MONEY Travel

5 Great Places for Your Fantasy Football Draft

Starting this weekend, fantasy footballers across the country will be gathering to draft their teams. Here are 5 great places to go for the annual ritual, and ways to have (more) fun after you've picked your players.

The arrival of August may mark the middle of summer, but for many people it can mean only one thing: the start of fantasy football draft. Across the country, owners of virtual teams will be gathering to pore over stats, pick their players, and talk strategy. Also drink beer, talk trash, and generally make merry.

Like bachelor parties without the wedding, these gatherings are morphing into full-blown guys’ weekends, complete with travel opportunities and fantasy football-themed special activities. If you want to know where to go to find some of the best action, check out our 5 top picks for draft-weekend destinations.

 

Las Vegas at night
Cindy Costa—Flickr

Las Vegas

Yes, it’s a cliche, but with good reason: Vegas is an awesome place to be a fantasy football fanatic. The city is one of the few to host big draft-day parties and events, drawing sports fans from all over the country. And of course, there’s great food, tons of shows, packed clubs, and raging pool parties. Oh, and did we mention casinos? There are a few of those, too.

Where to Draft
How hardcore does your league want to get? If you want to be immersed in football mania, head to the Ultimate Fantasy Football Draft Party, thrown by the Yahoo Sports and Hard Rock Hotel on August 23. To attend, RSVP here. You can also book a FF package at the hotel, with discounted rates starting at $59 to $149, between August 21 and August 24. Packages include entrance to the party and a slew of other perks, like passes to the Hard Rock’s daytime pool party and nightclub.

If a corporate blowout doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of good ways to “freewheel it,” says Joe Fortenbaugh, a writer for VegasChatter.com and co-owner of news site National Football Post. On the high end, you could rent a suite or cabana. Fortenbaugh recommends cabanas at the quieter pools, such as Boulevard, at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. For something a bit cheaper, he suggests a big table or private room at Carmine’s, an Italian restaurant that recently opened at Caesar’s Palace and serves up giant family-style portions of lasagna and chicken parm for about $35. To go with something more bar-centric, try the Eastside Lounge at the Wynn. This low-profile spot has plenty of room to spread out and set up camp. “No one recognizes how great it is,” Fortenbaugh says.

When You’re Done
Well, there’s plenty of gambling to be done, but you already knew that. What you might forget is just how much great food the city has to offer, so be sure to branch out beyond the draft-appropriate spots. John Curtas, author of Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants, recommends Five50 Pizza Bar, an “absolute must” for everything from your basic margherita to the “Picante,” featuring ghost chili salami. There are also a ton of affordable shows to choose from. For instance, Travelzoo is now offering a deal for the latest Cirque du Soleil, starting at $55, down from $99. Finally, take a break from the Strip. Head over to Fremont Street to check out the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop made famous by the “Pawn Stars” TV show. Fortenbaugh also suggests seeking out Sigma Derby, the old-fashioned horseracing game you’ll still find at The D Hotel and Casino.

Where To Stay
The Hard Rock is far from the only hotel offering fantasy football discounts and packages. Caesars Entertainment, for one, has deals at hotels like Harrah’s, Bally’s and Planet Hollywood (costs vary by date and property). In general, room prices tend to spike on weekends, says Travelzoo editorial director Andrew Young. However, right now the Palms is offering some August weekends for as low $99, he notes. Don’t forget to factor in “resort charges,” which can easily add $20 a day to your booking. To avoid them, try a property off the strip. Young suggests the Platinum Hotel, which lists mid-August rooms starting at around $130 per night.

 

Miller High Life Cruiser
Flickr

Milwaukee

This Wisconsin city has a reputation for cheese and beer, perfect for a weekend draft. But it’s the outdoor activities and proximity to Lake Michigan that make Milwaukee the perfect spot for those fantasy leagues looking for a little activity in between picks.

Where to Draft
If you want to draft next to the beautiful waterfronts in town, then look at Stubby’s Gastropub. With views of Lake Michigan, it has “a nice patio over the Milwaukee River and plenty of TVs,” says Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dining critic Carol Deptolla. They offer 53 craft brews on tap, including some local favorites like Fixed Gear ($5) and the Black Husky Howler ($8). While there, take advantage of a Wisconsin tradition by ordering the cheese curds appetizer ($9.95), with Stubby’s bacon Parmesan dipping sauce on the side.

For a more local sports-scene feel, check out Steny’s Tavern. Located in the downtown area, near many hotels and local attractions, it’s known for chicken wings ($8.99 for 16 wings) and Bloody Marys ($4.50). Plus, after you select that starting quarterback, you can even catch a free shuttle to the Brewer’s game if the team is in town.

