Q&A With Fans First Coalition’s Michael Marion

Fans First Coalition president Michael Marion talks about how his organization combats scalping.  Discussing ticketing in the digital era, Marion covers several topics including paperless tickets, fan club pre-sales and license vs. ownership.

A few weeks ago Pollstar interviewed Fan Freedom Project president Jon Potter about ticket transparency.  Today we present the other side of the issue in a Q&A with Marion.

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What is the Fans First Coalition?

Fans First Coalition is a group of buildings, artists, promoters, ticket companies that are concerned about what’s been going on the last couple years with scalping.

How is Fans First funded?

At this point, Ticketmaster is our main benefactor. I myself am the GM of the Verizon Arena in Little Rock, Ark., and while I am president, I’m certainly not paid by Ticketmaster. Our board (Rose Presents’ Rand Levy, Target Center’s David Balcer and PNC Arena’s William L. Traurig) is all volunteers.

What are some of the major issues Fans First is working to address?

It’s obviously about scalping. Over the past few years as paperless ticketing has rolled out, scalpers have become nervous and upset that [paperless] might impinge on their business and people wouldn’t have to pay exorbitant prices for tickets. So they’ve put together this Fan Freedom Project where they’re paying Jon Potter to go out and be an advocate for the cause of the scalpers.

All of [our board members] in the last couple years have been involved in fighting legislation in our own states where the scalpers are trying to change the laws so they’ll work better for them. Specifically, they’re trying to ban paperless so people can’t get tickets at face value. They want to be able to get [those tickets] themselves and sell them at the big prices.

We looked around as a group and decided that maybe we ought to get together and do something. Ticketmaster agreed to help us out and to finance this organization to be available to the various states where there are coalitions – Florida Facility Managers comes to mind. Right now they’re in the middle of a big battle with the scalpers and we’re a resource for them.

That’s what brought us together and what we continue to deal with is scalpers trying to change the laws so they’re advantageous to the scalpers. Of course they hide behind, “Oh, we’re doing it for the fans.” But when you look at the fact that Jon Potter is paid by Stubhub, he must be trying to do something for the scalpers.

Where does the Coalition stand on ticket ownership?

[Scalpers] have tried various methods of banning paperless tickets so fans couldn’t get tickets at face value and the scalpers could get all the tickets they want.

If you look at any state in the country, case law says that a ticket to an event or movie is a license and it’s always been a license. I’ve never had a phone call from a patron complaining, “My ticket is a license and I’m not happy about that.”

It’s not a piece of property and it’s never been a piece of property but the scalpers figured out that if they make it property, they can do with it whatever they want and there won’t be conditions set on it. We recognize it for what it is. The law says it’s a license, and we recognize it for what it is. Our position is that case law is correct and it is a license.

Ticketmaster recently rolled out ticket transfer capabilities. Is this in line with the mission of Fans First?

Let’s talk about paperless for a minute. With paperless ticketing, it’s not all or nothing. When we do Jimmy Buffet, George Strait or Fleetwood Mac, it’s only paperless for about a third of the house. It’s not the whole house, but the scalpers only really care about one third of the best seats. That’s who we’re trying to thwart here is the scalpers taking that face-value inventory and turning around and reselling it.

We want the fans to be able buy the tickets at face value. If somebody’s in the upper deck, I’m not really worried about those [tickets] going to scalpers because scalpers don’t want to buy those tickets.

Going back to your question, I think technology is such that we’re all going to be using our cell phones for ticketing. If I buy four tickets and I need to transfer one to my wife, that’s fine. When I board a plane now, I don’t get a boarding pass. It’s on my phone. The idea that somebody buys four tickets and needs to transfer them to someone else is no different than them buying four tickets and delivering them to somebody.

But paperless tickets will be non-transferable. When we turn on transfer [capabilities] with our ticketing system, those 4,000 paperless tickets won’t be part of it. I don’t see it as a conflict with what we’re trying to do – it’s a decision that each building and each artist makes. Eric Church went out with paperless tickets, Michael Bublé went out with paperless. They didn’t make every ticket in the house paperless. They just picked the seats that the scalpers want and made those paperless. That choice by the buildings, artists and promoters will continue.

Do artist fan clubs and presales eat up too many of the tickets these days?

The scalpers try to spin this like it’s some big secret, like there’s some cabal that’s trying to take all these tickets out of inventory and not make them available to the fans.

The fan club is just that – it’s people who love Taylor Swift or Fleetwood Mac or whomever, so they join the fan club. One of the benefits of the fan club is access to the tickets. So what, they’re a fan, they got the tickets.

An onsale these days is an ongoing process. It’s not a time and a date. There’s a variety of onsales and none of these are secrets. Nobody is trying to hide that the fan club has its own presale or that the building has a presale. We advertise, we send out emails, we encourage people to join our database. We don’t guarantee you get an opportunity for a presale on every show, but we’ve got more than 100,000 people on that list and they are people that want to go to concerts. We know that they’re interested already.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know scalpers are in these clubs. I’m not that naïve. But a lot of the fan clubs will do will-call only so the people who buy those fan club tickets have to come to the ticket window the day of the show to get those tickets. There’s an effort there in trying to thwart the scalpers’ efforts with the fan clubs and the presale.

What about the reports we’ve seen where just a few thousand seats from a 20,000-cap arena are available at the onsale?  Some would call that practice false advertising.

