MONEY

The Shady Story Behind Soaring Super Bowl Ticket Prices

The exterior of University of Phoenix Stadium
The exterior of University of Phoenix Stadium, host of the 2015 Super Bowl, in Phoenix, Arizona. Gene Lower—AP

Allegations of collusion and marketplace manipulation are being thrown around as average asking prices for Super Bowl tickets topped a staggering $9,000 this week.

This wasn’t how we were told things would play out.

Generally speaking, every year, there’s a predictable arc to Super Bowl ticket prices on the secondary market. The market rate for Super Bowl tickets tends to be high (perhaps three times face value) in the days before the AFC and NFC Championship games, and then once it’s clear who will play in the Super Bowl, there’s usually a price spike as fans clamber for the chance to see their team win the title. After this initial wave of purchases subsides, prices tend to drop as Super Bowl Sunday nears and sellers don’t want to get stuck with seats at the last minute.

Understandably, the trajectory and peak for pricing is a little different every year, depending on which teams are squaring off and where the game is being played. Projections for the 2015 Super Bowl’s ticket prices called for seats to be less expensive than usual, supposedly because of “fatigue” among fans of the two teams in the game, the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, who have both played and won it all over the past decade.

Yet the price drop almost everyone expected over the past couple of weeks never took place. Soon after the AFC and NFC Championship games ending, asking prices were relatively cheap, with the average ticket selling for around $2,900 and the cheapest tickets available for roughly $1,900. At the start of this week, the average list price was up to $6,500 and the “cheap” seats were at least $4,200.

By Thursday afternoon, $7,100 was the least expensive ticket posted for sale on secondary market sites such as TiqIQ, while StubHub alerted the media that the “current average list price for the Super Bowl is $9,484.37, which is up 282.43% since last year at this time ($2,480.06).”

That’s at the sites that actually had access to tickets. As of midday on Friday, popular secondary ticket exchanges like Vivid Seats and Razor Gator had posted messages to the effect of “Sorry, but we currently have no tickets available for this event.” StubHub listed fewer than 300 seats available for purchase, with asking prices ranging from roughly $7,500 to $40,000. The NFL’s official Ticket Exchange by Ticketmaster site listed 109 tickets for sale, with individual seats starting at $6,500. Anyone interested in a pair of seats together would have to pay at least $7,800 per ticket. Face value for Super Bowl tickets ranges from $800 to $1,900.

What caused the ticket supply to shrink and prices to go totally bonkers? In its Thursday release about skyrocketing prices, StubHub accused a handful of unnamed large ticket sellers in control of most of the Super Bowl ticket inventory of colluding with each other and manipulating the marketplace. “A consolidation of supply has allowed sellers to manipulate the marketplace and made it near impossible for any last minute fans to attend the game,” StubHub global head of communications Glenn Lehrman said in the release.

At the start of this week, the explanation for the unexpected rise in prices was that many brokers had been “short-selling” tickets, based on the assumption that the previously established pattern would hold true and prices would fall as Super Bowl Sunday neared. To short-sell tickets, “a broker typically lists tickets in a generic section of the stadium and doesn’t disclose exactly where the seats are until the Wednesday before the game,” as a post by ESPN’s Darren Rovell explained. “The idea for the brokers is to take money from ticket buyers when the tickets are at a higher price after the conference title games, then actually buy the tickets days later as the prices start to come down.”

Apparently, tons of brokers hopped on board this scheme of selling tickets on “spec”—only when the time came to buy actual seats later on as promised, the going prices in the marketplace were far higher than brokers had anticipated. In the investing world, they call that a “short squeeze.”

StubHub says that the collusion of a few large ticket sellers has limited supply to “essentially short-squeeze brokers and make the marketplaces” such as StubHub and VividSeats “buy up the supply at upwards of 4x market value.”

One clear end result is that unless you’re rich or the Mayor of Glendale, Ariz., the host town for this year’s Super Bowl, you’re basically out of luck in terms of getting tickets to the game. Everyday fans are the big losers in all of this. On the other hand, the ticket sellers being accused of rigging the game—the ones who allegedly held back supply and pushed prices skyward—have been cashing in over the past few days.

