Two days before the NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland, in the middle of a bitter-cold Midwestern night, a doughy 32-year-old hustler who goes by the name of Cleveland Chris sat in the lobby of a downtown hotel (the All-Star Game was a home game for Chris) and recounted his past year. "At least 300 events," he said. "Maybe more than that. I'd have to check my calendar." He is wearing khaki shorts, his standard scalping uniform 365 days a year, including the subzero nights when he hawks face-value Cavaliers seats outside Gund Arena for a local broker who needs to unload them. "There's not an event I won't do," he says. "One day a couple of years ago, I'm driving down 1-71 to Columbus for an Ohio State football game. I stop, and I'm reading the newspapers, and I see there's this big Canton McKinley versus Massillon high school football game, the 100th. I'm thinking, How big must this be? So I go straight there. The stadium only seats about 20,000, and scalpers are getting 50 bucks to get in. I went to work right there."
Sometimes the hustler gets hustled by another hustler. Cleveland Chris was at the Super Bowl in New Orleans with everybody else. Two days before the game he transacted a piece of business with Dane Read Matthews, a Cleveland broker, that showed the murky waters in which the street ticket business is conducted. Matthews needed two good seats for a client, and on the Friday preceding the game Chris produced what he believed were two such seats—50-yard line, suite level—and Matthews paid $1,700 each for them. When Matthews checked his seating chart closely, it turned out that the suite was in the corner of the end zone (the Superdome's oddball numbering system made this difficult to discern at first glance), and thus he had to eat a $300 loss on each ticket. After Matthews complained, a livid Chris marched into the New Orleans Marriott lobby in the wee hours of Saturday morning, where he found the hustler who had originally sold him the seats.
"It's late, and everybody's been drinking a little," says Chris. "So next thing you know, I pop him, he pops me, and I wind up in jail until Sunday. I missed Saturday, I missed the game, probably cost me $10,000. I'm sitting in jail, and the cops keep coming into my cell telling me, 'Hey, your beeper's going off every five minutes, what are you, a drug dealer?" He left town on Tuesday "and went straight to Daytona to work out of my hotel room for the 500."
As Chris talks, his hands crinkle a sports betting sheet supplied by Las Vegas casinos and some bookmakers. "I love gambling," says Chris. "I've made $1,000 today on tickets; tomorrow I'm betting $1,000 on three [college basketball] games." Hustling tickets on the street and gambling on sporting events push the same buttons for hustlers, providing the singular rush of action.
This dual addiction has given rise among scalpers to a new form of hedging on the sports market. A hustler who is anticipating a big ticket score in an upcoming game—provided a certain team advances in a tournament or a playoff—bets against the team whose victory will create the ticket market. If he wins the bet, he's covered for the ticket loss. If he loses the bet, his ticket sales will cover the gambling loss. It's the street hustler's unique variation of a ploy commonly used in more legitimate financial markets.
As long as there are markets where supply and demand fluctuate, street hustlers will be there to cash in. "I could sell drugs for a living because I'm a hustler," says Cleveland Chris. "But why sell drugs and go to prison when I can sell tickets and make money?"
"Give me a crayon and a piece of cardboard," says Susce, "and I'll make a million dollars."
A red Dodge Intrepid idles in the cold beside a slender young man standing on the curb, shivering, outside Indiana University's Assembly Hall. In three hours the Hoosiers will host Ohio State, and this Big Ten basketball game, as always, is a sellout. From the backseat of the car, Brenda Stratman suspiciously eyes 25-year-old Renny Harrison's fanned tickets and asks the price for two good ones. "One hundred each," says Harrison, whose hands are covered by a pair of thin cotton gloves. After a stunned pause, Stratman gathers herself for a counteroffer. "Seventy-five," she says. Harrison shoots back. "Eighty dollars each," he says. "They're really good seats. Don't think about it. Just buy the seats and enjoy yourself."
Stratman slumps back in her seat. She has traveled 2½ hours from Mount Vernon, Ind., with her husband, Chris, and another couple, Jeff and Mindy Johnson. It was not a trip made lightly: They have driven to Bloomington having agreed that if it's too costly for all four of them to buy tickets, two of them will go elsewhere to watch the game on television. Stratman appeals to Harrison. "Come on," she whines. "You're making so much money." If Stratman buys two tickets for $80 apiece, Harrison will make $100 profit. Face value on the seats is $16 each; he paid $30 apiece to a season-ticket holder who didn't want to attend the game.
This is the ticket scalping your father knew: Hometown street-corner scalpers selling tickets for today's game embody the soul of the ticket business. Harrison is the co-owner of an agency (Circle City Tickets), makes good money and occasionally roams the big events. But he never misses an Indiana home game. On these days and nights he is Every Scalper, of which there are thousands from Oregon to Maine, some selling eight tickets a night, some selling 80. He is the guy with seats for a game that you want to see. Now.