Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Event Fees Mania

The original Judge Dredd
Step back folks, because MTG Dad is going to lay down the law, Isperia style.

The latest kerfluffle on social media is all about the $50 event fee being charged by Pastimes for their upcoming GP events.  You can read the open letter from the TO here.  Players are incensed over the $10 increase in main event entry fees.  They're even more upset given a number of statements and promises made, such as the $15 for side events credit being issued.

Let's all take a deep breath.  It's time to face some unfortunate facts.

Competitive Magic is growing at a scary pace.  From GP Vegas to GP Richmond, as gamers we're watching attendance figures jump to nearly ludicrous numbers.  As a trading card game, Magic has set new records in the past year for event attendance.  And it's not just 'special' events like GP Vegas that are seeing increases.  It's happening everywhere.  Records are being set locally by hosts of PTQs and GPs seemingly every other weekend.

Growth does come with a price.  Large events are not uncomplicated affairs to organize.  Judges and other critical staff, coverage teams (when warranted), giveaways, venue fees, and more all contribute to the overall cost of an event.  The larger the event, the more complicated all this becomes and the greater effect this will have on the basic entry fee.  Why?

Let's look at a simple example.  Tomorrow, I'm going to host a GP in my hometown.  I rent a space that will seat 1,500, but have provisions for jumps in attendance marked for every +500 that sign up.  From past experience and growth projections, I'm expecting between 1,400 and 1,800 players.  I plan that I'll need 30 total judges.  I also think I'll need 10 additional 'event staff' to handle everything from security to the 5 professional players I'm told will be attending and deserve extra attention.  I have 2 artists scheduled to sign cards and talk to fans.  I have a food vendor, but know that I can have the site open up to two more kiosks if needed.  I have ordered 900 playmats (700 for the first guests to register on site, 100 for compensation to VIPs and judges, and 100 extra as a cushion that I can sell later at a premium).

The above is an overly simplified example, there are many more variables.  People with their hands out and want to ride the GP gravy train.  And then it happens.

The local airlines are running some reduced fair garbage for my event weekend.  No other major events get scheduled within 200 miles.  People decide that yes, Southern NJ is lovely this time of year (every last one of them is nuts, but who am I to argue?).

All of a sudden, my little, manageable event goes from at most 1,800 expected to 2,700 expected attendees.  And somehow I have to smile and make it all happen.  I have to make special arrangements to get the additional space needed.  I have to scramble and find another 25 judges.  I need to arrange for 2 more artists to keep people happy.  On and on the list goes, scaling up the operation to meet demand.

Regardless of how well I prepared, my costs go up.  Agreed, the take at the door goes up as well.  I won't argue that fact.  But my frustration goes up as well.  The pressure to pull off a great event increases with each new revised estimate leading up to the event.  My personal investment of time and energy increases seemingly exponentially.

How can this be combated?  Different TO's take different strategies.  And I will admit, some of this is pure speculation on my part.  But I am willing to bet that TO's have started to plan for success by making some decisions early.  Instead of bringing in 2 artists, they decide to just go ahead and book 5.  Instead of having 30 Judges selected, they move to hire 40 with a strong contingency plan in place to have more attend.  Instead of 10 event staff, they hire 15.  It's practically self defense.

Which would you rather be known for?  Charging $10 more for the registration fee or being woefully under prepared for the masses when they all sign up in the last week before the event?  One or two bad events can kill a TO.  They don't make a tremendous amount of money on events - this is something I'm sure of.

So Let's Talk Greenbacks
An event with 2,000 people attending is becoming the norm for GPs.  Here is some quick math.  At $40 per entrant, that's $80,000.  Seems astonishing for one weekend, doesn't it?

Now, when that fee goes up to $50, we're talking $100,000 for the event.  Simply bonkers, right?

Granted, I know that there is more money involved when we start talking side events and more, but let's keep this simple for exploration purposes.

What if I told you that for all the effort of a TO for a large event, they may only personally make a few thousand dollars (this is based on a stupid amount of math, some research, and some educated guesses).  Any TO for a GP event, before it has started, has likely put in well over 100 hours of their time.  Let's say the average personal take is $4,000 for an event with 1,500 participants - but that is ONLY if they meet every projection from side events to sales on product at their booth to total attendance.  $4,000, divided by 100 hours...

It's not rocket science, but I'm pretty sure they earned that.  Phone calls.  Meetings.  Planning.  Contingency planning.  Emails.  More phone calls and meetings.  TO's put a great deal of time into events.

There is a flip side.  What if they don't plan well enough for an event and it fails to hit the target by a couple of hundred people?  Who takes the hit?  It isn't the Floor Judges, they get their compensation.  It isn't the artists, they have serious costs to consider.  It's not the event staff who gave up their day to work a door checking bags and wristbands.  The person who is ultimately responsible is the TO.  The TO is on the hook for all profit and loss with an event.

