Five Bucket-list U.S. Sporting Events You Can Attend
For a century, sports fans have descended on the world’s most famous racetrack to watch the world’s most famous car race, the Indy 500. Many fans come year after year, and more than a few have not missed a race in decades. This is also the case at several other historic sporting events held in the same iconic venues year after year. While the Super Bowl is the most watched game of the year on television, its rotating annual venues, uncertainty of teams, and extremely limited public availability of tickets makes it hard for fans to plan trips. This is even more true with other professional team sports, where fan interest is largely based on their favorite team participating, which may not be decided until a week or two in advance. In sharp contrast, the biggest events that do not move also tend to be ones that have huge appeal to sports lovers regardless of who is “playing.” These are the top bucket list sporting events you can attend.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
It’s a tradition unlike any in sports: Every Memorial Day Sunday a few hundred thousand fans flock to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to hear the famous words “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines” and watch the Indy 500. The race is the most attended single day sporting event in the world.
Everything about it is larger than life: The “Brickyard” is the world’s biggest sports facility, with more than a quarter million seats and standing room for well over 100,000 more. All eight of these world landmarks could fit inside the Speedway, together, with room to spare: Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the White House, the Rose Bowl, Rome’s Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Liberty Island and Vatican City.
Attendance averages 300,000 and has tipped the scales at around 400,000 in “big years.” But no year will be bigger than next: 2016 is the 100th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” and with very few major sporting events celebrating a centennial (the Super Bowl is turning a paltry 50), it is expected to break records. In other words, next year’s 100th Indy 500 will likely be the most attended one-day sporting event in human history.
Fortunately for fans, it is relatively easy to attend the historic race, if you do not mind general admission standing room in the infield. The race never sells out and you can simply stroll up and buy tickets. Getting seats, hotel rooms and extra-curricular activities that are part of the pomp and circumstance can be a different matter, and sales have been extremely brisk. “We are anticipating a record number of visitors to race into Indy to witness the 100th running,” said Chris Gahl, vice president at Visit Indy, the city’s tourism department.
“You rarely get the opportunity to attend a hundredth in any sport, and we’ve seen a lot more demand than in the past. We’ve already surpassed all of last year’s ticket sales in less than two and a half months,” said Brian Wilder, senior vice president of ticket and travel packager PrimeSport, the Speedway’s official supplier.
Official packages include tickets for desirable seats, two nights’ lodging, and race day transportation and begin at $1,025. Packages offer different quality seats and hotels, and pricier ones add VIP extras such as attending a private dinner Friday with race drivers or taking a lap in one of the official pace cars. “We’re not just selling tickets,” said Wilder. “As the official travel provider we try to build an experience, whether it’s attending the driver meeting or practice laps.” For almost every bucket list sporting event, the easiest way for travelers to take care of everything is through an official package, though the convenience usually comes at a price premium.
However, the Indy 500 is one of the easiest bucket list events to arrange on your own. Hotels are still available and seats are now on sale from the track. The very best grandstand seats are on the inside, in the Pit Row Terrace or North and South Terrace Towers ($95-$115). On the outside, Sections A, B, C and the Paddock all have deluxe penthouse suites, with indoor/outdoor facilities, a nice reprieve on the often hot day. These are the most premier options ($190-$230). After the straightaway, seats in the first and fourth turns are most desirable. In the fourth turn you can see cars coming out of the third turn and into the “short chute” where a lot of passing happens. The best are penthouse suites in first turn Section E and Deck seats in the turn four Northwest Vista stands ($205-$230).
Many events lead up to the race, but for out of town visitors, the two biggest are the day before. The Indy 500 Parade runs through downtown Indy, with floats, bands, balloons, and all 33 drivers serving as grand marshals. The parade can be viewed for free, but the best experience is reserved seating in stands ($35). CARB Day is at the racetrack, with a vintage car show and three major bands playing in the infield ($35).
Churchill Downs, Louisville
Even older than Indy, The “run for the roses” or the "most exciting two minutes in sports,” will be held next May for the 142nd time. Many experts feel the Derby is the single most “must-experience” sports event.
“The best part of a sports vacation is the days leading up to it, with all the participants in town having fun. With the Derby you’ve got the parties leading up to it, the Oaks Day, and they are horses, not teams, everyone is there for the good time. It’s just so cool,” said Chad Clark, a Scottsdale travel agent specializing in luxury vacation experiences. A former Fox Sports TV personality, Clark has made it his goal since 1994 to attend every major sports championship in the world. His top two spectator choices are the Masters for golf fans and the Derby for everyone else.