As for secondary market sites like StubHub and TiqIQ, as well as the smaller brokers whose sales take place on these sites, the results are somewhat muddled. “At the end of the day, many brokers took a big hit from this, while very few made a profit,” TiqIQ’s Chris Matcovitch said in an email. In some cases, the secondary market sites have felt forced to pay far above market rates in order to save face and not have brokers breaking the promise of tickets sold on spec. According to TiqIQ, overall ticket prices on its site have been average as far as Super Bowls go, though the volume of sales is down “significantly.”

“You will be hearing horror stories all weekend,” said Matcovich. “People without tickets, brokers folding, lawsuits, etc.”

So we’re got another NFL scandal on our hands. How surprising.

MONEY freebies

Free Coffee at Chick-fil-A for Entire Month of February

Chick-fil-A restaurant, Naples, Florida.
Chick-fil-A restaurant, Naples, Florida. Jeff G—Alamy

Restaurants are pouring free coffee for the whole month, no purchase required.

The new year kicked off with dueling free coffee promotions from McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts in some parts of the country, and now another fast food player is entering the coffee wars with an even bigger, broader, no-strings-attached giveaway.

On Friday, Chick-fil-A announced that throughout February, restaurants nationwide will pour customers free cups of hot or iced THRIVE Farmers Coffee—all day long, no purchase required.

Chick-fil-A launched a partnership with THRIVE, a Georgia-based company that networks with family-owned coffee producers in Central America and reportedly allows them to earn up to 10 times the norm, in August 2014. Now the push is on to win over customers by giving the coffee away, with only a very little amount of fine print to worry about:

This offer includes 12 ounce hot or 16 ounce iced sizes and is available while supplies last. The offer is available anytime during regular restaurant hours and is limited to one cup of coffee per customer, per visit. No additional purchase is necessary and no substitutions are available.

The coffee giveaway especially makes sense in light of how important breakfast has become to fast food restaurants. Breakfast is the only meal of the day that has experienced consistent growth in sales in recent years, which explains why more competitors are entering or expanding into the space—notably Taco Bell. Another factor explaining the fresh coffee push: Consumers are more prone to grabbing a cup of Joe at Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, McDonald’s, or at convenience stores such as Cumberland Farms and 7-Eleven, not just for breakfast but at any hour of the day. Chick-fil-A clearly wants to be thought of as a great spot for a quick anytime coffee as well.

In all cases, the hope is that when folks swing by for coffee, they’ll also pick up a scone, donut, hot dog, Egg McMuffin, Slim Jim, chicken biscuit, or some other specialty of the house.

MONEY Fast Food

5 Problems That’ll Challenge McDonald’s No Matter Who’s CEO

A McDonald's restaurant in Encinitas, California.
Mike Blake—Reuters

The McDonald's McFamily will have a new head honcho in early 2015, and he has his work cut out for him.

Amid slumping sales and years of losing customers to Chipotle and other fast casual contenders, McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson announced this week that he would be retiring in March. “It’s tough to say goodbye to the McFamily, but there is a time and season for everything,” Thompson said in a press release.

His replacement, current chief brand officer Steve Easterbrook, will take over a McFamily with many problems to address—problems that, given McDonald’s muddled sense of mission of late and overarching changes in demographics and the marketplace, have seemed difficult if not impossible to solve. Among the issues that need attention:

Millennials
Generally speaking, millennials love food and dining out, and yet their preferences—customizable options, transparency, and fare that’s healthier, more sustainable, and altogether superior compared to any cheap cookie-cutter fast food joint—are the exact opposite of what McDonald’s is known for. McDonald’s has made some moves clearly aimed at winning over millennials, including ventures into personalized, make-your-own burgers and potentially adding brunch menu items (brunch is a Gen Y obsession). McDonald’s has also dramatically expanded the menu over the years with the hopes of drawing in more young customers. Yet many of these initiatives have proven to be costly, and they’ve failed to make McDonald’s a top choice among millennials—who tend to favor Starbucks, Chipotle, and other more upscale fast casual contenders over McDonald’s or any old-fashioned fast food establishment.

No Hot New Product
Around this time last year, business reporters were proclaiming that McDonald’s desperately needed to add a “miracle” product to the menu like Wendy’s did with its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger. That once-limited-time-only burger proved such a hit that Wendy’s added it to the permanent menu last summer. Other recent monumental successes in the fast food world include Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos line of tacos.

