Beating the NBA (BOOK EXCERPT)

by November 05, 2013

Beating the NBA, a compilation of anecdotes and interviews about the evolving NBA ticketing industry, is all about maximizing trends to achieve a great deal. Check out an excerpt from the book below—Ed.

by Motez Bishara / @thefrugalfan


I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who, in one of his classic novels back in the early 1960s, first coined the phrase “You get what you pay for.” I love the quote. It’s a punchy line, a saying that I borrow from time to time to sound clever when I’m discussing anything money-related.

The problem, of course, is that it’s a big fat lie.

Instead of getting what we pay for, most of us grossly overpay for things all the time.

Whether it’s everyday charges like $4.50 ATM fees and $4.90 venti caramel macchiatos, or travel expenses like $8 hotel bottled water and $20 valet parking, or fleeting fashion trends like $35 baseball caps and $320 ripped jeans…the list of rip-offs is long. Heck, Adam Sandler movies alone have wasted over $2 billion globally. If only Vonnegut were around to spend $12 on Jack and Jill he’d be singing a different tune.

But what people consistently overpay for is live entertainment: tickets to concerts, the theater, the opera, and especially sports. Game after game, year after year, Americans shell out more and more to watch professional athletes compete. At last count the figure stood at over $25.5 billion, or $82 a year for every man, woman, and child in the country. It’s a remarkable number. So remarkable, in fact, that we’re reaching a tipping point—and here’s where it gets interesting.

Enter Leonard and Yvonne Gionet of Portland, Oregon. The Gionets developed a successful real estate business and by the late 1980s decided to splurge on premium seats to the Trailblazers, just as they were making consecutive runs to the NBA Finals. Their season tickets started at a reasonable price, $200 a pop for floor seats in the very front row behind the basket. But when the Blazers moved to their new arena in 1995, their prices doubled even though they moved back a row. Not only that, but the team asked for a six-year commitment to secure the seats. Being hardcore Portland fans, the Gionets agreed to pay over $30,000 a year to lock up their new second-row seats.

And that’s when the problems started. “When we had front-row seats we had Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler and Terry Porter; it was their best team ever,” says Leonard. “And then we got something called the Jail-blazers.”

The so-called Jail-blazers were a bunch of underperforming athletes on the court, and minor felons off it, routinely getting arrested for speeding, drunk driving, drugs, and spousal abuse. “They were so bad, and they were so stupid,” Yvonne recalls. “Just to show you how stupid they were, this one guy, the little guy [Damon Stoudamire], he went through the metal detector at the airport with marijuana wrapped in aluminum foil.”

Oh dear. The Blazers slid from perennial title contenders in the 1990s to losers of sixty-one out of eighty-two games in 2006.

“We couldn’t give away our tickets,” Yvonne recalls. “People would be like, ‘Oh no, we’re busy.’ For a while they’d beg you for these tickets because they were great, but then when even our son didn’t want to go anymore…”

It’s a sad situation. Not to mention, a terrible waste of money. If you can’t give away your $800 pair of floor seats, then they’re not worth $800 anymore. They’re pretty worthless in fact.

How did the Gionets get into this mess? It’s simple: They agreed on a fixed price for the tickets years before knowing what their actual value would be at the time of delivery. And that’s how the vast majority of sports tickets are sold. In this case the transaction benefited the team, and it screwed its biggest paying fans.

And this is where I come in. I like buying tickets off the disgruntled, uninterested, or otherwise engaged. It presents golden opportunities; I’ve been to countless games where my seats were subsidized by the likes of the Gionets, who got stuck with forty-one pairs of tickets they no longer used.

Of course, not every team is mired in quicksand like the Trailblazers of the 2000s, but deals can still be had at just about every arena in the NBA on the right night.

Just follow me.

ATTENDANCE: 17,732 (sellout)

It’s 5:00 p.m., and the tipoff over on Atlantic Avenue is only two and a half hours away.

Ever since the Barclays Center opened with a Jay-Z concert in September, I’ve been desperate to watch the Nets play in Brooklyn. In fact, I’ve really been waiting twenty years for the Nets to be relevant, and this season marks their transition into the national spotlight.

