Going Mad: Traveling for Your Basketball Team
Nisreene Atassi: We are just weeks away from the start of one of the biggest events on any basketball fan’s calendar — March Madness, formally known as the NCAA Division One Championship. It involves 68 teams and round after round of games until finally, one winner is crowned. Today, I’ve recruited a few key players to help give you the inside scoop on traveling for the games. I’m Nisreene Atassi and welcome to Out Travel the System. I brought two of my Expedia colleagues with me today, Alexis Tiacoh-Winchester, our U.S. PR Manager and Atlanta native. And, of course, we can’t talk about sports without our resident sports geek, Adam Francis, Director of Brand Advertising. Adam, let’s start with you, how big of a basketball fan are you really? Don’t hold back.
Adam Francis: Well, considering I’m sitting here talking to you and my Expedia lanyard is actually a 2016 NBA all-star game tag, I’m a huge fan. I played as a kid, watch pretty much any type of basketball, men’s, women’s, pro, college, you name it. I’m a huge Raptors fan, having spent most of my life in Toronto. Last year after the Raptors won the title, I on a whim flew back for the parade and did a basketball road trip a year ago where we tried to get in as many basketball games as possible while in Texas.
Nisreene Atassi: Very cool. Alexis, what about you? Are you a big basketball fan or just an Atlanta fan?
Alexis Tiacoh-Winchester: I’m both actually. I love basketball, I too played as a kid. I was also the varsity basketball manager at my high school and then I took it up a notch and did PR and community engagement for the Atlanta Hawks.
Nisreene Atassi: Since we’re all sharing stories, I just want everyone to know that I played on the B team in eighth grade and I scored two points all season long.
Alexis Tiacoh-Winchester: That’s amazing Nissy.
Adam Francis: That’s pretty good.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m obviously the biggest star here. What about college basketball? What is it about college basketball that makes it so compelling to you?
Adam Francis: It’s really interesting because I think I’m almost a bigger college fan than pro and I think some of it is because it’s just such a unique ecosystem. You’ve got all of these different teams that have cultures attached to them because of the schools and the communities and they have their own traditions. You’ve got this do or die situation for the actual NCAA tournament where one game and you’re done and you’ll see these crazy upsets. That really builds these interesting narratives and you have these epic stories of underdogs.
Nisreene Atassi: Don’t I know it?
Adam Francis: I was going to say… We’ll talk about that a little later I’m sure. That ascend the mountain and conquer over the traditional ruling blue bloods of college sports, that’s really interesting and then you also have this weird situation where a lot of these kids, it’s their last chance to play at this level. Most don’t go on to play professionally so, for a lot of these kids it represents their last chance.
Nisreene Atassi: Totally and I think the fact that they are actually kids is what blows my mind because the athleticism that you see in this tournament is actually unbelievable and I love just seeing how people get so excited about it and you would think it’s professional level, but they really are actually just kids and teenagers some of them. They’re 18, 19 years old, so it’s unbelievable, but it’s very clear as to why you’re not alone in this fandom. Apparently there are an estimated a hundred million people who tune in for the annual tournament with many others traveling to watch the games in person. You actually got a chance to interview a veteran sports journalist about this and the energy and excitement behind the tournament. What did you find out when you chatted with this person?
Adam Francis: I got a chance to talk to Mike DeCourcy to really put some perspective on the tournament. He’s a senior writer for Sporting News and he’s been an analyst for the Big 10 Network so he really is steeped in college basketball, both in terms of coverage and attending the games live. Here’s what he had to say about why people are so connected to college basketball.
Mike DeCourcy: You have established brand names, established heroes and villains depending on where you grew up and where you went to school: Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina. So all this television out there and you can see all of these teams and you can get to love or hate any of them. In addition, to there are these improbable stories that crop up pretty much annually and they don’t always rise to the level of UMBC beating Virginia or Coppin State beating Texas back in the ’90s, but there’s usually some kind of flavor like that and then they get a chance to find out “Hey, wow, this is a great basketball team I had no idea about.”
