The Death of Rush Tickets (If I Ruled the Met Part Whatever)

I was so upset when I heard the Met had eliminated rush tickets as we knew them that I couldn’t even write about it. This is about my fifth attempt . I’ll try not to get sidetracked by other bone-headed decision decisions made by Peter Gelb and the Met board.

First, a brief history of the rush ticket program. Starting in 2006, the Met offered 50 seats a night for $20, Monday thru Thursday to “senior citizens” through an online lottery. Each winner could buy up to two tickets. I’m assuming that they only picked 25 winners, since most people would buy two tickets. These were no additional service charges or fees. I believe these were all in the rear orchestra although the material I think said orchestra or the next level up. There were an additional 150 seats which anyone could wait on line for. Those were also rear orchestra, full view seats for $20. On weekends there were fewer seats available. The cost was $25 a ticket and there was an online lottery for everyone. The program was sponsored by large private donations (mostly from one donor) with the idea that it would open up the opera to New Yorker’s of more modest means. It continued for two years after the death of the main sponsor.

While there are other “cheap seats” at the Met, there are also hefty administrative and facility fees for all tickets.  I am not sure what the charge is when you go straight to the box office, but on the internet there is a $2.50 per ticket service charge” plus a “facility fee” charge. I’m not sure if that’s $15.00 per order or $7.50 per ticket, but I know in a recent order, it came out to a total of $20 additional charges on 2 $45 tickets.. So if you are going to the opera on your own, that means even your $25 orchestra standing-room ticket will cost you an extra $10 (assuming it’s per ticket)! The way it’s set up, it’s an extra burden for people going alone, and it’s also a “regressive” tax. That is, the more expensive the ticket, the less of a percentage you pay in fees.

There are lot of truly poor people in this city, working poor people, families on food stamps, who are barely housed. Were they taking advantage of a night at the opera for “only” $40 through the rush program. Unlikely. On the other hand, because you had to do something – wait on line possibly for 3-6 hours depending on the popularity of the production – participants had to (1) really want to see the show and (2) not have a whole lot of other options.. There might people with some disposable income waiting, but wealthier people for whom time is money — the kind who could casually plop down a few hundred for orchestra seats, or even $110 for two nose-bleed seats plus fees — weren’t likely to use the line often – although even they might indulge occasionally if the production was close to sold out and it was a last minute decision.

It was a good deal for retirees, freelancers including singers and musicians working odd schedules, people able to get an afternoon off from work to treat themselves, and most definitely tourists who had dreamed of an actual Met experience. There were both frequent fliers on the line, some of whom might have had a subscription or bought full-priced seats for some productions, and also people who strictly did rush. There were many first timers at the Met as well.

Were there some who abused the privilege? Sure. There were definitely people who made a business of the line – either selling their “extra” ticket or waiting on the line as a paid gig. However, having been on the line myself, and having talked to and observed those around me, I don’t think the abusers constituted anywhere near a majority. Despite New York’s rather lax laws regarding the resale of tickets, there was probably more the Met could have done (without spending a lot of money) to crack down on resellers. The line was mostly self-policing, and functioned well.

This September, shortly after they reached their agreement with the unions, the Met sent out a press release stating they would move away from the line to an online lottery system as “part of the Met’s continuing mission to further develop the opera audience by broadening access to the company’s performances.” They’ve eliminated the separate “seniors lottery” and reduced the total number of tickets to about 100 per night. (They are a bit vague on this). They’ve also raised the price to $25 per ticket.

The problem is the new system won’t “broaden the audience.” Nor will it somehow save the Met money. It’s another idiotic move that manages to insult the actual people who show up to fill seats, and it will do nothing to build a new audience. It’s another example of a board and management who are completely out of touch.

To begin with, there’s that touch of noblesse oblige – even within the announcement of the change. Per a NY Times article from 2012, the Met calculated the “cost” of the rush ticket program at $4 million and sought to raise funds to support it after the sponsor’s death. But how did they calculate the “cost”? Does this represent lost revenue from the full-price of the seats? If so, that presumes they would have sold all those tickets at the listed price, and that’s quite a presumption given that in 2012-2013 season attendance was less than 80% of capacity – and that includes the seats being filled by rush. Stats for 2013-14 aren’t available (or at least I couldn’t find them). In January 2014, Gelb blamed backlash for a rise in prices and the aging audience for the previous season’s loss. So wouldn’t it make sense, if the Met was at all interested in filling seats,that they make sure the opera was affordable for more people and that they figure out ways to draw in a new generation of opera goers? Wouldn’t a program like rush tickets help with that?

The lottery doesn’t help. It’s a big “screw you” to the seniors who had their own lottery. It makes it too easy for anyone to enter – even if they aren’t planning on actually going, even if they could well afford to pay the full freight. With the old system, as long as you got there early enough, you would definitely get your tickets. You could make a plan. You can’t “plan” to win the lottery. If you know you’ll have Wednesday night free, and funds are limited, you’d be better off going to see one of the numerous Broadway shows that offer rush tickets.

