Any sports fan will tell you: Addison and Clark can be a desperate place. From April through September, dreams are fulfilled and shattered on an almost daily basis.
This happens just outside of Wrigley Field.
The desperation feeds an industry of ticket hustlers living off the Cubs like parasites, and just before game time these outsiders have some control over who makes it into the friendly confines.
On a Saturday afternoon, the streets around Wrigley are a circus. The charms of baseball's past are in full glory. Peanut vendors shout for customers, while brass bands play show tunes. Children pound their fists into little mitts. This circus also takes place in an upscale neighborhood: young men have traded their mitts for cell phones.
The game out here is similar to the one played inside the park. Those in the know score tickets; everyone else is out.
These days Wrigley feels like an exclusive club. When the team does well, so do scalpers and ticket brokers. Out of the 81 home games this season, more than a third were completely sold-out, and that includes several thousand standing-room-only passes. A fair number of the tickets to these games were in the hands of people who had no intention of attending.
The frenzy begins early. In late February, while the Cubs hibernate, fans line up in the bitter cold to get the first crack at tickets. An impetuous act, maybe, but a necessary one: bleacher seats for weekend games and favorite matchups (e.g., Saint Louis) usually sell out within several hours. Regular seats move a bit more slowly, but they'll sell out for big games.
The Cubs' assistant director of ticket services, Joe Kirchen, has made a career of chasing scalpers away from Wrigley. Over a dozen years he's developed both a sense for spotting scalpers in a crowd and a coarse voice from hollering at them. "I don't like people making money off of other people," he says. "You see these people every day, and you get to know them." He's forever on the lookout for suspicious names left at the will-call window, and on-line orders are tracked by address. If phone orders under different names are destined for the same address, he investigates.
Scalping is clearly against the law. The state's Ticket Scalping Act reads: "It is unlawful for any person, firm or corporation...to sell or permit the sale, barter or exchange of such admission tickets at any other place than in the box office or on the premises of such theater, circus, baseball park, etc."
"Nobody really adheres to that law," one scalper confides. He's standing in front of the Wrigley box office, surrounded by a sea of freelance ticket sellers in plain view of uniformed police. On the rare occasion a scalper gets arrested, he's usually charged with violating municipal code 10-8-500, which carries a maximum fine of $200.
Wrigleyville alderman Bernie Hansen pushed through a revision of the code in 1997. By banning scalpers from an area within 2,000 feet of the stadium, the revision acknowledged the futility of the existing law. "It wasn't a change to the penalty," says Jennifer Hoyle, spokesperson for the city's law department. "It was a change in the area of enforcement around the stadium. It was designed to apply specifically to the area around Wrigley Field.
"A change in the ordinance wouldn't affect the frequency of enforcement," Hoyle adds. "That's a policy matter. It would affect how the police enforce it. The earlier ordinance may have been too difficult to enforce."
With no one enforcing the law, some ticket brokers also ignore it. An exemption in the state act allows registered brokers to resell tickets, but "the ticket broker and his employees must not engage in the practice of selling, or attempting to sell, tickets for any event while sitting or standing near the facility at which the event is to be held or is being held." The brokerage offices lining the streets around Wrigley might seem to be violating this law.
"We do what we can," Kirchen says, with a mixture of resolve and resignation. "The scalpers are always a step ahead of us. We just try to put a dent in what they're doing."
Max Waiszisz doesn't go to Cubs games. It's not that he can't afford them--he makes a good living. And it's not that he doesn't love the team--he's been a fan for years. He can always get tickets. In fact, he handles hundreds of the best seats for every game.
But Waiszisz is banned from Wrigley Field. "They will not let me go to games because I'm a ticket broker," he says, sounding sincerely hurt. Criminal trespassing charges filed by the Cubs early this year prompted Waiszisz to retaliate--he filed what he describes as "a human rights lawsuit" against the organization. He lost his suit in August but is now appealing. "The lawsuit is about discrimination," he says. "That's a human rights issue. I got arrested for just being there."
Waiszisz was banished for being the most prominent ticket broker in the area. He's not shy about it. "Frank knows me," he says. "Ask him about me."
"Max is a three-dollar bill," responds Frank Maloney, director of ticket operations at Wrigley. "He's the king."