When the Apple store debuted the iPhone 5, did they have to say how many phones they had in stock? When an artist goes on sale, are they supposed to have the entire house available? Again, the fan club is not a secret. There’s nothing nefarious about building presales. Nobody is hiding that, and it’s advertised everywhere.

As an organization, this is a problem that [Potter] and the scalpers have made up. Their goal – besides banning paperless ticketing – is to get everybody off them as much as possible by trying to make things that we do as buildings or as artists look nefarious. Their whole goal is to shift the focus off of them taking my $95 Fleetwood Mac ticket and selling it for $400. They don’t want to talk about that. You’ll never hear Fan Freedom talk about scalpers and all the things they’re doing to try to jack up the price on patrons.

In a recent interview with Pollstar, Potter claimed venues, ticketing companies, artists and promoters try to hide the practice of ticket holds and presales and place the blame on scalpers.

It’s misdirection on his part because we’re not trying to hide anything. On my web page it says “In The Know!” You can sign up for our email blast for event notification and sometimes there are presales.

Keep in mind that for every artist and every building, we’re all about getting people in our building. We’re not about keeping them out. We thrive, we survive, we get our bills paid. We enjoy what we do because we’re getting people to come into our building and have a good time. I tell my staff, “We’re not making widgets here, we’re selling a good time!” We want to do everything we can to get people in the door. We’re not trying to make them mad or keep them away.

We’ve been doing paperless ticketing for almost four years now and I get virtually no complaints. Don’t get me wrong. At any given point, there’s some little issue like somebody’s credit card expires but we do everything we can to get people in our building because it’s to our benefit.

The Fan Freedom Project claims it’s seeking to bring transparency and full disclosure to the purchase process. Your group also touts transparency and full disclosure. Can you explain where the differences lie?

When Jon and his group talk about transparency, they want to know what tickets are available at the onsale so that they can say, “This show did really well with the fan-club presale. This is going to be a hot ticket. I’d better be sure and get in.” Or, “It looks like they didn’t sell a lot in the fan-club presale. Maybe I don’t need to worry about getting so many tickets.” So it’s kind of like giving the bank robber the combination to the safe.

When we say transparency, we’re saying, “OK, you listed a ticket for a Luke Bryan show that’s going to play the Verizon Arena in September and it’s not on sale yet. We have not printed one ticket yet but Mr. Scalper, you’re offering tickets to that show.” That’s one of the things building managers complain about. A show’s getting ready to go on sale and you go on StubHub and all the scalpers have tickets listed everywhere.

What’s funny is they’ll list the top row of the building and then say, “We will get you this ticket or better.” So that’s not being transparent – they don’t have those tickets. We’d like for the scalper to say, “I don’t have these tickets.” We’d just as soon they don’t offer them at all.

We’d also like the scalpers to quit listing sites like verizonarenaboxoffice.com. That’s not us. We sued one last year and settled within a matter of days when a scalper was listing our name and pretending to be our box office. We’d like for that to stop.

We’ve had people come down here asking about tickets because they’ve bought from one of these sites and thought they’d bought from us. When you’re buying tickets from a scalper, we’d like for the scalper to say who they are and how you can contact them. Those are some of the transparency issues we think about.

Paperless ticketed shows have helped keep scalpers out of the mix but some say the practice can make it “harder to get into one of these concerts than it is to get on an airplane.” Is there a point where paperless tickets may simply become too onerous?

The purchase process is the exact same. It’s just like buying a ticket. The key is that you have to show up the night of show with your ID and the credit card you bought [the ticket] with. We say that right on the purchase page before you buy your ticket so people know that.

Scalpers talk about letting the free market decide. Well we’ve been doing paperless for four years and our shows are well attended. The people have spoken and they’re fine with paperless ticketing. Nobody is staying away because of paperless.

Most people buy tickets not to transfer them, but to come to the show. The only people that care about transfer are the scalpers. We did a survey after one of our shows with 4,000 paperless and 88 percent of people said they would do paperless again in order to get tickets at face value.

It’s not onerous. The scalpers want to make it sound onerous. They say it’s going to take longer to get in the building. When we started doing paperless, you’d walk up with three people, scan your credit card and all four of you would walk in the building, instead of having to scan four individual tickets. At worst it’s the same, and at best, they’re getting in a little faster.

Scalpers also have this notion that people have to gather together before they walk into the building, and isn’t it awful? A lot of people do that anyway. When I work a show, I’m usually outside in the crowd helping to direct people. I remember seeing a guy and I could tell he was waiting for other people with his paperless confirmation in hand. I went up and asked him, “You have a paperless ticket and have to wait for three other people. Are you OK with that knowing you got this ticket at face value and didn’t have to worry about buying from a scalper?” He said of course he was.

Scalpers also want to make it seem like grandma bought every ticket in the house and she can’t send her grandson.

Grandma didn’t buy every ticket in the house. Usually, somebody that’s going bought the ticket. But when you come across a younger show, we’ll tell them, if you’ll send along a copy of grandma’s ID and bring grandma’s credit card, we’ll let them in. Because we’re about getting people in the building, not keeping people out!
So there’s nothing onerous about [paperless]. If it was, we would have quit a long time ago.

Any closing thoughts?

Fans First is here to support efforts to get the tickets to the fans at face value. If I had my druthers, scalping would end tomorrow. But if it’s going to continue, it should certainly be more transparent.

(For more information about the Fans First Coalition, please click here for the organization’s website.)