Nisreene Atassi: That is 100% true, although I am a little bit disappointed that Mike didn’t talk about the most infamous 2018 upset, which was the Loyola Ramblers. Adam as you know, I am a Loyola alumnus and for those of you listeners who can’t see, I’m actually wearing my Loyola Rambler’s 2018 Final Four t-shirt and I’m wearing it with pride. Just to recap, in 2018 the Loyola Ramblers were by far and away, the dark horse and they just kept winning game after game after game and everyone started to love them. It was probably Sister Jean who, if you don’t know who Sister Jean is, then Google her and get onboard. The excitement and enthusiasm that I had for the first time ever shared by the people around me — everybody all of a sudden, knew what Loyola was. They knew where it was, everyone was asking about it, they were super excited for me. I’m originally from the Chicago area and I live in Seattle now so I was watching most of the games from Seattle. It was really great to have that comradery. In our college football episode, we actually broke down the difference between watching on TV and watching a game in person. Adam, how does this apply to March Madness?
Adam Francis: I think there are some similar traits. In the college football episode we talked about being there live really adds a level of understanding in terms of things like the intensity of the contest. You get to experience the fans and especially what you just noted, which is, I find in college basketball, in particular, you’ve got these hubs, these little cultural pieces, these ecosystems of students and their own traditions, all these things and you get to experience that live and that’s something you don’t get to the same extent watching on TV.
Nisreene Atassi: I think we talked a lot about why to go and check out the March Madness games and the excitement and why people are such big fans, but let’s get into the “how.”
Adam Francis: Quick fun fact from Mike — he’s been to 32 Final Fours, 30 as journalist and two obviously outside of that. So, he’s got a lot of experience and we asked him about planning out a travel strategy for March Madness. He said it starts with figuring out which round you want to start with and what else you might want to do at your destination.
Mike DeCourcy: If you look at the first-round sites this year, I mean you can go to Tampa and get a little sun, get a little spring training. It’s a pretty close drive to Clearwater Beach, a really nice place to be. Greensboro, the heart of basketball country in the South. North Carolina loves the sport and you almost can’t go wrong in the regional round. Here in Indianapolis, there’s a famous steakhouse called St. Elmo’s that everybody is aware of that has this famous shrimp cocktail that’s really hot and they have a related restaurant that is a little bit more low key that’s my favorite place here in Indy called Harry and Izzy’s.
Adam Francis: We also talked a little bit about getting tickets to the games. Of course, Final Four tickets are going to be the hardest to come by, but it’s definitely possible if you’re willing to pay the aftermarket prices. Just to make sure you’re buying from a trusted source check ncaa.com it’ll have all the right ticket info that you need and just go see where some of the games are being played and decide if there’s a city you want to visit and maybe catch a game as well.
Nisreene Atassi: So let’s say that a lucky person has managed to get their hands on some Final Four tickets in Atlanta or they don’t have tickets to the game, but they just want to go to be part of the crowds and feel the experience of being down there. What are some of your tips for getting the best deals from a travel perspective?
Adam Francis: Let’s start on the flight side. Since Atlanta is hosting the Final Four this year, it’s much more expensive this year to fly in for that weekend versus last year. The one anomaly though that we found is instead of say a typical a weekend trip where you’d fly in on a Thursday or something, if you fly in on that Saturday, that’s actually the cheapest rates that we’re seeing right now and you’re staying till Tuesday and even cheaper if you’re staying and flying out on the following Wednesday. That’s one way to beat the system. With hotel pricing, we’re seeing the same sort of patterns as well.
Nisreene Atassi: So, the days that you are flying in and out are really what is going to help you get a better price it sounds like.
Adam Francis: Absolutely and of course just keep an eye on things because that’s what we’re seeing right now and that may change. But as of now, that’s definitely one way to maybe beat some of the crazy pricing.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m going to go ahead and sub in Alexis, who is our official Georgia peach and Atlanta expert. Alexis, for the listeners who are actually going to be heading down to Atlanta, what are some of the best places that you would recommend people go to catch the game if they don’t have tickets?
Alexis Tiacoh-Winchester: If you’re in that non-ticket pool, do not stress. Atlanta has so many great spots for you to watch the Final Four and the city is really this hub for all things cool. No matter where you choose to watch the game, you’re going to have a really exciting time. Midtown, Buckhead, and Downtown have some of the best sports bars in the city. These are all really centrally located and some are even within walking distance to where a lot of the action is going to be Final Four weekend. Stats Brew Pub near Centennial Olympic Park, you can catch all of the games here while drawing yourself a brew from the beer tap at your table, but you’ll definitely want to reserve a booth because this place is going to be jam-packed. Taco Mac is another great spot, this place has award-winning wings that you can get tossed in over 13 different sauces. They also take beer very seriously, I’m talking over a hundred taps of craft and local beer.
