Could this year spell the swan song for the scourge of the ticket touts?

Fans in the queue for Ed Sheeran tickets outside Merchant's Quay Shopping Centre last July.

Controversies around ticketing for sporting events and major concerts have raged throughout 2017 — and the new year brings with it promises of legislation that will curb touting. Joe Leogue looks at the pros and cons of such a law, and asks those involved if it will work.

 

Back in those halcyon days of October, before Christian Eriksen ran riot in Lansdowne Road and we actually thought we were going to the World Cup, the touts made hay in the glorious sunshine of our optimism.

Tickets for Ireland’s crunch qualifier against Denmark in Dublin were snapped up by eager believers, many of whom managed to secure the precious passes in advance presales.

However, not all the early birds gobbled up the worms for themselves.

By the time the home leg went on general sale, only premium level seats remained — but secondary reselling websites already advertised tickets sold in the presale, available for prices several times their face value. Some tickets were on sale with asking prices as high as €700.

Some of these sites — such as the Ticketmaster-owned Seatwave, Viagogo, and StubHub — offer guarantees of refunds if issues arise with the legitimacy of the tickets bought and sold on their platforms.

It is the benefit of this assurance that separates these sites from other classified-style online offerings — but there’s a catch.

These platforms set no ceiling on how much users can sell tickets for — and take a percentage commission on each deal, meaning the higher the ticket sells for, the more money the site makes.

These platforms were at the centre of controversy last January when tickets for U2’s sold-out gig in Croke Park appeared on reselling sites, some costing over €1,000.

In July, fans queued overnight for tickets to Ed Sheeran’s Irish tour next summer, and the singer-songwriter subsequently broke the record for the most tickets sold by an artist in Ireland in one day when over 300,000 tickets were sold for his concerts.

With such demand, the Sheeran gigs would be ripe for touting, which is why promoters have sought to address the issue by insisting that resold tickets will not be valid for entry.

Those attending the shows will have to provide their booking confirmation, credit card, and a valid form of ID, along with their ticket to prove they are the original purchaser.

Fine Gael TD for Dublin North West Noel Rock is one of a number of politicians who are looking at the issue, and has introduced a bill in the Dáil with Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly that will, if enacted, ban reselling tickets at above face value.

Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan has also introduced proposed legislation in the area.

Rock believes the market is broken, and his legislation will help rectify it.

“There’s a clear skewing of the market that is against the consumer,” says Mr Rock.

“Generally speaking on a philosophical level I’m a big free market fan, but if there’s an asymmetry in the market, or the market isn’t functioning in a normal way, then government intervenes.

“We see various examples of that, such as consumer protection laws, or minimum wage laws for example, where we decide that the market isn’t actually the best way of deciding how much people at the lowest earning segment should be paid per hour, that it shouldn’t be an option, rather you should have to pay a set minimum amount of money per hour and everybody accepts that.

“Similarly we have consumer protection law in relation to mobile phone roaming fees for example. We set a ceiling around how much at most people should be paying while using their mobile phones while roaming abroad. I think you need similar sort of legislation in relation to the buying and selling of tickets.”

But why intervene on tickets and not other products? By this logic should the Government also intervene if, for example, the hottest Christmas toy is sold out in stores but up on Done Deal at a higher price?

  

“Other countries’ legislatures such as Belgium have already outlawed the practice of above-cost reselling of tickets. The rationale behind it, behind my thinking, and why other parliaments including the UK are looking at this is because of the nature of tickets,” says Mr Rock.

“Tickets are absolutely quantity limited. You can’t manufacture more capacity in Croke Park. Then it is also essentially time-limited, once you’ve seen a concert or missed a concert, once it is over it’s gone, you can’t simply make another one. We can’t make the Beatles play again.

“The asymmetric nature of the markets mean some people have better access to it than others and that is very easily facilitated, whereas with the comparison to a toy, bar the odd shop worker or someone who works in the factory who manufacture the toys, there isn’t widespread asymmetric access to the market. Generally speaking, whoever shows up first gets them first.

“I understand from industry sources that often as many as 20% of tickets for given concerts and matches are bought with the sole primary intention of reselling. I can’t think of a case where 20% of anything else in the world is bought with the sole intention of reselling where there is a completely limited quantity of such a thing.

