As ticket scalping thrives, lawmakers ponder their next play

the goal used to be so much simpler.

During those 86 long years in the wilderness leading up to the magical 2004 season, Red Sox fans were fixated on an almost absurdly basic objective. Win a World Series, and nothing else would matter. But with a new season underway, the goal for many fans seems even more elusive: an affordable, un-gouged ticket to a good game.

Red Sox seats have arguably become the toughest ticket in sports, thanks to Fenway Park’s tiny confines, coupled with the outsized allure of the hometown team. This may be the new curse bedeviling Sox loyalists, but it is music to the ears of those in the state’s flourishing ticket scalping business.

The sweaty characters with fistfuls of tickets still prowl the streets near Fenway. But the curbside hustlers are now overshadowed by large commercial ventures with names like Ace Tickets, Stub Hub, and Hicks City Side Tickets, outfits with storefronts or Internet sites where tickets to all manner of events can be had—for a price.

With the ticket mark-up trade now big business, lawmakers are wondering how to rein in the practice, even as some of them wonder whether they want to rein it in at all.

State Sen. Michael Morrissey, co-chairman of the Legislature’s consumer protection committee, has his name on several bills now pending, some of which seem to run at cross-purposes with each other. The most sweeping proposal addresses everything from service charges and fees (Ticket Master, which handles tickets for the TD BankNorth Garden, charges between $7.15 and $8.45 in fees for Celtics and Bruins seats) to how much above a ticket’s face value that resellers should be allowed to charge. But another bill seeks to deregulate the process entirely—a move that would have the law catch up with current practice, in which the existing anti-scalping statute goes largely unenforced.

The opposite aims of the two bills, says Morrissey, underlines the fact that he isn’t convinced there is a problem worth tackling, or a law that could be effectively policed.

“At the end of the day, you may throw your arms up and say, ‘Let the market take its course,’” says Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat who describes the bills as a vehicle for discussion, if nothing else.

Enforcement of the existing statute, which caps the resale of tickets at $2 above face value, is the under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Public Safety. Judging from the two tickets for Green Monster seats advertised earlier this year for $1,625 apiece (for an April 20 game between the Sox and the New York Yankees), local reseller Hicks City Side Tickets isn’t too concerned. The price tag represents more than a 1,000 percent mark-up from the ticket’s $140 face value.

Red Sox fans are in pursuit of the toughest ticket in sports.

Nor does the statute seem to be giving pause to Ace Tickets, which bills itself as a reseller of hard-to-find tickets at “premium” prices. In early March, the Allston–based outlet was advertising a field box seat for the same game for $459, or almost five times the $95 face value.

Of Morrissey’s proposals, Senate Bill 214 is the most far-reaching, seeking to cap what licensed ticket resellers can charge at three times the face value of the ticket, including all surcharges. But Colman Herman, a Dorchester–based consumer advocate who has turned his attention to ticket resellers in recent years, thinks that S-214 attempts to cover too many bases, such as the regulation of ticket fees.

The big fish like Ace Tickets, Stub Hub, and their ilk should be the State House’s priority, he says. “The legislation is poorly written,” says Herman, who also doesn’t buy into the argument that the Internet is too unwieldy to be controlled by state law.

“How do you control what happens there? You commit yourself to it and you do it. Are we going to let these people on the Internet do anything they want?” he asks.

While the Legislature figures out how to proceed, professional sports teams have already taken steps to control scalping. The New England Patriots football team, for example, has sued Stub Hub for what it considers violations of the state statute—a move that Herman says is “a real big deal.”

The team has also aggressively clamped down on season-ticket holders. The most publicized case involves Fred Smerlas, a former NFL player and now a radio talk-show personality on WEEI who runs a lucrative tailgate business at Patriots games. Last season the team invalidated the bar codes on approximately 40 tickets that Smerlas was offering as part of game-day food and parking packages running up to $750 each. (The tickets had a face value of $125 each.)

A $95 Red Sox seat was pitched online for $459.

The Red Sox have been more passive. The team now offers a scalp-free zone where fans can sell their tickets at face value. The Sox also buy back tickets at a 26 percent fee before reselling them themselves.

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But whether on the Internet or on the streets outside Fenway, the market seems to be having its way with everyone.

“I was standing next to a policeman near the corner of Brookline Ave. and Newbury Street last year,” says Herman, who is currently suing a company called Admit1 for attempting to sell him a Red Sox-Yankees ticket for $500 despite a face value of $85. The scalpers “were all out there, selling and buying their tickets, and I asked him why he didn’t do something. He said he had to see money changing hands.”