Robert arrived in Ann Arbor at 6:45 a.m. Within two hours, he had realized a grim truth: With Central Michigan in town, it would be a difficult day.
“I went from paying $20 to $5 to not picking them (tickets) up at all,” Robert said. “If a guy says he made money out here, he found it on the ground.”
Business was so bad, in fact, that Robert planned on heading to East Lansing to try to make a few extra bucks scalping tickets at the Spartans game.
Robert wasn’t alone. Scalpers across Ann Arbor were down in the dumps.
“It’s tight today, it is tight tooooo-day,” said two ticket sellers commiserating on the corner of Greene and E. Hoover streets.
“This sucks,” one selling in front of the Union told me. “You can’t give ’em away today.”
They spoke longingly for the goods days – like when Ohio State, Notre Dame or Michigan State play the Wolverines. Anyone can sell the big games, so the ones who know the business well can make a small killing.
“For Ohio State, all you got to do is touch the ticket,” said Robert, who said he pockets $1,300 easily on Buckeye weekend.
But for a game like Central Michigan – which scalpers described as having a worse market than last week’s game against Vanderbilt – pickings can be slim. It’s games like these that have some sellers glad to have another job during the week.
“If you don’t have any other income, you might stall,” said one man who worked as a metal worker and seemed resigned to the fact that he’d lose money on the day.
The star salesmen, however, say there’s still money to be made even without the lure of a huge game. The good scalpers won’t leave without a profit – even if it’s just enough money for a nice lunch and transportation, all Robert expected to make on the day.
It takes a special skill set to be a good scalper.
It takes dedication. The good sellers get to the stadium early – up to five hours before the game – to assess the market and pick up tickets cheap. Some – as I’m sure you’ve seen – are out days before Saturday, looking for people who want to get rid of tickets.
It takes a cool head. To sell, you need to buy tickets, which cost a lot of money up front. The good sellers can handle the pressure of a big loss looming on the horizon if tickets don’t get sold.
It takes endurance. The good scalpers move all the time, looking for a better spot from where to sell and walking and talking with potential clients. Even the ones who were more than willing to chat with me had just a few minutes before they had to move on.
It takes salesmanship. The good sellers know how to negotiate. They’re always talking, always joking and always looking to make a deal. They certainly heed the advice given in the film adaptation of David Mamet’s Glenngary Glen Ross (A-B-C: Always Be Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.).
It takes business acumen. The good sellers – like Robert – figure out hours before the game exactly how the market will develop (although for big games, it’s clear in advance how things will fall). They take into account factors like who’s playing, how the teams are doing and the weather.
And, if they live by the simplest of business principles, they’ll never go home empty-handed, sellers said.
“We’re here to buy low and sell high,” said Kevin Hill, a scalper who has been to Ann Arbor every game day for the past 25 years, but who has just been to just two games in his life. “It’s the great American way.”
I saw an example of this early in the day.
One of the brokers I followed encountered a band parent inquiring into buying three tickets.
My scalper offered the tickets for $40 each, drawing a disgusted look from the ticket buyer.
“What are you looking to spend, big man?” the seller asked. “If you do better than $40, you’re lucky.”
They exchanged a few more pleasantries, each trying haggle to with the other. In the end, no deal was made.
But my seller soon turned into buyer – and, what do you know, he was in luck.
A minute later, he found a willing seller. The scalper bought four tickets. Total price: $50.
(The joke, however, may have been on the scalper. Just before I talked to him, I saw a desperate student unload her ticket for $5, $10 less than my subject just paid per ticket.)
Good scalpers realize a quick flip will likely be more profitable in the long run than risking it by waiting for a bigger sale that may never happen.
“Don’t try to hold onto them,” Hill said. “Get ’em for $5 and sell them for $10.”
All sellers – good or bad – have another big worry: the police.
It’s illegal to sell tickets for more than face value, and on campus, you’re supposed to have a permit. Police are always on the prowl, sellers said.
“Yeah, police will give you trouble,” one said. “They ain’t sitting out here for nothing. You got to be real careful what you do.”
Robert said police in Ann Arbor aren’t too bad, much better than those at Comerica Park in Detroit. But still, he doesn’t support the idea of them meddling with his business.
“They shouldn’t bust a person for selling a ticket,” he said. “Even over face, it’s between you and the guy buying it.”
Some sellers are starting to avoid the issue by moving off the streets. A number of scalpers have traded pounding the pavement for the Internet.
A man named Buford, for instance, gets tickets from corporations like General Motors or Ford and then packages them into large groups sales on eBay – which is still illegal if sold for over face value. He comes to the games just to drop of tickets to buyers and sell a few he has left over.
Sellers see this as a growing trend. Eventually (and as a newspaper man, I can relate to this), the Internet might kill the scalping star.
“Everybody’s switching to computers,” Buford said. “You don’t even have to come out, you can just do it from your living room.”
And if it means avoiding the despair of the open-air marketplace on days like Saturday, it might just be for better.
– Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.