The story behind ticketing and why Hal is upset at the Beatles


I had lunch today in San Francisco with some wonderful people I worked with in the Ticket business when BASS started.  Hal Silen, of course, Doug Levinson who managed BASS Tickets so successfully, and our two attorneys who steered a good course for us starting back in 1974, Art Shartsis and Tony Leuin.  Their law firm is now one of the most  prestigious in San Francisco, and we were among their very first clients.  (Art reminded me of my reaction when he won a very important case for us:  I called him and said “you are worth every dollar we owe you”)

Hal was a great lawyer, but because he was a principal at BASS, we had to use outside counsel when we had trouble (which I realize today was pretty frequently).

The ticket business is different than you might think.  It is based on the principal that unsold inventory (tickets) have a great value, and you try to get clients (promoters, clubs, sports teams, arts, universities, etc) based on their potential ticket sales.  Even though we were capable as a computerized company of providing the software for season or subscriber tickets for events, our revenue stream depended on the ability to sign clients who had tickets not all tied up in subscriptions, so that we could get service charges on the individual tickets available.

To give you kind of a backward view of the world as we saw it, we liked working with sports teams who had been so unsuccessful in prior years that they had lost their subscriber base as many more seats would be available for all games.  Thus the Oakland Raiders were of greater value to us than the very successful 49ers as the ‘niners virtually sold out by season tickets, and we had only a few thousand single tickets (i.e. not adjoining each other) to sell for each game, whereas with the Raiders, we might be able to sell 10 or 15,000 depending on whom they were playing.  (Peggy Brown came in laughing one day when we put the 49er tickets on sale for the season:  caller “I would like 4 tickets for the Green Bay game”.  Peggy: “they are all single tickets”.  Caller:  “well give me 4 of the singles together”.)

The Cleveland fans don’t want to hear this, but from the ticket company viewpoint only, the Cavaliers become a more attractive client because so many season ticket holders will cancel.  I told you it is a backward view.

When I was running Roller Derby I discovered Ticketron in the mid 60’s.  It really was not a very good system, but it was the only one.  What was great for us was that on our telecasts instead of having to give 10 ticket locations or telling people to come to the box office, we could say in the markets where they were (San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, New York, etc) that they could get tickets through Ticketron at Sears, or wherever.  And we could get an immediate sales account from our reporting printer so we could determine what needed to be done to make the game successful.

Previously, we would have to distribute hard tickets to various box offices which meant that if you wanted to buy middle of the arena on the West side, you might live in Oakland, go to the San Francisco ticket office and find they didn’t have the tickets there.  Also, since we had no control of the box offices, we would find the some of them would act as brokers, holding back good tickets and if they could get additional money from the buyer, they would provide them.  Then we would have to pick up the tickets the day before the games so we could see what we had to sell at the building box office, often losing the last two days of sales which could be the best.   Somebody in Sacramento who wanted to attend a game didn’t want to drive all the way to the Bay Area to see the Bombers without a ticket in hand.

When we started BASS, our service charges were generally in the range of 50 cents, sometimes with a small charge to the promoter also.  As people got more and more used to computerized ticketing, they couldn’t understand why they had to pay a dollar per ticket to buy in Santa Rosa Tower Records or wherever.  Obviously, they could get the best seat available from the computer, just the same as at the Cow Palace box office, but without the hassle of the drive, their time, etc.  People still complained.  We also had a phone service so they could call in and get the best available seats  from the computer.

As it became more necessary for us to make certain we had the inventory, we would have to provide expensive computers and box office equipment for clients, as well as training their personnel, and more service.  These costs had to be put into the service charges, and also a percentage of the service charge would be negotiated and given to the arena or wherever.  Whenever I hear complaints on why a hot dog or coke or parking is so high at a ball park or arena, it is because a private company has usually installed its equipment, personnel and bid a high percentage of the price each food item as rent to the building….the same with parking, and with the computerization of the box office and the right to sell “outlet” tickets.

This was pretty much the shape of ticketing when Hal and I got out of it in 1997.   It has changed considerably.  As promoters raised the ticket prices, I think figuring if the $20 tickets up front are going to be sold to brokers and resold for often hundreds of dollars, why shouldn’t the acts, promoters, and arenas get the higher price, and of course the service charges went up right along with it.

Today virtually 85 to 90% of tickets are sold to customers not through outlets, box offices or phones, but on their home computers, iphones, droids, blackberries, etc.  And the business is heading towards a completely paperless ticket….you will buy it on your phone, come to the event, get the phone scanned and go inside; your ticket is recorded as attending the event and you will show your phone to get your seat.  This will certainly limit scalping.  Both American Airlines and United Airlines today are testing at some airports paperless e-tickets for their flights.

What your device will do in the future is almost beyond our comprehension;  you will be offered show merchandise, preferred parking, maybe even dinner at a place near the concert or sporting event.  Stay tuned as I will try and follow events in the future.

Now here is something for you lovers of a good could-have-been story.  Hal Silen, my long-time partner, also represented Donahue and Mitchell who were DJs on KYA radio in the 60’s and concert promoters.  The Beatles after a highly successful tour were convinced to do some stadium shows;  and in a last- minute promotion Candlestick Park in San Francisco was included.  Since there was no computerized ticketing for Candlestick, Donahue and Mitchell ordered 40,000 reserved seat tickets for the performance…..despite a very short time for promotion, 26,000 people were in attendance.  There were 14,000 unsold tickets (“deadwood”), so each of the promoters and Hal took a few tickets as souvenirs, and the rest were destroyed.  After this concert, the Beatles decided they would do no more shows for awhile, then they broke up and never played together in public again.  I often remind Hal he could have moved to the Riviera and lived a great life, having 14,000 tickets for the very last Beatles concert to sell to the highest bidders.

6 comments on “The story behind ticketing and why Hal is upset at the Beatles

  1. Jerry, from what I remember reading years ago, didn’t you start BASS Tickets because of the way Ticketron’s computers screwed up the selling of the tickets for the Roller Derby Gold Cup tripleheader at Shea Stadium in May of 1973? (I was there…fantastic games!)

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