Toronto Maple Leafs, Raptors strong-arm scalpers, look to cash in on resale tickets
CBC/Toronto Star investigation explores the murky world of scalpers, sports and the battle for higher profits
As Toronto sports fans starve for affordable tickets to Maple Leafs and Raptors playoff games, a CBC/Toronto Star investigation has learned the teams' owners are trying to get in on the profits being made by professional scalpers.
Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment has identified hundreds of hockey and basketball season ticket holders who are making a killing reselling thousands of tickets.
To fans like me it feels like a big middle finger.- Ian Tulloch
Instead of cancelling the tickets to allow regular fans a crack at them, MLSE is charging these "commercial resellers" a new 30 per cent premium to renew their seats for the 2018-19 season. MLSE also encouraged the scalpers to join its new "Trusted Reseller Program."
"To fans like me it feels like a big middle finger," said Ian Tulloch, a 25-year-old Leafs superfan who produces the Leafs Geeks podcast.
"I understand that it's their product and they want to make as much money as they possibly can. It just sucks for someone in my position," said Tulloch, who says he rarely gets to attend a Leafs game due to the prices.
The Leafs' and Raptors' new strategy is part of a global trend of pro sports teams searching for ways to get in on the multibillion-dollar global resale market that has fed the growth of major scalper websites like StubHub, Vivid Seats and SeatGeek.
Scalpers hit with 30% hike
Without warning, MLSE last month sent out a new kind of renewal notice to some Leafs and Raptors season ticket holders, alerting them they've been identified as "commercial resellers." To renew seats for the 2018-19 season, MLSE said they'd have to pay a 30 per cent markup over regular customers.
In one example, regular fans are charged $21,556 for a pair of gold seats for 42 home games, and resellers are charged $28,454 for similar seats.
It came as a rude shock to Russ Blacklock, a ticket broker with RJB Promotions.
"It's opportunism," said Blacklock. "It's all about money."
Like other brokers, he's sold quantities of season tickets for 35 years and says that, until now, the Leafs have never taken issue with his business, which is legal under Ontario law.
"All of a sudden the team starts to play well after years of supporting them and having no problems. It's also about the big guy knocking the little guy out of a situation."
MLSE declined to answer precisely how many of its arena's 18,200 seats are controlled by known scalpers but said three per cent of Leafs memberships and 13.5 per cent of Raptors memberships were invoiced as "commercial resellers" this year.
'Trusted Reseller Program'
While it might appear MLSE is trying to price scalpers out of business, the invoices from February actually invited brokers to forge closer ties and to join an MLSE "Trusted Reseller Program."
Resellers say they've been provided next to no details about the new program. But one broker said MLSE offered to drop its season ticket price hike if the scalper switched to using Leafs and Raptors "official" resale websites endorsed by the NHL and NBA — sites owned by the original box office, Ticketmaster.
Neither MLSE nor Ticketmaster would discuss what share of the profits teams receive on tickets sold through those resale sites.
"We won't disclose the details of those arrangements," Ticketmaster spokesperson Joanna Leong told CBC News in an email statement.
It's a move the brokers say is an attempt to profit from additional fees and grab scalpers' client data.
"It's totally ridiculous. Unfair. Very Mafia!" complains Ervil DiGiusto, head of the Canadian Ticket Brokers Association, which represents more than 20 major resellers.
"We're being targeted. They basically want a piece of our action is really what it comes down to," says DiGiusto.
CBC/Toronto Star asked MLSE to explain the new program. Amidst push-back from scalpers and questions from the media, MLSE said Thursday it has decided to scrap the Trusted Reseller Program for now.
That means the Leafs and Raptors are losing out on huge profits being made by middlemen on scalper websites. CBC News found that last week StubHub and other reseller sites had more than 2,800 Leafs tickets posted for tonight's much-anticipated home playoff game against the Boston Bruins. The average price of a resale ticket was $761.62, much higher than the original prices at the box office.
MLSE insists its move to charge scalpers 30 per cent more to renew season seats for next year does not amount to "a premium." Instead it says it is merely stripping them of the discount enjoyed by regular season ticket holders who buy packages of 42 homes games "primarily for their personal use."
"MLSE believes that commercial resellers are in the business of reselling tickets and should pay the full cost of their season seat memberships," Dave Haggith, MLSE director of communications, said in an emailed statement.
David vs. Goliath
Blacklock calls MLSE's approach a cash grab designed to undermine a valuable "secondary market" he says allows patrons to offload unused prime tickets to a cadre of loyal corporate, travel and fan clients.
"I've been called a scalper for 40 years," he said. "I'm OK with it. I got over it a long time ago. My customers have never had a problem with what I do."
He warns the move by MLSE will drive up prices for all fans.
"It's a little bit like David and Goliath. They're going to want to control it. And if Goliath rules everything … we're in trouble. If the Leafs are the only source [for tickets], they'll be able to manipulate those prices and hold those prices high."
Why not cancel scalper tickets?
In contrast, the Winnipeg Jets have long tried to stamp out any ties to scalpers or brokers and cancelled many season tickets bought up by speculators when the Jets returned to Winnipeg in 2011.
"It has been our practice to cancel broker tickets," said Kevin Donnelly, a Winnipeg Jets senior VP with the True North Sports and Entertainment. "It is absolutely our preference that tickets for the Winnipeg Jets remain in the hands of Winnipeg Jets fans."
The Jets even have a policy of requiring season ticket holders to pay a security deposit and sign a contract prohibiting commercial resales.
Tulloch, the podcaster, says Toronto needs to take a page from the Jets.
"If they can identify who the scalpers are and who's not actually using the tickets to the games, who's just reselling them every single time, I'd like to see them taken off the season ticket holder list. That'll be a good start, really," Tulloch said.
In the meantime, to ease frustration among Leafs fans feeling shut out of the current playoff series, MLSE is giving away 200 tickets for stools and standing room at high-demand games and has put up huge screens in Maple Leaf Square outside the arena in Toronto, where fans can gather to watch.