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ECONOMIC LIFE

Like it or not, scalping is a force in the free market

Chip Case devotes a class each year to the reselling of sports tickets.

He has a section in his economics textbook on the same subject.

But for Case, an economics professor at Wellesley College, the sale and scalping of sports tickets is more than an interesting theoretical pursuit. Like Margaret Mead, he has done plenty of firsthand research in the jungle, and he has the stories to prove it.

In 1984, Case waited in line for two nights on Causeway Street to get $11 tickets to one of the classic Celtics-Lakers championship series. The night before the climactic seventh game, he was in the shower when his daughter called out to him: ''Dad, there's a guy on the phone who wants to buy your Celtics tickets." Case said he wasn't selling. ''But Dad," his daughter added, ''he's willing to pay at least $1,000 apiece for them."

Case was selling. An hour later, a limo arrived at the house to pick up two tickets -- one that belonged to Case and one to a friend of his. The driver left behind $3,000.

To Case and other economists, tickets are a textbook case of the free market in action. When supply is limited and demand is not, prices rise and the people willing to pay more will eventually get their hands on the tickets. ''As long as people can communicate, there will be trades," said Case.

In the age of the Internet, buyers and sellers can link up online, through eBay or the sites devoted solely to ticket sales. But even in the pre-Internet era, the process worked, albeit more slowly. In 1984, the man who bought Case's tickets was a rich New Yorker whose son attended a Boston private school. The man called a friend at the school, who called someone else, who eventually called Case. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Trading happens no matter how hard teams try to suppress it. The National Football League gives some of its Super Bowl tickets to its teams, and prohibits them from reselling. Yet many of those same tickets wind up back on the secondary market. Last season the league caught Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice selling his tickets to a California ticket agency. ''I regret it," Tice told Sports Illustrated afterward. Or at least he regretted getting caught.

Like any good market, the one for tickets is remarkably sensitive to information. Case has a story about that, too. He was in Kenmore Square just before game four of last year's playoff series between the Yankees and Red Sox. The Red Sox had dropped the first three games and there was no joy in Mudville. Scalpers were unloading tickets for the fourth game for only slightly more than face value. Tickets for a possible fifth game were going for even less.

But the Red Sox rallied to win game four in extra innings. By 2 that morning, said Case, top tickets for game five were already selling for more than $1,000 online. A bear market had become a bull market instantaneously.

As defenders of the free market, economists generally see nothing wrong with scalping. ''Consenting adults should be able to make economic trades when they think it is to their mutual advantage," said Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor who recently stepped down as chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. Mankiw has a section about scalping in his own textbook.

Teams could eliminate scalping altogether by holding their own online auctions for desirable tickets. Case doesn't expect that to happen. ''People would burn down Fenway Park if the Red Sox charged $2,000 for a ticket," he said. The team would be accused of price gouging. Yet if you went online last week, you could find front-row Green Monster seats for the July 15 game against the Yankees selling for more than $2,000. Go figure.

Case will be at Fenway Park this Friday. He is taking his father-in-law to the game. He paid a small fortune for the tickets online. But he isn't complaining. It's the free market at work.

Charles Stein is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at stein@globe.com.

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