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Start-up tries reverse scalping to sell concert and sports tickets

With the live entertainment industry slumping, ScoreBig hopes to fill empty seats by letting people bid below the face value of tickets. Music halls and sports teams, once resistant to discount prices, are giving them a try.

February 08, 2011|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times
  • Adam Kanner, left, and Joel Milne started ScoreBig, an online ticketing service, in 2009. It typically has about 500,000 tickets for sale  enough to fill 10 Yankee Stadiums.
Adam Kanner, left, and Joel Milne started ScoreBig, an online ticketing… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The woes of the $22-billion U.S. live event business can be boiled down to one statistic: 20% to 40% of seats for many concerts and sports games go unsold.

A remedy to fill some of those seats may be reverse scalping: A market in which fans can bid below the ticket's face value, a sort of Priceline for live events.

That, at any rate, is the idea behind ScoreBig, an online ticketing service based in Hollywood that has about 500,000 tickets for sale on any given day — enough to fill 10 Yankee Stadiums. Founded by former NBA executive Adam Kanner, ScoreBig seeks to fill vacant seats at concert halls and stadiums across the country by letting customers bid what they want to pay.

The problem of seats without occupants has vexed Kanner since his basketball days three years ago. Sure he could slash ticket prices, but the NBA didn't want to lose customers willing to pay full price by giving them an incentive to wait for a fire sale. As with many live events, "discount tickets" smacked of desperation — and desperation, in the eyes of the live event industry, doesn't sell tickets.

"Discounting cannibalizes full-priced sales and damages your brand," Kanner said. "The problem was huge, but the solutions were few."

But the current difficult times for the live entertainment business may be an opportune time for ScoreBig. Attendance is ebbing for all but a handful of superstar acts as nervous consumers cut back on discretionary spending. In many cases, seats and tickets are going begging.

The NFL, which once sold out just about every game, in September predicted that attendance in the season that just ended will drop for the third consecutive year and to the lowest level since 1998. The NBA is expecting that 12% of seats will go empty this season, up from 10% last season and less than 9% the year before that. And major league baseball teams, which perennially fail to sell as many as half of their tickets, saw a 1% dip in attendance in 2010.

Venues and sports teams largely have themselves to blame for their current state of affairs, Kanner said, because they historically refused to lower prices out of fear it would undercut business.

Rather than risk losing full-paying customers, venues kept raising prices to make up for the empty seats, eventually putting tickets out of reach for most consumers. That in turn exacerbated the number of unsold tickets, creating a vicious cycle.

Now, with attendance slumping for both concerts and sports, the ticketing industry is becoming less resistant to the idea of discounts.

"We always saw ourselves as recession proof," said Mark Meyerson, vice president of business development at ScoreBig and a veteran of the concert business, having worked for the House of Blues, AEG Live and, most recently, as vice president of music services at Ticketmaster. "That was certainly the case — until this recession."

Last summer, headline acts such as Rihanna, Lilith Fair and the Jonas Brothers canceled gigs because of lackluster ticket sales. Concert promoters pushed the panic button and heavily discounted. As a result, the top 50 acts in North American sold $1.7 billion in tickets last year, down 15% from 2009, according to Pollstar.

"We did a massive pendulum swing from overpriced concerts to practically giving tickets away," said Adam Friedman, who until January was chief executive of Nederlander Concerts Inc. in Los Angeles.

For the concert business, the seeds of the problem were sown two decades ago, when ticket prices started a relentless climb as musicians kept jacking up their fees.

"When I was in 10th grade, I bought a Bruce Springsteen album and a ticket to his concert. Both cost the same amount," said Jim McCarthy, CEO and co-founder of Goldstar Events Inc., a discount ticket seller in Pasadena. "Now, 25 years later, tickets have become a lot more expensive."

They are so expensive that many consumers have forsaken live entertainment. In a flush economy, there were still enough people willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a single ticket, so infrequent fans didn't matter as much. Today, even hard-core fans are pulling back, forcing venues and sports teams to scramble.

But the tools they had for gauging supply and demand, and adjusting prices accordingly, were limited.

"The methodologies for pricing tickets are crude," Friedman said. "If $50 didn't work, we moved to $40, then $30. It was all guesswork."

Kanner felt the same way when he was at the NBA. Then he looked at other sectors to see how they moved extra inventory: The clothing business had outlet malls, but they had to be far enough from regular retail stores so they didn't cannibalize full-priced sales. And the travel industry had sophisticated software that automatically adjusted prices based on market factors, such as how fast the tickets were selling, how much inventory remained, seasonal demand patterns and how much the hotel rooms, car rentals or plane trips sold for in the past.

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