• Mark Schipper

Loss of Physical Tickets to Sporting Events, and Art that went with Them, Not Just Sad but Dystopian

By Mark Schipper

A Cal vs UCLA ticket from the days when a big event was meant to be commemorated through some kind of creative effort. Photo courtesy of Row One Brand

Like the Western Black Rhinos in Africa the experts ought to declare physical tickets to sporting events extinct. While there are a few of them still floating around in the world, we have passed the point of no return on their continued production and it’s only a matter of time before the last of the old ones are gone.

The loss of those decorated, thin-cardboard stubs, which for more than a century were the perfect souvenir and memento from a day in the life, is more portentous than it seems. Many people, after all, chuck their tickets before they leave the stadium and the idea they might be losing something valuable wouldn’t occur to them. But the switch to digital barcode passes, presented to gate agents through an app installed on your smartphone, is another harbinger of the end of the 20th Century and the true beginning of the 21st, when every activity you participate in will be tracked, analyzed, and profiled by business interests in order to advertise commercial products directly and intrusively into your personal communication channels.

Physical tickets, in contrast to the new barcodes, remain fascinating historical artifacts that represent both the style of an era and a trove of strictly-personal memories. Though tickets themsleves have gone through their own de-evolution, from artisan, individualized products for most of the 20th Century, to cheap photoshop images in the latter stages, and finally simple time, date, and seat stamps dropped onto pre-formatted backgrounds that never were much to look at, anyway.

But the loss of this souvenir in exchange for quick-scan digital barcodes is part of the relentless elimination of physical objects, touches of color, and creative presentations in pursuit of a perfect digital convenience and a cold efficiency of execution. Both of these things are heralded as some kind of end goals worth pursuing for their own sake, but at what point do people start missing the colorful objects that provide evidence of their lives?

The imminent coming of this ticketless age has fired up multiple countertrends meant to conserve our physical artifacts. One such manifestation is hosted at Ticket Stub Collection, a website run by Russ Havens dedicated to preserving the history of ticket-stub art. Havens has more than 25,000 ticket images at his site for people to browse through, and thousands of actual stubs and full tickets that are for sale.

“The site started because I love commercial artwork—tickets, posters, signage—that was meant to be thrown away,” Havens tells 5th Down. “Ticket stubs combined all my loves, because I love theater, I am a huge rock fan, go to concerts all the time, and I love sports. So all of those things get wrapped up in ticket stubs.”

In spite of that love for the art of tickets, Havens has a cold-sober view of what the culture is losing with their coming extinction. He breaks into age categories groups that will miss or not miss ticket stubs in their scrapbooks. Young teenagers in 2021 likely won’t know what ticket stubs are and will have nothing to miss. They’ll have to be told what those rectangular pieces of cardboard were good for. Those who are over twenty, and more so those over thirty who still attend a lot of events, may feel the loss significantly more.

“I think those who miss them will miss being a kid and waiting in the parking lot after the game to have a player sign their ticket,” says Havens. “I think people will miss framing an actual ticket stub with a photo of you and your buddy who you haven’t seen in twenty years in your seats at the ballpark or concert. It will be an emotional miss, not a tangible miss. I laugh at people who get serious about dumb stuff, but I’m guilty of it with ticket stubs. I love them. But as far as remembering events, there are a hundred ways to do that now without ticket stubs.”

Image courtesy of Row One.
Image courtesy of Ticket Stub Collection.

Another company repurposing ticket-related ephemera is Row One Brand out of Oklahoma City. Row One sells many items, ranging from fine-art wall hangings to beach towels and coffee mugs that showcase high-quality reproductions of the finest artistic and graphic designs in sports’ history. Their art comes directly from actual scans of old game tickets, programs, period advertisements and promotional materials used by teams and schools across three different centuries.

“I’ve always liked art,” Row One founder Ray Durbin told 5th Down. “I mean, for whatever reason, I was a pretty good artist in terms of drawing and painting and stuff like that. When I was younger, as a hobby and everything. I just enjoyed art, and that that was the impetus behind it. From that aspect of liking some of these tickets, and the artwork on them, everything I thought was really cool. We found ways to blow up these images and keep using them.”

Durbin founded Row One in 2011 after a long career as a corporate attorney in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. He grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan but graduated from the University of Oklahoma, took a law degree from the University of Texas, and served a short stint in the army before settling into a long legal practice. Durbin has been to hundreds of college football games, done his research on the history of the sport, and can talk knowledgeably about it in a general conversation.

“You can see kind of the evolution of ticket designs over the years,” says Durbin. “The early decorative tickets and programs are interesting, some of them are very ornate, and then the more graphic styles came, but even the latter tickets of the 20th Century I'm not quite as thrilled about them. Most of the time, not all of the time, they’re cheap photographs versus having people make art. All of this is really about art and history. And it gives you a little snapshot into what life was like in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.”

