NEW YORK — The scalper sat on a concrete pillar in front of Madison Square Garden, chewing on a stick through his gap-toothed grin and clutching a fistful of tickets.
“Who needs Big Ten?” he hollered to no one in particular, readjusting his New York Knicks cap. “Who needs Big Ten tickets?”
Commerce swirled all around him in the bustling big city. On every corner, someone was peddling something in the cash flow capital of the world. iPhone repair: $49. Double-decker bus tour: $29. Homemade CD: $20. A t-shirt vender advertised a “crazy deal” on $9.99 shirts. Maybe it was too crazy.
“In order to survive, some people, they do illegal stuff,” the scalper said. “Some people think selling tickets is illegal. I don’t really see it that way.”
For the record, New York City disagrees. Unlicensed ticket selling is a misdemeanor, carrying a fine and possible jail time. Even licensed ticket sellers aren’t allowed to resell within 1,500 feet of the venue.
But ignore those small differences of opinion, for there’s a buck to be made on the corner of Seventh Ave. and West 33rd, a mere half-court heave from Madison Square Garden. The scalper is out here, chewing his stick and flipping tickets, almost on a nightly basis. One night New York Knicks. The next Rangers. Maybe professional wrestling. Billy Joel. Justin Timberlake.
On Wednesday night, the scalper decided to, shall we say, diversify his portfolio with some Big Ten basketball. He bought four tickets for $10 total, hoping to sell each for $5 but not sure exactly what to expect. This was going to be a new experience for everyone involved — both inside and outside the Garden.
Until last year, the Big Ten held its conference tournament in Indianapolis or Chicago. But when the traditionally Midwestern conference added Rutgers and Maryland in 2014 amid massive conference realignment, commissioner Jim Delaney took the tournament east.
Washington, D.C., played host last year, about a dozen miles from Maryland’s campus. This year, it’s in Madison Square Garden, less than 40 miles from the Scarlet Knights’ campus.
“We wanted to make to sure to live here, not visit,” Delaney said in New York City during Big Ten Media Day.
Still, the move has been under scrutiny since the minute Delaney announced it, especially in Indiana where fans are used to driving a couple hours at most to catch their favorite team.
No matter how many or how few Big Ten fans choose to make the pilgrimage to the so-called “Basketball Mecca,” there are ways holding the Big Ten Tournament in the Big Apple will pay off. The new teams in the East and the new television audiences helped the conference sign a lucrative $2.6 billion TV deal. That money has trickled directly down to the individual schools. Purdue, for example, is using part of its share as a backbone to support the new $65 million Football Performance Complex.
But the scalper didn’t care about new buildings or TV money. He cared about unloading his $10 investment.
The scalper’s phone rang. The man on the other end asked how much he should charge for tickets. When the Knicks are on a roll, a club seat is $365. Some people won’t think twice about paying $500. Floor seats are $1,250 face value. “Put something on it,” and you can flip them for a couple thousand each.
“I sold Super Bowls for $3,500 a ticket,” he said. “ I sold tickets to the Orange Bowl for $3,000. I sold tickets a long time ago to the fight, Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium. I sold ringside for that for about $5,000.”
But this, this wasn’t Ali-Norton. Actually, that brings up a good point. Who was playing in this game anyway?
“Is it Maryland and Iowa?” he asked two middle-aged men in Penn State gear.
The first Penn State fan shrugged. He didn’t even have a guess. The second fan thought for a minute.
“Iowa and Minnesota,” he said, walking away confidently.
Meanwhile, the Illinois-Iowa game inched closer.
With each passing minute, the scalper was growing more frustrated. He said out loud this was just the first round. More fans would show later this week. Right? He munched harder on the chew stick. A man strolled by in a Rutgers hat and jacket.
“Shoulda stayed in the Big East,” the scalper jeered, with a little New York City hospitality in his voice, raspy from 30 years of smoking.
“The Big East sucks,” the man responded, walking more quickly now.
“Big Ten sucks, too,” he said. “Bigger. (Expletive) Big Ten. You got a couple good teams and a bunch of bad teams.”
He chewed harder on the stick.
All around him there was noise, the sound of commerce in motion. Taxis screamed by. A man decked out in authentic Cuban attire banged a drum to the beat of the rumba music. A man in a wheelchair shook a paper cup.
“Who needs tickets?” the scalper said, his voice trailing off. “Who needs Big Ten tickets?”
In a city bustling with noise, his question was answered with silence.