Waiszisz owns Gold Coast Tickets, a brokerage company headquartered in Lake Point Towers with a branch outlet near the ballpark. He defends his occupation with vigor. "A lot of people don't know what a broker is," he says. "The bottom line is, we help the customer in whatever way we can." Brokers, he says, level the playing field, making tickets available to all who want them. "Does Bruce Springsteen ever wait in line for a good ticket?" he asks. "No! We make it so the common folk can go to a broker and get the good tickets."
Most of those common folks happen to be white. Walk around Wrigley Field, or attend a Cubs game, and you'll see few black fans. That makes the black scalper easy to spot.
Chris runs the show around the Harry Caray statue at Sheffield and Addison. Stocky and full of energy, he brings a collection of shirts to disguise himself when approaching the box office. He'll attempt to buy tickets in a white T-shirt and orange hat, get turned away, and return an hour later in an oxford.
"Evander Holyfield" works the intersection of Clark and Addison. Nicknamed by the box office because of his remarkable resemblance to the pugilist, Holyfield stoically surveys the crowds from just beyond the gate that separates Cubs property from the public sidewalk. He dispatches his underlings with a nod of the head and a whispered word.
These two, and countless others, crowd the streets surrounding Wrigley Field. Yet, for its often scattershot appearance, scalping follows a prescribed order. Leaders control teams of hustlers who work together in certain areas--each on his own turf. Legmen run back and forth, exchanging tickets and money under the direction of the leader. Often they tout tickets they don't even have. They'll offer bleacher seats and then meet with a partner to get the tickets before closing the deal.
Naturally, scams are commonplace. The hustlers prey on some fans' lack of knowledge about the ballpark. Tickets marked SRO (Standing Room Only--$8 to stand during a game) have been sold for five times their face value as "Second Row Only" seats. Kirchen has heard of bleacher seats going for more than $200--ten times their face value. Club box seats, which the team sells for $30 apiece, can fetch even more.
Scalpers also profit from the carelessness of buyers. Cheap tickets, which clearly say Upper Deck Reserved, will be sold as bleacher seats. Or the top ticket will be for a bleacher seat, while the three ones under it will be for a past game.
"I have no sympathy for a fan who buys from those guys," Maloney says. "Sometimes the fan has no idea what he's buying, and then 'Poof!' the scalper is gone."
If nothing else, the hustlers are great confidence boosters. Everyone is a "big guy," a "player," or "my man." They inflate egos along with ticket prices.
THE SECRET AGENT
On a big night--say, Saint Louis is in town with Mark McGwire, or San Francisco with Barry Bonds--Bill quits work a few hours early. He has a home office and lives close to Wrigley, so it's a quick commute to his second job: scalping tickets.
Bill dresses in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. He's about 30, and he's white and clean-cut. He could easily be a student home for summer vacation. In other words, he looks like 20,000 other guys around the ballpark.
As he approaches Wrigley, he carries no tickets. His plan is simple: "Go in for the quick hit and take off." He picks up a bleacher ticket cheap from some guy who has one too many, buys another at face value from a businessman, and scores a pair from a group of young women whose friends didn't show up. And just like that, Bill is working.
He learned this business model from a friend more than a decade ago. "I buy tickets off fans with extras and turn around and sell them," he says. "Sometimes it pans out, sometimes it doesn't." More often than not, he leaves with a few hundred bucks in his pocket.
Bill's among the toughest scalpers to spot. He doesn't bark his prices, and he doesn't stand out. He succeeds by flying under the radar of the cops and Cubs security. "I do what I can to be as invisible as possible," he says. "That's the big thing, just trying to blend in with the crowd."
Over the years, Bill has seen the enforcement of scalping laws fluctuate wildly. And he knows this season was a great time to be in the business--the Cubs were playing tough and the cops were being tolerant. A winning season "makes a big difference," he says. "It makes Tuesday day games worth coming out to."
Bill has been arrested at least a half dozen times. Years ago, he'd be handcuffed and sent to the Town Hall police station or the lockup inside of Wrigley Field. "It was much more of a hassle then," he recalls. "You'd sit in the slammer for anywhere between three and eight hours. You'd have to go to court, get a lawyer." Now the crime simply warrants a ticket. Usually the police seem reluctant to go that far: "They tell me to walk a few blocks away." Consequently, Bill says, the number of scalpers working around Wrigley has grown. He estimates there are as many as a hundred.
