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Secondary ticket markets: legitimate, a rip-off or downright illegal?

The UK Parliament’s Culture Media and Sport Select Committee has been examining the secondary ticketing market. The secondary market for events is dominated by four agencies – viagogo, eBay-owned StubHub and Ticket-master’s Get Me In! and Seatwave. These buy tickets to events in the primary market (i.e. from the events or their agents) and then resell them, normally at considerably inflated prices to people unable to get tickets in the primary market.

One example has grabbed the headlines recently. This is where viagogo was advertising tickets for an Ed Sheeran charity concert for £5000. The original tickets were sold for between £40 and £110, with the money going to the Teenage Cancer Trust. None of viagogo’s profits would go to the charity. The tickets were marked ‘not for resale’; so there was doubt that anyone buying a ticket from viagogo would even be able to get into the concert!

There are four major issues.

The first is that the tickets are often sold, as in the case of the Ed Sheeran concert, at many times their face value. We examined this issue back in September 2016 in the blog What the market will bear? Secondary markets and ticket touts).

The second is that the secondary sites use ‘bots’ to buy tickets in bulk when they first come on sale. This makes it much harder for customers to buy tickets on the primary site. Often all the tickets are sold within seconds of coming on sale.

The third is whether the tickets sold on the secondary market are legitimate. Some, like the Ed Sheeran tickets, are marked ‘not for resale’; some are paperless and yet the secondary ticket agencies are accused of selling paper versions, which are worthless.

The fourth is that multiple seats that are listed together are not always located together and so people attending with friends or partners may be forced to sit separately.

These are the issues that were addressed by the Culture Media and Sport committee at its meeting on 21 March. It was due to take evidence from various people, including viagogo, the agency which has come in for the most criticism. Viagogo, however, decided not to attend. This has drawn withering criticism from the press and on social media. One of the other witnesses at the meeting, Keith Kenny, sales and ticketing director for the West End musical Hamilton, described viagogo as ‘a blot on the landscape’. He said, ‘Ultimately, our terms and conditions say ticket reselling is forbidden. If you look at the way that glossy, sneaky site is constructed, they’ve gone an awful long way not to be compliant in the way they’ve built their site.’

The Competition and Markets Authority launched an enforcement investigation last December into suspected breaches of consumer protection law in the online secondary tickets market. This follows on from an earlier report for the government by an independent review chaired by Professor Waterson.

The government itself is considering amending the Digital Economy Bill to make it illegal to use bots to buy tickets in excess of the limit set by the event. Online touts who break this new law would face unlimited fines.

Articles
Touts to face unlimited fines for bulk-buying tickets online Independent, Roisin O’Connor (13/3/17)
Unlimited fines for bulk buying ticket touts BBC News (11/3/17)
Ticket touts face unlimited fines for using ‘bots’ to buy in bulk The Guardian, Rob Davies (10/3/17)
Ticket touts face unlimited fines in government crackdown on bots Music Week, James Hanley (11/3/17)
Government confirms bots ban and better enforcement in response to secondary ticketing review CMU, Chris Cooke (13/3/17)
The ‘Viagogo Glitch’: Why Fans Must Be Put First In The Secondary Ticketing Market Huffington Post, Sharon Hodgson (14/3/17)
Angry MPs accuse no-show Viagogo of ‘fraudulent mis-selling’ of Ed Sheeran tickets i News, Adam Sherwin (21/3/17)
Ed Sheeran’s manager Stuart Camp on secondary ticketing BBC News, Stuart Camp (21/3/17)
Fury at Viagogo no-show as MPs probe tickets on sale for thousands Coventry Telegraph, James Rodger (22/3/17)
Music fans given 10-step guide on how to tackle ticket touts Daily Record, Mark McGivern (20/3/17)
Viagogo snubs MPs’ inquiry into online ticket reselling The Guardian, Rob Davies (21/3/17)
Viagogo a No-Show at U.K. Hearing Into Secondary Ticketing: ‘Huge Lack of Respect’ Billboard, Richard Smirke (21/3/17)
Daily Record campaign against ticket touts reaches Parliament but Viagogo don’t show up to answer claims Daily Record, Torcuil Crichton and Keith McLeod (22/3/17)
Ticketmaster is using its software — and your data — to take on ticket-buying bots recode, Peter Kafka (14/3/17)

