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Why You Can’t Get a Ticket to the NBA Finals …

… and every other major event on the planet. This is a fan’s guide to why you’re totally screwed.

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Back in January, Eric T. Schneiderman released a report on the inequities of a steadfastly dysfunctional ticketing business. Even if it wasn’t technically part of his job description, New York’s attorney general produced a remarkable study — mainly because it was accurate.

Fans have known for decades that, whenever they buy tickets for concerts or games, the deck is almost sadistically stacked against them. But those same fans have been inundated by nonsense from stakeholders in the ticketing business, and at this point, they don’t know what to believe. Those stakeholders refuse to admit that most government efforts to intervene haven’t just misdiagnosed the problem, but prescribed “solutions” that made everything worse. (Note: I worked as CEO of Ticketmaster from 2010 to 2013.) Schneiderman and his team — seizing on an issue that smart, aspirant politicians know is a no-brainer for their constituencies — finally stopped doing ear transplants to treat heart disease; in other words, they conducted a reasonably thorough analysis of the industry, correctly identified the salient problems, then proposed some common-sense solutions that might improve it.

Just last week, a British government commission released its findings on the ticketing market, which paralleled where the Schneiderman report landed. These documents are usually NFL-responding-to-its-latest-self-inflicted-scandal–level dense, and thus difficult to read (despite valiant efforts) if you’re just a newbie to the situation. I still purchase tickets myself, and I’m possibly more obsessed with this topic than Bill Simmons is with Deflategate. So I thought I would create a fan’s guide that explains why you’re screwed whenever you buy a ticket for anything — whether it’s for Hamilton, Adele, Oldchella, or the Super Bowl.

Reality no. 1: Tickets never go on sale when you think they do.

The most thoughtful and analytical part of the Schneiderman report? All the work they did to examine not just how many tickets actually get put up for sale, but how they actually get sold. The on-sale process is like a mysteriously devastating airplane farter: tickets leak out little bits at a time, nobody can figure out where they’re coming from, and the whole thing reeks. Presales are privately and inconsistently announced to smaller groups of people who usually paid for access (like American Express cardholders or radio stations, for example). Then fan clubs, venue email lists, promoter email lists, and others usually get a chance at decent seats before the “general on-sale” happens. The problem, of course, is that these lists and clubs have been infiltrated by ticket brokers, many of whom use fake names, fake addresses, and multiple credit cards to steal tickets out from under an even smaller subset of real fans. The brokers are the young Kardashian clan rolling past crooked bouncers at a trendy nightclub, and you’re the hundreds of guys with no dates standing in the line for normals. None of it makes any rational sense, but here we are, and you’re left out in the cold.

Reality no. 2: You probably can’t even get a whiff of a good seat.

Even before that sham of an on-sale happens, a big chunk of the best seats are held back from ever going directly on sale. Schneiderman’s report found that on average, less than half of all tickets go on sale to the general public. For specifically cited Katy Perry and Justin Bieber shows, no more than 15 percent of the tickets were made available to people like you. So what happens to those special tickets? Some are held by the artist or team for the Penny Lanes (or modern day Gigi Hadids and Orlando Blooms) and the rest of the band/athlete’s family and groupies. Some are held surreptitiously by other stakeholders in the event — the promoter, venue, band manager, team president, and record label all have a claim. And while some special tickets are used to reward employees, grease the palms of key partners, and (God forbid) admit fans who actually deserve to be at the show, a significant portion not-so-magically find their way into the hands of secondary market brokers.

This happens in two different ways.

Reality no. 3: You DEFINITELY can’t get a good seat.

First, principals — including, yes, teams and the artist (not you, Pearl Jam!) — may take tickets and sell them directly to brokers. They do it because most teams and artists are either hypocrites or excellent brand managers, depending on your perspective. Artists in particular have two conflicting objectives: (1) make a Pablo Sandoval’s–pants-load of money, and (2) stay relatable so you’ll continue to feel connected to them (and spend money on them). They check Twitter. They read their press clippings. They’re sensitive. And they’re terrified of getting criticism from you for the price of their tickets, even if the price is exactly what the ticket is worth on the open market.

