When nearly 80,000 people come together to watch basketball in your own backyard, there are plenty of lessons to learn and observations to make. Here are seven from my first Final Four on Saturday at AT&T Stadium:
• Wisconin Badger fans can party. I graduated from the University of Florida in the late 1980s, and even then UF was known as a party school. But us Gators (or Texas Longhorns, apparently) have got nothing on the Badgers. One particular band of tailgaters I talked to Saturday had started before noon for an 8:30 p.m. tipoff, grilling brats, drinking beer and, of course, eating copious amounts of creamy Wisconsin cheese. “People in Texas think they know how to drink,” said a proud Badger alum who grew up in Austin. “They don’t know how to drink.” At which point he cracked open a beer for me. Cheers, fellas!
• Ticket scalping is an economics masterclass: Wanna see the principles of supply and demand in action? Just hang out outside AT&T Stadium before a major sporting event. On Saturday, scalpers with wads of cash bought upper level Final Four tickets for $50 and then resold them for $150. I also saw them offer dejected Florida fans a measly 10 bucks for their second game seats after the Gators got beat by UConn. Most wouldn’t sell at that rock-bottom price, but the vultures were definitely circling, and picked up plenty of cut-rate tickets to resell for Monday night’s Championship Game.
• Sometimes, being a sports star isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just ask Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard and Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, both of whom were showered with boos when their faces were flashed up on the giant video board at AT&T Stadium on Saturday. And Montee Ball, the former University of Wisconsin/now Denver Broncos running back, was denied access to the Badgers student section, despite trying to show security guards his NFLPA card and his driver’s license. Maybe it had something to do with the fact he was wearing a bizarre frog onesie.
• AT&T Stadium is a better basketball venue than I thought it would be. It may even be better for basketball than football. By adding more seats on the field to surround the court, the stadium didn’t seem so vast and empty. Fans on the mezzanine level could pass through the club areas (something they can’t do during football games without the proper ticket) and they had a clear view of the court. A second, smaller viewing screen was added for fans in the lower sections because craning up at the gigantor, 60-yard screen would have been like watching an IMAX movie from the front row. Upper level fans watched the action on the crystal clear video board, which may seem a bit pricey for the equivalent of a sports bar experience, but most didn’t seem to mind.
• Guns and hoops don’t mix. My “only in Texas” moment came early Saturday, when I spotted a small band of gun enthusiasts strolling along Collins Avenue, amid the happy basketball fans and busy ticket sellers. The “protesters” were toting rifles and automatic weapons and waving a flag that read, “Come and take it.” I hoped a police officer would come and take them away, but no such luck.
• The $12 brisket sandwiches at Jerry World are worth the price and wait. A family of four from Chicago who’d come to DFW to see the Badgers play, waited, along with a line of hungry basketball fans, for about an hour to get four of the hand-carved sandwiches, which are the size of a small car hubcaps. When asked if the wait and nearly 50 bucks were worth it, they just smiled, nodded and chewed.
• Kentucky fans are crazy, and not all in a good way: I lived in Lexington for seven years and definitely got swept up in rooting for the Cats. Their team has tradition, and tons of talent. Most of the Big Blue fans I met in Arlington on Saturday seemed tickled that their team had gotten this far — the freshman-filled Cats have exceeded expectations. But then you read that 21 people were hurt and more than 80 fires were set in celebrations in Lexington, and you realize the line between fan and fanatic is razor thin. I mean, Aaron Harrison’s last-minute three pointer to pull ahead was thrilling. But Saturday’s win wasn’t even for the national championship. Chill out, Cats fans, and start acting like you’ve been here before, because you have. Many times.