One man's quest for a Super Bowl ticket.
Even given the constraints of a conservative boss trying to hold the line on company expenses, how tough could it be?
I had something just as valuable as money, though: time.
There was a full week to track the market before swooping in to nab a cheap ticket from some frantic scalper trying to dump his last few tickets at kickoff.
Here's how the week went:
Monday, Jan. 20
It was a national holiday for most of the country, but not for the Raider Nation.
As ticket brokers arrived for the start of the busiest week of their year, they were greeted by an onslaught of Raider fans looking for a way into Sunday's big game.
The conversations tended to be short:
"What are the cheapest Super Bowl tickets you have?"
Stunned silence. Click.
Or, in some cases, defiance before the silence.
"How much? You're ... crazy!" Click.
For brokers involved in the multimillion-dollar industry of reselling Super Bowl tickets, profits hinge on a weeklong attempt to milk every last dime out of tickets with face values of $400 or $500.
At the onset of this who-will-blink-first game, tickets were in the $2,100-$7,800 range, a price that would fall, must fall, in the minds of Oakland fans who hadn't been to the Super Bowl since 1984.
The demand was there, but the wallets weren't opening.
"It seems that the people from Oakland don't want to spend a lot of money," said Sandy Simon, owner of Good Time Tickets in Hollywood. "I have a lot of friends waiting for the market to collapse, but I told them not to hold their breath."
A more affordable alternative was found online, on EBay auctions, where two lower-level end zone tickets at Qualcomm Stadium were going $4,850. The same tickets through a broker were priced at $6,500.
The same tickets for a San Diego Charger game cost $118.
Jeff and Sharon McCormack, Charger fans since childhood, learned to despise the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and especially the Raiders, who have whomped their beloved Bolts more than any other AFC team.
But the San Diego couple will gladly sell their tickets -- even open their home -- to fans of the silver and black. The McCormacks have advertised in several newspapers, offering four end zone tickets and their three-bedroom home for three days.
A change of heart? Not exactly. Their hospitality has a price: $15,000.
"My wife and I feel a little guilty," admitted Jeff McCormack, a 49-year-old real estate agent.
"We're trying to think of ourselves as ambassadors of Charger Country, opening our doors for Raider Nation."
The McCormacks live 1 1/2 miles from Qualcomm and their price worked out to $2,500 a ticket and about $1,650 a night for lodging.
Among the early offers, one stood out.
"A guy called and asked if I would take two bags of cocaine as payment," Jeff McCormack said.
The offer was declined.
As for the rest of the market, brokers' prices increased almost 20%, to $2,500, for the cheapest seats. Prime tickets again topped out at $7,800.
EBay auctions weren't such a bargain, either, with nosebleed seats in the upper corner going for $2,225 each, almost as much as brokers were getting.
With only one week instead of two between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, a panic was setting in.
Many fans were beginning to wonder if they'd have to reach for their credit cards.
Ticket brokers have a new enemy, and it's not the penny-pinching fan.
It's America's little Internet sweetheart, EBay.
With 61.7 million registered users, the online auction house has recently snared headlines with oddball users offering everything from the servitude of a family to the naming rights for a newborn baby.
Which makes EBay a natural stop for Super Bowl bargain hunters.
There were 1,345 tickets being auctioned on the site by mid-week, according to EBay officials, with a little something for everyone.
There were offers for the rich -- six tickets and a round-trip ride to the Super Bowl in a Lear jet for $40,000. (Nobody bid.) And there were offers for the not-so-rich -- a pair of upper-deck end zone seats went for a comparatively mild $3,000, binoculars not included.
While some brokers use EBay to sell tickets, others say the site destroys the value of a ticket.
"EBay has been so adverse to the market because people really believe that's the only way you can buy tickets," sniffed a broker in Oakland. "It sets a price that isn't real."
Brokers say they offer a safer way to purchase tickets: People can walk into their stores and hold the tickets in their hand before handing over credit card information.
EBay, though generally cheaper, doesn't guarantee the legitimacy of tickets sold by auctioneers.
Earlier this month, an arrest warrant was issued for a Salt Lake City resident who allegedly bilked dozens of fans out of $100,000 worth of Fiesta Bowl tickets offered through EBay.
"The reality is it's going to happen," EBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said.
"We've got a lot of tools in place, and we put our sellers through a number of steps to check their background. As much economic activity takes place on EBay, something's going to fall through the cracks."
One thing hadn't fallen yet -- the ticket market.
Upper-deck tickets were still $2,500 through a broker, while 50-yard line seats were even pricier than previous days, as much as $8,125 at some places.
Father Joe Carroll, a man familiar with Sundays, thought he had this Super Bowl Sunday thing figured out.
He thought the two tickets donated to his homeless shelter would fetch $1,500 on EBay, a nice sum of money for Carroll's 20-year passion, St. Vincent de Paul, which provides medical and residential services nightly for hundreds of needy people in San Diego.
