By Jane McManus, Asbury Park Press
Published 05/21/06

DURING THE PAST THREE years, Kent Jones has traveled hundreds of miles from his Elmsford, N.Y., home and spent countless dollars to see his niece Cori Chambers play basketball.

When her University of Georgia team was assigned to Trenton for the first round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament, Jones got out the map.

"I've seen her grow up and I have to support her," he says. The sports travel business is growing, and a number of ventures are catering to fans like Jones — sports fans with a favorite player or team, or the goal of seeing every major-league ballpark.

Jones has flown to Georgia for the opening game of the season twice, attended the annual Tennessee game another two times, and driven to Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Conn., throwing his spent tickets into a pile on his dresser.

"When we went to go see her play against UConn, we had our own little cheering section — like 20 people," Jones says.

Although Jones always has gotten his own tickets, sports Web sites are making it easier than ever for fans to connect to an event. Spectators are a few clicks from a flight and a hotel, or perhaps even tickets to the perfect sports weekend.

"It's everyone from the die-hard fan who just has to see the Yankees play the Red Sox on this particular weekend, to the corporate customers who are traveling, to someone who just wants to see the game," says Jarvis Bowers, vice president of marketing for the travel site PrimeSport.

Bowers estimates his company provided 10 percent of the tickets to this year's Super Bowl.

Michelle Putnam, vice president of sales at Premiere Sports Travel, headquartered in Cary, N.C., says that anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 people travel through her Web site each year, and that the company has experienced growth upward of 30 percent in the last year.

It isn't just the traditional male sports fan. Some families will base a vacation around an event.

"We get a lot of once-in-a-lifetime trips," Putnam says. "They have to go to the Masters once before they die."

And then, ESPN

The industry is big enough to have attracted ESPN's attention. In March, the sports giant paired with Orbitz to sire ESPN SportsTravel, which offers pointed city guides and travel arrangements. The service does not include a ticket to a sporting event, but it does know where fans want to go and when.

Say you happened upon tickets to the Kentucky Derby. A trip to the ESPN SportsTravel Web site could quickly have reserved airfare and two nights at the Days Inn in nearby Scottsburg for $936, or for $1,752 if you wanted to stay in Louisville, Ky., at the Econo Lodge.

Keith Wright, a recreation center superintendent who lives in Mamaroneck, N.Y., travels to three or four events a year. He likes the Seattle Mariners and Denver Broncos, so he gets copies of the schedules and picks the dates, buys tickets and then gets the airfares and hotels. Wright does it on his own, but says the new ESPN service might appeal to him.

Ted Dolman, vice president of strategy and business development for ESPN New Media, says the company might someday offer tickets with a package.

"We've considered ticketing and it's something we're exploring," Dolman says. "But we have relationships with leagues, so we have to approach it differently."

Often the travel business is looking to create an experience. For example, PrimeSport offers a package for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot course in Mamaroneck, June 14 to 16 that includes five nights at a Marriott and a ticket for all four rounds of play starting at $1,569 per person.

If that seems steep, consider that similar packages for Wimbledon and the Kentucky Derby sold out by mid-April, and that a French Open package starting at $5,129 per person is available. All this, without airfare.

Premiere Sports Travel is offering 2007 men's NCAA Final Four tickets and a hotel in Atlanta starting at $1,655. And Premiere still has Wimbledon (June 26 to July 9) available, starting at $7,475, also minus the airfare.

Try getting a Wimbledon ticket — or, for that matter, an NCAA Final Four ticket or seats at the Super Bowl. If you aren't affiliated with a team or corporate sponsor, you might have to write a letter to an office six months in advance.

"The chances of getting tickets that way are pretty slim," Putnam says. That's even if a sports fan is organized enough to know the rules.

"We all wish we were so well planned out that we knew what we were doing six months earlier," Bower says.

Some companies are banking on the fact that fans aren't.

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