July 10, 2014

Season Tickets Or StubHub?

A couple of years ago, I read an article on Dan Steinberg's DC Sports Bog about some dude in Frederick who bought Wizards tickets on the secondary market (in this case, StubHub) for 30 cents per ticket. That was not the first time or the last time that I have read something on the internet either implying or outright stating how foolish it is for Wizards season ticket holders to invest in a full season package. I love Dan Steinberg's work; I think his account of the Wizards-Cavaliers game from November 18, 2009 is still one of the finest pieces of journalism I have ever read. Having said that, I do think there is little room for the type of cynicism expressed or implied in his 30 cent ticket article. I hope I can explain.

As a Wizards season ticket holder who has been paying for full season tickets for the last 14 years, I bristle at these sorts of articles. I realize that probably wasn't Steinberg's intent here but it still rubbed me the wrong way, much like the apparently incredulous fan post on Bullets Forever this past season when season ticket renewal notices were mailed. Like we didn't know ticket prices were going to go up in a year the Wizards made the playoffs after a five season absence behind the All-Star emergence of John Wall? Come on, get real folks!

One of the things that gets me fired up about these sorts of one-sided arguments is that the same people who point out the availability of cheap secondary market tickets for a Tuesday night game against the Milwaukee Bucks are never on their blogs or whatever other outlet they have when the Miami Heat or the Oklahoma City Thunder or whatever other team is in vogue right now visit Verizon Center. In those cases, the cost of tickets on the secondary market is double, triple or quadruple what we as season ticket holders paid for our seats. In those weeks, the mockery of the season ticket holder is mysteriously absent.

So I started wondering…are Wizards season tickets a good deal from a strictly economic going-to-games perspective? Throw out all the other variables like access to exclusive events and other sorts of perks and just focus on the cost of tickets game by game over a 41 game home slate. Would I be better off just picking up some tickets for every game on StubHub or nbatickets.com? Before I continue to be incensed by cynical rhetoric, I thought I should know if my gut was right on this one. The temptation to check this out was just too great. So I didn't resist. This past season, I tracked the relative cost of Wizards season tickets vs. comparable seats on StubHub. Now that the Wizards season is over, I think what I found out is worth sharing.

In the last 10 years or so, the rise of the internet and I suppose relaxation of ticket re-sale laws (although I haven't checked this out at all) have revolutionized the ticket resale industry. I have both sold and bought tickets on both StubHub and nbatickets.com; these sites allow me to sell some of my unused Wizards season tickets and buy tickets of more or less my choice when traveling to Wizards road games. StubHub is sort of self insured so to speak and offers purchasers their money back should tickets sold on their site be counterfeit; they hold the seller's credit card number and charge the seller (assuming the credit card is still good, I guess) if there is any issue with entry into the arena from the purchaser. nbatickets.com is even more secure; that site is owned by Ticketmaster and tickets are re-issued to the buyer which are unique from the original tickets. There's no risk to either the buyer or seller in this scenario. Other than the risk of horrendous Ticketmaster fees I guess.

Before I get too far into the details, I should lay out the controls I've used to conduct this study. All good experiments need controls after all. I centered this experiment around the seats that I own, meaning when I was tracking prices, I was tracking prices for seats which I considered roughly equivalent to the seats I own as a season ticket holder. Just to be clear, I hold two pairs of seats for Wizards games at Verizon Center: one in the fifth row of Section 109 on the aisle and one in the third row of Seciton 415, also on the aisle. I love both these sets of seats; I've moved seat locations three times each in the upper deck and lower deck to get these seats and I'm not giving them up easily.

So for the purposes of this exercise, I considered equivalent seats in the lower level to be any seat in the center five sections in rows A through J and I considered equivalent seats in the upper level to be any seat in the center five sections in rows A through G. My logic here is any seat in the center five sections twice as far back in those sections and my seat could be considered roughly equivalent. I did not get hung up on fine points like aisle seating or the fact that I can hear stuff on the court from my lower level seats that I might not hear five rows further back.

