London 2012: Tickets do not maketh the man
Reading the LOCOG statement on Friday to announce the suspension of the Resale site, my thoughts were with a ticket agency called The TicketSellers. Seeing Ticketmaster held to account in such fashion must have given them a certain sense of schadenfreude.
To explain: The TicketSellers, a modest operation based in Birmingham, were appointed by British Swimming to sell tickets for their marquee event - the British Championships - at the Olympic Aquatic Centre, which takes place in March. Whilst not part of the official London Prepares series of test events for London 2012, the Championships are the full dress rehearsal for swimming events at the site in Stratford and all the big names are scheduled to participate. Throw in the fact that the tickets were going for an absolute steal (around £10 a pop) and demand was expected to be high among an expectant public of Team GB, Olympic and swimming fans.
When it came to launch day, it was a catastrophe as demand overran technology and thousands of potential customers were left frustrated. The problems grew and manifested, causing British Swimming and their reseller to put the sale on ice for several days until they could sort out the technical problems. Like LOCOG, British Swimming had to issue a mass e-mail communicating the suspension of sales - laying the blame firmly at the door of the Birmingham outfit. Sadly, for reasons unknown to most, The TicketSellers could not resolve their difficulties and British Swimming a week later issued another mail to subscribers confirming that they proudly appointed Ticketmaster as their new reseller. The e-mail was somewhat of a public slap for The TicketSellers. Sure, they were probably too small an outfit for what was being asked of them, but you couldn’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for them. One man’s entrepreneur is another man’s fall guy.
The same can’t be said for Ticketmaster. British Swimming, like LOCOG before them, chose them for their global track-record, their infrastructure and expertise. They sell tickets for a variety of events, globally, every day. They are a recogniseable, respected brand. Yet, with Resale to add the issues experienced with the live sale last Summer, the American outfit are fighting for their lives in the face of a furious customer - and potentially a million stakeholders.
Ticketing and London 2012 has been a dominant area of discussion for the last year. Time will provide the ultimate statistics, but at face value the London Games feel like the most anticipated in the modern era. It is both a credit to the city and the organisers, and a curse. Huge expectations nearly always lead to disappointment in certain areas - and with many outlets and groups (certainly at a domestic level) keen to seize on errors and mistakes made, the slightest issue becomes a prominent one.
It’s not clear how much influence Ticketmaster have had on the overall ticketing strategy implemented for London 2012. The first-round ballot posed more intrinsic questions rather than ones of technology - the feelings around the outcome have tended to be more emotional than factual. The second round - which was a first-come, first-served affair, was a classic case of demand taking down the system. This is not a problem exclusive to the London Olympics. Talk to Take That fans who tried to get tickets for the Progress tour in 2010/11 - or annual Glastonbury festival-goers. Excessive demand, spiked at a certain period nearly always brings down systems. Ask anyone in IT administration, and they will tell you. One of the crudest ways hackers look to invoke havoc for a certain website is to deploy an action which pummels it with requests over a number of seconds or minutes. Most websites will yield in the end.
First-come, first-served always works best when demand can be staggered at manageable levels. When people are seeking precious tickets for the foremost sporting event in the world, some difficulty is to be expected. To the uninitiated, it should just work. But there is always more to it than that. The capitulation of the Resale site suggested that Ticketmaster didn’t resource the event appropriately - and you could understand why. The window offered was for a month, and indications suggested reseller numbers would be low. But as the old adage goes ‘fail to prepare - prepare to fail’, and they clearly didn’t count on a large number of resellers placing tickets back into the system and a very savvy buyer market keen to seize what they could.
You can be certain that Ticketmaster will have been working over the weekend to resolve the issues experienced to have things up and live for Monday. LOCOG will be counting on it. Resale feels very visceral right now, but before you know it this window will close, and thoughts will move to the much anticipated Spring sale of the estimated one million tickets. This is where Ticketmaster will face its biggest judgement.
The feeling among many ticket hunters is why has it been so painful? From the ballot process in round one, to the technology issues experienced in round two - and now Resale. The experience has forced many to look abroad to secure tickets for the Games. Ticket failures is not an alien subject for the Olympic Games - from Beijing to Sydney, the organising committee have had problems. Advocates playing devil will point and scream ‘why haven’t we learnt!?’ - but look at the British public as stakeholder groups to see the problems.
You have local residents of Newham who feel they deserve entitlement, likewise those who are part of sports clubs and associations across the country. Then all those people who like to say ‘I’m a taxpayer…’; then there are fans of individual sports, fans of the Olympic Games and fans of London staging a premier event in world class stadia. Not forgetting those who have disposable income who can afford to buy, and those operating at the opposite scale. And of course, those dirty, rotten sponsors who of course contribute no money to the organising and operation of the Games but somehow end up with all the plum tickets - for ‘free’!
No one - no expert, no newspaper, no independent group has dared offered an alternative solution as to how the tickets for London 2012 should have been sold - and by a solution, one that would placate all the stakeholder groups above. And ensure an even spread amongst them all.
The reason for this, of course, is that it’s not possible. And the emotive nature of having, and not having will inform most of the arguments around ticketing right the way through to July 27. Of course Resale should have worked properly the first time. Of course the system should be able to handle a mass of activity at the same time. But most people remember what it was like before supermarkets became 24-hour operations: everyone went on a Saturday, things sold out and there were massive queues and an awful shopping experience. Expansion of operational times meant the experience could change exponentially and now Saturdays are nowhere near as bad as they used to be.
Different events offer different ticketing systems - some focus on spread, others focus on demand - some try to balance between the two. LOCOG, of course, have the ultimate responsibility so are liable for the ultimate hit - but they haven’t done as badly as most may think. And they cannot control how their suppliers operate and execute their operations.
Ticketmaster may in turn point to the fact that, unlike a lot of their daily activity, they are not profiting from sales in the way they would from a common concert ticket transaction - and this from an end-user perspective is true. Had there been licence for booking and admin ‘fees’, who knows what enhanced operations they could offer - though we all know how it would have been received.
The hysteria has to be compartmentalised - the failure of the Resale website is no more an indication that the London Games are going to be a failure, any more than seeing a typo in a national newspaper indicate the articles are being written by monkeys.
As for The TicketSellers - well, they are back to doing what they do best. Who knows, they may get another shot at the big time sooner than they thought.
Read more about me and London 2012.