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The Droids vs. the Straights : The Ticket Brokers Get Rich. The Promoters Sell Out the House. The Scalpers Make a Fast Buck. And You Get Fleeced. Welcome to the California Ticket Hustle.

February 10, 1991|MIKE GOODMAN | Mike Goodman is a former Times investigative reporter.

AT FIRST LIGHT, THE Bruce Springsteen fans begin to gather in a knot of bedrolls and camp chairs outside the ticket outlet on Westwood Boulevard. By 7 a.m., their ragged line of 150 or so stretches to the corner and turns east along Weyburn Avenue. Most are in their 20s and 30s, clean-cut, middle-class. They leaf slowly through newspapers or talk quietly. Their faces are anxious, tense.

Even those camping in front are grim--perhaps just realizing that being first doesn't matter. Because this isn't the ticket line. They're waiting to draw numbers to determine where they'll stand in line when the ticket office opens at 9 a.m. Those who pick lucky numbers can buy four concert tickets at face value, with prices starting at $25 each. The rest will pay scalper rates--most likely two or three times higher. The drawing is designed to discourage scalpers.

A young man moves slowly down the line. His face is earnest. His voice is hoarse, pleasant, rhythmic: "Excuse me, folks, are you buying all four? I'll buy your ticket if you buy two for me. Excuse me, folks, are you buying all four? I'll buy your. . ." His voice fades.

He returns minutes later to his own place in line. He looks disgusted. He leans close and whispers: "A total nightmare. The line's 'stacked.' Counted seven other scalpers. I saw them 'on the walk' at the Lakers the other night."

A station wagon pulls up. A big, beefy man wearing a beeper and an Army fatigue jacket with bulging pockets gives folding chairs to four young women. Then he speeds away. A four-door sedan follows. The scalper watches with admiration. "Wholesaler," he whispers.

He explains that the wholesaler hired the four women--in the ticket business they're sometimes nicknamed "droids"--to buy tickets for him. "Probably got 30 droids stacked in other lines. Sells directly to a big ticket agency--a major broker." The scalper pauses and is encouraged to continue. "Scalpers are tied into brokers. We feed on each other--need each other to move tickets, create a market, keep prices up. That's what makes the 'ticket hustle' work. Only difference, he's legal--I'm not."

In California, if you hustle tickets at prices above face value on public or stadium property, you are a scalper, and guilty of a misdemeanor. If you sell tickets on private property or through a ticket agency, you are a broker. Perfectly legal.

At 8 a.m., a woman and a plainclothes security guard emerge from the Tower Records store that houses the ticket outlet. He wears handcuffs on his belt. She carries a cardboard box filled with numbered plastic bracelets. The line files past, each person pulling out a bracelet that the guard fastens tightly around their wrists, droning over and over, "Computer picks the number at quarter to nine."

When the guard appears again, the crowd grows still. "Five sixty two," he yells. "Line up numerically behind 562." A new line forms, with the person wearing bracelet 562 in front followed by 563; and so on. The scalper groans. His number is 530. He is eliminated. But his companion has bracelet 612. The scalper grins. Generally the first 50 or 60 numbers are good before outlets across town sell out. The scalper's companion buys four $25 tickets. The scalper gives them to a small-time broker who operates a ticket agency in West Los Angeles. The broker buys the $25 tickets for $50 each. Two days before the concert, he sells the four tickets for $75 apiece, the going rate.

CRITICS CALL THIS THE CALIFORNIA ticket hustle. Brokers say it's the purest form of free enterprise. Business is brisk. Nearly 30 ticket brokers are listed in the Beverly Hills/Westside Yellow Pages alone, up from 16 a decade ago. Bidding among them can be frenzied when tickets are released for sale. Ticket prices can jump 10 to 20 times for fans who want to see stars such as Springsteen, Madonna or Neil Diamond or to attend the World Series, NBA Championships or Super Bowl. Fans paid $600 for an end-zone seat at Super Bowl XXII in San Diego or for a $30 ticket to see Madonna. They pay a scalper $45 for a $9 field box in Dodger Stadium. By most accounts, professional street scalpers can earn $40,000 to $60,000 a year--cash. And they say the brokers they work for make much more.

It's a simple matter of supply and demand. And brokers control the supply. The morning of the Bruce Springsteen ticket sale, for example, a small army of scalpers, brokers, or their droids converged--not just on Westwood--but on outlets across Los Angeles County to snap up available tickets either by drawing good numbers themselves or by offering fans more than face value for their tickets.

"Real fans--the average fan--doesn't have a fair shot," says Bill Graham, one of the country's leading concert promoters and, perhaps, the music industry's most strident critic of scalping.

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