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
rightfield advertised as "behind the dugout." And brokers do
have offices and addresses; some even have phones that aren't
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
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.
All-Star Weekend was supposed to be a small operation for Golden
Tickets. Two weeks earlier Golden had filled its Super Bowl
orders with lethal efficiency, and the trip to Cleveland was
envisioned as a breather of sorts. But shortly after the Super
Bowl, Silverman took an order from one of his best clients, a
Japanese company, for 60 tickets to each night's activities.
Bonino chides him now, as Alice would Ralph, that this late
order was a lousy idea. In the coming days street hustlers would
say much the same thing, but Silverman was willing to take the
risk to keep a rich and loyal customer happy.
"We haven't touched a ticket," says Bonino, in the hotel room.
"In fact, we haven't seen a ticket." Silverman smiles wanly. "We
aren't really nervous yet," he says. Hours later they would sit
down at a Cleveland steak house, giddy with mock celebration.
"Two tickets!" Bonino would say. "We picked up two tickets!" Two
down, 298 to go. Whatever anxiety the two of them feel is
cloaked with an easy familiarity, drawn from almost nine years
of similar tightrope-walking without a net.
Silverman, a Chicago native, was tending bar at a T.G.I.
Friday's in suburban Dallas in 1987 when he met Debbie Andrews,
a ticket broker. "We went to her office a few times, and I was
fascinated with the ticket business," says Silverman. "I begged
her to give me a job." She did, but less than nine months later,
Andrews was arrested and charged with mail fraud. She pleaded
guilty to overcharging clients' credit cards for ticket
purchases and was sentenced to nine months in prison.
Silverman quit just ahead of the posse but left with a vision.
He went to Steve Parry, a poker-playing friend and well-heeled
sales executive, and proposed starting a ticket brokerage of
their own. Parry bankrolled the start-up for his wife, Jan, and
Silverman, and the two of them set up in a rented house in
Plano, Texas, on April 25, 1988. The name Golden Tickets was
taken from the precious booty won by five fictitious children in
Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
They launched themselves in pursuit of the industry's two
essentials: loyal clients and a steady flow of tickets from
reliable sources (season-ticket holders, team and league
management, players and coaches, 800-number ads in USA Today and
event-appropriate local newspapers, etc.). What they lacked was
a "street specialist" who could bail them out of a ticket
deficit on the day before the Super Bowl or the Thursday before
the Final Four, somebody who could be trusted to take $50,000 to
the street and come back with tickets. Enter Bonino, then 27, a
lifelong hustler from, by turns, Madison, Wis. (where he was
born), Los Angeles and Chicago.
Silverman had first met Bonino at the 1988 Final Four in Kansas
City. "You could see he was a guy that people respected,"
Silverman says. This is in reference not only to Bonino's
prodigious street connections and subsequent ticket hauls but
also to his 5'10", 190-pound build, hardened by hours of
weightlifting and boxing. Bonino had started scalping tickets in
1976 as a 16-year-old high school junior in Madison, where he
was taken under the wing of Jim (J.R.) Rush, a scruffy
hustler--still active--who was two years ahead of Bonino in high
school and already a veteran of the streets. Their hot property
two decades ago was University of Wisconsin hockey tickets.
While a cluster of hopeful scalpers would wait politely outside
the arena, trying to buy and sell, Bonino and Rush would take
their game to the highway, where cars entered the distant
parking lot. To get their hands on tickets, Bonino says, "we'd
give them our little boy voices, 'Oh, sir, we really want to go
to the game.' And then we'd turn four seven-dollar tickets for
15 bucks apiece and have enough money for pizza and pinball."
In subsequent years pizza and pinball were replaced by rent and
car payments. Bonino's jump from local punk to regional hitter
was made during his many visits to Chicago in the early 1980s,
when brokers left cold with fistfuls of tickets would give them
to Bonino to sell, hoping for any salvation at all from a lost
investment. "About an hour later Joe would come back with no
tickets and money falling out of his pockets," says one
Chicagoan, who now works as Bonino's security guard on the
street. Soon thereafter Bonino went national, following concert
tours and hot sports tickets, often driving more than 500 miles
a day, unafraid of hostile turf. In January 1986, just before
Super Bowl XXI, he stood outside the L.A. Sports Arena holding
the ubiquitous SUPER BOWL TICKETS NEEDED sign, trying to buy up
everything he could as the host city's allotment of tickets was
released for sale to the public. He was confronted by Larry
Pederson, a menacing hard-ass who owned a large chunk of the
street trade in L.A. from the late '70s through the mid-'80s, at
one time controlling more than 300 Lakers season tickets a game
in Magic Johnson's heyday.
