The Old Baseball Season Ticket Model is Dead

The last two baseball seasons have seen two large-market, long-suffering teams finally break through to the World Series.

The Cubs, who had not been to the Series since 1945, made (and won) the World Series in 2016.

The Dodgers, who had been deprived of a World Series appearance since they last won in 1988, finally broke through and will be playing in the 2017 version.

Predictably, the ticket prices in both of these vast and wealthy markets soared, with some of the worst seats in the park selling for $1300 or more.

This frustrated most diehard fans, who felt betrayed after supporting their favorite team through so many decades of frustration.  You used to be able to acquire World Series tickets, if you were willing to spend long enough in line at the stadium on the day they went on sale.  You can’t do that anymore.  There is no line.  There is no access to the World Series anymore for the dedicated-but-not-well-heeled fan.  Instead, these games are inhabited by Johnny-come-lately bandwagoners who are willing to shell out the big bucks in order to simply be at one of the city’s biggest events.

Prior to the StubHub era of internet ticket sales, baseball tickets were mostly distributed in three fashions:

  1. Season ticket holders would buy a seat for the entire season, which would entitle them to buy those same seats for the playoffs and World Series at very reasonable prices.
  2. Players, management, and certain employees of both the home and visiting team would be given free tickets to hand out to family and friends.
  3. The rest of the tickets, albeit usually not very good ones, would go on sale to the general public.

If you failed to obtain a ticket through one of the above three methods, then you would either need a friend to sell or give you one, or you would have to go to a ticket broker.  Ticket brokers (also known as scalpers) tended to be expensive, and they were very experienced at extracting top dollar for the tickets they sold.  They would not panic when left with unsold tickets, and instead would choose to either eat them or give them away to friends and relatives.

Fast forward to 2017.  StubHub reigns king of baseball ticket sales.  They got so large that Major League Baseball realized it was in their best interests to partner up.  When you buy a baseball ticket on StubHub, the team officially transfers it to your name, and the ticket officially becomes yours.  We’ve come a long way from the days of obtaining tickets from a streetcorner scalper.

StubHub takes about 23% in fees for each ticket sale.  Read that again.

StubHub takes about 23% in fees for each ticket sale.

It’s insane when you think about it.  StubHub isn’t paying the players, isn’t maintaining any stadiums or facilities, doesn’t own any of the tickets, and isn’t contributing to the team in any other way (except perhaps sponsorships), and they are taking 23%.  It’s likely that StubHub gives a portion of that back to the partner team as per their agreement, but StubHub is making huge money here.

Who pays for this 23%?  That burden falls upon the buyers and sellers.  The buyers have the heartbreak of seeing the actual post-fee ticket price when they click through to buy the seat, and the seller gets a good deal less than the ticket price the buyer paid.

Still, despite these fees, StubHub is usually the best option to purchase baseball tickets.

How could that be?

Recall the season ticket model explained earlier in this blog.  Individuals could buy season tickets, which would give them seats to all 81 home games.  Then they would have the opportunity to attend the playoffs and World Series (if their team made it), by purchasing those same seats from the team at reasonable prices.

Individuals would have seat priority based upon seniority.  The longest-running season ticket holders would have first choice at any newly available season seats, and they would move down the list.  Some families would maintain season seats for decades for this reason, despite only attending a fraction of the games.  They would give away or sell the other seats, and would maintain their status as season ticket holders in order to keep their growing seniority in the system.  This was worth doing, as the face value of these tickets was low, and having great season seats was very valuable, even if you didn’t plan to attend many games.

Then came StubHub.  Baseball teams, increasingly hungry for revenue in order to pay the rapidly escalating player salaries, noticed that the good seats in the park were selling for far higher than face value, even for low-profile weeknight games.  They came to the realization that they were undercharging longtime season ticket holders, and slowly teams came to the decision to take a more free market approach.

Teams steeply escalated prices of the better seats in the stadium.  I’m not just talking about the top 1% of seats in the park.  I’m talking about most “above average” seats, primarily ones on the first two levels, between first and third base.  It eventually became very expensive to stay a season ticket holder.