But despite these easier times, Bill has slowed down. He doesn't sell as many tickets as he used to--maybe that's because he's grown older or he's not as attracted to the action as he used to be. "I don't take the risks I used to," he says, "but I also don't eat as many tickets as I used to."
A lot of scalpers are creatures of habit. Bill says the black scalpers tend to work the stretch of Addison between Clark and the el stop, while white scalpers stick near the entrance to the bleachers at Sheffield and Waveland. Everyone respects each other's turf. "The only unwritten rule is that you're not allowed to cut another guy's deals," he says. "When I'm talking to somebody, you can't jump in and undercut me."
The scalpers who work the bleacher entrance know their clientele is knowledgeable about the ballpark and hip to the price of tickets. "It's a savvy crowd," Bill says. "People know what they're going to spend and they know how much they're going to get if they have extras." To outsell his fellow scalpers, Bill says he tries to be the first face a buyer sees. "People like me and know I'm not going to rip them off." In the long run, he says, it doesn't pay to be dishonest. "It's better to be the nice guy."
Eric Soderholm may have the most unique background of any ticket broker in town. As third basemen for the White Sox from 1977 to '79, Soderholm was well liked by fans for his power hitting as well as his often quirky behavior, such as hypnotizing himself before games. After a brief stretch playing for the Rangers and the Yankees, he retired from baseball in 1980.
Soderholm was introduced to ticket brokering a couple of years later. Hoping to get into a Jacksons concert at Comiskey Park, he called a friend in the Sox public relations office. The friend couldn't help, but he knew someone who could. "I'd never heard of a ticket broker," Soderholm says. "I thought, 'God! What a business. Can anyone get into this?'"
Not long after, Soderholm opened Front Row Tickets (named after Bob Euker's motto "I must be in the front row!"). It was an immediate success. Local ticket brokers were being swept up in a lucrative jet stream behind Air Jordan. "I know people who put additions onto homes by selling Bulls tickets," Soderholm says.
His fame gave him an edge over his competitors. "I used my baseball career as an advantage," he admits. "For fans of mine it was neat to pick up the phone and call Eric Soderholm." And he earned a lot more than the $50,000 he got in his first year with the Sox. But cashing in on his star power carried a stiff tax. The White Sox organization kept him at a distance, and he fell out of favor with other local teams. "I wasn't invited to any functions," he says. "I was the redheaded stepchild. But I got over that when my bank account kept going up and up."
There are just over 39,000 seats in Wrigley Field, but no one knows how many are controlled by brokers.
"It's a small market share of tickets," Waiszisz says. He claims that 800 to 900 tickets per game are available to brokers, who then must compete for the chance to sell them.
Kirchen says that figure is much higher. "I think 3,000 is a fair number," he says. "If we release 900 a week before the game, these people absorb them right away. They live on the Internet. They live at our kiosks. As soon as a ticket opens they suck it up."
While brokers may control only a fraction of the total seats at Wrigley, Kirchen says these tickets become more important when fans have to leave the box office empty-handed. "I hate to turn away all the customers that we do when all the bad guys have the tickets."
Just as the number of tickets is in dispute, so too is their origin. Waiszisz claims the majority of the tickets he obtains come from season ticket holders, who have the best seats in the house. Because these tickets wouldn't reach the public without brokers, he claims to have a minimal impact on the general ticket pool available at the box office.
"That's a fallacy," said Kirchen. "They have hired guns all over the country buying tickets." He's seen representatives for brokers camping in the parking lot adjacent to Wrigley in February, waiting for preseason ticket sales. He sees runners at the windows before each home game. He says Internet orders come from around the country, and he believes the majority of these tickets wind up in the hands of brokers.
Waiszisz acknowledges the use of middlemen, but downplays their role in depleting the ticket stock. "We have people that wholesale to us," he says. "The wholesalers are independent and they shop the tickets around to all the brokers. It's hard to pinpoint where the tickets come from. There's so much behind that that we don't know."
