- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

One week. Four games. Four hot dogs. Four sodas. Parking. Metro.

$100 to spend.

This is the challenge to the cash-strapped fan. Money is tight. Life is hard. But this is not the time to abandon the local sports scene. Not with the Capitals all the rage. Not with Gilbert Arenas in the Wizards’ lineup and LeBron James in town. Not with the Nationals and D.C. United back in action.

One week. Four games. Four sports. Three venues.

$100 to spend.

Seems impossible. Tickets aren’t cheap. Parking’s ridiculous.

Food? Biggest markup on the planet. Like facing Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway, this could be a daunting task.

First step: Check the schedules. A Saturday-to-Saturday swing can be done, with D.C. United’s opener and the Nationals-Orioles exhibition as bookends. Caps on Wednesday, Wizards on Thursday.

Permission from the wife? Got it. She’s a good egg.

The quest for tickets begins. A trip down to the Nationals Park box office a week in advance results in a ducat for just $10. The good egg gets a ticket too, but she’s not part of this experiment.

Ninety dollars to spend.

Getting down to the Verizon Center box office ahead of time turns out to be a little tricky, so the Internet becomes a good friend - maybe. A cursory search for a cheap Capitals ticket proves fruitless. Things were a heckuva lot easier when the team stank. The Wizards? Tickets are available. A $20 seat in the top deck for the game against the Cavaliers. Not bad, but it’s $29.70 when Ticketmaster fees are factored in. Ouch.

Now there’s $60.30 to spend.

It’s time to search for D.C. United tickets. Logic says it’s best to just walk up on game day and buy one for $22. But there’s a paranoia that the cheapest seats won’t be available. Yes, it’s irrational. And it’s lazy.

And it costs a fan an extra $4 processing charge and $8.35 convenience fee. All for the privilege of picking up the ticket at will call. Ticketmaster is clearly not among the companies in need of a government bailout.

Down to $25.95. Uh-oh.

Still no Caps ticket. This is problematic. Where to go? Craigslist? eBay? Some shady Islanders fan on Abe Pollin Way before the game? Impatience sets in. There’s one on StubHub for just $10! But there’s a $5 service fee. And a $16.95 shipping charge. It’s not possible to just pick up the ticket somewhere? Cripes. It’s $31.95 for a $10 ticket. (Actually, face value is $50. But that’s irrelevant.)

Indecision. Anxiety. Sigh. Forehead slap.

Six dollars in the hole and the games haven’t even been played. There’s still transportation and food to pay for. This is turning into a financial disaster. Executives at AIG would have managed things better.

At this point, the tickets themselves have cost $62. Fees, service charges and shipping have added $44. The financial lesson, which seems obvious in retrospect: Buy tickets at the box office whenever possible.

Now already in debt, it’s time to figure out how to get to the games and eat on the cheap. The $15 D.C. United is charging for parking? No chance. Taking Metro seems like the best option. But the free parking in Lot 4 for anyone who drives a Volkswagen is even better. Thank you, newly purchased Jetta SportWagen.

Still $6 in the hole.

It’s raining, it’s cold. There’s no one around Section 216, Row 8, Seat 14. No one. And the opposing goal might as well be in Canada. The decision to buy a ticket ahead of time was definitely a poor one.

Feels like food time. The goal is a hot dog and soda for as little as possible, and at RFK, $8 will suffice. Not the heartiest of dinners, but it’s the best deal on the concourse. A feeling of inadequacy is made worse when the Coke spills all over the stadium floor. Curses. Later, a friend boasts that he ate for free by simply cozying up to La Barra Brava at their tailgate. Curses again.

D.C. United opens its home season with a 1-1 tie. At least the parking was free.

One down, three to go. Now $14 in the hole.

It’s Wednesday, and the Capitals are hosting the Islanders at Verizon Center. There’s no Metro access from the office, so it’s time to drive and look for cheap (read: free) parking. Meters around the arena go until 9:30 p.m. No dice there. But toward the Convention Center, parking is plentiful at no cost after 6:30. Nice.

Still $14 in the hole.

Will Verizon Center have a hot dog and Coke for $8? Not quite. It’s $8.75 for the two. Again, not really enough food for a grown male. And the seat is way up there, Section 402, Row P. Way out of T-shirt launching territory. The only people farther away are the French-speaking folks in the back row. They say something about Ovechkin. Or Jose Theodore. Or Obama. It’s hard to understand them. They’re buying all kinds of food items that look more appetizing than the sad hot dog. La vie est terrible.

Now $22.75 over budget.

On Thursday night, the Wizards take on the Cavaliers. Again, it’s free parking near the Convention Center. And based on the crowd around Gallery Place, it was wise to get a ticket ahead of time. Gil and LeBron put fannies in the seats.

Section 424 Row G, Seat 8. Packed in like sardine next to a guy who smells like a medicine cabinet. The players look like Tolkien characters from up here. This is the area once called “The Hill.” But it’s called the “Penthaus” now, thanks to sponsorship with Volkswagen. That company is everywhere.

The good news is that a hot dog and iced tea are just $8.50, one quarter cheaper than the dog and soda from the previous night. The Medicine Man bought some nachos, which look a lot more satisfying. When the fan crew starts tossing Chipotle burritos into the crowd, its almost too much to take. But the lingering hunger is eventually squelched by the game itself, a back-and-forth Wizards win.

The debt has reached $31.25.

On Saturday, the Nationals take on the Orioles in the final exhibition game of the year. It’s a beautiful spring day, and half of the D.C. region is in town to see the cherry blossoms. Parking at the Greenbelt Metro station is free. The trip down to the Tidal Basin costs $2.35. The sight of pink against the blue sky is free. Best value yet, though the pregnant wife pays with a pair of swollen ankles. It’s another $1.35 to get over to the Navy Yard stop in time for the game. Total round-trip Metro cost: $6.05.

Now $37.30 in the hole.

The seats in section 403, Row D are decent for the upper deck of Nationals Park. Nice view of the scoreboard, decent view of the river. And the best news: A hot dog, soda and chips can be had for $7 at the “Nats Dogs” stand. The best deal yet, though a half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl ($6.75) calls like a siren. The stomach growls as the Nats win 4-3.

Final deficit: $44.30.

The $100 experiment is an epic failure, it would seem. But maybe not. Maybe it can be done after all. Break it down: $62 on tickets, then $32.25 on food. Rail fare totals $6.05, and that included an extra trip to see the pretty trees. That’s $100.30. Add the ticket fees and shipping: $144.55. There’s the culprit.

So what are the lessons? Always buy tickets at the box office, even if it’s not convenient to do so. Think outside the box when looking for parking. And eat before the game because a single hot dog just doesn’t cut it.

Consider them lessons learned.

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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