As event attendance grows (but is still difficult to predict) and when the difference between 1,800 attendees and 2,100 attendees can mean the difference between profit and loss, can we blame a TO for raising the rates of the event?

What about Free Stuff?
I felt I had to address this issue separately.  Free playmats have become and expectation.  GPs offer them as
Gold is never free...
a rule, other events offer them as special prizes.

So let's talk about these wonderful pieces of rubber artwork.

GP Richmond set a strange standard that players expect others to fulfill.  I take some exception to holding all TO's to the Star City model.  Why?

Let's look at cost and planning first.  Playmats aren't cheap.  Mass produced, yes, I'm sure they are considerably less expensive than the retail fee we pay for one at our local LGS.  Let's assume they cost $10 a unit (perhaps this is fair).  If I had to predict how many I needed for my GP that I was planning earlier and I figured I needed 2,000 to be safe, that is a commitment of $20,000 - before I've taken in dime one.

What happens when I miss my target and I only get 1,500 participants?  I'm stuck with $5,000 worth of stock I have to eventually find a way to move.  Depending on the artwork, the demand and valuation of playmats vary wildly.  I could get stuck for that $5,000.  Remember my estimate for my personal event profit?  Kiss it good-bye.

The model currently in use is that a TO plans to purchase upwards of 1,000 units for most GPs.  I already showed how that is distributed.  But what if I promise one playmat for participant?  How do I meet demand, especially when I have several hundred more people register than I planned for in the last week?

Star City Games stepped up.  They have the ability to do so.  They have the largest shipping department of any TO, and they can with little difficulty devote some of that department to sending out playmats to the additional registrants.  I doubt that in the end they made much money because of shipping fees, but at least they had the staff and the engine in place to do it.

That's not going to be the case with other TOs.  While most have shipping set up through their stores, none are the size of SCG.  In fact, many of them only have one or two store locations with 10 or fewer staff members.  We can't expect them to make the same promise made by SCG.  It's not going to happen, no matter how much we may all wish that signing up for an event meant we were guaranteed a playmat.

There is a model that would work - if players would be willing to admit something.  We, as players, are a bit lazy.  If we are willing to admit it, and furthermore willing to do something about it then TOs could change the model and everyone could benefit.

What if TO's change the model to one such as this: playmats guaranteed to any player that registers a minimum 21 days (or whatever the order window is to guarantee shipment) in advance, playmats for all VIP registrations, and playmats (or an equivalent bonus prize) for all winners of side-events costing at least $15 to register.  There isn't a TO out there that would lose in terms of having too much stock left over - the math from that point forward is simple.  Some conditions would have to apply to this new model.  None of them would be seen as a drawback by the average player.

This is a model that can be and should be adopted.  But will it?

The Hard Truth
It's inevitable.  Fees for entry into events will continue to rise.  The fact that Pastimes is the first to break the $50 barrier does not change this.  Before the end of the year, we'll likely see a few other TOs test the waters.  Players should instead of complaining should seek ways to engage TOs in conversations about what services they value most at events.  Perhaps having a help desk to refer players to local eateries?  Or maybe players would like to see more artists or a planned event 'after hours' they can attend.

I don't know what form event extras will take over the next year.  With constant growth though, it is impossible for events to remain stagnant.  The old model is no longer sustainable, so let's all find ways to participate in the discussion.

Anyone who reads this has homework.  Log into Twitter.  Find the following accounts: @misterorange, @PESman66, @sunmesaglenn, @ironchefnick, @pastimesonline, @timothypshields and YOUR TWITTER ACCOUNT HERE (just add it in the comments section and I'll update the article). Read, think, and engage these TOs in conversations about what you want to see as a player at events.  Only with your voices can we all see positive change.

Just don't complain to them about the price increases.  It's not worth your time or energy to complain, especially when you have between $400 and a few grand invested in the deck you plan to bring to the next GP.

And that, my friends, is that.


Reblogs, Retweets, & Mentions of all kinds are appreciated - as an independent writer I'm only read when others like what they see and share with their friends.


  1. The problem is that PastTimes has a reputation of being cheap assholes that can't run events properly. If Legion or SCG raised their rates, there wouldn't be such outrage. SCG at least always pays people that win their events. Pastimes can't even do that.

  2. Interesting complaint - I have had no direct interaction with them so I can't confirm or deny it. I will state a couple of additional points though. First, fees are going to be increasing. One major reason not discussed above is venue fees. Convention halls in my part of the country (and I imagine elsewhere) are a more difficult time booking their calendar. That alone will result in increased fees. That doesn't even take into account increased energy fees and other related services that are tied to the operation of any commercial space. Pastimes is taking it on the chin for being first. They offer the $15 discount for sides to help offset the pain expressed by players at the two planned events, but I don't see that lasting for long. Nor do I believe that SCG and others are far behind. Bottom line for me is, it's something that is going to happen instead of crying collectively and pointing fingers, let's all step into the conversation and let TOs know what is important to us as participants. Thanks for reading!