Ticket Scalpers Are Hidden Heroes

Dozens of people among the throngs of jubilant fans hold crudely made cardboard signs featuring the words "I Need Tickets." Strangely, these people who, to an outsider, appear to be in desperate need of tickets for the big game, hold numerous tickets high above their head so everyone can see. These people are the noble ticket scalpers.

They are a people scorned by athletic organizations, lawmakers, and many fans. What are they doing to merit such ill will and legal persecution? Are they truly unscrupulous, greedy parasites who dupe fans and injure the athletic organizations?

The United States does not have a federal prohibition on ticket scalping, but many states and even more municipalities have restrictions or outright prohibitions. This is very unfortunate for everyone attending events in such areas because the ticket scalpers are real public servants. The laws, to the degree that they are enforced, are actually responsible for the majority of the unfavorable things attributed to the practice of scalping.

Scalpers provide a myriad of services and benefits to a surprisingly large, and seemingly disconnected, group of individuals, businesses, and organizations. Surely, they deserve praise rather than scorn and persecution.

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One of the first beneficiaries of the Scalper’s services are the athletic organizations themselves. This may seem surprising, since many event organizers go to great lengths to discourage fans from purchasing from scalpers. Scalpers enable the teams to presell tickets much more effectively. This is because scalpers are willing to purchase tickets in advance in the hope of being able to hold them for some period, and then resell them for a profit.

In contrast, many people are unsure, at the time of presale, if they will be able to take off from work or other obligations. This uncertainty leads people to abstain from purchasing until they are certain they will be able to attend. Thus, the ticket scalper enables the team to get their money earlier through ticket presales.

Scalpers absorb the time risk associated with events. They absorb the risk associated with scheduling issues (i.e., whether or not fans can attend). They also absorb the risk that unfavorable events could occur. Anyone who has ever bought or sold a ticket knows that ticket resale values drop dramatically after a team has a few losses on its record. If the team does well, the scalper can make a nice profit; if the team does poorly, he can suffer a huge loss.

This opportunity for profit is good for fans because it ensures that tickets will be made available should the team do unexpectedly well. It is good for the team because it will be able to presell tickets even for bad seasons. The more the local law enforcement cracks down on scalpers, the greater the reduction in these positive externalities.

Season-ticket holders are also indebted to scalpers. Though the season-ticket holders have chosen to absorb the scheduling time risk, they are more comfortable doing so with the expectation that, should something unavoidable arise, they could sell their ticket to a scalper. Thus the scalper provides a type of scheduling insurance. The scalper is able to provide liquidity for season-ticket holders.

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December 11, 2009