By Geoff Baker, The Seattle Times (TNS)
Her youngest son was in tears and their family’s Super Bowl dream was fading fast as Heidi Van Boven pleaded with a ticket broker to finalize her $25,000 order for two last-minute seats.
Seahawks fan Van Boven, of Grandview in Eastern Washington, woke up Super Bowl Sunday in Phoenix to find an email that four tickets she’d purchased online for more than $12,000 nearly two weeks earlier had fallen through. Frantic, she searched a ticket marketplace that was dramatically inflated by then, snagging two seats for $24,600 from one company and a final pair for $25,500 from yet another so she, her husband, Steve, and sons John and Ryan could attend the game.
But the last broker had suddenly switched gears and demanded cash. “I yelled at him, ‘Who carries that much cash around?’ ” Van Boven, 46, said.
The broker hung up. Later, he finally agreed to accept a credit card, and the family — about $50,000 lighter — had salvaged its Arizona trip.
Four weeks later, Van Boven, having better processed what her family endured during arguably the worst ticket debacle in American sports history, wants changes to prevent another free-for-all from recurring.
And she’s not alone.
Peter Lavallee, a spokesman for Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, said that office has received 111 complaints related to undelivered Super Bowl tickets — seven of those against DEM Ticketing, the Pittsburgh-area broker that sold Van Boven her initial tickets and then reneged.
“The main relief we are able to offer consumers is to try to get refunds for them,” Lavallee said. “And especially for companies within our jurisdiction, there are corporate penalties that can be imposed if warranted.”
Van Boven has filed complaints with Ferguson’s office and the attorney general in Pennsylvania, alleging fraud against the DEM Ticketing. She’s also furious at the Phoenix-based broker she says demanded the cash for her final two tickets when her family was most vulnerable.
“I don’t want any other family to have to go through what we did,” she said. “We bought from a company we thought was reputable just to avoid dealing with this kind of thing in the first place.”
Van Boven knows she’s fortunate her family, which operates a calf ranch, could afford last-minute tickets. Her tale portrays the dark side of an estimated $5-billion-a-year ticket resale industry that’s under increased scrutiny as Super Bowl complaints mount nationwide.
Many buyers had no idea before this year’s Super Bowl that brokers often “short sell” tickets they don’t yet own. They typically buy enough tickets to fill those orders once street prices fall the week of the game — then profit on the difference.
But prices this year soared beyond $10,000 and barely fell, leaving brokers staggering if they honored their advance sales. And many did not.
The exact cause for the record spike in Super Bowl ticket prices is unclear, though brokers suggest multiple factors.
Some attribute it partly to well-heeled Seahawks fans descending on Arizona in droves, driving up demand and prices.
Others blame the NFL and teams for delaying release of some tickets and limiting those provided to players, coaches, alumni and sponsors who supply the resale market. The critics say this was done to squeeze short-selling independent brokers and drive business to Ticketmaster, the NFL’s official resale partner.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said nothing changed this year with ticket distribution.
Brokers protect themselves with fine print obliging them only to refund money for undelivered tickets.
Some gave refunds of up to 200 percent to cover incidentals like flights and hotels, while others simply shrugged.
A shadowy world
The Van Bovens, like many caught in the Super Bowl ticket shortage, had no idea who they were really buying from.
They initially found four tickets on Seat Geek, one of the nation’s largest online search engines for ticket resale. But the club level seats — each costing $2,629 plus a $525.80 service charge — actually came from smaller DEM Ticketing.
The Van Bovens corresponded with a DEM representative identifying himself as “Brian Thompson” over the phone and in writing. A subsequent DEM email stated that “Brian” and “Dave” would arrive in Phoenix midweek before the game and distribute tickets Saturday and Sunday at the Mallorca ballroom of the Suburban Extended Stay hotel in Tempe, Ariz.
They promised additional information about exact pickup times.
The Van Bovens arrived in Phoenix on Friday, but by Saturday had heard nothing further. Cellphone numbers for Brian and Dave went unanswered, and when Van Boven tried texting, she found her number blocked.
By midafternoon, a DEM email arrived saying tickets were delayed and pickup would now occur an hour before kickoff, across from the stadium. Van Boven was peeved, but went to bed hopeful her situation wouldn’t turn into one of the horror stories she’d been hearing about fans being denied tickets by brokers.
She awoke Sunday and found a 4:30 a.m. email from DEM.
