Seat Poaching: A Poor Man’s Guide to a Better View

AP Photo/John Heller Empty Seats

There was a time, when I was very young, when simply attending a live sporting event was something incredible. I grew up in upstate New York, about an hour south of Montreal, and each summer my dad would take me up across the border to see the Expos play. We’d arrive at the grotesque Stade Olympique, with its phallic tower looming over the clam shell roof, and my young heart would be thumping. It didn’t matter that we were about to be treated to a miserable brand of baseball on an ugly turf field in front of history’s worst fan base; we were going to see the pros! And it definitely didn’t matter where we sat.

Today, that’s no longer true. I don’t think I’m the most ungrateful sports fan in the world, but I have to be in the top tier. It’s gotten to the point where if I’m sitting in the nosebleed section of a stadium, under almost any circumstance, I will not enjoy the game. Sure, I’ll guilt myself into focusing for a few minutes, but soon I’ll be back to obsessing on how I can get closer.

I’ve become spoiled. For better or worse, I need good seats. Unfortunately, at the same time, I’m not even close to having the kind of money required to get there legitimately.

As such, I’ve had to become a seat-poacher. Say what you will about my integrity or basic decency, but it’s a title I embrace. I’ve even devised a comprehensive system, guaranteed to get you into the best seats at no cost, and today I’d like to share it with you. The tips and tricks that follow have been tested for five years against the stern ushers of two Yankee Stadiums, and I’m happy to report a success rate near 100 percent.

Fair warning: You’ll be far more successful at applying these tips if you lose all sense of shame and pride. Also, you’ll be required to do a lot of things that look sneaky, cheap, and downright pathetic, so be careful before you attempt them on a date.

Getting the ticket

1. Don’t buy the ticket in advance. With all the fees and taxes and nonsense, you’ll be gouged even for the cheap seats. Buying tickets at face value is for suckers and cowards.

2. Forget the professional scalpers. Unless you want to wait until the game is under way, which is terrible, and even then they’ll never come down to a reasonable price. It’s too easy for them to find the bloated family of four from the sticks strapped with new hats, at least one fanny pack, and $500 cash. This is the only game they’ll attend all year, by golly, and what’s a few bucks for an afternoon of fun? Ignorance drives the market.

3. Find the man with the extra ticket. Maybe his buddy had to stay late for work, or his kid got sick, or he caught his wife having cyber-sex with his boss (awkward!) and is withholding her ticket as a small act of revenge.

Play to this man’s sympathy; his memory, even, of being in your shoes. Personally, I used to stand on the subway platform at Yankee Stadium as people filed off the 4 train. “I’m just looking for one extra ticket!” I’d shout in an aggressively sheepish manner. “I’m not a scalper! Just a big fan trying to get into the game.”

The downside is that hundreds of people will stare at you and feel embarrassed both for and with you. Attractive young women will give you a look that says, “If my boyfriend ever behaved like that in public, I would drink a gallon of paint.”

The upside is that you will absolutely find the man with the extra ticket. When he approaches, get real sincere and say, “Hey, just so you know, I don’t have a ton of money, so I might not be able to buy the ticket if it’s too good. I hope I don’t waste your time.”

Make sure he doesn’t feel like you’re playing the class card on him; you should convey that you understand his situation. He dropped real money for the tickets in the first place, and that’s not to be taken lightly. But reality is reality — you’re the kind of dude who can only dole out 15 bucks on a given night. He’ll probably feel pity for you without feeling like he’s being made to feel pity, which is crucial. Sometimes, you’ll get superlucky and either get a free ticket or a really nice one for peanuts (note: not literal peanuts, peanuts are not a form of currency or legal tender).

Getting into the good section

The good sections always have ushers. Teams don’t waste manpower on the crappy grandstand seats where the likes of you should be sitting. But field level or mezzanine? It’s watertight. Still, there are ways to beat the system.

1. Get there early. In most stadiums, the ushers don’t care who goes where in the early hours. Sometimes they’ll flush you out as the game gets closer, but that usually only happens in the Goldman Sachs-type sections. This can be the easiest solution of all.

2. Find the section with the young, male usher. If he’s wearing his hat slightly cocked to the side, even better — it speaks of a flippant nature. He’s going to be the most casual and feel the most reluctant to call you out on your low-down tactics. It makes him feel like “The Man,” and you can use this against him. Avoid sections with older ushers; they absolutely live to catch you red-handed. They’re like sadistic soldiers given free rein in battle; they’ll pounce with the slightest excuse, flashing their cruel grins. Mess with them, and they’ll be boring their grandchildren for years with the story of how they ruined your day.

