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February 3, 2004

Breaking Balls

Mariners 1 million, Scalpers 1

by Derek Zumsteg

Not long ago, a Chicago judge tossed out a lawsuit against the Cubs, who had set up their own company to scalp their tickets. They'd done so on the grounds that (essentially) by being two parts of the same company, it wasn't like it was the same company doing it, as prohibited by the law. Explanations readers suggested for that finding ran from stark judicial incompetence all the way to the Tribune Company getting one of those Wrath of Khan creatures into the judge's ear somehow.

Meanwhile in the gray, gray, gray state of Washington (contrary to our reputation, it's only rained a couple of times this winter: October-December, then it snowed, December-January, then it snowed again, then January through today), where local government isn't quite as corrupt as Chicago but is racing to catch up, judicial insight flared.

The Mariners have been playing a particularly galling game for the last couple of years. They've been trying to make themselves the only outlet for tickets. They've gotten some custom legislation passed, so you can't even sell a ticket for under face value in front of the stadium, and they've hired Seattle cops to bust scalpers. Their "Welcome to Safeco Field" loop tape (I hope it's a loop tape, because that guy must have one of the worst jobs in the world reading that script exactly the same way over and over for six hours every home game) includes stern admonitions against buying tickets from people on the street, noting that the M's have nothing to do with those counterfeiters, who also support murder in the third world, music piracy, and the eroding standards of our public schools.

What the Mariners want is for fans to turn in their tickets at an authorized outlet for future tickets, paying any ticket fee the team can tag on both coming and going--just another way to squeeze a little more out of season-ticket holders. For instance, if I'm a season-ticket holder and I have two seats at $20 each but I can't go that day, the M's will give me credit towards a future game--where the seats will run the single-game price of $23. Then they sell the tickets I gave back to them for $23 each, and they've just made an extra $12.

The big thing was that they set up the Mariners Marketplace, where season-ticket holders could put their stubs up for sale (demanding huge markups) and the M's would take a cut of the sale. While the system wouldn't let people in Seattle sell for above face value, it also allowed season-ticket holders to set up "profiles" outside of Seattle which could then sell as many tickets for as much as they wanted. And the M's took a nice little cut of the action, to the tune of 25%. Then the team took seats they claimed had no price and sold them for far above what similar tickets sold for and, if they didn't sell, released them at the actual seat price. Sounds, uh, sort of like they're engaging in and profiting from scalping, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, the team was paying police, telling them where to go, and those cops were out busting run-of-the-mill scalpers who just want make a living the capitalist way, exploiting supply and demand in a heated competition to see who can buy the lowest and then make the most from their inventory before it becomes worthless.

Some of those scalpers filed a suit against the city, charging the administration with selective enforcement. The M's were paying to have laws enforced when it suited them, while their own law-skirting activities went along uninvestigated. I figured this was about as likely to succeed as my brief campaign to succeed Pat Gillick as the Mariners' general manager. Despite their ruthless profiteering, the Mariners have immense political clout in this town. But just as I was stunned the Chicago judge decided to let that team blatantly violate the law, in this case, the scalpers won. Charges dismissed. And the Honorable Jean Rietschel found that enforcing only street scalping "is not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose."

What's particularly interesting here is that the team has argued that scalpers somehow create an unsafe environment, so they're justified in having the cops knock heads for them around the stadium. The judge has found that since there's no reason the city can't prosecute online ticket scalping through the M's, which the team profits from, the law was being enforced unfairly against those who violated it in a manner the team disliked. The city is going to appeal, but right now it seems that the city (and the team) are going to be faced with a decision on whether they should allow all scalping, since they're unable to control it anyway, thus at least allowing the Mariners their secondary stream of income, or trying to crack down on everything, and enforcing it widely, cutting that stream of income.

I'm going to bet on the former. Still, I wouldn't want to underestimate the power of a baseball team to get things done: If the state legislature came in for a special session and enacted legislation that allowed any kind of ticket resale--except within a four-block radius of Safeco Field, where it would be a crime punishable by three to five years at Walla Walla State--there aren't many who've followed the team's history who would be surprised. And in Illinois, we may see the legislature pass a law so specific it will take a couple years for judges in Chicago to find a way to interpret it to the Cubs' advantage. I don't know which possibility is more absurd.

Related Content:  The Who,  Tickets

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