on March 17, 2014 - 8:18 PM
, updated March 17, 2014 at 11:49 PM
If you don’t have tickets to the games, you can still get in on some of the excitement of March Madness in Buffalo – for free.
The doors of First Niagara Center will be open to the public Wednesday from noon to 3 p.m. and again from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., when eight teams take to the arena court for the first time in preparation for Thursday’s second-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament games.
Fans and curiosity seekers are welcome to get a glimpse of the practice sessions, during which teams from Syracuse, Villanova, St. Joseph’s, Dayton, Milwaukee, Ohio State, Western Michigan and Connecticut universities will take turns getting acclimated to the arena and surroundings.
Each team will be allotted about 40 minutes for shoot-around drills. The arena’s concession stands also will be open.
Crews inside the arena spent much of Monday converting the floor from ice to hardwood, and about 100 volunteers who will serve as “Buffalo ambassadors” were trained on how to assist throngs of people exiting the arena in search of food, refreshment, and, possibly, alternative entertainment.
“We’re all ready to roll in Buffalo. The planning has been very significant,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown. “One thing we can promise is Buffalo has legendary hospitality. We are going to roll out the red carpet for every single visitor who comes to the city this week for the tournament.”
This will be Buffalo’s fifth crack at hosting the tournament since 2000, and organizers were confident the games would proceed without a hitch – in part because they know what to anticipate and how to adjust on the fly.
“I wouldn’t say routine, but the experience really helps. We can draw on past successes and past challenges,” said Ken Taylor, associate director of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Most of the teams will be arriving today and staying in area hotels that were booked almost a year ago.
The shoot-around sessions don’t typically draw huge crowds, but nearly 2,000 children from Buffalo Public Schools and Niagara Falls will be on hand at First Niagara Center, as part of a special drug prevention and health awareness program being run in conjunction with the tournament in Buffalo, prior to the practices.
“The kids are very excited about it,” said David B. Thomas Jr., dean of students at School 115, which is sending 175 students in grades five through eight. “Surprisingly, I think, the kids in this age group are very into college basketball.”
Former University at Buffalo player Modie Cox, along with former Syracuse University star John Wallace, will be participating in the event, which also was offered when the tournament was last hosted in Buffalo in 2010.
“This is a unique thing that Buffalo does. We are the only community that does this,” said Pete Harvey, director of sports development for the Buffalo Niagara Sports Commission.
As they did in 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2010, the games appear to be an official sellout again, although the NCAA doesn’t typically make that announcement until after the sessions have wrapped up.
Nonetheless, on Monday morning, the arena website had only single seats available for all-session passes to the tournament games, and by early afternoon, even those single seats were snapped up.
Activity in the secondary market remained brisk, meanwhile, as fans of several teams within easy driving distance of Buffalo jockeyed for seats.
Demand for tickets from fans of Syracuse University basketball, which led the nation in attendance in 2013, was pushing ticket prices sky high for the afternoon session of games Thursday.
As of late Monday, the cheapest ticket for the afternoon session – which includes Ohio State versus Dayton at 12:15 p.m. and Syracuse tipping off against Western Michigan at 2:45 – was $107, more than double the lowest amount being asked for the evening games between Connecticut and St. Joseph’s and Villanova and Milwaukee, according to Connor Gregoire, a spokesman for SeatGeek, an online site that aggregates listings from major secondary-market ticket retailers.
“Normally, the night sessions across the board are more expensive, because it’s easier for fans to get to the arena at that hour, after work,” said Gregoire.
The Saturday session also had the priciest average ticket on the secondary market in the country at $210, according to both SeatGeek and TicketCity, another online ticket retailer.
“The huge spike in demand is largely a result of Syracuse fans, with 40 percent more tickets sold to sessions one and three than session two,” said Meredith Owen, spokeswoman for TicketCity.
The local market for hotel rooms also was hot, especially for what is a traditionally cool lodging season in Buffalo.
Fans and others already had booked many hotels to near capacity, even before the NCAA announced Sunday which teams were coming to Buffalo.
How does that happen? Hoteliers cited three factors.
First, a large contingent of college basketball fans want to watch the games, no matter which teams play.
“There are people in the Northeast who say, ‘Buffalo is having the games. I’m going to get my tickets and my hotel early because we know how those prices go up,’” said Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara.
Many of the out-of-town fans reserved rooms in October, when tickets to the tournament went on sale.
A second contingent of fans, like those rooting for Syracuse and Villanova, booked their rooms on an educated guess their teams would end up playing here.
“They book it, and if their team isn’t here, they just cancel. There’s no penalty,” said Jay Dellavecchia, general manager at Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
Through Visit Buffalo Niagara, the NCAA also booked rooms ahead of time for players, coaches and others associated with the teams. For example, two teams will stay at the Hyatt, which has 150 rooms earmarked for them.
While those who booked early secured their spots in hotels that will almost certainly sell out, they likely did not get any kind of price advantage by being proactive.
Because Buffalo has hosted the games four times before, hotels here have data to draw from when setting prices. Hotel officials knew months ago their rooms would be in demand this week, and they established prices accordingly.
“This isn’t our first rodeo,” said David Hart.