When Ron Jaworski, Ted Hendricks, Lester Hayes and their teammates finally take the field this Sunday in New Orleans, a crowd of 75,500 will be packed into the plush cushioned seats of the Superdome. Some 50,000 will have paid the face value of $40 for their tickets. The remaining 25,000 will have forked out between $150 and $500 a seat. "The Super Bowl is the single biggest scalping event since Little Bighorn," says one ticket agent. "It's a single event scheduled at least two years in advance to take place in a certain city on a certain day. It can't be rained out. And it's a national event, the single most popular sporting spectacle of the year."
Those 25,000 tickets were sold for a premium on a nationwide black market of ticket scalpers and ticket brokers by NFL club officials, players and fans. According to Oakland Managing General Partner Al Davis, even NFL club owners and Commissioner Pete Rozelle have been involved in scalping schemes. Replying to this last charge, Rozelle snapped, "There is not a shred of truth to that suggestion." Davis also disclosed that he himself has sold 75 to 100 tickets—at face value—to Las Vegas hotel-men each year.
The widespread scalping and the suggestions of scandal at the highest levels not only have the NFL struggling to refurbish its carefully molded image of stability, solidarity and integrity, but have also attracted the attention of the Internal Revenue Service as well as national and local law-enforcement agencies. The IRS reportedly is probing into the tax consequences of the underground economy generated by Super Bowl scalping; this largely unreported revenue could approach $7 million for 1981 alone.
"There's a sickness about the whole thing," Rozelle told SI last week. "You feel a sickness in your stomach. There hasn't been anything like this in my 21 years as commissioner. We've had problems, sure, but not of such a serious internal nature. It does make you sick."
January 26, 1981
Rozelle concedes he has known for years that Super Bowl tickets were being resold at premium prices. He particularly recalls Tex Schramm, the president of the Dallas Cowboys, getting up at one NFL meeting and describing how buyers met Cowboy fans moments after they picked up their Super Bowl tickets and offered to purchase them for more than the face value. Rozelle says he has also seen advertisements in newspapers offering to buy and sell Super Bowl tickets and knows that tickets reach travel agencies at premium prices. But he says he never dreamed the volume of premium sales was as large as it is.
Nevertheless, NFL brass paid little, if any, attention to the scalping of Super Bowl tickets until last fall when Davis suddenly began to drop names—Rozelle's included—during a pretrial deposition in the antitrust suit in which the Raiders and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission are challenging the bylaw in the NFL constitution that has permitted the league to block Davis' proposed move of the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles. (The trial is scheduled to begin in L.A. next month.)
According to the transcript of his deposition, Davis said that at one NFL meeting Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, asked why the league was selling Super Bowl tickets for $20 when they were worth $50. Davis asserted that he, Davis, then asked one owner, whom he didn't identify, why Rozelle didn't raise the price. Davis continued, "And he made the statement to me, 'Are you kidding? That is how he [Rozelle] makes his big score.' I didn't realize what he was talking about."
Davis went on to say that in 1976 he got a phone call from the late Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, asking him what he planned to do with his allotment of tickets for the 1977 Super Bowl, in which the Raiders played the Minnesota Vikings in the Rose Bowl. Davis said he told Rosen-bloom he planned to give them to fans.
Davis then testified, "And he [Rosen-bloom] said, 'What are you going to sell them for?' I told him that we were going to sell them for the face value of the tickets. And he said, 'Look. I have a guy who knows how to handle this...' And he told me that this fellow knew how to market these tickets and we could make a fortune on the tickets [by selling them] above the face value...I said I wouldn't do it...I asked him who the guy was, and he said it was a fellow by the name of Harold Guiver." Davis then said that after the Super Bowl, in which the Raiders beat the Vikings, Rosenbloom called him again "...and talked to me about what he had done with the Super Bowl tickets [30,000 in all] that had been allocated to the host city, the Los Angeles Rams. [He] told me they made a killing."
According to the same transcript, Davis said that late in 1977 Rosenbloom asked him if he wanted to scalp his allotment for Super Bowl XII in New Orleans. "He told me that he had talked to the New Orleans owner [John Mecom jr.] and the New Orleans owner had gone along with the plan to use their host city tickets [15,000 total] in a way of selling them above face value...I was told that everyone in the league is doing it... Coaches are doing it...everyone is..."
Rozelle reacted angrily when asked about Davis' charges. "The only evidence Al Davis ever offers to support his claims," he said, "are comments he allegedly heard from an unidentified team owner and accusations allegedly made by a man who now is dead, Carroll Rosenbloom." (Rosenbloom drowned in the Atlantic off Golden Beach, Fla., in April of 1979.)
While the Davis testimony was being leaked to the media, so, too, was a deposition by the aforementioned Harold Guiver, who held a front-office administrative position with the Rams from April of 1978 until the fall of 1979, when Georgia Frontiere, Rosenbloom's widow and now sole owner of the team—Madame Ram, as they call her—terminated him. Guiver now is the assistant general manager of the Saints, reporting to Steve Rosenbloom, son of Carroll and stepson of Georgia. According to the transcript, Guiver said Carroll Rosenbloom had promised to sell him 1,000 tickets for the 1980 Super Bowl in the Rose Bowl at their face value, a promise corroborated by Steve Rosenbloom.
