David Beachnau, Jenny Carnes, Frank Viverito and Susan Williams are modern-day Victor Frankenstein’s, working behind-the-scenes and leading their city sports commissions and convention and visitor bureaus to create Madness in their city.
In between the time LeBron James was named high school basketball Player of the Year and the 2002 college basketball season tipped off, David Beachnau began outlining a formal proposal to bring March Madness to Detroit.
With 35 Division I universities, all within an eight-hour driving radius of the city of Detroit, the city hosted the Midwest Regional at The Palace at Auburn Hills (2000) and Ford Field (2008) but, surprisingly, never a Final Four.
Detroit has hosted an unprecedented lineup of major sporting events including the Ryder Cup (2004), the NBA Finals (2004), Major League Baseball All-Star Game (2005), the Super Bowl (2006), World Series (2006) and, last summer, the PGA Championships.
Beachnau, in his 14th year as executive director for the Detroit Metro Sports Commission, knew that an NCAA Final Four tournament would cement the city’s reputation as a premiere location for almost every major professional and collegiate sporting event in the country. He also knew, for it to happen it would take every ounce of creativity, energy, passion, patience and support.
Fast forward: July 2003. The exhaustive 10-month process of preparing and delivering Detroit’s bid to the NCAA 10-member Division I basketball committee was complete. The next morning Beachnau’s phone rang. Brad Kinsman, then-athletic director at the University of Detroit Mercy, was on the other end.
“Congratulations,” he said. “We’re hosting the 2009 Final Four.”
On April 4 – almost seven years after the city started formally planning, six years into King James’ NBA career and six NCAA basketball championships later – Ford Field in Detroit will be the host site for the NCAA men’s Final Four.
Beachnau admits he still “gets chills” talking about. “It was exciting, especially our first Final Four ever,” he said. “It’s something we’re all proud of. It was a huge win for everyone in this city. We continue to raise the bar and set the standard for major sporting events.”
THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS
No one can appreciate the experience of March Madness quite like Frank Viverito. In 1982, as promotions director at Old Dominion, it was Viverito who produced the first-ever women’s NCAA Final Four tournament at Norfolk Scope Arena in Virginia.
Seating capacity: 10,253.
“I will never forget that number,” said Viverito, now president of the St. Louis Sports Commission. “Over time they’ve begun to fill larger arenas, many of them NBA-style. It’s been exciting to watch that happen from day one to now. The evolution is almost too amazingly difficult to describe. It has just skyrocketed to a different level from the operations, the logistics and the scope.”
When the 2009 NCAA women’s Final Four returns to St. Louis this April, it will be 1982 all over again for Viverito.
“There’s still the excitement, passion and thrill of being at the women’s Final Four,” says Viverito. “The teams, the universities and the fans, in many respects it’s the same event on a much grander scale.”
In 2001, the women’s Final Four – the “March to the Arch” – was played at the Savvis Center (now the Scottrade Center). It was a tipping point for women’s basketball at the collegiate level. Not because of the estimated 30,000 visitors or the estimated $21 million in revenues the tournament generated, no, there was another storyline transcending the economic results.
Thousands had flocked to see Jackie Stiles, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA women’s basketball history, and the Cinderella story of in-state favorite and tournament surprise Southwest Missouri State. Even Notre Dame’s national championship run took a back seat. Despite being knocked out in the semi-finals, Southwest Missouri stole the hearts, minds and spirits of the city.
Viverito and his wife Patty, tournament director and senior associate commissioner for the Missouri Valley conference, watched in awe as 19 years of hard work played out like a dream on the hardwood.
“She’s (Patty) given the last 19 years of her life to developing women’s sports at the collegiate level and, at that point, if you had given us the option of cashing a winning Powerball ticket or enjoying the women’s Final Four with a Missouri Valley team, we’d have taken the Final Four and I can assure you we wouldn’t have second-guessed that decision for one minute,” said Viverito.
‘THE FINAL FOUR IS OUR SUPER BOWL’
The mood was more somber in San Antonio. After hosting three NCAA Final Four events in last eight years — the women’s Final Four twice (2002 and 2010) and the men’s in 2008 — the NCAA announced the host cities for 2012-2016 last November and San Antonio did not make the cut.
“It was just devastating,” admitted Jenny Carnes, executive director of the San Antonio Local Organizing Committee (SALOC). “We were very disappointed. We thought we got great reviews, we felt like we did a really good job for the NCAA, so it was quite a blow for us.”
NCAA associate tournament director David Worlock says when the committee formally votes it’s always a difficult decision. “We had 10 outstanding bids, 10 outstanding cities and 10 outstanding venues but you only have five years from which to choose,” he said.
“If you look at Indianapolis, Dallas or Houston, they have football teams, they’ve hosted a Super Bowl before,” said Carnes. “San Antonio is not in that category. So the Final Four is our Super Bowl. Our community truly embraces it. It’s a fan favorite here.”
The other cities, the cities bidding with NFL teams, have other events to keep the engine running – not San Antonio. This is the event: the World Series, Super Bowl and the Masters all in one.
