How to: Fuel your Final Four passion on a budget
By Angel Foster
Like “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” “two men enter; one man leaves.” But in this case, 68 teams will dribble, swish and dunk their way through March Madness to earn the chance at a national title. While the athletes will pay their way with blood, sweat and tears, fan’s will cheer and jeer, then maybe shed a tear when they crack open their piggy banks to pay for their pilgrimage to Arlington, Texas, for this year’s NCAA Men’s Final Four.
According to an economic study commissioned by the city, Arlington expects to welcome more than 80,000 visitors for the event. Although the city expects fans to spend more than $55 million, there are a lot of free and affordable activities for the basketball-obsessed, budget-conscious fan to take advantage of – allowing for the maximum fun with minimum cost.
According to Tony Fay, a spokesman for Fay + Sawers Productions, the Dallas-based production company coordinating activities with the NCAA, there will be a well-rounded schedule of events to enjoy.
“Once fans get here, whether they have game tickets or not, they will be able to immerse themselves into the atmosphere and have a full Final Four experience,” Fay said.
Let’s get booked
There are two ways to book travel and lodging – do it yourself or contact a travel agent that specializes in sports events packages.
If you have the time, or you just like doing business in a pair of fuzzy slippers, sipping on a cup of home-brewed coffee, self-booking online might be for you. Online, one-stop travel websites allow you to find and compare the best deals. Most people are familiar with sites like Orbitz or Travelocity that allow you to book a flight and hotel together, but Cheapair.com is another good site for finding deals.
One example of what you can find online is on Southwest Airlines, with a roundtrip fare from Denver to Dallas as low as $208, and Spirit Airlines has a fare of $129 through Cheapair.com. Airfares are always changing, and booking early is a good idea. Another little-known, money-saving tip on flights is to book on Tuesday, when airlines update their fares.
When it comes to affordable lodging, there are several inexpensive choices – if you have a car and you don’t mind staying in the outlying areas near Arlington and Dallas – prices start as low as $38 a night at Tropicana Inn and Suites. There is no pool or fitness room, but kids stay free and there is no parking fee. If you prefer being in Dallas, close to all of the free events, be prepared to pay more. Rooms at The Sheraton Dallas, which offers shuttle service and other perks for basketball fans, start at $161 a night.
Prefer to leave the planning to someone else? Or maybe you can’t find tickets to the games. Then a package deal through a sports travel specialist could be for you. As the demand for sports travel has grown, so has the number of agencies that cater to this niche market – and they know how to deal.
According to Anbritt Stengele, president of Sports Traveler, typical sports packages include game tickets and hotel, but airfare discounts can be added.
“Most travel agencies partner with various hotels and airlines, and that’s how we can get you better deals as a package,” Stengele said. “One benefit of working with us, or agencies like us, is our access to event tickets – because we buy in blocks, we may have something available even after they are sold out at normal ticket outlets.”
The Sports Traveler package prices start at $1,695 per person, which includes a four night stay at the Sheraton Arlington, within walking distance to the games, tickets to the semi-finals and championship game, a pre-game tailgate party, a four day car rental and a $75 Saltgrass Steakhouse gift certificate. A similar package at SportTravel.com is $2,245 for a stay at the Sheraton in Dallas, replacing the rental car with a coach shuttle to the games.
Flight booked – check. Hotel booked – check. Let the free fun begin.
The NCAA March Madness Music Festival is one of the most attended activities during the Final Four weekend, which is no big surprise wiyh three days of free concerts by some of the biggest names in music. Fay said that the performing acts will be announced soon, but isn’t worried about being disappointed with the line-up – based on previous acts
“There have been some major acts in years past, from everyone like Dave Matthews Band, to Sting, to the Black Eyed Peas, to Kenny Chesney,” Fay said.
Todd Diamond, MSU Denver alum, said that it was one of the best parts of his trip to last year’s Final Four – and free was the key.
“I was there for the basketball but the concerts were an added bonus, and free is always good,” Diamond said.
The outdoor festival will be at Reunion Park in Dallas. The AT&T Block Party will be Friday, April 4 from 4-10:30 p.m., the Coco-Cola Zero Countdown on Saturday, April 5, noon-9 p.m., and the Capital One JamFest will close out the series on Sunday, April 6, 3-10:30 p.m. The festival is a non-ticketed event, with admission into the fenced festival grounds coming on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Final Four Dribble gives 3,200 kids the chance to dribble through the heart of the Final Four activities, on Sunday, April 6. Participants must pre-register and will receive a free T-shirt, basketball and entry to Bracket Town on that day.
Looking for a fit way to enjoy the weekend? The Road to the Final Four® 5K will hit the streets of Fair Park on Saturday, April 5. Benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, the program is a collaborative effort between the American Cancer Society and National Association of Basketball Coaches. Register online at NCAA.com/finalfour.
Not having a ticket to the big game doesn’t mean missing out on seeing some of college basketball’s top talent hitting the hardwood. The Reese’s Final Four Friday and Reese’s College All-Star Game take court Friday, April 4, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Fans can watch team practices for free between noon-4 p.m., then stay for the Reese’s College All-Star Game featuring the top senior student-athletes.
In addition, the Tip-Off Tailgate will be free to the public Friday, April 4 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., as a kickoff to the weekend.
Although there is a minimal cost to break into Bracket Town, Metro State University Denver alum Justin Taylor said it is the ultimate Final Four fan fest.
“Where else can old folks idolize legends like Clyde Drexler and Dick Vitale, while kids get to indulge in basketball sensory overload,” Taylor said. “Bracket Town had so many events, games, guests and contests, that one day could provide memories for life.”
The “overload” will be held at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Downtown Dallas, Friday, April 4, through Monday, April 7. The 350,000-square-foot interactive indoor amusement park celebrates the history of the NCAA Division 1 Men’s basketball tournament. There will be youth clinics, 3-on-3 basketball tournaments, special musical performances, autograph sessions and more. Go to NCAA.com/finalfour for ticket information.
“The NCAA has been doing this for a while, and do such a great job filling the needs of this fan-driven event,” Fay said. “Bracket Town™ is a prime example of the spirit the NCAA wants to capture.”
Local dining and attractions
There is a wide variety of attractions and dining options for fans spending most of their time in Dallas. But, for those who are staying in Arlington, where options are limited, it doesn’t mean missing out.
“A few restaurants have been featured on ‘Drive-ins, Diners and Dives’ on the Food Network, Taste of Europe and Prince Lebanese, and those are the two that we recommend,” said director of public relations at the Arlington Visitor Bureau, Decima Cooper.
Taste of Europe is known for its Beef Stroganoff – but be sure to pick up Russian candies on your way out the door.
Foodies famished for some barbeque should check out family-owned Bodacious BBQ, serving quality smoked meats for nearly 50 years, dishing out slabs old fashioned way – mesquite wood only, no gas or electric pits – and when the meat sells out, you’ll have to wait for the next day’s fresh supply, per house rules.
Once the belly is full, hit the town for something unusual, like Top O’ Hill Terrace – the original Las Vegas – it was good enough for John Wayne. If you like to bowl, or you just prefer to sip on a cold beer while watching the whirling of the ball return, you might enjoy the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame, with interactive exhibits and more than 5,000 years of bowling history.
The games are in Arlington – everything else is in Dallas – transportation between venues might be a challenge. Fay said there will be some free shuttles services, but no schedule has been finalized. And, although the Dallas Area Rapid Transit will get you around Dallas, there are no Arlington routes. The Arlington Entertainment District Trolley only services … well, it’s in the name.
Whether your team leaves with a title or not, the money you save will make you feel like a champion.