Durbin was at the 1971 Game of the Century in Norman between the Universities of Oklahoma and Nebraska. That game is being played back this year for nostalgic reasons—the teams no longer share a conference or a rivalry—in celebration of its 50th Anniversary. 5th Down will be there to participate in the weekend but all of the game tickets have been digitized. While spectators at the rematch will not have a souvenir of the seat they occupied for the return of the 20th Century to the Great Plains, Row One has a scan of their original ticket, which features a big OU Sooners’ helmet on the side, for purchase and placement on a wide variety of household items.

The contrast of a ticket that’s still worthy as an item of art fifty-years after the end of its practical lifespan, and that of a digital barcode locked into a smartphone app, makes for a stark and depressing encapsulation of the drastically different creative eras the two games represent.

Durbin has collected, purchased, and hunted down industrial-art items going all the way back to the 1876 Harvard—Yale game, from which he has an original program. That ’76 game, played during the United States’ Centennial, was only the second time two of the sport’s founding schools had battled each other on a gridiron. Harvard had won the first match in 1875, 4-0, while Yale, led by one of football’s greatest innovators in Walter Camp, took the 1876 rematch, 1-0, in front of 2,000 souls at Hamilton Park in New Haven. The program is an interesting piece of history to study, and looks good enough to hang in an office 145 years after it was first designed.

Two of Durbin’s best, and costliest captures, represent two of the most significant games in college-football history. The first is a ticket from the 1957 Notre Dame at Oklahoma showdown, a colossal upset in which a good but not great Fighting Irish team ended the Sooners still-NCAA record 47-game winning streak in front of a shocked home crowd at Owen Field in Norman.

Photo courtesy of Row One Brand

The ticket features a graphic drawing of the state of Oklahoma and a stylish bubble-font listing the teams. The state’s 50th-Anniversary “Semi-Centennial” seal is on the side of the ticket alongside the slogan: “From teepees to towers,” set prominently amongst a group of graphics. The face price on the ticket is $5.00, which is another fascinating element in the old designs, watching prices rise exponentially through the years as both inflation and rampant commercialism took hold of college football.

The Oklahoma ticket is an obvious example of college football’s folk-style connection to the land and its people. Many tickets in Row 1’s collection evince that relationship, with universities honoring something in their state’s history, an anniversary, or some other touchstone that makes a concrete connection between the college sport and the history of the state it’s being played in. No digital ticket offers even the possibility of something so personal or interesting to hold on to.

The second item in Durbin’s vault is a ticket to what became the 1969 national championship between Texas and Arkansas, a competition significant both in the history of the sport and that of the United States. President Nixon attended that battle in Fayetteville, touching down in the Marine One chopper outside Razorback Stadium minutes before kickoff. Nixon was courting the Southern vote at what turned out to be the last all-white national championship ever played, having arrived with a plaque to present the winning team after the game.

Nixon went over the heads of the national sporting press and their wire-service polls, the traditional arbiters of national championships, and boxed out an undefeated Penn State team to the north, to show the constituents down South that he appreciated their brand of football, their commitment to it, and its championship pedigree. College football in certain parts of the country is as much a religion as a game and Nixon, who was an obsessive fan of professional football, was paying homage to the culture of a group of people he needed to win over to stay president of the United States. College football was in the middle of the maelstrom.

The game itself was an incredible battle between the undefeated Longhorns and Razorbacks in the final week of the regular season, and it came down to a cold-blooded touchdown drive by Texas late in the fourth quarter to win, 15-14, on a sharp and rainy December Saturday. The ticket itself is simple, with a drawing of Razorback Stadium and the marching band on the field—but it is what the stub represents that made it worth keeping

Those two tickets cost Durbin around $600 each at auction. Both are extremely rare and to get them in a condition good enough to reproduce took a lot of hunting and good luck. To find those rare tickets you have to make a regular circuit of estate sales featuring old scrapbooks stuffed with the right kind of souvenirs, or online auction houses where they’re sold by people who may not be aware of their actual value. The other way is by a kind of national scavenger hunt undertaken by people who like to track things down. It can be long and tedious work.

Havens from Ticket Stub Collection says the 2020 pandemic year has turbo-charged ticket-stub selling and purchasing. The radical impact of Covid, including fears it could be transmitted over physical surfaces, put many slow transitions into a rush mode, including the shuffling out of physical tickets. As the impending death of physical tickets became imminent, Havens said daily online auctions for stubs have jumped from around 75,000 tickets a day to north of 120,000 on platforms like EBay.

