PEIKEN: Sharpen your eye and pray you aren't taken for a ride when buying 'Book of Mormon' tickets

Resellers asking many times the listed price

CINCINNATI -- Late last summer, shortly after moving here, I learned the touring production of “The Book of Mormon” had set dates in January for the Aronoff Center , so I raced online for tickets.

The prices I found were astonishing—$225, even $400 and up, for single tickets. So, I drove to the Aronoff box office to detour around any service charges and other fees. Only then did I learn, from the agent behind the counter, that tickets for “The Book of Mormon” actually hadn’t yet gone on sale.

My facial expression must have stamped me as flummoxed, so the agent handed me a little slip of paper. At the top was a stop sign with a request, in capital letters: “DON’T OVERPAY FOR TICKETS!” This flier is easy to overlook in the racks of colorful brochures advertising performances on the Aronoff calendar, but it’s the most valuable piece of information there.

Scalpers have been part of the ticketed entertainment economy since the mid-19th century. For just as long, producers, retailers and legislators have fought them, largely with mild, temporary and, ultimately, little success.

Today, online ticket resellers employ a mix of strategies—sophisticated bots, networks of partner web sites and armies of people, from coders to lobbyists—to stay steps ahead of the forces wanting to preserve integrity in the marketplace and keep tickets affordable and available to everyday people.

In the secondary market, as it’s called, resellers charge triple to 10 times and beyond the face value of a ticket, depending upon the demand they anticipate for a given show. Google is this market’s unwitting best ally. Resellers pay premium prices to advertise there while gaming Google’s algorithms to commandeer prime real estate—the top results of any search for tickets.

The photo in this column, which is a screen capture taken Wednesday, illustrates this perfectly. I Googled “Book of Mormon Cincinnati.” In the results, you’ll notice all kinds of sites with web addresses that, at first glance, appear affiliated either with the show or the venue.

Where is the official Aronoff site? In the lower-right corner, at the bottom of the paid listings. Aronoff apparently isn’t paying Google as much as the scalpers are, so they bring up the rear of paid search results.

“It seems to be getting worse every year,” said Van Ackerman, director of marketing and public relations for the Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages ticketing at the Aronoff.  “A lot more people are buying and trusting online than ever before, and every year we get complaints by people who get caught up in these sites and think it’s us.”

What struck me was the seeming availability of tickets through resellers even before they’ve hit the marketplace. As it turns out, resellers often put feelers out for highly anticipated shows by offering “tickets” before they’re actually available. With every sale, they’re merely promising seats in a given section. With sales already banked, resellers do their best to vacuum up tickets the moment they hit the market, armed with advance knowledge of their profit-margins before they spend.

I’m certainly no fan of giant ticket retailers—the $90 I eventually spent at the box office for my “Book of Mormon” ticket also came with fees that ballooned the price to $109.70. For the infrastructure and technology they provide, TicketMaster and LiveNation lock venues into exclusive and constricting contracts that leave event producers little choice but to go with a system that prices out the working class. 

John Harrig, Ackerman’s colleague with the Cincinnati Arts Association as the director of ticketing services, lays much of the blame for rising ticket prices at the feet of resellers. Technology has allowed them to work faster and in coordinated teams, pooling inventories, to acquire more than half of available tickets to the most anticipated events. When this happens, pricing otherwise set by the marketplace of demand gives way to pricing set by whatever amounts resellers believe they can reel in from the rich.

I don’t use that word lightly. Those $90 tickets I purchased? If you want the same seats to Friday’s performance, the site that came up first in a Google search is asking $710 and $772 for individual tickets in the best sections.

There are differences between resellers that attempt to mimic web sites of event producers, or at least create confusion with consumers, and entities like StubHub, TicketsNow and other secondary market entities that have built relationships with sports and entertainment producers. Prices through StubHub for “The Book of Mormon” are running for far less than they are through the nefarious outlets. To be sure, you can still find tickets through the actual Aronoff site  though you’ll be hard-pressed to find two together in the best sections. Cincinnati.Broadway.com is also an official source, through the Broadway in Cincinnati series.

Ticketmaster and LiveNation have tested and spearheaded a number of strategies adopted by smaller, regional

promoters that, to some degree, have set the shadier resellers back on their heels. With “dynamic pricing,” the prices you’ll find online and at the box office fluctuate throughout the day and beyond, according to demands of the real marketplace, raising the risk and lowering the potential profit margins for resellers. Paperless ticketing, where tickets are distributed through smartphones, makes it much more difficult for resellers to purchase and redistribute tickets in bulk.

Resellers are fighting paperless ticketing and other efforts to curb their practices by battling the major ticketing companies at state and national legislatures. A network of resellers have created the deceptively named FanFreedom.org —designed to look like a grassroots nonprofit organization of season-ticket holders fighting for the average fan, but is actually a slick lobbying front for reselling agencies.

Let’s be clear: FanFreedom.com isn’t about protecting the rights of the individual ticket buyer. It’s about keeping the landscape clear for resellers to continue their practices of scraping up and cornering the market on large swaths of the most in-demand tickets. 

Last April, they effectively beat back an effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to regulate resellers, asking them to register with the state, disclose the face value of tickets and the exact location of seats, among other conditions. USA Today and other media outlets quoted the bill’s sponsor, Ryan Haynes of Tennessee, as saying the bill died under “some of the harshest” lobbying he’d ever experienced.

In fairness, Ticketmaster and its brethren have been just as ferocious in protecting a system that supports bullying practices of their own and allows them to tack large "fees" and "service charges" (what's the difference?) onto the ticket retail price. 

The best thing buyers can do is scrutinize the sites they’re searching and purchasing tickets. If you know you’re paying an exorbitant price from a reseller, that’s your business.

Harig would be happy if retailers could simply beat the resellers on Google. 

“We’ve tried to beat them at their own game and get the top listing, and (resellers) have ways to work around that,” he said. “It’s like whack-a-mole. You’ll get yourself on the top listing and go back for another event and find out you’re not. They, quite frankly, pay a lot of attention and spend a lot of money to stay on top, and we can’t compete with that at the local level.”

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