In crude economic terms, a sold-out arena is generally a missed opportunity. The closed ticket window is a sign that seats were priced too cheaply, and supply couldn’t meet demand. Of course, many sports teams and touring musicians have good reason to undercharge their fans: a sold-out house provides a better atmosphere, along with bragging rights; in the long term, fans may be more loyal if they feel they aren’t being exploited. The hatred of price-gouging helps explain the persistence of scalpers, who have typically provided two services at once, finding hard-to-get tickets while also absorbing fans’ annoyance at high prices. Even while you nurse a grudge against the guy who sold you those Bruce Springsteen tickets, you can keep on loving Springsteen himself.
In the last decade, this tradition has been eroded, as more performers and sports teams have begun to participate in what’s known as the secondary market. (Not everyone needs love as much as Springsteen does, or money as little.) And this week, Las Vegas is the site of an extraordinary experiment in the limits of market-priced ticketing. On Saturday night at the MGM Grand, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., will fight Manny Pacquiao in what must be the most anticipated boxing match since the glory days of Muhammad Ali. Because the two sides were arguing over terms, tickets didn’t go on sale until Thursday, April 23—nine days before the fight. The cheapest ticket had a printed price of fifteen hundred dollars, although that hardly mattered: only five hundred tickets were initially offered to the public, and they disappeared immediately. The rest—about 15,500 more—went to people connected with the promoters or the casino, and a number of those landed on resale sites like StubHub, where tickets were easy to buy, but not cheap. On that first day, the lowest-priced tickets on StubHub cost about fifty-four hundred dollars.
Mayweather and Pacquiao are the two biggest stars in boxing, and by some measures the best fighters, too; for anyone even mildly interested in the sport, that’s reason enough to watch. But neither man has had much to say about Saturday’s fight—the buildup has been, especially by boxing standards, extraordinarily dull. By contrast, the secondary ticket market has been fascinating, as buyers and sellers try to figure out which way prices will move as the fight grows near. For this event, StubHub is dealing only in hard tickets: sellers must bring their tickets to a small office beside Interstate 15, where they are scrutinized by experts before being put on sale. On Wednesday afternoon, a manager there, Nick Gray, was refreshing his computer screen to track movements in the market. “The get-in for the Mayweather fight just dropped below three thousand for the first time, and maybe that’s the magic number,” he said. The next day, Thursday, StubHub released some data:
Cheapest ticket sold: $2,959
Most expensive ticket sold: $40,955
Average price paid: $6,268
Number of tickets available: 980
None of the sports books in town seems to be offering a wager on the final price of a ticket, although buying a ticket is a kind of wager in itself—a bet that the price won’t drop further between the time you buy and the time that the fight starts. A ticket is both a luxury good and a gamble, in a town with a hearty appetite for both. The late ticket release helped spark excitement, as reflected in the high opening prices on StubHub. Harris Rosner, a veteran ticket broker with V.I.P. Tickets, said that the market for tickets might have been even bigger if people had more time to plan ahead. But he said that the sudden frenzy could drive sales, too: “There’s always that spring-loaded effect where—bang!—here it is, all of a sudden.”
In most of the country, the easiest way to watch the fight is on pay-per-view, in a joint Showtime and HBO broadcast that costs about a hundred dollars. But things are more complicated for visitors to Las Vegas. MGM Grand has exclusive rights to the fight, which means that you can’t watch it at rival hotels. At MGM Grand and its affiliates, tickets to watch a “closed circuit” broadcast cost $150, but as of Thursday night, those tickets were being sold only as part of open-bar viewing parties, where admission was nearly four hundred dollars. On Thursday night, an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that hotel rates for fight weekend had recently “plummeted” (some MGM Grand rooms, previous listed for $1500, were now available for $499), and one analyst suggested that the lack of fight viewing options was a “lead factor.”
There’s something absurd about the idea that, in an age of streaming everything, and in a city with screens everywhere, a video broadcast of a boxing match might be in short supply. But as a sport in which even the greatest careers are defined by what happens on just a handful of nights, boxing, even now, excels at generating a certain form of irrational exuberance. Betting markets have installed Mayweather as about a two-to-one favorite, and his true odds are probably even better. Still, Saturday night could be his greatest victory yet, or possibly his first loss. Even observers who don’t give Pacquiao much of a chance wouldn’t think of missing it. And besides, the spirit of urgency can be contagious. At the final press conference, earlier this week, Ken Hershman, the president of HBO Sports, delivered a warning to viewers. “Please order pay-per-view Saturday night early—or if possible, today and tomorrow,” he said. “We expect that the ordering systems of the cable and satellite and telco platforms will be overwhelmed, and we want to make sure that everybody gets their order in and gets to be a part of this event.” In the frenzied buildup to this fight, even a television broadcast is being treated like a scarce resource.