So the biggest artists sign contracts that guarantee them money every time they step on the stage, and that guaranteed amount is usually more than 100 percent of the revenue if every ticket is sold at face value. Which means that if every ticket in the venue “sells out” at the face value printed on the ticket, that wouldn’t be enough to pay the artist what they are contractually guaranteed by the promoter for the performance.

Getty Images
Getty Images

How does the promoter make up the difference? You guessed it: by selling some of the best seats directly in the secondary market, so that artists don’t get flack from you for pricing them high right out of the gate. That means the artist is either directly complicit, or that the artist is taking a massive check for the performance while looking the other way.

Goddammit, right?

The other way these held-back tickets weasel their way into the secondary market: The individuals who get the tickets realize that, ostensibly, someone just handed them cash. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but attending a concert or a game can be a pain in the ass. Industry insiders fortunate enough to obtain these tickets are just jaded enough that they don’t need to go like true fans do. And so they think about the traffic, and the parking, and the hassle, and they check prices on the secondary market. And they realize that whatever true fans are willing to pay sounds better than the work of actually going to the event. So they sell (out).

It happens all the time in music, but most famously during the Super Bowl, in which the league uses tickets to reward partners and players. Huge chunks of the Super Bowl seats are sold at artificially low prices to those people (if not given away entirely as part of a larger sponsorship contract). The worst-kept secret in the NFL other than the blatant manipulation of concussion research: nobody keeps their tickets. Everyone sells them, from players and coaches (remember when then-Vikings coach Mike Tice became a sacrificial lamb for a practice that continues unabated today?) to the associate director of marketing for the brand-you’re-gonna-hear-about-in-the-third-commercial-after-the-first-timeout. You can make thousands of dollars selling your Super Bowl tickets. Same goes for the intern at Warner Music selling concert tickets. Why not?

By the time the actual on-sale happens, 90 percent of the tickets might be gone; they usually aren’t very good, and they’re distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Which is dumb for all kinds of reasons (see: Black Friday stampedes at Walmart, lifeboats on the Titanic, etc.). But if the distribution of 10,000 pieces of unique inventory to 10 million buyers at 10 a.m. on a Saturday isn’t insane enough…what if I told you that most of those 10 million buyers aren’t actually human beings?

Reality no. 4: Bots are pwning you.

Even if Silicon Valley is just now falling in love with bots (thanks to companies like Slack), they have been kicking your ass for years. When our artificially intelligent robot overlords arrive, they’re gonna have awesome seats for Beyoncé. Their ancestors — ticket bots — have years of experience beating you to the punch for premium seats.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Brokers have written programs that blaze through the checkout experience of a ticketing site faster than any human being ever could. They grab the best seats and let the broker decide whether to buy them. Those annoying squiggly lines you see (called CAPTCHA)? While you’re screaming that you ALREADY FUCKING TYPED THE WORDS “TORONTO NINJA GLOCKENSPIEL,” the ticket bot has already surfaced that puzzle to dirt-cheap labor sitting in front of a computer terminal in another country, or to some frustrated, unsuspecting free online porn watcher to solve. Oh, and they’ve basketed the tickets you wanted and posted them online for as much as 10 times the face value.

These same bots hammer ticketing sites with searches, doomed to a life of infinitely combing for new inventory in case any quality seats held back from the on-sale get released to the “general public.” Once they’re released, guess what? They’re scooped immediately by the ticket bots. It’s like your dog sitting underneath the table waiting for a little bit of your sandwich to fall. It’s gone before it hits the ground. You don’t have a chance.

Reality no. 5: You can’t win.

This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, but it is. And you already lost.

The good news: Some common sense solutions could be implemented by various stakeholders in the live event business. Do they care? Unclear. But these solutions must treat the actual disease instead of merely the symptoms. And at the core of the issue are two things: the pricing/transferability trade-off, and the dearth of transparency.

