Of Super Bowls and Ticket Arbitrageurs

  • January 31, 2017

Do you want to spend a lot of money for an evening’s entertainment? The Super Bowl may well be the most expensive sporting event in America. The NFL sets ticket prices for the game that are well above the regular-season prices. Even with these higher prices, the available tickets do not match the demand, so there are thousands and thousands of disappointed fans willing and able to pay the official prices.

For thousands of years, authorities, both religious and secular, have wrung their hands about a so-called “just price.” It was deemed unethical to charge too high (or too low) a price for a commodity. It was also considered unethical for buyers to pay too low a price. Although Super Bowl tickets are hardly in the same category as, say, pharmaceuticals, legislators and consumers’ advocates love to whine about allegedly unjust prices.

For Super Bowl 50 (normally the NFL is so pretentious that it uses Roman numerals, but the league’s publicity team disliked the idea of a Super Bowl L) played last February, the official prices for tickets were $850 to $1,800. With amenities, the official prices of some tickets amounted to $3,000. The NFL put 1,000 seats into a fan lottery; each of these tickets cost $500.

According to money.cnn.com, the average ticket price for the game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers was $4,841, with a pair of seats near midfield going for $41,000! The game was played in Silicon Valley, so apparently some dot.com mogul figured paying $41,000 was worthwhile. Recent examination of Ticketmaster prices show similar ticket prices for Super Bowl LI. Despite these high prices, there doesn’t appear to be much public outcry. Given that the market prices are well above the official prices; people paying the official price might be guilty of violating the “just price” doctrine.

The real mystery of these figures is why the NFL doesn’t set a higher price for their tickets. The NFL loves money. The league is relentless (and, admittedly, creative) in squeezing revenue from a variety of sources. The idea that they might leave thousands of dollars per ticket “on the table” for ticket arbitrageurs to rake in seems inexplicable.

The league might claim it keeps the prices below the market-clearing price, so even fans of modest means have a theoretical chance to attend the game. Such an argument, of course, seems silly. The argument neglects the opportunity cost of the ticket. If lucky fans get free tickets, they would face a choice: use the tickets themselves or re-sell them. Attending the game means foregoing the potentially thousands of dollars from re-selling the tickets. In essence, the opportunity cost of attending the game is the market price even if you got the tickets for free.

There is a brisk re-sale market for Super Bowl tickets. Such vendors as Ticketmaster seem to have plenty of tickets to sell at marked-up prices, although, in order to sell all of their tickets, the prices often drop a few days before the game.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in another money.cnn.com piece, claims that, “Ticketing, to put it bluntly, is a fixed game.” Computer bots obtain large numbers of tickets, often before the public ever gets access to them. Season ticket owners and some credit card users also have opportunities to buy tickets ahead of the run-of-the-mill fan. The article suggests that less than one-fifth of the tickets are ever made available to the general public. Naturally, Schneiderman pushed for capping re-sale prices.

If these entities succeed in making businesses reticent to charge the market price or some sort of hypothetical “just price” and assuming fans don’t care whether the NFL or a resale vendor or a ticket arbitrageur on the street gets the money, the NFL, legislators, and consumer advocates would not have done consumers any favors.

Fans would continue to face long lines for the artificially scarce tickets. Fans purchasing tickets from online sites or from the characters wandering outside the stadium on game day waving available tickets run the risk of buying counterfeit tickets. The NFL, of course, disclaims any responsibility for such fraudulent behavior, and who can blame them.

For regular fans dreaming of obtaining Super Bowl tickets for a few hundred dollars, they face similar odds to those of a “Hail, Mary” 60-yard pass at the end of a game.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.

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