3. Try to sneak in behind a family. If there’s a group streaming in, full of family chaos and confusion, fall in place in the back of their line. When you approach the usher, laugh really loudly at one of their jokes or start bickering with one of the younger ones. “Oh my god, Jessica,” you should say, “I HATE YOU.” The usher will group you in with all the legitimate tickets he’s just seen from the rest of the family, and you’re golden.

(Note: This may lead to some awkwardness with the family afterward.)

4. If the usher turns his body in one direction to help someone or have a conversation, sneak in behind. This is a very risky maneuver, though; if he turns and catches you, you’ll have no excuse since it’s clear you were trying to pull a fast one. Your only defense at that point is to change the dominant narrative of the situation by immediately falling down the stairs.

5. Thank the usher as you approach the section for the first time. These guys see a ton of people at every game, and there’s no way they can remember each face. If you say something like, “Thanks for the directions, I thought I’d never find the bathroom!” he’ll assume you were in his section before and he helped you out. He’ll also assume you’re an idiot, since bathrooms are clearly marked in every single American stadium, but having him think you’re stupid is a good thing.

6. Have a girlfriend lead the way, staring at her ticket and saying something like “is row G close to the bottom?” Unfortunately, my girlfriend gets absolutely terrified at even this simple maneuver. She’ll actually start panicking as we approach, and at the last moment she’ll lose heart and back away. It’s one of the real difficulties of our relationship.

(One time, when we were about to sneak in, an usher turned around and his hand accidentally touched my girlfriend’s butt. He was so apologetic that he didn’t even bother to check our tickets, and we got excellent seats. I don’t know how this could be incorporated into a consistent strategy, but it’s something to think about.)

7. Approach the usher slowly, lean in, and whisper, “If you don’t let me in this section, I’m going to kill you.”

Hey, I’m just kidding! Don’t do that.

8. For any of these options, remember to always move fast without hurrying. Act like you know where you’re going and have been there before. If you make eye contact with the usher, he has a much higher chance of noticing you, and that’s always a bad thing. Also, try not to be too discouraged or humiliated if you get caught. It’s all in the game. Believe me, they won’t throw you out of the stadium for trying to get a good seat. If you let one failure stop you, for shame or for fear, you’ll never be one of the great seat-snagging cretins like me. Live to fight another day, my brother.

Staying in the good section

1. Often you’ll find a nice seat, enjoy the first part of the game, and then some rich bastard will waddle up, look all flustered as though he’s trying to solve a Chinese crossword, and say, “I, uh … I think this is my seat.” He’ll probably have a trophy wife who gives you a look like you just threw her poodle into the side of an old refrigerator. You’ll absolutely detest these latecomers, who have no love in their hearts for the game, but the fact remains that they paid real money for the seats and have the law on their side. You’re nothing but a wretched squatter.

So: ALWAYS HAVE YOUR NEXT SEAT IN MIND. More than one, preferably. Even if it’s the fifth inning and you think nobody could possibly ruin your night now, emulate a great defensive back and keep your head on a swivel. The quicker you move when the fat cats finally come, the less likely they’ll be to rat you out, and the more likely you’ll be to avoid doddering around and attracting an usher’s attention. The best seat-poachers are always thinking several seats ahead.

(Note: You can also turn this situation to your benefit. One of the great satisfactions in life is actually sitting next to one of the richies and telling them how much you paid for the ticket. “Yeah,” you’ll say, smiling like you’ve known nothing but good fortune all your life, “15 bucks! Can you believe it? What’d yours cost?” Later, when he goes to the bathroom, ask his wife if she’d like a beer.)

2. The dreaded bathroom problem. At some point, you may have to leave your section to use the restroom, and you obviously don’t have the ticket to get back in. The best strategy here relates to no. 5 above. Ask the usher something on your way out. It’s crucial that they remember you, though, so try some sort of odd phrasing. Instead of asking for the bathroom or where you can get a beer, say, “Where would a gentleman find a working urinal?” or “Could you direct me to the safest saloon?” On your way back, say thank you, and they won’t ask to see your ticket.

3. If you have two people in the section, you’re golden. This is one trick my girlfriend can manage. On my way back, I’ll start shuffling around and staring at the seats. She’ll be waiting near the top of the section, cued by a text message, and when I come shambling along, she’ll say, “Honey! Over here!” I’ll turn, my jaw still slack with confusion, and be overcome by a look of total relief. The usher, having witnessed this drama, will let me pass without incident.

And that’s all there is to it. I’m not saying it’s easy — you’ll face some real hardship and doubt along the way. But when those demons come, just remember: You, my friend, are a seat-poacher. You are a warrior, striving to leave behind the complacent and apathetic and take your rightful spot beside the fortunate sons who would see you starve. You are an honest-to-god, old-school American, and hell if a soul that hale will ever abide a bleeding nose.

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Filed Under: Shane Ryan