Dressing up, with elaborate hats for women, is one of many rich Derby traditions, along with the marching band, the garland of roses draped around the winning horse’s neck, and the omnipresent legacy of the most famous winners, Secretariat and American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner (2015) in 37 years. Because the Derby is the first leg, every attendee is a potential witness to history, and every 2015 spectator saw a Triple Crown winner run — for many, the only such win in their lifetime.
One thing many visitors do not realize is that the Kentucky Derby is a two-day event, with Oaks Day Friday and Derby Day always the first Saturday in May. All tickets with assigned seats (non-general admission) are for both days. The lesser known Oaks Day is a perfect dry run for exploring the track while just slightly less crowded. Established in 1875, the $1 million Kentucky Oaks is one of the few sporting events this old in the world still held at its original venue. Because Oaks Day raises money for the fight against breast and ovarian cancer, the 100,000 guests are asked to prominently incorporate pink in dresses, ties and hats, while the track is dressed in pink bunting, Like the famous mint julep the next day, the Oaks has its own signature cocktail, the Lily. A scaled-down version of the Derby, with its own tradition and fancy dress, it should not be missed — especially since most visitors are paying for it anyway.
Like the Indy 500, fans can show up on Oaks or Derby Day and buy standing room infield tickets ($55), but this is even less attractive here, given that both are very long days, and with many fans dressed to the nines, the infield is usually hot and sunny or wet and muddy. Also, Louisville has far less hotel rooms, and Churchill Downs has more VIP hospitality areas and special events, from pre-race paddock tours to attending the winner’s trophy presentation in the museum. All are best (or only) arranged through ticket packages with QuintEvents, the official travel supplier for the track’s Derby Experiences. Travel agent Clark has used the company for clients many times and heartily recommends them.
For out-of-towners it is hard to beat Derby Experiences’ packages, which combine many seating options with numerous hotels. All packages include one of QuintEvents’ six private hospitality lounges, which range from ultra-VIP with open bar, top-shelf food and live entertainment to cash bars with burgers. All package seat holders have a place to go that is air conditioned without the long lines at the track’s public concessions, and all have private betting windows or terminals. Packages also include celebrity/jockey meet and greet sessions, expedited VIP track admission, and roundtrip hotel transfers. Two-day Oaks and Derby reserved seat ticket packages with these extras start at $799 without hotel or $1,799 per person with three nights' lodging. Two-day tickets directly from the track with no extras start at $300, but require signing up in advance for a limited online pre-order opportunity, with just 10,000 seats available.
There are a slew of optional activities that can be added to Derby Experiences packages, from guided tours of nearby bourbon distilleries or horse farms to a 6 a.m. “Backstretch Tour at Dawn” tour of the track.
While it does not claim a title for the oldest or most challenging of golf’s four Majors, its meticulously manicured setting and exclusivity have made The Masters not just the most desirable golf event, but what is widely regarded as the “toughest ticket in sports.” That’s because almost none are offered to the public, with host Augusta National, a private club, selling an extremely limited number of practice round ($65) and one-day ($100) tickets to winners of a drawing. This slim chance is nearly a year in advance, and already closed for the 2016 Masters.
Scalped tickets sell for extremely high prices, and exacerbating the scarcity of tickets is a shortage of hotel rooms, so deep-pocketed visitors typically rent homes at greatly inflated prices. The good news is that if you do get a ticket, the event itself is extremely affordable and starry-eyed visitors describe it as frozen in time. “As if they collected everything worth being nostalgic about from the 1950s and decided ‘no more.’ Prices are set and will not change, there are no cellphones, there are no cameras ... Pimento cheese sandwiches still only cost $1.50,” explained Tyler Dillon, who grew up nearby and now runs the Masters package program for tour outfitter Butterfield & Robinson.
There is no official travel partner, but many companies offer Masters packages, including Butterfield & Robinson, PrimeSport and Chad Clark Travel. Clark estimates that to attend the four-day tournament with accommodations, tickets and no extra frills costs a minimum of about $13,000. Many bucket-list visitors with budget concerns go for just one day, or a less pricey Monday-to-Wednesday practice round. These have long been easier tickets, and some guests prefer the atmosphere because cameras are allowed and players more engaging and willing to sign autographs.
