Meet Toronto’s ticket scalpers: An undying breed against all odds
He's the guy barking ‘who’s selling’ outside Rogers Centre. Sometimes, if you’re desperate enough, you give him money. So he keeps coming back.
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On a sunny Wednesday evening outside the Rogers Centre, that familiar deep tone continues to ring out.
“Baseball tickets? Buy, sell, upgrade!” shouts a tall, imposing man, waving a stack of slightly crumpled pieces of very expensive paper.
Despite the last-place Blue Jays’ ongoing struggles, it’s one of the final marquee series of the year. The New York Yankees are in town.
And two hours before game time, there they are — scalpers — dressed in rugged clothes and smoking cigarettes on three of the Rogers Centre’s four corners.
On its south-east corner, opposite Bremner Blvd., one group of men (there are no women) manage the busiest gates, handing off their cash to a slightly-better-dressed manager who shakes hands and greets his minions as they arrive for work. On the north side of the Rogers Centre, two teams of scalpers man the bridge and steps that run off of Front St. and over the railway corridor.
By 5:30 p.m., an hour and a half before the first pitch, they’ve already sold their entire inventory and have begun trying to acquire more tickets.
“I’ll carry on, thanks,” says one man, shaking his head and laughing as a scalper tries to offer him half of face value for his set of outfield seats.
“Name your price then!” responds the scalper, the man now a few metres away.
Most others, too, blow past them. But some stop, already dressed in Blue Jays jerseys, convinced they’re going to the game and willing to pay top price for mediocre seats. So the scalpers keep coming back.
Even as massive online third-party sports ticket retailers such as StubHub, Fan Exchange and Vivid Seats take over a larger share of the market, Toronto’s wealth of small regional scalpers and brokers are surviving — and growing.
The Canadian Ticket Brokers Association lists 23 of its 27 members as headquartered in the GTA. The brokers, ranging from independent online retailers to family-run businesses, have sustained loyal clientele while continuing to acquire (and sell) more tickets. Some are broker-scalper hybrids who attempt to sell their tickets through privately-run online websites or phone numbers, and show up at the gates to sell their excess.
What started as selling off a pair of tickets when they couldn’t attend every game has emerged as a close-knit community of buyers and sellers who share and redistribute swaths of thousands of licenses.
One Toronto ticket broker who owns more than 30 seat licences for each of the Leafs and Blue Jays claims his business is “skyrocketing” and did $2.23 million in sales last year (up nearly a million on 2015) on an average profit margin of 15 per cent.
“Where we make our money is sheer volume,” the broker, who didn’t want to be named for the story, said. “We deal with thousands of tickets every month.”
In the last decade, these season seat holders-turned-brokers have made accessing tickets to Toronto’s pro sports franchises more expensive, according to Tom Pistore, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s (MLSE) vice-president of ticket sales.
“The new secondary platforms coming online, albeit some of them operating in a completely non-legal format up until a couple of years ago — like StubHub — really just changed how consumers buy,” he said. “Buying direct and/or now buying on a secondary platform, there really isn’t any difference in many consumers’ minds.”
Some teams and markets have clamped down on these season seat monopolists. In 2015, StubHub sued the Golden State Warriors for mandating all resale be done through its Ticketmaster platform. Other teams have required season seat holders live in the state or province of their team, forcing license owners to return their tickets or launch futile lawsuits.
The Blue Jays recently told season ticket holders they should expect a 17 per cent hike in prices for 2018. In the past, Toronto’s sports franchises have said price hikes were aimed at biting into broker-scalper profits.
MLSE has identified markers — ranging from credit card numbers to purchase addresses or ticket postage — that alert them when licence holders control dozens of tickets.
They’re also considering options to combat the sometimes hundreds of fraudulent tickets sold to ignorant buyers from independent sellers.
Still, MLSE must provide early access at a discounted rate to all of its season seat holders for events at the Air Canada Centre, according to Pistore.
That can mean ticket brokers get their hands on as many as 50 per cent of all lower-bowl seats before they even hit the presale market, according to one Toronto broker.
MLSE began operating on a dynamic pricing scheme in the early 2010s. Weather, a recent trade, opponent, a do-or-die game, and a win streak can raise or lower prices — even on the day of a game.
At the end of the 2016-2017 season when the Leafs found out their game against the Columbus Blue Jackets was a win-and-your-in scenario, they jacked up the prices for the game, according to Pistore.
Some professional sports teams now price their tickets as far as a seat-to-seat basis, making aisle options more expensive than three or four chairs in.
“We haven’t gone that granular yet. There are teams that, if you have 24 rows in each section, they have 24 prices and if you have 24 rows and two aisles they have a multiple of those 24 prices,” Pistore said.
“We’re evaluating the benefit of whether that seat is actually more valuable. First rows and aisles, those are the easy ones. There’s a lot of best practices that are going to come out of this and we’re interested in seeing the outcome.”
Until then, the same men buying seats before you can get them will continue offering them to you at above face value.
The yelling is free of charge.