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.
"There's different ways to be a scalper," Henry explains. "With a game like tonight, where you know it's going to be a big-time game, Broncos versus Raiders, Monday Night Football, right? We call that a hot ticket. And with hot tickets, scalping is all about human nature and preparation. Because all you have to do is look at the Broncos schedule and say to yourself, 'Raiders, Monday Night Football, gonna be a hot ticket.' So then you round up all your friends, and you have them all buy as many tickets as they can at face value, and that's your investment. And then when game day rolls around, you make money off that investment, because with hot tickets, scalping is all about making money off people who don't have their shit together. If you want to see the big game, you better get your shit together and buy a ticket in advance. Otherwise, you're going to have to pay."
"The Folly of Anti-Scalping Laws," a study released last year by the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank, describes scalpers as "simply time brokers who perform a useful service."
"The secondary market [in sports tickets] occurs because seats are sold in advance of events," the Cato paper reads. "When a line is expected, ticket scalpers are present because time may not be a readily available commodity for some purchasers. Those buyers would prefer to pay with money instead of time."
But not all the tickets Henry scalped tonight were purchased months before. The true hustler, the purist, shows up outside of a game with no tickets in hand, just a cardboard sign and a money roll.
"A lot of the scalpers tonight, they're road crews, man; they're in from Vegas, L.A., Dallas," Henry says. "They follow the money, and they'll have two guys out there with signs, buying low and then running tickets to the guys in the parking lot, who sell high. They're tough competitors. Me, I'm strictly independent, but once I sold my advance-purchase tickets, I took that money and went out by the freeway ramp with my sign and made another 200 in about an hour, buying low, selling high."
Henry riffles through the bills in his wallet, then winks. "Capitalism, man, that's what it's all about."
For scalpers, one trick of the trade takes advantage of the ignorance, or the arrogance, or both, of many ticket-holders who arrive at a game with extra tickets they're looking to unload. They either have no concept of what those tickets are worth on the open market or consider it beneath their dignity to stand on a street corner and hawk them. Whatever their motive, the reality was that these suburbanites unloading their extra tickets on Henry for 20 or 30 bucks each were essentially giving him 20 bucks or more a ticket -- because he turned around and resold them for $50 or $60 each a few minutes later.
But if Henry's sign had said "Hungry and cold, need help" instead of "I need tickets," they probably wouldn't have given him a dime.
When Denver Broncos single-game tickets first went on sale to the general public in early August, the scalpers attacked. Some of them hired "droids" to get in line at the box office early that morning. These droids, or "diggers," many of them homeless, then bought four seats each, the most any individual can purchase, for all the games their scalper employers gambled on being hot tickets.
Other scalpers snapped up tickets by phone, using multiple lines, speed dialers and credit cards with different names and billing addresses in order to circumvent restrictions on the number of tickets allowed a single person.
"It's pretty funny, you know; you're calling so often, you're never sure if you're getting the same operator, so you have to keep changing your voice," says Jeremy, a local scalper who's been in the game two years. "Usually I'll do the phone sales from home and then hire five or six droids, because at the box office, they sell a few half-price tickets, and you can't lose there. Well, actually, you can, but it's harder."
Scalping's a gamble, especially if the scalpers are buying large quantities of tickets for a single game in advance. There's no guarantee they'll even recoup their investment. They're betting on the health of star players, on the home team's mid-season record, even on the weather.
Buyers are gambling as well. They're betting the tickets are authentic, first of all, since a small minority of scalpers deal in counterfeit or stolen season tickets, which are caught by the bar-code scanners at venue entry points. Mostly, though, buyers are gambling on the actual entertainment value of the game they're paying to see, especially if they're paying more than face value. They're taking a gamble that it will be worth it.
Scalped tickets to the Raiders game are outrageously expensive, but the game itself is not very good. The Broncos are ahead 21-0 by the end of the first quarter and end up winning 31-10. Still, some Broncos fans might argue that witnessing the Raiders get pummeled with such mercilessness is priceless.
Exactly six weeks after the Raiders game, the Denver Broncos again play a home game on Monday Night Football. But this time, the scalping action is colder than the ice fog shrouding the stadium. Starting quarterback Jake Plummer is injured, same as his backup Steve Beuerlein, putting the team in the hands of a hapless third-stringer. The Broncos are on a three-game losing streak, and few fans or Vegas odds-makers expect them to beat the New England Patriots, a team local that fans don't love to hate like they do the Raiders, further reducing the game's marquee value.