In the past few years, the Nets moved from the swamps and ghettos of New Jersey to the rebirth of cool in New York City. Brooklyn is undeniably one of the hippest patches on Earth now, and having an NBA team grace the borough solidifies its status in the cultural zeitgeist.

My issue, though, is that along with their entrance into the world of cool, Nets’ ticket prices have more than doubled since last year. And because I’ve only just realized that this game against the slammin’ jammin’ Oklahoma City Thunder is on tonight, I’ve dropped everything in a mad scramble to get in without paying a fortune.

So I go into my online attack mode. I bombard ads on Craigslist, and I go through StubHub and eBay with a fine-toothed comb. I’m looking for prices outside of the price-gouging line of fire that marks New York as its bulls-eye.

I start by working two leads on Craigslist. The first from a guy who’s supposedly in Midtown Manhattan with a pair of seats in the lower bowl for $200 each. I offer $300 for the pair, telling him I’m near Grand Central Station until 5:00 p.m., and I wait to hear back.

In the meantime, I run a search with a ticket aggregator that finds all the listings floating around online before ranking their values. It’s like having an all-points bulletin out on the best deal in the house. So I repeatedly check out the deals rising to the top of the ratings system and bide my time, hoping prices keep dropping while wary of other eager buyers on the sidelines.

If this behavior pattern sounds familiar, it’s because it is a lot like stock trading. You see, for years I’ve been professionally managing a stock fund, patiently buying shares of companies like McDonald’s, Disney, and Nike when they trickle down to valuations that I think are reasonable. For sixteen years I’ve been investing in American companies while based in London, never losing sight of the Yankees, Giants, or Nets across the pond.

In England, I’ve adopted slick-passing Arsenal as my home soccer team. I bided my time for ten years on the waiting list before securing front-row season tickets, somehow priced as the cheapest seats in the house. Even when the Gunners disappoint, I reason that it’s a deal worth hanging on to. I may even be a tad spoiled by my seats, which offer me global face time at nearly every game as I wave my red scarf behind Mikel Arteta’s corner kicks.

So it stands to reason that once I’m back in the United States and craving some hoops action, I turn into the guy looking for the best ticket deal I can get my hands on. That usually involves playing a game of chance up until an hour before tipoff, hoping for a steal. Oddly, finding value on a ticket purchase poses a greater challenge than it does when buying a stock. That’s because tickets have a buying window that shuts. At some point the game starts, and time is up.

So, like Larry Bird anticipating an errant Isiah Thomas pass, or Warren Buffet buying a chunk of Goldman Sachs, I know when it’s time to act.

Up until that trigger point, there’s a feeling-out process with my potential transactee. Today, I’m haggling with Anthony Roth, who says there’s “an issue” with me being in Midtown—despite advertising his ticket location as “Midtown.” We then trade text messages, and he tells me he’s located up on 125th and Park Avenue.

“That’s in Harlem; your ad said Midtown,” I reply, smelling something fishy. Everyone knows the internet is a cesspool of scams, and classified marketplaces like Craigslist accept no liability.

Anthony assures me his tickets are legit, and that he normally works in Midtown. I ask him to call me with a meeting point, but he never does. It’s just as well; I didn’t have a good feeling about him. You have to trust your instincts when you’re potentially exchanging hundreds of dollars with people you’ve never met before.

The other listing was also in Midtown, but he was taking too long to get back to me (no doubt involved in his own game of cat and mouse). In the meantime, I had one eye scrolling through e-tickets on StubHub until I found my Larry Bird moment, swooping in for the steal.

I nabbed two tickets in the fifth-row corner, which were going for nearly $800 on Ticketmaster. Instead I paid $445 for the pair of borderline “floor seats,” with access to the Calvin Klein lounge for free food and soft drinks thrown in. Glancing at the printout, I noticed that my price was only a marginal increase on the $205 each that Nets season ticketholder Angel C paid for her (or his?) seats.

With the barcodes in hand, my fellow New Yorker Ahmed and I hopped on the 4 train to the Barclays Center. The billion-dollar facility is a marvel; the lighting is just dim enough, the seats just steely enough, the screens sharp and huge enough, and the aisles wide enough to call it the most gleaming entry into NBA homes. Call it Jay-Z’s ultimate MTV Crib, with more B-boy-inspired characters in the crowd than all the other NBA arenas combined.

We scarf up some shrimp and noodles in the lounge before gliding around the Nets’ slick herringbone-patterned floor in time for intros. The game is a slugfest from the outset. Dueling Team USA Olympians Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook trade baskets at each end of the court. Scoring champ Kevin Durant nearly breaks his neck skying over headbanded parolee Andray Blatche for the missed dunk of the year. Kris Humphries has bulked up into a six-foot-nine Goliath, but his jump shot’s turned sloppier than Scott Disick at an open bar.

By the fourth quarter, the Nets have cut their sixteen-point deficit to just three, behind Gerald Wallace’s three consecutive three-pointers. As he sinks each one, his braids swing like a wind chime in a hurricane. Brooklyn’s going wild.

Ultimately, though, all the elongated “Brook-lyn” chants are wasted. The Nets can’t quite get the job done, losing on a hairline goaltending call on Humphries. But there’s an undeniable flame lit under the Barclays Center. The energy fuelled by that kind of intensity is infectious, which helps explain why I go through what I do to get the deals that I do.

Sadly, for a great swath of NBA fans, experiencing that energy in person is nothing more than a pipedream. But I can say firsthand that it should be far from a pipedream. It’s true that for years fans have been shut out of games by teams or gouged by ticket brokers. We either had to splash out a fortune, or get on a multiyear waiting list for a season ticket and wait for the dubious right to pay for an entire season in advance.

Today, if you play your cards right, you could be watching LeBron James and the Heat play for as little as $15. And that’s in the playoffs.

I’m here to tell you how to play your cards right. I’ve done all the hard work, gone to all the far-flung arenas, taken all the commuter flights, and spent an ungodly amount of time trolling the internet and streets of the United States. All in the name of providing my fellow sports fans with something they’ve been deprived of since the beginning of time: access to an equal playing field.

Join me on this wild ride across the continent; I promise to impart all the knowledge I’ve accumulated, and share all the laughs (as well as the funny-to-everyone-but-me missteps) along the way.

Back in the Barclays Center, during the game’s waning moments, a fitting Jay-Hova lyric bounces over the loudspeakers: I’m on to the next one.

PAID: $222.48


HEAT 104, MAGIC 100
ATTENDANCE: 18,945 (sellout)

“You want free? Go to Egypt, them is free!”

That was the reaction I got from an Orlando scalper after I told him I didn’t want to pay too much for a good seat. I was practically laughed off the sidewalk, guffaws, knee slapping, and all.

I knew LeBron was a big-ticket attraction, but just how big became plainly evident when I arrived at the Amway Center a full two hours before tipoff to find a line of a thousand people waiting for the doors to open. There was a DJ outside pumping hip-hop (“Straight from London, ya ya, alright geezer”), loads of food and promotional stalls, as well as a giant inflatable Mickey Mouse. There were also a dozen satellite vans parked outside with newscasters practicing their lines on the pavement.

Talk about intimidating.

I’d flown in for less than twenty-four hours just to see this game; I had no ticket and was working on a budget. Pregame figures online were $450 and up in the lower-tier center sections. Even the guy who checked me in at the Days Inn thought I was a little nuts.

So I cautiously made the rounds, sort of befriending a few of the characters working the street corner just to get a feel of what this would take. Their strategy is to ask how much I’d be willing to spend, and mine is to stay coy and throw down outlandishly low numbers ($30? $50?). I was quoted $250 for something in the lower-section corner and $125 in the upper (nosebleed) corner. Forget it, I thought, I can do better than that. I told them I’d grab dinner and be back later, closer to tipoff at 8:00 p.m.

I was very pleasantly surprised with downtown Orlando. It’s impressive, with rows of bustling cool bars sporting live bands, giant screens, and all kinds of food. There was a lot to choose from. I parked myself at a trendy tapas bar and ended up chatting with the guy next to me. He was a young businessman who does a lot of work in India and only has time to see a few games a season. He had plunked down $380 for a fourth-row seat in the center, buying off Ticketmaster Exchange.

I wolfed down my tapas and headed back to the arena with fifteen minutes to go till tipoff. Butterflies in my stomach. A guy tried to sell me his upper-tier ticket (face value of $120—really? To sit up there?) for $100. I offered $20, and he got offended. Whatever, to me they were worth $20 and no more.