Of course, McDonald’s has regularly rolled out plenty of new menu items with the hope of them breaking out as phenomenal best-sellers. But new contenders like fish nuggets and habanero Quarter Pounders have come up way short of being runaway successes, and another recent menu addition, overpriced chicken wings, was a huge flop. The Wall Street Journal has reported that McDonald’s most recent “bona fide blockbuster” new product, which stayed on the menu and impacted sales in a significant way, was the McGriddle pancake breakfast sandwich, introduced back in 2003.

Pricing
McDonald’s decades-long value pitch is that it’s a quick and inexpensive place to eat, and that reputation has hurt the fast food giant lately in two ways: 1) It’s difficult to raise prices and offer “premium” items like the doomed Angus burger because the customer base, accustomed to cheaper prices, won’t pay up; and 2) because McDonald’s food is fast and cheap, the assumption is that the quality must be low. As one fast food franchise consultant told the Associated Press, “It’s the whole perception people get when you sell something cheaply.”

McDonald’s needs its coffee giveaways and low-price value menu to pull in diners even though these items result in little to no profits. Yet to increase profits and better compete with the likes of Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Chipotle, McDonald’s is constantly trying to entice customers into spending more on “gourmet” and “premium” options like espressos and McWraps. As a result, service has slowed, lowering the value proposition at the same time, and McDonald’s pricing doesn’t make sense to many customers. When there are a bunch of burgers for under $2 in the Dollar Menu & More section, it’s puzzling why anyone would pay $5 or so for what seems like a very similar burger on the regular menu.

Focus
This problem is closely related to how McDonald’s pricing is all over the map. That, along with the fact that the McDonald’s menu has expanded to the point of being unwieldy and slowing down operations, has left franchisee owners angry and deeply concerned that the company has lost its sense of focus. McDonald’s recently announced intentions to scale back the menu and put some items on the chopping block. But such a measure could create its own problems. After all, some of the items likely to be downsized or cut, including espressos and McWraps, were added to menus to woo millennials and consumers who otherwise probably wouldn’t dine at McDonald’s.

Haters
During the Golden Globes, McDonald’s aired a “Signs” commercial campaign showing how different restaurant locations posted messages in support of local causes, the troops, and 9/11. Loads of people took to social media to say how much they hated the ad. Last year, McDonald’s introduced a new Happy Meal mascot and Ronald McDonald got a makeover. Both efforts were declared “terrifying,” while the former was also categorized as “nightmarish” and the latter was described as the face of the “saddest place on Earth.”

Heck, even when McDonald’s launches a broad “transparency” campaign answering questions about where its food comes from and how it is processed, the company is bashed for admitting to unhealthy practices and because of skepticism about other things still being hid.

The point is: People love to hate McDonald’s. In a story I wrote about the reaction on social media to the new Happy Meal mascot, Steve Connelly, of the Boston ad agency Connelly Partners, put things in perspective by explaining there are legions of opinionated consumers out there who consider McDonald’s “a piñata” rather than simply just another brand or place to eat. Many people will “keep bashing the hell out of them every chance you get because they stand for evil and are making the nation fat. Sometimes I think if McDonald’s came up with a cure for cancer they would get bashed for it.”

Surely, McDonald’s hates how much hate it attracts. And it’s up to the new leadership to figure out how to change perceptions that have built up over generations in the U.S. and abroad. They have to find a way to convince the haters to stop hating.

MONEY Sports

2015 Super Bowl’s Most Fun, Stupid, and Absurd Prop Bets

150128_EM_SBBets
Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

If you've been itching to place a random quirky sports wager that really has nothing to do with sports, wins, or losses, then step right up to the gimmicky world of Super Bowl prop bets.

The Super Bowl is on Sunday. Who are you picking in the coin toss? What’s the likelihood of hearing some variation of the phrase “deflated balls” on air during the game? How about your take on Katy Perry’s choice of outfits during the halftime shows? The odds favor skirt, but you’ll make more money if you bet she wears pants and she does—and you’ll really clean up if you guess right that she dons a whipped cream bikini (18/1 odds).

Known as “prop” bets—short for proposition—these kinds of quirky novelty wagers only tangentially related to the game are increasingly popular during the Super Bowl. For example, the Westgate Las Vegas Sportsbook offers roughly 350 different kinds of bets related to this year’s Super Bowl. The Bovada sportsbook has hundreds more bizarre betting options, many involving events far away from the football world, such as whether the Dow Jones Industrial Average will be up or down the day after the game, and whether or not Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow on Groundhog Day.

