Hot tickets turn cold

A veteran scalper discovers that Kings playoff prices don’t meet expectations

Although the clock-in times on other days will vary, Benjamin Hill starts this day’s work shift at about 9 a.m., with the requisite $200 cash in his pocket. The first assignment this weekend morning requires a lot of walking, and he begins a systematic, deliberate sweep through the acres of asphalt that constitute the massive Arco Arena parking lot.

It is three hours to game time, the smell of grilled meat wafts through the air and the irrational exuberance of thousands of normally reserved men and women implies that they may have a blood alcohol level atypical for this hour of the day. The tailgate parties are well underway, but Hill is on the clock and has no intention of participating in the festivities, so he works methodically, with a cold detachment.

As he weaves between the clusters of temporary residents of this purple shantytown, he pauses only for the brief interactions that are necessary to complete the task at hand. An hour and a half later his on-site mission is complete, and he moves back outside the perimeter, because scalping is only a crime on site.

By 10:30 a.m., he is stationed next to a bus stop near the Shell station on Truxel Road, just off Interstate 80. With just an hour and a half until tip-off, it’s crunch time. Time to make some money.

The original $200, now depleted, has been replaced with scrip that conventional wisdom and media hype had predicted would be more valuable than cash on this particular day.

Hill takes his position on the curb, facing the traffic inbound for Arco Arena. His arm is extended skyward, and his hand offers up two tickets to paradise: Game One of the NBA Playoffs. But Hill is not the only curbside statue anchored to the concrete this morning, and like a speculative investment in commodities, the value of these tickets is subject to the unyielding market forces of supply and demand.

And today it appears supply will overwhelm demand.

If you sneezed at the wrong moment, you probably missed the window of opportunity when Sacramento Kings playoff tickets went on sale to the general public through Ticketmaster and the Kings box office.

“Yeah, they went in a matter of minutes,” confirmed Sonja Brown, director of Brand Public Relations for Maloof Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Kings. Of course, you could still purchase a ticket for several hundred to several thousand dollars—representing a near exponential markup on the face value of a ticket—from one of the area’s second-hand ticket brokers. A front-page article in the Sacramento Bee proclaimed that some tickets were going for $5,000 each.

But if you’re unwilling to tap the rent money or the kids’ college fund for three hours of basketball, there may be a less budget-busting alternative. Realistically, the only remaining ways to obtain the coveted tickets without having to sell a vital organ are by buying directly from season ticket holders who won’t be using their own tickets, or from the current version of one of mankind’s oldest occupations—the scalper. In fact, in patronizing one of these sources, you may be doing a public service. You can help Benny Hill support his family, or assist Jesse and Laura Buskirk to landscape their new home.

We first meet veteran scalper Benny Hill about an hour before the start of the last home game of the regular season. It’s fan appreciation night and a steady stream of cars makes the turn from Truxel Road onto North Market Street for the final approach into the Arco Arena parking lot. It is raining intermittently, but a handful of ticket scalpers, undaunted by the weather, line the sidewalk along North Market.

Assembled at the prime corner location are three assertive youngsters in stylish, wannabe gangster attire. The apparent leader of the pack, wearing a bulbous down jacket with the hood pulled up, the hood’s faux fur trim nearly engulfing his face, resembles a hybrid parody of the Michelin Man and the Kenny cartoon character from South Park. The kid is strictly business, and if you don’t want to buy or sell a ticket, he doesn’t have the time or inclination to reveal the tips and tricks of the resale ticket trade.

Photo by Larry Dalton

But about 100 feet farther toward Arco Arena, Hill, an older, tall, slim man dressed in traditional blue jeans, scuffed white sneakers and a dark brown jacket, holds up a cardboard sign that says “I NEED TicKEts.” As he stands at the curb, a car stops, a brief negotiation ensues, and seconds later the sign is in his back pocket.

Hill immediately changes hats—from buyer to seller—and his extended arm now offers two tickets. Minutes later, another car stops at the informal drive-thru ticket center, and a sale is made. The sign comes back out, and the process repeats itself. He is initially reluctant to take time out to talk—“I gotta make a living and support my family,” he says—but agrees to expound on his occupation if he can keep working.

