British Columbia

'The game is rigged': Does B.C. have a price-gouging problem when it comes to ticket sales?

As B.C. launches a public consultation on price gouging — possibly led by an invasion of bots at the box office — one expert explains how inflated ticket prices could be curtailed.

An expert weighs in on ways to cut out the middleman at the box office

As scalpers move online, finding tickets at face value is getting harder and harder. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

As B.C. launches a public consultation on ticket scalping — an issue led, the province suspects, by an invasion of bots at the box office — one expert explains how price gouging could be curtailed.

Pascal Courty, an economics professor at the University of Victoria who's studied the phenomenon, said input from the public is essential to understanding just how deep the problem runs.

"The first step is to get a sense of the pain — to see how big the issue is," Courty said.

If B.C. consumers are indeed hurting, then regulators can figure out a way to ensure event organizers are putting on a "fair lottery" for buyers, he said, while limiting the number of resellers creating the secondary markets so injurious to fans' wallets.

Event organizers, for instance, could be granted the power to cancel tickets they suspect were sold to scalpers, human or otherwise.

Alternatively, they could introduce identity verification to match the original buyer to the person actually lining up on game day.

Courty has studied a "bot epidemic" in the $8-billion world of ticket resale. (Supplied by Pascal Courty)

The causes of price gouging are twofold, Courty explained.

"The game is rigged at two levels. Event organizers hold tickets back from consumers and they don't know how many will be sold," he said.

That compels desperate fans to support the resale market by shelling out for inflated prices.

Equally as disruptive, bots — software programmed to instantly and automatically make bulk purchases — swarm retail sites the second event sales go online, snapping up tickets before flesh-and-blood humans can click their way through checkout.

Consumers 'rightly frustrated'

Compounding the problem, Courty said, is the fact that prospective ticket buyers are many and fluid, while internet commerce often spans borders.

The scope of these operations makes tackling scalpers hard for legal jurisdictions to handle without individual complainants. "It's a victimless crime," he said.

Yet a nationwide Angus Reid poll suggested half of Canadians think it's still up to governments to step in to protect consumers from the practice, while four out of five want ticket-hoarding bots banned entirely.

British Columbia currently has no laws against ticket scalping and no regulations to keep bots in check.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth told B.C. Almanac host Michelle Eliot that British Columbians are "rightly frustrated" when they sit down to order concert or hockey tickets and suddenly find they've vanished from the primary retailer's website — often just moments after they went on sale. 

"Next thing you know, a few minutes later they're up on a ticket resale site at exorbitantly inflated prices," Farnworth said.

"I don't blame people for being frustrated. They're not getting a fair shake."

The province's online survey will remain open until April. 

With files from Justin McElroy, B.C. Almanac and On the Island


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