Photographer: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty Images

Super Bowl 50: Inside the Frantic Race for Last-Minute Tickets

  • Online ticket broker StubHub set up offline for day-of sales
  • Upper-level seats sold for about $3,100 right before kickoff

Armando Castro bought tickets to his first football game, Super Bowl 50, only five minutes before kickoff. Glued to a computer at StubHub’s ticket outpost across the street from Levi’s Stadium, Castro saw ticket prices drop a little. Lady Gaga was already singing the national anthem. He decided to pull the trigger.

Castro was one of about 30 people who spent the hours leading up to the Super Bowl at StubHub’s tent, most standing in front of computer screens hoping to score a last-minute deal from someone more legitimate than a scalper. The moment Castro clicked to buy the $3,500 seats, his cousin Hermes, dressed in a 49ers visor over a blond wig, yelled in excitement. The rest of the prospective buyers barely looked up. Click. Refresh.

"We came because this is a special occasion, Super Bowl 50," said Castro, a lawyer who flew up from Mexico for the weekend. "I didn’t think we were actually going to buy."

StubHub set up 14 computers and a handful of staff members on the grounds of a theme park across from the Santa Clara stadium, where the Denver Broncos went on to beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10. Most of the same-day customers said they’d set an absolute maximum price they couldn’t go over; many eventually paid more anyway.

Playing the Clock

That included Ben Okele and Kristian Gatewood, college friends who grew up in Colorado. Hoping to grab a pair of seats for $3,000 each, they ended up paying $3,100, plus an extra couple hundred in fees. At three minutes prior to kickoff, they may have bought the last tickets StubHub sold.

"I’m going to have to explain this to the wife," joked Okele.

About 20 percent of the 71,088 seats in Levi’s Stadium’s hit the secondary market, and San Francisco-based StubHub estimates that it handled about half of those transactions. Ticket sales generally pick up as the game gets closer. Of all the Super Bowl sales on its site, StubHub spokesman Cameron Papp says 18 percent occurred on the day of the game.

In the StubHub tent, an employee counted down the minutes to kickoff and gave updates on remaining inventory. Some purchases were made only after frantic debates with friends or family members. Other people stood methodically hitting refresh. Most of the conversation consisted of complaints. One man said he’d nabbed a $2,200 ticket at kickoff for the Super Bowl two years ago, and groused that this year, prices stubbornly stuck around $3,000 all day long.

That’s weird, industry experts agreed. Ticket prices usually drop steadily as game day approaches, and dip more in the hours before kickoff. Until yesterday, prices were behaving normally. They peaked after the conference title games at an average of $5,178, per SeatGeek, then fell to $3,637 by Sunday morning, with the cheapest at $3,144.

Then they barely moved. Unlike in years past, the price for better seats fell but the cost of cheap seats didn’t move. Upper-level seats ended up costing about the same as mid-level seats. People within the industry aren’t fully sure why. When StubHub closed its booth, the cheapest seats were still listed at $3,000. Face value ranges from $800-$1,800.

"It was one of the most curiously priced games in recent memory," said Sean Pate, a spokesman for last-minute ticket app Gametime, which sold out its inventory an hour before kickoff.

Not everyone wins -- or maybe some just show more self-restraint. Rick Lynch, a San Anselmo resident, made the trip hoping to pay $1,500 for a seat. Wearing a Joe Montana jersey, the 49ers fan gave up once it was clear the market wouldn’t drop as he wanted.

"It’s right in my backyard, how could I not at least show up?" Lynch said. "I’d like to see the game, but I’m not crazy."

StubHub had 300 seats left with three hours until kickoff, and about 55 left in the final minutes. Unsold tickets are returned to the seller, and some eventually end up in the hands of scalpers.

That’s right, the Super Bowl resale market doesn’t end at kickoff. Shortly after Denver took a 3-0 lead on the opening drive, a few dozen people gathered around a group of scalpers in a parking lot outside Gate C. Some wandered over from the StubHub tent, still looking for a golden ticket at a less precious price.

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