In the stadium parking lot, a lone scalper lies in wait for RTD Broncos Ride buses. For the Raiders game, there had been seven. "Tickets," he mutters halfheartedly to the fans getting off the buses. "Any extras?" Getting no play, he tugs the hood of his gray sweatshirt over his head, blows on his hands to warm them, and hikes up Dick Connor to scalpers' corner.
There, tickets with $60 face values are selling for $20 each. Single, lower-level tickets with $78 face values -- which outside the Raiders game went for as much as $250 each -- are selling slowly at 40 bucks.
The scalpers are overstocked and dumping tickets.
"I've been doing this twenty years, and this is the worst I've ever seen for a Broncos game on Monday night," says Bob, a "ticket seller" (scalpers don't like being called "scalpers") who's based in Salt Lake City, where he owns an independent ticket brokerage.
Scalpers who had gambled on tickets purchased in advance, a ploy that paid off big-time for the Raiders game, are now bleeding money. Those who are strictly working the buy-and-sell, on-site, "I Need Tickets" angle are mostly just wasting their time, buying upper-level seats off fans with extras for five or ten bucks, then struggling to resell them. They're lucky to realize ten bucks off each transaction and aren't moving enough volume to make any serious money.
"The cold's keeping a lot of people home, Plummer's not playing -- it's bad," says Bob (scalpers don't like to give out their last names, either). "A lot of guys are losing money tonight. I'm going to be lucky to make back my travel costs. It's just not a good night for us."
By kickoff, the scalpers are letting upper-level seats go for $20 a pair, which is $36 less than face value. The fans get a good game for their buck: At halftime, the Broncos are ahead 17-13. Outside the stadium, the impish white-bearded scalper who'd schooled the college kid six weeks earlier is walking in circles around the perimeter of the stadium, collar turned up against the cold, breath freezing, desperately soliciting stragglers: "Need one? Need one? Cheap."
He has the shivering, nerve-torn look of a guy who's losing his ass at the same time he's freezing it off.
Section 7-294 of the Denver Municipal Code: "It shall be unlawful for any person to sell or offer to sell, at a higher price than the price printed thereon, any ticket of admission to any athletic event or theatrical entertainment to which the general public may gain admission."
Denver's anti-scalping law was passed in 1950, a time when many cities and states across the country were enacting the first widespread prohibitions against scalping. The growth in per capita income after World War II, along with the increasing popularity of collegiate and professional sporting events, had led to a surge in demand for tickets. More and more colleges and professional teams began selling season-ticket packages, sharply reducing the supply of good seats for single games. That gave rise to scalping and, in turn, anti-scalping laws.
Today, 22 states have laws that prohibit scalping. Colorado does not. It is perfectly legal to resell tickets for any price anywhere in this state -- except in Denver. This is not unusual: Thirteen other big-time sports cities in the United States and Canada, including Atlanta, Seattle, St. Louis, Green Bay, Kansas City and Edmonton, have municipal ordinances against scalping in states and provinces where the practice is otherwise permitted.
"It's a damn erosion of our civil liberties that it's illegal anywhere," says Tom, a Denver scalper. "This is America, and scalping is free trade."
On Saturday, November 15, Tom is standing on the balcony of the coffeehouse outside the Pepsi Center, holding a fistful of tickets and a laminated sign with the basketball-and-hockey arena's seating chart on one side and the standard "I Need Tickets" message on the other.
It is 45 minutes until the face-off between the Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche. Tom is impatiently waiting for a customer who'd agreed over the phone to pay him $150 for a single ticket, center ice, eighteen rows off the glass. The face value on the piece of paper is $128.
Although Tom is breaking the law in Denver, he isn't exactly stealthy or repentant. Hopping with a natural go-getter's energy and dressed all in red to draw the buyers, he freely hands out business cards bearing his mobile-phone number and the message "Personalized Ticket Arranging: Buy, Sell, Trade, Upgrade. In Advance or Up to Game Time."
"This is the first time all year I'm selling hockey tickets for more than face," he says. "The Stars are big rivalry, so it's a big-money night. The Red Wings will be, too. Hockey and football are mostly the only sports where you'll have tickets going for more than face, although it absolutely has to be the right team on the right night. The truth is, most of the time we buy for less than face and sell for less than face. But we're all businessmen out here. We're trying to get the most we can get for our product. And if the most we can get is more than face value, then, come on, you know we're going to take it.
"You know what law I believe in? Supply and demand."
According to the Cato Institute report, "Enforcement of all types of scalping regulations are sporadic and arbitrary. Large numbers of police officers are needed at major events to round up on-site scalpers. But it is difficult to prosecute scalpers because most people purchasing tickets from scalpers see no reason to testify against them."
