MJ’s return attracts the ticket peddlers along with the fans.

Last year, the Washington Wizards were the third-worst team in professional basketball. Needless to say, their crowds were paltry.

This year, basketball is a whole new game in D.C., and Michael Jordan’s return to basketball in Wizards blue has already meant that games against last season’s NBA finalists—the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers—sold out in a matter of minutes.

Even tickets for this season’s nonmarquee matchups are flying out of the box office. In the past two weeks, the Wizards have sold 70 percent of their single-game tickets, along with more than 13,000 season-ticket packages.

The Wizards’ sudden popularity hasn’t escaped the notice of ticket brokers, either. “I used to sell virtually no Wizard tickets, and now it’s been definitely a hotter ticket,” says Jeff Greenberg, the owner of All Sports and Concert (ASC) Tickets.

ASC Tickets is one of approximately 600 ticket-brokering firms in the United States that sell premium seats, or tickets to sold-out events. A quick survey of 12 regional and national brokers reveals that tickets for the Wizards’ home opener against the 76ers are going for more than $2,000 per ticket, with one broker hanging a $3,325 price tag on the ducats. The vast majority of tickets go for several hundred dollars apiece.

Many brokers saw the MJ frenzy coming well before the official announcement. When reports about Jordan’s workouts with the team surfaced, on July 17, Web domain names including the words “Washington,” “Wizards,” “basketball,” and “tickets” were snatched up by would-be profiteers.

“Washington-Wizards-Tickets-Online” was purchased by Virginia-based GoTix.com on Aug. 10. On Aug. 28, “WashingtonBasketballTickets” was snagged. Three days later, “WizardsBasketballTickets” was claimed. In September, as Jordan’s return looked likely, “WashingtonBasketballTicketsOnline,” “MichaelJordanTickets.net,” and “MichaelJordanTickets.org” were taken. Sites such as “Wizards-Tickets.com” and “MichaelJordanTickets.com” were secured as early as last March.

Many of these domain names were bought by large ticket-broker firms as far away as Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Mercer Island, Wash. “It’s just a marketing tool,” explains Tim Rudd of Stage Front Tickets, the Laurel, Md., firm that snagged the domain “Wizards-Tickets.com” earlier this year.

What companies have discovered, says Greenberg—who started ASC Tickets in 1993—is the power of Internet sports marketing. “If you don’t have keywords like ‘Wizard’ and ‘tickets’ in your URL, then Yahoo won’t recognize you, and you don’t get a listing,” he explains. “A year ago, nobody knew about stuff like that. People weren’t as advanced. I’ve had Internet marketing pretty mastered for, like, five years, but people are catching up to me.”

As important as marketing can be in getting a piece of MJ’s return, inventory is equally vital. It turns out that it’s not as simple as buying as many Wizards tickets as possible.

“There’s a big supply out there of people who thought this might happen a few months ago and loaded up on tickets,” says Greenberg. “There’s Chicago brokers that are doing it. There’s California brokers. A guy from Connecticut is doing it. But if they don’t have any market share, they’re all gonna get burned on those tickets.”

Michael Freund, director of business operations for national broker TicketsNow.com, agrees that caution is warranted—even with His Airness.

“For something like the Wizards, we really try to focus on certain games,” explains Freund. “Whether that’s a weekend game, whether that’s a game against the Lakers or the 76ers or the Celtics or someone like that. We try to focus on what would be more of a marquee game.”

Although prescience is required in the brokering biz, snapping up URLs and tickets doesn’t guarantee sales. Some larger brokers believe that small-time firms (many of which are one-man operations) will learn this lesson the hard way.

“They might work out, and they might not,” says Freund. “Sometimes little guys like that overreach and try to do too much, and that’s when they get into trouble.

“I talk to little-guy brokers all the time,” Freund continues, “and they’re good to work with because they’re single guys, but sometimes you want to make sure that they’re able to do everything they promise you they can.”

Freund says that TicketsNow.com mentions the Wizards but never Jordan on the page where it actually sells tickets, to ensure absolute truth in advertising, particularly if Jordan is injured or otherwise unable to play.

In a business that’s as popularly maligned as the ticket-brokering industry, every little bit of credibility helps. Critics complain that brokers use their considerable financial resources to snatch up tickets before the general public has a chance to buy them—and then sell admission at inflated prices. Brokers deny this allegation, arguing that they provide access to marquee events. The high prices, they say, reflect the difficulty in obtaining such tickets.

One avenue of which brokers do avail themselves is the season ticket. A Washington Capitals official, speaking on condition of anonymity, verified that several ticket brokers are season-ticket holders, and Matt Williams, senior vice president of communications for the Wizards, confirmed that the same is the case for his team.

“I don’t know who the ticket brokers are that have season tickets, but I’m sure it happens,” says Williams. “If you’re a ticket broker, then it’s probably a wise business move, because any time you buy season tickets, your location’s going to be better than it would be on a single-game ticket.”

As hot as Jordan is right now, the brokers admit that actual sales are still lower than their expectations thus far. “I thought they’d be better at this point,” says Greenberg of Wizards sales. “A lot of the Wizard games aren’t sold out. The media’s reporting them like they are, but there are plenty of tickets left for almost all of the games except for the Sixers and the Lakers.”

Freund agrees. “There’s probably higher demand for these opening games right off the bat then there is [for games] in March, once they’re 30 games out,” he observes. “When you get to see [Jordan] 40 times a year, by the 35th game at home, the excitement starts to wear off. It shouldn’t, but it does.” CP