The practice is so common that St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli even joked at a press conference about unloading his subregional tickets in Salt Lake City, where scalping is legal, because his wife was going on a spending spree. For lesser lights, a quick scalping profit is a big deal. Unlike Martelli, some Division I assistant coaches make as little as $16,000 a year, and they have the chance to make $3,000 in 10 seconds at the Final Four. It's a no-brainer.
The Final Four and the Masters remain the two priciest tickets in sports. Although the Masters market fluctuates wildly on site, a four-day badge often sells for more than $2,000. When the Final Four is held in a venue seating 20.000 or fewer, prices spike. The '90 Final Four, at 17,765-seat McNichols Arena in Denver, saw what many brokers recall was the first $1,000 ticket. Six years later a prime, three-game ticket book for the Final Four at the 19,299-seat Meadowlands in New Jersey was selling for as much as $10,000.
Yet even when a broker has clients and access to seats, the market can crush him in a single day. That's what happened at that '94 Super Bowl in Atlanta, when the dearth of street tickets sent prices spiraling upward. Golden Tickets, for instance, which had taken client orders at $750, eventually paid more than $1,500 per ticket to fill many of them. Late on the Friday afternoon before the game, Bonino ran in from the street and asked Silverman, "How's it look?"
"Not good. We might lose a hundred grand," Silverman said.
Whereupon Bonino ran to the bathroom and vomited prodigiously. "Somebody tells me I'm about to lose more money in a single day than I used to make in a year, I'll throw up every time." Bonino says. Three months later at the Final Four in Charlotte, the brokers turned the tables on the hustlers who had killed them in Atlanta. The market inexplicably bottomed out, and brokers who had taken orders for $1,750 or more were filling them for $750. netting $1,000 on each sale.
This year's NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland provided no such bailout for Silverman and Bonino. Late that Friday afternoon a hotel room bed—which by then should have had a quilt of tickets across it—was adorned by only a dozen tickets. Before Sunday evening's game Bonino would spend countless hours scouring hotel lobbies in search of loose tickets. He would pay an average of $350 for tickets that Golden had already sold for an average of $275, and the company would take a loss. But the orders would be filled, the last for Saturday's Slam Dunk contest with just 15 minutes to go, and the clients would be happy. "Joe just went nuts for us," Silverman would say, several days later. "When the pressure is on, he just transforms. He comes through; he gets the tickets." Bonino is sheepish about this rare skill of his. "I really don't look to get into fistfights on the street anymore," he says. "But I can get tickets if I have to."
The long, flat run of U.S. 92 that hugs Daytona International Speedway is awash in pedestrians spilling into the late afternoon following the Twin 125 races that are held three days before the Feb. 16 Daytona 500. Most fans wear sunglasses and T-shirts paying homage to their driver of choice. Most carry coolers. Across from the track's main gate, on a grassy area in front of the Ramada Inn (just maybe the most famous hotel in scalping), wooden police barriers and plastic netting form a makeshift pedestrian walkway, and here the call of the street hustler is heard above the excited chatter of the unwashed. Tickets? Anybody got tickets? Anybody need tickets?
Were they not hawking, the scalpers could be part of the crowd, with wardrobes that run from surf dude to golf slacker to auto mechanic. These are the warriors of the ticket business, the national street hustlers, tireless plungers who fly and drive to as many as 300 events a year, usually arriving without tickets, diving in to buy low off the street and sell high. Although most scramble to come away with $30,000 a year, the best of them can clear up to $120,000, just turning and burning, as they say. "It's the last bastion of capitalism," says Jeff Keylon, a hustler from Knoxville, Term. "You take a guy from Wall Street, he wouldn't last a week hustling tickets." There are no more than 50 or 60 true coast-to-coast hustlers in the country, a Special Forces of scalping. They carry cellular phones and pagers and answer to names Elmore Leonard would love: Eddie the Beard, Richie the Head, Indian Steve, Knockout Pete. They are in South Bend for big games, out along the exit ramp from the Indiana Toll Road early in the morning. They were in Atlanta last summer, trolling Peachtree Street during the entire Olympics. They seldom sleep. Can't turn tickets in bed.
This end of the business knows no qualifications, except that you need enough money to buy your first ticket and enough guts to get out there and sell it for a profit. Street hustlers are young and old, skinny and fat, cheery and grim. Guys like 43-year-old Minnesota Mike, who is already looking forward to the 1998 World Cup in France. "That's a quick $35,000," he says as he works the Daytona crowd. Or like 26-year-old Harley Sroka, who started hustling hockey tickets outside Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens when he was 13 and now lives in Chicago. He says with much pride that an uncle, Morris (Cooney) Cohen, was "king of the scalpers in Toronto." He taught Sroka everything he knows.
As a group they are desperately compulsive—many are heavy drinkers or drug users, driven to make money by the need to support their habits. Almost all of them are heavy gamblers. Their lives are a gamble. They compete viciously for the same turf, yet against outsiders they are a tight circle of peers, careful with trade secrets or the type of money talk that might attract the IRS.