Official sites and documents
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee holds a further evidence session on ticket abuse. Culture, Media and Sport Commons Select Committee (20/3/17)
CMA launches enforcement investigation into online secondary ticketing Competition and Markets Authority, Press Release (19/12/16)
Independent Review of Consumer Protection Measures concerning Online Secondary Ticketing Facilities Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Professor Michael Waterson (May 2016)
Ticket abuse: ban digital ‘harvesting’ software says Committee Culture, Media and Sport Commons Select Committee (24/11/16)

Questions

  1. Use a demand and supply diagram to demonstrate how secondary ticket agencies are able to sell tickets for popular events at prices several times the tickets’ face value.
  2. If secondary ticket sites and ticket touts are able to sell tickets at well above box office prices, isn’t this simply a reflection of people’s willingness to pay (i.e. their marginal utility)? In which case, aren’t these sellers providing a useful service?
  3. How do secondary ticket agencies reduce consumer surplus? Could they reduce it to zero?
  4. See Tickets, the primary market ticket agency, has set up a secondary site, whereby fans can trade tickets with one another at a mark-up capped at just 5%. Will this help to reduce abuses on the secondary market, or is it a totally separate part of the market?
  5. Would it be a good idea for event organisers to charge higher prices for popular events than they do at present, but still below the equilibrium?
  6. How does the price elasticity of demand influence the mark-up that secondary ticket agencies can make? Illustrate this on a diagram similar to the one in question 1.
  7. What measures would you advocate to make tickets more available to the public at reasonable prices? Explain their benefits and any drawbacks.
  8. What would be the effect on prices if the use of bots could be successfully banned?
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What the market will bear? Secondary markets and ticket touts

If you want a ticket for an event, such as a match or a concert, but the tickets are sold out, what do you do? Many will go to an agency operating in the ‘secondary market’. A secondary market is where items originally purchased new, such as tickets, company shares, cars or antiques, are put up for sale at a price that the market will bear.

The equilibrium price in a secondary market is where supply equals demand and the actual price will approximate to this equilibrium. In the case of tickets, this equilibrium price can be much higher than the original price sold by the venue or its agents. The reason is that the original price is below the equilibrium.

This is illustrated in the figure (click here for a PowerPoint). Assume that the total supply of tickets is Qs. Assume also that the official box office price is Pbo and that demand is given by the demand curve D. At the box office price demand exceeds supply by QdQs. There is thus a shortage, with many fans unable to obtain a ticket at the official price. Many of you will be familiar with having to be as quick as possible to get hold of tickets where demand considerably outstrips supply. Events such as Glastonbury sell out within seconds of coming on sale.

If you buy a ticket and then find out you cannot go to the event, you can sell the ticket on the secondary market through an online site or agency. Such agencies could be seen as providing a useful service as it means that otherwise empty seats will be filled. But if the equilibrium price is well above the original ticket price, there is the potential for huge gain by the agencies, who may pay the seller considerably less than the agency then sells the ticket to someone else.

What is more, the difference between the original price and the equilibrium price in the secondary market makes ticket touting, or ticket ‘scalping’, highly profitable. This is where people buy tickets with no intention of using them themselves but in order to sell them at much higher prices on the secondary market. Such ticket touting has been illegal for football matches since 1994 and was illegal for the 2012 London Olympics, but it is legal for plays, concerts, festivals and other events.

Ticket touts are often highly organised in obtaining tickets at official prices by buying early and using multiple credit cards and multiple identities to avoid systems that restrict the number of tickets issued to a card. They often use internet bots to mass purchase tickets the moment they go on sale.

