Third Place Writing – Sports


University cuts down on ticket scalping, critics complain about restrictions

The Athletics Department has begun to take legal action against ticket scalpers for KU events. Critics say the Department itself scalps tickets at auctions.
By Thor Nystrom

It is half an hour to tip-off, and Walter Scott works the busy sidewalks outside Allen Fieldhouse. Scott wears a jacket to keep warm as he repeatedly asks the crowd, “Got tickets? Need tickets?” It’s a cold night to be working outside, but this is crunch time for a scalper. Scott has to unload the tickets he has acquired for this evening’s basketball game between highly ranked Kansas and small college opponent Washburn or be forced to eat their costs.

Still, Scott stops to chat with State Rep. Barbara Ballard, associate director of KU’s Dole Institute of Politics and one of many influential acquaintances he has made during 32 years of “independent ticket brokering,” as he calls it. Their conversation is interrupted when two KU police officers approach, one saying “We have you on camera selling tickets.” Scott is written a citation and given a court date.

Scalping is perfectly legal in Kansas, but the University has cracked down on ticket reselling on campus as part of a continuing effort by Athletics Director Lew Perkins to eliminate the practice. Scott was the first scalper prosecuted through the use of a generic Kansas trespassing statute combined with a University rule against commercial solicitation on campus. KU police claim scalpers become trespassers if asked to leave and don’t. However, a Lawrence defense attorney said it was questionable whether a criminal trespass statute could be invoked against a citizen engaged in lawful activity on a public sidewalk at a state university.

Photo illustration

Photo by Mindy Ricketts

Photo illustration

Scott, who has pleaded not guilty and faces an April 24 court date, said, “I’m no criminal, man. I sell tickets. This is modern-day greed. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Commercial ticket resellers and individual scalpers like Scott say they are bit players in a capitalistic ticket market and that the Athletics Department itself raises vast sums beyond ticket prices by requiring donations from fans to even become eligible to purchase season tickets. A seat-selection process installed by Perkins assigns priority based on the amount of those donations, driving up the true cost of tickets. If the verb “scalp” means “to sell tickets at higher than the official rates,” (the definition from The Unabridged Edition of The Random House Dictionary), ticket resellers say that Perkins does it best and that he simply wants to eliminate his competition.

Athletics Department officials insist they have to maximize revenue from ticket sales to compete in today’s escalating college sports arms race. And because they are staging the events, they claim the sole right to sell tickets. Individual ticket scalpers counter that capitalism is all about competition and anyone who has tickets is legally entitled to sell them for what the market will bear.

They point out that Perkins, himself a beneficiary of ticket-based fundraising, credited that same capitalistic market when a lawsuit forced the Athletics Department to release the generous terms of his employment contract two years ago.

At that time, Perkins, who earns $545,000 a year with a $1.3 million retention bonus, said, “One thing that is great about living in America, we live in a capitalistic society and people have the right to make money. I am proud of that.”

The contract also provides Perkins, who declined to be interviewed for this story, with four basketball season tickets and even traveling expenses for his wife to road games. In the auction system that Perkins implemented, four prime tickets would require at least a five-figure donation.

In contrast, Scott seldom makes more than $10 to $20 selling one ticket. He said ticket brokering helped him “pay the bills” while bouncing between part-time jobs.

“The rich get richer; the poor get poorer,” Scott said. “I’ve never seen such greed.”

Eye of the Beholder

A steady progression of Kansas basketball season ticket holders descended on Allen Fieldhouse in August to select the location of their seats for the upcoming season. Not a single scalper approached them — at least outside the arena. During the Select-a-Seat draft, the only people reaping cash above the face value of tickets were Athletics Department officials.

The controversial program, started in 2004, removed many longtime season ticket holders from seats near the floor. After years of seating the building based on longevity, Perkins opened seating priority to an auction-style process in which the actual price of the ticket could soar well over the face value. The draft’s order is based on points accrued in the Williams Fund — earned primarily by donations.

Joseph Sicilian, chairman of the department of economics, sees similarities between requiring Williams Fund donations and scalping.

