It was a scene that symbolizes the frantic scramble for Rose Bowl tickets by Wisconsin fans. And it happened at 35,000 feet.
Jerry Norsman, a Madison, Wis., travel agent, stood in the aisle in front of a planeload of Los Angeles-bound Badger fans and let them in on the bad news. The tickets he thought he was buying on their behalf for $150 each had just jumped in price to $300.
“We need help,” Norsman said.
He asked people to split the difference with him and pay an additional $75 per ticket. If his customers refused, Norsman, owner of Norse Company Travel Center, stood to lose more than $120,000--assuming he could, indeed, get his hands on all 825 tickets he had been promised. If he could not, he stood to lose something more valuable--his credibility.
As of late Wednesday, Norsman had not received his tickets.
Norsman’s plight is typical of the problems of many travel agents this week as the demand for Rose Bowl tickets skyrocketed, driving up the price as much as 12 times the original face value of $46 and sending ticket brokers and travel agents scrambling to fill their orders for tickets.
Ticket agencies frequently operate by purchasing tickets from private ticket-holders and then selling them, usually at marked-up prices. The reason for the frenzy is that ticket brokers underestimated the demand from Wisconsin fans--whose team has not made it to a Rose Bowl in 31 years--for tickets and took orders at prices that were too low.
Now, they are forced to purchase tickets at prices up to three times the amount promised to their customers.
Some ticket brokers have asked their customers to pay higher prices while some, such as Ticket Time, based in West Los Angeles, have simply refunded their customers’ money.
For the thousands of people who have traveled here from Wisconsin, being faced with the fact that they might not have tickets has sent them into a panic--countless “Need Tickets” signs were displayed at a Wisconsin pep rally Thursday outside the Century Plaza Hotel. One hopeful buyer waved five $100 bills along with his sign.
People have also been prompted to write letters and call politicians.
Jim Haney, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, said Doyle’s office had heard from many people and was making a thorough investigation of the situation.
“This is something we’re very concerned about,” Haney said from Madison. “Our office has issued an advisory to watch out for things like this. People are led to believe one set of arrangements and the people on the other end of the (phone) line have a different interpretation.
“If ticket agencies have been violating a law, our office will press for legal action.”
Herschel Elkins, who heads the California consumer law division at the state attorney general’s office, said his office recently became aware of the situation in which there was a complaint against Ticket Time.
He has since received calls to his office and plans to investigate the matter further.
The problem, Elkins said, has taken his office by surprise.
“It’s not something that we’ve had in regard to the Rose Bowl before, so it’s not an issue we were even prepared for,” Elkins said.
There is very little regulation of the ticket brokerage industry other than a chapter in the California Business and Professions Code that refers to ticket sellers and a general reference against breaching contracts.
For those people who might wish to take advantage of the skyrocketing prices of Rose Bowl tickets and are considering selling them on site at the Rose Bowl Saturday, there is another problem. It is a misdemeanor, under the California Penal Code, to sell tickets on the grounds of the facility in excess of the face value without permission of that facility. That law--which calls for a fine of up to $500 or six months in jail--is generally well policed on the day of the Rose Bowl.
As is traditional for this game, the visiting Big 10 champion, in this case Wisconsin, received 18,000 tickets, less than half the 40,000 that Pac-10 champion UCLA received to sell to its fans. The Rose Bowl’s seating capacity is 102,083, but in the 1973 USC-Ohio State Rose Bowl game, a record 106,869 somehow squeezed in.
Wisconsin’s athletic administrators encouraged fans who wanted tickets to go through tour groups. That may have been a mistake.
“It’s too bad, but it’s the chance you take when you deal with ticket brokers,” said Pat Richter, Wisconsin athletic director. “When you live by the sword you die by the sword.”
Betty and Arthur Elsesser, of Sussex, Wis., bought nine tickets from A-1 Tickets in Cerritos on Dec. 9 from an ad the company placed in the Milwaukee Journal. The Elsessers’ credit card was charged for $1,440 for the price of the nine tickets and they were sent confirmation of their order.
On Monday, the Elsessers called A-1 to find out why they had not received their tickets. A representative told them that there were no tickets available and that their money would be refunded.
“Now we sit here with non-refundable airline tickets and no Rose Bowl. . . . I hope you never have the chance to shatter someone’s dreams again,” the Elsessers wrote in a letter to A-1 Tickets.
The Elsessers have decided to make the trip to Pasadena, even though they cannot afford the current prices that brokers are asking for tickets.
When called for an explanation, an A-1 representative said “no comment” and hung up the phone.
So what went wrong?
“Every single broker in the city, in the country, underestimated the market,” said Barry Rudin, owner of Barry’s Ticket Service in Encino. “It wasn’t a question of just one, it was everybody. Some people underestimated enough that they could lose everything.”
Ken Solky, owner of American Tickets and Tours, said: “A lot of guys are really hungry to make that big financial gain, that big score, and so they sold and sold and sold and then found it difficult to find the tickets.”
The number of people affected by this could reach into the thousands because many travel agents had organized large tour groups and relied on ticket brokers for mass quantities of tickets.
Mike Koepcke, manager of Koepcke Travel in Madison, paid in full for 1,200 tickets through a ticket broker in California that was commissioned by U.S. Tours in San Diego.
Koepcke was notified on Wednesday that the broker could not completely fill the order, leaving him 400 tickets short. U.S. Tours did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.
Koepcke stands to lose about $70,000 because he originally budgeted $175 per ticket in a package he offered to customers and now he must pay nearly twice that for the remaining 400 tickets.
But for Koepcke, it is better to lose the money than lose your entire business.
Times staff writers Amy Wallace and Tim Kawakami contributed to this story.