Why have sports tickets dropped in price? : Planet Money Inflation is making prices go up, except not for...sports tickets? So, we set out on a daylong sporting event marathon to learn why.

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The sports ticket price enigma

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

We love inflation data - like, not just the headline inflation rate, but the line items. And, you know, the other day we're looking through a spreadsheet of October's numbers. And, you know, there's the price of ham, up 9.1% year over year, gasoline, unleaded regular, up 17.1%.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Take a look at this. Margarine - margarine? - I can't believe it's not cheaper - up 47.1%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks thousands and thousands of items, which are generally getting more and more expensive because - you know about this - inflation.

MALONE: But then - then - we noticed something strange, an item that has been getting cheaper, a lot cheaper. Its official Bureau of Labor Statistics name is admission to sporting events - sports tickets, down 17.7% year over year.

SMITH: Which is totally bizarre because attendance for lots of sports has been going up. People are going back to the games, but apparently paying less? We had questions.

BRANDON ROGERS: Yeah. So I'm Brandon Rogers. I'm with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

MALONE: Brandon is an economist - oversees the price index for movies, concerts, theme parks.

ROGERS: And the specific one that we're talking about today is admission to sporting events.

MALONE: Brandon tells us there is an army of data collectors around the country getting ticket prices.

SMITH: I imagined it all very sunglasses and trench coats, you know? (Imitating accent) How much for five tickets in the upper deck? And what about three season tickets in the suites? Why I'm asking - don't worry about it.

But apparently, this is not the way it works.

ROGERS: They have to identify themselves that they are...

MALONE: Oh, OK.

ROGERS: ...An employee of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and that they are...

MALONE: Do they have a badge? Do they show a badge, I hope? Very...

ROGERS: There is a badge and...

MALONE: Oh, really?

ROGERS: Yeah, it's...

MALONE: Ooh. What does it look like, Brandon? Does it have a supply-and-demand curve on it?

ROGERS: No, no. It doesn't have anything like that. But it's a cool-looking badge, you know? Maybe somebody...

MALONE: Wow.

ROGERS: ...If you flash it too quickly, you know, someone might think you were, like - I don't know - with the FBI or something like that.

SMITH: The BLS is incredibly thorough. It monitors more than a dozen different sports, tracking the same seats over time - individual tickets, season tickets, yes - even tickets being resold on the internet.

MALONE: And do you get to go to all the games? Is that part of the deal? You buy the ticket, you go?

ROGERS: Yeah, they're not actually buying the tickets. They're...

MALONE: Oh. OK.

ROGERS: ...They are looking at the prices, and then they're not...

MALONE: Right.

ROGERS: ...Clicking buy ticket or anything like that. Their bosses would not be happy if they did that.

SMITH: You know, in the old days - well, like a decade ago - ticket prices regularly got more expensive each year - 2014, 2015, 2016, '17. Each year you had to pay more. But for most of this year, ticket prices have been lower than last year. In fact, according to the index, ticket prices in October of this year were as cheap as they were seven years ago.

MALONE: The BLS report does not speculate about why ticket prices have been going down. That's not what the BLS does. They're just calling balls and strikes - ham up, tickets down.

ROGERS: There are certainly theories out there, and you could probably find the theories.

SMITH: We could find the theories. That almost sounds like a challenge.

MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: What if we do what the BLS is unable to do, not just write down the ticket price, but buy the tickets, hunt for the theories at the actual games?

MALONE: But, Robert, how many games?

SMITH: All the games.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEF CAHOURS DE VIRGILE AND QUENTIN BACHELET’S "LES FANFARONS")

MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

SMITH: I'm Robert Smith. We set aside one Sunday, a single day, to attend as many sporting events as humanly possible.

MALONE: We wanted answers, theories, anything that could help us understand why ticket prices might be dropping.

SMITH: And we find that the very concept of a price tag starts to disintegrate in the chaos of the arena.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEF CAHOURS DE VIRGILE AND QUENTIN BACHELET’S "LES FANFARONS")

MALONE: Sunday, Nov. 27 - sports day.

SMITH: Sports day.

MALONE: I take the earliest train to New York City. Robert is waiting for me at Penn Station.

