SBJ/Sept. 19-25, 2016/In Depth

Battle continues against the use of ticket bots

Ticket bots, long the scourge of the live entertainment industry, are receiving unprecedented attention from state and federal lawmakers, ticketing companies, leagues and concert promoters. But the war on bots is not only one of policy, but also of technology and efficient pricing.

For many years, ticket brokers have used automated software programs, widely known as bots, to speed through online ticketing purchases exponentially faster than any human could. That speed advantage has allowed brokers to snatch up large amounts of high-demand tickets in seconds and then sell them on resale markets for massive profits.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer and original star of the blockbuster Broadway hit “Hamilton,” wrote in The New York Times this year that ticket bots were damaging the overall theater experience for fans, adding “you shouldn’t have to fight robots just to see something you love.” Miranda cited a widely circulated report from Eric Schneiderman, New York state attorney general, finding that “ticketing, to put it bluntly, is a fixed game.”

Seeking to address this, several states including New York have pursued legislation to make the use of bots illegal,
Ticketmaster deploys photo-based systems to combat bots.
or strengthen existing anti-bot laws. Both houses of Congress, similarly, are considering the Better Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act of 2016 that would prohibit the use or sale of software to circumvent fair access to tickets, as well as the sale of tickets obtained improperly through the use of such programs. A hearing held on the bill last week included Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, among others.

“Bots right now are the biggest foe to fans,” said Dave Butler, Spectra Ticketing and Fan Engagement president and chief executive. “We’ve seen some progress on this at the state level, but we are also working to create federal legislation we hope will be very helpful on this issue.”

The larger ticketing firms say they each typically spend at least into six figures annually on anti-bot efforts. But similar to ongoing battles against content piracy or athlete use of performance-enhancing drugs, the battle against ticket bots is somewhat akin to a game of whack-a-mole. As new enhancements arrive in user authentication, such as some ticketers’ recent moves toward photo-based systems or multiple-choice questions replacing CAPTCHA word- and number-based methods, some brokers push to keep one step ahead.

And some current laws that classify the use of bots as a misdemeanor offense are often treated as simply the cost of doing business for unethical resellers, leading outspoken voices such as Miranda to call for an escalation of bot use to felony status.

But to many industry executives, anti-bot legislation can only go so far, regardless of how tough it is.

“It’s treating the symptom and not the disease,” said Nathan Hubbard, formerly Ticketmaster CEO and formerly Twitter head of global media and commerce. “To treat the disease, you have to price tickets correctly and perhaps do some things besides simply first come, first serve.”

Hubbard’s successor at Ticketmaster, Jared Smith, concurs.

“The disease isn’t bots. It’s merely symptomatic of a problem with holes in the marketplace,” said Smith, Ticketmaster’s president of North America. “If tickets are priced more appropriately, that reduces the incentive for the arbitrage that’s occurring. But there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every market, every team, every event is a bit different and requires a slightly different strategy.”

Such a mindset would likely lead to higher primary market prices for prime seats to many high-demand events. But it would also allow fans to have the benefit of more accurate upfront pricing information, prior to tickets going on sale, on which to base buying decisions.

Within the concert industry, many artists have sought to employ paperless ticketing strategies that restrict resale and require the purchasing credit card to access the event. But such tools have not generated significant scale or migrated heavily into sports.

“I believe fan club pre-sales have their place, and with the use of singular one-time-use access codes, can actually be helpful in curbing bot use,” Butler said. “But trying to close the [secondary] market is vendor friendly, but not fan friendly. Ultimately, we need to be serving the fan and helping them go to more events.”

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