“He’s the diametric opposite of Donald Trump.”
Jeff McDonald, the longtime public relations director of Riverfront Choice Tickets, is offering an explanation on why his boss, Hugh Dodman, prefers to keep not just a low profile, but a barely existent one. It’s a bit of a stretch—as the head of the largest secondary ticket brokerage in the Midwest, Dodman clearly possesses some business clout. But his aversion to any amount of public attention is very much un-Trumpian.
“You would have to pry out of him that he actually owns this business,” says McDonald. “I don’t think he looks fondly on the spotlight when it should be for other people in this organization for what they accomplish.”
Dodman is the president and CEO of Riverfront Choice Tickets—better known today as 333seat.com—which, whether you know it or not, you’ve likely interacted with. If you’ve ever purchased Reds or Bengals or concert tickets via “secondhand” means over the last three decades, there’s a good chance you’ve done so through RCT. No individual ticket resale entity in the Midwest—specifically the Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis, Lexington, and Louisville markets—owns a more significant market share when it comes to concerts, sporting events, theater, and special events (Super Bowl, World Series, Bunbury Music Festival, etc).
Yet Dodman is as anonymous as he is omniscient, even in his own field. One industry worker compared him to both a unicorn and the Loch Ness Monster. Some in the industry are only vaguely familiar with him, while others either refuse to acknowledge him on the record or claim to be unaware of his existence at all.
“Don’t know anything about him,” says Mike Smith, executive director of Riverbend Music Center. “I know of him and several other names as ticket resellers, scalpers, whatever you want to call them. We don’t want to do business with those people. But we also know what the laws are, and they have rights to purchase just like anybody else.”
And that’s among his peers. To the everyday citizen, the lifeblood of his business, he may as well be a ghost. He declined to be interviewed or photographed for this story, and hasn’t granted an interview request in nearly 30 years. As murky as the ticket-resale waters already are, it’s something of a counterintuitive badge of honor that his company does zero marketing, has no social media footprint, and utilizes an AltaVista-era website.
All of which raises a couple of questions: What exactly is Riverfront Choice Tickets? And who the heck is Hugh Dodman?
Much like Def Jam Records, Facebook, and SnapChat, Riverfront Choice Tickets was conceived by an inspired college student.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Dodman grew up in Anderson Township. The birth of RCT traces back to a teenaged Dodman’s frustration over his last-row seats to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Riverfront Coliseum on October 4, 1980. After that, he started buying up a handful of good seats for events he wanted to attend, willing to camp out all night for tickets if he had to, and would then sell the extras to friends who wanted to tag along. Word of his talents spread. The day tickets for Bob Seger’s 1983 show at the Richfield Coliseum went on sale, Dodman—then a student at the University of Cincinnati—came home to an answering machine full of messages from people looking to attend. Instead, he placed a classified ad peddling tickets. The profits he made off the sales covered his book costs for an entire quarter.
Eventually he turned his talent into an enterprise. Riverfront Choice Tickets officially launched in the summer of 1988 with an office at 114 W. Third Street, an ideal location for ticket sales and customer pickups in the pre-internet age. It was a unique and innovative business model at the time. At one point RCT had as many as 42 full-time employees.
But to understand the world in which Dodman operates, one must first grasp the difference between the primary and secondary ticket markets. The primary market is the vendor that deals directly with the artist, team, or location—a team or venue’s official website, or a physical box office at the event, or an online vendor such as TicketMaster. It’s the first entity that sells a ticket, and the artist or team establishes the price.
The secondary market is made up of individuals or companies that have purchased tickets from the primary market and are attempting to re-sell them, usually for a profit; buyers head there when events are “sold-out” or to score a better deal. The operations can range from an independent scalper hawking four tickets to a Reds game on the corner of Third and Walnut, to a regional business like RCT and its 17 full-time employees—or increasingly, to a multi-million-dollar international corporation like StubHub, which offers hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of tickets to a single event.
The scene has changed drastically over the past two decades thanks to the proliferation of the internet and consumers’ growing comfort with online purchases. For RCT, it’s a blessing and a curse. While fewer and fewer people buy directly from RCT’s inventory, often the tickets they buy still come from RCT anyway. Why? Because 63 percent of RCT’s sales come through places like StubHub and SeatGeek, which don’t actually own the tickets they market.
“Our customer base is anything from Joe Farmer to Joe Corporate President, and [our inventory] could [come from] anyone in the ticket industry, whether it’s primary or secondary,” says McDonald. “And that’s a fascinating part of our business—everybody needs a ticket, at some point or another.”
The mystery shrouding Dodman and Riverfront Choice Tickets is inherent to the industry. The secondary market is awash with unknown individual “brokers” who post their tickets to StubHub or eBay or Craigslist. But more and more shadow companies and tech-savvy entrepreneurs have entered the market, sleuthing for ways to snatch up large quantities of primary market tickets with digital algorithms and automated bots, then selling them at a substantial upcharge. At times, tickets for an event will appear on the secondary market before the primary outlet has even released them.