SMITH: Kenny Malone. Look at this.

MALONE: What's up, buddy?

SMITH: How you doing?

MALONE: When we told our bosses we wanted to hunt for wild theories about why ticket prices might be going down, they said, is this just an excuse to sit on your butt and drink giant beers?

SMITH: Yes.

MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: And they gave us just one day to do it.

MALONE: One day - one day to go into the field, use our powers of economic observation and create ticket-deflation theories.

SMITH: And so we done a bunch of research, and this particular Sunday, it's like a sports solar eclipse in New York - all these games perfectly aligned so that if we do this exactly right, we can see so many sports games.

MALONE: Sports games, yes. Robert, is not the sports fan here. And yet, he has cut and glued and color-coded an elaborate agenda for the day.

SMITH: This this shows my love of scheduling, not my love of sports.

MALONE: OK, open the schedule.

SMITH: Yeah. So I don't know anything about sports, but I do know how long every game lasts. And so I put them on a schedule chart here, including transportation times between the events, so that we can basically do nonstop sports the entire day.

MALONE: It's a lot of logistics.

SMITH: It's going to be a sprint.

MALONE: Yeah. Yeah. We've got a Knicks basketball game tipping off at 6 p.m. tonight, which is right after an afternoon Brooklyn Nets game, which overlaps with a Rutgers women's basketball game, which starts in the middle of the New York Jets football game, which kicks off right after the very first event of the day - just checking Robert's schedule here - the Gobbler Classic, Robert?

SMITH: The Gobbler Classic, of course, held the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It is a high school track meet that meets inside this old Manhattan armory building.

MALONE: We were actually surprised that there were even tickets to buy at a high school track meet.

SMITH: But the sign says $10 a person. And apparently, it's been the same price for years.

MALONE: Now, does this give us access to the best seats in the house?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get up there. You'll see.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: We climb a bunch of stairs and then we're spit out into this huge open space.

MALONE: It's a whole track and field set up, hidden inside. There's places for long jump, hammer throw, multiple running tracks and what seems like hundreds of high schoolers.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARTING GUNSHOT)

MALONE: There they go. There they go. There they go.

SMITH: All right then.

MALONE: Oh, my God. That kid smoked the other kids.

SMITH: I know.

MALONE: (Laughter).

SMITH: Oh, I feel bad for the person in back.

MALONE: Now we figured this Gobbler Classic, in addition to being very fun name to say over and over, was the perfect baseline for our price mystery investigation.

SMITH: Because the age of modern American sports ticketing was born not too far from here. A couple hundred years ago, the big spectator sport was horse racing. And most people could just mosey on up to the track and watch for free.

MALONE: Then in 1829, a horse track owner in Long Island had a stroke of genius, a groundbreaking innovation that would change everything. He built a wall.

SMITH: A wall around his entire racetrack. And just like that, watching a horse race turned into a product.

MALONE: It was exclusive. It was scarce. He could control how many people got to see his horse races and charged up to $3 per person.

SMITH: Two hundred years later, the wall is, well - it's this whole armory. The horses are teenagers, and the fans are apparently all parents.

MALONE: Like this guy we sit down next to, Umut Ekinjola.

SMITH: So we paid $10 to get in here. Did you pay $10...

UMUT EKINCIOGLU: Yes.

SMITH: ...As a father?

EKINCIOGLU: Yes, yes, yes. I think they started charging once they figured out there was so many parents coming, so...

SMITH: Yeah, you could charge parents any amount of money because you have to be here.

EKINCIOGLU: Exactly.

MALONE: Look. If tickets were this simple, one price, then it would be so easy to still track inflation or deflation.

SMITH: Yeah, you just ask, hey, is it still 3 bucks out at the track, Horace? You bet.

MALONE: Yeah. But most professional sports have become mind-bogglingly complicated to track.

SMITH: OK. We actually have to leave. In order to squeeze in five sports, we will not be able to spend much time actually watching those sports.

MALONE: Our next event and our first serious price theory is all the way in New Jersey.

SMITH: All right, we're in an Uber, headed to the MetLife Stadium for the Jets. I think we're going to make it in time for some - what do we call it? - pregaming?