When You’re Done
Known as the Great Place on a Great Lake, Milwaukee Bay is ideal for burning off that post-draft energy. You can charter a fishing boat to take you out for an afternoon of reeling in salmon or trout. Silver King Charters charges $500 for five hours, but if you don’t catch any fish it’s free. Big groups take note: the boats only fit six people.

You can also rent your own pontoon boat to take you up and down the Milwaukee River. Edelweiss Boats takes 10 people ($240 for four hours) and you can bring food and any Brew City beverages you would like.

For landlubbers, Milwaukee and its surrounding area is home to over 40 miles of hiking trails. In town, check out the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park. This two-mile trek will get your mind ready for the regular season, as you wander through rocky trails before hitting a clearing where you can capture views of Lake Michigan.

Where to Stay
You can find some great deals from big name hotels in the heart of Milwaukee for much less than you would pay in other cities. Downtown, the Intercontinental offers double rooms for $150, after taxes. Check out the downstairs coffee bar Clear, which turns into an indoor bocce ball court on Tuesdays and offers live music on weekends.

There’s also the DoubleTree by Hilton, which is located blocks from the Milwaukee Public Museum and Marquette University. Double rooms run about $190 after taxes. But you can save 20% by paying the full amount upfront; you lose your money, though, if you’re unable to make the trip.

 

140731_FF_FantasyDraftTravel_Louisville2
Stacy Lynn Baum

Louisville

The Gateway to the South and home to the Kentucky Derby offers nearby beautiful rolling hills and quiet southern living. But for a fantasy draft, it’s the bourbon and food that will have you convinced you made the right pick.

Where to Draft
Louisville has plenty of bourbon and barbeque, so finding spots that offer both—along with Wi-fi—is key to a successful draft in the Gateway to the South. Against the Grain, a brewery and smokehouse in a former train station, has the Louisville Bats minor league baseball stadium as a backdrop. While it’s worth tasting the beer brewed in-house, ATG also offers more than 35 bourbons, all bottled just hours away. It’s great for groups, with space for private events, and the beef brisket ($14) or pulled pork ($10) will leave you in a food coma following your last pick.

Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ is another option. Created by a lover of Kansas City BBQ, the owner took horse race winnings—it’s Derby City after all—to buy a food truck. With its success, he opened a location in the heart of Louisville. In true Kansas City fashion, try the burnt ends ($10 with two sides).

Want a slightly classier setting? Try Sidebar. Choose from more than 50 bourbons and upscale burgers like the Hung Jury ($13), which is layered with bourbon mushrooms, onions, and beer cheese.

When You’re Done
If your group wants to stick with the bourbon theme following the draft, then take a trip out to the Bourbon Trail. Two hours south of Louisville is official bourbon country, with distilleries including Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Four Roses, among many others. They offer daily tours for as little as $5, which often include a taste or two of the local product.

Without a car, getting out to the Bourbon Trail can cost a penny; expect to pay $100 or more for private bus tours. As an alternative, you can stay in Louisville and follow the Urban Bourbon Trail, 20 bars and restaurants with an historical link to Louisville’s drinking tradition, like speakeasys that sold liquor to Al Capone or hotel bars that F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented. And by staying in Louisville, you can honor the end of your baseball fantasy league by stopping into the Louisville Slugger Museum. There you will see how the bats that have been used by professional baseball players since the late 1800s are made. It’s $12 to get into the museum—and don’t forget to pick up your free mini-bat on your way out.

Where to Stay
There’s no shortage of great hotels for cheap in Louisville, like the Marriott Downtown ($179 per night). But if you don’t mind close quarters, there are also a number of AirBnB homes that can accommodate a group of eight or 10. This AirBnB condo sits near the Louisville Slugger Museum, and the owner says it fits 10 beds, so the loser of the draft won’t end up on the floor. It’s an “industrial chic” condo that has glassmaker studios and galleries as neighbors. With all-in charges running $1,611, the split is a reasonable $161 per person.

If you don’t mind sleeping on a couch, this Airbnb option is only an 11-minute drive to downtown and priced at less than $500 total. A steal, about which other large groups have said, “we had plenty of room.” And there’s a fire pit outside, so you can even end the weekend with your own style of BBQ.

 

Baltimore harbor
Ken Stanek—Visit Baltimore

Baltimore

Home to the 2012 NFL Super Bowl Champion Ravens (as well as Edgar Allan Poe and Carmelo Anthony), Baltimore offers fresh seafood and host of entertainment in the Inner Harbor. It’s also an easy 20-minute drive from international hub BWI Airport, making it easy for friends spread across the country to reconnect.

Where to Draft
Former speakeasy The Owl Bar, inside the Belvedere Hotel, offers a host of craft beers on draught, in addition to classic cocktails (think Moscow Mule) and signature drinks. In between sips, you can feast on an assortment of pizzas, like one topped with crab dip ($14), or go for the Umami Burger ($11), which comes with truffle garlic aioli.