The other control I placed on this experiment was timing of data collection. Ticket prices fluctuate with time. I believed that prices generally stay higher than they need to be until very close to the date of the game. Therefore, collecting data weeks in advance of the event would yield artificially high numbers and collecting data the day of the game would result in artificially low numbers. My experiment ended with slightly different outcomes but I'll get to that. I tried to pick two data points: the first set of data I intended to collect would be one week before the day of the game and the second set the morning of the game. I managed to do the first for all 41 games. That data is solid.
I didn't do so well on my day of game data gathering. I tripped up on six or seven games in that category just due to life getting in the way. I forgot to check StubHub the day I traveled back from Iceland for the Clippers game in December and there were a few more along the way where I just flaked out. My initial impulse here was to artificially substitute what could be considered representative data from other similar games but that felt too much like the Jurassic Park scientists filling in the missing dinosaur DNA with frog DNA and we all know how THAT worked out. As such, I'm relying on my week ahead data only. The day of game data is useful to discuss overall trends but not to talk specifics.
Two final points. First, I chose StubHub for this experiment and not nbatickets.com because my perception at the beginning of this past NBA season was that there were more tickets available on StubHub and more ticket buyers used StubHub than nbatickets.com. The prices posted on StubHub are also the final price to the buyer, so it was way easier to track pricing on StubHub. We can debate whether my perception was true or not but it doesn't really matter. I only tracked prices on StubHub. For what it's worth, my belief is the gap has closed over the course of this season. Secondly, I did not track prices for preseason games although I included the price in the season ticket holder cost. I consider preseason games, which are half price for season ticket holders but mostly worthless, completely valueless.
So after tracking the price of 41 Wizards home games over the course of a five and a half month NBA season, here is the short answer:
  • Purchasing Section 109, row E season tickets for the entire season (including preseason) cost me $2,100. Purchasing equivalent seats on StubHub for each and every game one week ahead of the event (not including preseason) would have cost me $2,965. Season tickets are 30% cheaper.
  • Purchasing Section 415, row C season tickets for the entire season (including preseason) cost me $672. Purchasing equivalent seats on StubHub for each and every game one week ahead of the event (not including preseason) would have cost me $899. Season tickets are 25% cheaper.
Now, the short answer above assumes you want to go to all 41 home games. I do want to do this every year but I realize not everyone does. There are some finer points to the study, some of which show some real benefits of purchasing on the secondary market. Let's look at five other scenarios, some reasonable and some pretty far fetched, all using pricing information from one week ahead of the event:
  • Maybe you like but don't love (I know...it's hard to imagine) the Wizards and just want to go to about half the games but only the most popular (i.e. most expensive on StubHub for the purposes of this post) visiting teams. For the price of season tickets, you could have attended 18 lower level games or 19 upper level games without exceeding the price of an entire season (which is 41 games), which pretty much says you should just go ahead and bite the bullet for an entire season, unless you like sitting in a different seat each time you head to Verizon Center.
  • On the other hand, maybe you really don't care about the Wizards and just want to see games against the four conference finalists and nobody else. Of course you would need some sort of crystal ball to know who were the conference finalists in that same year, but attending every Wizards game last year against the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Indiana Pacers (total of five home games) would have cost you $864 for lower level seats and $284 for upper level seats on StubHub. That's about 3.5 times this price of the season ticket price for those games but of course you then don't have to purchase the other 36 regular season games. Definitely better buying a la carte if you just want to attend five games but the price per seat is steep.
  • Let's say you work downtown and only want to go to games on non-weekend workdays (suspend belief for a minute please that there is actually someone who thinks this way). Buying tickets for all Monday through Thursday games on StubHub would cost you $1,130 for lower level seats and $321 for upper level seats for 19 games. That's an average price of $59.50 in the lower bowl and just less than $17 in the upper deck, pretty comparable to season tickets but still slightly more. If this is what you want, buying game by game is probably the way to go.
  • The counterpoint to my last bullet above is fans that want to attend only Friday and Saturday games because they don't want to have to get up to go to work the next day. There were actually more home games on Friday and Saturday this past year than there were on weekdays. For those 20 games, you'd pay almost as much in both upper and lower levels than you would by buying season tickets for a whole season: $1,669 downstairs (vs. $2,100 for season tickets) and $544 upstairs (vs. $672). Probably should buy a whole season if you are looking for weekend only games; you could probably get the rest of your investment by selling weekday games on StubHub.
  • Finally, let's say you have limited funds (who doesn't, right?) and want to stretch your dollars as far as possible. Here buying on StubHub makes a ton of sense. You could attend seven games in the lower level for less than $200 total (rather than $350 at season ticket holder price). That same total expenditure in the upper level would be stretched out to 20 games, which amounts to less than $10 per game (vs. $16 for a season ticket holder). If you are looking for midweek games against Orlando, Boston or Charlotte, this is definitely the way to go.
In the regular season based on the data presented above, there are definitely advantages to buying individual games on StubHub and to buying an entire season, even when you don't consider the added benefits of being a season ticket holder, which I think are considerable. However, when you get to the playoffs, there's no comparison whatsoever. The five home playoff games this year cost me $355 for lower level seats and $114 for upper level seats. The cheapest I could have bought playoff tickets a week ahead of time on StubHub was $1,213 for all five games in the lower level and $643 upstairs. Those prices are about 3.5 times greater downstairs and over six times as expensive in the upper deck. Even with the prices dropping precipitously (by over $60 per ticket according to my data) for games four and six against Indiana in the second round after all the bandwagonners jumped off, the season ticket holder prices cannot be beaten here.
Finally a word about buying a week ahead of time as opposed to waiting the day of the game to buy. My numbers showed only five games dropped in price significantly in the regular season as the day of the game approached. The two largest drops were for the Lakers game in November (presumably consumers knew Kobe wasn't playing and just waited for prices to drop) and for the Pacers game late in the season when the bottom fell out of Indiana's game. In some cases, it actually would pay to buy earlier, especially for games against popular teams.
I think the prices of Wizards season tickets are insanely low and I am sure ownership knows it. Next year, the price of a full season in the lower level has increased to $55 per game and the price of upper level seats has gone up by $4 a game to $20, the highest those seats have been priced since I've been a season ticket holder these past 14 years. Buying a full season on StubHub this year in the upper deck would have cost a little less than $22 per game; buying downstairs would cost about $72 a contest. In a couple of years, assuming secondary market demand stays the same (it won't, but likely to a point), we may see these prices cross and StubHub buying become less expensive. Until then, I think my season tickets are a great investment, even though that investment sometimes does not pay off at all. You can bet I'll be tracking this next year.

The spreadsheet I used to keep track of all this stuff.

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