The death of the printed Leaf ticket
Digital-only access at Scotiabank Arena has wide-reaching impact. Not everyone’s a fan
As a loyal seasonticket holder of the Toronto Maple Leafs for more than 40 years, Ron Powell’s enduring fandom is no doubt a testament to his patience, not to mention his willingness to fork over a considerable annual payment — about $12,000 a season now for his pair of seats in the second row of Scotiabank Arena’s upper bowl.
But this year it’s also a test of the 77-year-old Powell’s handiness with a smartphone.
For the first time in the club’s century-plus history, the Leafs, like the rest of the teams under the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment umbrella, aren’t printing up traditional paper tickets on old-fashioned card stock. The only way to gain entrance into Scotiabank Arena is with a digital ticket
downloaded onto a mobile device.
It’s a change that’s been on the horizon for years, of course; in previous seasons, the Leafs gave subscribers the choice of either paper or digital tickets. And while the Leafs cited COVID-19 concerns in their final break from paper — a bit of spin that has raised skeptical eyebrows — plenty of teams around the world had been eschewing physical tickets for the scanning of barcodes long before the pandemic. The Los Angeles Dodgers, the favourites to win this year’s World Series, stopped issuing paper tickets way back in 2014.
Still, for less tech-savvy Leaf loyalists such as Powell, the move away from paper is unwelcome on more than one level. For one, Powell said he’s only about a year removed from owning a far less sophisticated cellular device.
“My daughter got embarrassed about my flip phone, so a year ago she went and got me one of these smartphones,” Powell said. “This thing does everything but wipe your nose. But I’m not good with it … I see (younger people) using these things. They’ve got that thumb going a mile a minute. But I’m
sorry, I can’t do that. And I never will be able to do that.”
For another, Powell said the new technology deprives him of one of his favourite hobbies: collecting ticket stubs.
“You’re wiping out tradition to save a few dollars, is what it boils down to,” Powell said. “I’ve got ticket stubs for everything. I’m a ticket-stub guy. I’ve got Leaf Stanley Cup games from the ’60s. I’ve got Toronto Blue Jays World Series games from 1992 and ’93. I’ve got drawers full of them. Good memories.”
There’s an irony to the move away from physical tickets: As teams shun them, collectors have been gobbling them up. While there’ve been plenty of headlines about sports cards fetching huge windfalls — a 1979 Wayne Gretzky rookie card famously sold for $1.29 million (U.S.) in December — the price of ticket stubs, albeit with their more modest valuations, has been making gains, too.
“COVID drove the hobby (of collecting ticket stubs) to brand new levels,” said Russ Havens, owner and curator at TicketStubCollection.com. “Everyone had time on their hands. They’re digging through their shoe boxes, their junk drawers. Suddenly prices skyrocketed.”
Havens calls the demise of printed tickets “simultaneously awful and heartbreaking — and inevitable.” And there are those who would suggest that, for some collectors, it’s also been lucrative.
“I think teams stopping the hard tickets, it’s created a bigger market for the collectible tickets,” said Glen Pye, a Toronto collectibles dealer. “As much as baseball cards have gone up, high-end tickets have gone up even more.”
Certainly there are more sellers attempting to make a buck from stubs. Havens said that before the pandemic, there were typically about 75,000 listings for souvenir tickets on eBay on any given day. At the peak of COVID, he saw that number reach as high as about 130,000.
Pye, president of Glory Days Collectibles in Toronto’s west end, said he recently sold a ticket stub from Game 1 of the 1988 World Series — wherein Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hit his famous walk-off home run — for about $800. That same ticket, Pye said, was valued at about $200 before the pandemic.
There are more expensive tickets on the market. One from Michael Jordan’s first NBA game is currently up for sale for about $25,000. Pye said tickets from the Stanley Cup final in 1932 — the first time Toronto’s NHL team hoisted Lord Stanley’s chalice while known as the Maple Leafs — have been known to go for about $20,000. A full, unripped ticket from Game 8 of the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series, meanwhile, can fetch about $10,000, while a stub from Auston Matthews’s memorable four-goal NHL debut in Ottawa in 2016 is already worth a few hundred dollars.
Such is the price some fans are willing to pay to hark back to a grand occasion. Which brings collectors to a more recent point of speculation. If paper stubs are no longer available as souvenirs, what’s next? What if, say, Matthews breaks Rick Vaive’s franchise single-season goal-scoring record in the coming months. Are screen shots of that night’s barcodes destined to decorate sports bars?
Havens said he knows of a company that’s attempting to jump into this breach, printing physical tickets to digital-only events for fans who’d like a paper memento of the moment. It’s a scheme that sounds ruthless enough to be Leaf-ian: selling two tickets to the same event to the same customer.
“That’s cynical, but it’s accurate,” said Havens.
Another collector predicted it won’t be long until fans with digital tickets will be able to mark their attendance at a special event by purchasing an
NFT, or non-fungible token. NFTs are assets backed by blockchain technology that have become popular among sports collectors. Matthews, for instance, used an online auction last summer to sell 107 NFTs — essentially pieces of digital artwork — for a total of about $200,000, some of which was donated to SickKids Hospital.
Tom McDonald, vice-president of ticket sales and service at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, said there’ve already been conversations in the industry about developing NFTs as souvenirs.
“We’re not there just yet. But I could see a day very soon where the NFTs are the items that do, in fact, commemorate those special nights,” McDonald said.
To which a considerable portion of the Leafs’ fan base would no doubt say: “Huh?” McDonald, for that reason, said MLSE has been slower than some pro sports operations in making the switch to digitalonly tickets.
“There is a bit of an affinity to the paper tickets, so we’ve just been slow and deliberate in easing our members into this process,” McDonald said. “It has required some hand-holding in some cases, which we’ve been only too happy to do.”
Even if Powell grumbles about prodding his 77-year-old thumbs to navigate his smartphone — “Old people don’t like change, and I’m old,” he said — he happily pointed out that he recently used the Leafs’ online tutorial to transfer a pair of seats to Wednesday night’s game to a neighbour. Powell, as it turned out, had to miss Toronto’s home opener for the first time in 41 years on account of a non-COVID health concern.
For big sports organizations, the benefits of digital-only seats are many. There are those, for instance, who see it going a long way toward wiping out street-level ticket scalping — the profits of which franchises have been attempting to horn in on for years with strategies such as so-called dynamic pricing, which attempts to pre-emptively tack a premium onto high-demand games.
While paper tickets could be exchanged unbeknownst to the Leafs, the digital-only version — because transfer of ownership requires the receiver of the tickets to provide an email address or phone number — gives the club a contact point for every person sitting in Scotiabank Arena on any given night.
“A lot of teams are using COVID as an excuse to go digital … but it’s really about data accumulation,” said Pye, a longtime Leafs season-ticket holder and ticket broker. “Facebook’s built on that. Data mining. They want to know every single thing you do in your life, and then they can send you targeted ads. There’s a million different advantages for a team if they have all that information.”
Said Powell: “They know exactly who’s in my seats every game now — which I don’t like. Big Brother has entered my life in a way I’m not comfortable with.”
Alas, there is no known record, digital or physical, of Powell’s presence at the biggest Leafs game he’s ever seen. It was May 2, 1967 when he and his wife Nancy used his father’s season seats — the same ones that have been in the family since 1949 — to witness Toronto’s most recent clinching of a Stanley Cup.
“You know the saddest part?” Powell said. “I’ve looked everywhere, and I can’t find that ticket stub.”