- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- In a nondescript office building, some 9 miles from Sun Life Stadium, where the BCS title game will be played on Monday, it’s crunch time for Jimmy Siegendorf and Eric van de Zilver.
The two men, who run two separate companies called Premium Seats USA and The Ticket Group, want to hear the phone ring more often. Sure, there are 75 hours until kickoff, but they have plenty of tickets to sell. Two of the 14 suites they purchased are still on the market and the odds of someone dropping $45,000 for each of those suites decrease as it creeps closer to game time. Between the two of them, there are about 80 other seats out of the 1,000 they bought to sell, and outrageous prices that existed after Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC title game appear to now be a thing of the past, save for a last-minute rally.
Van de Zilver, who is based in California but partnered with Siegendorf for the championship game, is holding up quite well considering the circumstances. Nine months ago, his wife told him she had taken a pregnancy test and it was positive. The baby’s due date? Jan. 7. Van de Zilver didn’t need two seconds to figure out that was the same day as the BCS title game. It would be, after all, the culmination of four years of risk-taking.
For a game like this, most of the general public has no idea the amount of risk that goes into hoping to cash in on the perfect storm. Ticket brokers aren't exactly No. 1 on fans' holiday card list. But watching the clock tick in real time makes you appreciate how much they are willing to put on the line.
In 2009, Siegendorf and van de Zilver started buying tickets for the Orange Bowl. In order to have the most tickets for this national championship game, they increased their allotment for the Orange Bowl in every successive year. Having to buy Orange Bowl seats to amass tickets for the title game meant that those Orange Bowl seats each year automatically became necessary losses. But if the perfect teams were in the game in 2013, the big payday could become a reality.
On the surface, the matchup seemed like a dream. The rabid fan base of Alabama and the traditional hungry and wealthy Notre Dame alumni. Soon after the teams were set, the hype machine kicked in -- get-in prices were $1,800, hotel rooms were sold out, flights were incredibly expensive.
“The ticket business is one of the purest forms in terms of supply and demand,” van de Zilver says. “Notre Dame is the top team you want. Every year the bowl matchups come out, I find out where they are playing.”
But it seems like some Bama fans are suffering from the “been there, done that” syndrome, many having been to a championship game, winning a BCS title just last year. Others, based on what they heard from the media, thought they were priced out and when the selling slowed down, the speculative market revealed itself. By Friday morning, get-in prices were closer to $800, hotels all of a sudden had rooms and flights had opened up and dropped in price.
The challenge for guys in the ticket business is to try to figure out what the supply really is. Brokers don’t put all the seats they have on sale at the same time. As they sell, they release more. Although tickets have sold, van de Zilver looks at the supply and doesn’t see it dwindling enough.
That wasn’t a problem two years ago, when so many thought there were more tickets than there really were. That’s when brokers got caught in short-selling the championship game. A couple of days before the game, brokers all went to backfill the tickets they had sold at the same time. The result? There weren’t enough seats. The get-in price jumped up to $3,500, which in some cases was four times more than the price brokers had already sold the tickets for.
StubHub momentarily shut down ticket sales for the game, offering refunds to those who were promised tickets that couldn't be fulfilled. Siegendorf said the game almost single-handedly took down his business. He says he ultimately filled all his orders, but lost a lot of money in the process, because he had to go to the secondary market himself.
Van de Zilver is staring at the site he created just for this game, BCSTickets.net. He has optimized it so that Google searches automatically put the site near the top. It’s a good strategy, but what he needs now is sales. Earlier in the week, looking to get customers, the two men sold 100 parking passes at losses in order to build relationships.
“It gave us leads and that led to sales,” van de Zilver says.
Siegendorf diversified his risk by selling ticket packages paired with rooms in the team hotels.
He receives a call from a woman who is looking only for parking passes. She needs three. Van de Zilver is selling them for $250 each, and even for parking passes, it’s not exactly a quick transaction.
She asks how reputable his company is. What teams he has worked with. What makes him different from StubHub (Answer: He’s selling directly and doesn’t take extra fees). As with most calls, he says she’s welcome to call the Orange Bowl and mention his name.
She says she’ll call him back.
Calls like this are common. The process often begins with a skeptical customer, not necessarily comfortable with dealing with brokers, even though this business has come a long way from where it was even five years ago.
“When people buy tickets to regular-season games, they don’t feel like they need to have a conversation with the broker,” van de Zilver says. “But when it’s hundreds and thousands of dollars, it’s different. Many people aren’t used to this.”
To help handle calls and to put physical tickets into FedEx packages -- Friday was the last day of sending them out -- the two men have seven other employees who are taking care of the dirty work.
The best day the two partners had seems like ages ago. The Friday before the SEC championship game, a call came in from Las Vegas. A customer wanted to buy the best suite they had -- $190,000 later, Siegendorf and van de Zilver were pumped. The two started with just two suites, but continued to double down until they reached 14. All they want now is to get rid of the final two, even at a loss, to close out the business.
“What’s the cheapest you’ll go on that suite?” I ask the two of them.
Siegendorf looks at the screen.
“It’s listed at $45,000, but we’d do $30,000,” he says. He looks at van de Zilver for approval. Van de Zilver nods.
It’s a ridiculous deal. For 24 seats, it’s a mere $1,200 a person.
I mention the deal on Twitter.
Three hours later, Peter Dumon tweets at me asking for a contact for that suite. He’s the president and founder of a real estate group in Chicago that manages $1 billion in assets.
He tells Siegendorf that he and a bunch of friends are leaving on the plane to Florida within minutes. They don’t have tickets. They need a bus parking pass and they just want to affirm the $30,000 price.
Siegendorf says yes. On Saturday morning, Dumon doesn’t seem as excited. “No takers on suite,” Dumon tells me by email. “[He didn't have] enough [friends] without tickets.”
Both Siegendorf and van de Zilver say they’ve already made a solid profit on the game and the “what if” scenario of a Kansas State-Oregon matchup keeps them from longing for a healthier market. That matchup would have turned four years of bets into hell, they say.
It’s 9 a.m. on Saturday. Two suites and 40 tickets are left. A steady rally on Friday night raised the get-in price by about $50 to around $900. The two are fairly disinterested.
“I’d like to just sell these,” Siegendorf says. “I can’t wait to get to the game and just tailgate.”
That might not happen for van de Zilver. His soon-to-be-born second child might not wait until kickoff.