“People often draw the comparison with houses, where people buy houses with the sole intention of reselling them, doing them up and flipping them over for a profit, but there isn’t an absolute limit or quantity of the number of houses or dwellings that can be built.

“We can build more of them, but you can’t manufacture more tickets and as such I think this is a perfectly reasonable and logical response and to a dysfunctional market.”

Earlier this year, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation joined forces with the Department of Transport, Tourism, and Sport to launch a consultation on the resale of tickets for entertainment and sporting events because of what it described as “public concern at the resale of tickets for major entertainment and sporting events at a price often well in excess of their face value”.

Consultation

The consultation received more than 20 submissions from interested parties, including companies such as Done Deal, StubHub, and Viagogo.

StubHub is an eBay company, and while it has a customer service staff based in Ireland, it has yet to launch a dedicated Irish site — but says it plans to do so in future.

It has courted controversy in the UK, where StubHub and Viagogo offices were raided in November by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), looking for information on any relationship between the sites and known touts. The UK regulator is investigating suspected breaches of consumer protection law in the online secondary tickets market.

“We have heard concerns about a lack of transparency over who is buying up tickets from the primary market,” said Andrea Coscelli, CMA acting chief executive, when launching the investigation in December 2016.

“We also think that it is essential that those consumers who buy tickets from the secondary market are made aware if there is a risk that they will be turned away at the door.

“We have therefore decided to open a sector-wide investigation to ensure that customers are made aware of important information that they are legally entitled to.

“If we find breaches of consumer law, we will take enforcement action.”

The Irish Examiner asked StubHub if it would comment on the raid on its offices, or on CMA concerns that consumer law may be broken by sites such as StubHub and other ticket reselling sites.

It said it cannot comment in detail on an ongoing investigation.

“StubHub is committed to working together with regulators to deliver a safe, secure and transparent ticketing market. We are continuing to work closely with the CMA on their ongoing investigation and await their outcome,” the company said.

However, Aimee Campbell, StubHub’s global head of public affairs, spoke with the Irish Examiner about its plans to launch an Irish presence in the future, and proposed legislation on reselling.

She warns that introducing price caps on ticket reselling could have unintended consequences for the consumer.

It should be noted, however, than in many of its markets, StubHub charges a commission to both the seller and buyer based on a percentage of the price for which a ticket is sold.

“We do get this question a lot: ‘Wouldn’t it be in your interest for tickets to sell for as much as possible because you take a percentage?’ and actually the answer is no,” says Ms Campbell.

“As a marketplace we have to cater to different audiences and we’re not going to be a successful business if we are only catering to people with a very, very high income that have a lot of time and money to go to events.

“As a business, we need to cater to different audiences and people use StubHub for a variety of reasons. Some people use StubHub to get to an event that is very hard to get access to like the Superbowl, where they’re going to be paying fairly large sums of money, but other people use StubHub because you can get a ticket for less than face value and get a deal last minute on the day of the event.

“So for us, it sounds like it would work in our favour to only have things sell at very, very high prices but actually our audience that would use the platform would be quite small if we were to do that.”

However, it is well established that the hottest tickets, that are all snapped up within seconds of going on general release, end up on sites like StubHub at inflated prices within minutes of
selling out.

“We completely understand the concerns from people about pricing and we have a team internally thinking about about what we’re going to do to address that,” says Ms Campbell.

“As a business we are very open and transparent about the criticism that we face, and like any business we spend a lot of time internally discussing ways to address those concerns.

“So it is something that we recognise. But at the end of the day, we do believe that it’s better to have fair and open markets that are on transparent platforms, than closing a market, often potentially driving that transaction which has been happening for many, many years offline and onto platforms such as Facebook where there’s no protection, or back onto the streets where you hand some cash over and then you cross your fingers that the ticket you’ve been given is genuine.

“Recently, the Dutch government struck down proposals on price caps for a number of reasons but the main one was essentially it just drives the transaction off platforms and onto the street where there are absolutely no consumer protections, unlike what you would find on an online marketplace like StubHub.

“But also it could go offshore, to a website on other parts of the internet that the government wouldn’t be able to control, so you could set up a website in Germany for example, and go outside of Irish law.

“We just believe there’s a better and safer way to protect customers and the most important thing is for people when they are buying a ticket, to have the confidence that if something does go wrong with that transaction they’re fully protected by the platform that they transact from.”