While the uniformed police officers who direct traffic outside sporting events typically do not enforce the city's anti-scalping ordinance, the Denver Police Department does conduct sting operations, according to Detective John White, DPD spokesman. "We enforce the ordinance," he says. "We do have officers working in an undercover capacity during these types of events that are looking for individuals who are selling tickets for more than face value. In cases where scalping is occurring, those individuals, if caught, are arrested and prosecuted."
Paul Andrews, the Pepsi Center's senior vice president of ticket sales and operations, says the venue and the teams that play there periodically hire off-duty officers to work undercover among the scalpers. "We do it randomly," he says, "and hire them to try to buy from the guys across the street. If the offer's more than face value, the officers cuff them and take them in."
Yet the more than thirty scalpers interviewed for this article -- all of whom have been selling tickets on the streets for at least a full season of each of the four major Denver sports teams -- all say that being cited for scalping is not a great concern. They view it as an occupational hazard, like being passed counterfeit money or mugged for their tickets by a snatch-and-run thief.
"Not saying that I've personally been busted, but I can tell you that being taken in for scalping is pure bullshit," Tom says. "They take you to jail, you bond out in five or six hours for a hundred bucks, and you wind up paying a $50 or $60 fine. It's nothing but a minor inconvenience."
And it's no deterrent. Tom quit his day job selling cars two years ago to become a full-time scalper, he says, and he loves this work. "I make a little less money than I used to, but I work about ten hours a week, maximum," he says. "I do nothing for a living, basically. I'm my own boss. And if I ever want to go to a game, I know where to get great seats."
According to the Cato Institute study, which surveyed professional sports-team owners across the country, "team owners dislike scalpers for a number of reasons. When excess capacity exists and scalpers are outside the stadium selling tickets for below face value, owners complain about the loss of revenue from the seats they are offering for sale at the box office that are going unsold because consumers are buying tickets from scalpers. When tickets are sold by scalpers well above face value, owners complain about receiving none of the profit."
The Pepsi Center's Andrews echoes those owners: "We don't think it's right for a broker or a ticket seller or whatever they want to call themselves to profit off the success of our teams."
Scalping is hardly a victimless crime, according to Andrews: "The families that want to go to a game are basically held hostage by these guys, and it just doesn't feel right," he says. "So I'm not a big fan of scalping, and we as an organization are not a big fan of it.
"There are so many things most people don't realize about what goes on out there," he continues. "For example, a lot of the tickets these guys have are not authentic tickets. We probably get six to ten fans a night who show up with tickets they think are valid, and once they get it to the scanner, the scanner shows 'Ticket not valid, come to box office.' Then we have a patron in front of us who basically tells us, 'Well, I bought them from this guy outside on the street, and they look real to me.' And we have to say, 'Well, yeah, they look real, but we have a season-ticket holder who provided us with a report the week before that his tickets were stolen from his desk. And whoever stole the tickets sold them to the guy who sold them outside our building to Joe Public, and now Joe Public is out 400 bucks. And when you have a family who spent that kind of money only to find out their tickets are stolen, it's tragic."
To combat scalping, this season the Avalanche launched its Prime Seat Club, a Web site where Avalanche tickets purchased in advance are resold online for exactly face value -- no less, no more. Access to the club is free to season-ticket holders, who supply nearly all the extra tickets; anyone else must pay $100 per season to reach the site.
Smelling an untapped market, Ticketmaster recently began partnering with pro sports teams to launch similar season-ticket resale sites. And increasingly, other Web sites like Stub Hub and Liquid Tickets are moving in on the street scalper's action. On these sites, as well as on eBay, there are no restrictions on pricing. Last week, Stub Hub was offering $42 face-value seats to the January 7 Denver Nuggets game against the Los Angeles Lakers, probably the hottest pro-basketball ticket in Denver this year, for $86 each. In recent history, Nuggets tickets have never fetched more than twice their face value on the street, not even for the Lakers.
Scalpers argue that the teams should be thanking them, not hassling them: By selling tickets outside the venue, no matter what the price, they're putting butts in the seats. According to scalper logic, the higher the attendance, the more money the teams make on concessions and merchandise inside the venue, where you can't bring your own beer and a Coors Light costs six bucks.
So who's scalping whom?
Among all the scalpers in Denver, Willie stands tall, 6'4" with a thin frame that makes him look even taller. He's hustling outside the Pepsi Center in his long, black-leather coat with a fur collar. On scalpers' corner, he's the man, Sir Mixalot, the Chief Boot Knocker.
"How much you want to spend?" he asks a prospect. (Scalpers always try to get the buyer to name a figure first.) "You won't even make me an offer? Please -- I'm on my knees, begging you. I'll give you five dollars if you just tell me how much you're looking to spend tonight."
