Concertgoers are all too familiar with the maddening futility that comes with submitting to Ticketmaster in an attempt to score a hot ticket. No matter how quickly you click on "best available" and select the captcha images to prove you're not a bot, the bots beat you to it, with most high-demand events selling out instantaneously—with tickets emerging moments later on Stubhub and other secondary market scalping websites.
Trying to buy tickets for face value (plus the obscene service fees) is a highly frustrating endeavor, and it appears Ticketmaster wants it that way, because it means more profits for the widely-despised company, which holds a near-monopoly on box office tickets. According to an undercover investigation by CBC and the Toronto Star, the ticket retailer has essentially been running a professional scalping racket and taking a cut of its profits.
The news outlets sent two reporters to July's Ticket Summit 2018 in Las Vegas, where they posed as scalpers and caught Ticketmaster employees on camera, trying to enlist them as company resellers. The scheme allegedly involves deploying bots to grab big batches of tickets from the site, then flipping them for more money via a special scalping platform developed and owned by Ticketmaster: TradeDesk, self-described as "The Most Powerful Ticket Sales Tool. Ever."
According to CBC, scalpers can upload their lots to TradeDesk for expedient resale, easily adjusting the prices in response to demand. Although Ticketmaster policy does cap ticket purchases based on an event's popularity, TradeDesk reps repeatedly assured reporters that no one would go after suspicious buyers who appeared to be using bots.
"We don't share reports, we don't share names, we don't share account information with the primary site. Period," one reportedly said. "We've spent millions of dollars on this tool. The last thing we'd want to do is get brokers caught up to where they can't sell inventory with us."
— Barry Petchesky (@barry) September 19, 2018
When scalpers make a successful sale, Ticketmaster makes double fees: The percentage they harvest from the initial purchase, and the percentage they skim from the resale. CBC offers this example: "If Ticketmaster collects $25.75 on a $209.50 ticket on the initial sale, when the owner posts it for resale for $400 on the site, the company stands to collect an additional $76 on the same ticket." Considering that the company made an estimated $1.6 billion on initial ticket sales in 2016, and over $200 million in resale revenue, these are not small potatoes.
Speaking to one of the undercover reporters, a Ticketmaster sales representative reportedly said, "I have brokers that have literally a couple of hundred accounts. It's not something that we look at or report." If these findings are anything to go on, it may even be something the company enables: Apparently, Ticketmaster produces an "official reseller handbook," detailing the discount hierarchy for high-volume scalpers, in addition to its TradeDesk program.
Ticketmaster did not immediately to our request for comment. In a statement to CBC, however, a spokesperson said: "As the world's leading ticketing platform, representing thousands of teams, artists and venues, we believe it is our job to offer a marketplace that provides a safe and fair place for fans to shop, buy and sell tickets in both the primary and secondary markets."
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Ticketmaster—part of Live Nation, a hulking live entertainment conglomerate—has previously sued other brokerage firms for deploying bots to buy up and resell Hamilton tickets at extra high prices. Those brokers then came back with counterclaims accusing Ticketmaster of using its own scalping systems to "double dip commissions." Based on the CBC/Toronto Star investigation, its TradeDesk platform would appear to do just that.
In any case, New York law bars the use of bots that that scalpers use to scoop up tickets nanoseconds before fans can click purchase. Further, it's also "unlawful for any person, firm, corporation or other entity to knowingly resell or offer to resell a ticket that such person, firm, corporation or other entity knows was obtained using ticket purchasing software." We will update if and when we hear back from Ticketmaster.
UPDATE: Ticketmaster released a statement on Thursday denying that it operated a professional scalper program. Here it is, in full:
"It is categorically untrue that Ticketmaster has any program in place to enable resellers to acquire large volumes of tickets at the expense of consumers.
"Ticketmaster's Seller Code of Conduct specifically prohibits resellers from purchasing tickets that exceed the posted ticket limit for an event. In addition, our policy also prohibits the creation of fictitious user accounts for the purpose of circumventing ticket limit detection in order to amass tickets intended for resale.
"A recent CBC story found that an employee of Ticketmaster’s resale division acknowledged being aware of some resellers having as many as 200 TradeDesk accounts for this purpose (TradeDesk is Ticketmaster's professional reseller product that allows resellers to validate and distribute tickets to multiple marketplaces). We do not condone the statements made by the employee as the conduct described clearly violates our terms of service.
"The company had already begun an internal review of our professional reseller accounts and employee practices to ensure that our policies are being upheld by all stakeholders. Moving forward we will be putting additional measures in place to proactively monitor for this type of inappropriate activity."