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Web site gets big tickets to little guy

What if $50 paid now would secure a Super Bowl ticket at face value should the Buffalo Bills make it to the big game? What if $6 would guarantee you a ticket at face value should the Sabres make it to the Stanley Cup finals?

Would you be interested? Is that an investment you'd be willing to make? If so, Rick Harmon, the CEO of Illinois-based The Ticket Reserve, is about to become your best friend.

Harmon's done it. His company has come up with a way to give average, unconnected sports fans a chance at attending the oft-times untouchable events they'd most like to see. Have you craved being in the house when Duke or Syracuse or Kentucky plays in the Final Four? The Ticket Reserve makes it possible if you're willing to run a risk that can range from peanuts to the mortgage payment.

My first reaction when I learned of The Ticket Reserve last weekend was that this sounds like dignified scalping. But after perusing the Web site (www.theticketreserve.com) and spending an hour on the phone with Harmon on Monday, I'm loving the concept, although a bit fearful of how it may evolve.

Here's the way it works. When The Ticket Reserve market opens on a particular event, say the Super Bowl, fans can purchase what amounts to a ticket license (Fan Forwards, as the company calls them) for the team they yearn to see. For instance, a license for one ticket to see the Bills in the Super Bowl remains at its initial public offering price of $50 because the allotment has not yet been exhausted.

Once all the Fan Forwards on a team are sold, the open market takes over on the company Web site. Fans in need place bids. Fans willing to part with their licenses set an asking price. When a match is made the Fan Forward changes hands, just like shares in the stock market. If a team is eliminated from contention, the Fan Forward becomes basically worthless, just like an option on the futures market that fails to meet its strike price. Meanwhile, the longer a team remains in contention, or the more robust its chances of advancing to the desired game, the more valuable the license tends to become. A Fan Forward for a Colts Super Bowl ticket already exceeds $400.

Harmon started Ticket Reserve 4 1/2 years ago, then spent two years seeking Security and Exchange Commission approval for the business model. The company doesn't advertise, Harmon said, because it wants to distance itself from the gouging ticket brokers fans have come to despise. Harmon declined to give the number of users who have registered on the Web site, but he makes it clear he's quite satisfied with the level of activity.

Fan Forwards are working just the way Harmon had hoped they would. He said about 85 percent of the licenses are retained by initial buyers, that almost all the Eagles fans who went to the Super Bowl last year with tickets from The Fan Reserve did so at $100 over face value, paying all told about one-fifth what scalpers were commanding. An Andre Agassi fan landed a seat for the U.S. Open semis for seven bucks up front.

The Ticket Reserve just took its first big step toward widespread legitimacy by striking a deal with the Rose Bowl for this year's BCS Championship Game. It has 2,500 tickets to offer, 1,250 for each team, with the Rose Bowl receiving a "substantial portion" of the IPO price and a hefty percentage of the 10 percent transaction fee charged whenever a Fan Forward changes hands. This is the way Harmon would like to see it, with events contracting with The Ticket Reserve to get seats in the hands of loyal fans who'd covet them.

The fear is that as The Ticket Reserve becomes better known, the market will vault and the average Joe once again will be priced out of the game. Then again, if pro leagues and major events see the company as providing a valuable service, they could make more seats available through The Ticket Reserve, putting the big games back in the hands of the fans.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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