Cups Controversy: How Thieves Turn Trash Into Treasure

WASHINGTON - APRIL 05: A vendor sells beer before the game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals on Opening Day at Nationals Park on April 5, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Concessions workers re-using cups is more than disgusting, it's fraud and/or theft.

The ESPN investigative report on health code violations in the sports concessions industry continues to make waves. Yesterday, Cork Gaines of Rays Index published an interview with an unnamed concessions worker at Tropicana Field who said that used empty cups were being picked up, rinsed out and put back into the concession stand's inventory. The initial reaction to such a concept is extreme disgust. But on another level, it's an example of how you as a sports fan could be an unwitting accomplice to fraud and theft.

The worker in the interview said that this occurred as a result of an inventory discrepancy. Let me explain how this works:

  • A concession stand is stocked before each game with predetermined quantities of inventory items. Some of these items are counted for the purpose of determining sales, primarily beverage cups, hot dog buns (not the dogs themselves, oddly enough), pretzels and popcorn tubs. Other items like condiments, napkins and straws are not.
  • Let's say for the sake of easy math you're working in a stand that just sells beer and has 100 small  cups and 100 large cups at the start of the day. Small beers sell for $5 each and large beers sell for $10 each. At the end of the game, you have 50 of each kind of cup left unsold. That means you should have taken in $750.00 (50 x $5 = $250 and 50 x $10 = $500). Sure, there's a cash register but that's mostly there as a change-making device and as added back-up to help determine sales figures. The cup inventory does not lie; either the cups are there or they aren't.
  • If you do balance to that figure, great. That rarely happens though. Typically, most stands come up either a little bit over or a little bit short. It gets hectic, people make mistakes, things happen. There's a certain margin of error that's tolerated without a severe penalty. But if that margin is exceeded, look out. Most stands are operated by civic groups as a means of fund raising (band boosters, youth sports teams, etc.) who receive a commission on their sales. Excessive shortages are taken directly out of that commission check. So let's say your commission is 10% of your sales (again,.easy math) and you're looking forward to a check for $75 to help pay for next year's senior class trip to the Smithsonian. But somebody screwed up big time and you only collected $700.00 - $50 short! Your anticipated check of $75 is now probably going to be about half of that. Ouch.

That's the reason they won't give you one of the big soda or beer cups when you just want a drink of water. Cups are money. That's also why someone could be desperate enough to dig through the trash, rinse them out and add them to the stand's inventory.

The scenario listed above is relatively innocent and benign. Who knows why you came up $50 short? It could very well be an unfortunate but honest mistake. Well, there are dirtbags who figure out how it works real quick and come up with "brilliant" ideas to beat the system. Don't ring a few sales through the register, re-fill a cup or two that someone just happens to bring back with them to the stand, or - who cares, just get some out of the trash.

We've all seen the prices charged at sporting events and concerts; it would be pretty easy for an unscrupulous person to pocket some fairly serious cash. Say they rip off the stand for just $25 a game, every game over an 11 game homestand. That's almost $300 and more than $2000 over the length of a full baseball season.

Now, in the interview on Rays Index, the worker says this action was taken at the suggestion of a "supervisor". This indicates to me that either the supervisor was afraid to be accountable to someone in authority higher up the chain or that they were too lazy to try to figure out what the real problem was. Or both.

Either way, it's at least fraud if not outright theft. Sales numbers and revenue are reported to the Rays who pay taxes on that revenue. Of course, the supervisor could just be a thief.

The same thing can happen when you pay to park at an event. Have you ever given an attendant $10 (or more), held out your hand for some kind of ticket only to have them wave you though, saying, "That's okay, you don't need one"? If so, I can just about guarantee that your money went directly into that guy's pocket. Those parking tickets have numbers on them, or at least been pre-counted. Every one that doesn't get handed out is money that doesn't have to, and probably won't, get turned in at the end of the night.

So how does this affect you, the average fan? In a lot of ways, it doesn't. You're not doing anything wrong. Once you've paid your money, you can't control where it goes. And you aren't the one being ripped off; it's big, multi-million dollar entities, who, frankly, are overcharging you to begin with! Who cares if someone sticks it to them once in a while, right?

Well, maybe. But do you really think you can feel good about justifying the illegal activity of somebody who wouldn't hesitate to serve you a drink in a cup they dug out of a garbage can? I sure hope not.

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