“It is the same: The Williams Fund is trying to get the most it can for those seats, and the scalper is trying to get the most for his ticket. But the scalper is in a less strong position because he has to compete with other people who are selling tickets,” Sicilian said. “He is at least subject to some competitive pressure, where the Athletics Department is the only people that can supply those seats.”

Associate Athletics Director Jim Marchiony disagrees with that comparison.

“How are we getting more than face value?” Marchiony said. “Are you required to give donations to buy tickets in Allen Fieldhouse? They aren’t required to do it, so why is it scalping?”

A minimum donation of $100 to the Williams Fund is required to be eligible for basketball season tickets, and prime seat locations can require donations that reach six figures. The highest level is reserved for those who have donated $50,000 or more.

Mick Allen, grandson of Kansas coaching legend and Fieldhouse namesake Phog Allen, had to give up seats that had been in his family for 45 years when the point system was implemented. Keeping his prime seats would have required a donation of $10,000 or more. He said the comparison between scalping and requiring Williams Fund donations is a “fair analogy.”

“It is total leverage,” Allen said. “As long as they keep winning, it will continue.”

Policing Scalpers

In addition to cracking down on scalpers on campus, the Athletics Department has made it difficult for KU students, faculty and staff to sell their tickets by replacing paper tickets for each game with an electronic ticket card. Ticket revocation is promised for those who resell them. Marchiony said the policy is enforceable because those groups get tickets at a discounted price.

“They do what they want with them, and we kind of keep an eye on them, but there isn’t a heck of a lot that we do or can do if they decide to put their tickets on eBay,” Marchiony said. He admits they regularly go on ticket resale sites to see which season ticket holders are selling their seats.

Marchiony said the Athletics Department would revoke season tickets only from those Williams Fund donors who purchased tickets solely for resale. He said there had been instances in the past of ticket revocation, but he declined to elaborate.

Although the Athletics Department is opposed to individuals reselling tickets for more than face value, they ask that unused tickets be returned to a resale program for other Williams Fund members. Those tickets are then resold for 115 percent of face value, with the original face value returning to the ticket holder and 15 percent going to the Athletics Department. Marchiony said the 15 percent covered credit card charges and other costs of the system.

David Burress, a retired associate scientist in the University’s Policy Research Institute, said that by creating the point system for the Williams Fund, the University had maximized the price they could get for the tickets.

“That creates a problem because if you paid a lot of money for that seat, you want to get a lot back, not just the face value,” Burress said. “They have a fancy auction based on a willingness to pay, so if somebody buys a ticket and has paid the maximum they can pay for it, and then they are asked to give it back to the University for the lowest amount, that is going to engender bad feelings. They are exploiting. They are double dipping.”

Marchiony doesn’t think asking fans to return unused tickets for face value is unfair.

“Sure it’s fair,” Marchiony said. “It’s fair to give them a choice of whether they want to do it or not.”

The concern about ticket scalping is hardly a new phenomenon. Before the Internet, then Athletics Director Bob Frederick said he would send people to monitor ticket reselling businesses by noting the locations of tickets.

“We would look up and see who those tickets belonged to, and we would contact that person and say ‘You better not do that.’ We didn’t have legal backing, but they are a revocable license,” Frederick said of the tickets.

During Perkins’ tenure, the University began cracking down on scalping two years ago by threatening to use the state’s criminal trespassing law and a University policy on commercial solicitation. The law says it is illegal to remain on any land by “a person who knows such person is not authorized or privileged to do so… Such person enters or remains therein in defiance of an order not to enter or to leave such premises or property personally communicated to such person by the owner thereof or other authorized person.” The law says nothing about ticket sales.

Todd Cohen, director of University Relations, said that in response to complaints from fans about aggressive scalping outside the Fieldhouse, the University began enforcing a KU policy that had been on its books since 1983. It states: “No activity is permitted which involves the regular use of University facilities and results in financial gain or profit to an individual.”

