I'M NOT a sports fan; never have been. Maybe that's why all the atmospherics surrounding ticket scalping raise more questions in my mind than they answer.
For example: Why is someone who sells tickets to a Red Sox fan outside Fenway Park for a heavily inflated price called a "scalper," while someone who charges the same fan $4 for a bottle of water inside the stadium is called a "concessionaire"?
Another question, admittedly not germane to the transaction itself: How can people who shudder with revulsion when Atlanta Braves fans do the "tomahawk chop," or who find Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians' cheerful emblem, politically offensive, refer so disdainfully to the resale of tickets as "scalping"?
But what I really don't understand about the scalping brouhaha is why anyone thinks the government should be involved in deciding how much a willing buyer can pay a willing seller for tickets to a lawful entertainment event. We all take it for granted that if you're willing to pay for the privilege, you can stay at the best hotel, live in the best neighborhood, eat at the best restaurant, or hire the best lawyer. So what accounts for the heavy breathing when some fans pay a premium in order to see Daisuke Matsuzaka take the mound or watch David Beckham bend it with the L.A. Galaxy? Or -- this isn't only about sports -- to hear Beyoncé sing "Irreplaceable" or catch a sold-out "Wicked" on Broadway?
Actually, around the country much of the heavy breathing has been subsiding. On Aug. 1, Minnesota dumped an antiscalping law dating back to 1913, enabling ticket-reselling scofflaws to finally come out of the shadows. "This country was built on free trade and now I have to worry about more competition," scalper Michael Stratton told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But I don't have to worry about my daughters seeing me handcuffed."
In New York, too, consenting adults can now publicly engage in supply and demand. A bill signed by Governor Eliot Spitzer in June largely deregulated the resale of tickets to theatres, concerts, and sporting events. "Ticket scalping laws historically have not worked," Spitzer said. "I think permitting a free market to work its magic there is the smart approach."
They think the same thing in Florida, which repealed its antiscalping law last year, and in Illinois, which embraced the free market in 2005, and in Connecticut, where reselling tickets at a profit will become legit this October.
All told, 42 states have decided that the heavens won't collapse if people who own tickets to games and shows are free to sell them for whatever the market will bear -- as free as people who own real estate, shares of stock, Beanie Babies, or just about anything else. Last week, abandoning its irrational bias against scalping, Major League Baseball announced a five-year agreement with StubHub, a leading online reseller of tickets to entertainment events. Teams will recommend StubHub to fans who want to sell their tickets or buy some from other fans; in return, MLB will collect a share of StubHub's revenue.
Here in the People's Republic of Massachusetts, however, a free market in tickets is still just a fantasy. For months, state legislators have been making noises about scrapping the state's archaic antiscalping law, under which tickets may not be resold for more than $2 above face value. But while Beacon Hill dithers, Boston's mayor and police department have launched a holy war against ticket resellers, 21 of whom have been arrested near Fenway Park so far this year. Most of those arrested have been charged with not one, not two, but three crimes -- ticket scalping, occupying a street for the resale of tickets, and unregistered hawking and peddling -- for which the combined penalty can be as much as $800 and a year in prison.
With 45 murders in Boston so far this year -- five in the past week alone -- it seems more than a little crazy to be siccing police officers on harmless ticket-sellers.
But even if Boston were as safe as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, treating scalpers as criminals would serve no public benefit. Price controls -- whether on gasoline, medical care, or baseball tickets -- are never a smart idea. They invariably distort the market, frustrate consumers, encourage hoarding, and lead to shortages. Letting buyers and sellers sort things out in a free market is the best way to keep the supply of any commodity available at a fair price.
Want to see the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium later this month? As of yesterday, StubHub had tickets for as little as $26 apiece. I may not be a sports fan, but that doesn't sound like "scalping" to me.