After beating fellow one seed Gonzaga in an ugly championship game filled with fouls and missed calls, the North Carolina Tar Heels are your new college basketball National Champions. As usual, the NCAA Tournament was filled with a number of storylines, from NBA prospects to Cinderella stories to major upsets. However, during the Final four (and especially the championship game), word got out that North Carolina’s student section was not full, only for the NCAA to fill the remainder of the section with nearby Arizona State students. Why was the Carolina student section not full? Perhaps my own personal student Final Four experience can shed some light and disprove inaccuracies about the whole process.
Flashback to 2013. Syracuse is a four seed in the tournament, and after a key Miami starter injured his knee in the first round, I was optimistic that Syracuse could make a run to the Atlanta for the Final Four. My friend Mike, who was living there at the time, was gracious enough to offer his place should Syracuse make it.
It’s Easter weekend. I’m home watching Syracuse shut down one seed Indiana in the Sweet 16, and eventually take down Marquette in the Elite 8. As students, the NCAA and the school offer us tickets to weekends at the tournament. The first two weekends are over $150 for students, and the ticket quantities are very limited, so I never considered attending those rounds.
Syracuse is leading Marquette late and it’s clear that they’re going to the Final Four. Literally within 10 seconds of the final buzzer sounding, I get a text from Mike: “So when are you coming down here?” I laughed it off, telling him there’s no way I can get down to Atlanta for a weekend without massively rearranging my class schedule, and presumably dropping a fortune on transportation and tickets. Considering tickets to the Regional semis and finals were so much, I could only imagine how much freaking Final Four tickets would set me back.
Later that night, I received an email from the NCAA about student tickets for the Final Four. I was astounded to find that student tickets were only $40. That prompted the frantic phone calls to my friends at school with cars who would be willing to interrupt their crazy schedules to head down to Atlanta. Eventually, I convinced two of my friends to make the trip down to Atlanta, and my friend Mike came through for us and let the three of us stay at his place.
Our plan was leave Friday afternoon, drive my friend Amy’s fuel efficient Chevy Cruze straight through about 15.5 hours to Atlanta, sleep a bit on Saturday morning when we got there, then head to the Georgia Dome and downtown area Saturday afternoon for the game Saturday night. If things went according to plan (they didn’t), Syracuse would’ve taken care of business on Saturday night, setting up a Monday night matchup for the Championship. After the championship game, we planned on driving home all day Tuesday, and returning to class on Wednesday. Thankfully, a lot of our professors rearranged schedules to accommodate students going down for the games, so missing classes on Monday and Tuesday wasn’t a big deal. Not all professors were accommodating, which kept a lot of students in Syracuse.
Syracuse lost to Michigan on Saturday night, and for some of the students who drove down, they wanted to head home early. We considered doing the same, but we figured we had gotten down here less than 20 hours ago and we already rearranged our schedules, so we might as well stay. That proved to be a very smart decision because we ended up with free lower level tickets to the championship game, courtesy of the NCAA, as seat fillers in the stadium (upper level seats were going for over $700 on the day of the game outside the venue).
Overall, the trip was largely inexpensive for us. Tickets were $40, gas was cheap, and we didn’t have to pay for lodging (thanks again, Mike). On the side of logistics, everything just worked out for us during the trip. We had an unforgettable time and I got to cross off the pinnacle of my sports bucket list. But my experience isn’t one that most students have.
Back to 2017. The North Carolina Tar Heels look to avenge their heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the championship game last year. The Tar Heels take down Oregon in the semifinal, and set up a matchup of one seeds against Gonzaga for the championship. Once the story broke that the Carolina student section had to be filled with Arizona State students, people who have never had the opportunity to attend a Final Four as a student began to voice their opinions (spoiler alert: they were mostly bad).
First off, not all students want to go to the Final Four. It’s great if you can make it happen, but the strain on your schedule can be troubling and very stressful (especially nearing the home stretch of the semester). Also, when I asked some friends if they wanted to go to Atlanta, some of them just didn’t want to go. Some wanted to watch the game at the Carrier Dome or at bars on Marshall Street. Others wanted to watch the game in the comfort of their own homes. It’s a lot to ask, and sometimes the students want to be on campus in hopes of celebrating with the thousands of other students, should the team pull out a victory on Monday. It doesn’t make them bad fans at all; it’s just a matter of preference.
