Ticketmaster Faces A Full-Court Press

Can the Internet break the giant's grip on music and sporting events?

In the 1990s, grunge rockers Pearl Jam famously challenged Ticketmaster (IACI ), claiming the giant was a monopoly. The group eventually lost the battle, leaving Ticketmaster in a more dominant position.

Now, Internet technology is doing what the nation's once-hottest rock band couldn't: loosening Ticketmaster's tight grip on the lucrative live concert and sporting event scene. The Net is shaking up the ticketing market by giving artists and venues a way to sell tickets directly to fans. And it is fueling the rise of a resale market by giving buyers and sellers a safe place to connect with one another more easily and cheaply.

As the rules of the game change, talent and event managers sense a chance to seize back some control. Sports teams are trying to assert more say over the way tickets are sold. And venues and concert promoters are rethinking their relationships with ticket sellers. Industry veterans expect Live Nation Inc. (LYV )—the biggest concert promoter, providing an estimated 16% of Ticketmaster's business—to ramp up its own ticket service now that talks with Ticketmaster have broken down.

Meanwhile, thanks to the repeal of anti-scalping laws in many states, a secondary market where ticket holders can resell tickets has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar business with new players such as StubHub (EBAY ), Tickets.com, and dozens more. "There's a tremendous amount of dislocation and opportunity in the U.S. market," says Eric H. Baker, CEO of viagogo, a European online ticketing agency that on Aug. 7 launched a U.S. service.

All this turmoil may produce a more open market for tickets, with greater choice and lower prices. But the convulsions are upsetting the complex economics of the ticketing food chain. So far, the artists seem to be capturing the lion's share of value, mostly through higher up-front fees. That leaves promoters, venue owners, and ticketers to fight over the scraps.

In its most recent quarter,Ticketmaster disappointed Wall Street when it reported a 7% decline in U.S. ticket volume and 24% lower operating income, pushing down shares of its parent, Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp. "Ticketmaster faces a challenge in maintaining the level of business and profitability it has had," says Mark Wienkes, a Goldman, Sachs & Co. (GS ) analyst.

To protect its turf, the company is launching a major counterattack. That includes building a service for the secondary market called TicketExchange, buying stakes in online music startups, and investing heavily in technologies that could allow it to provide better marketing data and sell more tickets than rivals. "Everyone is looking at ways they can provide more value to their clients and consumers and artists," says Ticketmaster CEO Sean Moriarty. "The road is not always smooth."

Ticketmaster is also turning to the courts. In July, it sued a customer, the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, over its launch of Flash Seats, an online service that allows Cavaliers season-ticket holders to sell or give away their tickets over the Internet. Ticketmaster is trying to force the Cavaliers to use its own TicketExchange, asking the court to rule that Ticketmaster has exclusive rights to handle all of the team's sales, including resales of season tickets. Several weeks later, Flash Seats and the Cavaliers sued Ticketmaster, accusing it of monopolistic behavior. "We do not have a level playing field," says Flash Seats CEO Sam Gerace. Ticketmaster says "such claims are without merit."

In the music business, major changes are already under way. For the past 30 years, John Scher has promoted the world's largest music acts in clubs and stadiums in New York. Scher relied on Ticketmaster, which created a huge business for itself by adding a service fee to the price of a concert ticket.

Since the 1980s, Scher says Ticketmaster would invariably raise the service charge, by 25 cents to 50 cents each year. But this spring, for the first time ever, Scher negotiated a drop in the ticket service charge. It wasn't a huge drop—Scher says it was around 50 cents to 75 cents per ticket. But the decrease underscores the radical shift disrupting the ticketing market. Ticketmaster, says Scher, "recognizes that consumers don't like that fat service charge, and they are pissed off."

By Spencer E. Ante

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