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St. Pete Scenes

Diary of a ticket jockey at the Final Four

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Sunday March 28, 1999 06:40 PM

  As long as there are fans like Tom Bropy (left) and Chris Chapman, scalpers will make a buck. AP

By Dan Shanoff, CNN/SI

Outside Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla. The mission: Infiltrate the Final Four ticket market.

Pregame

Forget the competition within Tropicana Field -- which I have nicknamed "The Big Yarmulke."

The real contest is outside the dome, as empty-handed fans of the Final Four factions vie for tickets, which are turning out to be quite hard to get.

Everyone seems to want one, but no one is selling. Perhaps it's the warning looped on the P.A. system around the arena:

"Resale of tickets is strictly prohibited anywhere on Tropicana Field property. Anyone found doing so is subject to arrest and prosecution."

Under the speaker, a guy waves two fingers. (But let's get Clinton-esque for a moment: Resale is prohibited, but that would make buying OK. No one says, "I have two." Only "I need two.")

There are two obvious factions in the ticket-procurement game: pros (affectionately known as "scalpers") and amateurs (affectionately known as "fans").

Scalpers are in it for the money. Fans want into the game.

Scalpers keep their fingers low, subtle. Perhaps it's to save energy for what becomes a long process. Fans wave their fingers like they just won the national championship or are protesting U.S. military involvement in the '60s.

A scalper's "call-out" is like a monk's mantra, low and steady. A fan nudging every other passerby about tickets is like a cross between Fran Drescher and Dick Vitale.

Scalpers dress incognito, camouflaged without any school affiliation; they are open to any and all. Fans display paraphernalia like badges of honor, the more garish the better. T-shirts and hats are standard-issue uniforms. Signage, tattoos, wigs, flags earn fans eager enough to sport them extra credit from their peers.

Despite the differences in approach, the language is fundamentally the same: "Got one?" ... "Need two!" ... "Any tickets?"..."Who's selling?" Then there's the occasional, Grateful Dead-ish "I need a miracle!" Fingers (one or two) are fair means of communication, as are signs and chants and hands clasped in prayer.

Try to figure out this one: "Upgrade, for downgrade and cash!"

What makes this year's Final Four especially festive and alive is the overwhelming -- and passionate -- numbers these teams' fans travel in.

To get symbolic, Ohio State creates a Red Sea, UConn fans bring a Deep Blue Ocean and Michigan State fans are nothing if not a Green Bay. Duke? The Final Four's exception, with its piddly national alumni base and lack of passionate traveling fans. Call Duke the Royal Blue Puddle.

There's been a knock against the Final Four in recent years that its tickets are too exclusive -- too limited to coaches and NCAA corporate sponsors. That it had become as elitist as the Super Bowl, become irrelevant as a be-there event.

That tag must be dropped, at least for this year. The arena and its outskirts -- including souvenir tents, makeshift bars and local radio-station set-ups -- are overwhelmed with fans ... the loud, spirited, friendly, dressed-garishly-in-overpriced-T-shirt types. Everyone's happy to be here, both ticket-holders and wannabes alike.

But there's no question -- the big numbers and extra-crazy fans are creating a sellers' market ... as much as you can call it a market. No one is selling. Hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of buyers circle the dome, with just a trickle of takers for their wads of cash. These hard-core, ticket-carrying hoops fans are fired up to actually watch their teams play inside.

Ohio State hasn't been here in 31 years, Michigan State in 20. UConn's never been here. Some fans -- die-hard fans -- have been waiting a long time to attend a Final Four, and they aren't about to sell their precious tickets for something as ephemeral as cash.

This is the saga of Final Four Saturday outside The Big Yarmulke.

Standing next to two corporate-sponsor types, four Michigan State fans, just hours removed from a drive from East Lansing, overhear the two guys on a cell-phone conversation that goes something like this: "Dump two? OK." The fans' faces are mesmerizing to watch -- they don't want to get too excited, they don't want to get their hopes too high, but ... could it be?

