Welcome to the Hard-Knock Life of a Sonics Ticket Scalper

Ever try to sell ice to an Eskimo?

As a busker slowly blows the closing notes of What Child Is This? from his tuba and a few of the city's remaining Sonics fans saunter toward KeyArena on a cold December night, a ticket scalper has finally reached the end of his rope, storming after a group of six or seven men who have refused to sell him their spare ticket. "You know what? Fuck you guys!" he screams, spreading his arms wide in an invitation to throw down. "Someday you're gonna need some fuckin' tickets when it's sold out!" The men walk away, smiling sheepishly at each other and looking over their shoulders for the irate scalper. They have the appearance generally associated with high-tech workers—bespectacled, plainly dressed, and alternately short and round or tall and gangly. In his small, schoolmasterly glasses and crisp jeans, the scalper looks similarly disinclined to public confrontations. "We don't do business with scalpers," explains Pete, the most talkative of the men. "We're regular people." But scalpers are regular people, too. Yet the market within which they operate is a little like elevator flatulence: an uncomfortable, open secret that no one wants to acknowledge. Asked about the guys selling tickets outside the arena, Sonics public relations director Tom Savage declines to comment. And the scalpers, despite their eagerness to complain about the soft market, are loath to provide even their first names. People's reluctance to go on the record or, short of that, provide full names belies the fact that scalping is legal, or at least it can be. In 2004, a King County judge ruled that the Seattle Police Department couldn't enforce scalping prohibition laws against sellers in the street and not do the same to the Seattle Mariners, who were operating a resale market on their Web site and charging commission on those sales. The Seattle City Council responded by making the resale of tickets legal for everyone but promoters, sponsors, venues, or contractors affiliated with all of the above. Regular sellers are supposed to get a business license from the city's Department of Executive Administration, which estimates that it issues 15 to 20 annually for that specific purpose. An additional license is required to conduct commercial activity on Seattle Center grounds, though Center officials maintain the curious position that scalping is illegal, as commercial activity is prohibited in public parks (wonder how they feel about the Center House Pizza Haven?). Nevertheless, the Center leaves enforcement to the cops, who scalpers say only occasionally request that they move a few yards further from arena entrances and ticket windows. For a moment on a cold December night, it appears as though a Center security guard, an old, white guy with a wry demeanor, might have some words for a scalper who'd just engaged in some negotiations not far from his booth. "Hey, Edgar," the guard shouts. "Edgar!" Edgar B., a tall, black man with an easy smile and a broad face that shows his 25 years of standing in all weather to sell tickets, turns and grins. "I got a new shipment of that Viagra, Edgar," says the rent-a-cop. "How 'bout a couple tickets for some Viagra?" Edgar walks over to the guard and, after a minute or two of mock haggling, returns to his previous spot, having failed to sell tickets or acquire any drugs for erectile dysfunction. The lack of transaction is fitting, something Edgar notes as he provides his assessment of this year's market. "It's horrible," he says. As if they'd received talking points, nearly every scalper offers the same analysis, showing off inch-thick stacks of tickets for the night's game and making the peculiarly proud declaration: "There's no way I'll sell these." Edgar and "Ticket Mike," who claim to have been in the business for 25 and 30 years, respectively, both assert that this year is the worst they've ever seen. Barring a dramatic change in the Sonics' fortunes, most say they'll be taking a loss this season. (Scalpers insure themselves against such deficits through diversification; Edgar also sells Seahawks tickets and throwback jerseys.) Edgar says he bought most of his tickets before the season at face value, which seems a little strange for an experienced seller going into a season with a team whose youth and uncertain future may dampen turnout. But he says the practice has served him well. How he acquires so many, given that the team limits how many tickets can be purchased at once, he declines to fully explain. (Other scalpers had stacks of complimentary tickets sold by a marketing firm that has contracted with the Sonics to include them in their coupon books.) However, it's been widely reported that scalpers hire people to stand in line for them; in New York, a report by the attorney general's office detailed instances of scalpers hiring the homeless for this task. The one market scalpers speak of favorably is Craigslist, which doesn't charge a commission for peer-to-peer sales. Craigslist can be good for buying low or unloading tickets when you know you won't be able to sell them all in person, explains Nate, a young scalper whose Chris Wilcox–style braids poke out from beneath the hood of his parka. Still, of the 139 Sonics posts in the Craigs-list tickets section, only 4 percent were looking to buy. (By contrast, roughly 16 percent of the Seahawks tickets postings were from prospective buyers.) "We're just trying to make our money back," says Edgar, noting that the day-to-day buying and selling won't make up for the loss on initial investment. "Everybody's losing money." Indeed, while in a good year, scalpers don't go into fire sale mode until starting lineups are announced, countless seats have been selling at less than half of face value more than 20 minutes before each game. The Sonics Team Shop is one of only two official venues where you can buy tickets without a service charge, and yet at its doorstep on any given game night, you can find a group of men in parkas taking calls on their cell phones and conspicuously waving tickets in the air—and the store's employees don't seem too concerned as a handful of fans purchase tickets from the scalpers before entering the store to browse. Here, you could make the argument that everyone stands to benefit from scalping. When the secondary market puts fans in seats that would otherwise remain empty, teams see an increase in concessions, merchandising, and various other revenues. Having recognized the benefits of a secondary market, professional franchises have shrewdly moved in for a piece of the action. To wit, the Seahawks have partnered with RazorGator to facilitate ticket resales, other NFL teams have chosen StubHub, and ESPN.com writer Gregg Easterbrook recently argued that it's only a matter of time before professional teams cut out the middlemen and begin auctioning tickets themselves. The Sonics, per a uniform NBA agreement, direct fans who wish to sell their tickets to Ticketmaster, which facilitates peer-to-peer sales. Ticketmaster and the Sonics get a commission on these sales, though according to Savage, the Sonics aren't realizing a profit from such transactions—yet. "The nominal fee is used to support the technology and service," he says, though "at some point, if volume increases, it could be a profit center." Savage also points out that, because of its access to the Sonics ticket database, Ticketmaster is better positioned than any other vendor to prevent the fraudulent sales that sometimes victimize scalpers' clientele. Seemingly undeterred by such backhanded acknowledgments of their profession's viability, Edgar and his cohorts remain outside before every home game, bundled against the cold, trying anything to sell a ticket. "Buy a ticket and I'll buy your beer. I will walk in with you right now and buy you a beer....You don't need those seats....These are down courtside, where people like you belong." news@seattleweekly.com Damon Agnos covers the Sonics for the Weekly's Buzzer Beater sports blog (seattleweekly.com/buzzerbeater).

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