"I'd say 80 percent of our dealings are with season ticket holders," Solderholm says, "but we put people out there in line." He admits in the past his company bribed Ticketmaster tellers to get good seats (Tickets.com now controls Cubs tickets), and he's used computer experts to snatch up tickets on the Internet.
Brokers also claim there's a more direct source for the best seats. For each home game, Cubs players receive VIP tickets for seats behind home plate and near the dugouts to distribute to their friends and family. Before each game, the players present a list to the box office detailing how many tickets they need. Unclaimed tickets are released just prior to the game.
Soderholm declines to answer whether his office receives tickets from ballplayers, but he does say, "You'd be shocked if you knew some of the people I've gotten tickets from."
"Tickets somehow filter down to us," says Waiszisz. Are players doing the filtering? "Definitely."
"I doubt that very much," responds Frank Maloney. "The only tickets the players are involved in are comps and they never touch those."
The Cubs are debating whether to resell season tickets themselves, following the lead of the San Francisco Giants. Currently, if season ticket holders will not be attending a game, they notify the box office, which donates the tickets to United Way. The ticket holder receives a year-end tax deduction for the donation, but the Cubs see no monetary gain. The plan being discussed would establish a brokerage firm within the box office, which would resell unused season tickets and split the profit between the team and the season ticket holder.
Waiszisz feels this system would cripple an already victimized industry. He says the Cubs go out of their way to hurt ticket brokers, citing his ban from Wrigley, the routine cancellation of broker orders, and Cubs-sponsored advertisements advising fans to avoid brokerage firms. "It's sad to see the sports teams wanting to control every aspect," Waiszisz says. "We're low people on the totem pole."
While Waiszisz vows to continue fighting the negative perception of ticket brokers, Soderholm has left the day-to-day operations of Front Row Tickets to his brothers. "I was getting tired of the business due to the greed and infighting," he says. "The methods by which we obtained tickets in the later days started to bother me. You had to bribe people to get the first pull. It started to weigh on my conscience, bribing a kid who makes minimum wage to get the first pull."
The former third baseman has turned to a more spiritual path. He now runs Soderworld, a holistic wellness center in Hinsdale.
"Before it was too hectic--people screaming, 'Where's my tickets?'" he says. "Now I walk into work and everyone's going, 'Oooohhhmmm.'"
Whether they want to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field or Madonna at the United Center, fans will curse the lack of tickets while turning to outside agencies for their seats. It's a case of the hand continuing to feed the biting dog, says Frank Maloney, because the brokerage houses are responsible for the dearth of tickets.
"They affect the market," Maloney says. "They deplete the supply and create an artificial value of what few tickets are left."
"A customer doesn't have to buy," Waiszisz counters. "If he needs to, we're there." It's simple free enterprise, as American as baseball. "This is the purest form of economics," says Waiszisz. "The consumer drives up the market if he needs the market. The harder the tickets are to get, the more the market goes up."
The legitimacy of brokers was challenged in the early 90s. Persuaded by a collection of businessmen--including such interested parties as White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf--the Illinois senate considered legislation to ban the reselling of tickets for a profit. In response, local brokers formed a coalition, hired a lobbyist, and killed the bill.
Their coalition became a trade organization, the National Association of Ticket Brokers, which has succeeded in cleaning up some of the worst practices of brokers and mandating insurance policies to protect consumers. "Complaints have gone down," says Steve Bernas of the Illinois Better Business Bureau. "I would assume it has had a positive effect on the industry."
In defense of the profession, Soderholm puts ticket brokers with some strange bedfellows. "Drug dealing wouldn't be a business, prostitution wouldn't be a business, if people didn't want it," he says. Ticket brokering "was in the closet like homosexuality. Then it popped out. Someone had to take a stand to say it was morally right. We're not scum buckets. We're not the devil. We're providing a service."
The Cubs will sell more than 2.6 million tickets this year, and in Waiszisz's eyes brokers aren't the only ones motivated by greed. In fact, he says, brokers are only collecting the crumbs. "Go to a Cubs game as a businessperson and watch what happens around you. Everything is being sold at marked-up prices. People come to Wrigley Field no matter what. It's a cash cow."
And there's a crowd waiting to milk it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.