Guiver claimed that Georgia then tried in late 1979 to sell him 1,000 Super Bowl tickets—each had a face value of $30, so the total package was worth $30,000—for $100 apiece, or a total of $100,000. Guiver said Mrs. Frontiere sought to camouflage the $70,000 premium through car and loan payments.
Enter Rozelle. "Georgia called me to ask my advice as to how she should handle the Guiver situation," Rozelle said. "I said, 'Georgia, as commissioner, I don't like it. If you're asking me, if I were in your shoes, what would I do? I probably, right or wrong, would feel I had a moral and ethical obligation to fulfill my late husband's commitment.' Georgia then said to me, 'Well, if I do, I assure you they're gonna be my worst tickets.' "
Guiver got his 1,000 tickets—he says he gave Georgia a check for only $30,000, the total face value; most of his tickets reportedly were then distributed to an L.A. ticket agency. Rozelle today insists that Georgia never discussed the financial details of the transaction with him. What, though, in light of all the ticket-scalping charges in the depositions, would Rozelle do if Georgia called him tomorrow with a situation similar to the Guiver case?
"I'd probably tell her, 'Stiff him,' " Rozelle said.
One thing Georgia never asked Pete, though, was his advice on who should quarterback the Rams, which, her deposition indicates, was a nagging concern, as the following exchange among Georgia and attorneys Joseph L. Alioto and Joseph Cotchett reveals:
Frontiere: There are still some areas [of the L.A. team] I am not satisfied with. For instance...when he [Don Klosterman, general manager] hasn't told me who is going to be quarterback and somebody says who is going to be quarterback and I have to take a guess, you know. That kind of silly little thing that I don't consider too silly, no.
Alioto: Who is [playing quarterback]?
Frontiere: He [Klosterman] told me [Pat] Haden, but I am not so sure.
Cotchett: Better not put that on the record.
Frontiere: I hope it gets in the papers. I want Bobby Lee to be the quarterback. Nobody will listen to me.
Actually, it isn't unusual for a middle-level, $48,000-a-year front-office employee such as Guiver to find himself with Super Bowl tickets in his hands, although certainly not 1,000 of them. The NFL distributed the tickets for the 1981 Super Bowl in this way:
•16,425 to each of the competing teams, Philadelphia and Oakland. The Eagles allotted 12,000 to season subscribers, the Raiders 10,000. Rozelle's written guidelines suggest that the Super Bowl competitors should establish a "firm policy" regarding numbers of tickets made available to players, coaches and staff members, with a maximum of 15 per individual. The Raiders and the Eagles both ignored Rozelle's suggestion, offering each player 30 and 20 tickets, respectively, at face value;
•7,300 to the host team, the Saints;
•876 to each of the other 25 NFL teams (each NFL player is entitled to purchase a minimum of two tickets at face value);
•Some 2,500 to the owners of luxury suites in the Superdome;
•10,950 to the NFL office.
Except for the two tickets they must offer to each of their players, NFL teams aren't bound by any official rules as to the distribution of their supply; they just have Rozelle's guidelines. Owners usually keep what they want, then dispense the balance among executives, coaches, scouts, season-ticket holders, local media and office workers. It's common knowledge in the NFL that tickets are given to otherwise underpaid employees not as a bonus but as guaranteed compensation. Tickets then become a form of currency; indeed, they are traded for money, travel and what people in the automobile industry call "loaners," cars that a dealer makes available to friends or business contacts at no charge for varying periods of time.
Rozelle says the NFL office uses its allotment to provide tickets at face value for various groups involved with the league, such as NFL Properties, NFL Films and the NFL Players Association; for representatives of the three television networks; for representatives of the print media, including SPORTS ILLUSTRATED; for CBS Radio; for major sponsors of league shows and programs; and for league office personnel, including, of course, the commissioner. Also, 1,000 tickets are set aside for a lottery in which all letters to the NFL requesting Super Bowl tickets—if received between Feb. 1 and June 1—are pooled for a drawing; this year more than 6,000 letters were in the pool.
As for his personal supply, Rozelle says he takes care of close friends—and, in one case, a pen pal—by selling them a very limited number of tickets at face value. Last year, Rozelle says, he sold 16 Super Bowl tickets to a longtime acquaintance from Los Angeles, Don Ross, who is director of the special events division of FIRSTOURS, which runs 133 retail travel outlets through its Ask Mr. Foster operation; Ross says he kept 10 tickets for his immediate family and sold the other six at face value to a former associate, Peter Uebberoth, now the president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Summer Games. Rozelle, however, denies flat-out that he ever sold large blocks of tickets to Ross, or anyone else, for use by travel agencies, as Davis has charged.
