The sidelines of the ACC: Ticket Scalping
It’s about an hour before the opening tip of the 2006 ACC Men’s Basketball tournament, and a crowd of men mill around a grass jetty that extends into the parking lot of the Greensboro Coliseum. Its almost noon and getting warm enough to roll up sleeves, save the strong gusts of winter’s kicking and screaming exit.
In the midst of a howler, a man dressed in a barely broken-in CIAA ball cap, sweats and a NASCAR lanyard clipped to a sign reading ‘“I NEED TICKETS’” slips a cigarette between his lips. He fans a handful of tickets next to his face, triggers a plastic lighter and ignites the business end.
Another fellow, dressed in a white T-shirt and blue sweatpants, dodges and weaves through the growing crowd. He leans toward the man with the sign.
‘“What’ll you give me for this?’” he says and flashes about a half-dozen tickets for today’s games.
‘“Nothing,’” the first man spits out alongside a plume of blue-gray smoke.
‘“Okay, well now we ain’t talking no more,’” says the skinnier guy, who hasn’t even broken stride during the failed transaction.
The first day of the ACC tournament is slow. Real slow. The professional ticket scalpers have laid claim to the manicured terminus of the Coliseum entrance ramp that stretches into the asphalt lot like a lolling tongue.
But this morning they’re surrounded by the fans of the North Carolina teams that won’t play until tomorrow trying to unload individual tickets for the first and second sessions. Today’s lineup doesn’t bode well for the professionals out here. Wake Forest is the only North Carolina team scheduled to play today, and their disappointing regular season has punctured some of their fans’ enthusiasm.
‘“We’re Carolina grads selling off our extras,’” says John, an Atlanta resident looking fairly collegiate this afternoon in a Tar Heel shirt and Birkenstocks. His companion, Amy, lives in Washington, DC and this is the first ACC tournament either has attended.
‘“It is prohibitively expensive to come every year,’” John says. He got his ticket book from Gotickets.com, one of a number of online ticket brokers peddling the tickets in some cases for more than three times the face value in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
‘“If we can get any money we’re coming out ahead,’” he says.
Right now the pair is trying to get face value, which is $66 for a session of two games, but has already settled for much less. They sold a ticket for tonight’s event, featuring matchups between Virginia and Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech and Maryland, for $20.
Today is a buyer’s market, and not just for the fans from as far away as Miami, who might get only one shot at seeing their school take the court at the Greensboro Coliseum. Entire tournament books, bought on a whim for friends and family who, for some reason or another, couldn’t make the trek down to the tournament, are on the auction block. And the fans are selling them at face value.
This is where speculation comes in. Scalping is a grift equal parts Vegas and Wall Street. And according to North Carolina General Statutes chapter 14-344 it’s an illegal one.
Any person, firm, or corporation shall be allowed to add a reasonable service fee to the face value of the tickets sold, and the person, firm, or corporation which sells or resells such tickets shall not be permitted to recoup funds greater than the combined face value of the ticket, tax, and the authorized service fee.’ This service fee may not exceed three dollars ($3.00) for each ticket ‘…’ Any person, firm or corporation which sells or offers to sell a ticket for a price greater than the price permitted by this section shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.
The sprawling campus of the Greensboro Coliseum is colonized during tournament week by the scalpers, food vendors and merchants who roam public events like Bedouins of economic opportunism. The latter set tent poles, dust off the tarps and finally secure the completed huts to pegs driven into concrete. Then they post their bill of fare.
Stepping into their circle ‘– demarcated by police presence and rows of cones ‘– is like teleporting from the sleepy South to upscale Manhattan, with worse beer. By Thursday, the $6 domestic has officially invaded the land of the cut-rate double deuce.
The population of this terrain consists mostly of middle-aged and retired couples robed in extra-large shirts advertising their alma mater. A sizable minority comes here to preen, party and heckle the losers. Although tickets to the tournament are distributed exclusively to the 12 schools belonging to the conference, the appearance of the crowd suggest that few of these find their way into student hands. Indeed, a ticket to the tourney has come to symbolize status more than spirit, one Duke fan says.
In what is known as BACCOURT, an outdoor collection of beer tents, food carts and a mobile stage, a band resembling local high school music faculty is performing milquetoast renditions of soul classics. A few early birds watch disinterestedly. A visored fan strolls by holding a plastic cup filled with bloody Mary and topped off with a leafy celery rib.