Seafood lovers can check out Ryleigh’s Oyster, in Federal Hill. Starters include crab pretzels ($11)—three pretzels topped with a blend of crab, cheese and seasoning—and cast-iron crab pot ($13). For family-style dining, dig into a pound of mussels ($10) or a half-dozen oysters ($12) between roster selections.

When You’re Done
Catch a baseball game at Camden Yards, one of the most aesthetically pleasing ballparks in the country. If you’re still hungry, grab an authentic Maryland crab cake and some Boardwalk Fries.

Or, if you’d rather get some exercise after four or so hours compiling your team, check out the BWI bike trail. It’s a 12.5-mile scenic trail that encircles BWI and passes the Thomas A. Dixon Jr. Aircraft Observation area and the historic Benson-Hammond House, built in 1820.

For the more culturally inclined, there’s the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore’s historic Mt. Vernon cultural district. The museum is free of charge and is currently featuring an exhibition on music in the Middle Ages.

On your night out, sign up for a two-hour tour on the Charm City Pedal Mill. This 16-person bike is a great way to see historic Fells Point in downtown, and with 10 people only costs $31 per head.

Where to Stay
A member of the Historic Hotels of America, the Hotel Brexton offers rooms for $160 a night (with internet and parking included), and is only 10 blocks north of the Inner Harbor. (Wallis Simpson once stayed here.)

Of course, you could also use your group’s numbers to your advantage and stay in a house. This AirBNB.com listing smack dab in Little Italy costs around $240 a person for three nights and sleeps eight to 10 in its three bedrooms. Plus you’re just a quick jaunt from the Inner Harbor.

 

Sea Lions in San Diego marina
JD Lasica—Flickr

San Diego

Want to draft in your flip-flops? You’ve come to the right place. This hopping college town has a gorgeous beach, top-notch Mexican food, and plenty of football fans (go Chargers!). Hops heads will also dig it: San Diego has emerged as one of the nation’s best craft beer destinations.

Where to Draft
San Diego is packed with sports bars. Bub’s @ the Ballpark is hosting draft parties on a couple of August weekends. The bar will be offering food specials and $14 pitchers. The Tilted Kilt is also taking reservations; drafters will get happy hour prices ($3 drafts and $2 to $5 apps) and can connect their laptops to the bar’s big-screen TVs to put the action on full display. Want a spot that focuses on craft beer? Mike Shess, publisher of West Coaster Beer News, recommends The Beer Company, a brewery and restaurant.

When You’re Done
If you’re not tired of beer, take a beer tour. Brewery Tours of San Diego runs a variety of itineraries, starting at $65 a person. Shess suggests choosing a tour that hits spots like The Lost Abbey and Stone Brewing Company.

Now that you’ve got that out of your system, get outdoors and enjoy the SoCal sunshine. San Diego Bay Adventures rents jet skis for $99 an hour. For a more affordable (and quieter) version, try a standup paddleboard ($35 for two hours). Or take an Xplore Offshore tour. You can spot whales, porpoises and other marine life from a “tricked-out” Navy Seal-style boat that puts you very close to the water’s surface, says Ann Wycoff, a contributing writer for San Diego magazine and the co-founder of travel site Wandermelon.com. Prefer to stay on land? Spend a few hours hiking Torrey Pines for amazing views.

Where to Stay
Try The Pines, a “groovy” boutique hotel, says Wycoff. The retro-chic downtown hotel is a quick ride to the bar-packed Gaslamp district. In mid-August, rates start at about $160. If you’d prefer to stay right in the heart of the action, the swanky Hotel Solarmar is another good choice, with August rates ranging from $157 to $400 on the most popular weekends. Don’t miss the property’s swim-up bar, says Travelzoo senior editor Gabe Saglie.

 

MONEY Sports

How the Economics of Playing Football and Basketball Compare

That loud roar you heard this week was NFL training camp getting under way. With less than six weeks until the Green Bay Packers head to Seattle for a game against the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks, fans across the country are following every move of their favorite players and planning for their fantasy football draft.

We decided to take a look at some of the important markers in the life-cycle of a professional athlete. From sporting gear to concussion rates, the gallery below provides a snapshot of what parents have to pay to get their kids on the field—and how long players stay in the big leagues once they actually get there.

To put the numbers in a little bit of context we compared football’s costs to basketball’s.

MONEY stocks

McDonald’s Seeks To Supersize Its Growth

McDonald's stock has moved little over the past year as the mature company struggles to find its next big thing. But if it wants to show investors growth again, it's all about the menu.

The Golden Arches haven’t shone for investors lately.

