- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

COLLEGE PARK, MD. (AP) - A year ago, Utah forward Kalee Whipple’s parents and one of her five siblings made the trek from Nevada to Indiana to watch her play in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

This weekend?

“It’s just way too expensive,” Whipple said.

In a reeling economy, she’s not the only one alone on the road for the two Big Dances.

Ticket sales for the men’s tournament are down, there have been thousands of empty seats at games in both tourneys, and some schools cut back on entourages, either to save money or to avoid the appearance of spending too much when times are tough.

Missouri, for example, saved about $25,000 by taking 12 fewer people to Boise, Idaho _ where its men play Marquette on Sunday _ than went to Indianapolis in 2003 for the school’s previous NCAA appearance.

“In 2003, we’re taking the chancellor and three members of the chancellor’s staff, because that’s the right thing to do. We’ve got receptions, and these are our bosses. This year, we only took one member from the chancellor’s staff,” Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said.

“It’s an economic decision, no doubt,” Alden explained. “We don’t want to spend money if we don’t have to. Second, from a public point of view, if everyone’s hurting, we don’t want to do that. It’s the wrong message for everyone. It’s the wrong message for the fans.”

Clearly, some fans _ and players’ relatives _ decided they had to stay home this time around.

Complete numbers won’t be available for about three weeks, but an NCAA official who was asked Saturday for a ballpark figure said about 85 percent to 90 percent of tickets were sold at most men’s first-round venues _ compared to the usual 95 percent.

“I’d say it’s down a tick or so from prior years,” Greg Shaheen, NCAA senior vice president of basketball and business strategies, said in a telephone interview. “We normally are at or near sellout in all of our sites. So it looks like we’ll have some decline, but not so significantly that it’s of enormous concern.”

Sales for men’s games in Miami were close to 50 percent, Shaheen said, attributing that to a collection of teams from far away, such as Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. Seats in most of the upper deck were behind curtains for games Friday, and there were moments when the lower bowl was pretty empty, too.

“It’s just a different environment,” Syracuse junior forward Arinze Onuaku said Saturday. “Yesterday, there was not really that many people there, and we’re used to the 30,000 and a lot of people screaming.”

Chase Budinger, whose 12th-seeded Arizona takes on 13th-seeded Cleveland State in a second-round game at Miami on Sunday, would have preferred a larger cheering section.

“I definitely had some aunts and uncles that couldn’t make the trip because air flights were too expensive,” said Budinger, who is from Encinitas, Calif.

Scalpers outside men’s tournament arenas around the country said they were having a tougher-than-usual time, in some cases unloading tickets for less than half face-value.

Some game sites have emptier-than-usual restaurants.

Hotels have cut rates.

It’s the economy, stupid.

“I do think it affects a lot of people. It has to,” said Dartmouth women’s coach Chris Wielgus.

At least tickets for the Final Four in Detroit already are sold out.

No surprise there.

But mindful of what’s going on with the automotive industry, the NCAA cut back on some discretionary spending _ signs around town, what Shaheen called “decor elements,” and gifts doled out to the NCAA’s “special guests” _ and is donating more than $1 million to various community and youth events and programs in Detroit.

One other beneficiary could be CBS. More viewers tuned in to the network for first-round men’s action this year, with a 2 percent hike for Thursday and Friday combined in the overnight ratings that measure the country’s largest markets.

Even without a slew of wild finishes or big upsets on Day 1, CBS drew an overnight rating of 4.7 Thursday, a jump of 9 percent from 2008.

There are, as always, plenty of people making sure they see March Madness in person, of course.

Tickets have sold out in places such as Philadelphia, Kansas City, Portland, Ore., and Greensboro, N.C., for men’s games, the NCAA’s Shaheen said. And at bars near various tournament sites, things seemed to be humming along just fine, thank you.

Kody Golden, the manager at McFadden’s Sports Saloon across the street from the Sprint Center in Kansas City, hasn’t noticed any problems.