MALONE: It's tailgating.

SMITH: Tailgating.

MALONE: It's called tailgating.

SMITH: Tailgating - I don't know.

MALONE: Pregaming. (Laughter).

SMITH: I've never been - I've never been to a football game before.

The New York Jets don't play in New York. They play in New Jersey in a stadium built on what used to be a swamp that is also now a giant parking lot.

MALONE: That parking lot is where we get dropped off.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

MALONE: It's an hour to kickoff. Hundreds of people are drinking by their cars, lined up at port-a-potties. And at least one dumpster appears to be on fire?

This is a dumpster fire.

SMITH: This is an actual dumpster fire.

MALONE: (Laughter) All right, sports event number...

SMITH: Two.

MALONE: ...Two.

SMITH: It is the Jets versus - one second...

UNIDENTIFIED FAN #1: Chicago Bears.

SMITH: The Bears. The Bears. All right.

MALONE: The Bears. The Bears. Of course, of course.

We have no idea who's playing, because we have not bought tickets yet to most of the games on Robert's very fancy schedule.

SMITH: That is part of the research, because our first theory about why prices might be going down has to do with the fact that it is easier than ever to buy a ticket at the very last second and get a substantial discount.

MALONE: A few weeks before this football game, you know, we had been checking prices. We hadn't seen anything below $60 or $70.

SMITH: But then the rain starts - light at first. Then it is a mighty downpour.

MALONE: Oh, it's gross, it's gross out. We got to go, Robert.

Minutes before kickoff, we are freezing. We duck into a tunnel.

SMITH: And Kenny uses his phone to pull up Ticketmaster. We are lucky. There are apparently half-hearted Jets fans, dry and warm in their homes, desperately trying to sell their tickets online right now so they don't have to go out in the rain and - woo hoo hoo - the cheap seats are not 70 bucks anymore.

Scope out...

MALONE: Oh, dude, I got 10 bucks.

SMITH: Wait. What, what, what, what? Where...

MALONE: Ten bucks?

SMITH: ...Where, where, where, where? For two tickets?

MALONE: Yeah, dude.

SMITH: Where? Get it, get it...

MALONE: Let's go.

SMITH: ...Get it...

MALONE: Let's go.

SMITH: ...Get it, get it. Go, go, go, go, go, go.

MALONE: What? We got them.

SMITH: Holy moly.

MALONE: Ten dollars, plus fees.

SMITH: Thanks to the miracle of technology, we are into an NFL game for the price of the Gobbler Classic.

(CHEERING)

MALONE: Yeah, this - these are great seats. Wipe it off. Just - you're going to - it's going to be wet. Just...

SMITH: No, I know.

MALONE: Oh, all right.

SMITH: Listen. I mean, I could see why you would come out and watch this. This seems, like, pretty cool.

MALONE: Are you just discovering why people go to sports?

SMITH: (Laughter).

RICHIE RODRIGUEZ: He's a turnover machine. He's a turnover machine.

SMITH: The guy right next to us is saying, he's a turnover machine.

MALONE: That fan's name is Richie Rodriguez (ph). He and his buddy - they're living and dying with each play. And it occurs to us that big Jets fans like them - they probably bought seats a while ago, back when prices were still high.

SMITH: Can I ask you a quick question? All right. How much did you pay for these tickets right next to us?

RODRIGUEZ: Seventy-six bucks.

SMITH: Seventy-six - do you feel good about that? Is that a good price?

RODRIGUEZ: I feel great about them - great seats.

SMITH: All right, well, now we wait until the very last minute, like, 10 minutes before kickoff, and we got them for $10.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, that makes me mad (laughter).

SMITH: Oh.

MALONE: Oh, no. No, no.

RODRIGUEZ: That's great, though. We've gone to games each year. And as - because we got a good team this year, the prices are obviously higher.

SMITH: Kenny, I am now prepared to come up with our first theory for why ticket prices might be going down. I'm calling it the soggy-bottom hypothesis.

MALONE: Soggy-bottom hypothesis - go on, Robert. Yes?

