- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Three hours before the Xavier Musketeers tipped off against the Georgia Bulldogs yesterday, more than a hundred college basketball enthusiasts crowded into the Gordon Biersch Brewery restaurant near Verizon Center for some bacon, french toast and pregame revelry.

Down the street, the Purdue University pep band and spirit squad took over a sidewalk outside the Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, while Boilermaker fans sang the school’s fight song.

Verizon Center was the site of the NCAA tournament action, but the bars and restaurants near downtown Washington were buzzing equally, as alumni and other fans poured into the neighborhood over the course of nearly 15 hours yesterday.

“For Wizards games, we have people for maybe an hour beforehand and maybe an hour afterward,” said Abbie Longero, the sales and marketing manager for Gordon Biersch, who helped put together the Xavier breakfast gathering. “But for this tournament, we see people who are here all the time because they’re in town the whole time. I expect it to be crowded.”

Pep rallies and parties peppered the day’s schedule yesterday all over downtown Washington, even involving fans of teams playing at other tournament sites. The Penn Quarter Sports Tavern had a Purdue event at 11 a.m., a George Mason event at 3 p.m. and a Stanford event at 5 p.m. Meanwhile, hotels like the Marriott Renaissance and Hotel Monaco were booked solid with teams, bands and fans.

“Between yesterday and today, we saw about 30 rooms being booked and about half of those were West Virginia fans,” whose team played late last night, said Victor Muochalu, general manager at the Hotel Monaco. “We have doubled up our staff in every department. We have two additional security details and have doubled up on management.”

Fans traveled to the District from Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Atlanta and a host of other cities.

“I had hotels reserved at every site around the country,” said Jim Kissee, a Purdue graduate and engineer from Highland, Ind., who attended the game with his wife, Sue. “I knew what the airline fares were to everywhere, and as soon as we found out, I was booking the flight.”

Mr. Kissee’s humble prediction for the game: “I think we’ll beat Baylor.”

He was right: The Kissees will stay in D.C. through tomorrow, as the Boilermakers topped Baylor 90-79.

After a day of practice and press conferences, the games at Verizon Center will start again tomorrow at 2:10 p.m., when Purdue takes on Xavier, which beat Georgia 73-61. Duke faces West Virginia 30 minutes after the first game ends.

Xavier fans Carol and Tom Albers will also stay the weekend, justifying the effort to fly to Washington from their home in Milwaukee. Of course, following the Musketeers is practically a hobby for the married couple; they also keep an apartment in Cincinnati so they can attend all Xavier home games.

“Xavier is our passion,” Mrs. Albers said prior to the Musketeers’ too-close-for-comfort win over 14th-seeded Georgia. “We like to joke that some people winter in Florida or Arizona. We winter in Cincinnati.”

One could argue that the NCAA tournament’s first four days are tailor-made to fill the coffers of the restaurants and bars in the area surrounding Verizon Center. With a day and night session, fans are forced into the arena around dinner time and are expected to dine and drink at local establishments.

“They’ll be just streaming out of Verizon Center and out onto the street,” said Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development at the Downtown DC Business Improvement District.

The NCAA’s ban on alcohol sales at events also is seen as a boost to bars. Consider that after games, many fans were expected to flock to the Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, which has proclaimed itself the home base for scores of major college alumni groups. Penn Quarter has relationships with more than 40 of the teams in this year’s tournament and more than 90 overall.

“It creates loyalty,” said Matt Hunter, the tavern’s marketing, events and catering manager. “They get tied into a place, and it becomes home.”

Timothy Warren contributed to this report.

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