Some longtime season ticket holders held firm, grumbling about the higher prices, but still paying them.  They attempted to recoup their investment by selling many of their game tickets on StubHub, only to find that the fees were eating them up, and many non-promotion, low-profile weekday/weeknight games were selling below face value.  Slowly, the season ticket holders gave up their seniority and disappeared, and they resigned themselves to the fact that they would instead become buyers on StubHub, simply using it to purchase the individual games they wanted to attend.

Does that mean there are relatively few season seats sold nowadays?  No, it doesn’t.  While the teams did “take back” some of the abandoned seats for themselves, either to use internally or sell on the open market, a new type of customer swooped in to buy the non-renewed season seats.  Ticket brokers became the new season ticket customers, buying up large portions of each stadium.

In some stadiums, over 50% of the “good” seats are owned by ticket brokers.  For example, a report from ESPN states that over 15,000 season tickets at Dodger Stadium are owned by ticket brokers.  In case you’re keeping score, that’s 27% of the entire stadium, and over 50% of the above-average seats.

This, in turn, creates both an advantage and disadvantage for the individual baseball ticket buyer, such as you and I.

On the plus side, secondary markets such as StubHub (which is heavily utilized by ticket brokers) are flooded with tickets, thus creating a large supply.  Basic supply-and-demand laws apply here, allowing the intelligent baseball consumer to acquire great tickets at low prices for games not selling well.

On the negative side, ticket brokers are very good at what they do, and they don’t get rattled easily by worse-than-expected sales.  They don’t panic sell at bargain prices when game time draws close.  Worst yet, their sheer number allows them to set the sky-high prices seen for high profile games, such as the League Championship Series and World Series, only slowly inching down if the market doesn’t respond as expected.

I both gain and lose from this new arrangement.  During the regular season, I sit in spectacular seats behind the dugout, often for less than $100 each — something impossible to have managed 20 years ago.  When the Dodgers make the NLDS (as they seem to do every year nowadays), I still manage to find similarly great deals.  For example, in the 2016 NLDS, I sat in eighth-row field level seats between home and first base, for a shockingly-low price tag of $109.

2017-nldsPrior to the StubHub era, I couldn’t get playoff seats like these for a reasonable price.

However, during high profile series or games — such as when the Dodgers played the Cubs in the NLCS in both 2016 and 2017, the prices were ridiculously high (especially in Chicago).  I didn’t attend a game either year.

The World Series, of course, is even worse.  The Cubs made headlines in 2016 for their insane World Series ticket prices, and the Dodgers came close to matching them — at least until the Yankees failed to become their opponent, which drove down prices somewhat.  Still, at no point have you been able to get a Dodger Stadium World Series ticket for less than $800 (after fees), no matter how lousy the view.  You can thank the ticket brokers for that, as they set the high prices in the first place, and they understand that they have the supply and the fanbase is the high demand.

You might wonder why teams are allowing ticket brokers to buy up so many season seats, knowing that high profile games will be scalped for several times face value.

This is because modern baseball teams like predictable revenue.  Take Dodger Stadium, for example.  It holds 56,000 fans, and is the largest in baseball.  They like knowing that 15,000 of their good (and more expensive) seats will be guaranteed sold for all 81 home games, including those unpopular games on a Tuesday night in late May against the Milwaukee Brewers or Cincinnati Reds.  They don’t want to hassle with the market-driven pricing of a site like StubHub.  They want to fix a price to each seat, and then collect a predictable revenue seat for each game of the season.  The brokers allow them to do this.

The brokers, in turn, want you to know that they aren’t evil.  Indeed, they are taking a loss some nights when the opponent, weather, or game time simply isn’t popular, and the general public isn’t willing to pay face value.  These brokers also are subject to the same fees as individuals selling tickets, though some have negotiated substantially lower fees due to their high number of transactions., thus giving them a further edge.

Love it or hate it, the model of  ticket brokers owning most of the season tickets is here to stay, and you need to adjust to it.

What about non-StubHub sites, such as Barry’s Tickets, Ticketnetwork, Vivid Seats, and others?  Don’t bother.  They tend to have a worse selection and higher prices than StubHub, usually due to the fact that they are mostly (or exclusively) brokered tickets, and rarely are you buying from directly from individuals (as you sometimes are on StubHub).