Nisreene Atassi: But also confusing that it’s called Taco Mac because I would have thought that you were going to say how good their tacos and mac and cheese are.
Alexis Tiacoh-Winchester: They actually do have nachos and Tex-Mex style food, but they are world-famous for their wings. And the 13 sauces? Like, come on.
Nisreene Atassi: I feel like Atlanta is probably a place where they have some pretty amazing dishes. So if you have to eat one or two things, what’s it going to be?
Alexis Tiacoh-Winchester: Obviously Atlanta and Southern cuisine are pretty synonymous, right? I’m getting really hungry actually thinking about what I’m going to tell you right now. Even if you’ve never stepped foot in Atlanta, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of The Varsity. They’ve been serving up hotdogs and hamburgers since 1928. Presidents, celebrities and tourists all make their way here and it’s a world-famous restaurant. It’s got this retro atmosphere, city skyline views from inside and you can dine in or take away. I also recommend that you get your fried chicken fix while you’re in Atlanta. Old Lady Gang, which is founded by Candy from “The Real Housewives.” Her restaurant in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood has plenty of soul food classics like fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese and they do an all-day brunch on Sundays. Very, very good.
Nisreene Atassi: So if you are going to be in ATL, the games are on Saturday and Monday. Depending on when you’re flying in or out, you’re probably going to have at least one day free to explore the city. Tell us what would you recommend to people who have just one day?
Alexis Tiacoh-Winchester: I personally think that no trip to Atlanta is complete without visiting Centennial Olympic Park. It is the centerpiece of Atlanta’s Olympic legacy and dynamic downtown entertainment district. So this park is massive — it’s over 22 acres of green space. There are structures leftover from when Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympic games and there’s even a 200-foot tall ferris wheel called the Skyview Atlanta that you can get on. It’s got AC conditioned pods so you can ride comfortably and you get these breathtaking views of not only the park but the Atlanta skyline. It’s really nice. There’s going to be a Final Four fan fest near the park and there’s also going to be a March Madness music festival in the park. I hear T-Swift is going to be performing and some other local Atlanta artists.
Nisreene Atassi: Adam’s eyebrows just perked.
Alexis Tiacoh-Winchester: The concert and fan events in the park are going to be happening all weekend. If you’ve got a day to kill, this is where you’re going to want to be. This is where all the action is going to be.
Nisreene Atassi: Adam, I’m going to bring you back in now. I know you are super excited about this year’s tournament. I wanted to share with you some of the predictions for the Final Four teams. March Madness predictions as you know, are notoriously hard, especially this early on in the season, but our analysts took a look at some of the predictions from sportingnews.com and some of the other sports analytics websites. They took a look at the data and it looks like Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas and San Diego State are predicted to be in the Final Four. What do you think about that?
Adam Francis: Well, it’s fascinating. This is one of the weirdest years in college basketball that I remember in a long time because a lot of things are flipped over. You have teams that are traditionally really strong or at least constant tournament teams like North Carolina and Syracuse, that are struggling or probably not going to make it. Then you’ve got a bunch of teams that don’t usually make the tournament or win that have really jumped up like Colorado, Saint Mary’s, teams like that. Those four that you just named have had by far the most dominant regular seasons. What happens when the tournament comes?
Nisreene Atassi: I mean obviously Loyola is probably going to win it all, but listen, it’s anyone’s game. We’ll see what happens.
Adam Francis: We took a look at the teams that went to the Final Four last year and when ticket prices actually started to peak and when search volume went up and things like that. We also went ahead and cross-checked it with all of the departing airports for the currently projected Final Four teams. If you are from Baylor, you’d be flying out of Dallas, Gonzaga or Kansas, things like that. We took a look at some of the pricing trends and compared it with what happened with the teams who went to the Final Four last year and it all seemed exactly the same.
Nisreene Atassi: So, this is your one tip everybody. If you are planning to go to the Final Four in Atlanta, make sure you book your flights within that first two weeks of March Madness. So, this has happened for the last couple of years, the second the Final Four teams are announced, or the closer it gets, the price just gets higher and higher and higher and higher. But it seems to be totally stable until around mid-March. Thank you guys for joining me today on this episode of Out Travel the System brought to you by Expedia. Follow Expedia on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to join the conversation about travel. You can subscribe to Out Travel the System wherever you get your podcasts. Happy travels!