Pederson, tall and thick, poked a finger in Bonino's chest and
said, "I don't know who you are, but you're in L.A., and that's
my town, and I don't want you picking up tickets." Bonino looked
up at Pederson. "I'll pick up tickets wherever I want to pick up
tickets," he said. Predictably, the two of them brawled
viciously, throwing haymakers, as Bonino recalls it, for a solid
five minutes before security officers ripped them apart. "I went
to the Forum a hundred times after that and never had a problem
with Larry," says Bonino. "I think he respected me, to tell you
the truth." (Epilogue: Pederson was shot in the head and
critically wounded while sitting in his Jeep outside the Forum
in February 1989. "He was a rough guy and had to be an enforcer
out there," says Adelman.) The fight with Pederson was nothing
more than the cost of doing business for any street hustler.
Bonino estimates that he's been arrested "at least 20 times" and
been in "a million fights."
Bonino's street pedigree was the perfect complement to what
turned out to be Silverman's business savvy. In less than nine
years of existence, Golden Tickets has grown into a
multimillion-dollar operation that routinely turns
high-five-figure profits at a single major event. The arc of
Golden's success in the '90s has mirrored that of the entire
industry. "Ten years ago it was a new industry, and then there
was an explosion," says Mike Schwartz, a national broker and
owner of ABC Tickets, of Wilmington, Del.
With the broker boom came large-scale abuses. Truckloads of
Wisconsin football fans traveled to Pasadena in late December
1993 to watch their Badgers play in the Rose Bowl for the first
time in 31 years, only to find that travel agents who were
either naive, dumb or unscrupulous couldn't provide nearly 3,800
tickets they had promised. A month later, at Super Bowl XXVIII
in Atlanta, the street market on tickets inexplicably soared in
the final days, forcing brokers to take huge losses in order to
deliver seats. Many of them bailed out on their orders and
skipped town--leaving clients stranded--only to open up a week
later with a new name and a new 800 number.
In the wake of these events a small group of brokers agreed to
form the NATB. "It was something we had to do, to police
ourselves," says Parry, now an ex-salesman and president of
Golden Tickets. There are 200 brokers in the NATB who encourage
prospective ticket buyers and sellers to call the national
office for a report on any member broker before buying or
selling. However, there are also at least 300 brokers who are
not members of the NATB, and countless street hustlers and
independent operators who wouldn't consider joining (not to
mention dozens of filthy rich and successful brokers operating
illegally in New York City who are further underground than
Jimmy Hoffa and like it that way).
The best of the brokers operate like futures traders, trying to
nail the value of, say, a Masters badge, three months before the
event. For instance, Golden Tickets sold most of its Super Bowl
tickets at prices ranging from $1,150 to $1,350 (though some of
its prime seats were priced much higher) and tried to fill those
orders by buying seats for $900 or less. Face value on a Super
Bowl ticket was $275 for most seats, but face value, as
Silverman says, "is a meaningless term." Clients are
occasionally individuals, but more and more often they are
corporations. Businesses in both the U.S. (including SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED) and abroad crave tickets, not just to romance
advertisers and clients but also to reward productive employees.
What better way to thank someone for selling all those desktop
copiers throughout the Midwest than with two tickets to a Bulls
game? In most cases the best way to get those tickets is through
a broker. If you happen to need 30 tickets, it's the only way.
The arrangement creates an irony whereby some advertising
executive sits on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl holding a
ticket that was sold to a lowlife, then hustled to a street
punk, then sold to a legit broker. Happens all the time.
