Big tickets, bigger prices: how the cost of a night outis leaving us poorer

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The Independent Online

If you get hold of one of the new £30 tickets to the Royal Opera House, then you will be one of the lucky few.

Prices for top sporting and cultural events in Britain are soaring, limiting access to those who are able to pay scores or hundreds of pounds straightaway. From West End theatres to football grounds to the cinema, tickets for a night out have increased at well beyond the rate of inflation in the past 10 years, according to figures supplied to The Independent.

That figure applies just to the face value of the tickets. New websites are touting tickets to events for several times the original cost. This secondary market has caused concern among MPs, who fear genuine fans of sporting and cultural events are being exploited.

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has urged the ticketing industry to clean up its act, calling for a voluntary code of conduct.

The prices charged by venues have come under the spotlight following the Royal Opera House's decision to sell 43,000 tickets for £30 or less.

At the same time, the Covent Garden venue is raising its top price for 500 tickets to a few productions to £210, an above-inflation increase on the current top price of £195.

Those paying the weekly wage for some to get the best seats in the house to The Flying Dutchman, La Traviata or Tosca will be subsidising the less well off.

"It's a really difficult balance to get right, but to me it's the right thing to do," said the RoH's chief executive, Tony Hall, adding the £30 tickets were "an important statement that you can afford to go to the opera and ballet".

Few unsubsidised venues can – or do – show an equivalent commitment to ensuring access to the whole of society.

Although figures are sketchy in some cases, the clear trend is for venues to increase prices well above inflation. In the West End, the rises have been particularly marked, with many seats for popular musicals such as Chicago costing around £40. Figures from the Society of London Theatres reveal that the average price of a play ticket has risen by 62 per cent in a decade, increasing from £14 in 1995 to £23 in 2006. If the price had increased in line with inflation, the price would be £19.

Fans wishing to watch their favourite pop stars have seen the same trend. In an era where the price of recorded music has slumped with the proliferation of downloading, many artists find the only way they make money is by packing arenas with fans prepared to pay hefty sums.

Tickets for Madonna's last tour of the UK, in 2006, ranged between £85 and £160. The Glastonbury Festival has almost doubled in price in the past decade, from £80 to £155.It is a similar story at the cinema. According to the Dodona Research consultancy, the average cost of seeing a film nationwide rose from £3.26 in 1995 to £5.05 last year. But while most can afford to see a film, sporting events are now beyond the reach of many.

A season ticket at Chelsea costs up to £855, compared with £170 in 1989. Arguably, fans are getting a much better experience, with the Premiership's high wages attracting the cream of international figures. But the Football Supporters' Federation says the prices are changing the character of the game. "The social composition of the game is changing. The average age of fans is rising and it's knocking out the next generation of supporters," said Malcolm Clarke, federation chairman.

How touts skew the market

How much does it cost to see The Police (right) or Chicago? Tickets to see Sting et al at the MEN Arena in Manchester in June start at £40; the most expensive cost £85.

Chicago, one of London's long-running musicals, costs between £20 for a restricted view seat and £75 for a VIP package.

Increasingly, though, the answer lies in how much the touts charge.

Years ago, the "secondary market" in tickets was limited to the occasional classified ad, a few ticket booths in London or the shady individuals who would hang around venues muttering: "I'll buy any spares."

The touts are still there in person, but now they are outnumbered by a slew of websites that can match buyers and sellers of tickets instantly. Some tickets are sold online by genuine fans, but armchair touts know exactly how and when to pounce on the phone lines or websites to secure access to events that can be resold for a hefty and easy profit.

Arguably, they are just balancing supply and demand. There is a concern, however, that they are driving up prices for everyone. Tickets go on sale before they have become available, creating a "futures market": those for the Six Nations Rugby match between England and Ireland at Twickenham were advertised online for £734 before they had been sent out.