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March Madness Ticketing is Broken: A Plea to the NCAA, From A Disappointed Fan

After a year of disappointment, political mania, market collapses, death and Doomerism in the media, the typical distractions are no longer doing it. Watching Disney+, sleeping 15 hours a da, and going on long walks is no longer doing it. Millions of people are looking for new distractions at this point in the “late pandemic.” They’re getting needles in their arms and then booking it to gatherings with friends they haven’t seen in months.

After losing a year of my twenties inside, I figured that I could get out for some Vitamin D. I decided to make my return to the outside world on the eve of a very special occasion: March Madness. College basketball fans didn’t get their dose of the high-energy tournament last year, as it was cancelled days before the COVID-19 lockdown began. However, this year the NCAA and its member schools decided to hold the tournament in a “bubble” in Indiana. So I figured I would try my hand at securing tickets to the tournament since my favorite team, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, was a favorite to win the tournament (I don’t wanna talk about it) and I was within driving distance. 

You’d think securing tickets to a sporting event would be super easy. But I soon learned that was not the case. You don’t even need to take an economics class to understand economics anymore. You can just try buying and selling tickets to March Madness because it’s the best example of supply-demand economics that I can think of. Ticket sales for the tournament went live before even the NCAA knew who would play in each respective game. This is supposedly the regular procedure for March Madness, which is generally held at venues throughout the country, so you don’t know what games you’re buying if you decide to buy them before they are revealed. First round tickets were $45 each. But not all matchups are made equal.

Odds are that you didn’t actually buy the matchup with your respective team. I bought tickets for five different games, and none of them were teams I wanted to see. This turned me into everything I didn’t want to be: a reseller. If you end up with a matchup that you don’t want after the grand reveal, you better hope it’s a team that people care about. Otherwise, you’ll be selling into a market that is awash with tickets and pushing your original investment into the gutter. If you decide to hold out and buy tickets in the secondary market, you probably have scalpers against you — pushing the price north for swarms of college basketball zealots and working-class depth gobblers.

The worst part  is you are incentivized to push the price of your undesirable matchup north in order to offset the hundreds of imaginary (and bullshit) fees and charges levied against you. Ticketing platforms like Ticketmaster, the top choice for nearly every major event organizer, levy service charges, resale fees and other stuff you don’t want to pay for. And it makes Ticketmaster, owned by Live Nation Entertainment ($LYV), a killing. But it makes nearly everybody else upset. You end up buying tickets to five games in order to hedge against scalpers pushing the price up in the matchups you want to see. Confusing? Absolutely. Worthwhile? I guess it depends.

This is a common experience among concert-goers, sports fans and anybody that falls in between. March Madness is a very specific case, and there are specific things that the NCAA should consider doing with their cash cow. Here’s my advice to fix the problem:

  1. Pivot ticket sales into a lottery that allows college basketball fans to secure tickets to their team’s respective game before selling to the public
  2. Be more forthcoming and transparent about which tickets correspond to which matchups in the public (i.e. putting the regions and seeds on public sale)
  3. Stop using Ticketmaster and other resale platforms, because they’re essentially complicit in the scalping market now

Ticketing sucks — event organizers have few choices when it comes to vendors and ticketing platforms are responsible for most of that blame. I recognize that trying to get tickets for a sporting event during a global pandemic is an extremely first-world problem. However, at the core of my complaint is disappointment with organizers and ticketing platforms. As the world returns to normal, millions of people will start going to concerts, sporting games and other events. If there’s anything I have gained from my ticketing experience with March Madness? It’s the hope that we can get to a point that none of these event-goers have to endure a crash course in economics. 

Noah Weidner

Noah Weidner is a restless self-starter with a vehement interest in all things that make the world go around: culture, politics, economics and all the people in between. He writes the Bullish Rippers series and covers other interesting trends and happenings at Bullish.

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