“It’s hard to even put into words because that was certainly my year-end goal, to bring back both the men’s and women’s Final Four,” she said. “It was a huge disappointment. It feels like it’s a personal failure. I know that’s not it, it’s a collective effort on the cities part and there’s a lot of factors that went into both decisions but it doesn’t make it sting any less.”
MORE THAN A GAME
March Madness is no longer a series of college basketball games. It’s a sporting event — with major emphasis on event. Over the final two weeks of March, the NCAA narrows the field of 65 teams to the Final Four at a fever pitch, crisscrossing the country with opening round games in Anaheim, Birmingham, Denver, Little Rock, Raleigh, Tampa and Washington D.C., followed by regional games in Detroit, Indianapolis, Glendale and Memphis.
“The Final Four has grown into an event that is so much bigger than three basketball games,” said Worlock. “It’s really four full days of activities. It is going to attract, not just people from the community, fans from the four teams around the country, but it’s also going to attract fans who quite honestly don’t care who wins, don’t care who’s playing in the games.”
Loosely referred to as a “weekend,” the Final Four has become four-plus days of events and activities. At this year’s Final Four in Detroit the NCAA will college basketball All-Star Game on Friday, NCAA Hoop City (interactive fan festival from Friday-Monday) and The Big Dance.
What does this mean for Detroit and St. Louis in 2009? If recent history is any indicator, it means big business. You can expect more than 45,ooo visitors and an estimated $50 million in revenue over the first weekend of April in Detroit. The women’s Final Four in St. Louis: 25-30,000 visitors and revenues exceeding $20 million.
There is no justice, no single word, no adjective appropriate to describe the enormous economic boost the NCAA Final Four provides. There’s not a single city in the United States that couldn’t use an economic “booster shot” right now.
For Detroit, it’s a Godsend.
Some 530 miles away, St. Louis feels blessed to receive this year’s women’s Final Four.
“We had a news conference to say to our region, we’re going to have this $25 million economic boost in a year that we could really use it,” said Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission. “It’s not say that St. Louis could use it any more than Cleveland, Tampa or San Antonio. It’s to say how fortunate we are that that infusion will come here this year.”
In 2004, the University of Connecticut beat Georgia Tech 82-73 to win the men’s NCAA men’s Final Four in San Antonio. The Huskies weren’t the only winners; according to Jenny Carnes of the San Antonio Sports Foundation, the city raked in an estimated $45 million from 50,000 visitors.
Two years later, in 2006, Indianapolis hosted the men’s Final Four. The Indiana Sports Corporation reported 44,392 visitors during the four-day event and “$39.3 million in new direct expenditures.”
Last year, the men’s Final Four returned to San Antonio. It was a historic event. The Final Four consisted of all No. 1 seeds. On the court, Kansas claimed the national title with a 75-68 victory over Memphis. It resulted in another $47 million in revenues for the city.
The Cinderella story that captured the spirit of St. Louis generated an estimated $21 million in revenue for the city, but Viverito is careful to divide economics from experience.
“To answer the economic impact question almost diminishes the impact of the event,” he said. “The thrill and excitement of having that event changed the way that this community looked at women’s sports.
“To say it had a $20-$21 million impact is fine,” said Viverito. “But ask someone in this town about the 2001 women’s Final Four and their face lights up … just the alignment or convergence of planets that made that event absolutely unforgettable for this region. You can’t put a dollar sign on that. It’s just the way it is.”
In 2002, the residual excitement seemingly carried over to San Antonio. The sellout crowd of 29,623 that watched Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies defeat Oklahoma 82-70 broke the attendance record for a NCAA women’s championship game. It’s estimated more than 25,000 fans visited San Antonio, accounting for $32 million in revenues.
This year in Detroit, a new seating configuration could take the men’s Final Four to new heights. Four teams, three games, a sold out, 78,000-seat arena and an estimated 50,000 visitors over four days — in one city; you do the math.
“We expect it will approach $50 million,” said Beachnau. “Again, this is the first year that the Final Four has been opened to another 25,000-27,000 people to attend the event. It will bring a lot more people to town and that number could go much higher.”
The numbers are staggering and the optimism is trickling down to participating cities on the tournament’s opening round and regional schedules.
“Our first test will be the men’s and women’s Big 10 tournament,” said Susan Williams, president of the Indiana Sports Corporation, host city for this year’s Midwest Regional and next year’s men’s Final Four. “We are nearly sold out on our suites for the Big 10 and the other indicator is top price seats for the regional are sold out. Those two indicators were pleasantly surprising.”
Still, tournament organizers for both the NCAA and host cities remain realistic. With the national economy in rapid decline and unemployment on rise, disposable income for a Final Four weekend may not make the average sports fans budget.
“It’s a concern the NCAA for all our membership schools, not just Divisions I, not just basketball,” said David Worlock, NCAA associate tournament director. “We understand people are going through real-life problems. They have real-life issues and that affects how and where they spend their money. We no different from anyone else, you hope the country rebounds, but we’re just a blip on the map in the overall scheme of things.”
