Tuesday, March 23, 2021

March Madness 2021

When the NCAA announced that the entire 2021 tournament would take place in Indiana, I immediately began planning to attend this unique experience. For me, the attraction is visiting venues that rarely host college basketball, and out of the five places that would be welcoming fans, two are not regular home gyms. The first is Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Colts and Indy Eleven play; the second is Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Pacers. As soon as the announcement was made in early January, I booked mileage flights on Delta for the first weekend, and later found a downtown hotel with a March Madness rate of $79, less than half of what was being charged by the time the actual schedule came out. Unfortunately, Delta moved my Friday afternoon flight to the evening, so I would only be able to see one game that day, but at least I was able to capture the shot below as we flew over downtown. That's Lucas Oil Stadium in the middle, with Victory Field (home of the AAA Indians) to the northwest.

When tickets went on sale, I focused on finding games at those two locations, both a short walk from the hotel. As intriguing as a game at Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse or IUPUI's Farmers Coliseum would be, I preferred to keep those for future visits when I could see the home team in a normal setting. In the end, I purchased four games: three at Lucas and one at Bankers. Because teams and game times were not set when tickets went on sale, I ended up with a game that started as my flight was scheduled to land. Fortunately, Purdue was slated for that game, so I had no trouble selling the pair at a tidy profit. The other games ended up being Morehead State vs. West Virginia, UCSB vs. Creighton, and first overall seed Gonzaga against either Norfolk State or Appalachian State. Friends had an extra for Clemson and Rutgers, which was taking place at the same time as Morehead/WVU, so I sold my pair at cost and joined my buddies for a more interesting matchup.

My flight arrived a bit early and after we landed, I checked rideshare prices while we taxied to the gate. It would cost about $20 to get to the hotel, but by the time I had deplaned and made my way to the pickup area, the price had increased to $50 as there were few drivers and plenty of passengers. Yikes! Fortunately, there is a bus that heads straight downtown that happened to be leaving at the same time. It cost just $1.75 and I was the only passenger for most of the ride, which got me to the hotel at the same time as if I had waited for the rideshare with everyone else. Always know your options before you arrive!

After dropping my stuff off, I walked over to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the first game. Along the way, I stopped at JW Marriott to look at their giant bracket on the front of the hotel (above). This was one of several downtown hotels that was housing the teams and it was protected liked President Biden was inside, with cops and security everywhere. Even all that did not help VCU, who had a COVID case and were sent home without playing a game. 

Before entering the venue, I met up with Andrew and Peter from the Ultimate Sports Road Trip, who had sold me their extra ticket. With several games already having been completed and a few upsets in the books, there were a lot of college kids partying along Meridian Street, with no regard for the pandemic. Some bars were obvious COVID hotspots, with hundreds of patrons in close quarters. We found one with an outdoor patio and grabbed a quick beer there, complaining about the lost year and amazed at how the kids couldn't care less.

Entry into the stadium required that we answer three COVID related questions (none of which was "Were you recently at a COVID hotspot?"), and that was it. With only 4,500 fans in attendance (capacity is 20,000) and bags prohibited, there were no lines, and concourses were empty with few concessions operating. Inside the bowl, the majority of fans were sitting in the upper reaches of this vast venue, so the atmosphere was very muted. Rutgers fans outnumbered their Clemson counterparts by about 5-1, not surprising as Newark airport has several daily direct flights to Indy. Face coverings were required at all times unless "actively eating or drinking" and if you had your mask off, an usher would approach you and hold up a sign politely asking you to wear it.

The game was quite entertaining, with 14 lead changes in the first half alone and only 12 fouls. Down 37-34 early in the second period, Rutgers, a favourite despite being the 10-seed, went on a 16-2 run, but the Tigers responded with 10 straight, eventually tying the game at 55 with 4:12 left. Geo Baker immediately hit a trey to give the Scarlet Knights the lead, and then the bricks came out. Over the next three minutes, the teams combined for eight misses and three turnovers, with Clemson notching a single free throw during that time. With 40 seconds left, the Tigers committed yet another turnover and as they were not in the bonus, they elected not to foul. Rutgers killed the clock and then scored a beautiful basket by Baker with just ten ticks to go. When Clemson missed a desperation three, Rutgers had won their first tournament game since 1983.


