Sunday, April 3, 2011

Convenient Fees

A trip to Nationals Park today spared me from having to watch Carlos Marmol's meltdown at Wrigley, as the Cubs lost their opening home series (to the Pirates) for an inauspicious start to the season. At the stadium, a twenty minute wait in crowded ticket lines provided the perfect opportunity to contemplate "convenience fees."

Last week, I bought a bunch of tickets to the 2011 Nats Fest. I wasn't sure I would be able to use the tickets (and ultimately was not able to use them), but a portion of the ticket price went to the Nationals Dream Foundation so no loss either way. Except, the last ten dollar ticket I purchased came with $6.75 in fees ($1.50 for convenience, $5.25 for order processing). The numbers make the necessary math here simple for me: ordering a ticket online came with a 67.5% surcharge for fees.

A few days later, I tried to buy tickets to a Padres game. There are 23 different pricing levels for seats at Petco. (I thought that this was remarkable until I went to buy Nationals tickets and realized that they've got 30 different pricing levels -- the Cubs have 22). Finding the best seats available -- as opposed to the most expensive tickets available -- is not easy, as it requires searching across all of the various ticket pricing levels to see what can be purchased. After thirty minutes of futile clicking, I gave up, found a ticket broker and bought seats exactly where I wanted for over 25% less than what it would have cost to buy the tickets directly from the club.

A break in the awful weather here created an opportunity to go see a ballgame today and so I spent ten minutes on Saturday looking at buying tickets for the game: five outfield reserved tickets for $24 a piece were easy enough to find -- although I was given no ability to determine whether those seats would be in left or right field -- and's cut? A mere $23.50. Meaning that I could bring somebody else to the game for two quarters if I just waited to buy tickets at the stadium.

Complaining about ticket fees is neither new or interesting, but I struggle to understand why the ticket services provided for such exorbitant fees are so pathetic. Anyone who has purchased tickets for European football clubs has enjoyed the ability to pick out specific seats for a match after being informed as to which ones are open or already occupied. I bought tickets for a Feyenoord match a few months ago and marveled at the ability to navigate a system in a language I did not understand to find a great couple of seats.

Perhaps that level of interactivity -- for reasons that elude me -- is not appropriate in the context of a baseball game. Except, one of the great things about getting tickets for Bowie Baysox matches (the Orioles' AA affiliate) is the ability to pick your exact seats through a transparent process. The Baysox's interface parallels that of choosing seats on a plane -- you are shown which seats are unoccupied and can simply select whichever of the available seats you fancy.

And, of course, buying tickets through MLB's "official" secondary marketplace (StubHub) allows far more autonomy in selecting tickets. Ticket availability is reported by section. If I wanted to buy five tickets for the Nationals next home game, StubHub's total administrative cost for purchasing five tickets at $24 a piece? $16.95. In other words, the "convenience" of's archaic system is valued at 19.6% of the total ticket charge, while StubHub's interactive system of bringing tickets to a prospective buyer is valued at only 14.1% of the total ticket charge (despite it being far superior). Put another way, the system is 40% more expensive for purchasing tickets of the same value.

Worse, because of the market I am in, the $24 tickets for the next home game available on StubHub are being sold significantly below face value, so the equivalent cost for buying comparable tickets through the club directly would be substantially higher.

The design of MLB's ticketing system seems to intentionally drive fans to the secondary market -- a bizarre consequence of what appears to be structural incompetence. Presumably, a better system would not only encourage more ticket sales but would further facilitate dynamic pricing systems that would provide more revenue.

Or not. Regardless, missing the top half of the first inning while waiting in line for tickets did not bother me. As long as the alternative is paying significant funds to a service that seems to do little, chatting with other baseball fans on a sunny (albeit brisk) spring day is the better option.

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