By Ashley M. Heher
Published: May 31,2006

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Marc Sawyer figures he won't sleep much this weekend.

The 21-year-old UCLA senior was flying with several friends to Columbus, Ohio, late Friday, then renting a car and driving three hours to Indianapolis. Once here, he'll don a blue and yellow outfit that includes colored glasses, gym shorts, a T-shirt, knee socks and a pompom to cheer on the Bruins in the Final Four before returning to Los Angeles 30 minutes before his first class Tuesday morning. Whirlwind trip? You bet.

"We're just running on adrenaline once we get there," said Sawyer, a San Diego resident who is president of The Den, UCLA's student athletics fan club. "We're not even going to want to sleep."

Thanks to a month long buildup, multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and celebrity-studded entertainment, this year's Final Four will be a far cry from the event's humble beginnings in 1939, when only eight teams competed for the title. This weekend, when an expected 100,000 fans descend on downtown Indianapolis for the culmination of a nationwide basketball frenzy, the tourney will have transformed itself into a full-out extravaganza. "When a sporting event moves to the next level and becomes a big event, it's more than just attending the games _ it becomes a destination point on everybody's calendar of events," said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a Chicago sports marketing agency that partnered with the NCAA to promote various game packages. "I think (the Final Four) has moved into the realm of being a rival to the Super Bowl."

Included in the lineup is a free, two-day music festival headlined by Indiana rocker John Mellencamp and featuring last season's "American Idol" winner, Carrie Underwood. The NCAA's Hall of Champions museum will be open for a marathon 100 straight hours to mark the governing body's centennial. Thousands of entertainment-minded fans were expected to visit an interactive festival at the Indiana Convention Center. That doesn't count the scores of private parties, hospitality rooms and VIP events for special ticket holders and corporate partners who have shelled out thousands of dollars for all-inclusive Final Four packages.

All the while, CBS will be broadcasting games on 11 jumbo screens throughout downtown.

"I think consumers expect more of a total fan experience now," said Vince Thompson, president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta-based Creative Presence Partners, which is working with the NCAA and Coca Cola Co. to put on the musical festival. Fans aren't the only ones demanding more.

Big corporations use tickets to top sporting events such as the Final Four, the Super Bowl, the Masters golf championship and the Kentucky Derby to schmooze their best customers.

"The Final Four is becoming one of the premier events in the country from a corporate perspective," said David Lord, chief executive of RazorGator and PrimeSport, an online ticket broker based in Los Angeles. "It's becoming more and more the approach of the big sponsors to leverage these events as opportunities to get close to their big clients." RazorGator expects to send as many as 4,000 customers to the Final Four _ half of them through corporate packages that include work meetings, a casino night and special appearances by top coaches and players.

rEvolution's premier package costs $55,000 and includes 10 lower-level seats in the RCA Dome, a four-night downtown hotel stay and access to other VIP events.

Not everything, though, is expensive.

Caleb Shoenhard, 22, a senior at George Mason University, expects to crowd at least four people into a $55-a-night hotel room in Shelbyville, Ind. _ more than 30 miles away from this weekend's Final Four action. That's after driving nine hours from Fairfax, Va., to cheer on the Cinderella favorite Patriots.

"We'll share the driving, we'll split the gas and the hotel," he said. "We'll probably check out downtown, find some cool bars and probably just go nuts when we see each other in the street. We'll probably do a lot of hooting and hollering."

Susan Aycock, president of the Indiana chapter of LSU's alumni association, said she's been flooded with calls and e-mails from fans who want to cheer on their alma mater. "I know there's going to be all kinds of crawfish boils going on," said Aycock, who lives north of Indianapolis and was a second-generation LSU student in the 1970s. "Tiger fans are fanatics. They'll be lots of people here and they'll be ready."

Local officials expect the weekend to have at least a $40 million economic impact _ not counting the cost of tickets and transportation to and from Indianapolis.

"We've tried to make it more than just the three games," said Tom Jernstedt, executive president of the NCAA. "We've made a real effort to have more activities for individuals who may not be able to go to the games so they can have a flavor of the Final Four and college basketball and all the people that support it."

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