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Scalping. Everybody who has ever attended a sporting event of any magnitude has witnessed, if not been skinned by, some form of ticket scalping. Ticket scalping occurs when one man sells tickets to a game, a fight or a race to someone else for more money—usually a lot more money—than he paid for them. During Super Bowl week the Gross Scalping Product must have been well over half a million dollars. In Miami, tickets with a face value of $30 were going for as much as $200.
Thanks to scalpers, most sold-out sports events in this country can be attended by anyone who shows up outside the gates 10 minutes before game time with $20. Well, maybe 20 minutes before with $30. By that time the smaller operators are trying to get rid of what they have left, and the bigger operators, cutting potential losses, have turned over what they still have to their "dumpers," usually kids who sell the tickets at, or near, or even below face value. Sometimes that hurts.
"Here I was, the guy with the great connections," recalls Chuck Puskar, a Pittsburgh insurance man. In 1975 Puskar managed to obtain eight tickets to the Super Bowl in New Orleans for a big client. "I had taken care of my client, and he was grateful," Puskar says. "He flew me to New Orleans in his Lear-jet, he wined me and dined me, he put me up in a big hotel. And here we were strolling to the game, his group of eight together. We had tickets, we were set, you know? They're all impressed. He's impressed. I'm feeling good. And then outside the stadium, here are these little street kids waving fans of tickets at us, yelling 'Six dollars! Five dollars!' Closer to the gates it's 'Four dollars! Three dollars!' 'You can't depend on that,' I'm telling my client. 'Yeah,' he keeps saying."
But you can't depend on it. Three years later in New Orleans, before the 1978 Super Bowl, scalping prices stayed high right up to game time and closed at what seemed like 1998 inflationary levels. Much the same held true this year in Miami: an insurance man with eight tickets to the Steelers-Cowboys—whew, there's no telling how many policies he could have written.
Although dealing with a scalper tends to leave a bad taste in the mouth, the transaction is a kind of wildcat grassroots capitalism. Some scalpers describe themselves as speculators, old-fashioned horse traders, providers of a public service. In more places than one might think, scalping is legal. In Ohio and Oklahoma the only restrictions are that the cities of Cincinnati and Oklahoma City require annual license fees ($3,500 in Cincinnati, only $100 in Oklahoma City). In some states, Texas for one, there are no scalping regulations at all.
The verb "to scalp," meaning to cut off the scalp of a person, is an American coinage of the 17th century, but by the late 1880s it had become a term of commerce, used, for example, on the Stock Exchange, where it meant selling at a lower rate than the official price. Price cutting, in short. Just when it turned around and came to mean inflated rather than discounted prices is unclear. But by 1928 "scalpers" were arrested for selling tickets to the Michigan-Minnesota football game at a dollar a yard: $10 for seats on the 10-yard line, $20 for seats on the 20 and on up to $50 for the 50.
Scalping thrives wherever tickets are hot. Rock concerts attract heavy scalping. Two-dollar tickets to the King Tut exhibit have gone for as much as $50. When a special one-shot tour of Richard Nixon's compound in San Clemente was organized in 1978, a woman boasted that she had sold her $2.50 ticket for $1,500. But scalping is especially prevalent in sports. The Super Bowl, the World Series, the NCAA basketball playoffs, the big college football games, the Masters golf tournament, the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500 are all major scalping events. So are the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City, the annual indoor tractor-pull championships in Louisville and, of course, the Olympics. In Munich in 1972 a scalping bourse flourished on Marienplatz, and in Montreal in 1976 one busy young scalper circulated from buyer to buyer on a skateboard. It is almost certain that next year the Olympics will bring this example of freewheeling capitalism to the shadow of the Kremlin walls.
Scalpers deal by telephone, through bellmen, by means of classified ads, via friends. They inhabit various well-established locations: in Boston on Jersey Street outside Fenway Park, in Buffalo under the New York Thruway across the street from Memorial Auditorium, in Cincinnati along the north side of the pedestrian walkway leading to Riverfront Stadium, in Philadelphia near the Broad Street subway stop at Pattison Avenue, in Montreal in Toe Blake's Tavern near the Forum, in Los Angeles on Elysian Park Avenue or Stadium Way near Dodger Stadium. When the U.S. Open tennis tournament was still being held at Forest Hills in New York, scalpers thrived at a site where Son of Sam committed one of his murders.
"Gotcher tickets?" scalpers cry, or "Two?" Or even something so blatant as "Hey, I got the ducks [ducats], who's got the dough?" Some scalpers just hold up two fingers. Some keep asking for tickets, partly to camouflage their selling activities from the rare policeman who might be in the neighborhood, partly to keep abreast of price fluctuations, partly to obtain tickets that can be turned over for a quick profit. The camouflage doesn't always work. Denver's KOA-TV shot films of scalping transactions that interested the local D.A.'s office. At one Super Bowl, plainclothes police arrested a Hallandale ( Fla.) man after he tried to sell them two $15 tickets for their face value of $30—provided they first give him $220 for a can of Orange Crush and a box of Girl Scout cookies.
Last year at New Orleans I got to know a scalper named Alex Carameros. There were wild rumors in the French Quarter that someone had paid $1,400 for two $30 tickets and that someone else had offered $2,000 to anyone who could find him two good tickets and a hotel suite for one night. In fact, single tickets had been sold for $300, and the going price to cooler customers was not a whole lot lower: $150 to $200. Carameros got top dollar. He'd buy tickets from softer-nosed scalpers for $50 and $75 and resell them for $150 and $175.