As Charles Barkley always crows, Father Time is still undefeated. But despite their longevity, it’s pretty hard to find a blemish on the record of the laws of supply and demand. When hordes of people want a limited number of tickets, the price goes up. When a team or artist prices tickets at less than what people are willing to pay, in walk ticket brokers, and the secondary market materializes from thin air. It’s just good old-fashioned capitalism at work (or alternatively, it’s just stealing from kids and soccer moms). You can’t stop capitalism, but you can hope to contain it.

We can keep tickets completely out of the hands of scalpers in three ways: First, artists and teams could price the ticket at its actual worth in the open market. This leads to higher prices, but at least the money goes to the artist or team we love. Second, artists and teams can use technology to restrict the transferability of a ticket, making it impossible for it to be bought and resold. This technology, commonly called paperless ticketing, requires that the credit card used to purchase the ticket be swiped upon entry to the venue. Even if some clever scalpers circumvented this by buying tickets on Visa gift cards, then sending them to buyers to use for entry, paperless ticketing would dramatically cripple the scalping industry.

(Quick tangent: This technology is already available but restricted in New York thanks to — you guessed it! — the lobbying efforts of scalpers and secondary ticketing sites. Schneiderman rightly called for this restriction to be overturned in his report. We’ll see.)

Third, artists and teams can use technology to design a screening system that gets below-market-priced tickets directly to passionate fans who will use them. This is an aspirational but unproven concept, one that seems risky to implement at scale in a way that doesn’t violate privacy or completely piss customers off. Regardless, those are our three choices right now. It’s not pretty.

So let’s say you’re Beyoncé. You can either price the tickets at market value, restrict transferability, or not give a shit. As fans, we’ve already dealt with the latter choice — we want those other two options. We’re OK with our idols putting their music in car insurance commercials, and we’re OK with them hawking products in their tweets. We need to be OK with them charging a higher price for tickets. And we need to support an artist’s right to restrict the transferability of those tickets, even if it means fighting scalper-backed laws that would ban such technology. The ideal scenario blends both solutions. Everyone wins (except you know who).

And if we do that for them, artists must come clean about how they distribute their tickets. Tell us — even roughly — how many tickets are going on sale (and when). Don’t make us wait in line with hundreds of thousands of people for a smattering of seats. Admit if you use brokers; they can provide a legitimate distribution service to upper-class customers. But also admit how many tickets you’re reserving for regular fans. If you won’t change the rules of the game, give us our odds, and let us figure out how we want to play.

While it is true that the artist sometimes abdicates control to the promoter and venue as a part of the tour deal, it doesn’t have to be that way. Nobody makes him or her get up on stage (see: Zeppelin, Led). The artist makes the overwhelming majority of the money around his or her tour. And that means the artist has the leverage to fix this. Foundationally, all the angst we read about in the press and on social media from frustrated ticket-buying fans comes down to this: We want our heroes to take a stand against injustice. They have power, and we want them to use it.

Hold the promoter and venue accountable for transparency. Avoid venues and promoters that won’t provide it. Make venues sign non-exclusive ticketing contracts so that the artist can pick the platform that best serves the fan. Push venues and promoters — who disproportionately charge ticketing fees on concert tickets while sports season-ticket holders pay no fees at all — to stop taxing music fans unfairly. If artists are willing to boycott streaming music services to protect the 20 percent of their income that comes from recorded music, why wouldn’t they fix live music, where they make 80 percent of their income?

So much of the modern entertainment business (and, ugh, maybe now modern American democracy, too) rests on the purity of our fanhood; a premise that our adoration will distract us from the inequities of our actual condition. Nowhere is this more evident than the world of ticketing. And so the situation must be dire if the loudest voices of reason are coming from government efforts like the Schneiderman report. As if in time with the music that binds the covenant between artists and fans, they are rhythmically and incisively urging us: wake up.

Nathan Hubbard was CEO of Ticketmaster from 2010 to 2013, leading a turnaround and making the company more fan- and artist-friendly. He currently oversees music and sports (among other things) as head of global media for Twitter, and was a touring singer-songwriter who released five albums. He’s leaving Twitter this month to be an unpaid intern for The Ringer and pursue his next venture.