SMITH: OK. Not very long ago, it was much harder for the literal fair-weather Jets fan to sell these seats. These wet seats would have just stayed empty.

MALONE: Yeah. And the average ticket price, I guess, in that case, for our row would be, you know, 76 bucks, what Richie paid.

SMITH: But now it is so much easier to buy and sell tickets at the very last minute. There's more opportunity for discounting. Thanks to the miracle of technology - dynamic pricing - we were able to drag down the average price for this section, the 300 section of the MetLife Stadium.

MALONE: The soggy-bottom hypothesis thus states that the secondary ticket market keeps getting more efficient, which, yes, could make prices go up for some really in-demand games. But on the whole, we soggy hypothesize, last-minute purchases have a downward pressure on prices. And if you're wondering, BLS does monitor prices on the secondary market.

SMITH: We're about to get some action here.

MALONE: Less than two minutes after we get to our seats, the Jets drive down the field, and Robert discovers the joy of football.

(CHEERING)

MALONE: Oh.

SMITH: Oh. This is fun. Ah. Look at that.

UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: Defense. Fuck yeah. Let's go.

SMITH: What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED FAN #3: Let's go.

MALONE: I think we have to go, Robert.

UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: Let's go.

SMITH: That's amazing. I love this game.

MALONE: That's a Jets touchdown. We got to go, though.

SMITH: We are already behind schedule. We sprint down the stairs through the rain.

MALONE: Which breaks my recorder.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTORTED RECORDING)

MALONE: Uh-oh - temporarily. It's probably fine. And then we jump into another Uber.

SMITH: Time for another game and perhaps another hastily assembled theory.

MALONE: Oh, I'm sorry.

SMITH: Oh, my God. They got a whole thing.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Head to drop-off at Jersey Mike's Arena.

MALONE: Jersey Mike's Arena it is.

SMITH: Good.

There were a lot of college games in the New York City area starting at 2 p.m. But how could we resist going to a place named after a submarine sandwich shop? - Jersey Mike's Arena at Rutgers University.

MALONE: It is a 40-minute drive. We almost hydroplane and crash, but we make it.

All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS CLOSING)

MALONE: All right. Let's go. Let's go, Let's go, let's go. Do you know what sport this one is?

SMITH: Basketball?

MALONE: Yeah, you're right.

SMITH: Oh, my God.

MALONE: I'm impressed.

SMITH: It's so wet.

The Rutgers women's basketball team is playing Cornell - 20 bucks a ticket. You could just buy them at the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DING)

MALONE: Perfect.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: You guys enjoy.

SMITH: Excellent.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Thanks for coming.

MALONE: Thank you.

We grab a turkey sub from the handy Jersey Mike's concession place, take our Jersey Mike's seats and stare at the Jersey Mike's logos on the court. Oh, yeah. And there is a basketball game going on.

SMITH: Which brings us to hypothesis No. 2, the Jersey Mike's hypothesis, for why ticket prices might be cheaper.

MALONE: Yeah. You know, tons of stadiums are sponsored now by New Jersey-themed sandwich chains and insurance companies and crypto exchanges, which essentially turns every game into a big ad. And in any advertising business, what matters is what they call impressions.

SMITH: Yeah, eyeballs on your advertising. So we hypothesized, what if teams are making so much money from naming rights, they can lower their prices and get more faces staring at all the Jersey Mike - on the building, over the doors?

COURTNEY MCCLAIN: If you go to the bathroom, it's probably in this door, stalls, you know?

MALONE: Courtney McClain (ph) is a longtime season ticket holder. And we had read that this whole Jersey Mike's thing was quite new. Like, until a year ago, this place was just called the Rutgers Athletic Center.

SMITH: So we heard Jersey Mike paid what?

MALONE: Twenty-eight million dollars for 20 years.

MCCLAIN: I feel like they should be giving us season ticket holders free subs. That's all I'm saying.

SMITH: It's a lot of advertising. Plus, we're paying to watch the advertising.

MCCLAIN: Exactly.

SMITH: And it does - do you feel a little local pride, little local Jersey Mike pride? I don't know. Do you eat the sandwiches?

MCCLAIN: I like Tastee Subs better.

