D.C.’s Ticket Exchange

April 3, 2008

Opening night at Washington Nationals’ ballpark was cold, and I couldn’t find any scalpers.

Fans stood, alone and in pairs, on the red carpet outside the Navy Yard Metro stop, fingers held in the air as signals—two tickets? Three?—even as thousands of other fans, already ticket-holders, flooded Half Street. Beneath red-white-and-blue balloon bunting, they flowed toward the center field gate. An older man, two fingers up, stood next to a young boy clutching a mitt and a bag of peanuts.

Like him I was looking for scalpers—a dirty word, suggestive of a rip-off so bad as to leave one seriously bald. Selling or reselling any ticket in a public space, no matter the price, is a crime in the District. If you’re caught, or rather if the police choose to enforce the law, both buyer and seller head for the station, lose the tickets and are assessed a $50 fine. But scalping is a necessary institution when the cheapest hot dog at Nationals Park costs $4.50 and a middling ticket $30. It’s an institution that might let a student see a game in a good seat for twenty bucks.

Moving through the crowds on opening night, I found people who had been waiting for scalped tickets for twenty minutes with no success. Official tickets were sold out, and subway discussion on the way to the game reported that the cheapest tickets on eBay were $100. A man directing traffic in a yellow staff jacket told me he had seen scalpers earlier in the day, but that undercover cops had arrested them. MPD would later report that nine people were arrested for scalping tickets. Scalpers at RFK Stadium and the Verizon Center normally go untouched—would this new stadium be different? The man shook his head, bobbing his short dreadlocks. “It’s opening night—and the president’s here.”

The police seemed to agree. At a roadblock near the stadium, Officer D. Griffiths, a burly man with a thick mustache, was blunter than most about the relationship between police and scalpers.

“[Undercover officers] were here yesterday and today, but the rest of the season—who knows?” he asked, adding that most people who bought scalped tickets ended up “ripped off by some thug.”

That didn’t seem quite right. After spending three games at three different sports observing the scalpers at work, it didn’t make sense that a majority of them would sell bum tickets—that would be bad for business. (Apparently, counterfeit tickets are mainly found at one-time only events like concerts.) I’d even met regular customers who had developed relationships with their scalpers.

But that night, I just wanted to find a scalper at the new stadium. In a line on the other side of the newly-minted building, I ran into a man I had met looking for tickets earlier, a few beers on the other side of sober and clad in Carhartt overalls. He had succeeded in purchasing a scalped ticket, but was cagey about how he got it, saying only that he had been found by a scalper and pulled aside. (Most scalpers and scalpees interviewed for this piece declined to be identified due to their participation in a criminal act.) He was angry that it took him so long to find someone to sell him tickets.

Looking for trouble? Nats fans looking for tickets on opening day.

“They are ruining a great American pastime by not selling overpriced tickets to fans who show up a half hour late to a game,” he said. “It’s unpatriotic!”

So, scalpers were at work. Twenty feet down the line, I met three older men who looked accustomed to getting what they want—the kind of men who travel around the country touring baseball stadiums, which is in fact what they were.

Tom, Ed and Gene (from North Carolina, San Francisco and Florida, respectively) had come to see the first official ballgame at the District’s new field. Gene, in particular, was a connoisseur, having visited forty-eight ballparks, including all three that have existed in D.C. As a younger man he had met Ted Williams during the star’s retirement stint as manager of the then-Washington Senators. Apparently, Gene’s introduction to Teddy Ballgame at Griffith Stadium came at the behest of a club attendant named Johnny Orlando.

A sea of red: Thousands of excited Nationals fans crowd into the brand new ballpark for opening day.

But it was Tom who surprised me more, with the confession that he bought his ticket from a scalper for $20—apparently maturity does not always convey enough sense to plan ahead on a trip of hundreds of miles. Tom had even been pulled aside after his purchase by an undercover officer who threatened to arrest him, but Tom had simply walked away, viewing the whole thing as a joke—”Wonderful, D.C.! Make a law to stop someone who wants to sell a ticket.”

Tom’s opinion was shared by most of the fans I spoke with at the games, who supported a decidedly laissez-faire ticket economics. But without any scalpers to talk to (or buy from), I was left watching the players’ introduction on the new hi-def jumbotron through the centerfield gate. Jets flew over the stadium, fireworks exploded and a man walked by on stilts.

Earlier in the month, the Verizon Center hosted the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Outside on 7th Street, fans clad in every logo from Duke to Baylor flowed to the stadium. Posted amidst them like rocks in a creek, scalpers plied their trade.

Here is a typical D.C. scalper: Black, male, in his late twenties or early thirties (only a few younger guys were around). He’s often working in a team, ranging in size from three to six guys. The idea, of course, is to buy low and sell high: get fans to part with their tickets on the cheap, and sell them to other fans dear. One guy will concentrate on finding sellers—”got any tickets?”—another will concentrate on low end seats—”I got two! Who needs two?”—and a third, usually better-dressed with a collared shirt or a wireless cell phone earpiece, will coordinate the team and handle the big sells, putting together multi-seat packages or fishing out $120 club seats. One group of three worked their way down from the Metro stop at 7th and H to the entrance of the stadium where they would regroup, swap tickets and money, and then go back to the top of their route. In one hour they made about 15 sales. They repeated this for most of the day.

I chatted with two Xavier fans from Annapolis after watching them buy tickets from that team of scalpers. One, sporting an “X-Men” hat, sat in a wheelchair after a double hip replacement. They said they usually bought their tickets to sporting events second-hand, but they had a hard time finding them before this particular game.