There is no evidence that RCT has engaged in such sketchy trade practices. Primitive website navigation aside, McDonald is not shy about promoting the company’s relentless dedication to customer service: It’s a member of the Better Business Bureau, where it boasts an A-plus rating, and also a founding member of the National Association of Ticket Brokers, an organization that requires its members to follow a lengthy ethics code. Still, McDonald is a bit cagey about where their tickets actually come from. “We can’t give you the recipe to Coke,” he quips.
McDonald does acknowledge that RCT’s reputation has allowed it to develop local, regional, and national relationships with other trusted brokers. For instance, via 333seat.com, one can obtain tickets to SEC football games in Florida or an Elton John show in Vegas. Kevin Hacker, president of Cincinnati-based PremiumTickets.net, does business with Dodman and RCT. “We buy and sell from each other,” says Hacker.
RCT has similar relationships with individuals who regularly consign their tickets, a common practice for season-ticket holders looking to shed games they are unable to attend; RCT sells the ticket and takes a commission. The company also obtains a segment of its inventory from TicketMaster and other primary brokers, with employees using their personal credit cards to purchase inventory, and RCT reimbursing them. McDonald says that RCT has no scalpers on its payroll, though Dodman can often be seen cruising around downtown prior to Reds games, trying to sell off his own inventory through trusted and licensed scalpers. (In Cincinnati, it’s legal to resell tickets for more than face value as long as you have proper documentation.)
“Hugh’s big,” says one veteran scalper. “He’s one of the few guys out here that can predict this stuff.” Another referred to Dodman as the Grim Reaper—if he’s out and about before a game or concert, it probably means the interest in that event is lacking.
And when asked if RCT, because of its standing in the industry, is the beneficiary of exclusivity from primary ticket holders—say, markdowns on large blocks of inventory—McDonald is noncommittal. “I don’t think that anything would be provided to us that would be any different than what anybody else could get,” he says. “If discounting is available, we’ll certainly take advantage of it, but it would not necessarily be the norm in our industry.”
So goes the opaque world of online ticket buying, where tickets change hands multiple times with no discernible point of origin as consumers launch their credit card information into the ether. Which is why Dodman and RCT have such a commitment to selling the best seats they can get their hands on for the most marketable price they can afford—even if customers don’t realize where they’re buying it from.
“[Dodman] is very honest,” says Courtney Paul, who worked for RCT from 2009 to 2013. “He’s never going to do anything that seems shady or slighted. He’s just trying to run a business and make some type of a profit.”
If there are any significant skeletons in Hugh Dodman’s closet, he does a good job of hiding them. Employees past and present describe him as quiet and reserved, though when pressed for details or anecdotes about him, they either decline to comment or plead ignorance. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the cryptic nature of the industry as a whole. Yet for all the question marks, Dodman seems less kingpin, more hermetic salesman.
Perhaps the best explanation for the lack of off-the-clock details is simply that there aren’t any. Those who work with Dodman describe him as a relentless businessman, a workaholic to the point of self-abuse: An 80-hour work week is a slow one for him. Courtney Paul started as a promotional model for RCT—the employees you see handing out team schedules in front of Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium before games—and worked her way into a marketing associate position, at which point Dodman required her to read business books that reflected his philosophy and quickly adapt to the deadline-driven industry.
“When he asks for something and has a deadline of 3 o’clock, you better have that report on his desk by 3 o’clock,” says Paul. “There’s no going around it. If you don’t, sometimes it can cost you your job.”
Still, current and ex-employees characterize Dodman as an understanding and caring boss. Cari Miller, who worked as a marketing director for RCT in the 1990s, remembers him as a mentor and big brother figure with a work-hard, play-hard ethos. Paul says that he allowed employees to work from home and bring dogs into the office on designated days, and would often buy the staff lunch, dinner, and snacks. She and Dodman had disagreements at times, but he also taught her the importance of communicating “your side of things.”
From the very beginning, Riverfront Choice Tickets faced questions of legitimacy. “People would come into our office asking if they were going to get arrested for trying to purchase a ticket,” recalls McDonald. “That was the norm at that time.”
McDonald was hired almost overnight after Dodman was misquoted about ticket prices during an interview with WCPO-TV before a Bengals divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks on December 31, 1988—the last time he granted an interview on behalf of RCT. In the aftermath, the company invested tremendous resources into altering how both the company and industry are perceived—hence the 333seat.com re-branding—but the practice fell off as the internet altered how the industry operates. “We spent seven figures a year in marketing for a very long time. Now we don’t,” says McDonald. “The young people found a quick fix electronically—which are still our tickets—but it’s maybe an app they have on their phone.”
In many cases, a ticket can be an emotional souvenir of a significant event. A trip to the grocery store or IKEA doesn’t provide the same psychological fulfillment as attending a Bengals playoff game, or watching Pete Rose get his jersey retired, or whooping it up at a Paul McCartney concert, or even spending a simple afternoon at the ballpark with dad. That’s why people are willing to drop serious coin for those experiences—why they save ticket stubs, not receipts. Good times!
Which is also why it’s a little odd that someone like Dodman seems content to remain unseen and unheard, a silent partner in the transaction of positive vibes that can come from simply purchasing tickets.
Or maybe it’s not. Those aren’t his memories, after all. He’s just the ticket master.