Sunday, November 26, 2017

Michigan State Spartans 40 at Rutgers Scarlet Knights 7 (NCAA Football, Big Ten) - November 25, 2017

I was originally hoping to get to the Grey Cup in Ottawa this past weekend, but circumstances did not permit. Rather than mope around at home though, I found an event a bit closer that allowed me to add a new venue and see some old friends. The Rutgers Scarlet Knights were hosting Michigan State at High Point Solutions Stadium and I joined my friends Mike and Gary from Royalty Tours along with Sabre Mike Carroll for the afternoon. After taking a NJ Transit train from Penn Station to New Brunswick, we walked along College Avenue, stopping at a local pizza joint before boarding a shuttle bus. Along the way, we saw a knight with a scarlet shield that made for a great photo opportunity. Sabre Mike on the left is sporting an Ottawa Champions cap, apparently in my honour.

The shuttle bus leaves from in front of Student Center (other buses leave straight from New Brunswick Station if you don't want to walk) and takes about 10 minutes to reach the stadium. You are dropped off on the other side of River Road, which allows you to take a photo of the south entrance from a distance.

You can enter here, or walk to the left up a fairly steep path to get to the west entrance. This is where you will see the main bragging point of Rutgers, namely that it is the Birthplace of College Football. The first intercollegiate football game was played on November 6, 1869 at College Field at Rutgers (now a gymnasium and parking lot), with the home team beating Princeton 6-4.

Despite this historical claim, Rutgers football has not been very successful in the last century. In 2006, they were ranked 7th on their way to an 11-2 season, but they moved to the Big Ten in 2014, and are now pretty much an afterthought in college football. Still, they have had a few big wins, and those are commemorated with posters hiding the ramps to the upper level.

Keep walking around to the north end for the box office. There are plenty of scalpers but if you wait, you should be able to get in for free as long as the opponent is not Ohio State or Michigan.

Every entrance is different; the north entrance (Gate C) is sponsored by a local health provider. Yes, in America, health providers are in competition.

Before entering, I returned to the west entrance and shortly thereafter the band passed by. They stopped right in front of us and played a quick tune.

They were followed by the Scarlet Knight on his (or her) horse.

With the outside ceremonies complete, I went in to take my tour.

High Point Solutions Stadium was opened in 1994 and originally called Rutgers Stadium before the naming rights were sold to a local business technology concern in 2011.

Capacity was 41,500 until a 2009 renovation added just over 11,000 seats in the south end zone, pictured below with the scoreboard above. All the seats are benches, though those in the middle sections of the lower bowl (in red below) have backs.

The view below is from the north end zone, with the sun setting to the west. The game was a 4 p.m. start, which was rather odd for this mostly meaningless affair.

The upper deck should be avoided, particularly under the lights as pigeons or seagulls roost there during the week and the benches below are completely covered in bird poop.

Below is a panorama shot from the top of the upper deck on the east side of the stadium.

Below is the southeast corner, with the Busch Practice Bubble in the distance.

A few steps to the left and you are looking directly north, with a small party area taking up a portion of the seating bowl. It is impossible to tell from the photo, but the far wall holds plaques for all the Rutgers bowl games.

The concourse back here is quite wide, with the flags of all the Big Ten teams on poles attached to the wall.

A different view of the scoreboard and the small party area is below.

Overall, HPSS is a decent venue that suffered on this day from a terrible game and poor attendance. Should Rutgers ever become good again and the crowds return to support them, the stadium would be a much better place to visit.

The Game

Michigan State came in ranked 16th in the College Football Playoff at 8-3, while Rutgers was 4-7. A blowout was expected and that is exactly what happened. Rutgers won the toss, elected to defer, and the Spartans immediately marched down the field, scoring a touchdown when Brian Lewerke hit Connor Heyward with a 7-yard pass. On Rutgers first play from scrimmage, Gus Edwards fumbled and MSU recovered on the Rutgers 8. The Scarlet Knights defense held the Spartans to a field goal, but on their following possession, their offense gained no yards and punted. Again Michigan State drove, and again they were held to three points. It looked like the blowout was starting early, but Rutgers scored an improbable 42-yard pass-and-run touchdown early in the second quarter to make it 13-7, and give the home fans something to cheer about.

