The Ticket Monopoly

Looking back at the holiday season, giving or receiving tickets to an event would seem to have been a great gift idea. It could have been tickets to a theatre play for your significant other, Christmas concerts with the family, playoff games with dad, and Christmas Foo Fighters tickets for your rebellious teenager.

But this year’s ticket sales probably looked a bit different than the past. Paperless tickets are filling the landscape with promises of eco-friendliness, counterfeit protection, and efficiency. But the truth behind the push for paperless ticketing has little or nothing to do with saving you or mother earth anything at all.

You see, unlike the most things you purchase, paperless tickets aren’t transferable (at least not easily or cheaply). Where paper tickets were tangible, transferable, and re-sellable, the new generation of tickets is a nightmare for fans.

Ticketmaster, the $6 billion leader of the ticket monopoly, invented the new paperless system in 2009, but didn’t begin rolling it out for major events until just this year. The system is anything but efficient, mandating you create a ticket holder account, tie that to your credit card, and merge ticket information with your account in the cloud. At the venue, ticket holders must present their ID and credit card to be authenticated and allowed entry. If you’ve ever stood in line for the big game, you likely shudder at the thought of that lengthy verification process.

Imagine buying tickets for a large group. You’ll have to wait at the door until every member of your crew shows up. Want to buy Taylor Swift tickets for your daughter and her friend? Now you’ve got to go park and wait in line with them to get them through the gates. Convenient, eh?

But slow-moving lines are the least of the problems. Imagine that your Uncle Jim and Aunt Stacey get snowed in and can’t fly back home for the holidays. Given the circumstances, the family now has two extra tickets to the Nutcracker.  Why not sell them and recoup their money? Well, with paperless tickets it’s impossible. Transferring ticket ownership means either swallowing the ticket price or facing exorbitant fees to eventually transfer them (upwards of 50% of the face value), along with an outrageously bureaucratic process.

All of this brings up an interesting question: If I can’t give away, sell or return my tickets easily – do I really own them at all?

It’s that very question that has consumer groups like the American Consumer Institute and the Fan Freedom Project in uproar.  John Breyault of the National Consumers League finds the paperless ticketing to be “anti-competitive” and “anti-consumer.” ACI president Steve Pociask of the American Consumer Institute writes:

“The more recent advent of the Internet age has provided consumers wider options and a more efficient means to buy and resell their tickets, thereby benefitting both the seller and the buyer, as well as adding legitimacy and safeguards to these transactions.  Because paperless tickets put limitations on ticketholders’ use of tickets – particularly as it relates to gifting, donating and reselling tickets, as well as complicating entry into events – the benefits of paperless tickets are small, at best, and they come at a cost to consumers by constraining flexibility and freedom.”

The reality is that paperless tickets are not about helping consumers or the environment; they are all about preventing consumers from buying tickets, often lower priced tickets, in the secondary market.  In other words, paperless tickets are all about Ticketmaster profiting on both the sale and resale of a ticket, while preventing consumer from selling their tickets on their own.

But there is hope. New York legislators have passed a bill that allows consumers to opt-out of the restrictive paperless ticket. Minnesota and a few others are close behind, considering outright bans on the practice of selling paperless tickets.

As you plan your holiday entertainment and gifts for next year, help consumers everywhere (more importantly, help yourself) and don’t buy paperless tickets. With enough luck next year, this anti-consumer practice will be a thing of the past.

Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.  For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.

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