Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A few brave souls still willing to play the scalping game

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An hour before puck drop between the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars, one can't help but notice the absence of action outside the MTS Centre.

That isn't to say people aren't trying.

"Anyone selling tickets?"

"Are you looking to buy?"

Despite the best efforts from the Jets, the open market for tickets is still open for business and the people trading out front -- the scalpers, ticket brokers, middle men, go-betweens, sport entertainment facilitators -- are just as eager to mark up a pair of lower-bowl seats as they were 15 years ago.

While most everything regarding the local NHL franchise has changed over that span, this simple economic principle hasn't: The actual value of an item is what someone is willing to pay for it.

Welcome to the ticket underground in Winnipeg.

Meet Eddie (not his real name), a quiet, 40-something man who works in the aerospace sector.

For the purposes of this report, he will remain anonymous, as in a "don't ask, don't tell" industry, the absence of specific personal information often works best.

Back in the first incarnation of the Jets, Eddie would be out there with about a dozen others playing the scalping game. In those days, the Jets were an easy commodity to trade: Winnipeg Arena was never full, so leveraging a ticket he bought for less than half the face value into someone else's hand for a small profit was quick and risk-free.

"A $60 ticket I might have paid $15 to $20 for, and then turn around and sell it for $40 to $45," he said. "Everyone was happy. The guy that I bought it from is recouping some of his losses, I made my few dollars in between, and the person I sold the ticket to is getting a discount."

These days, there are about four or five guys working on the front lines, lingering outside the venue before games, but it's not the security personnel, the scalping bylaw or the heavy language in the season-ticket purchase agreement (accounts will be in default if tickets are found to be sold above the list price) that are keeping people away.

Fans just don't want to give up their seats.

Early in this local NHL renaissance, fans not only used their tickets, but many thought they had won the lottery when they found themselves a part of the lucky crowd who landed a slice of the season-ticket pie and were listing their tickets on websites like StubHub and Kijiji for money well above the list price.

"The average guy who went two ways on a P6 package seemed to think his tickets were worth $500 each," Eddie said. "It was kind of funny."

The laughter hasn't subsided, either. This week, seats located in the 300 level were listed on StubHub for $350 apiece, a 400 per cent markup on a $70 single.

"Buyer beware," said Alex, another longtime scalper requesting anonymity Wednesday. "Look, if you buy on a site, you take a big chance. Who knows what you're getting. Out here, it's a straight deal. No bulls--t."

Eddie does most of his trading well before the game. Through his modest network of trusted sources (20-30 people), he typically finds two messages on his BlackBerry:

1. Do you want these tickets?

2. Do you have any tickets?

Measuring the day of the week and the opponent, Eddie figures out how much risk he wants to assume quickly. It's a split decision; that ticket on the other end of the phone might not be there in five minutes.

Then comes the price. A weekend date against a popular team is the hotter play, so he'll spend more (right up to or even beyond the listed price) with the faith in his business model that he'll be able to find a buyer willing to go higher than that.

For a less-attractive ticket (early in the week, bottom team), Eddie treads lighter. Unless he has buyers in place, he won't stick his wallet out too far.

"I couldn't live on what I make doing this," he said. "For me, it's all about the buzz of game day. I love being around the action."

It's all about getting a feel for the want and making the accounting work. He listens to what people are saying and reads the tea leaves through his own network. If people are contacting him well in advance of a certain game, that's usually a good sign to buy as much stock as possible.

Prior to Wednesday's game, Eddie sold eight to 10 tickets. He made about $700 profit.

"I'm providing a service," he said. "I do come across the odd person who has a problem with what I do. I tell them, 'Look, buddy, I'm selling tickets, I'm not dealing crack here.' Most people I deal with just want to go to the game."

Surprisingly, the market has been tough to figure this first Jets season, and only recently -- with just a handful of games left -- has it settled into a dynamic where the guys on the corner can make the exchange work for them consistently.

This changes if the Jets make the playoffs.

The list price goes up. The demand goes up. The fan frenzy goes up.

Welcome to risk management, Eddie says, knowing that he'll have to throw down at least double the money (and assume a lot more risk) to get his hands on tickets with the hope he can turn them into an even bigger profit.

Just like the play on the ice, the stakes elevate and the action intensifies.

"I hope the Jets do make it," he said. "That would be a lot of fun. Hell, I might even go to a game or two."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 C4

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