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Fans find bargains as Ravens, brokers navigate evolving ticket landscape

Fans find bargains as Ravens, brokers navigate evolving ticket landscape
Baltimore, MD -- Baker R. Koppelman, vice president, ticket sales and operations for the Baltimore Ravens, is shown in this file photo. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Ravens fans are no different from other consumers: They love bargains. And this season, fans are finding home-game tickets for as little as $30 on the NFL Ticket Exchange, the league's official resale partner.

Granted, the team has lost four in a row entering Sunday's game, and the opponent for the $30 offer is the hardly marquee-worthy Cleveland Browns, the league's only winless team, on Nov. 10. But a deal is a deal, and $30 compares favorably to the $80 face value of the upper-end zone seat. An upper-corner seat could be had for $100 for Sunday's rivalry game against the Pittsburgh Steelers — just $8 above face value.

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Online ticket resales can be a boon to NFL fans, offering thousands of seats per game — some in the high-demand lower and club levels — without the need for season tickets. Less clear is the long-term impact of the resale system on teams and independent ticket brokers. The teams may see their season ticket values diluted, while brokers worry that their inventory could become depleted as clubs exercise new controls over the important secondary market.

For the Ravens, the challenge is ensuring that season ticket holders — who pay from $620 to $3,650 per season and make up the bulk of attendees at games — continue to see the value of their tickets even as fans can find resale tickets for individual games and compare prices on the team's website or numerous independent sites.

Gone are the pre-internet days when the only way to lock in premium seats was to purchase season tickets, and the "secondary market" could only be tapped by driving to ticket agencies or huddling outside a stadium with a scalper.

The resale market does pad the bottom line of the 32 NFL teams, who share revenue from the Ticketmaster-operated NFL Ticket Exchange. But it also poses risk.

"The threat of alienating your season ticket base certainly exists, but it just means teams will need to create more VIP-type experiences and benefits not found for that single-game ticket buyer," said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Bel Air and Sonoma, Calif.

The Ravens are trying to do just that. The club says its personal seat license holders get perks and have the advantage of locking in a specific price and location at 71,000-seat M&T Bank Stadium.

Personal seat licenses — which cost anywhere from $600 to $2,500 in the open market on the Ravens' resale site — are akin to an initiation fee for season ticket holders. They are owned by fans, not the team, provided that a season ticket package is renewed each season.

A rewards program for the Ravens' 25,000 PSL holders offers fan forums and prizes — everything from away-game tickets to free apparel, and field and parking passes.

While the team's season ticket renewal rate remains about 99 percent, "cultivation of our PSL owners continues to be a priority for us," said Baker Koppelman, the team's senior vice president of ticket sales and operations. "We can never take these investors in the Ravens for granted."

The league established the NFL Ticket Exchange in 2011 to compete with third-party resellers and give teams a slice of the resale pie. Koppelman declined to say how much each team's annual share amounts to.

"It's not exactly an 'If you can't beat them, join them' mentality, but it's close," Brightman said. NFL officials, he said, realized that the exchange would provide revenue and help "reinforce their brand."

The key for fans is having a choice of sites on which to buy or sell tickets, said season ticket holder Jim McCain, council president of the Ravens Roosts fan clubs.

"People are always trying to find the cheapest tickets," McCain said. "They go through different channels, not just the Ravens' site. It's nice to have those kinds of avenues."

To keep season ticket holders like McCain in the fold, the Ravens pitch the game day camaraderie that can come with regular attendance at games.

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"Fans build bonds with those in their sections," Koppelman said. "It's one of the cool parts of owning season tickets. That can't be replaced if you cherry-pick your games on the secondary market. Relying on the open market increases the risk of not getting the seats you want or paying a greater price than you would like. The current World Series gives a great example of this."

Fans paid a median price of more than $1,000 for seats for Game 7 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night; the most expensive seats were selling for well over $10,000, according to StubHub, the online secondary market ticket company owned by eBay.

The good news, according to ticket brokers, is that tickets were available at all.

"It's fantastic for consumers," said Gary Adler, executive director of the 220-member National Association of Ticket Brokers. "I have a chance of getting something I would never have a chance of getting."

Some brokers work with teams, assisting them with information on how much tickets are fetching in the secondary market. That can help clubs set market-level prices each year.

"When teams and brokers work together to share data, it helps everyone maximize revenue," said Brett Bernstein, a partner at Encore Tickets of Bethesda. He said the company sells Ravens and Washington Redskins tickets, but "we're very well-versed all around the country. We don't have a big hold on just one team."

Brokers say many fans prefer the open market because they don't want to be locked in to attending games far in advance and sitting in the same seats.

"It's going to be rarer and rarer that people are actually going to be buying season tickets," said Don Vaccaro, CEO of Connecticut-based TicketNetwork, a large software provider for the secondary market. "It's a lot easier just to buy the tickets you need."

But Adler said his association is concerned that finding seats from an array of sources could become more difficult. Some sports teams, he said, have threatened to cancel accounts of season-ticket holders they believe are reselling tickets, while others direct their account holders to designated resale ticket sites.

A report earlier this year by the New York attorney general's office said an unspecified number of NFL teams had established "price floors" on the official ticket exchange, preventing their seats from being sold at particularly low prices. The report also cited a "bot epidemic" — ticket-buying software used by resellers to purchase large volumes of tickets that most people could not access.

The report did not name any NFL teams establishing minimum prices, but the Ravens said they don't do it.

"There is no floor on the Ravens Exchange," Koppelman said. "The decision whether or not to establish a floor is made by each team."

The club said fans are free to post their tickets on any site.

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In 2015, StubHub said in a lawsuit that the NBA's Golden State Warriors and Ticketmaster collaborated on an anti-competitive resale agreement that allegedly froze out other companies. A federal judge found no illegal monopoly, and StubHub appealed.

In Major League Baseball, StubHub is the Orioles' official "secondary ticket marketplace." The club said the site "ensures the authenticity of the tickets being sold."

As with Ravens games, Orioles tickets also are available on sites not designated as the official reseller.

The club said it did not believe online sales were eroding its season ticket base.

"That is not a concern," the Orioles said in a statement. 'We are confident that the many Orange Carpet benefits we offer our season plan members, most notably a significant ticket savings on each ticket and a flexible exchange policy, far outweigh the benefits of purchasing from a secondary marketplace."

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