In the commodities floor-like flurry of buying and selling Havens just off-loaded what he calls the Holy Grail of items, an unused ticket to the 1949 Pineapple Bowl between the University of Hawaii and a “Mainland” opponent, which turned out to be Oregon State University. It was a remarkably meaningless game between two mediocre teams, but the ticket is die-cut in the shape and colors of a pineapple and happens to be one of the most unique entry passes ever created.

“The ticket is an absolute work of art,” says Havens. “And it's a full ticket. It's not a stub. So it's got a weird notch bottom that has the seating information. So I put it up for sale and the dude on eBay swallowed it up for $500 bucks last week. Wow. I mean, no questions asked, he didn’t even make me a counter offer. Of course I immediately thought I should have been asking for a lot more. Oh well.”

While a meaningless ticket from seventy-two years ago might sell for more than $500 today, digital tickets are not even proper tickets. Digital entry passes are a barcode that changes patterns at regular intervals to prevent someone from snapping a photo of your screen and scanning the pass before you. While there are several advantages to digital tickets, they’re fairly weak or mundane for the consumer while being hugely beneficial to the issuer.

In favor of digital tickets is the fact you can’t lose or have them stolen because they belong to a secure account. Their barcode can be blocked and a new one reissued instantly. You can’t put digital tickets through the washing machine and your dog can’t eat them before the show. You’re also less likely to forget them at home because they are on your phone, though plenty of people have left their phone behind at one time or another. Even then, digital tickets can be retrieved at the venue so long as you have the credit card you used to purchase them or the right identification.

Digital passes also can be instantly transferred across the country without having to send them by snail mail or to meet up in person to make a transaction. This also, in theory, eliminates the worst elements of the scalper markets outside stadiums, forcing re-sellers onto legitimate digital secondary markets where tickets are authenticated and prices are forced to fall in line with the prevailing market rates if they’re going to sell.

Along with a friend I once bought bogus tickets to a big USC—UCLA football game outside the Coliseum in Los Angeles. In the noise and chaos and intensity outside the stadium just minutes before kickoff the tickets had looked real enough. In that same massive crush going into the stadium, where the ticket agents tore the stubs and didn’t use a digital scanner, they looked authentic enough to get us inside.

When I began scanning the section markers at the top of the stadium I realized our tickets had us in a section that did not exist. We somehow found two spots to squeeze into in a sold-out stadium but it had almost been a several-hundred-dollars disaster. When you are college-aged the loss of several hundred dollars in return for nothing is like learning your million-dollar savings account got cleaned out in a Ponzi Scheme. I take solace in imagining that scalper was run over by a shipping truck somewhere along Exposition Boulevard.

Actual message requesting access to my phone's data after purchasing tickets to a football game.

But the digital ticket, beyond the one-time access it grants, is little more than another data-collection device installed on your phone. The corporate entity issuing the app its stored on is going to know everywhere you go and everything you do within its purview. This circuit will become complete when stadiums go to cashless applications at their concession stands that will record every beverage, food, and souvenir purchase and store it alongside everything else in your digital profile. The team and its corporate partners will use that information to tailor your experience both at the ballpark and outside of it as they send you product offers and exclusive deals based on the data they’ve archived

Beyond the personal information connected to all of your online identifiers, the apps also will be used to track the chain of title on every digital pass. Professional franchises and college athletic departments will monitor where tickets are transferred and suspend any accounts flagged for purchasing passes strictly for the resale market. It will be the issuers discretion as to how much reselling is too much reselling. If your account is frozen and you feel it has been done in error, you’ll be put through a pre-established process in order to win back your access and purchasing rights. At no point will your tickets be in your sole possession.

While the team will know everything you do through their required ticketing app, the fan, on his side, will have the option to print out a screenshot of a mundane photo and barcode on a giant eight-by-twelve piece of paper for a souvenir. The digital ticket represents not just a loss of art and design, or the elimination of a physical remnant that could be used to reconstruct a historical moment, but is in some ways also a dystopian-style trade-off, another loss of personal privacy in exchange for simply participating in the things you enjoy.

Classic example of a digital entry pass.

But until that day comes when there will be no one left who remembers what a physical ticket was, or any kind of art that wasn’t created digitally and printed to order, there is a good traffic going in the remembrance of days gone by. You can buy something colorful off of Row One, or get a ticket from Ticket Stubs Collector, and hang it up in your home.

Or, if you’re fine with how it’s going, you can print out a copy of a screenshot of your latest barcode and stuff it in a drawer for a later perusal. You won’t get a chance to see it but that paper will end up in the shredder before the estate sale. It wouldn’t have fetched much of a price, anyway. Your grandchildren will never know the difference.

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