Fans trying to get into popular concerts, shows and sporting events are increasingly getting shut out when tickets go on sale, restricted in what they can do with their tickets and pressured to use official outlets if they want to resell them.

Buying tickets, and reselling them, is more complicated than ever.

When high-demand tickets go on sale, fewer seats are available to the general public because of ticket-hoarding software bots employed by scalpers and the largely hidden practice of holding back prime seats for artists, promoters, fan-club members and credit-card companies.

At the same time, a growing number of operators are using paperless tickets, which can be difficult if not impossible to sell or give away but also are easy to use and help thwart scalpers.

Sports franchises — including the Denver Broncos — are pushing fans toward using official team resale exchanges, part of a broader effort by gatekeepers of live entertainment events to exert more control over and profit from the multimillion-dollar ticket resale business.

All these issues are being watched carefully by industry giants Live Nation Entertainment and StubHub, which are waging lobbying and public relations campaigns to advocate for their interests.

The stakes are high. Online event ticket sales in the U.S. are expected to grow by 3.3 percent to $3.6 billion this year, according to IBISWorld. StubHub, which dominates the resale market, has grown rapidly to take 20 percent of all ticketing revenues. Colorado's ticket resale market is estimated to be worth $55 million annually.

For many consumers, the changing landscape has turned ticket buying into a headache.

Greeley resident Bobbi Montero thought she was ready when tickets went on sale for Justin Bieber's June concert at the Pepsi Center.

The mother of two daughters who are rabid fans of the teen pop idol logged on early with her credit card ready. An instant after tickets when on sale, the seats Montero wanted were not available.

Gabriel Benzvidez tries to buy tickets for the Broncos vs Kansas City Chiefs on November 17, 2013.  The Denver Post)
Gabriel Benzvidez tries to buy tickets for the Broncos vs Kansas City Chiefs on November 17, 2013. The Denver Post) (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post )

"It was really frustrating thinking I was on top of that and ahead of the game," Montero said. "But apparently, not so much."

Prime seats withheld

When tickets go on sale to the general public for a big concert, large swaths of the venue may already be spoken for.

Since the advent of the concert industry, tickets have been set aside for artists, their management, promoters and the venue.

Other prime seats are now held back for artist fan clubs and credit-card companies, which make them available in presales.

The Fan Freedom Project, founded in 2011, has lobbied against holdbacks and paperless tickets. Fan Freedom gets money from StubHub, the online ticket resale marketplace and eBay division.

Tax records show Fan Freedom, a nonprofit, had almost $3 million in revenues in 2011, the most recent year available.

Through public records requests to publicly owned venues, Fan Freedom has shown that 70 percent to 90 percent of tickets for A-list acts Bieber, Taylor Swift, Pink, Keith Urban and One Direction were never available for sale at the general public on-sale time.

"If I know that, I probably won't be opening up five computers and have my kids gather all around and use their cellphones all at once," said Jon Potter, Fan Freedom's president.

The group is calling for more transparency in ticket availability, which opponents say will just give scalpers a better sense of the market.

The Denver Post filed public-records requests seeking information on holdbacks from publicly owned venues in Colorado, including Denver's city-owned Red Rocks Amphitheatre and the Broomfield Urban Renewal Authority's FirstBank Center.

But officials in both cities said companies that rent the venues or manage them control ticketing and keep those records, making them not subject to open-records requests.

Michael Marion, general manager of the Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., called holdback concerns "propaganda from scalpers" trying to divert attention from the threat of bots — programs that are able to bypass safeguards and scoop up large numbers of tickets.

Taylor Swift performs to a sold out crowd June 2, 2013 at Denver’sPepsi Center.
Taylor Swift performs to a sold out crowd June 2, 2013 at Denver'sPepsi Center. (John Leyba, The Denver Post)

Marion is president of the Fans First Coalition, which was formed with backing from Live Nation to counter Fan Freedom. Records show the group's budget is much smaller — just shy of $300,000 in 2011.

Fan clubs and credit-card presales are for fans, he said, although he acknowledged scalpers are also wise to the opportunity.

"Every building, every venue, every promoter wants to sell tickets," Marion said. "We don't want to hide them in our back pocket."

Trying to battle the bots

Bots are the common enemy of the live-events industry.

AXS, the digital ticketing platform launched by Anschutz Entertainment Group, developed an electronic space it calls "the waiting room" to try to sort out actual fans from scalpers using bots.

A half-hour before tickets go on sale, users log in and are assigned a randomized number in the virtual waiting room. When sales begin, consumers are allowed to enter the online store based on the order of the numbers drawn.

"It doesn't favor the guy that has the fastest Internet connection and it doesn't favor the robots that are out there that we see trying to create a non-equitable situation for consumers," said Blain LeGere, a senior vice president with AXS. "During the waiting room process, we can actually see those perpetrators and put them in a separate holding area so that they're not participating in the on-sale (period)."

