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Ticket seller Mario Livich (Nick Westover/© 2009 Nick Westover)
Ticket seller Mario Livich (Nick Westover/© 2009 Nick Westover)

Small Business

One for the revolution, please Add to ...

Even the teams are sellers. “I've dealt personally with team owners, where I'm sitting in a hotel room with a suitcase full of cash and they're selling tickets,” Livich says. “I'm not going to go into further details, but everyone likes cash. So I've cultivated those relationships.”

To be a ticket speculator, you have to have guts. On any given day, ShowTime will have millions of dollars of tickets on its site. Their liquidity – Livich's ability to move them at a profit – relies heavily on mercurial influences on value: the ability of a team to keep winning, of a star athlete to stay healthy, or of a song to stay popular. “I have a tremendously high tolerance for risk,” Livich says.

He nearly lost everything in the early days, betting too big on certain concerts and being stuck with a fistful of tickets he could barely give away for free. A particular R.E.M. concert in the mid-1990s left a bitter taste in his mouth. He overestimated demand for the show, and secured a bulk deal for tickets from the promoter. As the date approached, Livich realized he had too much merchandise and was forced to dump the tickets for next to nothing to fans outside the stadium. “It was horrid,” he says.

His big break came in 1994, after years of grinding out meagre returns. That year, the Vancouver Canucks entered the NHL playoffs with modest expectations on their shoulders, and the local fan base was accordingly lukewarm on tickets. But Livich realized that if he loaded up on Canucks playoff tickets through Ticketmaster, his exposure would be minimal but the upside was huge. If the Canucks lost to the Calgary Flames in the opening round, as expected, he wouldn't have to pay for the scheduled games after that – they would never be played. But if the team advanced, the prices he could fetch for subsequent rounds would only increase, in tandem with fan excitement. So Livich begged and borrowed for as much cash as he could get, going to friends, family and eventually loan sharks to build up capital.

The wager could not have worked out better. The Canucks upset the Flames and marched through to the Stanley Cup finals that year, going all the way but losing to the New York Rangers in seven games. In addition to profits – estimated in the hundreds of thousands – the coup brought in a flood of calls from brokers across the United States who wanted tickets. With this contact list, ShowTime branched out internationally.

Still, Livich craved one thing – legitimacy. He wanted out of the street game and into something cleaner. “My mother has always said to me, ‘When are you going to get a real job?' ” he says.

Livich's parents came to Canada from Croatia when he was 4. Seeing his parents toil to make a living – his mother putting in long hours scrubbing toilets in hotel bars and restaurants – was a powerful motivator. He wanted to control his own destiny. With money from the Canucks playoff run, he went in search of a proper place to build a company from scratch, landing the small space across the street from BC Place in 1995.

Forty-eight hours later, having built a front counter himself, Livich opened for business, with one employee. Today, behind the counter are tech staff, salespeople, ticket buyers and marketers. They field orders from all around the world over the phone and through ShowTime's website, as well as from walk-up customers. “I think it took my parents 15 years to accept that I was a legitimate business person. Just recently, they realized: I have a job, I do have a business,” he says with a laugh.

Some people, however, don't hold the business in much esteem. Though ShowTime has a loyal customer base of people who are willing to pay for the convenience and reliability of the service rather than queue up for tickets, many fans despise the aftermarket as opportunistic.

But disgruntled fans aren't the only problem any more. The rise of resellers like ShowTime and StubHub on the Internet is a disruptive force in the ticket industry, not just a nuisance on the street corner. Their success has provoked an unholy war in the business. Ticketmaster, the goliath primary seller of tickets, enjoys a near monopoly that threatens to shut people like Livich down. And the way Ticketmaster sees things, it would be doing fans a favour.

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