A warning for Super Bowl fans as NFL counterfeits hit record levels

Stuart Fuller

The countdown to the 51st Super Bowl has begun, with the Atlanta Falcons taking on the red-hot-favorite New England Patriots in New Orleans this Sunday. But sadly, despite warnings from the authorities, the issue of counterfeit tickets and merchandise is once again hitting the headlines; last season saw thousands of fake tickets and counterfeit jerseys seized in and around the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, and once again the limited supply and the unlimited demand has fueled the counterfeiters’ thirst for huge profits.

Despite claims that ticket resale could only happen through one authorized channel, there are dozens of websites selling tickets. One of the most popular secondary-market websites has hundreds of tickets on offer, ranging from $2,250 to an eye-watering $100,000. You do get access to a tailgate party with that, but even so, the mark-up compared to the face value is simply obscene. So, faced with having to pay such huge amounts through ‘legitimate’ suppliers, many fans are driven underground to buy seemingly much more affordable tickets from individuals instead. And that’s where the danger of counterfeited tickets resides.

Last year, the FBI announced that as part of Operation Team Player, it had seized more than $39m worth of fake goods – including tickets – and secured 35 convictions. Although the technology used in ticket production has increased significantly in recent years, with the inclusion of watermarks and holograms, top-of-the-range printers today can easily produce incredibly realistic fakes. With fans desperate to get a seat in the NRG Stadium on Sunday, many will be duped by tickets that look like the real thing, but as soon as they try to enter the stadium, they’ll find out the hard way that the tickets are completely worthless.

It doesn’t seem to matter what major event it is, in which country or what time of the year, counterfeit tickets are a major issue for the clubs involved, the authorities and the law enforcement agencies. Despite the warnings about only buying from genuine sources, the limited supply will always mean that counterfeiters can benefit. Counterfeiters play on this demand, creating authentic-looking online businesses, investing in social media and SEO tactics to drive web traffic just like an authentic brand holder would. It’s now far too easy for anyone to buy authentication through social media ‘likes’ or ‘follows’, as well as domain names that appear at first glance to look the part. With tickets for the Super Bowl only released recently, fraudsters have had the opportunity to grab as much cash as they can before disappearing off into the sunset with fans’ hard-earned cash and their dreams of watching one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

One different approach taken by the promotors of the hit Broadway show, Hamilton, for its transfer to London later this year is to go back to basics to try and counter the issue of ticket scalping and counterfeiting. Tickets went on sale online last month to people who had a pre-general-sale code and, unsurprisingly, within minutes they were appearing on the secondary ticketing websites for hugely inflated prices. However, tickets will not be sent electronically, available through apps or even posted to those who have bought them. Instead, all ticket holders will have to be there in person on the night of the performance with a unique code, the payment card used in the transaction and relevant ID. They will then be allowed into the venue and given a ticket stub.

But it’s not just counterfeit tickets the authorities will be on the look-out for in the next few days. The Super Bowl leads to an annual surge in the purchase of team merchandise, as fans rush to wear their colors. Every year, the federal agencies use the days in the run-up to the game to underline the risks of buying counterfeits online, and the work they’re doing to try and eradicate a growing menace for brand holders and consumers alike. In 2014, the joint task force of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the NFL’s own internal team announced the results of Operation Team Player: more than 200,000 items of fake sports memorabilia and other counterfeit goods seized, together worth more than $21.6m. The value of the operation was a little less in 2015, at $19.5m, but the number of items seized had risen to over 325,000. In 2016, Operation Team Player netted a record $39m, as mentioned earlier.

In 2012, the major professional sports leagues in the United States lost over $13 billion in revenue due to sales of counterfeit shirts and merchandise, including a whopping $3 billion alone from the 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL). Undoubtedly, that number has grown significantly in the past few years, as has the total value of the counterfeit economy, which, according to the NetNames report The Risks of the Online Counterfeit Economy, is now estimated at over $1.7 trillion. Some top-end ‘authentic elite’ team shirts, which should retail for $250, could be found online with an 80% discount.  

Football jerseys are not like Gucci handbags or Hermes scarves. They are not luxury items; they are lifestyle items. Yet, they are often priced as luxuries. Some brands will say the shirts are priced so high as a direct result of the problem of counterfeiting. Is that fair? This is a Catch 22 situation – the more a manufacturer invests in the production process to try and defeat the counterfeiters, the higher the retail price is set, which will drive more people to buy an inferior but lower cost counterfeit.

“Counterfeiting is not a game”, said ICE Director Saldaña at the Operation Team Player press conference in Phoenix days before the 2015 Super Bowl. “It is most certainly not a victimless crime either. Whether it’s the child in Southeast Asia working in deplorable conditions, or local stores going out of business, intellectual property theft is a very real crime with very real victims. No good comes from counterfeiting American products regardless of whether they are all-star jerseys, airbags, or aspirin.”