It was the damnedest idea. Here sat Jerry Adelman in his family-owned drugstore across the street from the Los Angeles Sports Arena in the fall of 1960, listening to a ridiculous spiel from Lou Mohs, new general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that had just arrived from Minneapolis to play in an obscure league called the National Basketball Association. Mohs needed cash to promote his team and was trying to convince Adelman to buy 500 season tickets and sell them to customers at 25 cents over face value. This would give Mohs precious operating capital and Adelman a profit. Perfect, except that Adelman didn't think of himself as a scalper and didn't think of basketball as entertainment.
"Nobody is going to pay to come out and watch your players run up and down the court in their underwear," Adelman told Mohs that day. Mohs persisted, and the 26-year-old Adelman caved in, if only because the cost, four dollars per ticket per game for choice seats, was so modest. "I still didn't think there was a chance we'd make any money from it," Adelman says.
Fade, and cut to 1997. Two days before the Super Bowl, in a hotel room far above New Orleans's bustling Canal Street, Jerry Adelman, now 62 and co-owner, with his brother David, of L.A.-based Murray's Tickets, is busy greeting customers and delivering the more than 2,500 Super Bowl tickets that his national brokering agency had promised. On the street below, Joe Bonino, a muscular, dark-haired 36-year-old in blue jeans and a neat, white sport shirt is standing on the trolley tracks that bisect Canal. In one front pocket he has a cellular phone and a pager, in the other enough cash to buy a modest home; hence, he also has an armed, personal security guard standing to his left. Bonino holds a walkie-talkie against his left cheek, alternately speaking into it and straining to hear the squawks that return, while he is approached by a stream of similarly edgy characters, each of whom produces a cache of game tickets and offers them for sale. Bonino, who was once employed by Adelman, now works major events for Golden Tickets, a Dallas-based national ticket broker. His job is to help secure the 2,200 Super Bowl tickets that his clients have already paid for. He would appear to be the most popular man in New Orleans.
It is the fourth Friday in January. Bill Parcells's face fills the newspapers and television screens, and Desmond Howard will soon be Green Bay's hero. But it is the ticket guys who own the Super Bowl. Who own the Masters. Who owned the Final Four last weekend in Indianapolis, when seat-starved Kentucky fans came north and bought their tickets off street corners: late last Thursday morning, the mingling of ticket-rich coaches and hungry ticket guys turned a downtown hotel atrium into a freewheeling marketplace. It is the ticket guys who stand astride the outsized, overpriced, see-and-be-seen world of spectator sports. It is the ticket guys who have changed the way America gets through the turnstiles.
They are part of a boom, in the right place at the right time—at the intersection of sports and society, where games are both a tool for big business and a social status symbol. People want to go to games and see the stars, and ticket guys can usher them through the doors. Brokers have sprung up like software companies or designer coffee shops, and common scalpers have been given new life and a new outlet by the brokers. The ticket business has never been more influential, and the late Lou Mohs has never looked more like a genius.
Ticket guys (their term, not ours) come in three forms, doing the same job in different ways. Most familiar are the hawkers every casual fan has run across outside every arena. Their stock-in-trade is the old-fashioned scalper-to-fan swap. Cash for tickets, and in the door. They work the crowds at their local stadium or arena, selling a ticket for just a little more than they paid. They're the most visible level of a vast weblike business. Beyond them are realms of scalping that are little known or examined. Next come national street hustlers, the gritty middlemen who work all the big events in every major sport, buying from one source (often the local hustler) and selling to another (often a big operator). They're a roving, Runyonesque breed, some of whom put many tens of thousands of miles a year on their cars. Finally come the national brokers whose seven-and eight-figure businesses primarily serve corporations and the rich, selling tickets by the thousands from posh hotel rooms and by fax and Web site.
They all have three things in common: They must buy low and sell high or perish. They must know from memory the arcane and diverse laws that govern their business and that decree it legal in nine states, illegal in nine others and allowed with restrictions in 32. (Georgia is expected to pass a law becoming the 10th free-market state this week.) And all of them would sooner spill free tickets into the wind than talk openly about their incomes. Ticket guys respect police, but, in inverse proportion to the legitimacy of their business, they fear the Internal Revenue Service. High-powered brokers do most of their business through credit cards, leaving a trail that requires paying taxes. But street hustlers and hawkers operate almost exclusively in the untraceable realm of cash-only. They all say they pay taxes, but the veracity of the returns they file on April 15 is highly suspect.
At heart, they are all scalpers. But most of them don't much like the term, and the bigger they are, the more they dislike it. Brokers are the aristocracy of the ticket business—Brooks Brothers to the street hustlers' T.J. Maxx—dealing in a world in which $1,350 is fair market for an upper end zone Super Bowl ticket with a face value of $275. But scalping? "We believe there's a big difference between true brokers and some guy who's hawking tickets outside an arena," says Barry Lefkowitz, executive director of the three-year-old National Association of Ticket Brokers. You could start a small riot debating the truth in Lefkowitz's statement. However, it is true that a good broker will never leave you ticketless or sell you something in rightlield advertised as "behind the dugout." And brokers do have offices and addresses; some even have phones that aren't cellular.
Most of all, a broker is a bridge between some game and some person/corporation/travel agent who wants a ticket but can't find one. Or can't get a good ticket. Bulls-Sonics? Yankees-Indians? Duke-North Carolina? NBA Finals? World Series? One call to a good broker, and seats can be had. How the broker builds this bridge, and who he builds it for, makes for rollicking business.
Like this: Four days before the Feb. 9 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland, Ram Silverman, a 37-year-old former bartender, and Bonino are splayed across soft chairs on opposite sides of a desk in their downtown hotel room tending two telephones that sit ominously silent. They have promised 300 tickets to clients for All-Star Weekend, half of them for Saturday night's Slam Dunk contest and the other half for Sunday night's game. Like a short seller on Wall Street, high-powered ticket brokers sell before they buy. They "take orders" for events for which they have no guaranteed tickets, and then they set out to fill those orders before the game, preferably at a cost lower than the client has already paid for the seats, creating a profit margin. It is a precarious and speculative operation. Every major event rolls the broker's nerves through a wood chipper.