So what can you do, as a baseball-loving consumer?

First off, don’t play their game.  Brokers set a price they know they will often get for an event, and then will hold to that price (or raise it) until enough time passes that it doesn’t sell.  Tickets are an expiring commodity, so their value goes to zero once the game is over.  Therefore, aside from high-profile events like the World Series, the power is in your hands.

Never purchase baseball tickets more than 24 hours in advance.

If you do, you will almost certainly get a bad deal.  You need to wait until the inventory remains large, and the time remaining until the game is short.

Repeatedly refresh StubHub to look for “outlier” tickets.

Ticket brokers are stubborn, but individuals aren’t.  Some people, especially those who are well off (or acquired their tickets for free), just want to get rid of their tickets, and aren’t interested in extracting top dollar.  They will often list their tickets for a market-defyingly low price when it comes fairly close to game time, just to be done with the whole thing.

Be aware that StubHub has a feature for sellers where tickets will automatically lower in price as the game/event gets closer.

Many sellers use this, including brokers.  Again, this highly favors the buyer who is aware of the fact that they do this.

The game won’t sell out on StubHub.  There will always be tickets.

This is something you need to keep assuring yourself.  It is tempting to jump at tickets for a lousy price, out of fear that every ticket will be sold, and you will be stuck at home.  This will not happen.  In fact, I have never seen a baseball game where there weren’t seats available in every single part of the stadium, 8 hours prior to game time.  So don’t panic.

Calmly watch how the prices are moving.  If they are trending down, let them keep trending down before even THINKING of purchasing.  When they seem to flatten out, watch closely for bargain listings or price drops on desired seats.  Then buy when you see an outlier come up.

Regular season games go off the market on StubHub 6 hours before game time, but postseason tickets stay until the game starts.

This was due to an agreement with Major League Baseball after 99 cent tickets were listed on StubHub an hour before games of the woeful 2012 Cubs.  Now the minimum ticket is $6, and you can only buy tickets up to 6 hours before a regular season game.  Knowing that playoff tickets will always sell well, these rules do not apply to the postseason.

Don’t bother with season tickets.

It’s not worth the hassle anymore.  You won’t be as good at selling them as the ticket brokers are, and you’ll often feel compelled to attend games which are inconvenient for you.  Back in the old days, there wasn’t a StubHub which could electronically deliver tickets to your smart phone.  If you wanted to go to a lot of baseball games, it was a pain in the ass NOT to have season tickets.

That model no longer exists.  If you simply wait until 6-8 hours before game time, log onto StubHub, and grab the best deal seat you see in a section you want, you will spend far LESS money than you will have on season tickets, and you’ll sit in better seats for less hassle.  Even if you don’t want to play the game of constantly refreshing for the best deal, simply showing up on the site 8 hours before game time will already get you a fairly good deal with very little time and effort.  It will take you less than 5 minutes total.

You might wonder if I prefer the old model or the new model for baseball ticket sales.  I definitely prefer the new model.  I was never the guy who was willing to stand in a 12-hour line to get tickets for anything, and I always hated calling ticket brokers who would try to hustle me.

Now it’s easy.  I look at StubHub, I look at the seats available, I refresh, I watch trends, I buy when the time is right.  I sit in far better seats than I used to, and I spend less money.  Sure, the fees suck.  Sure, it sucks how ticket brokers have essentially taken over baseball ticket sales.  However, the smart consumer can do better than he could before, aside perhaps from very high profile games.

Some season ticket holders might remain bitter that they spend so many years establishing “seniority”, yet never got the benefits of it.  I feel for these people, but that’s a reality of dealing with a business.  It is always a risk, as a customer, buy a product from a company now for the purpose of expecting some kind of windfall or benefit later.  Things constantly change.  As frustrating as it is, your baseball team did not perpetually owe you cheap season ticket prices.

Simply put, the era of the StubHub and ticket broker baseball overlords are upon us.  Resistance is futile.  It’s time to assimilate.