You’ve probably seen Melo at Phillies games. OK, maybe not this year, because if you’re like most of the city’s population you haven’t been going. But at least in the glory days of 2008 to 2012, back when nearly 44,000 people crowded into the regularly-sold-out Citizens Bank Park. Melo — a fake name he gave — still comes, though. Monday night, before the Phillies gave up a a record number of home runs in a depressing loss to the Mets, he was holding a cardboard sign that read “I Need Tix,” meaning he is a ticket scalper outside the stadium of one of the worst teams in baseball.
His evening was going about as well as you’d imagine.
“People are wanting to spend less money,” he says.
Scalpers and vendors are a constant part of the Phillies game experience. They’re always greeting customers hopping off the train at AT&T Station or waiting for them near the parking lots. They’re also another casualty of the losing economy. The ineptitude of the Phillies that’s costing the city and SEPTA is also affecting these people largely working second jobs or trying to scrape by until they find a steadier gig.
Indeed, “good, decent jobs are hard to find,” says Michael Gall, a t-shirt, pretzel and water vendor.
Scalpers could make $300 a game on a good night when the Phillies were selling out the stadium and making the playoffs, they say. Back then, they could sell tickets at higher than face value. Now they have to find ways to buy tickets for under face value and hope to sell them at a higher price… that is usually still under face value. The good nights are closer to $200. Bad nights are $50 or $100. Over a full season, the difference between this year and the good years could total several thousand dollars.
Maybe the worst part is the consistency. They often can’t predict whether they’ll be able to make any money.
“It’s like the Dow Jones,” says another scalper, positioned near the stadium’s main entrance. “It’s up. It’s down. It’s down. It’s up.”
He says when American League teams with major fan bases have been in town, like the Red Sox and Blue Jays, they’ve done well. Melo had a good take when the Los Angeles Dodgers visited earlier this month.
But even those good nights are still not the same as they used to be for the people working outside games, says Frank Johnson, the owner of a vending company that operates at games and in Center City. He remembers crowds of college kids arriving hours before the game to tailgate. They’d buy water, pretzels or shirts. The Phillies’ dismal record, he says, has chased them off and the only people who come now are families. They arrive just before the game starts and rarely buy anything.
“It’s the worst year ever,” Johnson says.
Worse, he says, than last year. Worse than any year he’s experienced since the early ’70s. Johnson says he started coming to games in 1971 with his father, who owned the business back then. If you see the Philadelphia sports shirts that don’t actually contain the names of any of the teams, they’re probably his products. He created the well-known “Ill” and “99 problems but a pitch ain’t one” shirts and one that made fun of the kid who got tasered on the field.
Right now, most of the shirts they’re offering don’t even have anything to do with baseball. Vendors on Monday night were selling football-related gear, with nods to Tebow and anti-Dallas messages. Johnson says his top-selling shirt this year has been one with Rocky on it.
“Fans of other teams buy it,” he says. “It didn’t used to be like that.”
The intake of vendors has fallen similar to that of the scalpers. In 2008 or 2009, vendor Leonard Gilbert says he could sell $300 worth of shirts, water or pretzels at every game. The revenue is now about half that or worse. I ask Gilbert whether inconsistency is another problem when another vendor walks over to interrupt.
“Inconsistent?” she says. “It’s horrible.”
Johnson, perhaps unlike many Phillies fans, is at least optimistic about the future. He wants the Phillies to hold onto general manager Ruben Amaro and bring in a couple of good pitchers. Then he’ll be more excited about business.
“I think,” he says, “we’re two years away.”