MALONE: Uh-oh.

MCCLAIN: (Laughter).

SMITH: Oh. Oh.

MALONE: Tastee Subs is apparently a different Jersey sub shop.

SMITH: You just ruined all of the branding...

MCCLAIN: I know.

SMITH: ...For Jersey Mike.

I love this theory, but it is a little tough to pin down. And Courtney says it's not like her season tickets suddenly dropped in price.

MALONE: Sample size of one...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN BLAST)

MALONE: ...Best not overthink it. Got to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

MALONE: OK. We're going to the Nets game.

SMITH: We are headed to Brooklyn, where we get our best theory yet, the chicken-finger hypothesis. And we chase down the one person who might know more about ticket prices than the BLS, the New York ticket scalper. That's after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAIR MASTERS, ET AL.’S "END ZONE")

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Turn right onto New Durham Road. Then turn left...

MALONE: We are really behind schedule. It's 4 p.m. The rain has really picked up, and traffic across Staten Island is crawling.

SMITH: Our Brooklyn Nets game has already started without us. So maybe this is a good time to just pause the high jinks for a couple of minutes and talk statistics.

MALONE: Yeah, because when we were talking to Brandon from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he did tell us a theory that, unlike our theories, has no wacky name but also, unlike ours, is rooted in actual data science.

SMITH: And it comes with a little story about the moment when perhaps our ticket mystery started.

ROGERS: I remember the date. It was March 11, 2020.

MALONE: On that date, a bunch of NBA games are happening across the country. And at the very last minute, the league decides that, you know, this novel coronavirus 19 thing, maybe it's kind of serious, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The game tonight has been postponed. You are all safe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: What?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And take your time.

SMITH: That was at the Utah Jazz game. Brandon was watching the Dallas Mavericks on TV when they made the exact same announcement. The camera zooms in on the team owner.

ROGERS: I remember the look on Mark Cuban's face. He was courtside that day. And I remember he had this shocked look on his face. So it was kind of, you know, surreal seeing that.

MALONE: So then data wise, I assume all the data goes dark that instant, right? Like, you just - no ticket prices.

ROGERS: Well, you would think so. But we report these prices based on when an item can be purchased, not on when it's consumed.

MALONE: Oh.

So there were no games being played. The teams were still selling tickets, though, and Brandon could still publish the ticket index. This was true for five months into the pandemic.

SMITH: And finally, by July, teams realized they're never going to play these games. We should stop selling the tickets.

ROGERS: And so basically, you know, there was nothing for us to price at that point. And so you had the index going dark in July.

MALONE: It's like the radar goes dark.

ROGERS: Exactly.

MALONE: You just see nothing.

ROGERS: And it was like that for six months.

SMITH: Other consumer price things, margarine, ham, etc., those are still being sold during the pandemic. So we keep getting good data for that. But for tickets, who knows?

MALONE: And then slowly, sports comes back online, partial crowds, some tickets, different rules in different states. And the ticket prices index is up, down. It's all over the place.

SMITH: Maybe this whole deflation we've been trying to trace is just leftover statistical dust, anomalies, glitches in the matrix that will settle out as more and more ticket data comes online.

ROGERS: Yeah, I can't say for sure, but I can definitely say that it is a factor.

MALONE: OK.

SMITH: But how much does this anomaly explain ticket prices? Brandon says we don't know. It is as murky and uncertain as a rainstorm over Staten Island, which is really messing with the timing of a carefully designed research project.

MALONE: Getting us there at 4:45. We should see....

SMITH: That's fine.

MALONE: We should see some basketball.

It is already dark by the time we get to the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets. Sports game - I'm not saying sports game. Robert wrote that because he doesn't know anything about sports.

SMITH: (Laughter).

MALONE: Number four. So far.

The game only has about 15 minutes left. These are worse than the seats we had for the football game. Luckily, we bought these tickets way ahead of time. For face value, nosebleed seats, 43 bucks.

JOEL BREWER: And I'm the No. 1 Nets fan in the world.

SMITH: Sitting next to us is Joel Brewer (ph). He's 17 years old, works a catering job just so he can buy Nets tickets. And he left his glasses at home. So he appears to be watching this whole game through his iPhone's camera.

