A premium scam: How the Tribune Co. has your cake and eats it, too
by: Nick Stevenson (e-mail)
On November 24, sports fans the world over were stricken with a sudden and inexplicable feeling of nausea. Most assumed that it was something they ate. The truth, however, is far worse. Something is about to eat them.
This disturbance in the force stems from a court decision in Chicago by Judge Sophia Hall, who decreed that the Chicago Cubs, who are owned by the Tribune Company, did not violate the Ticket Scalping Act by selling Cubs tickets to Premium Ticket Services, a ticket broker down the street from Wrigley Field, a ticket broker that also happens to be owned by the Tribune Company.
That’s right, the Tribune Company is in the business of scalping their own team’s tickets.
It works like this: When tickets for the 2003 season went on sale, a group of tickets for each game, a group that by and large consisted of the best seats in the house, would be sold, at face value and before any fan had any chance to purchase them, directly to Premium, who would then be free to charge any price they wanted. A $45 ticket for the Cubs-Yankees series, for example, topped out at $1,500. The Tribune Company, in effect, would profit twice on the sale of one ticket, marking $45 in a column for the Cubs revenue, and the $1,500 in a column for Premium’s revenue. Premium’s balance sheet may show that they actually bought the tickets from the Cubs, but since both companies have the same parent, the debt is only on paper. The money Premium “pays” for those tickets doesn’t even exist, which means the Tribsters are printing money, and you, the fan, are getting boned.
One of the beauties of baseball is that, thanks to a 162-game schedule, ticket prices are pretty inexpensive in comparison to sports in general (and basketball in particular). But if other teams follow the Tribune’s lead – and now that the courts have ruled in the Tribune’s favor, you can bet your sweet bippy that the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals and Mariners will look into it - kiss those relatively cheap seats goodbye.
Yet, spokespeople for the Tribune Co. say, with a straight face, no less, that this move is actually better for the consumer, a notion they repeated endlessly outside the courtroom after the verdict. However, when pressed to explain how selling fewer tickets at face value actually benefited the customer, those same spokespeople ran for the elevators. In fact, some fans were so incensed by the Tribune’s nerve that they deliberately sought out a ticket broker unaffiliated with the Cubs, just to make sure the Trib received face value for their tickets and not a penny more. Many other fans have simply sworn off buying tickets altogether.
To give Judge Hall credit, her role in this was to rule if the Tribune Co. broke the law in setting up its own ticket broker, not to rule whether it was
right for the Tribune Co. to do so. It’s pretty clear to any fan of the game that any team with its own ticket broker has a slight conflict of interest issue. But as they say, you can’t legislate morality, and the Trib is much more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit of it. Perhaps they’ll now reexamine the law and rewrite it, much like they rewrote the California law that allowed Michael Jackson’s first accuser to refuse to testify against him 10 years ago. (His current accuser no has no such luxury.) But until that day, that seat in the front row on the first base line is gonna cost you a grand, punk.
The most aggravating part of this whole scam is how little press it’s received on the national level. Of course, it makes perfect sense that this is the case, given that the accused is one of the largest media outlets in the country. In fact, were it not for the tireless efforts of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Greg Couch, a one-man Woodward & Bernstein who has taken the Cubs and the Tribune to task before Premium ever sold its first ticket, would anyone outside of Cubdom even know about this? Peter Gammons, the unofficial commissioner of baseball, has scarcely said a word about it. Why? Doesn’t he know how damaging this will be to the game? Or will he only speak up when his beloved Red Sox start their own broker?
Either way, this ruling sets a dangerous precedent that could cripple the game. Fans cry poor every year when teams raise their ticket prices, but imagine the outcry if the best seats went up in value 30 times, not 30 percent. Plus, only large-market teams are in a position to extort this kind of money from their fans, which means what small sliver of a middle class there is left in baseball would surely disappear. How on earth is this good for baseball, or its fans, in any way?
This is why the Tribune needs to take a step back and ask, is it worth it? After all, they can’t make money on baseball if there is no baseball. They’ve clearly shown that they do not value their fans by any measure other than the money they can make from them. If the fans really wanted to show the Tribune that they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore, they’d hit the Trib where it hurts – the pocketbook, natch – and stop going to the games. Of course, that’s never going to happen, not after the Cubs came within five outs of the World Series. But it may be the only way to make the Tribune see, in a two-wrongs-make-a-right kind of way, that owning their own ticket broker is essentially mortgaging the game’s future in exchange for a little extra scratch today.
Does that notion sound at all familiar? Ah, baseball. It’s more American than we ever knew.
Send any questions or comments for Nick Stevenson to firstname.lastname@example.org.