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Mobile Ticketing May Leave Some Yankees Fans Behind

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The New York Yankees have a new ticket policy: The team will no longer accept electronically delivered, print-at-home tickets for entry into the stadium. Instead, fans must opt for either hard-stock paper tickets or mobile-phone tickets, somewhat confusingly called "etickets." This has raised questions about Yankee Stadium attendance, the secondary ticket market, and even the very nature of the relationship between the team and their fans.

The Yankees announced the new policy last week, after which both team president Randy Levine and chief operating officer Lonn Trost told me over the phone that fans had been clamoring for a way to access their tickets on their smartphones. This makes sense; it always seemed rather provincial that the Yankees hadn't caught up to the other teams that had this feature, including the Red Sox and Mets

The concurrent move to get rid of print-at-home tickets, however, has raised more than a few eyebrows. The Yankees say the shift is meant to "combat fraud and counterfeiting of tickets." True, with copy machines, scanners and Photoshop, it's certainly not hard to fake a batch of game tickets. According to Levine, this fraud is enabled by third-party ticket resellers like StubHub, with which the Yankees have an agreement to honor fake tickets when possible. When that happens, StubHub must pay the team a penalty. Levine says that last season, the Yankees honored on average five to six fraudulent tickets per game, bringing StubHub's fees for the season to more than $100,000.

Still, many critics contend that the Yankees got rid of print-at-home in part because of their sustained battle with StubHub (owned by eBay since 2007). In the trenches with the team is Ticketmaster, which operates the Yankees' official ticket site and their resale marketplace, Yankees Ticket Exchange. Most of the league uses StubHub, which is also an official partner of MLB Advanced Media. (Among the teams who have opted out of the deal are the Yankees, Cubs, Angels and most recently, the Red Sox, who are developing their own, in-house ticket reseller with MLB's media arm.)

This matters to fans because StubHub sets the minimum listing price for MLB games at just $6. But Yankees Ticket Exchange sets an artificial price floor that is dynamic, meaning it varies based on the game, section and seat. Levine says that since 87 percent of tickets last year sold above the floor price, "the floor was basically irrelevant." New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched a probe into the entire ticket industry, targeting primary and secondary sellers alike for burdensome fees and price floors.

Doing away with the print-at-home option makes it significantly more difficult for fans to buy and sell on StubHub, and will undoubtedly lead many toward Yankees Ticket Exchange. In lieu of a mobile option, electronic, print-at-home tickets are by far the easiest and most prevalent form of ticket on StubHub for all parties involved. The buyer pays, the PDF tickets are emailed to her, she prints and goes. All the seller has to do is create the listing and upload the PDF into StubHub's system.

Without print-at-home, the only option remaining on StubHub is to buy and sell hard-stock tickets, which have to be physically mailed, meaning the seller has to deal with shipping labels and UPS and an all-around hassle. It can be even worse for the buyer, who's either dealing with tracking numbers and waiting for a delivery guy or, if the purchase date is too close to game day, has to pick up the tickets at StubHub's brick-and-mortar Last Minute Service center -- which is roughly 10 blocks away from Yankee Stadium. (It used to be closer, but was moved after the team sued StubHub.).

The Yankees contend that StubHub and other third-party sellers could develop their own mobile option for fans --  "They don't want to spend any money," Levine said. StubHub spokesman Glenn Lehrman has said that that would only be possible if the Yankees provided them with their API. Levine said the Yankees were open "to meeting with StubHub and see if something can be worked out."

While mobile ticketing is convenient, it's not without its own hangups, and it's not just about secondary-market buyers and sellers. I bought a pair of tickets through the Yankees' primary marketplace, which uses the same Ticketmaster mechanism for mobile ticketing as the Ticket Exchange, and it seems there are still a few bugs to work out. It used to be that, if you were taking someone to a game, you could simply forward the PDF attachment of the print-at-home ticket to your companion via e-mail. Now, both of you have to sign in with a Ticketmaster account and either download the app or use your mobile browser to access Ticketmaster.com. (When I tried to transfer a ticket, the recipient kept getting an error message on the app and eventually had to go to his desktop computer to accept the transfer -- a bug a Ticketmaster customer service representative had warned me about over the phone.)