BREWER: Yeah, I'm zooming in, so with...

SMITH: With your iPhone.

BREWER: With my Galaxy S22 Ultra.

SMITH: Of course, the iPhone couldn't zoom in that far.

BREWER: iPhone is only 40 times.

MALONE: And you have to zoom in because our seats are...

BREWER: So far. And we're by section 222.

MALONE: Yeah, we have the worst seats in the...

BREWER: In the building.

MALONE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Now, Joel and Robert and I, we all paid about the same amount for these terrible seats, which is bad business, to be honest. Like, Joel is clearly a bigger fan. He wants to be here more than us. And this is the situation where a business would ideally implement some kind of price discrimination strategy.

SMITH: Price discrimination is when a business finds a way to sell the same product at different prices to different people because different people don't want things the same amount.

MALONE: We all paid 40-something bucks for these seats. That was as much as we wanted to pay. But what if Joel was willing to pay 50 bucks, 60, 62, whatever? The Brooklyn Nets would have left money on the table in that case by not selling him this seat for more.

SMITH: But this is where buying other stuff comes in. Joel hasn't only given $40 to the Nets. He's wearing a Nets jersey.

BREWER: This one - it was only, like, 60. But then I got the shorts.

SMITH: Also 60. He's got multiple jackets.

BREWER: Jackets can be - some for 125. There's some for 250. Depends on what style.

MALONE: Plus, Joel usually buys chicken fingers and a Coke when he comes to these games.

BREWER: The coke is, like, six. And the chicken is like 10.

SMITH: So this is my favorite explanation about why ticket prices are going down. We're calling it the chicken finger hypothesis.

MALONE: Think about it this way. You can't tell by just looking at me and Robert and Joel how much we are each willing to spend exactly for a ticket. So what if you charge us lower ticket prices to get us all in the door and then extract the maximum amount of money from each of us by selling us each chicken tenders or shorts, if we'll buy them, or jackets?

SMITH: And like tons of teams, the Nets have become masters at this. They have incredible food options. They have a grab-and-go convenience store. They have a full clothing shop inside the arena that people line up for.

MALONE: Our chicken finger hypothesis states that if teams make more and more money from all the extra stuff inside the arena, then perhaps it is advantageous to charge a bit less for tickets to let people into the arena.

BREWER: Let's go.

SMITH: The game is ending. The Nets are winning. Joel is losing it.

BREWER: Thank God. We won.

MALONE: Look. It's almost 6 o'clock. We've got one game left - the New York Knicks.

SMITH: We jump on the subway - easy.

MALONE: Well, Robert, this was all your idea. It's been about 10 hours.

SMITH: As someone who's not a sports fan, it's been a great day. I'm more of a transportation fan, really.

MALONE: The ratio has been about 20% sports, 80% transportation.

SMITH: Now, this Knicks game appears to be sold out. The StubHub prices were the most expensive we'd seen all day, and so we've been kind of putting off getting tickets to this game.

MALONE: We had also been hoping that this was our chance to encounter the elusive ticket scalper.

SMITH: Ticket scalper. This whole time we wondered if maybe the best person to talk to was somebody who goes every day, stands outside an arena, buying and selling people's spare tickets. He's like a human BLS.

MALONE: Except the BLS is made up of humans, but yes, point taken.

SMITH: Yes, I should have known that.

MALONE: And OK, when we get to Madison Square Garden, like, immediately, this guy sees us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: NBA tickets.

MALONE: NBA tickets, he says - scalper for sure.

SMITH: The problem is when we tell the scalpers we're reporters and will they talk to us on tape, over and over again, they say no.

MALONE: Until finally we meet Eric (ph).

Well, can we talk to you on tape?

ERIC: What do you want to talk about?

SMITH: Well, we just want to talk about the prices. What do you - like, what do you...

MALONE: Eric is wearing a hood and sunglasses. It is completely dark out. And even though he says we can record him, he's a little wary and keeps leaning away from our microphone.

SMITH: We lean in and ask Eric, has he noticed a trend of ticket prices dropping?