Those in favour of ticket touting argue that the high price in the secondary market is just a reflection of demand and supply (see the IEA article below). Ticket touting allows tickets to be directed to people who value them most and will get the greatest benefit from it. What is more, banning ticket touting, so the argument goes, would simply drive it underground.

Those against argue on grounds of equity. Ticket prices set below the equilibrium are designed to give greater equality of access to fans. Rationing on a first-come first-served system, either on the internet or by a queue, is seen to be fairer than one by ability/willingness to pay. A poor person may be just as keen to go to an event as a rich person and gain just as much enjoyment from it, but cannot afford the high equilibrium price. What is more, non of the profit from the higher prices reaches the event organisers or the artists or players. Yet the mark-up and hence profit made by ticket touts can be massive, as the first Observer article below shows.

Various measures are being tried to prevent ticket touting. One is the use of paperless tickets, with the number of tickets limited per person and with people having to show their ticket on their phones along with ID at the door or gate. If a person cannot attend, then the solution is a system where they can give the ticket back to the box office (perhaps electronically) which will re-sell it for them at the official price.

A government-backed investigation, the Waterson review reported in May 2016 and recommended that touts should be licensed and that there should be harsher penalties for firms that flout consumer rights law as applying to ticket sales. Whether this would be sufficient to bring secondary market prices down significantly, remains to be seen. In the meantime, organisers do seem to be trying to find ways of beating the touts through smarter means of selling.

Articles
MP Nigel Adams calls for secondary ticket marketing to be reformed Music Week, James Hanley (14/9/16)
Iron Maiden go to war with ticket touts BBC News, Mark Savage (22/9/16)
The new age of the ticket tout BBC World Tonight, Andrew Hosken (25/5/16)
Government urged to help music industry tackle ticket touts The Guardian, Rob Davies (13/9/16)
Ticket touts face licensing threat The Guardian, Rupert Jones (26/5/16)
How the ticket touts get away with bleeding fans dry The Observer, Rob Davies and Rupert Jones (15/5/16)
What sorcery is this? A £140 ticket for new Harry Potter play now costs £8,327 The Observer, Rob Davies and Laurie Chen (14/8/16)
Ticket touts made $3m from the last Mumford & Sons tour. $0 went back to the music industry. Music Business Woldwide, Adam Tudhope (6/9/16)
This is tout of order – join the Daily Mirror campaign to beat rip-off ticket resales Daily Mirror, Nada Farhoud (19/9/16)
Ticket touts: A muggle’s game The Economist (20/8/16)
Can We Fight Back Against The Robot Touts Ruining Live Music? Huffington Post, Andy Webb (6/9/16)
In defence of ticket touts Institute of Economic Affairs, Steve Davies (25/2/15)

Report
Consumer protection measures applying to ticket resale: Waterson review Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and Department for Culture, Media & Sport 26/5/16)

Guide
#Toutsout MMF & FanFair Alliance September 2016

Questions

  1. Why can ticket touts sell tickets above the equilibrium price shown in the diagram?
  2. In what ways could ticket touts be said to be distorting the market?
  3. How do ticket touts reduce consumer surplus? Could they reduce it to zero?
  4. Why may allowing ticket touting to take place result in empty seats at concerts or other events?
  5. Would it be a good idea for event organisers to charge higher prices for popular events than they do at present, but still below the equilibrium
  6. How does the price elasticity of demand influence the mark-up that ticket touts can make? Illustrate this on a diagram similar to the one above.
  7. Is it in ticket touts’ interests to adjust prices as an event draws closer, just as budget airlines adjust seat prices as the plane fills up? Could organisers sell tickets in the primary market in this way with prices rising as the event fills up?
  8. Discuss the various ways in which the secondary ticket market could be reformed? To what extent do these involve reforms in the primary ticket market?
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