ADVERTISEMENT

Minnesota legislators march into ticket thicket

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS
  • Star Tribune
  • March 27, 2012 - 10:01 PM

If you buy a ticket to a concert or a ballgame, it should be yours to use, resell or give away, the Minnesota House says.

A bill that would limit the ability of entertainment and sports venues to block second-party ticket sales passed the House by a vote of 83-50 Tuesday -- over the objections of Minnesota's concert and sports venues.

"If you want to give it to somebody, you'll be able to give [your ticket] to somebody. If you want to sell it to somebody, you'll be able to do that," said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, the bill sponsor and chairman of the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee.

But if the measure becomes law, opponents say, there will be nothing to stop out-of-state vendors from gobbling up all the good seats to hot shows and reselling them for astronomical prices (a Minnesota law is meant to curb that practice in state). At last year's Adele concert at the Xcel Energy Center, 70 percent of the tickets were sold outside the five-state area.

"Those weren't fans buying those tickets," said Xcel Center spokesman Bill Huepenbecker. Those sales, he said, were made by sophisticated "bots," computer programs from ticket sale sites that make lightning-fast purchases as soon as tickets are available. Then, he said, "They'll put them up on sites like StubHub and sell them for two, three, four, five times the price."

When a hot show comes to town, venues sometimes try to thwart bulk ticket sales by requiring ticketholders to produce a credit card and photo ID at the gate to prove that they're the human -- not the bot -- who bought the ticket.

That precaution makes it harder for out-of-state resale sites to snap up the good seats. But it also makes it difficult for, say, parents to buy Taylor Swift tickets for their tweens, or for friends to buy tickets for friends.

If the House bill becomes law, vendors would still be able to sell restricted tickets, but they'd be required to offer "transferable" tickets as an option as well. Transferable tickets would be more expensive but would give buyers the freedom to resell or transfer at will.

Muddied political lines

Tuesday's debate muddied political lines, with conservatives and liberals winding up on both sides of the bill, depending on whether they viewed it as championing consumer freedom or unreasonable government interference in free commerce.

"I don't see your bill as a free-market bill," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. "[It's] the Legislature weighing in and picking winners and losers among competing industries, and that's something we're pretty bad at, but never can stop doing, it seems."

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, backed the measure, based on her own difficulties trying to juggle ticket buying for her children and their friends, and the fact that she and a group of work friends pool season tickets to the Twins. What would happen, she asked, if stadiums wanted to start requiring that the person who holds the ticket is the same person who bought the ticket?

"I don't think the venue should get to decide whether or not I have to attend the Twins game with the person who went and purchased the tickets. And if I have to have their credit card? It just doesn't work," she said. "When I buy a ticket, I should have the right to use my ticket or to give my ticket to someone else."

Restricted-ticket events are fairly rare, said Huepenbecker.

When Xcel requires identification for shows, the box office works to accommodate ticket buyers if they have to pass their tickets to someone else, Huepenbecker said. As for sporting events, he said, teams know even the most dedicated fan might not make it to every game -- sharing tickets is almost a given.

'Hannah Montana' law

The House bill comes four years after the Legislature passed the so-called Hannah Montana law, which attempted to stop ticket brokers from using computer programs that snap up tickets before everyday fans have a chance. But that law applies only in Minnesota, leaving out-of-state companies free to operate.

In 2009, just a year after that bill passed, dismayed parents were reporting that tickets to a Taylor Swift concert at the Xcel center were selling out within minutes -- only to reappear on resale sites at prices ranging from $120 to $1,000, compared with the $27 to $61.50 Xcel charged.

"If you're a regular fan, odds are, you're not going to get a ticket, or get the best seats, without going to a secondary market," Huepenbecker said.

And when fans are paying three times as much for a ticket, he said, that's money they're less likely to spend on concert merchandise or food at the venue, or to go out to eat afterward. The more expensive the ticket, he said, the fewer shows people are likely to see each year.

For supporters of the bill, the issue boiled down to the idea that if you buy a ticket, it should be yours to use as you please.

Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, likened tickets to toothpaste. Refusing to let someone transfer a ticket, he said, is as ridiculous as not letting his children brush their teeth because they didn't buy the toothpaste.

But Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, called the bill a "solution in search of a problem" and suggested the real victors will be out-of-state scalpers, not moms buying tickets to Justin Bieber concerts. "At first glance, it looks like something that's going to protect the consumer that's buying and holding that ticket," Daudt said. "I would argue that this bill really helps the scalpers and the resellers. I think they're the ones behind the bill."

EBay and StubHub lobbied vigorously in favor of the bill. The venues and Ticketmaster lobbied against, with a host of other business and entertainment interests split between the two sides, including agencies that warned that some artists might bypass Minnesota if they think their fans will be forced to buy the bulk of their tickets from more expensive second-party sites.

Right now, New York is the only state with a law like this, although similar bills have been proposed in other states.

Attention now turns to the Senate, where the ticket bill is stalled in committee.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

© 2014 Star Tribune