“After substantial attempts to retain tickets which were promised to us under contract from our Super Bowl supplier of 12 years, we are unable to fill your Super Bowl ticket order,” the email stated.
It promised a refund in three to seven business days. Van Boven has yet to receive one.
Some of DEM Ticketing’s representations were misleading.
The company claimed it had been jilted by its Super Bowl supplier of 12 years, but DEM formed only last September, according to Pennsylvania corporate records. None of its listed officers appears to have prior experience running a ticket business in Pennsylvania or elsewhere.
DEM operates out of a two-bedroom apartment across from a Chipotle restaurant, a burger joint and a tire store.
In addition, the Brian Thompson who supposedly dealt with the Van Bovens does not work for DEM (though he has worked for other ticket brokers). The man who traveled to Arizona to deliver tickets was actually Brian Mozzoni, a onetime professional poker player who had been a silent partner in DEM all along.
Mozzoni has a decade-plus of experience in the ticket industry and once worked as a ticket “runner” for a company called Ticket Option, before being fired for “lack of production,” that company’s owner, Randy Kushner, said.
Further checks showed DEM Ticketing never reserved the Tempe hotel’s ballroom.
“People were asking for the ballroom because they had tickets to pick up,” hotel front-desk employee Etka Patel said. “But nobody had rented out the ballroom. They just used our name.”
DEM’s president, David Marks, initially maintained his company had reserved the ballroom. But when told the hotel desk staffer’s comments, he said they’d planned to distribute tickets in a lobby just outside it.
Marks also said he did not employ a Brian Thompson and has “no idea” why that name was on DEM emails.
Marks confirmed Brian Mozzoni was his business partner but declined to elaborate, other than saying Mozzoni’s longstanding contacts were to have supplied the Super Bowl tickets that never came. He said DEM will seek bankruptcy protection, but referred questions to a lawyer, Michael Oliverio.
Oliverio declined to confirm bankruptcy preparations but described DEM as burned by suppliers on about 60 tickets. He said Marks was working with credit-card companies to ensure customers are refunded.
Mozzoni could not be reached. Photos and updates on Marks’ Facebook account indicate he and Mozzoni arrived in Phoenix on the Wednesday before the game and attended the Phoenix Open golf tournament on Thursday, then a Playboy VIP party hosted by rapper Nelly at the W hotel on Friday night.
The nightmare continues
Van Boven says her family had no such fun.
The DEM tickets they bought on Seat Geek had been placed there by a Connecticut company called The
Ticket Network, which helps brokers market and sell seats. Once DEM reneged, Van Boven phoned The Ticket Network and they worked to book her new seats online through other affiliated brokers.
It was one of those affiliates, The Ticket Lobster, whose owner demanded the $25,000 in cash.
At a southeast Phoenix strip mall where The Ticket Lobster is headquartered, owner William Furniss emerged from behind a locked backroom door and said he couldn’t recall his exact exchange with the Van Bovens.
He said he’d spent $49,000 to acquire 16 tickets from a Florida-based company that reneged without refunding his money. That and four other reneged-on deals forced him to scramble to fill orders, filling some at “substantial” losses while refunding others to devastated customers.
“I went from having a company after 20 years to having my credit maxed out,” Furniss said.
His phone kept ringing with irate customers threatening harm if promised seats weren’t delivered.
“There are going to be big changes everywhere after this,” Furniss said. “I know from now on we’ll be doing our contracts in writing with consequences if you break the deal. No more handshakes.”
Two days after that interview — 2 1/2 weeks after the game — Van Boven learned somebody in West Covina, Calif., had tried to use her credit card. She filed a report with her local sheriff’s department, noting the card hadn’t been used since the Super Bowl.
Van Boven has canceled her card and still waits for her initial $12,000 to be refunded. She’s angry and wants “short selling” outlawed so this can’t keep happening.
She wonders how DEM can claim it never received her tickets when she was given exact section and seat numbers upon purchase.
It’s too easy, she said, for brokers to break orders by claiming they never received tickets and then turn around and sell elsewhere for bigger money. At the very least, she wants brokers held liable for all Super Bowl-related expenses, plus the added costs to customers forced to buy last-minute tickets because of canceled orders.
“If I knew then what I know today about how this system operates,” she said, “I would have just stayed home and watched the game on TV.”
(c)2015 The Seattle Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Image: Joe Parks via Flickr