In most cases, gamblers can’t pretend to have genuine insight as to what’s going to really happen in these silly scenarios, so winning a bet is like correctly picking the flip of a coin (which you can wager on too, naturally). You can not only bet on whether the Super Bowl opening coin toss lands on heads or tails, but on which team will win the coin toss, and whether the team that wins the coin toss will ultimately win the game.

The history of Super Bowl prop bets dates back to 1985, when the Chicago Bears gargantuan defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry was used during the season as a running back in goal line situations, and his popularity led to a quirky bet concerning whether he’d score a touchdown during the Super Bowl. (He did.) Countless absurd bets have followed, such as the proposition in 2013 as to whether any players will be arrested in the lead-up to the game, and whether or not the announcers at last year’s Super Bowl would say the word “marijuana” during the telecast. (The game concerned teams from two states where recreational marijuana sales became legal in 2014.)

By some reckoning, roughly one-third of all Super Bowl wagers aren’t about basics like the over/under or which team will win, but are prop bets like those cited above. Why are people interested in betting on such gimmicky nonsense?

Bruce Svare, a psychology professor at SUNY-Albany who studies sports and addiction, says that there isn’t much research regarding prop bets, at least partially because the phenomenon is so new and, for now at least, largely limited to the Super Bowl. “What I can tell you is that the gambling industry is willing to devise anything to bring more money their way in profits,” Svare said via email. “Proposition betting is probably very popular because gamblers seek frequent and immediate action and gratification.”

In fact, the strangeness and novelty of these gimmicky bets is likely part of the allure. “It is well known that novelty can also drive biochemical events in the brain that may lead to increased interest and ultimately greater vulnerability to addiction for some individuals,” Svare said.

Among the 2015 Super Bowl’s silliest prop bets, the subjects for wagering include:

Bill Belichick’s Fashion and Facial Expressions
In a bet involving the color of hoodie worn during the game by the New England Patriots coach, gray is the favorite, while blue and red are the underdogs. Place a $100 bet on gray, and if you’re right, you win $50. Another bet involves the odds of the surly, ultra-serious coach actually smiling on camera during the game.

Meaningless Game Statistics
You can bet on the total yardage of all made field goals during the game (over/under: 111.5 yards), whether or not the first kickoff results in a touchback, the length of the game’s shortest touchdown (over/under 1.5 yards), and if the game will decided by exactly 3 points, among other options.

The Announcers
You can wager on the number of times halftime performer Katy Perry will be mentioned on air during the first half of the game, as well as how many times the announcers will say “deflated balls” (over/under: 2.5) during the telecast.

Other Sports
For instance, you can bet whether there will be more goals in an NHL that day (perhaps Coyotes-Canadiens or Blues-Capitals) than there are touchdowns scored in the Super Bowl by the Patriots and Seahawks. Other bets involve Barclay’s Premier League Soccer (will Cristiano Ronaldo score more goals than Marshawn Lynch has touchdowns?) and the NBA (Will the Warriors’ Stephen Curry make more 3-pointers than there are made field goals during the Super Bowl?).

Stuff That Has Nothing to Do With Any Sports
In addition to one-air mentions of Katy Perry’s name, gamblers can place bets on what songs she’ll sing, whether she’ll wear pants, shorts, or a skirt, and whether or not singer Idina Menzel will omit at least one word in her rendition of the National Anthem before the game.

Marshawn Lynch’s Crotch
The Seahawks’ running back was fined $20,000 recently for grabbing his crotch to celebrate a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers, and he was fined $100,000 earlier this season for not speaking to reporters. Ironically, the NFL has been selling photos of Lynch’s crotch-grab celebration for $150 a pop. What does any of this have to do with betting on the Super Bowl? Well, gamblers can bet on whether Lynch will grab his crotch in the game after scoring a touchdown—a $100 bet that the crass move will indeed happen will pay $400.

The tacticians out there will notice that Lynch made a rare media appearance this week in order to avoid being hit with a $500,000 fine by the NFL. That may indicate he’s not keen on getting fined again, and therefore would make the case that Lynch wouldn’t make an obscene gesture during the Super Bowl. To break down this proposition further … oh, who are we kidding? This is a wager about a guy grabbing his crotch. If you’re betting on this, you’re not thinking about it too seriously. We hope.

MONEY Food & Drink

Vegan Meatballs on IKEA Menus Soon

Meatball dish of a Ikea food store inside their furniture store.
Maxim Shipenkov—EPA

The vegan twist on the Swedish meatball will be sold in IKEA stores starting in April. It'll join new vegan and vegetarian options from Chipotle and White Castle, among others.