Because scalpers reap financial gain by selling tickets, they become trespassers if they are asked to leave and don’t, according to Captain Schuyler Bailey of the KU Public Safety Office.

City Prosecutor Jerry Little said trespassers could be fined $1,000 and sentenced to 180 days in jail.

Scott, who was arrested for criminal trespassing even though he was on public property with tickets for the game, asked: “How is it trespassing if I have a ticket?”

Lawrence defense attorney John Kerns said he could see prosecuting someone for scalping on a public campus only “under extreme circumstances.”

“With a scalper, it’s not like you are disturbing the peace or anything like that,” he said. “It is an individual standing there with tickets. This is America we are talking about. We have a capitalistic society. That is how commerce works in our country. Those individuals are out there working for a buck. For a big brother to say they can’t do that, it seems kind of un-American.”

The Athletics Department has a long history of unsuccessfully trying to ban scalping by law. Before Perkins came to Lawrence in 2003, Frederick worked with Jeff Boerger, president of the Kansas Speedway, to persuade the Kansas Legislature to criminalize scalping. One bill was shot down in 2000 despite Frederick’s testimony in support of the bill.

Boerger said he has “as strong a partnership with Mr. Perkins as we did with Dr. Frederick.” Boerger said he has had discussions with Perkins about re-introducing an anti-scalping bill in the future, “but we haven’t pursued it aggressively. That is something we need to look at moving forward.”

Frederick, athletics director from 1987 to 2001, called scalping distasteful. Those feelings might have been solidified in 1991, the first time Roy Williams led the Jayhawks to the Final Four. The first Monday after Kansas won the regional championship, Frederick said he received a call from a ticket broker who said: “If you sell me 20 tickets, I will give you $100,000.”

“We don’t do business that way,” Frederick told the broker.

The Internet

Individual scalpers like Scott are throwbacks to an era when fans dealt face-to-face in the secondary market for tickets. With the Internet, a new frontier of scalping has emerged.

EBay, Craig’s List and Facebook, among others, have areas on their Web sites that allow fans to put their tickets up for auction.

Now there is StubHub — the first Web site devoted solely to reselling tickets. Hardly considered a black-market operation, StubHub is endorsed by 16 schools, including Kansas State, as an official ticket reseller.

The Jayhawks’ March 1 home game against the Wildcats has been a big Internet draw, with 158 tickets available currently on StubHub selling for $175-$883 each. EBay has a four-ticket package selling for $1,070 that reads, “DONOR SEATS NEAR BASELINE – FOR POPULAR BIG12 GAME!!!!”

StubHub spokesman Sean Pate said “extremely few” schools were still trying to get fans to return unused tickets to the Athletics Department and called the practice “archaic.”

“Fans don’t want restrictions. They want to sell for whatever the market will bear,” Pate said. “That is their right to do when they have purchased that ticket. If the team doesn’t win any games, are the teams going to return the money for the tickets purchased? Certainly not. That practice is beyond questionable. You are encouraging people to skirt the system.”

Roger Hedrick, a KU basketball season ticket holder for five years, said he sometimes sells tickets for games he cannot attend on eBay.

“You bought the tickets, they are your tickets, so you should be able to do with them what you want,” Hedrick said.

Hal Wagner, owner of Overland Park-based Ace Sports and Nationwide Tickets, said schools should not be concerned about what happens to tickets on the secondary market.

“I think any professional or college institution that doesn’t see the advantages of people being able to resell their tickets is being extremely narrow-minded,” Wagner said.

Pate said Missouri repealing its anti-scalping law in late November showed that society was beginning to accept a once scorned industry.

“You are fighting the forces of American capitalism,” Pate said of KU attempts to restrict ticket resale.

Students and Staff

The Athletics Department was so concerned about faculty and staff scalping that they replaced paper tickets with electronic cards for this basketball season — becoming the first in the nation to do so. Scalping was the first reason given by Marchiony for the change in a November interview. The Department took the same measure with student basketball tickets two years ago.