Over the past 12 months, McDonald’s MCDONALD'S CORP. MCD 0.0629% stock has returned less than 3%. That compares with an average 21% return for restaurant stocks. Part of the problem is that growth is always harder for a big, mature business — and with a market value of $93 billion, McDonald’s is larger than its two biggest rivals — Starbucks STARBUCKS CORP. SBUX -0.212% and Yum Brands YUM BRANDS YUM 0.3473% — combined.

But the company has found ways to boost sales before. Job No. 1: Freshen up the menu.

Want wings with that?

McDonald’s has had trouble finding new menu items that diners want.

McDonald’s is no longer the basic burger, fries, and soda joint you remember from your childhood. Facing new upscale competitors, it responded by adding salads, wraps, and specialty coffees to the menu. This worked for a while: U.S. same-store sales climbed an annual average of 5% from 2003 to 2011, according to the brokerage Raymond James.

But lately the Oak Brook, Ill., company has struggled to find “the next big thing,” says Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo. Recent new items like chicken wings haven’t been a hit. (And until McDonald’s settles on the right mix, the added complexity in the kitchen from new items “slows down the drive-thru,” says Russo.)

U.S. same-store sales, though high at an average $2.5 million, have plateaued.

A partial bet on China

The country is important to the chain but still not the main event.

The U.S. market is well saturated, leaving McDonald’s stuck fighting for share with both fancier brands like Chipotle and low-cost Taco Bell fare. So an obvious avenue for future growth is the vast new Chinese market. Last year, 20% of the chain’s store openings were in China.

But China remains a “smaller piece of a much bigger business,” says Morgan Stanley analyst John Glass. He estimates the country represents up to 4% of profits.

Competitor Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, gets a third of its earnings from China. That makes McDonald’s a less risky play — Yum saw a 4% drop in revenues last year in part because of a bird flu outbreak, for example — but also means there’s less potential for fast profit gains.

No shortage of cash

A steady flow helps the company pay back its investors.

Since 1976, McDonald’s has consistently delivered cash back to shareholders in the form of dividends or share repurchases. Today the stock offers an attractive dividend yield of 3.4%. And there’s every reason to think that the business will keep delivering a strong income.

McDonald’s is built to generate consistent cash. When a franchisee launches a new store, the company often purchases the land and collects rent on top of franchise fees. So even in tough times, the “downside is relatively limited,” says Westwood Holdings portfolio manager Matthew Lockridge.

If management can find that elusive new hit product and deliver improved growth, that plus a reliable payout may satisfy value-minded investors.

MONEY Security

5 Things to Know About Home Security Systems

Home security systems, combined with automated monitoring, can help protect your home from thieves.

New technology means that you have many more options for boosting your home security. You can use a variety of home protection services, a mobile phone app, or even a low-tech solution such as an automated dimmer switch.

1. New players mean fresh options

With cable and Internet providers now offering security systems, the industry is changing. Many of these firms sell simple install-it-yourself services that eliminate the usual upfront fee of $1,000 or so.

Prices also vary based on whether the provider levies an equipment charge, the level of monitoring, and more, so total all costs before you buy, says Kevin Brasler of rating site Consumers’ Checkbook.

In the first year, expect to pay between $250 and $1,500.

2. Your phone can help keep you safe

A basic security system (alarm, control panel, and series of motion sensors) costs about $20 to $30 a month, but many companies now offer a mobile app for a few dollars more.

Michelle Schenker of security tip website ASecureLife.com, recommends springing for the app, which allows you to use your smartphone or tablet to arm your system, see alerts, and turn off false alarms, even when you’re far from home.

3. Someone must call the cops

With mobile tracking tools taking off, some firms do not offer monitoring services, which alert the police when an alarm is triggered. Yes, going with a non-monitoring option will save you $10 to $15 a month.

Still, Robert Siciliano of BestHomeSecurityCompanys.com, which rates security systems, advises against it: “You want that call made to protect you.”

4. Customer service is the key

Many companies use similar technology, so it’s service — say, how quickly they fix faulty systems and respond to calls — that makes firms stand out, Brasler says.

Before you choose a provider, check its reviews on sites like Angie’s List (subscriptions are $3 a month) and Yelp. Keep in mind that national firms, such as ADT, “are only as good as the dealer in your area,” says Schenker. And since break-ins don’t always happen during business hours, look for 24/7 support.

5. The pros aren’t your only choice

If you’re among the 80% of homeowners without a security service, there are steps you can take to help fend off break-ins.

Trim any shrubbery that could shelter someone trying to get in through a window. Security company stickers, often sold on eBay, could dissuade a potential intruder, says Siciliano.

Thieves typically look for vacant homes, so when you’re out, set an automated dimmer switch ($40 to $75) to turn on lights at odd times.

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