For the past hour, the scalpers have watched Tribe fans powerwalk past them down Ontario Street. All they want is a quick gander at their goods -- I've got a great pair! What do ya need? -- but no one's interested. Not tonight.
Now, suddenly, the pack is slowing down. They must need a pair! This is where the night turns. This is where . . .
"You're a fuckin' punk!"
This is not where the night turns. A smallish, mustached man in Bermuda shorts and boat shoes is screaming at a younger, bigger man with a sarcastic grin. (Picture Biff from Back to the Future.) The smaller guy, a veteran scalper named Mike, is accusing Biff of sabotaging a sale. They're toe-to-toe, undressing each other with insults centered on the theme of "Fuck you." Fans slow, craning their necks, hoping for blood. But Biff just raises his arms and walks away, smirking. He's holding four premium tickets. He's got work to do.
"There's a tacit, unspoken rule," Mike says. That rule: If a customer is engaged with one scalper, the others must wait for negotiations to finish before offering their tickets. Biff breaks this rule all the time, and Mike's tired of it. "I'd knock him out if I wouldn't get assault charges," Mike says, ignoring the fact that Biff could almost surely kick his ass.
It's not always like this. Some days, when the money is flowing, the hustlers work in harmony. Sundays are better -- at least until the Browns inevitably tank. Basketball season will be more fun; LeBron and the new Cavs promise to be a semi-tough ticket.
But it's Monday night, a game against Oakland, a solid but starless team. The box office is stocked with cheap tickets, while the scalpers are mostly hawking expensive seats. Though the street goods go for lower than face value, Mom, Dad and the kids are more interested in the $15 seats -- the ones being sold by the nice lady behind the box-office glass. This makes scalpers very uneasy.
"This is survival of the fittest," Mike says. "When sales are slow, people start jumping on each other."
Then, to no one in particular: "Two behind home plate. Who needs a pair?"
Scalping is entirely legal in Cleveland -- yet every scalper is breaking the law.
According to city code, anyone selling more than one ticket, or selling for more than face value, must have a license. But the guys on Ontario don't. The occasional undercover cop will check to ensure their tickets are real. The uniforms will give them hell if they sell on stadium property. But other than that, police consider it a victimless crime, so they ignore the Need-a-pair chorus that rains nightly.
"They don't bother us, we don't bother them," says one scalper, who, like most, won't give up his name.
America's first anti-scalping laws hit the books in 1918, when people hawked tickets to stage shows. Since then, scalpers have been "omnipresent in sports and entertainment," says Cavaliers President Len Komoroski. "The best we can do is focus on what we can control."
Which isn't much. Promoters limit the number of tickets customers can buy, but scalpers hire "droids" to stand in multiple lines and work the phones and internet. Teams can't tell the difference between real fans and scalpers, so the hustlers always end up flush. They were hawking Tribe playoff tickets online within hours of them going on sale.
And almost all scalpers -- whether they work for ticket brokers or not -- sell out of one side of their mouth and buy out of the other. They bank on finding someone, usually a season-ticket holder, looking to sell last-minute for cheap.
A couple days after their toe-to-toe, Biff and Mike are hustling Ontario when an angelic blonde woman appears. She's a season-ticket holder trying to unload four box seats.
Mike gets the most attention on Ontario, because he looks the most official -- he has a lawn chair and a bullhorn. The angel heads right for him.
"Whaddaya got?" he asks.
She flashes the goods: four lower boxes deep in the outfield corner. Twenty-dollar seats. "I'm hoping to get face for them," she says.
It's a Friday-night game against the Royals. The sky is dark; rain is all but spelled out in the clouds. Face value for corner seats is more than risky -- it's scalper suicide. Mike'd have to sucker some schmuck into paying more than face value just to turn a profit.
Biff is lurking behind, like a perv scouting a schoolyard. Mike squeezes out a defeated grin and waves her toward his adversary. Biff walks the woman down the street, away from Mike and that reporter-guy taking all those notes. (Most scalpers wouldn't talk to Scene; a few threatened to beat up Scene's photographer.)
Biff and the angel hold negotiations in private. Soon, the woman hustles toward the game, and Biff swaggers back to his corner with $20 seats, which he bought for 10 bucks a pop. He'll almost surely make a profit.
