The Risky Business of Reselling Super Bowl Tickets

In an unregulated market of superfandom, middleman websites such as StubHub might be the only ones to benefit.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

A little less than two weeks ago, a number of people who trade Super Bowl tickets like stocks did what they’ve been safely doing for at least five years: They sold away a bunch of tickets that they didn’t yet have. This year, the trusted maneuver was not so safe, and left some sellers short tens of thousands of dollars.

What these sellers were banking on was that between the time when they sold the tickets and when they actually had to deliver them to their customers, the price of the tickets in the secondary market (think StubHub) would drop significantly. If all went according to plan, these speculators would wait for the price to drop before actually acquiring the tickets and only then send them off to their buyers—making good money in the process. In years past, ticket prices have fallen on average $921 during this two-week window, typically from something on the scale of $4,000 to $3,000.

This year, that fall never came. As they had in years past, ticket brokers began posting for-sale offers (for tickets they didn’t yet have) through online clearinghouses such as StubHub and Vivid Seats shortly after the AFC and NFC championship games, which is historically when prices have peaked. They then sat back and waited for ticket prices to drop. Instead, prices shot up dramatically. Tickets' face values range from $800 to $1,900; the cheapest ticket on StubHub, as of Friday, was over $10,000, having dropped to about $8,000 since then.

Changes in the Price of Super Bowl Tickets on Marketplaces Like StubHub, by Year

It's not entirely clear what caused this spike in price. It might have been a result of heightened demand, which tempted brokers to make too many promises they couldn't keep. StubHub has its own theory. On Thursday, the company issued a press release suggesting that the people who sell off the tickets to brokers—fans who won the tickets in the NFL's lottery, or employees of companies sponsoring the Super Bowl, for example—colluded to restrict supply and drive up prices, like the OPEC of football.

Now, brokers are left in a tricky position. They can either buy tickets at a serious loss in order to provide their customers with what was promised, or they can flake on their customers and take a hit to their reputation. (StubHub, for its part, lightly polices speculation by requiring that brokers post the seat and section numbers—proof that they have the ticket in hand—a few days before the event itself. However, it's clear from the past two weeks that this is of limited use.)

Suffice it to say that not many of these brokers will be doing this again next year. “At the end of the day, many brokers took a big hit from this, while very few made a profit,” says Chris Matcovich, vice president of data and communications at the ticket-price aggregator TiqIQ.

These ticket buyers were engaging in what’s called “shorting.” To short something—wheat futures, Apple stock, the S&P 500, anything—is essentially to place a bet against it and to guess that its value will decline. In the stock market, shorting means borrowing a stock, selling it away, waiting, and then later buying that same stock and returning it to its original owner; if, during that wait, the stock’s value declines, the short was successful. This is what the Super Bowl ticket brokers were doing: They were expecting that the price would drop while they waited.

In the world of finance, shorting can serve the greater good, allowing investors to mitigate risk. For example, a cranberry farmer can enter a contract to short cranberries so that, in the event of an unforeseen drop in cranberry prices, the farmer will gain a bit of money from the short even if cranberry farmers everywhere have to sell off their crops at marked-down prices. And there's another way shorting can be used for good: An organization called Gotham City Research has been drawing attention to companies committing accounting fraud, and then encouraging investors to short those companies.

But the unregulated shorting on a site like StubHub does not exactly serve the greater good. If anything, it tends to serve the greater StubHub. According to a company spokesperson, StubHub collects about 25 percent commission on each Super Bowl ticket sold, and one of its executives estimated that about 10 to 15 percent of Super Bowl attendees buy their tickets through the site. Metlife Stadium, where last year's Super Bowl was played, accommodates 82,500 people. If tickets were sold at an average price of about $4,000, StubHub might have brought in about $10.3 million last year from the resale of Super Bowl tickets. StubHub's gains from this year's sales are harder to guess at, because it's not clear if the executive's '10 to 15 percent' estimate has held in 2015. (If it does, StubHub probably will collect a lot more than $10 million, given this year's price increases.) This year's debacle, however, might dissuade sellers from congregating on the site this time next year.