The next day saw a number of our sports travel group reunite at Lucas Oil Stadium for #5 Creighton (Big East) taking on #12 UCSB (Big West). Note the sign on the front; Indianapolis was originally to be the site of the Final Four, but the NCAA decided to move the entire tournament to Indiana to minimize travel for the schools. Of course, having fans from all 68 participants walking around town and eating and drinking at bars is probably going to lead to some COVID outbreaks when they return home, but with vaccinations proceeding quickly (I myself have had both shots), I don't expect the impact to be that large.

Exact attendance figures for these games are not available, but with fans limited to no more than 25% of capacity, empty concourses were prevalent here as well.

The venue was divided into two courts, with one named Unity and the other Equality, demonstrating the NCAA's commitment to inclusion and social justice. This commitment obviously does not extend to the women's tournament or its weight room. Anyway, the photo below is the Unity Court taken from the 600 level, which is where my seat was located. I can only imagine what the Final Four will be like with just one court in the middle of the stadium. Binoculars are very helpful if you want to see the action.

With these seats so far away, I moved around a bit, sitting with some friends on the 300 level behind the net before moving over to spend the last few minutes in the 400 level, a substantial improvement.

This ended up being another good game, with a similar pattern down the stretch. Creighton had a 47-37 lead with 13 minutes to go, but UCSB went on a 21-5 rampage and led by 6 with 5:32 on the clock. The Bluejays responded with 9 straight but Amadou Sow made a layup and then sank two free throws on the Gauchos next possession to give UCSB a 62-61 lead with 37 seconds left. The majority of fans were cheering for the upset and the place was loud as Creighton called timeout. Coming out of the break, Damien Jefferson missed a jumper but Christian Bishop grabbed the offensive rebound and was then needlessly fouled by Sow as he tried to dribble away. With Creighton only in the 1-and-1, Bishop had to make the first free throw, which he did to tie the game. He made the second as well, and with no timeouts, UCSB had to run a play. A floater from Sow did not fall and Creighton escaped with the 63-62 victory.

After a break for dinner, I returned to Bankers Life to see the top overall seed take on Norfolk State. The only question here is whether Gonzaga could cover the 33-point spread, and as you can see below, they did.

There were more games Sunday but with everybody else having left, I did not bother buying a ticket as there was no need to return to Lucas and the other venues were rather overpriced for single tickets. Instead, I went to the NCAA Hall of Champions, a small museum that has displays on all NCAA sports as well as interactive exhibits. It takes about 45 minutes to see it all and is well worth the $5 for any sports fan. The highlight was seeing the two basketball championship trophies, though I don't think these are the ones that are actually given to the winners, as there was no security whatsoever.

Having been vaccinated, I also had dinner and a couple of drinks inside a bar, the first time to do so in over a year. All in all, a great weekend trip and the start of what promises to be an exciting summer of sports travel.


Both venues had scale models, which I always enjoy seeing. The Lucas Oil one is just inside the door of the suite level, so you might not be able to get in when the Colts are home.

The Fieldhouse is on the lower concourse and has the roof removed.

Next Up

Back to Arlington in early April to see the Blue Jays officially open up Globe Life Field. Of course, I was there for the World Series, but this trip is necessary as I plan to complete seeing the Jays in every road ballpark this season. Check back for recaps then.



Sunday, March 7, 2021

New York Rangers 6 at New Jersey Devils 3 - March 6, 2021

As you probably know, a couple of weeks ago New York opened up sporting venues to fans at a very limited capacity. But I haven't been, because Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared that you must have a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the game in order to gain admittance. I have had four COVID tests (all negative of course) in order to escape the idiotic quarantine law here, but am not willing to take one just to see a game, particularly when there is no evidence of transmission when masks are worn and social distancing is practiced. Fortunately, New Jersey has a slightly more scientific approach and is allowing fans without a testing requirement, so when Devils tickets went on sale, I snapped up some and started swapping with friends. I'll be seeing four games at The Rock over the next ten days, but will just post about the first.

With capacity limited to 1,800 (less than 10% of the 19,500 the place can hold), it was definitely a different experience. Championship Plaza (above), usually bustling with scalpers and guys selling hats, was mostly empty. Both Dinosaur BBQ and Edison Ale House are closed, making things even quieter, but PJ Ryan's is open and was doing brisk business before the games that were played earlier in the week. Entry to the arena is quick and requires just a temperature check after clearing security.