But that was all they could muster. Michigan State added a field goal in the second quarter to go into halftime up 16-7. During the break, I went down to meet a friend sitting low at midfield and stayed for the first couple of series of the third quarter, where I took the picture above. The Spartans added yet another field goal during that time to make it 19-7 at the end of three. Even though the blowout had yet to appear, many fans had seen enough and hightailed it for home, as you can see in the photo below, taken early in the fourth quarter.

They were the smart ones, as the Spartans blew the game open with three touchdowns in the final frame to win 40-7. I stayed until the end so I could capture the final score.

Rutgers had only five first downs in the game and held the ball for just 12:10, while MSU went 13-21 on third down conversions. I could go on, but suffice to say that this was not the most exciting football game I have ever seen.


The two mascots are quite similar, though the Rutgers one is smiling for some reason, while Sparty is grumpy. Given the result, their expressions should be reversed.

After the Rutgers touchdown, a lady in the row in front of us started tossing homemade cookies to everyone around. According to a season-ticket holder, this happens every game. Sit near the back of Section 107 and hope for a Rutgers score if you want a free cookie or two.



Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Hard Truth About Hard Tickets

While on a recent trip to visit my parents, I was going through some memorabilia that I had gathered over previous sports road trips and subsequently forgotten. Old programs, bobbleheads, and collectibles such as the 30 MLB mini ice cream helmets I systematically acquired during my 2001 road trip comprised the majority of this treasure trove. But what gladdened my heart was the discovery of a few dozen tickets from some of my first road trips between 1986-88 and my five-week trip in 2003. I don't recall saving these stubs, but there they were, hidden beneath the 2001 MLB All-Star Game program. Going through these brought back so many memories and as I did, I realized that young sports fans today might never have the opportunity to happen upon such a find. Not because they don't save their tickets, but because they can't.

One of the trends taking over the Big Four sports is the elimination of the hard ticket. Ironically, it was StubHub that pioneered the delivery of the electronic ducat, which is either a piece of paper that you print out at home, or a bar code that you use on your phone. StubHub should really be called NoStubHub. In either case, these are poor substitutes for the old hard ticket, which is more colourful, has more information on it, and is more durable than a piece of paper. Of course, the bar code on your phone disappears the next day.

Some teams still provide season ticket holders with a unique hard ticket for each game, but these are difficult to acquire on the secondary market as sellers can list these online by just providing the bar code, which is transferred to the buyer's phone. StubHub does offer UPS service to mail hard tickets and you can occasionally physically visit a StubHub office to pick up hard tickets in select markets, but the other online resellers have no such services. The best place to get hard tickets on the secondary market is through scalpers out front of the venue, or to scavenge the seating bowl after the game.

Other teams, however, have completely eliminated the hard ticket. Most notable are the Atlanta Falcons, who now provide no hard tickets, having sold out the season. When I travelled there last month, I had already bought my seat in advance. I was unable to get a hard ticket from the box office, and as season ticket holders use cards to enter, there were no tickets hanging around after the game. Even scalpers only had paper tickets from what I could tell. Some venues print out a "seat locator" (Brooklyn Nets sample above) for those entering via phone, and this is certainly better than nothing, but at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, nothing is what you get for a souvenir. I had a similar experience at StubHub Center in Los Angeles for the Chargers, but was able to find a season stub after the game.

Unfortunately, I think the trend towards purely electronic entry will continue and finding hard tickets will become even more labourious. I understand that soft tickets make counterfeiting more difficult and save teams a bit of money, but there are ways to ensure that fans who want a permanent collectible can get one. Simply allow those who request a hard ticket at the box office on game day to get one. This can even be done during or after the game and it doesn't have to show a seat on it, should the soft ticket have been acquired through a third-party broker. Charge a couple of bucks even, if you need to. The Islanders printed hard tickets upon request (for free) when I was a season ticket holder and this service was much appreciated. From what I could tell, it did not unduly add to the strain at the box office.

I entreat the Falcons, Chargers, and any other teams who allow entry primarily through electronic means to consider a similar method to allow fans who want a permanent ticket to get one. I believe that hard ticket collectors such as myself number less than 1% of all fans and hence this request could easily be met without any difficulty.

Before I finish, let me bore you with the stories behind some of the tickets I discovered hidden in my parents' basement.

