- John Helyar, Sports Business
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The Colorado Rockies clearly are better at hardball than software. The team ran into major snafus with its online sales of World Series tickets before it finally achieved a sellout Tuesday afternoon of Games 3, 4 and 5 in Denver.
The club cited an "external, malicious attack" for Monday's halt in sales. In reality, it was just aggressive ticket brokers doing business as usual.
The brokers' sophisticated programs, called "bots," made all-out assaults on the nearly 60,000 available tickets. The company which runs computer operations for the Rockies ticket office was swamped by 8.5 million hits over the course of 90 minutes.
A team from Major League Baseball Advanced Media worked overnight with techs from the automated ticketing company Paciolan to shore up defenses. They reconfigured the system to block out the ISP addresses of the "bad guys." They opened the spigots to accommodate more traffic. And after the online ticket office reopened on Tuesday at noon MT, the Rockies' three games sold out in 2½ hours.
For the many fans who spent hours clicking their mouse and gritting their teeth and still were shut out of the Series, it was about as frustrating as watching Mike Hampton try to justify
his Rockies contract back in the bad old days.
"You get so excited that the team has gotten to this point, then to go through this it leaves a bad taste in your mouth," said Molly Dougan of Colorado Springs, whose only reward for the investment of hours in this exercise was her computer's infuriating message: "Thank you for your patience."
Get used to it, Molly. You have seen the future, and it isn't those straggly lines of ticket-seekers snaking around the ballpark. It's the brave new world of online.
"We're in the middle of a major convergence of technology and selling tickets," said Robert Tuchman, president of TSE Sports & Entertainment, which sells travel and ticket packages to sports events. "But there are still kinks in the system."
The Rockies handled their virtual box office differently than MLB's other "final four" teams did. The Red Sox, Indians and Diamondbacks set up online registries, where fans could request Series tickets. The teams then held drawings to randomly select the lucky buyers.
In Boston, there apparently were no significant complaints or technical problems, at least in comparison. Though there were plenty of fans in the request queue -- a reported 350,000 or so, seeking two tickets for one Series game -- there was time enough to have an orderly drawing. The lottery winners were notified by e-mail on Oct. 12.
Compare that to Colorado's land-rush approach, in which fans were invited to scramble en masse for the tickets on Monday. In announcing that approach last week, officials from both MLBAM and the Rockies expressed confidence the team's Web site could handle the traffic.
And it did. But the back-office order-processing functions at Paciolan did not. The Rockies sold fewer than 500 tickets before the overwhelmed system was shut down.
In retrospect, the Irvine, Calif., company was in over its head. Colorado is one of Paciolan's five MLB clients. Far more teams in the majors use either Ticketmaster, which is in the process of buying Paciolan, or tickets.com, which is owned by MLBAM.
Paciolan's primary niche is college sports. That business normally doesn't require the kind of gear or experience to combat the wily ticket brokers who descend on huge pro sports events. Dave Butler, the CEO of Paciolan, took responsibility for the system's failure on Monday, saying, "This is not the Rockies' fault in any way whatsoever."
The Rockies weren't ready to throw Paciolan under the bus.
"We are not in the blame game," team spokesman Jay Alves said. "The Rockies, Paciolan and mlb.com all contributed to the disappointment our fans felt yesterday. Now today all three entities shared in the success of the online sale.
"We felt our method would be the most appropriate and put the most tickets in the most hands of our fans. Obviously we will review the entire procedure. If we feel the method used by other clubs makes it a better process, I'm sure we will consider it."
To MLBAM chief Bob Bowman, the snafus weren't a setback to online ticketing, but rather a learning experience that will improve it.
"We're sensitive to the fact there are tens of thousands of fans who didn't get to buy tickets," he said. "But online still provides us the widest means of distribution, and we're doing everything we can to ensure its fairness."
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."
The future of ticket sales clearly is online, but Colorado Rockies fans just saw that future and didn't like the look of it, writes John Helyar.