However, it’s a point of view that carries little weight with Mr Rock.

“This is the routine kind of PR argument that is put forward by these companies, but the reality is that Viagogo, Seatwave etc, give what we call in inverted commas guarantees about the tickets,” he says.

“The reality is that all they give is the guarantee that you’ll get refunded in the event that you are issued with a counterfeit ticket or fraudulent ticket or a ticket that doesn’t exist.

“We have shedloads of casework in the office that shows nevertheless there is absolutely still an element of dishonest behaviour within these marketplaces.

“We’ve examples of people that were being told they were buying for the first five rows of Croke Park for Coldplay who ended up in rafters with a restricted view, and ultimately when you get into a situation like that you only have two choices.

“You can get a refund but you won’t be going to the concert, or you just swallow it really and take the ticket, even though it’s not exactly what you paid for or what was advertised.

“And so the argument that you’re driving it underground is dishonest on two levels. One; some of the behaviour in the market is already somewhat dishonest.

“Two; the reality is that if there are fewer ticket touts operating, once you introduce friction to this market — i.e. once it is not facilitated easily by Viagogo and Seatwave whereby somebody in in their bedroom can effectively treble or quadruple their money in a matter of minutes by simply popping it up on a website and instead might actually have to go out and meet a person in order to engage in any kind of tout like sale — that will introduce a level of friction that frankly most people won’t be bothered with.

“Therefore it facilitates an increased level of supply or a decreased level of demand in the primary market. So instead of driving it underground, what it’ll actually do is allow people to buy more easily on the original website, on Ticketmaster or whoever, rather than having to go on to any kind of secondary ticketing platform like Seatwave or Viagogo.”

But isn’t the touts’ answer to that, as Ms Campbell suggests, to just set up a website offshore and outside the jurisdiction of Irish law?

“From the individual seller side, yes that is a perfectly reasonable workaround and you could sell outside the country,” Mr Rock admits.

“However from the seller side, right now if I have my day job and I decide that I’m going to make a grand, I’m going to buy eight U2 tickets, and sell them next week for double the money, happy days.

“However if that’s now an illegal act I’m not really sure someone in their nice job from behind a computer is actually going to be bothered taking the risk of even making a foreign website. What you then have adds complexity, it adds friction to the whole process, and generally speaking whenever you add friction to something it loses its appeal.

“So yes, I would accept of course that will not 100% eliminate touting but regardless of any workaround or loophole, it will certainly curb the amount of touting and that’s a good thing, that’s a win for everybody.”

  

Transparency

One area that Ms Campbell and Mr Rock do agree on is the need for greater transparency around how many tickets actually make it to general sale once advance pre-sale allocations are taken out of the equation.

Fanclubs, phone companies, and utilities all offer special access to sales for some events before they go on general sale, when any member of the public can then buy whatever tickets remain.

It is the question of what is left to go on sale after these special advance markets are done that both Ms Campbell and Mr Rock believe needs to be answered for the public.

“About 18 months ago, the New York attorney general did a really comprehensive piece of research,” says Ms Campbell.

“Because a lot of the venues in New York are publicly owned, they were able to issue a Freedom of Information request to find out exactly how ticket distribution worked, and what they found was that on average about 54% of tickets never made it to the public sale.

“They were allocated to VIPs, secondary ticket agents, sponsors, to friends of the artists, and other kind of insiders, and held back for other purposes. And so that means that, in New York, on average, less than half of tickets were making it to the general public.

“What we would love to see in Ireland, Europe and in the rest of the world is legislation that mandates that as a promoter or event organiser you need to disclose how many tickets are going on general sale, where tickets are going and the percentages.

“Eventually we would actually like to see it required that at least 70% has to be put up for public sale,” says Ms Campbell.

Mr Rock agrees there is merit in a more open declaration of such ticket allocations — but believes such issues will be mitigated by clamping down on reselling tickets above face value.

He believes opportunistic touts access such presales by signing up to the phone companies and utilities that offer these incentives to woo new customers, and by joining a band’s fan club in advance of the act’s next tour.

Clamping down on the touts, he argues, will cut the demand as fewer buyers are competing for scarce tickets when they go on sale from a primary seller, and thus increase the amount of supply available to genuine fans.