To a pair of cute ladies, he says, "You're looking so good, I'll get you in for 50 dollars and a hug."
To a sharply dressed patron who tries to bargain him down, Willie says, "You're walking around here in a camel-hair coat that cost you 800 dollars and you're looking for a deal on uppers? Damn!"
And to anyone looking to buy outside Nuggets games, he says, "Come on, now, you know you gotta pay to see Carmelo."
Carmelo Anthony has been a godsend for the Denver Nuggets box office and, by extension, the hustlers across the street. Single-game ticket sales are up a reported 25 percent over last year, and while scalpers are still letting Nuggets tickets go for less than face value, they're selling them for more than they have in a decade.
Last season, lower-level center-court tickets with $78 face values could be had for as little as $10 each, especially after tip-off. This year, those same tickets are going for $50 or $60.
"Pull out your big-face bills, people, your big-face 50s and 100s, because y'all be paying for Nuggets tickets this year!" a short scalper dressed all in black tells the throngs arriving for the November 7 Nuggets game against the Los Angeles Clippers. "The Sam Goody bargain days are over!"
Every major sporting venue has a scalpers' corner outside, usually the high-traffic intersection closest to the venue's entrance. Sports teams and venue owners prohibit scalpers from doing business on stadium property, but the nearest sidewalk is a public thoroughfare, where trespassing laws cannot be applied.
The highest concentration of scalpers outside Colorado Rockies games can be found at the intersection of 19th and Blake streets. There, at one of the Colorado Rockies' last home games of the season, thirteen baseball fans scored big-time when they all bought luxury-suite tickets off a scalper for a mere $15 a head. The Rockies lost that September 6 game to the Los Angeles Dodgers, badly. But the lucky fans in Suite Six -- which is owned by a subsidiary of the Coors Brewing Company -- couldn't have cared less about the score as they drank all the free beer they wanted, munched on gourmet cheeses and ordered up free pizza after free pizza from a black-tied suite attendant. The fans -- a family of three with one young boy, four Hispanic youths in their late teens and early twenties, and three couples in their thirties and forties -- had all bought their tickets midway through the first inning from a hustler with long white hair. After the game, several of the happy fans each stuffed three or four cans of beer in their pockets (curiously, the Coors suite stocked Budweiser), and one couple absconded with two piping-hot pizzas they proceeded to hand out to homeless kids on the 16th Street Mall.
Outside the Pepsi Center, ground zero is Ninth Street and Chopper Circle, although scalpers with "I Need Tickets" signs usually string all the way down Auraria Parkway to Speer Boulevard.
"It's cooperation out here more than competition," Willie says. "We're all independent, but at the same time, we all work together. We're all constantly talking, finding out who's got what and how much they're going for. I just keep track, and if I can put two guys together with a buyer to make a deal happen, hey, everybody's making money."
Some of the sign holders are members of scalping crews, where labor is divided. Ticket buyers score tickets from motorists; ticket runners shuttle tickets, cash and pricing information back and forth between the sign-waving buyers on the perimeter streets and the ticket sellers on scalpers' corner.
Some scalpers are lone wolves, handling all aspects of the business themselves. Others work in pairs, like Terry and Dan, ticket hustlers who moved from Milwaukee to Denver earlier this year. "We've been working tickets in Denver off and on for three years and decided to make this our home base for a while," says Terry, a heavyset white kid in his mid-twenties who's wearing a furry red Kangol visor. "This is a bigger sports town than Milwaukee, and Denver's more centrally located, so we can road-trip to big games."
Terry's nervous about media exposure. "We just don't want some article coming out that gives everybody's grandmother and sister and her cousin the idea that anybody can come out here and be a ticket seller," he says, "because that's not right."
His partner, Dan, is working the corner, waving an "I Need Tickets" sign. A car pulls up and idles. Dan leans through the open window, negotiates, then pops out and runs over to Terry. "Give me a 20," he says.
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Terry's reluctant to expend any more capital on investments. "It's getting late, yo! Ten minutes to game! We need to be selling, not buying," he tells his partner.
"I'm buying two lowers for 20," Dan replies. "These are $63 seats, man. We'll sell them for 40 each, you watch."
Two minutes later, Dan turns a quick profit of $60 on the two-stage deal.
"A lot of people have wrong ideas about ticket sellers, that we're shady characters," says Terry. "The truth is, with ticket sellers, we make money saving you money. We're professional middlemen, saving you money over what you'd pay at the box. We're not out to scam anybody. We're just out to make an honest living."