I’ve been to Utah a few times. One thing I like to do there is attend an NBA game. The Utah Jazz play home games in central Salt Lake City.
In 2011 I wanted to go see the Jazz, so during the afternoon we made our way to the poetically named Energy Solutions Arena, to see about tickets.
Inside, a uniformed woman told us tickets would be $40. But outside, a significantly more casually attired man was able to sell us tickets and was willing to negotiate on price, down to $20.
That night, as we joined the purple-clad throngs filing towards the stadium, we saw many more people pushing tickets outside for low, low prices – including some shouting “free tickets!”. Prices don’t get much lower than that.
Ticket scalping is a state issue, and it is not one the lawmakers of the mostly mormon state have sought to trouble themselves with. In the absence of any law, ticket scalping there is apparently totally legit.
Inside, it was clear why the man had been willing to negotiate our ticket prices. High in the stands where we sat, there were very few other punters. But we added our voices to the support for the Jazz (hilarity ensued as we convinced one Australian basketball ingenue that it was completely normal and in fact expected to yell Slammer Jammer! after every dunk).
Despite our enthusiasm, the Houston Rockets prevailed that night, 97-96, and my favourite part of it was seeing in the flesh the subject of my favourite piece of long-form journalism ever, Shane Battier. Michael ‘Moneyball’ Lewis wrote a big feature on him in the NYTimes that I had re-read several times, before I even knew who Michael Lewis was.
So when I returned to Salt Lake City in 2015 I knew I would go back to Energy Solutions Arena to see the Jazz play, and I knew tickets should be damn cheap. I was googling to see if scalping was still happening, hoping I might get my hands on some of those free tickets I remembered so vividly.
But my googling soon led me to a whole different marketplace. Online ticket re-selling. Within moments I was on the website of SeatGeek.com, where tickets were going for an amazing range of prices. You could pay over $200 to sit behind the benches, or as little as $10 to sit high up in the stands.
This felt substantially better than transacting on the street. For one thing, I had more information about the range of prices for different games (Thursday’s game’s lowest seat price was $10, Tuesday’s game was $7) and for different parts of the arena. I also got the guarantee that the seller would refund me if there were any problems. Unlike the dodgy guy who’d sold me the tickets in 2011, I was confident I could find SeatGeek.com again if I needed.
And this, surely, was good for the game. Empty seats make for a bad experience for everyone, especially those who paid $200 to sit closer, but also the fans and the TV stations trying to give the impression that this sport is exciting.
Where we sat, the crowd was full of families with plenty of children, and groups of unaccompanied teens. In Australia, these demographics would not be found at most professional sports events, because the price is such a barrier. What does that mean for attendance at live games in 20 years time? Will kids raised with sports on TV suddenly want to pay to attend once they become rich enough?
But back to Utah on a Thursday, where the arena ended up about three-quarters full and the mascot worked hard to keep the crowd engaged as the Rockets capitulated pitifully. The focus of scalping laws is normally on those popular events where ticket prices are high. Economists bravely defend tickets going to those who can afford the highest prices.
But might scalping not be just as useful – and even more morally defensible – in games where ticket prices are low?
In Australia, scalping is not allowed, and the AFL often sees tiny crowds limp in for games in giant arenas, all the while keeping ticket prices at astronomical levels. Members and those who’ve bought season passes often let their seats lie vacant.
I wish SeatGeek would arrive in our market and allow a bit of price discrimination – and I wouldn’t be surprised if the big sports leagues actually found it was to their advantage too.