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Scalping is a career on the edge

Restaurants are making a killing. Cab drivers are happy. Hotels are filled on what would otherwise be a blah weekend.

The NCAA basketball tournament is in town, bringing what we get too little of -- outside dollars. There is money to be made, from heads in beds to the hotel bellhop scoring tips for carrying bags.

And then there is Rob. I met him Saturday outside HSBC Arena, sitting in a light blue van, picking off stragglers headed to the box office.

For him, this is not a special event. This is his 9-to-5.

There are a lot of ways to make a living. Some people sell insurance. Some people paint houses. Rob buys tickets and -- if all goes well -- resells them at a higher price. He travels the country, clearing -- he claimed -- anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year. Cash. Take that, IRS.

"I used to be a chef, I trained at Le Cordon Bleu [culinary] school in Pittsburgh," he said. "But I can make as much in a day with this as I did in a week slaving over a hot stove."

America. Land of the Free. Home of the Entrepreneur.

Rob -- he did not want me to use his last name -- said he has a wife in Atlanta and nine kids. He is 35, slim, chatty, with an easy smile and a scalper's sensibility. He likes the road and enjoys life on the edge.

"I am a people person," he says. "In this business, you have to be."

The NCAA Tournament brings a lot of people into town, from coaches to players to fans. Traveling alongside them like pilot fish is a subculture of entrepreneurial cowboys. Ticket scalpers are a piece of the underground economy, a slice of seldom-seen life. They are light on their feet, play hunches and track a market that changes like the weather. They have no mercy on the naive. But they live with a small comfort zone and little routine, and I have to admire that.

"People need to respect what we do," said Rob. "It's like Wall Street, the market can drop quickly -- only for us, it's hours, not weeks or months."

Pausing for a moment, he punched up -- in honor of Buffalo -- a slice of Rick James' Mary Jane Girls on his PDA.

"I can drop a couple of thousand on seats for a big event," he said. "But if I get there and fans are looking to sell, I'm scrambling to get what I can."

The scalpers stationed near HSBC Arena before Sabres games are mainly locals who buy extras on the street or have connections to season ticket holders. With bigger events, you get guys like Rob, with broader ticket networks and steady clients. The past month has taken him from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver to spring training in Phoenix to a college basketball tournament in Nashville.

His Nashville sidewalk vendor ID was on the floor of the van, attached to an "I Need Tickets" sign. He came here with a couple of "associates." They stay in cut-rate motels, usually near an airport -- making it easy to connect on ticket buys and sales. The profession stepped up in class since New York legalized ticket resales, and online brokers such as StubHub became an industry.

"Our prices," Rob said, shrugging off the competition, "are slightly better than StubHub. And we deliver to you, that's a service we provide."

Saturday afternoon, he wanted $400 apiece -- negotiable -- for two at center court, 12th row, for today's games. There were six similar tickets available on StubHub for $395 each. Face value of each ticket is $73.

"When an event is sold out," he said, "[the customer] has to pay to play."

Which left him, when I left him, looking for more tickets. It was Saturday afternoon, and Rob still had 47 client orders to fill.

"I'm not worried," he said. "I'll get the tickets."

It sounded like a mantra.


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