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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser