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Scalpers Shake Up Image

This feature originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of The Grand Salami.

It was time to get ready for work, so Mac McCool excused himself from his lunch at FX McRory’s in Pioneer Square. Up from Portland on business, he was heading back to his hotel to get changed out of his Seahawks sweatshirt and grab a quick shave. After work, he thought he might try to catch a Mariners game. And that maybe his son, also in Seattle on business, would join him.

The idea of a father and son catching a ballgame together paints a pretty idyllic picture of Americana—perhaps even of a borderline ordinary life.

Indeed, McCool is proud that his son represents the fourth generation involved in the family business. But there are many that would consider the McCools’ life anything but normal. Their business, after all, is working outside of various entertainment venues selling event tickets on the street, a practice that is widely described as “scalping.”

“After this series, I’ll go home for a few days, mow the lawn, and then head to the Indy 500,” said McCool about his busy schedule. He planned to sell tickets to the open-wheel racing event in Indianapolis, which was held over Memorial Day weekend.

McCool knows that his trade is looked upon by many as a seedy business, if a “business” at all. He thinks fans should be better educated when it comes to their choices about buying tickets, whether it be for concerts or sporting events.

Working the street circuit for 25 years, McCool says he relies on a network of contacts to keep him flush with prime tickets to sell at every Mariners game. Often scalpers get tickets from larger brokers. A steady stream of the best seats also comes directly from season ticket holders, including those with corporate accounts holding Diamond Club and other premium box seats close to the field.

This year the Mariners raised season ticket prices for the first time since 2002. The team also instituted an additional $3 fee for seven “premium” games: Opening Day and two three-game series against the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. But it is the team’s increased game day ticket price that street sellers say gives them the most leverage when dealing with customers outside Safeco Field.

“The new game day prices give us a larger cushion so that we can still undercut the Mariners (at the box office),” McCool said about the tickets he gets from season ticket holders. He often catches the attention of fans by yelling that he’s holding “discounted tickets.”

For example, a ticket that a season ticket holder paid $40 for, a lower box seat—generally between first and third bases—is now being sold at the box office for $65 on the day of the game. Depending on the game, a scalper is likely to buy that lower box seat from a season ticket holder for anywhere from $25, for a typical weeknight game, to $65, for one of the premium games against the Yankees or Red Sox. The street seller will then turn that ticket around for anywhere from a $10 to $30 profit, again, depending on the game.

Kenny McKenzie and customers

“There is a formula you take into consideration when setting the price,” said Kenny McKenzie, who has sold tickets outside Seattle venues for more than twenty years.

Some factors determining market value are what day of the week the game is being played, how well the weather is holding up, and who the Mariners’ opponent is that day. Perhaps the biggest issue affecting game day ticket price, however, is how well the Mariners themselves are holding up.

McKenzie bristles at being categorized as a “scalper” and prefers the term “ticket broker” for his line of work. But his battle of semantics isn’t gaining traction. The “scalping” term appears indelibly tied to a perception of an underworld industry with a reputation for skirting the law and aggressive sales tactics.

“You can’t always trust them,” said Linda Young of Kirkland. “It makes sense to buy at the box office for face value if tickets are available.” But street sellers say they often sell tickets for significantly less than the box office face value, especially with the new game-day ticket pricing. They also argue that they are indeed ticket brokers—or at least in partnership with traditional Internet brokerage firms. When these companies are unable to sell tickets through their online portals, the tickets are sold to street “brokers” like McCool and McKenzie, who represent a final push to get the tickets sold before game time. Many buyers looking for an option other than the box office, however, think that online transactions are more business-like and legal. “I’d definitely buy off of eBay before buying from a scalper,” Brad Walter said, gesturing to the throng of scalpers he stoically walked past before a recent Mariners game. The Oak Harbor resident and his friends bought $22 upper deck tickets from the box office. Instead of selling their tickets to a scalper, many season ticket holders take advantage of the option to trade in tickets at face value as long as it’s done at least 24 hours before the game they can’t attend. The ticket holder then is able to use the money received for the tickets in order to buy tickets to a future game. But other season ticket holders don’t see the point in trading tickets at the box office and would rather sell their tickets to a scalper.

“It’s nice that the Mariners offer the opportunity to trade our tickets for tickets to other games as a lot of other teams do,” said Mark Rooney, a lower-reserved Mariner season ticket holder since 1977. “But I’d rather sell my $40 ticket for $30 to a scalper than trade them at the box office for other tickets.”

Rooney said that even if he did swap his $40 season ticket at the box office, the face value trade-in wouldn’t get him in the same part of the ballpark that he likes to sit in. He said that he’d rather take a $10 loss on those games he can’t make and get at least some of his money back. Additionally, when season ticket holders find they can’t make a game at the last minute, a street seller is often the only opportunity to get some money for your ticket—that is, unless the ticket holder is interested in hawking the tickets on the sidewalk themselves, going toe-to-toe with the more seasoned sellers.

And the “I have an extra ticket because my girlfriend left me” shtick might work out just fine for those who sell their personal tickets. This is because many fans are turned off by the look of “big business” ticket sellers who come armed to the street corner with a wad of tickets, clipboards and laminated stadium seating charts.

“I just don’t trust those guys,” said Keith Schram of Kenmore, who had just purchased $22 upper deck tickets at a recent Saturday night game. “I’ve heard too many stories about tickets that don’t scan. It’s just safer to buy at the ticket window.”

And that is exactly the message the Mariners organization pushes: that it’s best to buy tickets at the ticket window. In an effort to educate fans about the pitfalls of buying a ticket off the street, the team airs announcements outside the stadium before the game as a way to inform fans that the sale of tickets by third parties outside the stadium is not sanctioned by the team and might not be valid for entry to the stadium.

Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale says that when an invalid ticket is presented at the gate, the fan will not be admitted and that they are out of luck—there is no recourse against the Mariners because the ticket wasn’t purchased from the team. “We want to warn people to be aware of the fact that the ticket they are buying may not be valid,” Hale said. “It’s buyer beware.”

Street ticket sellers acknowledge that the prospect that the customer could get stuck with an invalid ticket is definitely a deterrent that keeps some people from buying tickets from them. They say that invalid tickets are a very rare occurrence. Additionally, many of the street ticket sellers give their customers a business card to call about buying (or selling) tickets for future games or to call if there is a problem with the tickets. As one ticket seller we talked to said, “I’m out here every day. There’s no way I’m going to sell someone bad tickets deliberately. If there’s a problem with the tickets, I’ll refund the customer’s money.”

Different street sellers use different tactics to assuage concerns of prospective buyers. McCool took time away from his perch outside of Jimmy’s along Royal Brougham to escort a couple to the left field entrance of Safeco Field. Once safely inside the gates with the tickets they bought from McCool, they passed money back through the bars of the gate.

McCool also recognizes that there are those that give his trade a bad name. Unsavory characters and cons do exist, he said.

“Keep your first impressions sharp,” he said, now clean shaven and, having swapped his lunchtime Seahawks sweatshirt for a Mariners jacket and cap, ready for work. “If you get a bad vibe, then move on.”

Deidre Silva is a co-author of the book It Takes More Than Balls, available now from Skyhorse Publishing. Visit the Website for more information.


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