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On a recent fall afternoon outside the towering red gates of Nationals Park, a man in a neon yellow shirt and dark sunglasses stood in the middle of Half Street Southeast with a stack of Washington Nationals ballcaps in his hand. Waves of fans, awash in the team’s signature red, white, and navy colors, poured up from the Metro station towards the ballpark.

Steve is one of many unlicensed vendors that sells Nationals caps on Half Street outside Nationals Park.Mikaela Lefrak / WAMU

“Washington Nationals hats! Get ‘em, get ‘em, five bucks,” the man shouted over and over, with the energy of a well-practiced salesman.

His name was Steve, he said, but he didn’t want to give his last name. “I’m too scared,” he said. Because what he was doing was illegal.

Who’s Allowed to Sell Merchandise, And Who Isn’t?

Outside Nationals Park — as well as other sports venues and arenas in the region — an ecosystem of licensed and unlicensed merchandise vendors crops up before most home games. They sell gear at lower prices than what customers can usually find in official stores.

At the Nationals Team Store inside the ballpark, or online on Major League Baseball’s Nationals page, Nats hats sell for anywhere between $15 and $40. The caps are made by well-known apparel companies like New Era and officially licensed by Major League Baseball. They come with a shiny sticker on the brim to prove it.

On Half Street, many of the independent vendors sell exactly the same products, but at a much lower price. “When you’re inside the park, there’s a monopoly that controls distribution, and they really hike up prices,” explained Ron Sorini, an international trade lawyer and lobbyist with Sorini Samet & Associates LLC. “Outside, that monopoly doesn’t exist.”

“If he’s got a $5 hat, I’m gonna go to him. His hat is the exact same one as we have.”

Despite their bargain prices, the majority of vendors outside Nationals Park are there legally. The D.C. government grants monthly licensesduring baseball season for 14 sidewalk vending spots on or near Half Street, the main thoroughfare into the stadium. The licenses are doled out through a lottery system, and the winners pay $125 per month for the right to sell food or gear.

D.C. resident Chanita Platt works for one of those licensed vendors. Before a recent Friday night home game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, she stood behind a table covered in Nationals t-shirts, jerseys and a half-dozen varieties of hats. All of her merchandise is officially licensed by Major League baseball, she said, and a representative from the Nationals occasionally comes by before games to check through her and the other vendors’ inventories, to make sure everything is certified.

One of the most popular hats Platt sells, she said, is an all-red cap with a white curly “W” on the front. Just a few minutes after she said that, a man came up and bought one for $10. Inside the ballpark, the hat costs about twice that price.

Just a few feet away, Steve was also selling the exact same hat. He told some fans the hat cost $10, but he quickly dropped his price to $7 for a German tourist, and $5 for another customer.

Chanita Platt is one of 14 licensed sidewalk vendors on Half Street. She says she understands why fans would buy hats more cheaply from unlicensed vendors.Mikaela Lefrak / WAMU

“Yep, I let it go for five bucks,” he said. “I drop it like it’s hot. Like Snoop Dogg said, ‘My money on my mind, my mind is on my money.’”

Before games with big crowds, such as when the playoff-bound Dodgers were in town, Platt said the extra competition with unlicensed hat sellers didn’t bother her. “We all make a good profit on these days,” she said.

But on slower days, she and the other licensed vendors get frustrated. “If he’s got a $5 hat, I’m gonna go to him,” she said. “His hat is the exact same one as we have.”

How Do They Get Away With It?

Even though most of the hats for sale outside the ballpark have an MLB hologram sticker indicating they are officially licensed products, the stickers are often fake, according to Sorini. “There’s a wide variety of counterfeited hats,” he said. “Some look almost identical. It’s up to the counterfeiters, how much they want to invest and what kind of risk they want to take.”

On Half Street, lots of people take risks, but the chance of inciting legal repercussions is low.

From the team’s perspective, cracking down on street vendors isn’t worth the fight, Sorini said. “A team that’s doing as well as the Washington Nationals isn’t going to have a hard time selling their product,” he said. They are about to head into the playoffs with a lineup full of star players, like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, whose popularity helps propel jersey sales.

D.C. police have personal relationships with unlicensed vendors and enforcement doesn’t appear to be strict.Mikaela Lefrak / WAMU

When asked about their stance on unlicensed vendors selling team merchandise, a spokesperson for the Nationals said only that they “rely on local authorities to enforce the permitting and vending laws.”

But prosecuting unlicensed vendors isn’t something the D.C. government appears to want to deal with, either. Earlier this summer, police detained two teenagers for selling water bottles on the National Mall without a vending license. Although the detentions were conducted by U.S. Park Police, not D.C. police, the incident still turned into a public relations nightmare for a city struggling with racial and economic disparities. Images of the two black teens in handcuffs went viral.

At the ballpark before the Dodgers game, a D.C. police officer walked slowly up and down Half Street, greeting vendors by name. He approached one man selling hats in the street for $5.

“I just got down here, John,” said the vendor. “You know the rules,” the officer replied. The man made as if he was leaving, and the officer walked the other way. But a few minutes later, the vendor was back to selling his hats.

At that point, it was about half an hour before the first pitch, and the crowds outside the stadium were thick. Back at Platt’s table, Platt said she’d been praying the team would make the playoffs, and she expected to be outside the park selling gear during the first round playoff games on Oct. 6 and 7.

But, she said, she is not a baseball fan herself. She has never even been inside the ballpark.

“I would love to go one day,” she said. “But I’m just… right here.” She looked down at her table, covered in the team’s gear. Like the rest of the vendors, she had to be outside, not inside, to make a living.