For repeat events like Bulls games ($550 for a good seat at a
routine regular-season game; $1,250 for a good seat at a big
game), Alabama home football games and their ilk, the brokers
rely on season-ticket holders. Schools, pro teams and event
managers hate this. "The brokers are a major annoyance to us,
and our fans don't like them at all," says Bulls principal owner
Jerry Reinsdorf, who has revoked the season-ticket privileges of
a small number of holders caught selling their tickets. Such
pronounced rectitude rings a bit hollow; in truth, teams
sometimes sell season tickets to brokers to help boost official
attendance. One Midwest broker told SI that he owns hundreds of
season tickets to games of the pro franchises in his city plus
more than 50 each for Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan
football, all of which help to form the backbone of his business.
Annual events require more resourcefulness, as tickets flow
through people who are forbidden to scalp. Silverman simplifies:
"We get our tickets from the people who have access to them."
Take the Super Bowl. According to the NFL's Super Bowl ticket
czar, Jim Steeg, ticket distribution for this year's game broke
down this way: 35% to the participating teams (controlled by the
two owners), 25.3% to the league office (including the "people
who do business with the league," says Steeg), 29.7% to
nonparticipating teams (controlled by the owners, although every
player in the league is given the right to buy two tickets at
face value) and 10% to the Saints, the host city's team.
Translation: There are dozens of fertile sources from which
brokers can score Super Bowl tickets. The NFL issues a stern
warning to teams, which says in part, "Scalping suggests a
desire to profit personally ... on the coattails of the league's
popularity. Such conduct will not be tolerated." This solemn
rebuke is a joke. Super Bowl tickets are bartered like
autographed memorabilia. One broker told SI that he picked up
500 of them this year from a single source in Green Bay.
Professional athletes are among the most active of all ticket
scalpers. For this year's Super Bowl, Green Bay and New England
players were given two free tickets and offered the right to buy
about two dozen more. As they are each year, many of these
tickets were sold to brokers at a huge profit. (Think about it:
If a player buys 20 tickets at face value, it costs him $5,500.
He can walk into the parking lot, where dozens of brokers and
hustlers wait with sacks of cash, and sell them for at least
$18,000, a clear profit of $12,500 in five minutes.) "Even the
rich players can't say no to that kind of money," says one
broker. In fact, players become attuned to brokers' needs.
According to several brokers, one New England player stood on a
chair in the locker room in Foxboro in January and shouted to
his teammates, "Don't take less than $1,500 for a ticket."
So it's not surprising that brokers and hustlers view any
ticket-related news item with healthy suspicion. When it was
reported that San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Pete Carroll
asked for 50 Super Bowl tickets in his negotiation with the St.
Louis Rams for their head coaching job, brokers smirked in
unison. Carroll might have 50 friends who want to go to the big
game every year, says one broker, but "I see a $50,000 bonus."
(Carroll and his agent both deny that Carroll ever made the
Right after player tickets were released for the '96 Super Bowl
between Dallas and Pittsburgh, one participating player, through
his agent, invited a broker to his house, where 15 players sold
game tickets. The broker arrived with an armed, personal
security guard and a briefcase full of cash and left with
approximately 270 tickets, worth nearly $300,000 on the open
The Super Bowl of college sports, for fans and ticket guys
alike, is the Final Four. This year in Indianapolis 34% of the
47,000 tickets were sold through the public lottery, for which
there were 167,000 applications, including those of a great many
ticket brokers who submit multiple applications under various
names from various addresses. Each participating school received
3,500 tickets. About 8,000 seats went to the NCAA office and the
host city organizers. All of these ticket sources are mined
aggressively by brokers, but the best seats of all belong to
coaches and are distributed by the National Association of
Basketball Coaches. Allocation is determined by a school's NCAA
division status and by a coach's seniority. According to NABC
executive director Jim Haney, Division I coaches are usually
given the opportunity to buy two good seats--"lowers between,"
in the parlance of the scalper. That is, seats in the lower
level between the baskets. And many of the coaches sell these
seats for enormous profits. They can buy tickets for a face
value of $100 and then sell them for $3,000 or more. However,
the combination of the cavernous RCA Dome and the scheduling of
this year's event on Easter weekend drove prices down into the
$1,000 to $1,500 range, causing much bickering between coaches
and scalpers. The release of the NABC tickets is a scalpers'
convention. One national broker counts 30 coaches among his
regular clients. "They all have my pager number, and I never see
their faces," he says. "It's always a middleman, like a manager
[who delivers the coach's tickets]." The NABC includes a warning
against scalping with the tickets it gives out; its most severe
penalty for scalping Final Four tickets is five years without
ticket access through NABC. But ticket scalping is legal in
Indiana, which last week made the NCAA rule against scalping,
and the NABC warning, virtually unenforceable.