“There is definitely a real deficit of transparency within the market and how it currently operates,” says Mr Rock. “I think one way by which we can improve transparency within the market is by ensuring everybody has a fair level of access to the primary market, and the best way of allowing fair access to the primary market is effectively regulating the resale of tickets.

“The second best way then is allowing transparency around the information. So yes, I would agree with that point of view, that for the utility companies, phone companies, and various companies that get advance sale access, people should be able to see what percentage of tickets are being taken up.

“Even after spending a year looking at this industry, I don’t know from one concert to the next how many tickets or what percentage of tickets are going on sale, if there’s even a sequestered amount reserved for the
general public sale.

“So it could be the case that 100% of tickets are actually selling out on these advance sales and therefore when the public sale begins, the concert is sold out.

“That is entirely possible and would be consistent with the experiences of a great many members of the public who literally, from the first second of a public sale for various concerts, simply can’t get a ticket.”

Ms Campbell says StubHub will press ahead with its plans to launch in Ireland — regardless of what legislation comes to pass.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for a company like StubHub in Ireland,” she says. “We’re owned by eBay so we’ve got that behind us and we don’t have any affiliation with anyone in the industry. We’re a marketplace for fans to buy and sell tickets and we want to be able to offer our service in Ireland.

“As an eBay company we believe in operating within the the local law so if the local law stipulates something on price caps we would obviously have to operate within that as a responsible company. I don’t think it would stop us at all.”

Mr Rock, meanwhile, is confident that it will be a law that StubHub and others will have to consider in the very near future. He is not in favour of outlawing resales in their entirety, just at above face value.

He said he has received some suggestions that some small flexibility should be allowed to enable sellers to recoup the cost of postage or other incidentals they incur when delivering the ticket to the buyer.

“I’m always open to amendments on this, there is no issue there, but fundamentally the thrust of what I’m proposing absolutely will have cross-party support,” he predict.

“We know we have Fianna Fáil’s support and we know we have Sinn Féin’s support, and that’s the three biggest parties in the Dáil squared off, and we know that a great many Independents are individually supportive as well.

“I haven’t had a single critical word come back to me from a single deputy so therefore I do draw the conclusion that it will pass with an overwhelming majority.”

Legislation of the resale market is ‘ineffective’

The Irish Examiner asked Ticketmaster, the country’s biggest ticketseller, to share its thoughts on the second-hand market, and specifically its opinion on legislation aimed at

tackling touts.

Ticketmaster acknowledged this invitation, but declined to offer a representative for interview.

Despite this, it is fair to say that Ticketmaster is not a fan of the proposed legislation.

Its spokesperson pointed to its public consultation on the resale of tickets for entertainment

and sporting events.

Its 10-page submission made it clear that not only is Ticketmaster happy that there is not a problem with ticket reselling, it believes the issue is exaggerated by the media.

“The media frenzy around ticket resale has only served to confuse the public and sensationalise the issue,” Ticketmaster’s submission says.

“Our data shows that less than 1% of the tickets that Ticketmaster Ireland sells on behalf of its clients are subsequently resold — a vastly different story to what is told in the Irish

press.”

Ticketmaster told the consultation that it has “seen how fans can be affected by illegitimate primary ticket sites, ticket resale sites and tickets sold on other websites, and conversely

protected by resale platforms that offer a guarantee and dedicated customer service”.

“It is due to this work that we believe that legislation of the resale market is ineffective, and would simply push the market underground or offshore; leaving customers exposed to fraudulent websites that are outside the reach of local consumer protection agencies,” said Ticketmaster.

At this point, however, it is worth noting that Ticketmaster is not just a primary ticket seller — it has skin in the resale game too.

In 2014, Ticketmaster announced it acquired “operating assets” from Seatwave, an online ticket marketplace that allows users to sell their tickets — and set their own price.

The deal saw Seatwave become a Ticketmaster company, which the latter said would allow it to “provide fans with a better ticketing experience across Europe, with more ticket options to live events”.

Ticketmaster Ireland addresses this in its submission to the public consultation.

“Prior to Seatwave entering the Irish market, when an event or ticket type sold out on Ticketmaster fans were shown no further options,” said Ticketmaster.

“Analysis of traffic leaving the Ticketmaster site at this point showed that the fan would immediately begin searching for tickets elsewhere.

“To combat this poor customer experience, and to satisfy fans’ needs, Ticketmaster’s

current policy is to direct fans to its sister site only when there are no primary tickets available that match the fan’s requirements, and relevant inventory is available on Seatwave.

