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  • Mark Schipper

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

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

By Mark Schipper

Like the Western Black Rhinos of Africa the experts ought to declare physical tickets 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, is more portentous than it might seem. 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 barcodes, 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 will be tracked and transmitted and used by commercial interests in order to advertise products directly into your personal communication channels.

Physical tickets, in stark contrast to the barcodes, remain fascinating historical artifacts decades if not centuries later. They preserve both the artistic style of an era and, for the keeper, they trigger a flood of personal memories. Don Canham knew their value. Canham was the athletic director at the University of Michigan and one of the most successful administrators in the history of college athletics. A millionaire in private business before he took the job in 1968, Canham had great insight into the human psyche and knew a lot about what caused emotional attachments to form.

Canham had used Michigan's tickets as portable, permanent advertisements for the school's football program. He had engaged a firm to design each game's tickets with a different scene from an autumn Saturday inside Michigan Stadium. "The most beautiful and expensive football tickets in the nation" Canham called them.

Canham believed that the artistic quality on the entry passes would cause tens of thousands of fans to save them, and put them in scrapbooks, which then would be viewed by successive generations of family members and friends. They may even be passed down as heirlooms. He believed that those scenes, their color and dynamism the obvious emotions they were meant to capture, would promote the program to subsequent generations of fans who would be curious to find out what those fall Saturdays were really like.

The loss of the real souvenir in exchange for the barcode is part of a broader trend of eliminating physical objects in exchange for the convenience of digital files and a cold efficiency of execution. Both of these things are heralded as minimalist 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?

Predictably, the imminent arrival of this ticketless age has sparked counteroffensives meant to preserve as many of the physical artifacts as possible. One such operation is hosted at the Ticket Stub Collection, a website run by Russ Havens that is 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, thousands of actual stubs, and complete, unused tickets for sale in the same manner as one would sell a piece of graphic design.

“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 having tickets 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 from 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 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 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 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 seventy-six game, played during the United States’ Centennial year, 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 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 thick 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 cutthroat 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 make a keepsake.

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. United States' President Richard Nixon attended that battle in Fayetteville, touching down in the Marine One helicopter 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 had gone over the heads of the national sporting press and 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 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 a culture a he needed to win over to stay president of the United States.

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 at reproduction quality took a lot of hunting and 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 executed by people who like to track things down. It can be long and tedious work.

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

In the commodities floor 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 passes are a barcode that changes patterns at regular intervals to prevent someone from snapping a photo of your screen and scanning the pass ahead of 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 some of the worst aspects of scalper markets outside stadiums, forcing re-sellers onto legitimate secondary markets where tickets are authenticated and prices forced into line with the market if they’re going to sell.

Alongside a friend visiting Los Angeles from across the country, 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 real enough again to get us inside.

Inside, standing on the Coliseum floor, I was scanning section markers at the lip of the stadium when I realized our tickets had us in a section that did not exist. We had wandered around the ballpark and eventually found two spots to squeeze into but it had nearly been a financial disaster. When you are college-aged the loss of several hundred dollars in return for nothing is like learning your million-dollar retirement account was cleaned out in a Ponzi Scheme. I take solace imagining that scalper was run over by a tractor-trailer 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 is going to know everywhere you go and everything you do within its purview. This circuit will become complete when stadiums go cashless at their concession stands and your purchasing app will record every beverage, food item, and souvenir purchase you make 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 their data triggers.

Beyond the personal information connected to all 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 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 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 a dystopian 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 there is a good traffic 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 acquaintance. 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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