The hundreds of thousands of people who’ve tried to get tickets to Toronto Raptors games during the team’s historic NBA Finals run have had a silent adversary: software.
As of last Friday, Ticketmaster says it has blocked more than five million attempted purchases by rapid-ticket-buying “bot” software for Raptors tickets for the Finals. The world’s leading seller of live-event tickets is used to this sort of thing: The company says that last year alone, it blocked automated bots from buying tickets 10 billion times.
But with Leonard, Lowry, Siakam and co. delivering a performance that has put the Raptors within one game of their first championship, demand for seats is at an all-time high. Only 3,000 tickets were available to the public for each playoff game, with the rest of the seats belonging to season-ticket holders, sponsors, the National Basketball Association and team staff, according to team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
The digital age has transformed ticketing for both good and bad. Buying seats to an event is a click away, but scalpers and secondary markets have sent high-demand ticket prices sky-high. Fans from across the country have tried to get their hands on Finals tickets, which sold out almost instantly for the Toronto games. As of Sunday, on Ticketmaster’s own resale marketplace for Monday’s Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors, prices ranged from $2,520 in the nosebleeds to $60,000 behind the Raptors bench.
Ticket-search website TicketIQ has called Game 5 “the most expensive NBA Finals game we’ve ever tracked.”
As it handles one of the highest-demand events in Canadian history, Ticketmaster is spending on technology to thwart resellers from buying tickets in bulk, while also maintaining an online marketplace for resellers and buyers to trade tickets that Ticketmaster can guarantee to be legitimate. But some empty-handed Raptors fans have become frustrated at market-based pricing governed by static supply and ever-rising demand – which also happens to boost Ticketmaster’s own revenue with another set of service charges when tickets are resold. (These charges, which include taxes, tend to be about 20 per cent of the resale price; those $60,000 seats include $10,000 in fees.)
All this is necessary in the technological “arms race” against scalpers, says Patti-Anne Tarlton, Ticketmaster’s Canadian chair and the executive vice-president of venues and promoters for North America. In an interview in her office overlooking the Raptors’ home, Scotiabank Arena, she described Ticketmaster’s approach as necessary. “Market forces will prevail,” she said. “Those tickets can trade, as they can now, in a place that’s safe and lawful, or they trade in an alley with cash.”
Beyond just blocking bots, Ticketmaster Canada has invested in other strategies to thwart scalpers who buy in bulk. The Raptors’ first playoff round against the Orlando Magic marked the first time it implemented its “Smart Queue” program with a Canadian sports team.
At some point shortly before tickets officially go on sale, customers can begin “lining up” and getting a numbered place in the digital queue. The idea is to manage the flow of online traffic, rather than letting software scoop up tickets immediately. The exact opening of the queues for games varies, Ms. Tarlton said, so scalpers can’t program software to jump in line at a specific time.
Two years ago, Ontario became a battleground for ticket legislation when the then-Liberal provincial government tried making a number of changes to its Ticket Sales Act, including a price cap on resold tickets of 150 per cent of face value. That did not last long: When the new Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford took over last year, it moved to scrap the proposed rule. When the Raptors moved on to the Finals in May, some consumers – and especially the opposition New Democrats – became furious. “Cheering on your favourite team at a game shouldn’t cost the same as buying a new car,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath tweeted last month.
But Ms. Tarlton insists, as she did when price caps were first proposed, that caps would have pushed ticket resale into grey-market websites or, again, alleyways. “If you think about when resale was illegal in Ontario, the price cap was essentially zero," she said. “It didn’t change the behaviour. Tickets traded for above that price all day long."
Ms. Tarlton points to one positive change for fans that has emerged in recent years that has almost nothing to do with Ticketmaster. With Cineplex theatres broadcasting games and “Jurassic Park” viewing parties expanding to parks and public spaces across Canada, Raptors fans are able to have collective experiences, even when they can’t get into the arena.
“There is an excitement around the live event, but there’s also scarcity with the ability to go inside the building,” Ms. Tarlton said. “But they’ve been able to bring that live experience out into the square and into Jurassic Parks across the country.
"I think that will be remembered more than, ‘There were really expensive tickets.’”