Last Saturday, I got an urge to see college basketball. The Maryland Terrapins were playing North Carolina State in College Park that afternoon.
I did not have a ticket. Given my connections, I knew where to turn. I turned to the scalpers - the entrepreneurs who hang around the edges of sold-out sporting events and concerts. They perform the "service" of relieving fans of excess tickets, then reselling them at often-inflated prices.
I was about to become a scalpee. I prepared by gathering data and enlisting a compadre, Al Nuzzi, a veteran of such transactions.
I went to the Web, printed out the Comcast Center seating chart and checked various sites such as StubHub, Ticketmaster and eBay to get a "taste" of what is called the "secondary ticket market." Internet sites selling tickets for sold-out events have flourished. The Ravens have formed a partnership with TicketsNow to resell tickets. The Orioles, who have not had many sellouts, have a no-scalp zone in Camden Yards where fans can buy and sell tickets at prices no higher than face value. The situation for the Terps game did not look promising. The only tickets I found in cyberspace carried an asking price of $140. That was about $100 more than I wanted to pay. The Terps opponent, N.C. State, was not exactly a powerhouse this year. I might have been able to dicker electronically, but game time was only a few hours away. I had to hit the road.
Nuzzi, my companion, is a Maryland alumnus, class of 1974. He pitched for the Terps baseball team. I met him when he coached the Putty Hill Panthers, a teenage boys team that one of my sons played for several years ago. He is an avid sports fan, often traveling to distant venues to watch games.
On our ride down Interstate 95, he told scalping stories. His greatest success, he said, was in 1987 when he paid $5 for a last-minute ticket to watch the championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament at the now-defunct Capital Centre in Landover. (This year's tournament, which is being held this weekend in Tampa, Fla., is one of the toughest tickets in sports.)
On a whim, Nuzzi and a couple friends drove to the Cap Centre and queried members of the members of crowd about tickets as they filed into the game. "About five minutes before the game, we got tickets for $5 a piece," he recalled. "It was North Carolina State versus North Carolina. We walked in with dignity."
He also told me about getting shut out at another ACC tournament. "We went down to Greensboro, and nobody was selling. We ended up watching the games in a bar."
A native of Long Island, Nuzzi still has a lot of New York in his speech. Given the yin and yang nature of ticket negotiations, I figured he would act as the "bad cop" in our exchanges, and I would be the "good cop."
Shortly after we got on the College Park campus, we encountered our first entrepreneur offering a $40 ticket for $70. Nuzzi told him to "forgetaboutit." Those were not his exact words; the exchange had the tone and some of the language of two New York cabbies colliding in a Midtown intersection. No deal.
Nuzzi had a ticket waiting for him at will call, and as he inched his way to the window to fetch it I scanned the crowd near the Comcast Center entrance. There were no sellers, only buyers. (Later, I read on the Comcast Center's Web site that ticket resale is prohibited within 300 feet of the facility.)
We meandered down to a parking lot where a knot of merchants was at work. I had a ticket in my hand and was about to fork over $40 when a very large man wrapped his very large hands around it and yanked it from me. Apparently he was the "domo" of this venture, outranking my vendor. He had a better offer for the ticket, he said.
Several heated exchanges followed. Nuzzi played the bad cop role very well. There was no consumer representative around to referee the transactions. One alternative, to sell Nuzzi's ticket and watch the game in a bar, did not appeal to me. So after some haggling, I got a ticket for $70.
The seat was in the stratosphere, but I could see the game. At halftime, Nuzzi grabbed me and we took possession of some very good seats, maybe the $140 ones that I had seen online that someone had failed to claim. Maryland won in a spirited afternoon.
After the game there was gridlock, so we walked around the campus. We visited the baseball stadium, and Nuzzi pointed out his former dorm, Kent Hall, and the chapel that he had visited at least twice during his undergraduate career. We dined at a U.S. 1 tavern once known as The Vous, now the Cornerstone Grill, that, he reported, is much cleaner now than when he used to sample its waters.
Back in Baltimore, we headed to the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins. There, the Blue Jays basketball team was battling the Guilford Quakers in the opening round of Division III men's playoffs.
This was basketball on a smaller scale but no less exciting. By the time we got to this game, late in the second half, the guys selling $5 admission tickets in the lobby had folded up their tables and were in the clamorous gym watching this hard-fought game, which the Quakers won 80-73. We simply walked in. There were no scalpers.