Details trickling out from Burning Man central make it increasingly likely that the organization efficiently distributed up to 20,000 tickets to scalpers via what might be the worst major admission system to anything this millennium.
The latest piece of the puzzle came via a contrite (at least contrite-sounding) apology from Andie Grace, the Bmorg communications manager. In it, we learned that 40 percent of the ticket requests came from self-described newbies, thanks to a survey that was wedged into the application process. She also confirmed the back-of-the-envelope math that demand was three times the available tickets, or roughly 120,000 in the main sale.
The Bmorg has so far refused to release the number of bids received at the various price levels, so what follows in necessarily conjecture. We invite them to illuminate us if we are missing something.
We know from on-line postings theme camps received roughly a third of the tickets they requested in the pre- and main sales, which took the form of lotteries for 43,000 spots. The camps likely provide a large enough sample to be representative of all veteran Burners and a few of their first-time campmates.
Marian Goodell, the Burning Man director of business and communications, confirmed to the San Francisco Bay Guardian Online that only about a third of theme-camp and art-project members have scored entries. In a blog posting on the Burning Man website she said no more than 25 percent of key members of theme camps and art installations got places in the first two sales.
If the one-third figure for theme camps is representative of all long-timer Burners, it means veterans acquired about 14,250 of 3,000 tickets in the $420 presale and the three-tiered 40,000-unit main sale. If the ratio of experienced Burners to Virgins is indeed 60:40, that leaves 9,500 ducats in the undusty hands of bona fide first-timers.
Scalpers lying in either direction on the survey would skew those numbers, but it’s sensible to assume that vets took practically all of the $420 presale tickets and bid heavily for the 15,000 at the $390 level in the main scale while scalpers concentrated on the two lowest levels, $240 (10,000) and $320 (15,000). The $240s, especially, were riskless, since they could easily be resold for at least $100 over face value even if the event didn’t sell out.
So, of 43,000 tickets sold so far, 23,750 went to people actually planning to go to Burning Man. That leaves a mind-boggling 19,250 in the hands of scalpers. That figure is so high that it lends a bit of credence to the allegation that the Bmorg didn’t allocate all of the tickets in the main sale, holding some back to add to the upcoming open sale of 10,000 and/or the 4,000 low-priced entries available for those with provable need.
The structure of the main sale — three pricing tiers, bidders could pick a maximum but not a minimum — make it impossible to calculate the actual distribution.
Tickets are already appearing StubHub and other resale websites. On Monday, Feb. 13, StubHub listed 80 tickets from 17 sellers at prices ranging from $695 to $5,000 each.
The Bmorg has stated that the several hundred tickets now appearing on line are a sign that scalpers did not end up with all that many, but it is pretty well-established that market economics is not the organization’s strong suit. With 14,000 tickets still to be allocated and the event more than half a year away, scalpers would have no incentive to reveal that they have a lot of tickets to sell.
As previously reported by the Beacon, the system of tiers inside a lottery makes little sense, encouraging scalpers and even regular Burners to bid for more tickets than they need. Burners could get around the two-ticket-per-person cap in the main sale by asking asking friends and family members to apply for extra places.
The Bmorg initially speculated that heavy bidding by the Burning Man community meant many of the tickets would be redistributed to attendees. Indeed, it seemed probable that big theme camps would overbid to ensure enough places for key staffers, but if they only scored 33 percent of their needs even after that, scalpers or avid virgins must have overwhelmed them in the sale.
Along with the remaining 14,000 tickets to be sold, the Bmorg is creating a secondary market called the Secure Ticket Exchange Program for resales at face price starting Feb. 29. It was meant as a way to distribute excess tickets from legitimate Burners who overbought, but given the revelations of the theme camps, there may well not be any.
The open sale has a maximum of four tickets per buyer, as opposed to two in the main sale, and those theme camps that haven’t thrown in the towel can be expected to bid heavily to fill in their ranks.
What happens after that may be counterintuitive. Many veterans already are planning to be elsewhere, and theme camp chieftains who invest thousands of dollars in their projects could be tempted to take the year off. That might teach scalpers a lesson, but it would also populate Black Rock City with a large proportion of Burners, old and new, ill-equipped to make the kinds of contributions that draw people to the middle of Nowhere.