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At Silicon Valley Super Bowl, Paper Is Just the Ticket

02/05/2016 | 02:35pm US/Eastern
By Georgia Wells 

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Sunday's Super Bowl will be here in the heart of Silicon Valley, which has given the world ways to zap everything from photos to legal documents over the Web.

Everything but Super Bowl tickets. Those must be the thick-glossy-paper variety, handled by hand.

Which is why three StubHub security officials on Tuesday were sitting at a long table with stacks of game tickets, some valued at more than $5,000 each.

The ticket-reselling site is safeguarding tickets like these in a vault at an undisclosed location and must get them safely into buyers' hands by game day.

"Lots of guns are involved" says Jason Deppen, StubHub's field-operations head, "in the transportation of the tickets."

Super Bowl event organizers are gunning to make it the most technologically advanced in the championship's 50-year history, with Wi-Fi all over and apps for just about everything.

But when it comes to the ticketing, the National Football League is in the past century.

Anyone buying a ticket can't download it and show it at the gate or send it to anyone online. The NFL is sticking to its Super Bowl tradition: Fans must use NFL-issued paper tickets.

That creates a logistical labyrinth for digital resellers like eBay Inc.'s StubHub, which is deploying armored vehicles and guards packing heat.

On Saturday and Sunday, StubHub will herd all its buyers through an amusement park by Levi's Stadium, the game venue, to pick up their tickets.

Physical tickets are part of a few other events, such as golf's Masters Tournament. But normally, for anything from baseball games to Metallica concerts, a seller can send a PDF or mobile ticket online to a reseller or buyer. Resellers then send tickets electronically to buyers' computers or smartphones.

NFL teams offer electronic tickets for the regular season. The San Francisco 49ers have phased out traditional tickets altogether for home games at Levi's Stadium.

But the NFL sticks to tradition every year for Super Bowl tickets--this year printed in gold with holograms and heat-sensitive ink--because "fans like the commemorative aspect of the tickets," an NFL spokesman says. "The Super Bowl is a different kind of event, and we're comfortable with this."

So sellers, professional and amateur, each winter step back in time and handle old-fashioned tickets. It is a task made touchier by lofty values and the fact that the NFL begins issuing tickets just weeks before game day.

"My life would be a whole lot easier if I could send the buyer a PDF," says Scott Barker, a Los Angeles County policeman who last week sold two Super Bowl 50 tickets and three hotel nights on eBay for $9,151.

He sent the package to his brother in Menlo Park, in Silicon Valley, who will hand it Friday to the buyer when she flies in from North Carolina.

"It's ironic the Super Bowl is in Silicon Valley's new high-tech stadium, " he says, "and physical tickets are the only means of getting in."

To hand-deliver tickets, resellers will go to great lengths--about 1,600 miles in the case of Jay Gabbert, owner of Minneapolis-based ticket broker Metro Tickets & Tours.

He has sold 17 tickets to the game and will fly to California to hand-deliver them, as he has done during past Super Bowls. He advises his customers to keep tickets in an inside pocket rather than on a lanyard, as many do.

"Would you put $3,000 cash in a clear bag around your neck and walk around town?" says Mr. Gabbert. He plans to catch the game at a bar near the stadium.

Gametime United Inc., a San Francisco ticket-reselling app company, is delivering tickets to some customers via FedEx and to others by private couriers and staff members who drive throughout the Bay Area.

It will have a location near the stadium Sunday for people picking tickets up on game day, says Colin Evans, chief revenue officer of Gametime, which is reselling Super Bowl tickets for the first time.

StubHub is managing roughly 6,000 tickets it values at $30 million or more.

StubHub's Mr. Deppen got on task two years ago, traveling from New York to Santa Clara at Silicon Valley's southern end. He was scouting for a location to distribute tickets to customers and knew he had found a good one when he spotted the Great America amusement park by the stadium.

StubHub could stage an all-day party as it had done for recent Super Bowls, he figured, so some fans would arrive early and help prevent long lines. "We hate lines," he says.

This week, StubHub has been collecting tickets from sellers. Some have mailed them in.

Other sellers arrived in person, some with tickets tucked in inner jacket pockets. For Bay Area sellers, StubHub has set up makeshift drop-off locations at a Hilton Hotel near the stadium and at its San Francisco headquarters.

Those tickets joined others in plastic bins on the long table at StubHub, where security director Joseph Asaro and two colleagues sat on Tuesday with the precious stacks.

To verify each ticket, they used black lights to reveal an image of a football and the number "50" on the back. They rubbed a spot printed with heat-sensitive ink, which the warmth of their fingers temporarily erased.

They handled the tickets gingerly, lest they damage their delicate edges.

Every evening this week, Mr. Asaro and another StubHub employee have counted the tickets. Then guards have picked them up and transported them to a locked vault.

Mr. Asaro is one of only four StubHub employees who know the vault's location. StubHub always uses the "two-man rule" with the tickets: No employee or person is ever alone with a ticket.

Guns aren't allowed in StubHub's office. Elsewhere along the tickets' journey, Mr. Asaro says, "our guards are armed and packing heat."

Saturday morning, an armored vehicle will drive the tickets to the amusement park, where guards will monitor distribution.

"At kick off," Mr. Asaro says, "I'm going to be a pretty happy guy."

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