The problem with touts: how ticket resellers got a foothold in football

Football clubs such as Spurs are replacing their ticket exchange schemes with commercial resellers. Are their fans getting a good deal?

There are few areas where weasel-worded apologism for the excesses and failures of the unfettered free market is quite as pronounced as the secondary ticketing market – or touting, as we used to call it before the internet gave it a veneer of respectability.

It’s a market estimated by the police to be worth more than £1bn a year in the UK. Companies such as StubHub, Seatwave and Viagogo are well-established in the music business, where the "service" they offer enables fans to buy a £136.50 face value pair of tickets to see Justin Bieber for £1,147.04. Plus £144.50 booking fee.

Now these firms are making a concerted effort to establish themselves in the football market. The resale of football tickets is illegal under section 166 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Unless the resale is authorised by the organiser of the match. That’s why the likes of StubHub and Viagogo are striking deals with leading football clubs. So if you sell a spare ticket to a mate for face value, you are breaking the law. But if StubHub or Viagogo sell your spare ticket for a massive mark-up, that’s perfectly legitimate.

One of the clubs StubHub is currently "official partners" with is Tottenham Hotspur, whose 36,000 capacity ground sells out for pretty much every game. The deal is a surprising one given the fact that the club used to run a campaign called Out the Tout, which it said was intended to stop tickets being sold at above face value to fans. But it appears that what Spurs really objected to was not resale above face value, but not making any money out of it.

StubHub offered Spurs a large sum of money – the precise figure is commercially confidential as potentially embarrassing details so often are – to step in and replace the ticket exchange scheme the club used to run. The large sum came on the condition that there would be none of the restrictions – such as price caps on resale – that exist at some other clubs StubHub deals with. Spurs like to present the deal as a service to fans, but its decision to take the money without seeking to protect fans from the excesses of the unfettered market shows that greed, rather than customer service, was the prime motivation. And here’s where the weasel words come into play.

Spurs promoted the deal to its fans by pointing out that one of the benefits of the scheme was that "you can set your own price" when reselling tickets. That is active encouragement to price up. Yet the club also says "it is very rare indeed for tickets to sell at more than their original price". Leaving aside the question of which parallel universe the club is referring to, the observation could be made that the situation would be rarer still if the club wasn’t actively encouraging it. But there’s more.

Even though the club insists that the situation is very rare, it says: "While we understand that some fans might be frustrated to find prices higher than they hoped, it is the Season Ticket Member’s prerogative to list their seats at whatever price they choose." StubHub itself says it "does not own, price or sell any tickets". You see, all Spurs and StubHub are doing is providing an opportunity – it’s the greedy customers who are to blame for the high prices.

It is, as I said in an article for the Football Supporters Federation blog, the National Rifle Association defence – "we just supply the guns, if people choose to shoot each other with them, it’s nothing to do with us". But even this weasel-worded justification does not stand up to serious analysis.

If your business model is based on a commission structure, as StubHub and the other agencies’ is, it is in your interest for prices to be high, because the percentage you take is greater. Yet these agencies are quick to distance themselves from any responsibility for high prices. Why, one wonders, are they so coy?

Spurs and StubHub have said repeatedly that just because tickets are listed at high prices, it doesn’t mean they are selling at high prices. Yet it seems strange that people would keep listing tickets at prices they can’t get. Of course, StubHub must have the hard information. But it won’t share. Good old commercial confidentiality again.

Some may say this is just supply and demand at work, the free market in all its glory. But, as is so often the case, the "free" market is given a little help by those who can benefit the most. As has been seen with the sale of music tickets, the market can be gamed. If you can buy a sufficient volume of tickets, you control supply, and so you can push the price up. This is why fans often log on to buy concert tickets, find the gig is sold out within minutes, but then see tickets appearing at well-above face value soon after.

The agencies acknowledge that what they like to call "professional resellers" – and most people like to call touts – use the “service” they provide. It’s perfectly legitimate. That explains why on StubHub’s customer support page, for instance, it helpfully points out that you can resell tickets you buy from it. That explains why one Spurs fan who sold his ticket on StubHub at face value found it listed for sale a few days later at six times the price.

As Spurs fansite Total Tottenham pointed out: "Tottenham Hotspur were quick to point the finger at season ticket holders, their most loyal and important customers, as the cause of the inflated ticket prices being asked on StubHub", yet "It is very likely that a large share of the tickets that are being sold in excess of sometimes £500 are actually the listings of professional ticket touts."

The Mirror’s Penman and Sommerlad column reported last year that StubHub’s senior management hosted a meeting at its London offices with some of the UK’s leading ticket touts. StubHub says it merely invited them to "get feedback". I bet it did.

Spurs have generated terrible PR with this deal, although no doubt they, along with other clubs, will be watching what fans are prepared to pay for tickets carefully. Season tickets have only risen 100 per cent + over the last 10 years, so every penny counts. A group of fan sites working with the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust have launched a petition against the deal, calling for proper consultation on deals such as this in future. (For transparency, I should point out I am one of the initial signatories). They are backed by the Football Supporters Federation, whose chair Malcolm Clarke called secondary ticket agencies "legalised ticket touts" amid complaints by fans of Manchester City over their club’s deal with Viagogo. Viagogo was the target of campaigning by fans of German Bundesliga side Schalke 04 last year – 10,000 of them turned up to the club’s AGM, which was dominated by discussion of the deal. In a vote, 80 per cent of club members opted to scrap the deal.

In England, clubs are not quite as receptive to fans’ wishes. Nor are fans yet as organised as those in Germany. In 2011, MP Sharon Hodgson put forward a Private Member’s Bill to restrict ticket resale prices to 10 per cent above face value. It was talked out by Tory MPs.

Spurs. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder