Some of the Bruce Springsteen fans who were upset at the scalping incident I’ve been writing about recently displayed a touching naivete when it came to the subject of the practice’s legality. If you’re just tuning in, the incident in question happened at the Tower Records on Wabash early on a Saturday morning a month ago. After what was supposed to be a randomization process to line people up to buy tickets to Springsteen’s acoustic performance at the Rosemont Theatre, it became apparent that a scalper had foiled the system. A group of down-and-out-looking men, apparently collected at a nearby shelter to act as operatives for a scalper, held almost all of the first 25 places in line. Eventually vocal objections from fans shamed Tower’s management into redoing the system, and fairness prevailed–but not before a lot of fans got mad.

Some of the fans announced angrily that they were calling the police. When a cop arrived, they breathlessly informed him of the scam going on. The cop (driving squad car number 9043) was unprofessional and rude–“I don’t give a shit, lady,” he snarled to one fan–but even if he’d been sympathetic, there was nothing he could have done.

Why? Because no crime had been committed. In fact, even if what many of the fans there believed–that a Tower employee had helped a scalper put his minions first in line–was true, that wasn’t illegal. In fact, the store’s managers, if they’d been of a mind to, could have marched out to Wabash and announced that as a matter of corporate policy they were going to sell all the tickets to Joe the scalper here and the fans could go fuck themselves.

Why this incident was legal is a case study in how consumer rights often come second to the desires of a moneyed business enterprise, even a slightly shady one.

Illinoisans were front-row witnesses to how the process worked in this particular instance, because in 1990 scalping was outlawed. Spurred by an unruly and unpretty market for tickets when the Cubs got into the playoffs in 1989, state representative John Cullerton and state senator William Marovitz supported–and Governor Jim Thompson signed–a bill making it illegal to sell tickets for more than their face value. (The bill allowed surcharges approved by the promoter or team owners, such as Ticketmaster fees.)

“My philosophy is that the box office should have the very best seats available for the everyday fan that supports the team, that supports the rock act,” says Marovitz, “not the highfalutin guys who come in from out of town.”

Cullerton concurs. “For a sophisticated scalping company to hire people to buy tickets and then sell them to people with more money, I felt it was undemocratic,” he says. “The guy with a limited amount of money, if he waits in line he should have the same chance as everyone else.”

But the law was in effect vaporizing a multimillion-dollar-a-year business, and the scalpers soon struck back. “They hired lobbyists, they got the president of the senate [the now retired Philip Rock] to push the bill,” says Cullerton. The new bill allowed scalping–under the euphemism “ticket brokering”–if the selling was done from a place of business. Selling tickets on the street near a venue was outlawed. The bill creates the state of affairs present today, where a fan can get arrested for unloading a ticket outside Wrigley Field or Metro, but where the so-called brokers can scalp with impunity.

Nearly all of Chicago’s sports-team owners and Jam Productions, the city’s major rock-concert promoter, fought the repeal but didn’t get very far. Some of the parties involved–Marovitz, Cullerton, Jam’s Jerry Mickelson–make a point that fans who feel victimized by scalping should take note of. “I felt like Don Quixote,” says Marovitz now. “There was no effort on the other side. I kind of felt that if the people most adversely affected by this weren’t going to come out of the woodwork and work then why was I bothering?”

“People didn’t raise much of a commotion,” agrees Cullerton.

“The fans didn’t support us,” Mickelson says. “The media didn’t support us. No one got behind us.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.