Scalping the golden ticket: OSU-Michigan football seats

Sam Wolson/Daily
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Published November 17, 2009

The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is known as “The Game,” but in Ann Arbor every other year, it’s about much more than just athletics. With masses of people buying and selling tickets to see the adversaries face off, the phenomenon creates a self-contained, informal economy.

Right after season tickets are mailed to students during the summer, tickets to the latest installment of college football’s greatest rivalry begin appearing on online marketplaces. The Ohio State tickets — originally priced $25 and $65 at student and standard rates, respectively — are often resold at higher prices dictated by both seat location and by the anticipated magnitude of the game, which hikes up demand. Leading sellers to strategically place tickets on the block at the time during the season when the demand is greatest to garner higher asking prices.

The routine runs rampant across campus, Ann Arbor and even the state of Michigan. The practice of purchasing season tickets from the University — either for the student rate of $200 (not including handling), or the standard rate of $400 — then selling single tickets to turn massive profits is so widespread that few have the slightest inkling of University and state regulations prohibiting scalping.

“It’s extremely common for students to sell tickets for most games,” LSA senior Gibran Baydoun said. “Ohio State is a special market where students can make a lot of money. … I see students selling (tickets) out in the open and online, all pretty openly.”

Under Michigan law, the supplier of the tickets — in this case, the University — is allowed to authorize resale above the face value. Although the University won’t likely do this in most cases, it does allow profitable reselling by charities. As the small print on the backside of each ticket stipulates, tickets also cannot be sold on University premises and are subject to Michigan’s scalping policy, which prohibits illegal resale. According to the University’s website, any violation of either state law or University regulations can result in becoming ineligible for future season tickets even if no criminal charges are filed.

One student, who declined to be interviewed for this article for fear of repercussions from the Athletic Department, admitted that the University had once warned her when she had tried to sell her tickets online. The University issues many such warnings each year, but there have only been one or two cases of packages being revoked, said Marty Bodnar, the associate athletic director for ticketing services.

Bodnar said because of policing difficulties, the ticket office only looks at the most egregious cases of scalping. However, he said, the office does know the identity of some major scalpers. In addition, Big Ten schools share scalper information with each other.

"Students have to be careful about our scalping policy,” Bodnar said. “If it gets posted on the Internet, we’re watching eBay and other sites to see who is posting for more than face value.”

eBay, StubHub, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, among other websites, are all home to rampant scalping. However, due to the fact that buyers and sellers rarely reveal their state of residency, state laws are more difficult to enforce online, despite what the websites might promise to do. The light misdemeanor penalty (a $100 fine or a maximum of 90 days in jail) for getting caught also doesn’t strike enough fear into prospective buyers and sellers to drastically change market behavior.

Something that does change market behavior, on the other hand, is how the two teams are performing in the season, which signifies the importance of “The Game” that year. If both teams are doing very well and the game could have Big Ten or Bowl Championship Series implications, demand for the game runs much higher than if both teams are undergoing rebuilding years. In college football, this can change quickly in only one game, so speculation is conducted on a weekly basis.

The Big Ten champion has been decided between Michigan and Ohio State in this game 22 times. This year, No. 11 Ohio State already has wrapped up a share of the conference title and a Rose Bowl bid. Meanwhile, Michigan is unranked and must upset Ohio State this Saturday to keep from missing its second straight bowl game. Mired in a six-game Big Ten losing streak, demand for tickets to the big game has followed a similar plight.

The 38-34 Michigan upset of No. 18 Notre Dame on Sept. 12 brought expectations for the 2009 Wolverines to a fever pitch and even temporarily launched Tate Forcier’s name into some early Heisman discussions. But then Michigan’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Though the loss to Penn State wasn’t entirely unexpected, the lopsided loss to Illinois on Halloween and the close loss to Purdue at home a week later had major repercussions on the market for Ohio State tickets.

On Craigslist, the simplest of the major resale sites to track price fluctuation based on time, asking prices for individual tickets for Ohio State were generally around $150 the day before Illinois, with many above $200 and nearly all over $100. After the Purdue loss, most tickets were on sale for around $120, while bargain hunters could find tickets for under $100. On StubHub, the best deals for different sections followed the same pattern.

With Michigan struggling mightily to clinch a sixth win to secure a bowl game, many sellers were pessimistic before last week’s game against No. 21 Wisconsin, fearing that a loss would sap the Ohio State game of its importance and its potential resale value.

“I’d been trying to get a higher price, but nobody was going for it,” said an Engineering sophomore who asked that her name not be used. “Prices are decreasing mostly because people don’t want to spend that much since we’re doing so badly.”

She originally tried to sell her ticket for $200 during the opening weeks of the season, and had offers for $150 that she declined. Eventually, she sold her ticket for $90 hours after the Wolverines’ lopsided 45-24 loss to Wisconsin on Nov. 14.

Online asking prices for Ohio State took another tumble after last Saturday’s loss. Newer posts on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace tended to ask for $100 or less, with some settling for as little as $45 or $50. Surely, those who planned to sell after the Notre Dame win but held out for a better price must be kicking themselves now.

Another potential avenue for sellers is to look to Ohio State fans, whose morale is much higher after being given an automatic Rose Bowl bid and generally have more on the line to win the game. They are also more likely to have fewer connections to Ann Arbor, which means less of an idea where to find the best bargain. Multiple Ohio State fans I contacted for this story told me they would be willing to buy any ticket for $150 or under. But some Michigan students are against selling to anyone from Ohio State, essentially viewing it as treason.

“If I can’t go to a game, I just want to give another Michigan student the opportunity to experience a Michigan football game in the Big House,” Baydoun said. “It’s not about profit. You have to keep the Michigan section as the Michigan section.”

The Athletic Department also brings in revenues from the resale of tickets from students to non-students. The student ticket policy requires that a validation sticker must be attached to any tickets being used by fans without valid M-Cards, so each time a student sells to a non-student, the University earns profits it wouldn’t normally receive. In 2006, the University brought in $173,000 in validations. The 2007 total was approximately $150,000, and Bodnar estimates revenue will top $200,000 this year due to the additional home game in the schedule. In previous years, validations were $25, but different price tiers enforced this year vary depending on the importance of the game. For the early non-conference games, the price was $25; for Penn State and Purdue, $34; and for Notre Dame and Ohio State, $40.

The Ohio State game is a buyer’s market this year. And as the game gets even closer, ticket prices are liable to sink even lower. With Michigan’s prospects for a win this Saturday dim, it will be interesting to see how many University students will forgo the potential profit to instead seize their chance to witness The Game while they’re still students.