Behold the power of the veggie and animal lover lobby! The movement can claim two big victories this week. First, a planned GoDaddy Super Bowl ad was pulled after the “humorous” commercial—about a puppy that’s lost, then sold online—was widely criticized for being offensive.

“As someone who feels incredibly strong about animal rights, I am extremely offended by this commercial,” reads a Change.org petition that pleaded with GoDaddy to drop the commercial and attracted 40,000 online signatures in one day. “Go Daddy is encouraging private breeding/puppy mills while shelter animals wait patiently for their forever homes or worse—to be euthanized. They are also encouraging purchasing an animal online; the animal could be sold to someone who runs a fighting ring, someone who abuses animals, or to someone who cannot adequately care for the animal.”

Then, on Wednesday, PETA (hat tip: Grubstreet) patted itself on the back for what was apparently the successful pressuring of IKEA into adding vegan meatballs to the menu. Last spring, it was reported that IKEA was developing vegetarian meatballs, but now it looks like the meatballs will be fully vegan—using no animal products whatsoever. They’re expected to be available at IKEA stores this April.

Meanwhile, large quick-serve restaurant chains have also been expanding vegetarian and vegan options. White Castle rolled out veggie sliders a few weeks ago, while Chipotle pumped up sales of its new sofritas vegan burrito with a special giveaway promotion on Monday. The deal, which promised a free burrito in the future with the purchase of a sofritas burrito on Monday, sold out in some Chipotle locations.

MONEY online shopping

Amazon Prime Membership Should Come With a Warning

Amazon Prime packages
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

And the warning is: After paying $99 for your subscription, you're going to spend a ton of money at Amazon.com.

Amazon rarely releases sales data to the media. Nonetheless, the idea that customers who subscribe to Amazon Prime wind up shopping and spending a lot more at Amazon is considered fact. After all, once customers are paying $99 for the service and know that express two-day shipping is available for free on nearly all purchases, it makes sense that they’ll stop shopping elsewhere and do most if not all of their online shopping at the site. It helps, of course, that Amazon has a reputation not only for selling a huge variety of merchandise, but for having low prices as well.

But what impact, exactly, does signing up an Amazon Prime membership have on the individual’s online purchasing habits? Again, it’s hard to say because Amazon is reticent to release data. What’s more, things are complicated because the people who find it most worthwhile to join Amazon Prime are those who shop often at Amazon in the first place. (When you’re a member, the more you spend, the more you “save,” at least in terms of shipping.) So it’s not simply a matter of figuring out how much Prime members versus non-Prime members spend at the site.

Still, it’s undeniable that Prime members spend a bunch more at Amazon than non-Prime members. In a recent story by a couple of my MONEY colleagues about Apple, Amazon, and Google in terms of investing opportunities, a ComScore report is mentioned revealing that “Prime members make twice as many purchases as nonmembers, and they spend 40% more per transaction.”

Read more: Why You Should Never Buy Stuff When You’re Sad

This week, a new survey was released by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (hat tip: Huffington Post) with some precise dollar figures regarding the topic. According to a survey of consumers who made purchases at Amazon from October to December 2014, Prime members say they spend an average of about $1,500 at the site annually, versus $625 for non-members.

Owning an Amazon Kindle is also correlated with increased Amazon.com spending. Kindle owners (who may or may not also be Prime members) spend $1,450 per year at Amazon, compared to $725 per year for customers who don’t own Kindles, according to the survey. “Similar to Amazon Prime members, Amazon Kindle owners are better customers,” Mike Levin, partner and co-founder of CIRP, said in a press release about the new report. “They also shop more frequently, and also buy more expensive items on average.”

All in all, the spending data spells out plainly why Amazon pushes sales of Prime and Kindles so hard. In particular, the world’s largest retailer has been relentless in upping the Prime value pitch by adding streaming services, producing original movies, and such. Just last weekend, for instance, Amazon dropped the price of Prime to $72 and allowed everyone to stream its Golden Globe Award-winning online show “Transparent” as a way to show off one of the perks of being a Prime member.

Read more: Amazon Is Making It Easier to Publish Your Own Kindle Textbooks

It’s no mystery that Prime membership, Kindle ownership, or both are essentially gateways that welcome online shoppers into the Amazon consumershere and result in sharply increased spending at the site.