My first sports road trip was a weekend bus tour from Waterloo to Detroit to see the Blue Jays in Tiger Stadium. Three of my friends, all 19, joined a group of older guys who were more concerned about drinking than baseball. It was my first time across the border as an adult and an eye-opening experience. The game was delayed by rain for about two hours and so we moved over to the good seats, sitting there for most of the game. Larry Herndon hit a two-run shot in the second that held up as Detroit won 2-1. When we returned to our seats near the end of the game, we found that our group had left, stranding us in an area of Detroit that you didn't want to be stranded in. We somehow managed to flag down a cab and were surprised at the bulletproof glass protecting the driver. We spent the night at the Renaissance Center, partying with a group of high school kids from Grosse Pointe who were celebrating their graduation. The next day, we returned to Tiger Stadium to see the Jays win 4-2. It was this brief journey that got me started on sports road trips.

In December 1986, we took a bus trip on Big Man Chappy Tours to Philadelphia for a weekend. The first event was the Army/Navy game at Veterans Stadium, won by Army 27-7.  That night, we headed over to the Spectrum for the 76ers and Nets, which Philly won 105-100. I somehow managed to get Julius Erving's autograph too. The next day we returned to Veterans Stadium on an extremely cold day to watch the St. Louis Cardinals take on the Eagles in what turned out to be the worst game of the year. Three overtime field goals were missed as the clubs tied 10-10.

When play began on Monday, September 28, 1987, the Blue Jays had a 2.5 game lead on the Tigers with 6 left to play (Detroit had a game in hand). I attended all three games against the Milwaukee Brewers at venerable Exhibition Stadium, driving each time from Waterloo, and the Jays lost all three. The ride back was very quiet after that last loss. Meanwhile, Detroit split a four-gamer with Baltimore to set up a winner-takes-all series at Tiger Stadium. The Jays needed to win one to force a playoff, but they lost all three games to Detroit, who clinched the A.L. East on the last day of the season.

The next year, there was a beautiful Easter weekend in Boston. With four days off, three friends and myself took another Big Man Chappy tour. There were two Celtics games at the Boston Garden, with the first being an Eastern Conference Final preview against the Pistons. Boston won 121-110, but they ended up losing to Detroit in the playoffs. After an off day, we spent all of Easter Sunday at Boston Garden. First, the Celtics beat Dallas 110-101, then the Bruins knocked off the Islanders 3-2 in Denis Potvin's last regular season game. The next day was the opening of the baseball season and the Red Sox hosted the Tigers in what was the actual first game of the season. Before the game, down by the Tigers dugout, my friend saw Sparky Anderson and told him that us Toronto fans were not too happy about 1987. Sparky just laughed. Meanwhile, Jack Morris faced Roger Clemens and I'll never forget Gary Pettis swinging at the first pitch of the season and popping out. Looking back over the Baseball Reference box score (all four reference sites are wonderful resources for looking up games), I see that Clemens balked 3 times that day, something I don't recall. At any rate, Detroit won 5-3 in 10 innings.

Looking at these tickets brings back a lot of great memories (check out the prices!) and it was fortunate that I found them. I hope that 30 years from now, somebody who is just now beginning his own sports road trips will have the opportunity to discover old ticket stubs and take his own trip down memory lane. So if you are a team that is thinking about ending hard tickets, consider the future instead of the present. There is nothing as important to the sports traveler as their collection of hard tickets - let's keep it that way!



Monday, November 20, 2017

Miami Heat 103 at Detroit Pistons 112 - November 12, 2017

I first met Andrew and Peter from the Ultimate Sports Road Trip in 2001, when I was in the middle of my season-long MLB road trip. At the time, they were on their own quest - to see all of the 121 major league sports venues at the time. They reached their goal in 2002 at Ford Field in Detroit, receiving some media attention. In 2003, on a 35-day trip during which I saw 40 games, I met Gary and Mike from Royalty Tours. These two NYC residents had also seen a game in every big league stadium, though without the publicity. After that, I returned to Japan but continued with the occasional sports trip stateside, though without any rhyme or reason, other than to see every new ballpark that was opened. After the NBA expanded to 30 teams, the total number of venues became 122 and somebody coined the term Club 122 for those who had seen a game in all those places. Living overseas, I never considered that I would become a member, but then I moved to the States and did my NFL road trip in 2013.  With those 32 venues checked off, I only had a few NHL and NBA stadiums left, and I completed them with a visit to Orlando's new Amway Center in 2014, making me the fifth member of Club 122.