I moved back to the corner where I’d made myself a familiar face. A fat guy who looked like he could be the brother of departed SNL regular Chris Farley recognized me and waved a ticket. “I got something for you! A single in the bottom section, man. Just what you wanted.” He showed me the seating chart, and indeed, it was a great seat. Eleventh row just off the center. Furthermore, the face value said $0.00 on it, meaning it was a VIP ticket that was comped, either by one of the teams or the league.

Now came the bargaining.

Me: How much?

Him: $150.

Me: $80.

Him: $120.

Me: $80. I got cash right here.

Him: $120. I paid a lot for this.

Me: How much did you pay? I have $80, and that’s my budget.

Him: Ok, just give me $100.

Me: $85. I can’t go over $85.

Him (sensing other guys swarming around me, perhaps ready to make other offers): Ok, fine, $85.

A quick exchange, and I was in! I felt a rush knowing I’d bagged a good seat for a freakishly cheap price, relatively speaking. Once I settled in, two tall black guys who looked like they jumped out of a J-Crew ad walked over to my seat. Before even sitting down, one asked what I’d paid for my ticket.

I thought that was kind of weird and direct, so I asked why he wanted to know.

“Cos that’s my ticket you bought,” he said.

He explained that his girlfriend didn’t feel like coming, so he sold his spare for $50. He’d gotten the tix comped by his cousin, who plays for the Magic.

“Oh, who’s your cousin?” I asked.

“Jason Richardson,” he deadpanned.

Ha! For $85 I was sitting in one of the Magic’s best player’s seats. A two-time Slam Dunk champion, no less! Fantastic.

Just to feel even smugger, I asked around to find out what face value was. The Indian guy sitting next to me with his daughter was a season ticketholder. His ticket said $265 (God, I’m nosey).

I almost forgot there was a big game to watch. And boy, did it live up to its hype. This was the most exciting basketball game I’d seen live in years. The place was packed to the rafters (the anti-Atlanta), and Magic fans are noisy.

LeBron, however, put on a clinic, as they say. In the first quarter alone he had twenty-three points. He simply could not miss, and the Magic had no answer for him. From the outset he played point guard. He is simply too big and too muscular for anyone to guard at the perimeter, allowing him to rain in jump shots at will.

I asked J-Rich’s cuz why they didn’t double him. It seemed obvious they should. “They can’t. Too good a passer.” And with that, LeBron whizzed a no-look assist to an open Chris Bosh.

He finished with a jaw-dropping line of fifty-one points, eleven rebounds, and eight assists. He played forty-three minutes and was seventeen of twenty-five from the field. I’ve seen some elite players live, including Jordan, Bird, and Kobe, and LeBron is right up there with them. It was an awesome display. He was toying with the Magic in the same way you pull yarn away from a kitten.

Yet somehow the Magic clawed back to within three points with twenty seconds to go. It added to the electric atmosphere, even though they couldn’t pull off the victory.

There’s a tall spire connected to Amway Arena that lights up in blue when the Magic win. My cabbie told me that he can tell what color it is without looking because of the jovial vibe on the streets.

Alas, the spire shined red last night.

Next stop, New Orleans.

PAID: $85


ATTENDANCE: 18,119 (sellout)

Maybe it was because of the subfreezing temperatures, but Memphis was distinctly lacking something. People maybe? Open stores? Cars? Everything seemed to be shut or in slow motion. I went looking for a winter coat, as I’ve been woefully unprepared for this cold front. I asked the concierge, shopkeepers, a bus driver, and a taxi driver where I could find a coat. I’d settle for anything—a flea market, Salvation Army, or outdoor store. I was finally dropped off at what was supposedly the nicest mall in town. There were only two stores open: a Victoria’s Secret and a discount women’s clothing store. Every other storefront was empty.

Instead, I ended up having to pile on the layers to protect me from the snow. So rather than pursuing a fruitless shopping expedition, I retreated back to my hotel to search for a ticket to the game. Surprisingly, there were a few on StubHub going for less than face value. One I had my eye on was priced at $89 in the center of the club tier, above the luxury boxes (it had a face value of $129).