Pate, StubHub spokesman, does not like electronic tickets or the precedent they set, saying it puts society closer to an “Orwellian situation” where “everyone is showing identifications to get into a venue.”

Susan Twombly, professor of education and chairwoman of the committee that oversees faculty and staff seating policy for men’s basketball games, agreed to the electronic tickets, although she said scalping was minimal among faculty.

“I think the Athletics Department is overly focused on the small number that does it,” Twombly said of scalpers.

Sicilian, the economics chairman, said faculty members who get tickets at a subsidized price should lose them if they scalp them.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that. If they ask me to agree to the subsidized price, I don’t have a problem with not selling,” Sicillian said.

Twombly said that she didn’t like the insinuation that many faculty were scalping but that she could understand the Athletics Department’s viewpoint.

“If I was them, I wouldn’t like scalping at all, either,” Twombly said. “They are in the business of making money so they can field good teams for the fans. But a lot of people don’t think they have the right to talk about scalping because it is legal in Kansas.”

Mady Berg, an Arlington, Neb., freshman who sold her student ticket to the Kansas-Missouri football game using Facebook, said the policy against students selling tickets doesn’t make sense if it’s legal. “Why bother? It’s like buying a car and reselling it for more. If someone is willing to buy it, why not?”

Berg said requiring donations to the Williams Fund as a prerequisite to buying tickets, “sounds exactly the same, but they cover it up by making it a fund. I could say the same thing — I am taking the extra money and it is going to the Pay for Mady’s College Fund.”

Marchiony said of students, faculty and staff: “There is no time where it is acceptable to sell a ticket. That is why that ticket is priced the way it is.”

A letter sent in October to faculty and staff announcing the electronic cards said it would make “using, carrying and sharing season tickets easier than ever before.”

Twombly said the cards have made ticket sharing “very cumbersome.” Max Utsler, associate professor of journalism, had to trek to the ticket office and go through three employees to secure a paper ticket replacement after his wife inadvertently went on a trip with the couple’s ticket cards in her purse. The ticket office manager told Utsler the process would go quicker if he brought his electronic card next time.

Passing Judgment

Walter Scott sits in the back of Lawrence Municipal Court wearing the same yellow and grey jacket as when he was busted for scalping tickets a month prior. It is mid-December, and Scott has come to plead not guilty to criminal trespassing.

Judge Randy McGrath, clad in a black robe and looking regal with his full head of grey hair and white beard, uses a monotone voice to call a progression of the accused to a wooden stand. If they plead not guilty, they are given a court date.

When he reaches Scott, McGrath announces, “Sir Walter Scott,” with a smile and accompanying British accent—a nod to the prolific 18th century Scottish poet.

McGrath reads the trespassing charge and Scott pleads not guilty. McGrath gives Scott his formal court date.

“Isn’t that something,” Scott says to the judge, shaking his head.

“I don’t know anything about the case,” McGrath responds.

Scott laughs: “Scalping.”

McGrath gives a curt nod, then returns to his list of the accused. Next case. Scott exits the courtroom.

Asked whether the banter with the judge meant they knew each other, Scott looks at the floor, purses his lips, then says, “I’ve bought tickets from him.”

Interviewed later, McGrath said he is not a Williams Fund member and rarely attends basketball games. However, he did not deny that he sold tickets to Scott.

“Maybe 25 years ago I would have gone to some games and a friend gave me tickets to sell for under face value,” McGrath explained.

Scott acknowledges the stakes are high in his upcoming trial for himself, scalpers and other ticket holders. If found innocent, it would be difficult for the University to prosecute further scalpers using the criminal trespassing statute.

Scott declined to say whether he would be outside Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday selling tickets to the Kansas-Nebraska game. However, he vowed to continue selling tickets between now and his April 24 court date. Scott’s competitors, meanwhile, were selling their Nebraska tickets to the highest bidders on eBay, with almost 30 tickets available as of Tuesday night. One seller was asking $210 for two tickets near the baseline, advertised as “DONOR SEATS – SATURDAY GAME!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“This is a hypocritical system in a hypocritical society,” Scott said.