Since then, all five of us have visited every new stadium in the Big 4 sports to retain our membership, occasionally running into each other along the way. This season, the NHL expanded to 31 teams with the Vegas Golden Knights, so we updated our moniker to Club 123. Four other teams also moved to new venues, making for a busy fall for members and those striving to join. Along with the Chargers moving north to StubHub Center and the Falcons opening Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Red Wings and Pistons both headed to downtown Detroit and Little Caesars Arena.

It was for this reason that I found myself in Detroit this past weekend. Having seen the Red Wings on Saturday, I would enter Club 123 with the Pistons game on Sunday. As it turned out, Andrew and Peter were in town as well to retain their membership, though they would not see in the Red Wings until Wednesday, giving me a few days as the sole member of the Club.

Having described the venue in some detail in the Red Wings post, I'm not going to say much about it here.  I have added a few pictures of the seating bowl and the concourse that give you a better idea of the layout for basketball. Below is a shot of the roof above the Via portion of the concourse.

The Pistons, despite getting off to a 9-3 start, are not nearly as popular as the Red Wings and the atmosphere here suffers. It is possible that after so many years out in Auburn Hills that the fan base is now suburban, and it simply isn't worth making the trip downtown for many fans. But the sparse attendance does have a positive side as it is easier to walk around and take pictures of the various historical displays.

The most impressive one for the Pistons is behind Portal 71 on the upper concourse, where their NBA trophies are displayed.

As the Pistons were not originally slated to play here, only deciding to join the party in November 2016, they are clearly the second tenant. Hence, their three Larry O'Brien trophies are relegated to the relative backwaters of the venue. Many fans who don't venture upstairs will never see this important part of franchise history. Below are the back-to-back "Bad Boys" titles from 1989-90...

...while the 2004 title is shown with the Finals VP trophy awarded to Chauncey Billups. I always enjoy seeing the actual trophies on display and think more teams should do this. Of course, the Red Wings can't display all their Stanley Cups, but the other three sports do have new trophies made every season and fans should be able to see them.

Pistons banners are shown along one side of the ceiling. The picture below is from my seat just inside Portal 71, so it seems like this side of the arena is more Pistons-heavy.

I was really impressed by Little Caesars Arena on both visits, but you should see a Red Wings game there if you can only choose one event. Gates open 90 minutes before, so get in early and take your time to fully explore both concourses. Both franchises have a storied history and kudos to the Red Wings for ensuring that the Pistons got their due here as well.

The Game

My buddy Mike, a Detroit-area resident, joined with his wife and two kids. He picked up a Sprite Family 4-Pack, which is four upper bowl tickets for $129 ($32.25 each), with each ticket coming with $11 in concession credit. I got a seat next to them for $37 with no concession credit. What?! How can I pay more for less? How about a Friend-of-the-Family one pack? Anyway, we ended up in the second row, with the view below and Mike had enough concession credit left over to get me a hot dog. Though it took us about 10 minutes to get all the food due to a technical problem at the concession stand - the vagaries of a new arena.

The game itself was actually quite entertaining, with 8 ties and 7 lead changes. Midway through the third quarter, Miami had a 73-62 lead but the Pistons went on an 11-2 run to get close and after a Heat hoop, finished the frame on a 10-4 spree to take an 83-81 lead to the fourth. Halfway through that, with the score 93-92 Detroit, Pistons rookie Luke Kennard made a two and a three on back-to-back possessions, followed by baskets from Ish Smith and Reggie Jackson to make it 102-92. A free throw from Andre Drummond gave the Pistons their biggest lead of the night and the Heat never got closer than 8 as Detroit moved to 10-3 with a 112-103 win. Kennard was the key, ending up +21 on the evening, while Miami's James Johnson was a dismal -23 during his 26 minutes off the bench.

To me, a good basketball game is one that is close for most of the contest and moves quickly with few turnovers and few fouls. This one had all that, taking just over 2 hours to complete, and a home win as well. A nice way to enter Club 123.


Afterward, I met up with Andrew (2nd from left) and Peter (right), along with Andrew Van Cleve (2nd from right, now at 116 venues), Scott Bultman (left, 111), and Jim Vigeant (a 30 ballpark member who took the picture) at the Town Pump for a few pitchers and some sports travel talk. Great fun and I look forward to our next new venue in Milwaukee sometime in 2018.

