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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Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

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