On the other hand, there’s good reason to believe that people who aren’t Prime members are more likely to shop around and make purchases at Amazon only when it’s clearly the most convenient or cheapest option. They don’t automatically defer to making purchases at Amazon, like Prime members appear to do. And based on some recent studies indicating that Amazon doesn’t have the cheapest prices across the board, it seems wise to browse a range of retailers rather than immediately head to Amazon for a one-click purchase of your latest need.

Read next: Amazon Outbid Netflix For Its Most Successful Show

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY Airlines

Airlines Drop Fuel Surcharges, but Flights Don’t Get Cheaper

A Boeing Co. 737 aircraft operated by Qantas Airways Ltd. flies past the air traffic control tower as it lands at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia
A Boeing Co. 737 aircraft operated by Qantas Airways Ltd. flies past the air traffic control tower as it lands at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia Brendon Thorne—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two airlines recently removed those annoying fuel surcharges that have been tacked onto passenger tickets for years. So that means airfare is less expensive, right? Nope.

The idea of a fuel surcharge is pretty simple: When the cost of fuel is abnormally high, instead of simply raising prices, a special, supposedly temporary fee is passed along to customers. When fuel costs retreat back to “normal” levels, logic dictates that the surcharge would disappear.

It’s this kind of wholly logical thinking that has had airline travelers up in arms over the last several months, as the price of gasoline and rocket fuel has declined substantially, yet fuel surcharges remain and airfares are still extraordinarily high. Consumer advocacy groups Travelers United and FlyersRights.org recently sent letters to airline CEOs voicing their outrage and demanding that airfares be lowered “in light of the 50% reduction in jet fuel prices since June, 2014.”

“Common sense says prices should drop when the biggest cost factor in flying nosedives,” Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, said via press release. “This isn’t rocket science. Though economists can make lots of excuses, if there were more competition, consumers would be seeing lower costs to fly.”

At first glance, it appears as if some of this madness is coming to an end Down Under. As the Sydney Morning Herald put it, Virgin Australia recently announced it was removing “consumer-reviled references to fuel surcharge” from its tickets. This surcharge added as much as AUD$680 (US$540) to the cost of an international round trip. Qantas, which competes with Virgin Australia on many routes, including flights between the U.S. and Australia, followed suit by saying that it too would get rid of fuel surcharges on tickets.

To which travelers might reasonably respond: Hallelujah!

Not so fast. The removal of these hated, astronomically expensive fees is having little to no impact on the actual cost of airfare paid by travelers. For the most part, the airlines are simply incorporating fuel charges into base airfare prices, and the amount paid out of pocket by passengers will remain stubbornly high.

Virgin America said that coach passengers can expect to see a decrease of perhaps AUD$40 (a measly $32 in U.S. currency) on tickets between the U.S. and Australia. Mind you, the old surcharge hit passengers to the tune of AUD$680 (US$540). As for Qantas, its airfares will remain exactly the same even as fuel surcharges disappear.

In other words, the carriers are jacking up flight prices to compensate for the “removal” of fuel surcharges. They’re giving travelers a price break with one hand while taking more money away from customers with the other. The net result is that passengers are paying pretty much the same for the cost of transportation before the changes were announced. The only thing that’s changed is how the airlines break down the flight costs.

To airline passengers, who want their total out-of-pocket costs to drop, and who couldn’t care less about how the airlines categorize each component of a flight’s price, these “changes” mean that nothing at all has really changed.

MONEY groceries

National High-Price Bacon Nightmare Is Over

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Ray Lego—Getty Images

Bacon lovers, rejoice. The heartbreaking, seemingly endless rise of pork prices appears to have subsided.

After hitting record highs over the summer, bacon prices have come down to earth—and even cheaper prices are on the way.

The retail price of bacon hit an all-time high during the summer of 2014, but has since retreated, dropping 5.7% by early December, according to Bloomberg News. What’s more, all signs indicated at the time that prices for pork, ham, and bacon would keep on decreasing. “Hogs and pork are almost surely going to be cheaper, particularly compared to beef, next year,” Doane Advisory Services economist Dan Vaught said.

Sure enough, pork prices are plunging in early 2015. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that farmers have rebounded from a virus that decimated pig herds in 2013 and early 2014, and that the nation is riding high on the hog in terms of a record number of pigs approaching slaughter weight. Forecasts call for an all-time high of 23.9 billion pounds of pork to be produced in the U.S. in 2015.