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, Tenn. "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.
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
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.
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 I-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
"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
"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 2 1/2 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
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.
His business is conducted on "the walk," the local scalpers'
universal term for whatever area serves as the common ground for
sellers and buyers. Here in Bloomington, as elsewhere, the
straights are ever suspicious. "You'll be selling for face
[value] at game time," one straight mumbles to Harrison.
"Cheapskate," says Harrison.
As Keylon, the Tennessee hustler who works Volunteers football
games on his home turf, says, "You get called a lot of things
out here, a lot of cracks about your heritage and all that, but
I just tell 'em, 'Hey buddy, I got the tickets and you don't.'"
It behooves a straight to be cautious, to carry a seating chart,
to work the scalpers and learn the market. At some venues
(including New York City's Madison Square Garden) counterfeit
tickets are common--good cause to ponder any potential purchase.
For their part, outside arenas like the Garden, where scalping
is illegal, hustlers must be even more acutely aware of the
market and wise to the whims of the police.
On this February afternoon in Bloomington, Harrison arrived at
the walk with 40 tickets in hand, purchased from various
season-ticket holders. His then girlfriend, Stephanie Myers,
helped him pick up 14 more--at face value, a huge score--when
the box office had a late release of tickets. Harrison sold all
but four of his 54, grossing nearly $1,000, and then bopped down
into the well of the arena with three friends to watch the game
and cheer for coach Bob Knight's red army from four of the best
seats in the building.
Indiana's 93-76 victory made it a good day all around for
Harrison. But as he drove home to Indianapolis that night, the
paradox of his profession nagged at him. He is a scalper, a good
guy and a bad guy at once, providing a service that the public
both craves and detests. "The business has a bad reputation for
a good reason," Harrison said. "There are a lot of dishonest
people in it. I'd like to think I'm separate from those people,
but in truth, I'm not."
Rolling in the opposite direction, home to Mount Vernon, is the
red Dodge whose passengers eventually bought two tickets at
Harrison's drop-dead price of $80 apiece. Jeff Johnson and Chris
Stratman sat 14 rows from the floor, right on the baseline,
while their wives went to a nearby restaurant. "I had the time
of my life," Johnson said later. "I'll probably go a couple of
times a year now. It was more than worth it to pay $80." Here he
contained his glee for a beat and considered the transaction
that put him in the building. "Of course," he said, "I wish the
profit was going to a better cause."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN [Drawing of hands holding tickets to various sports events]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN "Buy two!" and "Need two!" are part of the universal language outside arenas across America. [Drawing of fans holding signs reading 'Buy two!' and 'Need two!' superimposed on photographs of tickets and sports arenas]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN Ticket guys come in three forms--brokers, street hustlers and local hawkers--all doing the same job. [Drawing of three scalpers superimposed on photographs of tickets]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN Brokers sell before they buy, then race a deadline to obtain tickets promised to some very fat cats. [Drawing of two brokers working on desk resembling ticket]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN On the street scalpers follow their own code of conduct, and turf wars can get violent. [Drawing of two scalpers about to fight]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN Players often sell their tickets and have been known to urge teammates to hold out for top dollar. [Drawing of football player hawking tickets in locker room]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN Corporations rewarding employees and courting clients have become major customers for brokers. [Drawing of tickets scalpers and people under sign reading 'Fortune 500 company']
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN A bicycle to whiz from stadium to highway, buying and selling, has become a tool of the trade. [Drawing of scalper riding bicycle]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY P.J. LOUGHRAN Local scalpers of the sort your father knew still abound anywhere there are ticketless fans. [Drawing of scalper leaning over to car window]