 

One of them bravely approaches the stranger whom he just eavesdropped on. So, what kind of tickets do you have? he asks.

Section 117, Corporate Guy responds. The Spartan fan's face falls. That's lower level. Too rich, he says. You're looking for what, two grand apiece?

Corporate Guy stops and measures his words, knowing how priceless this moment will be: Actually, he says, since they are company tickets, we can only sell them for face value. This may be your lucky day.

The Michigan State fan's jaw dropped, his eyes bugged and any sense of composure the group was trying to maintain was lost.

The Corporate Guys had to check with a few friends first about getting rid of the tickets, and so in a fleeting moment, the Michigan State fans went from being anointed to just another group of those waiting, waiting, waiting.

By game time, there are still thousands of fans outside the dome -- hundreds of scalpers -- but all the ticketholders are gone. All the Michigan State fans walk around, still hoping to find a miracle.

After the UConn-Ohio State game

Night has fallen for the unfortunate hundreds camped out around the stadium who were shut out before game time. The time to get tickets for Saturday night's games came and went with the afternoon's sunshine.

The next "Mission Impossible" for fans -- and scalpers -- is to procure passes for Monday night's title game. Huskies fans don't care if the opponent is Duke or Michigan State, they just want to be there.

But if ticket interest can be tied to rooting favor, those Michigan State fans inside -- outnumbering Blue Devil fans by at least 4 to 1 -- would probably leave for the long trek back to East Lansing before Monday, perhaps ready to sell their tickets to their state-school brethren, united by a loathing of Duke. Hmmm. ...

State-school solidarity is discarded in the face of the reality of a drive back to Storrs yielding nothing but some watery tailgate beer and an overpriced T-shirt. Go Duke! (Sell Spartans!)

Meanwhile, the dejected, Ohio-bound Buckeyes fans start to trickle out. Hundreds of fans wait outside to buy! buy! buy! -- standing in a crowd just inches from the arena's exit gate.

The mob forms a gauntlet to walk through that makes what Betty Currie had to go through seem as easy as doing the Electric Slide.

A woman runs up to her companion outside of Gate 6A, clutching a very new-looking pair of tickets for the Duke-Michigan State game. Where? How? Who?

She walked up to the Ohio State ticket window and bought some leftovers from the early game that went unclaimed. It's just too easy for some.

A twisted version of a jailbreak is going on nearby. Someone has strategically placed a trash can next to the chain-link fence that guards one of the in-stadium ramps to get to the dome's upper levels.

A half-dozen fans daringly hop on the trash can, scale the fence and flop over the cement ramp wall -- they're in! A few envious people on the outside applaud, while buddies "on the inside" there to receive them give out enthusiastic high fives.

In the face of a ticket drought, you have to give points for ingenuity.

The jailbreak is circus-like, but the true scalpers don't even look over. Getting into the game isn't ever an option. It's all about the cash transaction. More power, then, to the true fans, who leap tall buildings in a single bound to see their team. With Ohio State fans filtering out, good seats are still available.

After the Duke-Michigan State game

Around the stadium, it's as congested as during pregame. People are either on line to get on a bus to go home or have their fingers jammed in the air, looking like Joe Namath ("Need one!"/We guarantee it!) or Winston Churchill ("Need two!"/Victory!)

But disappointed Michigan State fans aren't stopping to pass off tickets for Monday night. With so many people standing just feet from the exit gate, how would a fan know who to deal with anyway?

The scalpers are looking for the fast buck. It's the UConn fans you feel for. They're looking for a miracle.

Once-rowdy Ohio State and Michigan State fans now quietly disappear into the chilly St. Petersburg night. They are like-minded in defeat. Ticket or no ticket, the call now is for true state-school solidarity between the United Armies of Alumni Who Travel:

"Go Huskies!"

Check back for more St. Pete Scenes as CNN/SI covers the Final Four from St. Petersburg, Fla.

 
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