Home team is a player in online ticket sales

Critics call practice legalized scalping

October 14, 2006|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,Sun reporter

Not so long ago when someone had tickets to a hot event - say, a big football game - and tried selling them for more than the face value, it was called scalping.

And depending on where it was done, the scalper might get arrested or at least forfeit the tickets.

Today, however, the same practice, depending on how it's done and who's doing it, goes by a far more flattering description. Now it's called the "secondary ticket market," and the home team - rather than frowning upon such business - is likely getting a slice of the action.

Nearly half of the NFL teams, including the Ravens, have agreements with online ticket marketplaces that have become the recommended sources for hard-to-get tickets. The development is an about-face for some sports teams that, in years past, were vehemently against scalping, partly because it cut into box office sales.

The attitude change was forced, experts say, by the emergence of a grassroots secondary ticket market on Internet sites, such as eBay and Craigslist.

"Teams realized they were either going to get involved or sit back and let it happen around them," said Sucharita Mulpuru, a senior analyst at Forrester Research who focuses on ecommerce and has studied the online ticket market. "It was a matter of deciding to either try to beat 'em or join 'em."

Ravens tickets are among the hottest sellers in the NFL. There's a waiting list to buy personal seat licenses, which give holders the right to buy season tickets, and when single-game tickets went on sale this year, they were gone in eight hours.

Late yesterday afternoon on the TicketsNow Web site, dozens of tickets were still available for tomorrow's Carolina Panthers-Ravens game, ranging from $110 to $385. Original face-value prices for single-game tickets in the same sections on either side of the ticket price range were $40 and $95, respectively. Tickets for the Nov. 26 Steelers game were far more expensive, many over $500. Parking passes and admissions to pre-game parties are also available.

With the secondary market unavoidable, the Ravens decided to get in on the action.

"The secondary market is a reality and a very positive sign that there's such a demand for tickets," Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said of the team's decision to form a partnership with TicketsNow. "And part of it is that it has become a legitimate business through the Internet, and that it's now gone beyond a guy on the corner with a handful of tickets and fans wondering whether they're real tickets or not."

The team's partnership with TicketsNow, forged in May, makes the online marketer the club's "official and exclusive" online secondary marketplace. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but in exchange for a sponsorship fee TicketsNow will be featured in some Ravens advertising and on the team's Web site. When ticket seekers call the team for sold-out games, they'll be referred to TicketsNow.

"Where once that opportunity [to resell tickets] and money was being diverted to the guy on the street corner trying to get rid of his last pair, now it's part of the more sophisticated sports business industry," said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "It was a sports marketing loophole that the teams have closed."

While team involvement in the secondary market might make good business sense, some wonder about the franchise's initially selling the ticket and then profiting in a sponsorship deal with an online ticket service that helps sell that same ticket a second time.

"They're legalizing scalping, and people say, `Well, that's the market, that's the way the United States works,'" said Jan Boxill, a senior lecturer and director of the Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina, who has written a book on sports ethics. "But it does seem that the team is getting paid twice [for the same ticket]."

The resale of tickets can be complex, with laws varying by jurisdiction.

In Maryland, there are no state laws that address the subject of reselling tickets, according to the state attorney general's office. Nor do county codes in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

However, Baltimore City regulations require ticket sellers, even those selling at face value or below, to be at least a mile from the stadium if on a public right of way. (The scalp-free zone at Oriole Park is an exception.) Scalping is prohibited, and ticket agencies are allowed to impose only a 50-cent service fee.

Officials for TicketsNow, which is licensed in Illinois, said that as the merchant of record, its transactions are governed by that state's regulations, which permit the type of sales made on the Internet site.

However, Baltimore City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said that a transaction between a city buyer and an online ticket marketer is covered by city ordinances. Pursuing enforcement would depend on a violation occurring, Tyler said.

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