- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Mary Simison’s experience trekking halfway across the country for the NCAA Basketball Tournament reads like a twisted advertisement for MasterCard.

She has spent hundreds of dollars in tickets, gas and tolls; has endured countless hours packed into a car with her fiance and two friends; and was fired from her job at Radio Shack for missing work.

But the experience in seeing her Wichita State Shockers take on the George Mason Patriots today for a spot in the Washington region final is — to use the cliche — priceless.

“It’s definitely worth it,” she said this week, after driving to Washington from Greensboro, N.C., where she watched the tournament’s first two rounds. “This is our team. You gotta support something.”

Miss Simison will be joining tens of thousands of fans from across the country and locally who have bought more than 20,000 tickets for a long weekend of college hoops at the Verizon Center.

It’s the first time since 2002 that the District has hosted tournament games. This year in the Sweet Sixteen, the city will host the George Mason-Wichita State matchup at 7:27 p.m. followed by the region’s top seed Connecticut and Washington from the Pac-10 Conference. The winners will face off Sunday at the Verizon Center for a berth in the national semifinals.

Metro plans to keep normal weekend hours, but will add extra trains after the games to accommodate the crowds. Hotels and other businesses are reporting big jumps in business and are expecting more as the games approach.

“There’s a lot of excitement,” said Joe Stern, general manager of the Grand Hyatt Washington, near the Verizon Center, which has seen a 30 percent increase in bookings. “We have a lot of fans of Wichita State staying here, but we also have a lot of fans of the other three teams, too. Whenever you have a national event in D.C. at the Verizon Center, we will definitely be impacted in a positive way.”

Area restaurants said they were more than ready for the influx of fans.

“We’re expecting to be packed,” said Tom Meyer, executive vice president of Clyde’s Restaurant Group. The company’s Gallery Place restaurant normally opens at 11 a.m. but will start the festivities today at 6 a.m. with a live broadcast of ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning.”

To accommodate the extra crowd, the restaurant is opening to regular customers its private room — complete with a new 55-inch flat screen TV — that can fit 200 people.

For some hoops devotees, like Miss Simison, getting here was a rite of passage, disguised as an ordeal.

Other fans with less time but more money to spare are taking a more luxurious route. About 140 Shocker fans are arriving this morning on a chartered flight arranged by the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission. The price tag: about $780, not including hotel or game tickets. Others are flying in on normal commercial flights, which cost upward of $400.

More people from Wichita, Kan., are flying to Washington this week than to any other city, according to Orbitz.com. Flights from Seattle and other airports in Washington state were also popular.

“I’ll be honest, it did cost us a little bit more, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly with a planeload of Shocker fans,” said Michelle Watson, a lawyer in Wichita, who is flying on the charter plane with her husband, Scott.

Some lucky fans were able to score tournament tickets through the four participating schools or through a lottery. But in all cases, those tickets were scooped up in as little as 24 hours. The result has meant big business for online ticket outlets like Stubhub.com and Ticketsnow.com, which act as conduits between people looking to buy or sell extra tickets.

Stubhub said the District is the most popular of the four regional tournament sites, with an average ticket for the three-game session selling for $343, far higher than any other location. The most expensive ticket has sold for $2,400, with several sellers asking more.

Brent van de Graaff, a 2000 George Mason graduate living in Arlington, used EBay to acquire two upper-deck seats for the full session almost immediately after the Patriots’ second-round victory over North Carolina. He paid $570, about three times more than face value.

“The guy I bought it from got a big premium, but this is one of those things that doesn’t come around very often, so it’s worth it,” Mr. van de Graaff said.

Ticketsnow, meanwhile, reported prices at least 30 percent higher than last year’s eastern regional games in Syracuse, N.Y.

“Location has a lot to do with it,” said Kenneth Dotson, chief marketing officer for Ticketsnow. “D.C. is a big corporate town. You get a lot of lobbyists and client entertainment.”

And all those tickets mean more people roaming the streets between games. At California Tortilla in Chinatown, restaurant President Bob Phillips predicts a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in business.

“It’s going to be wild,” said Mr. Phillips, who said the location will have the same hours but with more staff members and more food. “I imagine all the businesses around the Verizon Center are anticipating a big weekend. It’s very exciting.”

Mr. Phillips said business spikes whenever a younger crowd attends a concert or sporting event at the arena.

“The tournament will obviously draw a lot of our demographic,” he said. “Those George Mason fans … I hope they love burritos.”

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