At 38, Hill is an old-school scalper who learned the trade in Oakland when he was 12 years old. He was born and raised there, and spent all but the last three years buying and selling tickets to the Oakland A’s and Raiders, San Francisco Giants and 49ers, Golden State Warriors, as well as Bay Area concerts and other events. Hill doesn’t have much formal education, but like the most diligent college graduates, he did do an internship and even had a mentor: Raymond Martinez. As a kid, Oakland A’s players would often give Hill free tickets to baseball games, which he would pass on to a friend to sell.

“And then my friend Raymond started saying ‘you should sell the tickets yourself.’ He was older, a good friend of mine,” said Hill. He took the advice, and later began hawking tickets for Martinez. “He used to come get me every day, give me tickets to sell for him. Back then, the business was good,” recalled Hill.

Hill said he has never had second thoughts about his career choice and, even as a youngster, was never pressured by his parents to give up the trade and take a more traditional 9-to-5 job. “I’ve always been on my own since I was a teenager you know, and it beats robbing people, breaking into cars or houses, or selling drugs on the street.”

Hill now lives with his wife and four kids in Elk Grove and laments that he doesn’t make as much money here as he could in the Bay Area. But the move did provide at least one business-related perk: he’s never been arrested for scalping in Sacramento.

“In Oakland, they’ll really harass you, man; you can’t sell nothing, you gotta have a license. If you don’t, they’ll arrest you, take you downtown for a couple of hours, then cite you out. I went through that more than a hundred times,” said Hill. But, like a multinational corporation that considers a fine from the Environmental Protection Agency for polluting the environment simply a cost of doing business, Hill figures that, even factoring in the costs of arrest and restitution, he still came out in the black.

“They’ll give you a fine, about a hundred dollar fine, which you pay with the money you make,” he explained. And the money he makes can be impressive. He recalls his most profitable day ever was an Oakland Raiders game where he made about $1,500 before kick-off.

In Sacramento, his top day was during the NCAA basketball tournament when he cleared $700 in a day. “That was good out there, everybody was pulling off the freeway and either needing a ticket or selling a ticket,” he says. “You got $50 and $100 for one ticket.”

But for the first 2002 playoff meeting of the Utah Jazz and the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, a glut hit the ticket resale market, and many scalpers were offering tickets at face value. Hill attributes the overabundance of sellers to greedy one-day scalpers intending to make a quick killing, but miscalculating demand.

“The first game last year when they played Phoenix was a bomb too. And the 12 o’clock start time, that kills you; night games are better,” he said. Since he was able to buy tickets at substantially under face value, and resell them at—or just over—face value, Hill still managed to make a “couple hundred” turning over about five tickets before the Kings went on to victory. Hill predicts that on-site tickets will be available throughout the playoffs, and at a better price than those offered by the licensed resellers.

“The brokers at their offices are just beating people across the head with the prices on tickets,” he said.

A sizable number of playoff tickets are also offered in the classified ads. Jesse and Laura Buskirk have had a pair of Kings season tickets for the last three years, but for the first time, they considered not attending the playoffs. Instead, they had hoped to resell their issue of playoff tickets and use the profits for a more practical purpose.

The Buskirks were recently evicted from their rental home in the Summerhills subdivision in Citrus Heights by Japanese billionaire Gensiro Kawamoto. While renting, they were saving up to buy their own home, but the unexpected 30-day (later amended to 90-day) notice moved up their timetable. They have now purchased a new home in Rocklin and initially anticipated selling their $37.50 Kings tickets for $250 each, using the proceeds to landscape their new digs.

That was the plan, anyway, a week before the playoffs began. But after selling the tickets to the Saturday game for $200 each, the calls on their ad slowed and the offering price dropped dramatically.

“They’re not quite going for as much as I thought,” said Buskirk. “I’ve got some friends of mine that wanted to go, I might see if they want them, or we might just go ourselves. We didn’t get quite the response we thought we would.”