In the middle of this fairway a huge screen broadcasts the action on the court. The channel is devoted exclusively to the ACC tournament. Up on the screen, the players, already several inches taller on average than you or me, are giants. Each ponderous bounce taken on the free throw line rings out like a cannon shot.
One employee, dressed in neutral blacks and whites, leans against a cooler housing those precious brews.
‘“I used to work at Charleston Crab House,’” he says, referring to the recently closed restaurant ‘“until last week. And I just bought a new car the week before that.’”
His old boss knew someone at the Coliseum, pulled a few strings. So, here he is, eyeing the game alongside three customers who are easing into a long weekend of college hoops. He hopes to parlay the temporary gig into something more permanent, but right now he’s willing to ride the wave of economic impact as far as it will take him.
Like everyone else, he’s expecting an uptick in business over the next two days. When asked if he’s a basketball fan, he nods.
‘“Oh yeah,’” he says, ‘“I love it.’”
In fact, he was a little relieved by his termination, because it freed him up to watch basketball all week long. Despite his economic concerns, he says he’d still rather be watching the game on his couch, drinking cheap beer from the corner store. Still, it’s slow and he’s got a good view of the screen, so working the tourney is a decent compromise.
The band packs away their instruments during the game and the scalpers have retreated from the grass and shade trees to a folding table set with saltines. A few haven’t seen each other since the Super Bowl. They trade slaps on the back all around and call each other ‘“Chief’” and ‘“Bud.’”
Theirs is an underground economy that surfaces at every major sporting event and concert. Unlike other black market trades, they are hamstrung more by the market today than by the police. At the outset of this tournament, with 12 teams in play, their future is uncertain, riding more on wins and losses than a contracted coach.
They are thinking three days down the line, to the outcome all of them are hoping for.
By Friday Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have all packed their gym bags, loaded charter buses and headed back home. Eight teams ‘– including underdog Wake Forest, the closest school to Greensboro ‘– still have a shot at grabbing the tournament crown.
Trading in the scalpers’ yard is as heavy as the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Two monied-looking Duke fans peel off 12 twenties to secure a pair of lower-level tickets to see their boys play.
The scalpers themselves are speculating, buying the extras for cheap off disgruntled fans. How the eight teams winnow down to two will determine their profits. As the first session of two games starts at noon, the crowd thins.
‘“Business is brisk, business is very brisk,’” says one scalper, dressed respectably in a buttery button-down and black slacks.
Yesterday was ‘“bad, very very bad,’” in his words.
‘“We didn’t have any North Carolina teams,’” he says. ‘“Well, we had Wake Forest, but other than that’…
‘“The market goes up and down and I live and die for it,’” he says. Or by it. Yesterday you couldn’t give tickets away.
This scalper’s been to car races, Super Bowls, all-star games.
‘“Whatever there’s a ticket for.’”
It pays his bills and then some. ‘“All ends are meeting there,’” he says.
He keeps his answers deliberately vague, bartering each nugget of information and always keeps an eye out for potential customers. When asked about his supply chain, he scoffs.
‘“These old guys, they know what they’re doing,’” he says. ‘“They get us in the games. Students participate with us, sure. We work hand in hand.’”
A couple seeking tickets in his line of sight is intercepted by another scalper, and he launches off his cardboard box seat before I can get his name.
‘“Man, they were talking to me,’” he prevaricates, confronting his fellow scalper.
Wadood is another scalper selling outside the entrance to the refugee-camp looking tent labeled ACC Fanfest. He started scalping 35 years ago, at 10 years old when a friend gave him a ticket to a basketball game. He flipped it and never looked back.
‘“It just progressed, I started doing it more and more,’” he says. ‘“I wanted to work for a living, but I really couldn’t ‘cos I didn’t have an education. I started doing drugs, and scalping tickets was a way I could pay for my next high. Six years ago I stopped using drugs, but I just kept selling tickets. I been doing it so long it just became a force of habit.’”
He’s gotten in trouble with the police before. Sometimes they just issue a citation, other times they take your tickets or your money.
‘“It’s pretty much wide open here,’” he says. But if people start selling tickets for $200 or something, that’s when they crack down. You can make a lot of money, sure, but you can lose it too.
‘“Ticket brokers, ticket scalpers, it’s all pretty much the same kind of work. Some folks just got some phone numbers,’” he says. ‘“Some of us are just making a little bit more money. I myself, I’m just a scalper, a ticket scalper.’”