“It’s amazing. We’ve gone from ‘We’re going to run out of pork!’ to ‘What are we going to do with all of this meat?’” John Nalivka, president of the Oregon-based agriculture-advisory firm Sterling Marketing Inc., told the Journal.

Well, one thing they’re clearly going to do is cut prices. Hogs are currently trading at four-year lows on the futures market. Supermarkets are paying less for pork wholesale, and they have begun passing along the savings in the form of cheaper ham, pork loins, and yes, bacon. Last summer, the average retail price for a pound of bacon was over $6 per pound. By December 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a pound of bacon was averaging $5.53 in U.S. grocery stores, and $5.10 in the Midwest.

The funny thing about bacon is that people love it so much that demand stays incredibly high even when prices rise, and the masses are prone to panic with the slightest hint of bacon being in short supply. And when bacon prices become cheaper, that’s a justification for some bacon lovers to take their bacon consumption to the next level. Businesses that profit on bacon-aholics will surely be more than happy to help. Look for more bacon to be incorporated into restaurant menus and on sale at supermarkets in the months ahead.

MONEY Sports

Super Bowl Ticket Prices Are Not Deflated Anymore

Football hot air balloon
Shutterstock

During the week that Deflategate dominated Super Bowl media coverage, ticket prices for the game took off like a perfectly thrown deep-route touchdown pass.

For the first couple of days after football fans found out the Super Bowl would feature a matchup of the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, ticket prices for the game remained cheap (relatively speaking). As of Tuesday of last week, the “cheap seats” were selling for a little under $2,000. That’s less than the price of tickets before we knew who was playing in the big game this year, and it’s also fairly inexpensive by Super Bowl standards.

What’s more, because of patterns established in previous Super Bowls—asking prices tend to drop as game day nears—many experts recommended at the time that fans wait for ticket prices to fall further before buying. Because the Seahawks just won the Super Bowl a year ago, and because the Patriots have been in five Super Bowls during the Brady-Belichick era, the theory was that fan “fatigue” would cause an especially large dip in the ticket market this year.

Right about now, however, those theories appear to be dead wrong. Instead of dropping or remaining flat, Super Bowl tickets have skyrocketed during the week or so when legions of sports fans were distracted by Deflategate, the scandal in which the Patriots are being accused of using underinflated footballs during the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.

On Saturday, the Seattle Times estimated it would cost a minimum of $9,000 for a pair of fans to attend the Super Bowl, with the lion’s share needed for admission (over $3,000 apiece for tickets). As of Sunday, data from secondary market ticket sale sites such as TiqIQ showed that the cheapest tickets available were starting at roughly $4,200, and that the average list price for seats was running a whopping $6,459—a 114% increase compared to the same time period before last year’s Super Bowl. Another ticket resale site, SeatGeek, reports that the average Super Bowl seat sale price on Sunday was $4,573, up 63% in one week.

TiqIQ’s Chris Matcovich, who was one of many insiders who went on record a week ago telling fans that they should wait for ticket prices to drop, has circulated to the media an explanation for why prices have hit the roof, and apparently it has nothing to do with the Deflategate controversy. “The main reason for the rise was brokers were short selling early on, on the bet that based on previous years prices tend to decline after the championship Sunday,” he explained. “Demand ended up being higher than expected and that led to prices rising.”

As of Monday, Super Bowl ticket prices at resale sites like StubHub, TiqIQ, and VividSeats were all listing seats starting under $4,000—and a few were just a smidge over $3,000.

That’s pricey compared to a week ago, but perhaps better than the options fans encountered over the weekend. So what’s the strategy now? Is it better to buy or wait a few days? Or wait until the very last minute? The consensus about the trajectory of ticket prices has already been wrong once for this year’s Super Bowl, so we’re not going to pretend to know where prices will go from here.

MONEY consumer psychology

Panic Shopping! How a Blizzard Turns Us into Irrational Hoarders at the Grocery Store

A long line of shoppers wait beside mostly-empty shelves in the bread aisle of a grocery store, as people stocked up on items ahead of an approaching snowstorm, in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, 12 February 2014.
A long line of shoppers wait beside mostly-empty shelves in the bread aisle of a grocery store, as people stocked up on items ahead of an approaching snowstorm, in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, 12 February 2014. Michael Reynolds—epa/Corbis

Weather forecasts aren't nearly as reliable as the reaction by shoppers when a bad storm has been predicted. And by reaction we mean overreaction.

