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Schools Should Consider Auctioning Tickets

Athletic directors are worried about empty seats and losing money due to the secondary ticket market. There might be one solution to both problems.

Scott Halleran

Two related problems with college football these days, to hear athletic directors talk about it, are falling attendance and the secondary ticket market. The former is an issue because unsold tickets mean a direct loss of revenue and the humiliation of empty seats. The latter is a problem for two reasons. On the low end, people are buying already-sold tickets instead of new and unsold ones from the school (which also drives down attendance). On the high end, schools are missing out on money when tickets sell for far above face value with scalpers pocketing the difference.

The obvious answer to this is to try to implement variable pricing somehow, but there's no easy way to do it. Every business in the capitalist world would love to charge different people different prices for the same things and get away with it, but it's hard to make it work in reality.

There actually is one potential way for schools to try to hit that sweet spot of maximizing both revenue and attendance, though. They could auction off tickets instead of selling them.

Schools would need to preserve season tickets for those willing to pay for them along with the seat license fees (sorry, "donations"), but single game tickets are ripe for being auctioned.

Whatever schools are charging for individual tickets to the biggest games, it's not several hundred apiece like what they're going for right now. They're losing money to online ticket sellers. Why should they let this happen? Why shouldn't the school get that money instead of seeing some random guy on the Internet take it?

On the flip side, ticket auctions could boost attendance at those cupcake games that schools are so addicted to. It's increasingly difficult to convince people to spend $40 per person to see some I-AA team get shellacked, but $4 a person is doable. Sure, it might look like the school is losing money at first, but unsold tickets provide no revenue at all. Plus, you never know when recruits might be watching, and you never want them to see empty bleachers.

Let's also not forget that having a less expensive way to get into games is good for fans. did an unscientific survey last month on why fewer people are attending games. Of the 5,000 or so participants, 83% believe that the average fan has been priced out of attending college football games. The kinds of seats that will be on a discount via an auction method won't be premium seats, of course, but they will give some people a chance to get into games while supporting the school directly instead of dealing with ticket brokers.

At some point in the future, schools will be able to cut out scalpers entirely. They could make tickets entirely electronic, connected to something like a thumbprint for getting in the stadium. Tickets could then be locked down to a single market that the school would control. They could then allow people to buy and sell tickets to each other without being able to charge more than face value, thereby eliminating profits for scalpers.

That future is a long way off though, so partnering up with eBay and creating an auction system might be the best alternative for now. Perhaps even season tickets could be put up for auction, with the bidding starting at what they would be charging anyway. Schools would be cutting into scalpers' margins on one end of the price spectrum while providing more accessibly priced tickets on the other.

I don't know if it would work in practice or whether fans would totally revolt, but it's certainly worth a look for schools fretting about both empty seats and the secondary ticket market.