Then there's Rozelle's pen pal. "One year," he says, "I received a letter that said, 'Dear Mr. Rozelle. I'm a Pan Am stewardess. I'm going with a guy I love very much. He loves football. I think if you'd sell me two tickets to the Super Bowl game, I could hook him.' "Obviously, she did. "Every year," Rozelle continues, "she writes and asks for tickets, saying she wants to give them as an anniversary present, and I take care of her."
So, the market, however black, is there—for seller and buyer. And serving the nation in this marketplace are such performers as NFL club officials like Guiver; registered ticket brokers like Larry Goss, the general manager of Murray's Tickets in Los Angeles; unregistered scalpers like Mark, who refuses to divulge his last name for fear the IRS will pay him a visit; and NFL players like the veteran who, still wearing his practice gear, went out into the parking lot at San Diego two weeks ago, walked to the parked car of a known scalper, put his head through the window on the driver's side and engaged the man in a long discussion; and like the rookie who says he was approached last fall by three teammates and an assistant coach seeking to buy his two tickets for Super Bowl XV.
"One player offered me face value for them," the rookie says. "One of the other two offered me $300 for both. The third player didn't offer me that much. The coach only offered me $200 for the pair. He was asking everybody for their tickets. He apparently knew a lot of people who wanted them. It sounded like he'd done it before."
And what did this rookie do with his two tickets?
"I sold them for $300," he says. In fact, a random check of NFL players indicted that $300 was the going rate for two tickets to Super Bowl XV.
That assistant coach probably was what the people in the ticket trade call a "runner." A runner takes his booty, however large, and calls someone like Mark or simply shows up at an enterprise such as Murray's Tickets, which is located at the corner of Hoover and Santa Barbara, directly across from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Last year Murray's bought and sold some 6,000 Super Bowl seats, purchasing them for between $150 and $300 and selling them for between $200 and $450. Goss insists that Murray's never buys tickets on speculation. "We buy to order," he says. "You tell me what you want—the quality, how many—and I'll find them. This year it costs at least $150 to buy a guy out of his seat."
Murray's works all year long to secure a guaranteed block of Super Bowl tickets, but demand always exceeds that supply. So, during the playoffs, Murray's opens what it calls "remotes"—hotel rooms that pass as offices—in several NFL cities, speculating that the team in that city might play in the Super Bowl; once a team is eliminated from the playoffs, the remote closes up.
For instance, there was a Murray's remote in Cleveland for a week. But the people at Murray's had little faith in Oakland; the remote there didn't open until the morning after the Raiders won their Super Bowl berth. Once a remote is in operation, buy and sell ads are placed in the classified sections of the area newspapers and contacts are established. When SI's Steve Wulf called the remote in Philadelphia and asked if he could stop by, the answer was, "No way. There's too much money around here."
The expenses Murray's incurs while trying to obtain tickets—hotel charges, airplane flights, classified ads, telephones, etc.—are reflected in the price it charges customers, including travel agencies and individual buyers. Murray's pays taxes and operates in a state in which scalping is legal, as long as it isn't done on the site of the event. Mark, who lives in Washington, D.C., doesn't pay taxes on his ticket profits, and what he does isn't legal. Mark supplements his $11,000-per-year salary as a recreation department worker by buying and selling tickets. "I just do it on events that are sure things," he says. "The Super Bowl, the NCAA finals, things like that. I've never lost on a deal, never got stuck with a ticket, even. If I can make a couple of grand a year on this, and I do, it helps for gas."
Unfortunately, Super Bowl XV won't be as profitable for Mark as Super Bowl XIV was. "I had a big contact in Pittsburgh," he says, "and remember, the Rose Bowl has about 30,000 more seats than the Superdome. There were more tickets floating around last year than this year. I had 36 tickets last year and had so many ads in so many papers all around the country that for two weeks my phone was ringing constantly. I'd hang up the phone, it'd ring. Eight in the morning, 10 at night, it was always ringing. Most of the calls were from L.A., but one guy called from Alaska. It all ended the Tuesday before the game. I had to wrap everything up and send the tickets out by registered mail—after I got paid, of course." Mark says he lost 24 pounds during the two weeks it took him to get top dollar for his 36 tickets, but he also gained $4,000—good gas money.
As for this year's game, Mark says he had fewer than a dozen tickets to move. "I wish they wouldn't play the game in New Orleans," he says. Or as another scalper put it, "Rozelle ought to pass a law that they'll only play the Super Bowl in stadiums with at least 100,000 seats."
For his part, Rozelle says that his office will investigate all suggestions that NFL owners scalped tickets, legally or illegally. He also says that when the owners hold their annual meeting in March in Hawaii, he hopes to introduce tough new NFL laws designed to better control the movement of Super Bowl tickets. So far, though, no one has suggested a bulletproof plan; one remedy Rozelle laughs off is the recommendation that he hire 100 house detectives and have them seek out stool pigeons on each club. Indeed, there may be no answer.
Rozelle is faced with a traditional American enterprise (scalping) and a classic Economics I equation—the price of a commodity will rise to its proper level. Maybe Mark put it best. "There are a lot of rich people in this country," he said. "The high rollers always want to go where the action is. And to them, money is nothing."