Tough ticket

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A friendly bit of advice for the hoards of Bruins, Jayhawks, Tar Heels and Tigers fans and others who might be contemplating a trek to San Antonio this weekend: Unless you're holding a ticket already, don't go. Take it from a frequent visitor -- save yourself the effort this one time.

To be clear, I have always pushed friends, foes and even the most random basketball acquaintances toward making the trek to a Final Four. Any year, any teams, any location ... it's almost always worth the effort. In the spring of 2000, I was a junior at the University of Wisconsin when, by some cosmic mix-up, my Badgers ended up at the Final Four in Indianapolis. After camping out for a spot in the ticket lottery, we packed six students into a minivan and cruised 5 1/2 hours to the outskirts of Indy. We plunked our bags off at a Red Roof Inn and did it up: sports bar megaplexes -- ours was called Tiki Bob's -- replete with troughs of cold beer and tacky NCAA banners adorning every doorway; two endless nights capped with bagfuls of White Castle; embarrassingly cheerleader-esque face-painting sessions. We had it easy: student tickets in hand. Pure bliss.

But, as I always tell people, it doesn't have to be done that way. There's a common misconception about March Madness: you need a student ticket to: a) get into, and b) enjoy the Final Four. Not true. Three years of subsequent experience have taught me otherwise.

The Final Four is unique from the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals or the BCS Championship in one crucial sense, which lends itself to interlopers. And to get that, it's important to understand how tickets are distributed. Largely, each arena is divided into quadrants, one section per team. Those teams' fans (the ones who win ticket lotteries, etc...) get two tickets each. The first ticket covers both Saturday semifinal games, such that two whole sections could be near-empty during the early parts of the first semifinal game as fans of the later-playing teams trickle into their seats. The second ticket covers the Monday final, and you retain this ticket regardless of whether your team won in the semis. Whether you choose to use it, sell it or mount it in glass at home is up to you. Quite simply: After Game 1, a quarter of the weekend's ticket-holding crowd is ready to leave. After Game 2, that crowd has been halved. There are thousands of seats waiting to be filled.

Take, for example, the semifinals three years ago in St. Louis, which I attended. After Illinois dispatched Louisville in the first game Saturday, hordes of Cardinal fans -- whose numbers no doubt correlated to the short 4 /12-hour jaunt from Louisville -- were ready to leave. An intuitive basketball fan would have already procured a nosebleed seat for the opening day's two-game package for somewhere in the neighborhood of $25. (Last year, I found the same seat for $18, thanks in part to my willingness to wait until the last possible minute, when scalpers enter fire sale mode.) With that ticket in hand, the first game's buzzer is a cue to B-line from the rafters to the mezzanine. Wait for the walking dead to file by, tears encrusted in face paint, and suddenly you're courtside for Game 2. And that's the hard part.

Come Monday, when two of the teams -- and their invested ticketholders -- have been eliminated, a seat at the finals is typically easy to come by. Last year, after UCLA and Georgetown fans had been sent packing Saturday (the later crowd hadn't really come to Atlanta expecting to see a win anyway), I paid $40 to watch Ohio State-Florida on Monday from the first balcony of the Georgia Dome. It took some haggling, yes. Largely, I was bidding against UF or OSU students who had either sat out the semis or who had swooped into town for the championship. But I found a fantastic spot smack in the middle of what would have been UCLA territory. Thanks for keeping my seat warm, Bruins fans.

And now here's the part where I tell you to forget all of that. With four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four for the first time, San Antonio should expect to be swarmed upon by four enormous fanbases, each with enough bodies to fill the Alamodome three times over. Take into consideration the rabid nature of the programs and the fact that Memphis hasn't been Final Four-bound since 1985 and this is all good for tourism, bad for you. Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA and fans will all come expecting to win in the semis (as opposed to, say, George Mason fans in 2006); and when they do, they'll be ready to move in on the vacated seats en masse, gobbling up any up-for-grabs finals tickets before the semifinals end. I expect seats for the Monday finals to reach absurd all-time price highs -- not that scalpers keep records.

Furthermore, I don't foresee there being many available tickets. When Wisconsin lost in Indianapolis in 2000, it was an easy call for the majority of our fans to sell their remaining tickets on the way out of the RCA Dome, pack up and cut their losses. Most hit the road by car. That won't happen in 2008. Memphis is the closest school to San Antonio -- and that would be an unbearable 11-hour drive. In other words, plane tickets will be bought for Friday through Monday, which means that even the losers are likely to stick around for Monday's championship. It sure beats the hotel bar -- which is exactly where you'll be stuck if you roll the dice on Final Four tickets in 2008. Take my advice and watch from home. They don't serve beer at the Final Four anyway.