The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A New York scalper endures ‘a very quiet’ first night at the Big Ten tournament

Iowa took on Illinois in the Big Ten tournament opener Wednesday night at the Garden. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — A dozen or so scalpers staked out prime territory in front of Madison Square Garden about an hour before the Big Ten tournament tipped off Wednesday evening, but that was fine with 58-year-old Tom Flynn. The Bronx native has made his living scalping tickets here for nearly 30 years, carving out his favorite hole off the beaten path, on a quiet stretch of West 33rd Street. So he returned there as the sun went down, taking a puff of a cigarette. “Big Ten! Need a pair?” he yelled again and again, watching most potential customers walk by without paying attention.

“It’s very quiet tonight,” he said.

Flynn never would had imagined he would be trying to sell tickets to a first-round tournament game between Iowa and Illinois in the shadow of the Empire State Building, let alone on the final day of February. He was just another unexpected character in the orbit of an event that likely won’t return to the East Coast again soon. There were swaths of empty seats at the venue for the first round Wednesday night. The upper decks were largely untouched. The league didn’t immediately announce attendance figures Wednesday night, but it was reminiscent of the opening night of the tournament a year ago in Washington, where the attendance dipped by more than 20 percent than the previous season, when it was held in its usual Midwest hub of Indianapolis.

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For a group of veteran New York scalpers, it also meant intensified competition and limited opportunity. “I never even thought about it. I mean, Rutgers in the Big Ten?” Flynn asked out loud between sales, shaking his head.

Most scalpers appeared desperate to get rid of their tickets in front of the arena; most declined to be interviewed. One was out there an hour before tip-off, trying to sell four $100 tickets. Prices range between $20 for the early sessions this week to $135 for the late-round sessions; earlier this week, tickets to the first round were selling for as little as $6 on the secondary market. Flynn started the night with 20 $20 tickets.

“It’s a buyers market. They say 20 dollars on the ticket, but I won’t turn down 10. I’ve sold 16 tickets. I haven’t even asked for 20. One guy said 15 to me. I said, ‘How about 30?’ He was a real bird,” Flynn said, knowing that he would be lucky to clear $150 — or $75 for each game. He’s also been here for all but one of the Big East tournaments, he said, and on a typical day during that premier event he might clear $300.

The expansion of conference tournaments in New York has been good to him in recent years, and not just because he added an event to his calendar a week earlier than normal with the Big Ten in town. Next week, the Big East will hold its event at Madison Square Garden at the same time as the ACC tournament at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for a second consecutive year. He won’t leave his spot at Madison Square Garden, but others will.

“They’re all over there for Duke,” he said, grinning.

For now, the Big Ten is the only show in town. Flynn bundled up in his blue coat and watched as five scalpers walked by his spot in a 10-minute span right before tip-off. Then came a lull. Inside, Iowa was well on its way to a 96-87 win over Illinois in front of a small crowd.

“There’s a lull now because the first game started, too. If you’re going by what the Big East is, there’s supposed to be a lull to the second game,” he said.

He still had four tickets to get rid of. It became dark and he continued to call out as fans wearing Rutgers T-shirts and Minnesota hoodies walked by. He’ll pound the pavement for the next four days, making his 40-minute commute from the Bronx and joining the conference in hoping for bolstered sales.

Eventually, a young man approached Flynn as he tried to offload his final four tickets. “What is this?” he asked Flynn, pointing to a bright advertisement of the tournament on the side of Garden. “Big Ten basketball,” Flynn replied, before asking the kid if he needed any tickets.

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