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The End of Season Tickets

The great unbundling of season tickets is upon us, thanks to an aggressive rise in the secondary market. So why do fans still shell out for their annual fees? The dirty little secret of sports is that they don’t.

Hand holding tickets on a blue backdrop next to many smaller hands holding tickets on a red backdrop Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I come from a patchwork quilt of a family, with five siblings, three different last names, and a lot of not-technically-blood-relations stitched together under one roof. At 5 years old I had a new, second “Dad” and we were searching for common ground. We found it with the Washington Redskins. His season tickets hugged the 48-yard line, Row 12, right behind the visitor’s bench. Going to football games became a bonding ritual for us. We’d sneak sandwiches into the stadium in our pants legs. We sang "Hail to the Redskins" after every score. I fell in love with the electricity of the crowd, something that would guide the pursuits of most of my life. I learned that if 56,000 people in a stadium could be a community, we could be a family. By the time Washington won its first Super Bowl, I was a bigger fan of Dad than the team.

This past year I wanted to recreate the same experience with my young son (a budding basketball fanatic). We bought season tickets for the Clippers. We signed up for 41 home games, many starting at 7:30 p.m. on school nights. Our fancy package of tickets arrived in the mail; immediately, I realized we wouldn’t be able to attend half of the games. Whoops. Around the same time, Dad confessed to me that he was breaking up with the Redskins after almost four decades as a season-ticket holder. WHAT?!?! The team was coming off of a division championship! The seats are awesome! This was Kirk (Kurt?) Cousins’s do-or-die year! This was free money on the secondary market, right? I bought the tickets from him and vowed to sell them myself.

Just like that, I became a two-team season-ticket holder and amateur ticket broker—a horrible decision that lost me a lot of money, wasted dozens of hours of my time, and increased my respect for ticket brokers fivefold. But at least it taught me one thing: The season ticket is dead.

Our Clippers tickets were in the sixth row of the lower bowl, directly across from their bench, averaging out to about $225 per ticket (per game). DeAndre Jordan’s family sat directly in front of us, which had the added benefit of DJ looking in our direction eleventy million times a game and complaining about either (1) the refereeing, (2) not getting the ball, or (3) the physics of making a free throw as a 7-footer with hands that look like foam fingers. Early on, we loved going to games. The Clips started the season 16-6 heading into their December 7 home showdown with Golden State. For once, the Staples Center felt electric. Jay-Z, Chris Rock, Floyd Mayweather, and Floyd’s 17 300-pound bodyguards were sitting courtside. We sat in our seats thinking, This was what we signed up for!

Until … the Clippers fell behind by 20 midway through the first quarter.

They got absolutely annihilated. Fans left the building faster than Taylor Swift in a box. You know what went with them? The value of my Clippers season tickets. Resale prices quickly plummeted. They played about .500 ball for the next two months, which saw injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul and THREE more decisive losses to the Warriors. By the time LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love emerged in street clothes as unannounced scratches for the one game my son desperately wanted to see against Cleveland in March—a Saturday-night battle on ABC, no less—my tickets had practically become a sunk cost.

This was my cross to bear as an amateur broker. I would start by posting unwanted tickets—at least one week—before every game at slightly above the “recommended” price suggested by whatever site I was using that week (and I tried them all). They’d invariably get less action than the Whaboom guy on The Bachelorette. I wasn’t the only one selling good tickets; there were hundreds, if not thousands for sale every game, with many in comparable or better seat locations than my own. After a few days, I’d search for the lowest priced tickets already posted in similar locations, then underprice them by $10-20 each.

That’s when I started to figure out what I was up against. Fewer than five minutes later, multiple tickets from other sellers had been repriced below mine. Goddammit, the professional brokers have automated bots watching everything and responding in split seconds? It felt a little like playing daily fantasy sports—when you’re battling whales with asymmetric information and technology, guess what? You're destined to lose.

On the day of the game, I’d keep lowering the price and inexorably move toward what became my version of the Mendoza Line: at 5 p.m., once I priced them at $100 each, they’d get snatched up immediately. This happened for games you’d expect (Pacers, Pistons, Nets) and ones you wouldn’t (OKC during Russell Westbrook’s MVP run, the Wizards as John Wall was making the leap). Maybe it was nice to snag $200 back ($180 after fees), but I was still paying other people to lose money. By April, I lost more money than Floyd Mayweather threw at Conor McGregor. Oof.

Meanwhile, my Redskins ticket-selling experience felt like getting brutalized over the course of a long Vegas night by a smug blackjack dealer. Any NFL season-ticket holder pays for eight home games and two snoozy preseason games with zero resale value. My cost averaged $190 per ticket. Monday night’s opener against Pittsburgh sold for only $200 each after fees, then Dallas fetched $330 each after fees. But by October, the Cowboys looked dominant and Washington already had two home losses. An Eagles game went for well below face, at $125 each. I couldn’t give the Browns or Panthers tickets away. Minnesota yielded $85 a ticket after fees. The Giants squeezed out $225 per ticket in Week 17, but only because a playoff spot hinged on the game. Washington lost. No playoffs. Down hundreds for the year. YOU LIKE THAT?!?!!? (No, I didn’t like that at all, Kirk Cousins. I would like to be reimbursed, now that you can definitely afford it.)

