ATHENS, Ga. – You can be sure that coach Kirby Smart and his Georgia Bulldogs are not going to overlook Appalachian State, which visits Sanford Stadium on Sept. 2 for the season opener. But if you’re a UGA fan and you’re not looking ahead to the Notre Dame game in South Bend on Week 2, you might need some Irish luck to make plans to get there.
Everything’s pretty much sold out. Tickets to the game are long gone (unless you want to pay exorbitantly on the secondary market). Hotel rooms near most of the action have been booked. If you’re looking for a party bus to carry you to and from, you’ll probably need to just buy one.
In fact, that might not be a bad idea for budding entrepreneurs in the greater Chicago area. They could use more buses over that way.
“We’ve got 17 buses and they’re all booked that weekend, and most of them are for Georgia fans,” said Dillon Murphy, who manages Irish Express, a Chicago-based company that specializes in arranging travel and entertainment for Notre Dame games. Murphy said all of his colleagues and competitors in the sports-fan transportation business are similarly tapped out.
Eight of his buses are reserved for Notre Dame fans who regularly contract them for the two-hour trip to South Bend for games during the season via the Irish Express luxury liners. The other nine buses that are being utilized on Sept. 9 were sold out as quick as Irish Express could secure them, and there are no more buses available, Murphy said.
“We release tickets as we obtain buses, so my first release was in January and we sold out in about five days,” Murphy said. “That was all Georgia fans. I got my first call about the Georgia game last September. That guy was just waiting for me to release tickets, and I heard from him in about five minutes.”
The party bus concept is a particularly useful option for the circumstances that developed in Chicago around this long-anticipated matchup. Georgia and Notre Dame are meeting in football for the first time in 37 years. The last time they played was on Jan. 1, 1981, in New Orleans when the Bulldogs won 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl to secure the 1980 national championship. The two teams agreed in 2014 to play a home-and-home series for the first time. The Fighting Irish will visit Sanford Stadium in 2019.
Notre Dame is unveiling a $400 million renovation and expansion of Notre Dame Stadium this season. Both the Chicago Cubs (1:20 p.m. CT) and Chicago White Sox (7:10 p.m. CT) are playing at their respective stadiums on Sept. 8. UGA’s national championship coach, Vince Dooley, is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for the Cubs’ game against the Milwaukee Brewers. And the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons are playing the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sept. 10. Many Georgia fans are planning on attending three events, and a few ambitious souls are going to try all four.
The Bulldogs received only 8,000 tickets from Notre Dame to provide to their donor base, and an additional 400 went to the Redcoat Band. Thousands of fans are buying tickets on the secondary market. Meanwhile, many others are going without tickets, either in hope of securing some on location or simply enjoying the tailgate scene and activities outside of the stadium and/or in Chicago over the weekend.
“If we would’ve had 20,000 tickets, I could have sold them with no problem,” said Tim Cearley, who oversees Georgia’s ticket operations. “I think we’ll see that and more make the migration to South Bend. How many of those make it in the stadium will be determined. But I’ve been in this office for 20 years and, in terms of out-of-town games, this is off the charts from a demand perspective.”
Which begs the question, how many UGA fans will actually be making the trek north? Hard to tell.
Anthony Travel is the nation’s largest provider of sports-travel management services and contracts with 80 Division I universities to assist with their sports-travel needs.
“I’ve personally seen it reported that it’s the highest-demand game of the college football season, and it’s expected to command the highest-priced ticket,” said Steve Egan, vice president of distinctive events for Anthony. “We’re definitely dealing with a higher number of inquiries and bookings on both the home and visitors sides for that game. We sold out of most of our ticket packages and most of our hotel room inventory about two months ago. Now, we’re taking them on a case-by-case basis, depending on hotel availability.”
Georgia fans have been known to respond well to these major-opponent road games. In 2008, the Bulldogs went to Tempe, Ariz., to play Arizona State. So many fans followed them there that some of the bars in the Mill Avenue party district ran out of beer.
The good news is neither Chicago nor South Bend is likely to be overwhelmed by this moment. Every major airline – including Atlanta-based Delta – flies multiple daily routes from Atlanta to Chicago. And there are thousands of hotel rooms in the city, the third-most populous in the U.S.
But most of the premium lodging has been snapped up, particularly around Michigan Avenue and in the Rush and Division street areas. And, at this point, rooms of any type are tough, if not impossible, to come by in South Bend.
“It’s somewhat anecdotal, but I can definitely tell you there’s not much room at the inn,” Rob DeCleene, executive director of Visit South Bend, said with a laugh. “There’s a smattering of them here and there at select properties, and we track that. We encourage people to call us or check our website. So, from that standpoint, we know it’s going to be a huge game. The excitement in advance of it is certainly palpable. We’re well aware that it’s going to be a hopping weekend in South Bend.”
Of course, this is old hat for Notre Dame. A historic institution that plays an independent schedule in football, it regularly hosts opponents that either never have played there or haven’t been there in decades. So, it’s not uncommon to see a highly motivated fan base come in droves to see their team play the Irish.
That’s why people such as Murphy are there to serve in Chicago – and to make money. You can grab one of 50 seats on one of these charter buses for $150 to $200 apiece. With Irish Express, that includes “Breakfast & Bloodies” (as in Bloody Marys), a fully-stocked bar with bartender for the two-hour jaunt to South Bend, a tailgate setup with burgers and drinks outside the stadium and a box lunch and open bar for the ride back. Then, they drop you off at Old Towne Social bar in Chicago with a ticket for “a drink on the house.”
“It’s a great deal, and people love it,” Murphy said.
Based the response he has gotten, Murphy compares the expected UGA influx to when Texas played Notre Dame in 2015. The Longhorns faithful flooded Chicago and South Bend for the season opener on Sept. 5, 2015, only to see their team lose 28-3.
“That was pretty crazy,” Murphy said. “I was working with another company at the time and we sold out of 15 buses in no time flat. … But if you could go whole hog and just kept selling until you met demand, I’d say Georgia might be even bigger than Texas.”
We’ll soon see.