“This has been the case since July 2015. When fans are given the option to visit Seatwave there is clear, prominent messaging to explain why this option has been surfaced and that they will be redirected to Seatwave if they decide to take it.”

What Ticketmaster does not outline in its submission is the prices asked of fans who look to buy tickets via Seatwave.

 

The Irish Examiner had a look at Seatwave’s ticket offerings for Andrea Bocelli’s concert in the Three Arena in Dublin next October, and compared the prices to what first-time buyers are paying on Ticketmaster.

A first-hand single ticket for one of the best seats in the house has a face value of €162.85 on Ticketmaster when booking fees are included.

On Seatwave, tickets for the same section started at €229 for one, rising to €499 depending on the seller — and this was not including Seatwave’s fees.

Seatwave then adds a booking fee which varies.

That cost of that €229 ticket to see Andrea Bocelli rises to €271.99, and the ticket in the same section that a different seller wants €499 for costs €589.99 when Seatwave’s fees come in.

With Seatwave taking bigger fees the higher a ticket sells for, perhaps it’s no surprise Ticketmaster does not think it’s Time to Say Goodbye to secondhand selling.

Toutless marks 10 years of community spirit

This year marks a decade since a group of industrious Irish gig-goers, fed up with getting

ripped off by ticket touts, pooled their IT know-how to establish Toutless.com.

A volunteer-run, not-for-profit, online forum, Toutless allows users to advertise their tickets

for resale without paying any fee for the listing, as long as the user adheres to the ethos behind the site; tickets may only be sold for face value or less.

Over the last 10 years, it has developed a community of like-minded fans who want to buy

and sell spare tickets without losing out to touts.

Toutless told the consultation on ticket reselling that, out of 73,000 members, 3,981 have been banned from the site since 2008.

Most of these were banned for trying to sell above face value, with roughly 100 barred from

the site from trying to run a scam — but Toutless believes many of these 100 accounts are generated by the same person, meaning fewer than 20 have tried to use the site for scams over 10 years.

  

“Everyone who is a member of Toutless is out for the same thing, they’re all out to get to gigs, to not get ripped off by touts,” Gary Devitt, Toutless founder tells the Irish Examiner.

“So everybody does support each other and everybody does help each other. I think I field

maybe one query a year at this stage for people who are getting ripped off and mainly that is usually someone from the UK.

“If you are going to buy something online and someone tells you to send the money first

before you get the object, that’s a red flag straight away. Most people are aware because

we do have guidelines on the site to give people advice on how to deal with buying tickets from people.

“I’m as surprised as anyone to see the community spirit, that people aren’t ripping

people off. We are nearly pushing 80,000 users and to see the small amount of people getting fake tickets or being ripped off has surprised me.”

Devitt says despite the success of Toutless, he believes laws are needed to curb reselling at

inflated prices.

“Any legislation to be honest, it’s a complete grey area at the moment and if you look at the

likes of the UK, they have very stringent regulations regards ticket reselling and there just is

nothing here,” he says.

“To have even a basis to work off would be amazing, it is something that is what we started

Toutless for.

“We’re running 10 years now and feel we’ve done a fair bit to try and stop the touts and

people getting ripped off for going to the concerts they love, but I would like to see the

Government step up and show that they are caring about people opinions on ticket reselling.”

Long-term, Devitt says Toutless would support a system whereby users can swap tickets

on an app or a card, which would make life easier for genuine resellers.

“At the moment any tickets you buy from Ticketmaster or Tickets.ie are non-transferable,

so technically what we’re proposing goes against the guidelines, but there are so many

people transferring tickets that it’s what the market wants,” he says.

“Whatever the company’s rules are, the market is saying we do want to transfer tickets to

give people an opportunity using a simple system such as NFC or an app on your phone on

even a card that you can load your ticket onto.”

More on this topic

Show touts a red cardShow touts a red card

Touting laws to be fast-tracked as it emerges tickets for England Six Nations clash selling for €2,000  Touting laws to be fast-tracked as it emerges tickets for England Six Nations clash selling for €2,000

The lights are on and the gig is over - touting is on the way outThe lights are on and the gig is over - touting is on the way out

Move against touts welcome - Ticket resale site closedMove against touts welcome - Ticket resale site closed


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