That's the Ticket!

Denver's pro-sports scalpers got game.

The two tickets in the scalper's hands are so hot he should be wearing oven mitts.

They read: "Oakland Raiders v. Denver Broncos, Monday, September 22, Section 104, Row 8." Way down low, on the forty-yard line. Face value: $78 each.

The scalper is demanding $500 for the pair. And one hour before kickoff of the sold-out, Monday Night Football televised game between the Broncos and their long-hated rivals, his price is absolutely, positively non-negotiable. A dude in his late teens offers him $280, and the scalper recoils as if the prospective buyer just belched onions.

"I only went to eighth grade," he says, leaning close, growling in the guy's face, "but you look like a college kid, so why don't you walk around a little, open your eyes and learn. I don't want to school you, but you need to be schooled."

The scalper is short, portly and white, with a white beard. He's wearing a Shannon Sharpe jersey and the smile of a jackal about to feed. He raises his tickets high and shouts, "Who needs the best?"

He is standing in the parking lot on the southeast corner of Dick Connor Avenue and Federal Boulevard, ground zero for scalpers outside Broncos games. The lot, where it costs $40 just to park, is jammed with dozens of scalpers and buyers, haggling over prices and cutting deals. Thousands of dollars change hands in speedy illegal transactions. The underground, cash-only economy of pro sports ticket scalping is a $600-million-a-year gray market, and Denver's four-team niche is thriving.

"I got two at 200 each. They low, real low. For 200 a pop, I'll put you on ESPN tonight."

"I got standing-room uppers for 125. Your nose may bleed, but you'll have money left for beer. Come on, I'll go two for 200, who's down?"

"You wanna be a player tonight? I got a single, fifty-yard line, 22 rows up, for 400 dollars. You want to see which of those cheerleader titties are real? Four hundred dollars!"

It's a seller's market outside this game. Scalped tickets are briskly changing hands for three to five times their face value. Although it's a crime in Denver to sell tickets for more than face value, the uniformed police officers directing traffic nearby appear to pay the conspicuous criminal activity no mind. They're certainly making no arrests.

The scalpers are an equal-opportunity coalition of African-Americans, Caucasians and Hispanics, with a couple of Native Americans and one crew of three Southeast Asians. They range in maturity from draft age to retirement age. And they are all making money, tax-free.

Fifteen minutes before kickoff, the buyers are panicking, and tempers are short. "Fuck all y'all, trying to sell me a ticket for 250 goddamn dollars," howls one dissatisfied customer, who is elderly, has a huge Afro, and is stumbling and slurring, apparently inebriated. "I'm gonna take my black ass down there --," he flings a hand toward Invesco Field at Mile High, two blocks away, " -- and find one my own damn self."

He wobbles off to the derisive laughter and taunts of scalpers wearing gold chains.

"Take your drunk ass down there, faggot!"

"You'll be back, bitch!"

As soon as the game begins, the prices start to drop. By the time the Broncos score their first of four touchdowns against the Raiders, prompting a volley of fireworks six minutes into the first quarter, most of the scalpers have reduced their asking price by a third or more.

Two white guys, both with beards, both dressed in Broncos jerseys, both listening to the game over earphones attached to radios clipped to belts holding in their beach-ball bellies, show up on scalpers' corner. They're old hands at this game. One holds up a hand with two $100 bills in it and bellows, "I'm buying! Two, a hundred each! You're going to be eating them soon, guys! They're gonna be worthless paper! Come on, who wants to make a little money? Two, a hundred each! I'm buying!"

Within minutes, the two latecomers have scored two lower-level seats for 240 bucks, $160 less than pairs of similar seats were going for only twenty minutes earlier.

Near the end of the first quarter, true to prediction, the "Fuck all y'all" guy with the Afro comes trudging back up the hill, ready to negotiate the terms of his surrender. "All right, then, you greedy, lowdown, mean-ass motherfuckers," he says. "I need one."

Next door to the parking lot, in the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie Number 2063, where the game is on the big screen and huge glass windows overlook Invesco, a scalper named Henry is drinking Screwdrivers and counting his money.

Henry says he's a Teamster and makes good money at his day job. Scalping is strictly a sideline. "I've been working this hustle since McNichols was right there," he says, pointing out the windows toward where Denver's old basketball arena once stood.

Henry has long black hair, graying at the temples, pulled back in a ponytail. He's missing his two front teeth and is wearing a Broncos jersey bearing the number 93, that of bone-crushing defensive end Trevor Pryce.

Folded on the table in front of him is a cardboard sign with hand lettering in black marker that reads "I Need Tickets." It's the scalper's mantra.

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