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Scalpers pulling out their hair

Sellers are losing their shirts in the slow early market for ACC Tournament tickets.

Published March 9, 2007


TAMPA - Tom Leake, 78, has been a fan of this game "since they started putting air in a basketball."

In downtown Tampa for the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament Thursday, the Virginia resident surveyed a scene far different from what he was used to.

For many of its 54 years, this tournament has been played in Greensboro, N.C.

There, Leake said, it's common to see lines of fans stretched along highway off-ramps begging passing drivers for extra tickets.

But outside the St. Pete Times Forum, Leake couldn't seem to give away his spare ticket. It's a wailing refrain echoed by most would-be scalpers as the city hosted its first ACC tournament.

Tampa's a nice place, said Leake, who splits his allegiance between the University of Virginia and Wake Forest, where he sent his son.

"But it's like they weren't ready for the ACC."

Inside, it was a different story. Yes, there were empty seats, but no one was alarmed.

At the start of the day's opening game between Florida State and Clemson at noon, there were several thousand empty seats, but midway through the game's second half, the stands were far fuller. The ACC doesn't release turnstile counts, only tickets sold. In this case the maximum, 22,269.

"We're very excited how the afternoon session turned out," Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said.

"I was very pleased, very, very pleased with the attendance," echoed ACC associate commissioner Fred Barakat, who has managed the tournament for the last 20 years. "There's no question the crowd was comparable (to the last two years for the first session). I think we're well on our way to having this place packed."

One factor Thursday was a scarcity of Duke or North Carolina fans; the Blue Devils played in the evening and UNC doesn't play until today.

The ACC hasn't held a public ticket sale since 1966, instead giving each of its schools the tickets to distribute. Most sell them to boosters.

However, the ACC sold tickets to the Times Forum and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission to resell or distribute, providing another source for fans.

And local organizers and the league had anticipated a less-than-packed house on opening day, so they launched a ticket redistribution plan for the day's two sessions. Fans who knew they wouldn't be going could sell tickets back to the Times Forum, which then would offer them locally via a lottery.

About 300 tickets were returned for Thursday, and the Times Forum had a list of more than 1,000 interested fans.

"I thought we might get more returns," Barakat said. It's a method they will likely use again, he said.

"This was a test. We're going to need this everywhere we go," he said.

"Thursday is problematic because you have two long, long days and Thursday you don't have your top four teams. It's a good first step," he said. "I think we learned some things from it."

It all added up to frustration for the scalpers on opening day.

William Schaffer couldn't sell extra tickets to a Duke-North Carolina State matchup that he said would have sold out had the game been in Greensboro.

"It belongs in North Carolina," Schaffer, 72, said. "Down here it's another event. Down in Greensboro, it's a big thing."

With his arms outstretched like branches and people giving him as much attention as they would a tree, John Davidson of Charlotte finally sat on a bench.

He has been selling tickets since he was a University of North Carolina graduate student who bought 80 from a Villanova University fraternity on the cheap, marked them up and made $480. Thursday, he offered tickets for $20, one-third face value.

"I've been going to the ACC tournament for 30 years," Davidson, 57, said, "and this is weakest tournament I've ever seen."

Last year, getting a single-game ticket involved ducking behind an abandoned building and handing over wallets to shady scalpers, said Dan Lynch, president of the Greensboro Economic Development Alliance.

"It's the hottest ticket around," he said.

But Tampa is new to ACC basketball, and some said the city didn't drum up enough interest.

"To be honest, we might not have known the tournament was going on had a friend not given us tickets," said Clemson University alum Ann Marie Clay, who lives in northern Hillsborough County.

Geoff Ashby, a St. Petersburg leather goods company owner, owns Tampa Bay Lightning season tickets and snapped up a few basketball ticket books from the Times Forum for $423, $60 above face value. Two of his friends couldn't make Thursday's games, and he was surprised he needed to stoop to a 2-for-1 offer to draw interest.

Around him, scalpers seized upon willing buyers like sea gulls on beach picnickers. Down the cobblestone front, they sang a chorus in rounds.

"Who needs a pair?"

"Who needs tickets?"

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or

Fast Facts:

Free market now

For decades, selling a ticket to entertainment or sporting events in Florida for more than a dollar above face value had been a second-degree misdemeanor. But the law changed July 1, legalizing scalping for whatever price sellers can get.

[Last modified March 9, 2007, 05:48:28]

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