Combing through Craigslist, though, I spotted an unbelievable deal: one floor seat with a face value of $200 going for $130. I immediately phoned the guy up, but he had just sold it. Dang! I couldn’t believe it. He promised to make some calls and try to find me another spare, but I was out of luck. I’ve become pretty spoiled with my seats as of late, so anything short of the first ten rows feels a little too far from the action. As such, I bagged on the idea of buying the StubHub seat and decided to hit the streets before the game. Besides, hitting the streets makes for a better story.

A cab driver told me that scalpers were scarce because of a police crackdown on them, but I ignored his advice. Braving twenty-five-degree weather, I took the ten-minute walk from my hotel to the FedEx Forum (with a pit stop to warm up over a beer at the Flying Saucer). The cabbie was way off (like he was with the coat store). There was a thriving secondary ticket market just outside the gates. I’m pretty sure the exact same club seat I saw on StubHub was going for $150. There was not much else worth considering, so I decided to wait it out at another bar that had windows facing the arena. It was bitterly cold, after all.

I watched as scalpers traded tickets to and fro while I downed local ale (it had the word “snake” in it). With fifteen minutes to go until tipoff, I got restless and joined the fray. Thankfully, I quickly found a guy who had a single in the middle section of the lower tier. It was twenty rows back, but it offered a quality view. I held my ground at $80, and he capitulated. Face value says $107, so I was still riding that 25 percent discount mark. Honestly, I had no patience to stick it out in that weather, or else I may have done even better. Oh, the guy also gave me his business card (gotta love it). His name: Robert LeCruise Johnson; I’m not making this up. And his company’s name? Cruise Enterprises, naturally.

Nevertheless, I got in with plenty of time to watch warm-ups and the line-up announcements. Those are always fun in the NBA, and the Grizzlies are the first team I’ve seen with actual fireworks and flares after each player is announced. Metallica must be making a fortune off the NBA. I’ve heard “Enter Sandman” in at least three arenas so far, and I’ve only just started.

Halfway through the first quarter, Snoop Dogg made a grand entrance with four burly bodyguards. He had a floor seat behind the basket and beside the Lakers’ bench.

The game presented some intriguing matchups: the giant Catalan Gasol brothers going at one another, Ron Artest harassing Memphis’ smooth jump shooter Rudy Gay, and Gay himself covering Kobe Bryant. The Grizz kept it close until midway through the fourth quarter when the Lakers pulled away. At one point Artest got poked in the eye by Marc Gasol and unleashed a burst of melodrama. He ran all the way down the court whining like a four-year-old. When the Lakers’ trainer came to assist him, he angrily pushed him off. Artest is a clown, but he is the swing factor for the Lakers. When he has his head in the game, they are very tough to beat. In the last two games, he’s been effective offensively and intimidating on defense, stealing the ball four times last night.

Zach Randolph had a terrible game for the Grizz, going only two for fourteen from the field with four turnovers. Zach was the source of much amusement a few years ago when he was spotted at a Portland strip club while on bereavement leave from the Trailblazers.

Hey, why not get a lap dance while grieving? And for good measure he left without paying his tab. Class act.

A note about the arena: It’s got the coolest luxury boxes I’ve seen. They’re close to the action, spacious, and with wide-open panes for viewing. They were more like terraces than boxes. But the fan base at the game was a good 40 percent Lakers. A lot of purple and gold was sprinkled into the crowd, something I did not see in New Orleans. Why are the Hornets a threat to move when the Grizzlies are not?

After the game I hit Beale Street. It is by far the coolest thing about Memphis, other than Graceland. Although it was a Monday night, the street was bustling, with blues blasting out of every venue. I had a fantastic meal at the Tap Room and chatted with a couple of guys at the bar who, like me, were in transit. One was busy sampling my plate of southern catfish. The other, who was driving through town on his way back from watching the Super Bowl in Dallas, insisted on showing me bikini pictures of his pregnant Eastern European girlfriend while a band cranked up the blues.

The one fairly lucid guy at the bar was the bartender, who revealed that he was once thrown into the back of a police car for engaging with scalpers. He had given the seller cash but didn’t yet receive the ticket. Sadly, he lost out on both. Buyer beware, because those discounts do come at a risk.

Next stop, Oklahoma City.

FACE: $107
PAID: $80

Want more? Motez Bishara’s Beating the NBA is on sale now.