“I had my son, my daughter, my girlfriend and my ex-wife looking on the internet for tickets—these guys get them!” the wheelchair-bound fan said, outraged. “Where do they get them?”

According to the scalpers, some rely on picking up tickets from fans, while others use connections with the teams to get extra passes. At the first-round of the NCAA basketball tournament, the dejected fans of losing teams would be mobbed upon their exit from the stadium by scalpers hunting for cheap second-day tickets. One scalper in a brown leather jacket confessed that it was his first day on the job: he was helping out a friend from Detroit, in town to sell tickets to the NCAA games. The friend had a broker who phoned in ticket orders to be picked up at the will-call and sold in front of the stadium.

How much? Scalpers drive a hard bargain at various D.C. events.

But I couldn’t convince any of the scalpers to tell me what I really wanted to know: how they got started scalping, how much money they make (“we’re supplementing our income”), how they got along with each other. For one, they were suspicious, worrying that police attention would follow media attention. But more importantly, they were busy. The tickets in their pockets were only valuable as long as the game hadn’t started (or hadn’t gone on for too long). After a certain point, they aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. But I interrupted them enough to learn a few things.

“There’s a job crisis. It’s better to sell tickets than to sell crack!” said one seller in a New York Yankees cap. True, but how does it work?

“Economics! Economics!”

He wasn’t far off the mark—even economists uninterested in sports take an interest in scalpers, a great market to analyze. The ticket re-sellers find a niche because prices are set artificially low by box offices (doesn’t feel that way, does it?) in order to encourage sell-outs, which improve the venue’s image and maximizes its revenue from parking, vendors and television deals, according to a paper by the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. But once those tickets are sold and demand goes up, the only person to turn to is the speculator. That is, the scalper.

Which is why a comparison between a stock exchange trading floor and the corner of 7th and H right before Tuesday’s Capitols game is appropriate, except that stock exchanges are rarely serenaded by a saxophone player jamming with two ersatz drummers pounding plastic buckets. Outside of the Vida gym, it’s a seller’s market early as hockey fans plastered with Caps gear confront twelve scalpers working to earn their pay. It’s finally warm enough, a balmy spring evening, where being outside for hours seems more of a benefit than a disadvantage, and the scalpers go about their work with gusto.

It was a night for savvy fans, too. I met one near the metro stop, looking for a single ticket. A native of Silver Spring, he lives in California now but was back on business. He has been coming to Caps games for 25 years.

“I’ve been here seven minutes. I got one ticket for $20—that’s my safety ticket. Now I’m looking for better seats. I get $75, $95 tickets for $20,” he said.

I saw another man, sporting a red cap pulled low over dark glasses, accompanied by a younger woman, work his way through the crowd, exchanging greetings with the scalpers. D.A. from Alexandria is a regular.

“I always buy them on the street,” he said. “But you have to be careful, [or] they’ll try and get you. But I’m a teacher from Alexandria, they’re straight with me.” As we talked, he pointed out the scalpers he knew. “George is my man, but that motherfuc—mothersticker, he’ll get you.”

While George scolded D.A. for saying his name, the teacher explained that he wanted to exchange two tickets for three. “I try and get tickets for the kids and the families,” he said.

Two police cars are parked across the street, down a ways, and one bike cop stands bored at the corner, watching fans stream by the scalpers. When asked about the discrepancy in enforcement, Assistant Chief Patrick Burke wrote in an e-mail, “As ticket scalping is illegal, we want to send a strong message that it will not be tolerated … We have been very proactive at the Verizon Center as well.” Traci Hughes, the MPD spokesperson, added that “The Department enforces all District laws. Police may use their discretion regarding issuing a ticket, but all law[s] are enforced.”

Then one of the scalpers loudly asked, “What’s this white car? What’s this white car?” Turning, I saw a white sedan, a Crown Victoria with three antennas, idling by the sidewalk. As the scalpers stopped what they were doing to watch the car, the driver sped away. I recalled the mustached cop from the Nationals game, who told me that “The police know [about scalping], and they can do something about it. The Verizon Center knows, and they could do something about it.”

Sheila Francis, the public relations director at the Verizon Center, told me it was up to MPD to enforce the law. Washington Sports and Entertainment, which owns Verizon, “does everything we can to encourage fans to buy tickets through Ticketmaster.” Washington Sports and Entertainment also owns the local Ticketmaster franchise.

Half an hour after the puck dropped, the thinning crowd outside led to increased competition among the scalpers. While some were working together, others clearly weren’t, surrounding buyers and trying to cut in on business. Sometimes it seemed like this was a negotiating ploy, but other times it seemed more serious. One confrontation sent an angry scalper spinning away, shouting, “You’re the one who’s jumping into shit, motherfucker!”

Eyes wide shut: D.C. Police tend to ignore scalpers at work.

The slow business gave me a chance to converse more with the scalpers. They told me they were just small fry. “Write about StubHub! They made $20 million last year!” one scalper, Lou, said. StubHub, essentially a legalized, online scalping service (one which partners with many major sports enterprises, including our own Georgetown Hoyas) does make a lot of money doing on a larger scale what scalpers do on sidewalks. StubHub made nearly $200 million in revenue in 2006, while a scalper who makes a few grand is having a great week.

It fits. The scalpers cater to an industry that makes a lot of money doing on a grand scale what most people grow up doing in yards or on sidewalks: sports. The next time I visit the Nats’ new home, I hope there are scalpers waiting.

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