Sure, a more experienced ticket seller wouldn’t have set his wallet on fire with the Clippers and Redskins. But their seasons exposed two unresolvable issues for me: the unpredictability of team performance (it’s great to have season tickets for a long playoff run, as any L.A. Kings fan would tell you, but what about every other scenario); and 2017’s new reality that tickets for most regular-season games are always available below “face value.” The internet didn’t just unbundle entertainment, it gave us whatever we wanted on demand—music, TV, sports, and yes, tickets. Almost 50 percent of secondary-market sales now happen in the last 48 hours before the event. The great unbundling of season tickets is upon us. So why are fans continuing to go through what I did as a season-ticket holder? Here’s a hint: They aren’t.

NFL insiders will tell you that their season-ticket-holder base is at almost 80 percent of capacity. NBA insiders peg that number around 70 percent. But the dirty little secret in sports—something even some owners don’t know—is that in many cases, the majority of a team’s season-ticket buyers are ticket brokers. The ticket-broker industry’s business ethics land on the public-perception spectrum somewhere between the Mooch and General Flynn. But I know some of these guys; there are more honest people running legitimate ticket-brokering businesses than anyone realizes. And they’re good at it. They can expertly forecast demand, manage a supply that’s always in flux, and build trusting relationships with initially suspicious customers. They partner with front offices to offload a team’s risk—specifically the risk that by the end of the season, the team might suck and the franchise will be holding loads of empty, unsold seats you’re never going to buy.

Ticket brokers have evolved into insurance companies for professional sports franchises. A season-ticket holder owns rights to their playoff seats at a drastically reduced value. By locking down a season-ticket stash, savvier brokers make a little money or break even during most seasons, then preserve the chance to cash in during the playoffs.

Why would dozens of franchises run by billionaires and almost-billionaires need someone else to take that risk? They all know how to build rosters around analytics at this point—well, most of them—but a coherent, analytics-driven ticketing strategy is beyond their means? Why wouldn’t a league like the NBA, which features more new-wave, forward-thinking front offices than any other, develop a risk-mitigating instrument that (a) gives underperforming teams downside protection on ticket revenue, and (b) uses successful franchises to cover those swings? Shouldn’t they be smarter at pricing their inventory than outside brokers?

There’s another, less obvious reason teams work with ticket brokers. Most contracts between teams and ticketing companies today are still exclusive for some reason. (Even Jay-Z wouldn’t sell 4:44 exclusively through Tidal forever.) Fans buy in the secondary market, and teams know it. So to circumvent those exclusivity provisions, teams steer season-ticket sales to brokers, who in turn flip individual-game tickets to you and me on secondary-market sites. It’s nothing more than a circuitous hack. The cascading effect is stunning. You know those service fees you hate so much? That’s the only way the ticketing company and the venue make money. And yet, season tickets don’t have service fees.

Every NBA arena trots out 41 home games, leaving somewhere between 305 and 320 nights (depending on the preseason and postseason) to fill with other events like concerts, esports, and monster-truck shows. But usually, concerts. And music fans end up subsidizing sports fans and brokers who pay no fees at all. To repeat: If you love going to concerts and could care less about sports, you still shell out high service fees so that season-ticket holders (again, mostly brokers) don’t have to.

The obvious solution:

  1. End exclusive ticketing contracts.
  2. Lower those service fees for concerts.
  3. Charge fees on some season tickets.

Teams will sell more individual games and fewer season-ticket packages, connecting directly with customers wherever they buy. Ticketing companies and venues can lower high fees on concert tickets without losing revenue overall. And brokers would remain pricing experts and insurance providers, so they could continue to participate in the new ecosystem. See what we did right there? We just increased competition and consumer choice, redistributed a massive tax burden on a disadvantaged group to all those who can afford it, and did it all while lowering prices.

I gave up both sets of season tickets for the coming year. But my son and I will still go to just as many Clippers games. Dad and I will still text each other bemoaning, well, everything about the Redskins. And someone else will take our old seats.

While the season ticket may be dead, sports remain the living, unbreakable tie that binds my family and others together. There are concrete steps the ticketing business can take to evolve. I’ve found a way to pass on my love for going to games to the next generation. Let’s hope the industry can do the same.

Nathan Hubbard is an unpaid intern for The Ringer. He was previously CEO of Ticketmaster, head of commerce and global media for Twitter, and a touring singer-songwriter. His next project is currently in stealth.