‘“Is that all you need to know?’” he shoots over his already distant shoulder. It’s about half past noon, and the scalpers disperse until 5 p.m., two hours before the start of the second session.
On Saturday the speculation is still going strong. Three of the four teams left in the tournament hail from North Carolina and, inexplicably, Wake Forest is one of them. Their presence boosts ticket sales today, but profit margins demand that the scalpers root against them in their semifinal game against Duke.
Today the crowd trading and selling tickets has some company, a mobile command center staffed by Greensboro Police parked catty corner to their home base. The stepped-up police presence has driven some scalpers further into the parking lot, where they weave between the baking cars.
A State and Carolina fan from Winston-Salem bought himself a ticket for $20, a windfall acquisition from expanding the league to 12 teams.
‘“It used to be that only one team was eliminated on Thursday,’” he says, ‘“but now there’s four. So you have a lot more fans selling their tickets.’”
There’s murmuring about undercover police, and gestures toward a pair of Mr. Clean Miami fans. Still, fans who need tickets demonstrate their demand with fingers raised silently in the air. Those selling keep their voices a little lower. Prices range from $20 for upper deck to over $100 for the best seats.
Up on High Point Road, a couple of scalpers have pasted the vacant Canada Dry parking lot with signs for their ticket business. When I approach one is napping in the back of a Cadillac and the other urges me to come back around 1:30, tip off time for the game and drop off time for their business.
When I return the clouds have moved in and so have the cops. A skinny fellow with a young face but preternaturally deep voice tells me I should move along. Safety orange traffic vest aside, the man in the dress blues is all business.
Sadly for Demon Deacons fans, their Cinderella story comes to naught. But the Duke victory cements half the dream matchup that registers dollar signs in the eyes of scalpers taking refuge from a sudden rainstorm underneath a beer tent. All eyes train on the giant screen.
Around 7 p.m., I find myself back at the Coliseum. The sun has dropped and the asphalt is as black and shiny as onyx.
A Carolina fan, portly and pouting, holds his tickets to the final game above his head as he walks through the vacant lot. It’s less a pitch than a declaration.
The mood on the lawn is similarly down.
‘“I got five-dollar tickets,’” says one. ‘“Tickets for five dollars.’”
‘“Man, damn Tar Heels,’” another says. He turns to me. ‘“I got fired this week from my job. I got a wife, two kids.’”
‘“Actually I had fun today,’” another scalper says. He got wise, didn’t gamble and sold all his tickets for a modest profit. He appears to be the only one in the pack who wagered on Boston College.
The family man keeps talking and trying to sell off the tickets he has.
‘“Never turn down a profit. If you buy for five, sell for 10. If you buy for 10, sell for 20. Who cares? Its just entertainment anyway.’” He finishes and throws up his hands.
At the edge of the parking lot, the smell of grilling meat comes from a tent housing a stalwart group of tailgaters. It’s stitched from red tarp, wrapped in steam, smoke and laughter.
For the final game of the tournament, I arrive determined to get in on the action. I’m a rube despite my observations, and I spend $25 for an upper level seat. Wadood places it in my hand, a ticket cut from card stock, creased in the middle and dog-eared from a trip through countless pockets. Its origin is as mysterious to me as it was when I set out on this journey four days ago.
Business, since Carolina lost, has been bad, Wadood says. Later on I watch fans give away their upper level tickets.
One scalper built like a toadstool answers calls on his Bluetooth while desperately unloading today’s tickets.
‘“Don’t think that everybody out here with signs is scalping,’” he says. ‘“A lot of them’s just fans. You need to interview me and ‘…’”
He trails off trying to point to a colleague who’s disappeared in the crowd. Then he thinks better of talking to me himself and paces out into the parking lot.
‘“It’s been a loss for sure,’” is all he says. But he’ll be in Tampa next year. Big Dogs is stitched into the back of his baseball hat. ‘“It’s a lot of savvy involved. Obviously I don’t have any because I haven’t sold many tickets. But some of these other guys have.’”
Be sure to tell them there’s always tickets, another scalper tells me. Tell ’em to come out, to come on, there’s always, always tickets.
And with that they wrap it up, place petty bets with each other on the teams tipping off as we speak. A few of the young scalpers wrestle and push and the older ones walk slowly up that long ramp.
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org