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Ticket seller Mario Livich (Nick Westover/© 2009 Nick Westover)
Ticket seller Mario Livich (Nick Westover/© 2009 Nick Westover)

Small Business

One for the revolution, please Add to ...

The punch came hard and fast. It was 23 years ago, but Mario Livich still remembers the sting.

The fist dropped him to the pavement. As he lay on the ground, stunned, the Vancouver teenager who had taught himself how to hustle tickets had a single thought running through his head: Please don't take the money.

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It was Expo 86. The city was teeming with tourists and ticket scalpers outside venues. And stuffed inside Mario Livich's jeans was $20,000 in cash.

They never got the money. They never even looked for it. The guy who sent Livich to the concrete had only come to deliver a message. This stretch of sidewalk belonged to serious scalpers – and Livich was a nobody. If he kept up the brisk business he was doing, they were going to break his legs.

As he skulked away, Livich made a decision. He wasn't going to back down. After all, he was good at this job. He knew the business inside and out: buying up tickets on the cheap, then flipping them at a healthy profit whenever demand outpaced supply. This, he vowed, would be his career. “The next day, I show up, my mouth is swollen, but I'm there,” Livich says. “They realized I wasn't going to leave and they were probably going to have to kill me if they wanted me gone.”

Two decades later, that business on the street has evolved into ShowTime Tickets, the largest ticket broker in Canada, with about $5-million a year in sales, 19 staff and one of the busiest ticket resale websites in North America. Livich's competitors in the ticket “aftermarket” rank among the biggest names in business, from StubHub, which is owned by eBay Inc., to TicketsNow, the resale site run by Ticketmaster Inc., North America's dominant player in live entertainment.

The aftermarket falls into the grey areas of legality. Most provinces and states frown on reselling tickets, but the laws lack teeth. The job doesn't win Livich any popularity contests with the average fan just trying to land a pair of decent seats to a concert or game at face value. But to his best customers – in particular, corporate clients who can spend up to $100,000 a year wining and dining VIP clients with front-row seats and corporate boxes – the service is worth a premium and they're happy to pay accordingly. Michael Jagger, president of Provident Security, a Vancouver home-security firm that uses ShowTime about 10 times a year, buys tickets for clients or to reward staff. “We had an employee we knew was a big Peter Gabriel fan and he happened to be coming to town,” Jagger says. “Well, you don't just call up Ticketmaster and get the first five rows. With [a broker] you're paying for the ticket, but you're also paying for the dirty work of someone sourcing the ticket for you.”

ShowTime claims there is not a ticket in the world it can't get its hands on, either through its own aggressive strategies for buying tickets directly or by tapping its vast network of contacts, which range from season ticket holders shedding unwanted seats, to the odd concert promoter willing to quietly slip the company a few rows on the side. As long as the customer is able to pay what the market demands, Livich explains, “We are never sold out.”

But the ticket reselling business will go into overdrive in the next few months. Livich's boast of never being sold out will be put to the test when the Olympics come to town in February. Tens of thousands of fans will flood into the city, many arriving without tickets. They will be met by a host of ticket resellers. Livich, 44, calls this the “travelling circus,” a hotbed of brokers that springs up at major events around the continent like the Super Bowl or the World Series. Several hundred resellers are expected to parachute into town, ranging from the big players like StubHub, which plans to open a temporary office during the Games, to independent brokers working feverishly out of hotel rooms. For Livich and company, the competition to secure seats and time the market for maximum profit will be as heated as the athletic events themselves.

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