[ pley-tuh-pley ]
/ ˈpleɪ təˈpleɪ /
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relating to or denoting the policy or practice of paying a fee to play a game at the time the game is played: If you can’t afford a club membership, find a place that offers pay-to-play handball.
relating to or denoting an unethical or illicit arrangement in which payment is made by those who want certain privileges or advantages in such arenas as business, politics, sports, and entertainment: a pay-to-play system encouraged by drug corporations.
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Origin of pay-to-play

First recorded in 1925–30
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does pay-to-play mean?

Pay-to-play refers to situations where one must exchange money to engage in an activity or to earn favors or influence.

Where does pay-to-play come from?

Though the concept of pay-to-play is itself old, the phrase pay-to-play emerged in the 1920s, with one early use referring to a pay-to-play card game for a Catholic association.

A prominent use of pay-to-play occurred in the music industry in the 1980s, when some venue owners in Los Angeles began charging new and fledgling artists a pay-to-play fee if the artists wished to use their facilities. This model has received much criticism, and has been referred to as a “scene killer.”

In the 1990s, the idea of a “pay-to-play plan” for schools was first discussed as a way to address diminishing revenue. It consisted of forcing students to purchase “activity tickets,” that is, pay a fee, if they wanted to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities. This approach had reportedly led to a decrease in student participation, but due to continuing funding concerns, there has been some speculation that it could become a fixture of school sports in the future.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, the phrase pay-to-play became increasingly identified with US politics, specifically referring to the practice of companies or industries giving contributions and gifts to candidates in exchange for political favors, influence on policy, tax breaks, and so on. It’s been argued that this practice amounts to “buying out” a candidate, and has been criticized by politicians such as Bernie Sanders, who has argued that it has led to politics being controlled by “billionaires and special interests.”

However, politicians, pundits, and news stations on both sides of the aisle have criticized what they perceive as pay-to-play scenarios in the opposing party.

How is pay-to-play used in real life?

The phrase pay-to-play is used in a wide variety of different practices, from standup comedy to video games, and specific definitions may vary depending on the industry. However, the defining attribute of any form of a pay-to-play situation is the notion that one must pay to “get in the game,” whether that game is politics, sports, engineering, etc.

Though it depends on the industry, the phrase pay-to-play usually carries the connotation of shady, underhanded, or illegal dealing, particularly when it comes to politics and finance.

On the other hand, pay-to-play gaming—also called P2P and not to be confused with peer-to-peer gaming or computing—is very popular. This version of pay-to-play refers to mobile games, sometimes embedded within social networking sites, which require payment in order to be played or which encourage in-app purchases.

In addition to its use as a modifying phrase, pay to play is also often used as a straightforward verb phrase, e.g., You have to pay to play.

Keep in mind that pay-to-play frequently comes up in reference to accessing adult content online.

More examples of pay-to-play:

“Im talking an average artist that doesn’t know any better. Im sure theyre the ones keeping pay to play and post alive and healthy.” [sic]
—@JosephAParker, May 2017

A CBS News investigation has uncovered a possible pay-for-play scheme involving the Republican National Committee and President Trump’s nominee for ambassador to the Bahamas. Emails obtained by CBS News show the nominee, San Diego billionaire Doug Manchester, was asked by the RNC to donate half a million dollars as his confirmation in the Senate hung in the balance, chief investigative correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.

—CBS News, November 2019


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.