Now, for those who do choose to make the trip to Phoenix from Chapel Hill, here’s how that would work.
First, I’d like to point out that Syracuse University did not offer a bus trip down to Atlanta for the games (at least to my knowledge, they didn’t). I saw a number of comments suggesting that “every school offers transportation to the site,” and that’s just flat out wrong.
Let’s emphasize that these games were in Phoenix. Driving there would take 31 hours, so let’s just cross that option off the list. That also removes the idea for leaving if Carolina lost on Saturday. Once you commit to flying to Phoenix, you’re there for the whole weekend. Tickets were made available to students as of Monday. Buying a flight on a Monday or Tuesday for Friday night would be rather expensive. I’m writing this on a Tuesday night, and a Southwest flight from Raleigh-Durham to Phoenix for this upcoming weekend costs $899.07 round trip, departing Friday and returning Tuesday, with the cheapest flight options possible selected.
As far as hotels go, naturally, the prices skyrocketed by an average of 97%. Hotels near the stadium saw a price increase of over 300%. Looking for a budget friendly hotel somewhat near the stadium but not too close, I found a Best Western for $88 per night. Raise those prices by 97%, and you get to $173.36. Assuming the best possible scenario that you go with three friends, for four nights, you can just apply one nightly cost for the room per person.
Assuming Final Four tickets are still $40 to students, go ahead and add that to a definite expense. A few things that can also add up are things like transportation and food. Luckily, the Best Western offers an airport shuttle, but getting to and from the stadium could cost a bit. According to a Phoenix taxi fare calculator, one trip from your hotel to the stadium would cost approximately $17.87, or $35.74 round trip (tip your drivers, so let’s round that up to $40 round trip). Now, assume that each of the four people pays for a day, so that will be $40 per person for transportation.
Food can be ambiguous. Again, luckily for you, that Best Western offers free breakfast. Lunch would tend to be cheaper (especially if you go the fast food route), and dinner would be more expensive. All I know is, if I’m going to Phoenix, I’m not going to McDonald’s every day. Some of those night, you might eat in the stadium, so get ready to really inflate those prices. Still, let’s be modest and say you spend $15 for lunch and $20 for dinner on yourself, after tips, per day.
Again, if I’m in Phoenix for the Final Four, I want to get a few souvenirs. In Atlanta, I got a program ($10), a t-shirt ($30), and a souvenir cup at the game ($10). Without knowing what else there is to do in Phoenix, lets just cap that at an arbitrary $30. The NCAA puts on this cool convention type of area called “Bracket Town,” only $4 with a college ID, but you can only do so much there. Maybe you catch an Arizona Diamondbacks game while you’re there, much like I watched the Atlanta Braves on the Sunday between games in 2013. Maybe you go hiking or visit a museum. We visited the Georgia Aquarium on Monday before the game, which cost us about $35 per person, so I think I’m being naive with the cost of other entertainment, pricing it at $30.
Let’s tally up that price. A flight, hotel, tickets, transportation, food, souvenirs, and miscellaneous activities (again, assuming that you have the luxury of going in a group of four) totals to $1,372.43 per person. I don’t know how many college students have an extra $1,400 to spare. Even if your parents helped pay for half of that, thats still near $700 out of your own pocket. My parents love me, but they don’t love me that much. And now that I’ve priced that out, I realize how lucky I was to be able to go at such a cheap total, so I can’t base my own experience totally on all students.
Can anyone blame the UNC students for not wanting to- or not being able to- go across the country in 4 days’ notice during a time where prices for everything are inflated? The NCAA used Arizona State students for the same reason that I got tickets for the national championship game in 2013. They don’t want empty seats, so they might as well let some college kids in to fill up the near-700 seat student sections. I didn’t hear anything about Arizona State students, normally a raucous student section, causing any problems with sitting with Carolina fans. In fact, some students said coming into the game, they were rooting for Gonzaga, but once they were seated in the Carolina student section, they were all-in on the Heels.
The bottom line is, empty seats look bad on television. The NCAA, while they understand the travel limitations, made other plans to make sure the atmosphere was as intense as possible for such a stage. Either way, don’t blame the Carolina students for not lining up outside the door by the thousands for a nearly-$1,400 trip.