Inside, the vast majority of fans were younger and wearing either Devils or Rangers gear. There were few neutrals such as myself and my buddy Dom, as you might expect. Suites were open, but the club areas along the concourse were not (below). About a third of concessions were doing business, with prices higher than I recall, including a $7 hot dog and a burger combo for $16.50. Also, you had to consume any food or drink in the seating bowl, something that I prefer not to do.

Tarp covered the lower rows, along with the three club sections on one side of the rink. Club seats are available on the other side for a premium, which I don't understand because there are no benefits from what I could tell. We paid $50 for our seats in Section 102 (view below) and for other games I paid between $80 and $100 to sit in the lower bowl. Prices vary by opponent, with the Islanders surprisingly more expensive than the Rangers. Don't bother looking on the secondary market; tickets cannot be resold or even transferred, so you must enter with the person who purchased the tickets. Another pandemic protocol: seats that are not assigned are tied down, so no moving around. Also, you will notice cutouts in some other seats.

During game play, they piped in crowd noise, which was rather annoying because it was so unnatural. It was a constant buzz that did not change with the action on the ice. After a while, you can tune it out, but it is completely unnecessary. When goals were scored, the fans made enough noise, though the usual chant of "You Suck!" after a Devils tally obviously was not as loud as usual. Otherwise, it would be better to just hear the sounds of the game on the ice rather than a constant artificial hum.

Still, I was glad to see a live sporting event without having to travel. I look forward to the next three games and hope that New York can come to its senses by the start of baseball season just over three weeks away. Update: Nope, you still need a test or proof of vaccination to go to the Mets or Yankees, with 20% capacity. Beyond stupid.

The Game

The Rangers won the first of this two-game set 6-1 on Thursday, sending the Devils to their eighth consecutive home loss, and it didn't take long for the trend to continue. With Sami Vatanen in the box for a 4-minute high-sticking infraction, Adam Fox skated through New Jersey's league-worst penalty-killing unit (63%!) and beat Mackenzie Blackwood through the legs to open the scoring just over two minutes in. Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev got a rare primary assist on the marker. Five minutes after that, the Devils committed a horrendous giveaway at their blue line and Chris Kreider found Ryan Strome all alone in front of Blackwood. A quick backhand to the top shelf and the rout was on, or so it seemed. 

The Devils managed to tie things up later in the period with two goals in 17 seconds, including a spectacular slap shot from P.K. Subban, but the Rangers quickly regained the lead after more atrocious Devil defense as Kevin Rooney converted a 2-on-1 with Filip Chytil. When Libor Hajek scored just a minute into the second stanza to make it 4-2, the rout was again on. After six goals in 21 minutes, the teams slowed down and there were no goals for 27 minutes until the Devils again played giveaway at their blue line, allowing Julien Gauthier to go around the back of the net and pass to Chytil in front, who beat a sprawling Blackwood. A late goal by New Jersey's Nathan Bastian simply meant that the Devils would play with an empty net and Strome was the beneficiary as the Rangers won 6-3. 

Nine straight losses at home! Too bad fans can't resell those tickets; this is going to be a rough reintroduction to the NHL for Devils fans. Update: they lost their next two home games to the Islanders, including a heartbreaking shootout defeat after an overtime offside review saw a Subban goal overturned, before managing a 3-2 victory over Buffalo. I attended all of those games and the highlight was seeing the Sabres reverse retro jersey.


After the game, I finally got to see the Martin Brodeur statue at the southeast corner of the building. Behind it is the RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House, where the Devils AHL affiliate, normally based in Binghamton, is playing this season. They even had a game that evening against Wilkes-Barre, although fans were not allowed. Those Devils blew a 3-0 lead and lost 6-3, matching their big-boy brethren.

The Prudential Center has no free Wi-Fi, a rarity these days and annoying for those of us without an unlimited data plan. 

This was my first live hockey game in exactly one year. On March 6, 2020 I saw Hartford lose to Hershey 1-0.  

Next Up

My next road trip will be to Indianapolis for the first two rounds of March Madness. Tickets go on sale this week, so check back to see what I managed to get.