Next Up

Nothing. At least not in the realm of sports road trips. With Club 123 done, there is nothing to get excited about. I'm going to be seeing events in the NYC area now and again, but other than that, waiting for the summer to see the Blue Jays in a few road venues. So check back in April once I figure out what I'll be able to do.



Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lake Superior State Lakers 79 vs Alderson Broadus Battlers 63 (NCAA Basketball, Division II) - November 12, 2017

When I first planned this trip, I expected to see the Lions (4-4) and Browns (0-8) do battle in a mediocre NFL game on Sunday afternoon. But as I explored the local sports schedule, I found another, more intriguing option that would allow me to visit a new venue that had a surprising history. Wayne State University, a Division II school that lies about a mile north of downtown, was hosting a men's basketball tournament at the Matthaei Center. What makes this venue so interesting is that it was built for the 1968 Detroit Olympics! Of course, the Olympics were held in Mexico City that year, but Detroit finished second in the bidding. In those days, cities started building stadiums even before the voting was finished, and the Matthaei Center was to be an Olympic venue had Detroit been awarded the games. When I learned that, I ditched the NFL for the GLIAC-GMAC tournament and venue #763 on my count.

Rather than give up my cushy parking spot next to Little Caesars Arena, I took Detroit's newest transit system, the QLine. This single-car tram runs up and down Woodward Avenue from downtown all the way to Grand Street, covering 12 stops in all. A 3-hour pass is just $1.50 (double that for a day pass) and the train arrives about every 15 minutes, with live maps at each stop telling you how long you have to wait. It took about ten minutes to make the trek three stops to Warren Street, where I disembarked into a persistent drizzle. I then hustled about a half-mile west along Warren, reaching the Matthaei Center at 12:30.

Named for Frederick Matthaei, who led the Olympic bid, and opened in 1965, the venue is now the campus rec center, with far more than just a basketball court. As you enter the main entrance (above) and make your way along the hallway, note the photos highlighting championship squads. Swimming and diving are particularly successful sports here.

There is also a large Hall of Fame honouring past Tartar and Warriors greats (the school changed the name in 1999 because nobody knew what a Tartar was). I only recognized one name, that of Joique Bell, who played briefly for the Lions. The Hall is very well done, and shows that even small schools have great athletic programs and participants (there are 231 here) that deserve to be recognized.

Several Wayne State alum have also been inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and they are separately honoured as you can see above.

Inside the main gym, there are banners behind both baskets commemorating team achievements over the years. Tickets are $5 for general admission benches and $10 for seats with chairbacks, seen in the photo below. Other than a small concession stand in the far corner, that is about it for the actual gym itself.

The GLIAC/GMAC tournament is a two-day affair featuring two schools from each conference. After two games on Saturday, the first game on Sunday afternoon featured Lake Superior State Lakers (who, like Wayne State, are members of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) against Alderson Broadus Battlers from the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.

The game tipped right at 1:00 and man, it was quick. The refs called only 8 fouls in the first half, there were just three media timeouts (much shorter than those in televised games) and the teams played a fast-paced, back and forth game. The first half ended in just 30 minutes, while the game was over in less than 90, giving me plenty of time to get back to Little Caesars Arena for the Pistons 4:00 start. The Lakers won easily 79-63, taking both halves by 8 points.

What amazed me was the quality of the three-point shooting, even at this relatively low level. The Lakers shot 59% (10/17) while ABU wasn't awful at 11/29 (38%). Interestingly, both teams shot almost identically from inside the arc: 22/38 (58%) for LSSU and 10/27 (37%) for ABU.


Lake Superior State is based in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and has a Division I hockey team that won three national titles between 1988 and 1994. Alderson Broadus is based in Phillipi, West Virginia and I had never heard of them before. If you include Division II and III, you could spend your entire adult life traversing the country just watching college sports.

The Alderson Broadus players all have ABU on the back of their uniforms, where the player's name would usually be. At first, I thought that #10 was named Abu, then I noticed #3 was also Abu. Must be his brother, I surmised. Only when I saw the third player with ABU did it click. So yeah, I'm still an idiot.

ABU defeated Wayne State on Saturday, while Lake Superior State beat the other GMAC school Kentucky Wesleyan, and Wayne State beat Kentucky Wesleyan on Sunday, so the GLIAC won the tournament 3-1.

The Lions defeated the Browns 38-24. No regrets about missing that one.