U.S. Open Tennis
Because it is the longest of these events in a city with a huge hotel base, the U.S. Open is the easiest to attend, if just being part of the vibe is the goal. But for more dedicated tennis fans, not all matches and courts are created equal, and prime seats are still limited.
Held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, owned by the U.S. Tennis Association, the tournament runs two weeks, beginning the Monday before Labor Day and ending the Sunday after. Twenty-two courts are used, with the biggest matches in the enclosed Arthur Ashe stadium, the largest tennis stadium in the world, with nearly 24,000 seats. The Louis Armstrong stadium also hosts high-profile matches. The “outer courts” are more open, but early on, even the top players compete on these. As the tournament progresses, there is still always action, because in addition to the high-profile men’s and women’s main events, there are the men’s, women’s and mixed doubles, plus Senior, Junior and Wheelchair tournaments. “Early on there is tons of action, matches everywhere, it’s electric, but the finals are the most desirable,” said Anne O’Neill, vice president and 28-year veteran of Steve Furgal’s International Tennis Tours, the USTA’s official partner.
The easiest way to get in is a grounds pass ($80), sold only the first eight days, and often available same day or on short notice. These let visitors wander around the outer courts and get a sense of the fairground-like buzz, but do not include stadium access. Louis Armstrong tickets include the grounds pass, and Arthur Ashe tickets include all venues. There are usually two separate sessions, day and night. While it is fairly easy to get tickets for a day and experience the atmosphere, serious fans wanting in-demand night matches and finals should consider the official packages. With tickets directly from the USTA they are often less expensive than scalped ones, with a steep discount — almost half price — for USTA members. The tour company can help you join over the phone ($44) and it is easily worth the savings.
Packages include a choice of two hotels, the New York Hilton and luxury Four Seasons, roundtrip buses with VIP entrance, and better seats. Steve Furgal’s Tours offers 18 different packages, early, late or over Labor Day, and for each, choice of hotel and up to eight seating options. Packages start at $1,350 (USTA members) for Tour 4, with three nights at the Hilton and three sessions at Arthur Ashe. At the high end, Tour 17 includes five nights at the Four Seasons, and four sessions with both the men’s and women’s semis and finals. With the best seats in a luxury suite, it runs $12,400. Still, the same finals package with Hilton lodging and the lowest priced seats is just $2,030 or $400 per night with tickets, less than many New York City hotel rooms. On a daily basis, the U.S. Open is one of the most affordable bucket list events in sports.
Tournament of Roses
Rose Bowl and Rose Parade, Pasadena, Calif.
The oldest bowl game, the Rose Bowl is nicknamed “The Granddaddy of Them All,” and usually held on New Year’s Day. It also hosts the semi-final of the new College Football Playoff system once every three years. One of only four football stadiums designated a National Historic Landmark, it was built in 1922, seats over 90,000, and just two years ago completed a $170 million renovation. It also hosts UCLA football and has been home to five Super Bowls and the gold medal Olympic soccer finals.
“The Rose Bowl is special because you get the chance to cross off two different bucket list events, the game and the Tournament of Roses Parade, in one great day,” said Wilder of PrimeSport, the event’s official partner. “People have grown up their whole lives watching it on TV with their families, and that’s how it gets on your bucket list.”
The Rose Parade has an annual theme, and for the 127th year, in conjunction with the centennial of the National Park Service, 2016’s was “Find Your Adventure.” Annual attendance is nearly 700,000 and more than 70 million watch it on TV. The parade runs for 5.5 miles and typically includes over 40 floats, hundreds of horses, and up to two dozen top marching bands, including those fielded by the Marine Corps and Salvation Army. Grandstand seats can be purchased for $48-$95. The route is divided into four zones, and zone one, closest to the Rose Bowl — “walking distance” at 1.5 miles — is the most expensive.
Official packages from PrimeSport combine the Rose Bowl and parade, beginning with motor coach hotel pickup with boxed breakfast. “We escort them to their seats in the grandstand for the parade, then back to the bus, then to the stadium. It makes it all really easy,” said Wilder. The company operates a 5-acre hospitality village where lunch is served before the game, with former NFL players who played in the Rose Bowl discussing their experiences. Packages with three nights' lodging, parade seat, some meals, transfers, VIP hospitality and game ticket start at $1,895 per person.