Leaning against one of the temporary wooden rails in Daytona Beach is a middle-aged man in a white T-shirt and blue jeans with long, thinning white hair swept back into a magnificent fluff at the nape of his neck. Doug the Rug, 54, is a Brooklyn native who has been scalping tickets for four decades. "I started outside Ebbets Field, that's how long I've been doing this," he says. He has just enough New York in his voice to make him seem streetwise, and he speaks just softly enough to get a customer's trust. He points to the speedway entrance across the street and to the dozens of hustlers scurrying about. "Thirty years ago I used to come down here, and the box office was a little wooden box over there, and I had this whole operation to myself," he says. "Too many hustlers now, too many seats."
The Rug stops to work two "straights," scalper slang for regular fans. They offer him two seats for Sunday's 500 (face value for that event ranged from $60 to $160). He pulls a bloated roll of hundreds from his pocket and pays them $1,800 for the pair—which he turns over half an hour later for $2,000. "I'll tell you the best night ever," he says. "Willie Mays Night at Shea Stadium, 1973. They had a box office release of 5,000 tickets right before the game. They were two-dollar tickets, and the public never saw them. Scalpers bought them all up for 50 cents over face, and we were selling them for twenties. Great night."
If Doug the Rug represents the past of this business, 26-year-old Arizona Nick is the present. He wheels into a strip mall parking lot in a rented black Suzuki Sidekick, his high-end mountain bike folded into the backseat. Nick's fade is bleached punk blond on top, left black on the sides. At the Super Bowl he had a long goatee, but now that is gone. Different site, different look. Word among the hustlers is that Nick is the best in the business right now. His modus operandi is pure survival. On one of his first visits to Chicago, as a teenager, he challenged Bonino and was thrown in jail the next day, courtesy of Bonino's connections.
In the early "90s Nick, who like many street hustlers vehemently refused to be interviewed by SI, insisted on working the U.S. Open tennis championship at Flushing Meadow in Queens, N.Y., despite the fact that New York scalping is notoriously territorial. One of New York's ticket crews beat him up and tossed him off the grounds. The next day he was back. And the day after that. "He didn't give a s—-, that's why he's so good," says Phoenix Matt, a lifelong friend of Nick's. The best hustlers, like Nick, use crews to score large numbers of tickets when a box office puts some specific event on sale. They "will get guys on the street and buy them beer or wine to stand in line," says Matt. When tickets hit the street, the guy who can creatively forage best has a huge advantage. It's common for hustlers to try to bribe box office or Ticketmaster sellers. Anything for an edge.
The hustlers' profession is as wearying as selling religion door-to-door, but the economics of it is as simple as fourth-grade math. It was the hustlers who cleaned up at the Atlanta Super Bowl that cost Golden Tickets more than $100,000, extorting enormous prices from brokers at the last minute and making huge profits on their own hustled tickets.
The national hustlers love to see a local favorite roll into an NCAA regional or the Final Four, or to see the likes of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. "You see Kentucky make a regional in Birmingham, there's a bloodletting," says Keylon. A $75 ticket is suddenly worth $500, and the hustlers know it better than the people who own the tickets.
A budding hustler learns the rules and then climbs. Steve Susce, 36, who now co-owns AAATix, a Birmingham-based ticket brokerage, did some casual scalping of football tickets as an undergraduate at Mississippi State and then attacked the business more seriously in 1987, after the Pittsburgh Pirates released him from a minor league contract. He was living in St. Louis, and he began working college football games at Missouri and Illinois. His learning curve was dramatically steep, involving the common sense economics of scalping—and a bicycle.
"One day I'm working a game at Missouri, and this guy goes blowing past me on a bike holding up two fingers, yelling, 'Need two!' " says Susce. "I thought, Man, that's the way to go. So here's the bike strategy: You're at a stadium for a game, face value is $25. You get different scenarios. Sometimes the ticket is actually worth $75, sometimes it's actually worth $5. So you ride your bike up to the front gate of the stadium early and find out what the game is worth. If it's a $5 ticket, you ride around the stadium as fast as you can, buying every ticket you can put your hands on [at that price]. Then you go out on the highway, and you sell like crazy and make 20 bucks a ticket: 20, 20, 20. The people out by the highway, they don't know it's a $5 ticket yet. Now, if it's a $50 ticket at the stadium, you can't buy a bunch because there aren't any. That's why it's 50 bucks. Demand, but no supply. So you ride your bike out by the highway, take a piece of cardboard and write TICKETS NEEDED, $30. People sell. They think it's a good price, and they don't know it's 50 bucks at the stadium. You buy a stack, ride back to the stadium and sell: 50, 50, 50. Boom, boom, boom."
In March 1987 Susce was scalping his way through the NCAA, regionals. He was in Louisville on Thursday, in Cincinnati on Friday, back in Louisville on Saturday and hawking at a Bon Jovi concert in Lexington on Saturday night. There he was arrested by Lexington police, who confiscated his money and tickets and dragged him to jail, leaving his beloved bike outside Rupp Arena. When he was released without charges on Sunday morning, his tickets and money were returned, but his bike was gone, so Susce drove to Cincinnati to scalp at the regional finals that afternoon. "I get there, and somebody yells to me, 'Hey, I got your bike,' " recalls Susce. "It's this old guy named Walter Anderton, a ticket guy from Memphis, knows everybody and everything. He's dead now, but what a sweet guy. He took me out that night for drinks. He gave me this list of events that I should go to—kind of tutored me."
The list Anderton gave Susce that night is the national hustler's itinerary. They work the circuit: the Super Bowl, the NBA All-Star Game, Daytona, major conference basketball tournaments, the NCAA tournament and the Final Four, the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, baseball's All-Star Game and the World Series. And hundreds of smaller events to fill in the empty white squares on a calendar. It is a dizzying schedule, a nonstop train.