Then Carroll saw the bids that started streaming in for the tickets, located at the 30-yard line in the much-desired plaza section of Qualcomm.
Three days and 25 bids later, the tickets were won by a Tampa Bay fan for $8,050.
"I wish I had another 100 tickets," Carroll said. "If I had known we were going to bring in that much money for the poor and the homeless, I would have made everybody in town feel guilty and give me two tickets."
Subtracting the $800 face value of the tickets, $7,250 is tax-deductible for the buyer, whose identity was kept secret by both EBay and St. Vincent de Paul.
Carroll received the tickets from Brian Maienschein, a member of the San Diego City Council who was able to purchase four tickets for face value and donated them to charity, two to Carroll.
(Not everybody was satisfied in San Diego: Local activists were angered earlier in the week that dozens of city officials could purchase tickets at face value through the NFL as the rest of the nation fought over tickets at inflated prices. While most officials used the tickets themselves or gave them to their office staff, Maienschein dodged criticism because he had already donated his tickets to charity.)
On the whole, there was no way around the high price of tickets.
Brokers were commanding $7,800 for the best seats, $2,300 for bottom-of-the-barrel.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and counterfeit tickets certainly qualify.
Two mornings before the big game, seats at the 50-yard-line were $7,500 and upper-deck tickets were $1,900.
And there was this little reminder from the NFL: A phony ticket, no matter how close to the real thing, has little chance of getting past security.
Super Bowl tickets have more than 10 indicators of authenticity, some of them obvious to the public and some kept secret by the NFL.
"There's a lot of ways we can tell at the gate whether it's counterfeit," said Paula Guibault, an attorney for the NFL.
The obvious signs are the holograms on the front of the ticket, including a radial effect from behind the Lombardi Trophy. On the back of the ticket, a circular holographic sticker flips between an image of a stadium and a lighthouse on a cliff.
This year, the NFL has added thermographic printing on the ticket back. A patch of blue ink around a UPC code at the bottom disappears when rubbed and reappears within a few minutes.
With tickets costing so much this year, NFL officials emphasized that buyers should beware.
"It's a significant investment for a fan, but we won't be able to let someone in the gate even if they have the best intentions," Guibault said.
The news wasn't completely ominous for ticket seekers. At about 3 p.m., the market finally showed signs of buckling as prime tickets fell to $6,875.
And at least one family in San Diego was breathing more easily. The McCormacks said they had found a renter for their three-bedroom home ... fans from Virginia.
The cheapest tickets were still high, almost $1,500 at some brokers.
After all, people are willing to spend obscene amounts of cash in order to belly up to the bar with centerfolds and celebs.
The weekend's toughest ticket was Sunday's game, but there was a tie for second: parties Saturday night put on by Playboy and Maxim magazines.
The Playboy bash had its obvious draws, but Maxim, a trendy men's magazine, had plenty of momentum after a legendary party at last year's Super Bowl in New Orleans. In addition to wall-to-wall celebrities and cover girls, there were fake volcanoes, simulated earthquakes and a coral reef bar.
This year, Maxim transformed an old Wonder Bread factory into a "Maximville fantasy land" in downtown San Diego.
Ticket prices for each soiree were more than $1,000. For those not on the guest lists, anyway.
As for the game, it was looking a little brighter for those without tickets.
Prices didn't move much Saturday, ranging from $1,855 to $6,875, but the brokers' focus seemed to be shifting.
"The corporate customers are gone and now we're serving the fans, a lot of Raider fans," said Vince Campise, president of Atlas Tickets in San Diego. "A lot of people are waiting for the price to drop to $1,500 or so."
Three hours before game time it appeared that Derrick Brooks had already thrown a couple of Raiders for a loss.
A quarter-mile away from Qualcomm, two guys wearing the unmistakable garb of the Raider Nation asked a middle-age man in a Brooks jersey the price of his Super Bowl tickets.
The man, who had been holding up two fingers -- the number of ducats he had available -- turned his full attention to his latest potential clients. "$4,500," he said. Then, lowering his voice, "But they're very good seats."
The fans, like many of their Raider brethren throughout the week, walked away from the purchase. Too expensive.
As the poker game of ticket scalping unfolded, the market was stubborn. There were few tickets; even fewer bargains.
"In New Orleans last year, they were giving them away," said Nick Caputo, 30, who is wearing a Raider jersey. "Here, you can't even get into the parking lot."
As for me, I didn't get that far, either. The cheapest seats in the house were being scalped for $1,500 -- too rich for the taste of my bosses.
And I wasn't nearly the only one left scrambling to find an empty chair with the view of a television set.
Gary and Tommy Stribling, a father and son from San Jose, didn't get any attention despite holding a sign begging for tickets. They were willing to pay $850 a ticket and didn't even get close to finding any at that price.
The elder Stribling, a Raider season-ticket holder since 1995, summed up the thoughts of thousands of Raider fans outside the stadium.
"It's a big letdown," he said.
And that was even before his team fell apart.