I’ll admit to my own stereotype and prejudices. I imagine a boardroom filled with Mitt Romney-clones who have all decided that the lottery idea is brilliant because it’s more “fair.” Anyone can enter. It’s so easy that it doesn’t discriminate against rich people who might not have time to wait on line. For people who think like that, the old rush-line probably looked a lot like food stamps – a program for the 47% who “can’t take responsibility for their lives” – a free ride.

But many of these “free-riders” may also be subscribers or may sometimes spring for non-discounted tickets. Some are old, but lots are young, and while there are still student discounts, rush offered another easy way for young people to get affordable tickets, and not all people under 35 who can’t pay full-freight are students. Some may be professionals paying off student loans and paying too much rent – but hey, they might be doing better in a few years – and they are your future subscribers. Some may be frequent fliers who tweet and blog about the performances they see, and now won’t be able to spread the word. Also young people often like to cluster together and do stuff in groups. A group of four could wait on line to be joined by four more later, but the chance of four out of eight winning the lottery the same night are small. You know who else took advantage of rush who can’t take advantage of the lottery? Tourists! Sure, some can enter the lottery and hope for the best, maybe head for the TKTS line or the Met box office if the “lose,” but you can “play’ the lottery if you are a citizen or permanent US resident, who lives in a state where lotteries aren’t allowed — which means no lottery for you Japan or FLORIDA!

Rush tickets shouldn’t be viewed as a costly charity that benefactors pay for. They should be utilized as a strategy to increase attendance and build an audience. The problem is it looks like Gelb and the board have all but written off the importance of increasing attendance at the actual performances. Granted, full houses will never cover costs. This isn’t a Broadway show where the endgame is a long run, and shows may take years to pay off. There are all kinds of reasons that the Met must always rely on private funding – including the fact while the Met may get some tax breaks and small state and city grants for educational programs, they are not supplemented the way arts institutions are in Europe or other places.

However, here’s the thing – nobody likes a loser. If opera becomes a private club for the wealthy, and even they can’t fill the seats – then it’s irrelevant. The Met will lose corporate support and private donations. If this looks like something healthy and vital to city life, than public and private funding is more likely to come in.

Economically, filling the seats won’t “save” the opera, but continuing to allow the audience to decrease will slowly suffocate it.

The Met might argue that they couldn’t “afford” the $4-million price tag for old rush. But let’s try some other math. The opera house has approximately 3,800 seats. Let’s hypothesize that despite (a) a sluggish economy, (b) productions that piss people off, (c) the strike-threat that probably decreased subscriptions, and so on,  — somehow or other the Met is destined to reach 85% capacity this year for 210 performances at an average ticket price of $156 (based on the average reported price last year). Ok, now here’s the thing, if they did something to bring that up by 10%, to 95% of capacity, even if it meant bringing back rush and offering big day-of-performance discounts, so that the average day-of-performance prices (including rush) were only $60 per ticket, that would still bring in an additional 4.7 million dollars. How? 210 performances x 10% of seats (380) = 79,800 empty seats. Multiply $79,800 x $60 and you’ve got $4,788,000. That’s still a tiny part of the Met’s operating budget, but there’s also the secondary gain that happens when the house is full and becomes more attractive to donors and sponsors.

So what do I think the Met should do in these tough economic times? As previously posted, they should revamp their subscriptions to make them more marketable to a younger audience. They should also reinstate the weekday senior rush online system and the rush ticket line with maybe a  few changes. They should figure out a way to make the tickets less transferable or salable to others. They could reduce the number of seats blocked off for rush and they certainly don’t have to be limited to the orchestra, but all tickets should be for full view seats. They could have a minimum number of rush seats for every performance, but maybe raise the number on shows that have too many available seats on a particular evening. Just like Broadway shows that use TKTS, they could offer heavily discounted seats from the box office on the day of the performance and/or also offer online discounts. (Hint: These options can be researched before they are instituted.) And for God’s sake, they need to either eliminate the administrative and facility fees or create a fairer system of fees – why not 10% of the total price of the order, with some kind of maximum fee? Why add a “poor tax” to lower-cost tickets?

(Marion doesn’t get any money for stating her opinions. If you click on something in “My Picks” above, and then purchase anything on Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon will give her pocket change. If you buy one of her books, maybe she won’t have to dumpster dive to feed her cats.)

One thought on “The Death of Rush Tickets (If I Ruled the Met Part Whatever)

  1. I could see automatically paying for tix as one way to cut down on the b.s. but a joining fee — however modest might still be too big a threshold for out of town visitors and tourists. I do get your point. If we both had 9-5 jobs, the rush line would have been mostly inaccessible. But I think the main points to any system are that (1) it has to help fill the seats and (2) it has to seem fair to the participants. Why not alternate — lotteries the 1st and 3rd week of each month and rush lines the 2nd and 4th weeks? What’s disturbing about the Met is the idea that the lines constituted some form of charity and they needed donations to make up for the lost revenue. There was no lost revenue. The were rarely “sold out” even with rush. Many for-profit Broadway shows have some form of rush — some have lines and some of lotteries — although most lotteries require waiting on a line to enter. But the point is, the producers of the shows don’t treat the people getting rush tix like they are less than.

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