LeGere said the company is in the final stages of developing a service called Fair AXS, which will allow consumers to sign up to buy tickets for high-demand events and specify which seats they're interested in about a week before an event goes on sale. Winners will be randomly selected and notified two days before the on-sale.

Ticketmaster, long a target of consumer complaints over exorbitant fees, is taking the fight against bots to the courts.

The company filed a lawsuit in April against more than a dozen people who allegedly used "automated devices" to submit up to 200,000 ticket requests in a single day. The ticketing company — a division of Live Nation Entertainment — has settled with several defendants.

Jacqueline Peterson, a Live Nation spokeswoman, said on-sales are monitored for suspicious activity, and orders that exceed ticket limits are canceled. She declined to say how many of the 300 million tickets Ticketmaster sells annually worldwide are purchased with bots.

Peterson said the single biggest factor keeping fans from coveted seats is supply and demand. She said artists also are reluctant to price tickets at what the market can bear, which motivates scalpers who know they can charge a premium.

"We don't have a front row that is 5 miles wide," Peterson said. "There are many more people who want to go than there are seats in a venue. What that does is create ways for other people to make money — and by other people, I mean scalpers."

The demand was high when tickets for country star George Strait's farewell tour stop at Pepsi Center next April went on sale to the general public on a Friday morning in early October.

Several Colorado fans reported being unable to purchase tickets even though they logged in early on TicketHorse, the ticketing service owned by Denver-based Kroenke Sports and Entertainment.

Longmont resident Monika Pearsall said the TicketHorse site stalled several times after she selected the seats she wanted, preventing her from proceeding.

"I don't think their system is set up to handle the amount of people that want these tickets," Pearsall said.

Kimberley Pirri of Highlands Ranch said her requests were met with responses indicating insufficient inventory. Frustrated, she checked StubHub and found 2,200 tickets listed starting at $175 each.

"I think it's a really popular concert," Pirri said. "But I also think that if StubHub has 2,200 tickets, then they bought tickets in some way that prevented the general public from getting 2,200 tickets."

TicketHorse general manager Nick Collison said the on-sale for George Strait saw unusually high traffic, and the show sold out immediately.

Collison said it's possible some of the increased traffic came from bots. The company monitors for bots during on-sales and runs reports after every sale period to search for duplicate orders or for evidence of bot activity and voids those orders, he said.

"It could be bots or it could be a broker out there that has a lot of people working for him," Collison said. "If we see it, we're going to nuke 'em."

Paperless' virtual promise

Paperless tickets, which allow fans to enter via a credit card, driver's license or other form of ID, are the industry's new tool to combat bots.

In the past year, about 40 percent of TicketHorse consumers have shown up to events at its venues with the virtual tickets, Collison said.

TicketHorse partners with Flash Seats — an electronic ticketing system — for its resale marketplace. The process is 100 percent digital, requiring both buyers and sellers to register with the site.

TicketHorse typically charges buyers service fees of up to 20 percent for using the resale service. It charges sellers 5 to 10 percent of the ticket price. Fans are not blocked from advertising tickets on other platforms, but both buyer and seller must have Flash Seats accounts.

"Go on StubHub and check any event, and you'll see multiple listings," Collison said. "There's certainly nothing we do to try and dissuade that."

Many fans say they like the convenience of paperless tickets, and some TicketHorse customers noted it's easy to sell them on Flash Seats. But others have concerns about transferability.

"I like having hard tickets, personally, in case I can't make a concert or a game, and then I can give them to a friend or whatnot," said Marc Ross, who used paperless ticketing to see The Who at the Pepsi Center this year. "But having said that, I like the idea of electronic tickets to, in some ways, hopefully defeat some scalpers from getting ahold of them."

Paperless tickets remain relatively rare industrywide. Peterson, of Live Nation, said paperless tickets are used only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the time for Ticketmaster events.

In addition to the difficulty of transferring paperless tickets, critics point to inconveniences. Fans must wait for their entire group to arrive, for example, before entering a venue.

Only one state — New York — requires paper tickets as an option when tickets are sold. Efforts to expand that to other states have failed.

Some industry executives are trying to address what they believe are legitimate criticisms of paperless ticketing. Andrew Dreskin, chief executive of San Francisco-based Ticketfly, a Ticketmaster competitor, said his company is working on technology that would allow for easy transfer of tickets to friends and family.

"The paperless technology today is imperfect but it's well-intentioned," Dreskin said. "The reality is, I would rather have a few people inconvenienced on occasion than have copious amounts of tickets end up in the hands of scalpers."

Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, egorski@denverpost.com or twitter.com/egorski

Andy Vuong: 303-954-1209, avuong@denverpost.com or twitter.com/andyvuong