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  • D A Howe

If getting a San Diego Comic-Con ticket is like winning a lottery than maybe it’s wiser not to

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

This post isn’t related to writing, but I’m sure there’s a few people out there in need of some consolation after attempting to buy 2017 Comic-Con badges.

Yes, once more it was time to enter the Comic-Con waiting room and pathetically wait in front of the computer for a couple of hours in the vague hope that the magical purchase screen would appear. Once more, it remained a screen of myth, like a unicorn. Talked of in hushed tones, with the occasional screenshot as proof, but no actual eye-witnesses. Thousands experienced disappointment (and judging by the Twitter feed, a side order of rage).

As you might have guessed, I’m in the ‘Open Registration’ bucket. This means I’ve never been able to attend Comic-Con because I can never get tickets, and because I can never get a ticket, I’m always assigned to ‘Open Registration’. Being in the ‘Open Registration’ group means I’m consigned to what I like to call the ‘After Thought’ queue. Those who have somehow managed to attend before are placed into the ‘Returning Registration’ bucket. They’re in the ‘Well, Aren’t You Just the Lucky One’ queue.

However, after another year of disappointment, my mind turned to the nature of random events. The Comic-Con organizers describe the process of assigning tickets as ‘random’, but if you think about it from a traditional gambling perspective, the Comic-Con ticket allocation system is… ‘not random’.

First off, Comic-Con uses a multi-pool system. The pools seem to be:

  1. Professional. If you’re a professional in the industry, you’re pretty much guaranteed a badge. This pool, in some cases, also allows a guest. The Comic-Con Toucan blog entry for 2015 quoted a number of 13,000 badges for the professional pool. Assuming there are also some guests allowed, the total number in this pool might be more like 14,000.

  2. The Press. I can’t find anything on how many people attend with a Press badge (as yet), but let’s assume around 500 or so.

  3. Exhibitors. I did a rough count for 2016. It was about 750. Let’s assume for every exhibitor there are around three people manning a booth. That’s another 2,250 badges.

  4. Children. My understanding is that one child can attend for free. I can’t find a separate count for children attending, but let’s assume 10,000.

  5. Staff and volunteers. Let’s assume 1000 because it’s a big event and needs a bunch of people to keep things moving along. This also includes security.

  6. Returning Registration. If you’ve already attended as an ordinary mortal, then you’re offered the first chance to buy passes.

  7. Open Registration. If you haven’t attended at all, you wind up here.

Now, the one thing to keep in mind is that tickets/badges translate into human bodies that have to be squeezed into a venue. And that venue has limited capacity. From a safety perspective, officials get waayyyy cranky if too many people are crammed into a space. There’s a limit for Comic-Con in terms of actual humans they can stuff into the San Diego Convention Center. This means the total number counted for the attendance figures is presumably all people, including professionals, exhibitors, volunteers, staff, and the press.

And now for some numbers to figure out how many tickets might be allocated to the lowly Open Registration pool. First off, the 2015 attendance is listed as 167,000 on Wikipedia.  That means all 167,000 of those attendees had a badge of some sort. Let’s take away the 14,000 estimated for professionals and guests. We’re now left with 153,000 passes. Let’s take off the guess of 500 Press badges. We’re down to 152,500. Let’s remove the exhibitors. Now we’re down to 150,250. Let’s remove the free kids’ passes and we’re down to 140,250. Remove the staff and volunteers and it’s 139,250.

Finally, let’s do some more guessing to figure out how many tickets might be allocated to the Returning Registration pool. We can probably assume that rather than split the pools evenly, Comic-Con actually allocates more tickets to the Returning pool. This is based on the fact that prior to 2004/2005, everyone got into the event. The attendance number in 2005 is 95,000. Remove roughly 16,000 to cover professionals etc., than it’s 79,000. Let’s assume that’s the number of badges on offer for the Returning Registration pool (but it’s more likely higher).  Based on that guesstimate, the Open Registration pool might have 60,250 tickets available. Maybe. I have a feeling it’s probably lower. As the number climbs of people who have managed to attend, it seems logical that the number of tickets offered to people in Open Registration would be lower every year.

Based on the above guesstimates, the first problem is that a higher number of tickets are probably already allocated to Returning Registration.  Which means if you’re in the Open Registration pool your chances of getting a ticket are substantially reduced. There’s a lot of people in Open Registration competing for a smaller number of tickets. There’s nothing to prevent a person from getting a membership ID to Comic-Con (which makes you eligible to join the Open Registration queue). Theoretically the number of people in Open Registration will keep climbing, while the number of available tickets remain static or drops. And remember, by this time, most of the available tickets have already been pre-allocated to others.

The Unofficial Comic-Con blog says the split is 50/50 between these two pools. (I don’t think that’s right.) And they admit the chances are low. “The odds don’t look so good this time, do they? And they’re not terrible, but they’re far from great — it’s actually roughly a 1:16 chance now, or 6.11% chance of being able to score a badge. You have a higher chance of getting cancer than you do of grabbing a Comic-Con badge, but at least you have better odds than being audited by the IRS?” But as I pointed out in the previous paragraph, the number of people in the Open Registration category has no limitations on growth, while the number of available tickets remains the same or drops.

If you look at this from a gambling perspective, imagine what would happen if lotteries were divided into two ticket pools. The first ticketing pool is for people who have already won a prize in the lottery. The ticket rules for this group of winners is that your chance of winning in this pool is very high. In other words, if you won a million dollars and you’re in this first lottery group, it’s almost guaranteed you will win a million dollars again. People who’ve never won the lottery are assigned to the second pool. This group is made up of a far larger number of people, and there are no restrictions as to how many people can join.  They can also buy tickets, but most of the prize money has already gone to the first ticketing pool.  The organizers tell you that you might win a big prize, but the fact is, the majority of all prizes have already been won by others.

If you look at it from a gambling perspective, you would weigh this information up and conclude that if you’ve never won, it’s more than likely you’ll continue not to win. If you had to buy tickets for this lottery system, you’d conclude, rightly, that you were better off not playing because you don’t have the same chance as the people in the first lottery pool. Your chances are not random overall. Your chances are random only within the pool you’re assigned to.

It might be a case that for people in Open Registration, we either don’t participate at all and save ourselves the heartbreak, or participate with the full knowledge we’re just going to stare at a screen for two hours.

Personally, I’ve decided I’ve got better things to do with my time.


Here's an update about the balkanization of comic-con.

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