Another casualty of the new ticket policy is an industry many of us never really think about, but still exists, especially for tourists and people who just can't really be bothered. That's third-party ticket brokers -- the kind with human employees who act as the middleman, often working with travel agents, to procure tickets to sporting events and Broadway shows. Levine points to these businesses, along with sites like StubHub, as the source of much of the backlash against the new mobile system.

I talked to one such broker who expressed frustration at initially purchasing a mobile ticket thinking it could be printed and e-mailed to a client. She has now had to convert the mobile tickets to hard tickets for at least three clients, simply because of the difficulty with the method of delivery. When asked about this situation, Trost answered that he couldn't see why a mobile ticket would be difficult; all you have to do is have the broker and the client either download the Ticketmaster app or go to the mobile site and conduct a transfer. That might be fine for most of us, but the clients who use these ticket-broker services are precisely the people who don't want to download an extraneous app and who most likely don't even have a Ticketmaster account.

So, in addition to capturing some of StubHub's customers -- and in the process generating revenue from higher ticket prices -- Ticketmaster will get a spike in both app downloads and site registrations.

It seems StubHub was blindsided like the rest of us. As of Monday, there were still many listings for print-at-home Yankees tickets, presumably posted by season ticket holders who were also unaware of the policy change before they purchased and listed their tickets. Trost noted that season tickets haven't been sent out yet, and individual game tickets didn't go on sale to the general public until Monday, so those fans "must be speculatively selling their tickets." In fact, this is a pretty common practice -- many season ticket holders can only afford their package because they resell a good portion of the individual games before the season starts. 

StubHub PR and customer service stress that they're working to take down the electronic delivery option from Yankees listings and reaching out to buyers and sellers who have already conducted such transactions. "We will work with the seller to make sure the buyer now gets a hard ticket," Cameron Papp, communications manager at the company, wrote in an e-mail, adding that StubHub will cover all shipping costs. Jill Bartnick, StubHub's manager of customer operations, told me, "This is not the first team to change delivery options so we are confident in our process to provide a smooth experience."

Interestingly, those teams that have similarly changed their ticket policy to eliminate the print-at-home option haven't faced anywhere near the coverage or criticism aimed at the Yankees. It's easy to say that's because of the Bronx Bombers' high profile and success, but high-profile teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Golden State Warriors have managed to make that shift with little scrutiny. 

It's fair to say the Yankees haven't helped themselves with their reaction to the coverage, coming across dismissive of fan concerns. Considering baseball's popularity among older fans, one wonders what impact the shift to mobile ticketing might have. Trost dismissed this idea. "In today's world of millennials, I can't imagine anyone who's not smartphone savvy who wants to come to the ballpark," he said. "But when they do, they can get a hard-stock ticket."

It's equally valid to wonder if the new policy will initially affect attendance, which has steadily declined at Yankee Stadium since 2010, save for a slight uptick during Derek Jeter's retirement tour in 2014. Those empty seats seem like a good reason for the team to avoid alienating fans who want to fill them, even if they do so through lower-priced tickets on StubHub. But speaking to WFAN on Thursday, Trost argued against below-market tickets, claiming that they breed resentment among fans who paid full price for good seats. 

This strikes me as absurd: When was the last time you asked the guy sitting next to you how much he paid for his seat? Also, what message does it send to the local, die-hard fans, mostly Hispanic and poor, from nearby neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Washington Heights, who might not be able to afford a full-priced ticket? Levine said Trost's comments were taken out of context and stressed that the Yankees' position is "if you buy a legitimate ticket you're welcome to sit at Yankee Stadium," whether or not you paid full price.

In the end, though, the Yankees know that most of us will put up with whatever hassles and costs they add, because we love our team and have no other choice. As one of those millennial fans who doesn't own a printer that the Yankees are targeting with this shift, I'm looking forward to using my mobile app for another eventful season, but I'll understand why the older guy next to me might be a little grumpy about it.

(Updates with methods to purchase tickets on mobile website in ninth and 11th paragraphs.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net