resale site” where prices might be “higher than face value.” Also, search the web. Look for lower prices and for a website that might be more likely to be the official site of a venue – even if it’s buried beneath a bunch of ads in Google Search. As a last resort, you can also look for a phone number to call. Ask the person who answers (if anyone answers at all) whether they represent the venue itself or a marketplace for resellers.
Make sure your tickets actually exist
Yes, it sounds a bit like an ill-advised undergrad philosophy thesis. (“What even is a ticket, man?”) But this is a question that’s absolutely worth asking. That’s because resellers have for years engaged in speculative ticketing, despite numerous public debacles and efforts to regulate it.
Sometimes, the process works out fine: You get the seat you wanted, and the broker turns a modest profit. But in many cases, tickets never materialize – either because the broker couldn’t secure them or because they reneged on your order after finding another buyer who was willing to pay more. This is what likely happened to me back in 2019. It has happened to many others, too.
Several of the ticketing industry’s major players say they’re cracking down on speculative ticketing. But in fact, a few often permit it under a different name. StubHub, while explicitly forbidding the practice, has also admitted that “it is reasonable to assume that speculative tickets are sometimes sold” on its platform. Others, like TicketNetwork, take a different tack. Although the company was accused in 2018 by New York’s attorney general of engaging in a “massive scheme to trick tens of thousands of unsuspecting consumers into buying tickets to concerts, shows and other live events that the sellers did not actually have,” its site still advertises seats that “the seller has not yet received” and advises, deep in the hell-bowels of its terms and policies, that “we permit a limited number of pre-approved sellers to offer tickets for sale that they do not currently possess.” Through its “Zone Seating” program, Vivid Seats does something similar.
What you can do: There are multiple warning signs to watch out for. If a primary seller, such as a performing arts center or sports arena, has made it clear that tickets won’t officially go on sale until Wednesday, yet you’re seeing them available on a resale site a week before that, they’re likely speculative. If after completing your purchase, you receive only a confirmation email and a proposed “delivery date” for your tickets, that may be an indicator, too. Finally, it’s always worthwhile to carefully review a marketplace’s terms of service. Do you see disclosures – sometimes visible only after you hover your cursor above a tiny question mark in the checkout process – about sellers who post inventory before it’s “in-hand” or “in their possession?” That’s definitely a red flag.
The easiest way to avoid accidentally purchasing a speculative ticket is to buy directly from a venue’s official box office. But, of course, the primary market contains its own perils, too.
Don’t take the first price you see at … ahem … ‘face value’
Generally speaking, ticketing companies have free rein to tack on as many fees as they want, whenever they want, throughout the course of your buying experience.
This process of gradually escalating markups is called drip pricing. It’s been found to produce “welfare losses” and “consumer errors,” and it’s helped generate a Wild West-style selling environment that leaves consumers feeling “cheated and annoyed.” When the Federal Trade Commission invited the public to share opinions about the world of online ticketing ahead of a workshop in 2019, thousands of people cried foul of fees.
Drip pricing has been outlawed in the airline industry for a decade. There, companies are required to disclose a ticket’s total price – including fees – in their advertising, on websites and on e-ticket confirmations. Yet no such regulations exist for event ticketing. Instead, the Government Accountability Office estimates that the average fees on ticket resale sites amount to 31% of an (already inflated) price. And according to an audit by the Obama administration’s National Economic Council in 2016, “the fees are mandatory, and in most cases are not connected to any additional goods and services beyond that of receiving the purchased ticket.”
What you can do: Begin the checkout process. Get near the end of your transaction on one site, then look for an itemized list of total costs. After that, open a new tab and do the same thing on another site. Repeat to your heart’s desire.
Some resellers, to their credit, have begun building in an option within their sites to view “all-in” pricing at the outset of the purchase process. Be sure to poke around for that. But it might be hard to locate, because in many states, lawmakers don’t yet require it as a default setting.
Beware that many ticketing websites deploy design elements aimed at pressuring you to buy quickly. One familiar tactic is a digital timer, often featuring bright red text, that ticks away like a time bomb. These companies understand that a consumer feeling squeezed is more likely to tolerate huge fees – and less likely to pump the brakes on the transaction to start comparison shopping elsewhere.
Procrastinate – if you can
The price curve for tickets to most live events is predictable. With few exceptions, the peak of demand occurs the instant that inventory first becomes available. From there, it’s often a steady value decline until the game’s first pitch is thrown or the concert’s first note is played.
This means that the closer you get to an event’s commencement, the more desperate resellers become to offload inventory they still have in hand. They sometimes even drop their prices below face value in an attempt to recoup the smallest fraction of the money they’ve already spent on acquiring the tickets.
What you can do: If you’re dead set on attending an event, the high price you pay is partially a hedge against missing out. But if you’re willing to be flexible – willing to wait out the brokers – it’s possible to secure a great deal.
“People always ask me this question: They say, ‘What should I do?’ ” said Marianne Jennings, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business who studies the ticket market. “Just wait! That’s the hardest thing to convince people to do, but it’s the best advice I can give. You know, it’s very few times that you see right at the time of the event, the ticket prices go up. They inevitably come down.”
This article was originally published on Reveal on July 21, 2021.