The question is, how many lies will he tell to do it?
"Don't buy tickets from him!"
Rachel Semonin is yelling, because Rachel Semonin is pissed. She drove all the way from Wadsworth, 40 damn miles, for one of the few Tribe games she'll see all year. All she wanted were some decent seats. It's a night game against the Royals. How hard could it be to snag some lower boxes?
She walked up Ontario and heard bellowing about a killer deal: a pair, right behind the Indians' dugout. The guy -- a big dude with a baseball cap and a salty smirk -- said they were $40 tickets. They said they only had $35. He said fine -- fine! -- take 'em, and bring me back a five-spot before the game.
Scalpers all say they do business on the up-and-up -- it's those other guys you've gotta watch. "The vast majority of the guys on the street are rotten," Mike says.
Like many scalpers, Mike works a day job. Others are homeless, drunks or addicts looking for quick money. Scalpers say it's the guys depending on the hustle for income that customers should be leery of. "You'll lie, cheat, and steal before you go hungry," says Alexander, a metalworker who scalps on the side.
They'll tell you a game is sold out when it's nowhere close. They'll lie about the face value of season tickets, on which no price is printed. Some mislead customers about seat location. Some hawk outdated tickets or counterfeits.
Most maneuvers are easy to sniff out. But in the heat of negotiations, it's easy to get duped. Rachel realized she got played when she got to the stadium. The tickets were in section 307, the freakin' mezzanine, closer to damn Wadsworth than the Indians' dugout. They were $15 seats. She paid $17.50 apiece.
She stormed back to Ontario, searching for Biff. Now she is screaming, over and over, "Don't buy tickets from him!"
This is bad for business, so Biff pulls her aside. "You're gonna love these seats," he tells her. She is not moved, and appears willing to stand there, yelling, until at least the third inning. So he pulls out a fiver and sends her on her way.
"It's a Friday night," he says with a huff. "The game's almost sold out."
That night's attendance: 21,975 -- about 22,000 shy of capacity.
It's Monday night against the A's. Mike's got a pair behind home plate, 20 rows back, $35 a ticket. He paid $40 for the pair, so if he gets face value -- $70 -- he'll be stoked. Yet fan after fan strides past without a glance, as if the scalpers were an alley full of vampires. The game's about to start. His price is falling.
Two young women emerge from the tunnel. They're wearing lots of pink and blonde ponytails. They are Kelly and Megan, and Mike's got a radar lock on them. "I got a great pair, girls, right behind home plate. C'mon, I'll cut you a deal."
They walk toward him cautiously, employing the classic say-nothing-and-look-confused negotiation technique. By the time they're done, they've said about four words each -- and talked Mike down from $70 to $40. They giggle their way to the game while Mike mutters, "I broke even."
But the scalper will always have his day. A few nights later, against the Royals, Mike's clutching another killer pair -- $50 field boxes, front row, behind home plate.
Another duo of unlikely hustlers is lurking nearby -- a pair of high school seniors named Christian and Mike. They've come to 40 games this year, they say, and bought from scalpers almost every time. They rarely pay face value.
"Once you walk away, the price drops," Christian explains, with the excited confidence of a boy who has discovered something very cool about the world.
"They chase you," his friend adds. "You act like you don't hear 'em and they chase you down."
The scalpers eye the boys with exhaustion -- a look that says You will try to screw me. You will likely succeed. "These guys want club seats for $20," says Mike. "They want to pick up good tickets for cheap. And they'll do it."
It's a below-face-value night on the street. But not long after acknowledging this, Mike finds himself with two men in stylish jeans and polo shirts. They want his tickets. He shows them a seat map. They hand over $100.
When he looks up from his money, Ontario is ablaze in negotiations. Biff's already sold his; he's looking to buy. Other scalpers are holding firm on their prices. Yes, the Royals are in town. Yes, it's going to rain. But the scalpers have momentum, and they intend to use it.
When the game starts, Christian and Mike are still ticketless. They look crestfallen, like two boys who just discovered something very cruel about the world. They couldn't find a thing for a decent price, so they're outta here -- off to watch some high school football, where a cheap ticket is a sure thing.