MALONE: He leans out and answers.

ERIC: Yeah, I did.

MALONE: And what do you - why? Why is that happening?

ERIC: I don't know why. It's how they's playing.

MALONE: What's your best guess?

ERIC: I don't know. People still carrying theyself the same way, I think, as the pandemic.

MALONE: Like, a little scared.

ERIC: Just being a little skeptical. That's what I think.

SMITH: Skeptical. It seems like the simplest theory of all - people are skeptical of crowds, sure, but it's also felt like we're all just more cynical than ever. And what are live sports if not optimism, joy, hoping, cheering? And maybe everyone just wants to do less of that.

MALONE: Well, not us, Robert. We want to be in the game. And we need tickets to get into this game still. And luckily, Eric reaches into his hoodie, pulls out a pair of tickets, good tickets. It's negotiation time.

SMITH: We're looking for...

ERIC: I got some lower seats right now for 75 each.

MALONE: So he wants...

SMITH: OK, what - like, what section you got?

ERIC: So 116.

SMITH: Section 116's good.

MALONE: I mean, it's great. I would love to sit there.

SMITH: But I don't have - I mean, what can we go up to?

MALONE: I mean, I...

SMITH: Forty a piece?

MALONE: We can do 40 a piece.

ERIC: Do 50 each.

SMITH: What is it?

MALONE: Fifty each?

ERIC: Do 100 for two.

SMITH: I don't know if I have $100.

ERIC: Go right to the ATM.

SMITH: I know. I know. I know. I know. I know.

MALONE: Go to the ATM, he says. See, these are amazing seats. And, like, look, it's been a really long day. And since this is the last sport of the day, we could get great seats and actually finally watch some sports for the first time.

SMITH: So we do it.

MALONE: Can you do 45 each?

ERIC: I'll do 45.

MALONE: Hey.

SMITH: All right. Do those look like real tickets and everything?

ERIC: They are real tickets.

MALONE: I mean, I don't know. Works for me. I don't - what are we going to do? I don't...

ERIC: All y'all do is go inside. They're going to scan it.

MALONE: That's true.

SMITH: All right. You're going to give us a receipt?

ERIC: I don't have receipts for no tickets.

MALONE: You know, Robert, as we were walking up to Madison Square Garden - our last game, about to relax with a beer - I was wondering, have we actually solved the mystery of dropping ticket prices here?

SMITH: Honestly, I think it's going to be years before we know for sure why the ticket price index has been falling. Maybe it's the efficiency, the resale market. Maybe it's the naming of stadiums, the chicken fingers, perhaps. Or, you know, maybe it's just the data recovering from a complete shutdown, you know, a lasting reminder that we're just trying to put one foot in front of the other, coming out of the smoking crater of this pandemic.

MALONE: Yeah. Well, Robert, thanks to Eric the scalper, we've got the best seats we could ever dream of. We walk up to the ticket scanners. The machine makes a weird buzzing noise, and the scanner person immediately looks up to us and says something.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: You bought these tickets on the street?

MALONE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: They're no good, so go get your money back.

MALONE: What?

SMITH: What do you mean, they're no good?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: They're counterfeit. People made them in the basement.

SMITH: Kenny.

MALONE: Robert.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Oh, no. Eric. Son of a...

And as we stood there outside of Madison Square Garden, we thought about Eric's insight about the ticket market. Skeptical, he said. People are more skeptical.

SMITH: And then we looked more skeptically at our very own $45 tickets in the light, and we realized on the bottom left-hand corner - that's the wrong date, I think.

MALONE: Yeah. We're idiots. Yeah.

SMITH: Eric is probably not his real name.

MALONE: No, no.

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SMITH: As we were recording this episode, the latest inflation numbers came out for November, and ticket prices have gone up - up a bit from last month.

MALONE: But they are still down year over year - 7.2%.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: This episode was produced by Dave Blanchard and mastered by Andie Huether.

MALONE: It was edited by Keith Romer and fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Jess Jiang is PLANET MONEY's acting executive producer. And a very special thanks this week to Jonathan Church from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I'm Kenny Malone.

SMITH: I'm Robert Smith. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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