Almost exactly a year ago, supermarkets cashed in as shoppers rushed in and ransacked store shelves in anticipation of snowy weather and the polar vortex’s subzero temperatures hitting a broad swath of the country. This week, it’s largely the same story in the Northeast, what with a historic blizzard said to be threatening New England and much of the Mid-Atlantic region.

Over the weekend, the panic hoarding began, with shoppers emptying grocery store shelves and grabbing every last loaf of bread, carton of eggs, and bottle of milk in sight. On Sunday, shoppers at one New Jersey supermarket reported it being nearly impossible to find a parking spot outside the store, while inside the scene was one of empty coolers where milk used to be, employees fighting through crowds to restock shelves, and endless lines snaking away from cash registers. Likewise, shoppers have been sharing photos of the crazy mob scenes over the weekend inside grocery stores in Boston, New York City, and elsewhere with #Snowmaggedon2015, #Blizzardof2015, or whatever your preferred nickname is for the storm.

By now, this kind of pre-storm mad rush at the supermarket is to be expected. Heck, it’s far more reliable than the actual weather forecasts ever are. And to some extent, this behavior is reasonable. We’re relentlessly instructed to take precautions, prepare for the worst, go the route of better safe than sorry, and … you get the gist. You don’t want to be stuck in a blizzard without a shovel or enough food to last for a few days, after all.

Yet, as with so many other things involving human beings, there’s a tendency to go completely overboard. What starts out as a prudent and sensible shopping excursion can quickly devolve into a frenzied, agitated exercise in hoarding at an overcrowded supermarket or hardware store, as the ugly, primal side of humanity rises to the surface.

During the polar vortex of early 2014, for instance, some supermarket customers reported that meat and bread were swiped from their shopping carts while their backs were turned. Ever since Superstorm Sandy left gas stations without gas and led to some instances of price gouging where gas was available, drivers have been known to flock to the pumps to fill up when a big storm is in the forecast. Far more often than not, of course, it’s wholly unnecessary to wait in line for 30 minutes or longer just to top off your gas tank.

What is it, then, that pushes us over the edge? Why do shoppers head out to the store in preparation of some snow and perhaps a couple days without power, and then they (OK—we) wind up hoarding all manner of goods as if preparing for the apocalypse?

Part of the explanation is mob mentality. When we see others streaming into stores and snatching up perishable goods by the cartload, we feel pressure to do the same. Perhaps, we think, these crazed shoppers all around us know something we don’t? It’s easy to see how this mentality snowballs—excuse the pun—when an epic blizzard is expected. This kind of thinking also pushes consumers into the realm of irrationality on days like Black Friday, when the bustle of crowds and competition causes people to overreact and buy things they wouldn’t have had there not been dozens of shoppers fighting to get their hands on some supposedly hot, must-have holiday purchase.

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, an author and frequent TIME and MONEY contributor, explained via email that no matter if it’s Black Friday or the day before a blizzard or hurricane is about to hit, when crowds descend on stores we essentially revert to cavemen. “Clearly we’re responding to emotions and crowds, and our brains are a few steps behind,” said Yarrow. What else could explain the act of rampaging through the supermarket and “greedily grabbing the last can of Spam”?

“It starts with a normal impulse to stock up on things that might not be available for a few days,” Yarrow said. “Panic hits when the stores are jammed with other shoppers and the shelves look a little bare. It’s not so much a thought as it is an impulse that hits, and it’s associated with the caveman parts of our brain that take over when we perceive we might be in physical danger. We are prewired to fight for food when we sense that resources are scarce.”

Afterwards, we’re likely to look back on our behavior with puzzlement, and perhaps embarrassment. “Shoppers are going to find that canned food in the back of their pantries someday and wonder what they were thinking,” said Yarrow. “The fact is, they really weren’t thinking. Primal brain took over.”

Try to keep this in mind when, inevitably, the next “historic” storm is on the horizon and your supermarket seems to have been invaded by hoarding barbarian masses. By then, however, it’ll probably be too late. You’ll be in the store, not thinking, and instead following the primal impulse to race to get the last loaf of bread before it’s gone.

Speaking of which, anyone have any good recipes that involve Spam? Somehow, I have a bunch in the pantry, though I don’t remember even buying them.

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