'Paperless ticketing' aims to thwart scalping at concerts, sports events

Bruce Springsteen, pictured at Verizon Center last fall, has joined the ranks of performers going paperless.
Bruce Springsteen, pictured at Verizon Center last fall, has joined the ranks of performers going paperless. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

Anyone who's ever chased a hot ticket for a concert or sports event knows the agony of the drill. Wait -- online or in line -- until the box office opens and then compete against the masses, including crafty ticket brokers, for the best seats. And for many would-be ticket buyers, the effort is often fruitless.

But the humble ticket -- and the way it's bought and sold -- could be on the verge of momentous change.

In an effort to thwart scalpers and dampen ticket reselling on the so-called secondary market, musicians as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Miley Cyrus, Metallica and Justin Bieber have adopted "paperless ticketing" for some or all of the seats at their live shows. Sports organizations, such as the NCAA men's Final Four basketball tournament and the Houston Rockets of the NBA, have done so as well.

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Wizards, Capitals and Verizon Center in Washington, says his plans are still in development, but "I think online and paperless is the trend of the future and only will be a positive for consumers and for venues."

As the oxymoronic name suggests, paperless tickets aren't really tickets at all. They're essentially personal seat reservations, secured electronically. Much as they do with airline tickets, fans buy paperless tickets for an event with a credit card. The buyer must then go to the venue with the same credit card and a photo ID to gain admittance. A swipe of the credit card at the gate produces a slip confirming the location of the reserved seat.

Ticket issuers Ticketmaster and Veritix tout paperless tickets as a way to eliminate worries about lost, stolen or counterfeit tickets, and to banish long will-call lines. "It's the ultimate in convenience if you're a consumer," says Jeff Kline, president of Cleveland-based Veritix.

Well, not entirely.

Unlike a conventional ticket, Ticketmaster's paperless tickets can't be transferred from a buyer to a second party (Veritix's technology allows for transfers). The inability to pass along a seat creates what's become known in the industry as the "grandma" problem. Since a paperless ticket buyer has to show up at the door at the same time as the rest of his or her party, it's almost impossible for a grandma living at one end of the country to buy a paperless ticket as gift for a grandchild living at the other end. On its Web site, Ticketmaster tells would-be gift givers to buy paperless tickets "on the credit card of the person attending the event and [then] reimburse them."

Another drawback: Groups hoping to attend an event can be shut out if the person who bought the tickets on the group's behalf fails to show up for some reason.

More controversial is how paperless ticketing could affect the ticket reselling business, a vast, Internet-based marketplace facilitated by behemoths like StubHub.com, Razorgator.com and hundreds of smaller brokers and dealers.

Ticketmaster says its paperless system is designed to undercut scalpers, such as those who scooped up large blocks of tickets to Miley Cyrus's concerts last year and resold them at extraordinary prices. The system ensures that tickets end up in the hands of fans, not speculators, a company spokesperson says, and at the prices established by the performer.

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