“As far as we’re concerned this week,” Golden said, “it’s good to go.”

Mike Reed, director of the Boise State University Bookstore, said merchandise sales appear to be on pace with when the city hosted tournament games five years ago.

“It’s kind of surprised me, really, because of what’s happening with the economy,” Reed said. “I didn’t know if we were going to see those customers who come up and are buying five things, in different sizes, and talking on the phones back home to their buddies asking what they want. But we are, and that’s good to see.”

Yet those teams sent to far-off destinations for games are all-too-aware they don’t have as many friends or relatives along for the ride.

“Yeah, well, you’ll probably see that in our rooting section tomorrow. Or you won’t see it, is the point,” said Whipple’s coach, Elaine Elliott, whose No. 9-seeded Utes play No. 8 Villanova in the first round here Sunday.

Ivy League player of the year Brittney Smith’s father works for an airline, so he flies for free and did make the trip to Maryland from Texas.

What about Mom?

“Her money situation’s kind of tight,” said Smith, who leads 16th-seeded Dartmouth against top-seeded Maryland on the Terrapins’ home court Saturday. “She looked online, and flights were close to $1,000. She’s our No. 1 fan. She hates that she couldn’t make it.”

Her situation’s hardly unique.

Only about 3,000 tickets had been sold as of Saturday for two women’s games Sunday in the 13,472-capacity Maravich Center in Baton Rouge, La.

“You know, it’s tough,” LSU spokesman Michael Bonnette said. “People aren’t going anywhere.”

Fewer than three dozen spectators dotted the upper level Saturday _ and there were plenty of open spaces in the lower bowl _ for the women’s first-round game at Chattanooga, Tenn., between 11th-ranked North Carolina and UCF.

Asked a day earlier about the prospect of a low turnout, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell joked: “You may see my team out on the street this afternoon, handing out brochures.”

On the other hand, some people managed to get to where they wanted to go, no matter how circuitous the route.

Connie Joseph, the mother of Minnesota freshman guard Devoe Joseph, drove 12 1/2 hours from Ajax, Ontario, with Devoe’s two sisters and his girlfriend, arriving in Greensboro, N.C., at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday _ in plenty of time to catch the Gophers’ first NCAA tournament game since 2005.

“We would have liked to have flown, but from Toronto, round-trip was like $1,900 for the four of us. We checked on Buffalo, and the flights were about $900,” she said. “So we said we were going to drive.”

Stephen F. Austin guard Eric Bell’s parents piled into a car for nearly 24 hours on the road to Miami, while teammate Eddie Williams’ parents and sister drove for almost 20.

“That means a lot,” Williams said.

Cleveland State’s J’Nathan Bullock, from Flint, Mich., was pleased that Mom and Dad were there among the relatively light Miami crowds.

“Both work at GM, so that’s surprising,” he said, drawing laughter.

At Minneapolis, where the seating capacity is 32,000 for the men’s tournament, attendance fell as low as 12,814 for first-round action. By the end of Friday’s game between Michigan State and Robert Morris, the crowd was down to about half that.

A large, loud contingent of North Dakota State fans _ the team made its NCAA tournament debut _ helped fill the stands and create atmosphere.

Still, as lifelong Kansas fan Scott Kloiber said while looking at all of those empty blue seats in the nearly vacant upper deck at the Metrodome: “Where is everybody?”


AP Basketball Writer Jim O’Connell in Philadelphia, Associated Press Writer Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho, and AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard and Joedy McCreary in Greensboro, N.C., Gregg Bell in Portland, Ore., Dave Campbell in Minneapolis, Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia, John Marshall and Doug Tucker in Kansas City, Mo., Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., Charles Odum in Duluth, Ga., Eddie Pells in Boise, Tim Reynolds and Steven Wine in Miami, and Teresa M. Walker in Chattanooga, Tenn., contributed to this report.



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