ANATOMY OF A BID
When Beachnau began scripting his proposal back in 2002 he had a not-so-secret weapon to brag about: Ford Field. It was brand new at the time (opened in August 2002) and Detroit used it as the centerpiece of their bid.
“I think Ford Field was our strongest asset,” he said. “It’s an intimate football stadium, if there is such a thing. We like to refer to it as an ‘arena on steroids.’ It seats 78,000 but the sight lines are outstanding and the second level is stacked so you’re close to the field.”
The massive facilities sprouting up in major cities around the country has allowed the NCAA to span their horizons too. This April in Detroit the NCAA will unveil a new seating configuration, placing the court at the 50-yard line at Ford Field surrounded by risers designed to provide unobstructed-view seating. The hardwood will be 27 inches off the ground. The configuration was introduced in Houston and Detroit at the NCAA regionals last year.
This new architecture is expected to improve the fan experience, both in-person and on television. CBS plans to attach their Jib camera on a 40-foot long mechanical arm and place it in the heart of the action.
“It will give you dramatic sweeping shots of relationships to the cheering sections and to the court, and dramatic sweeping shots of players running out onto the court,” Bob Fishman, Men’s Final Four director, told NCAA News in January. “The movement and the excitement of the shot with the juxtaposition of the player to his school was as classic a shot as you could have.”
It also provides economic benefits for students at participating colleges. According to Worlock, students from the participating institutions will have an opportunity to purchase floor-level seating at the Final Four at an affordable price ($10 per game).
“We want those end zone and court side seats to go to students and that will create a great collegiate atmosphere,” said Worlock.
And let’s not forget the payoff for the host city and the NCAA. According to estimates, paid attendance for the men’s Final Four is expected to exceed 105,000 fans over the two sessions, eclipsing the prior record of 84,568 set in St. Louis in 1999.
Last December, Michigan State and North Carolina played at Ford Field, as part of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. There has been a mixed reaction from players, coaches and fans about the architecture of the court.
“By-and-large the feedback has been positive,” said Worlock. “Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect. It’s ever-changing, that’s the whole reason to do these dry runs. While we don’t expect it to be perfect at Ford Field in a couple months, we do expect Indianapolis in 2010 to be better than 2009 and Houston in 2011 better than 2010 … we’re determined to make it work.”
New, state-of-the-art arenas have caught the attention of NCAA officials. Ford Field, Lucas Oil Stadium and the like are hard to miss. They are a sexy selling point for bidding cities and they’re changing the competitive landscape.
Worlock explained the essential criteria for Final Four consideration is venue, full-service hotel accommodations and location.
“The main thing is the venue,” said Worlock. “Is the venue going to hold 60,000 fans? Is it a good basketball arena? Can we make it work from a television standpoint, a fan standpoint and, most importantly, a student-athlete and coaching experience?”
The NCAA also requires bidding cities to have “a minimum of 10,000 full-service hotel rooms” with reasonable rates and a reasonable proximity (within 20 miles of the venue).
Indianapolis hosted the men’s tournament in 2006 and 2000, both at the RCA Dome (57,000). In 2010, the Final Four will be held at Lucas Oil Stadium, which holds approximately 70,000 for basketball.
“The venue and the airport are huge selling points,” said Susan Williams. The new Indianapolis airport, which opened in November 2008, is the first new terminal since September 11, improving security. “It cut down taxi time,” added Susan Williams. “The big selling point for us is our downtown and connectivity. The sense of convenience means a lot to the basketball committees.”
The evolution of the venue requirements has a yin-yang quality among competing sports commissions. In St. Louis, Viverito sees the evolution will result in a big, better experience.
“Increased competition forces you to be sharper – and better,” said Viverito. “Clearly you are in a position where more cities are able to bid on an event and that increased competition is very challenging to deal with. You see it in all regions of the country along with the understanding that these events have terrific value.”
But venue is only one piece of the puzzle. According to Viverito, the central location of the region, the downtown location of the facility surrounded by an outstanding package of hotels, the convention center, light rail restaurants and special event venues all contributed equally to the bid placed by St. Louis.
“Our No. 1 selling point is our footprint, everything is so close,” said Carnes, who led San Antonio’s effort to host the 2010 women’s Final Four. “We have state-of-the-art hotels, all within walking distance of the facility. You’ve got the Riverwalk that’s so well-known, and it’s just become an integral part of the Final Four here. You’ve got great culture, margaritas and walking around in flip flops in April, you can’t beat that.”
Despite $16 million in renovations to the Alamodome, a venue that opened in 1993, San Antonio may be losing its cutting edge, falling off the radar with state-of-the-art domes sprouting up in a number of cities across the country.
“In hosting in 2010, who knows when, past that one, we’ll get another one … if we’ll ever get another one?” said Carnes. “It’s hard on the community as a whole, but when you think about your career, chances are the staff won’t have a job past the women’s Final Four in 2010. That makes it even more difficult to swallow.”
Carnes and her staff operate out of the San Antonio Sports Foundation, who provides resources and office space to the Final Four staff. With the next bid cycle not expected anytime soon, it could put Carnes out of work.
“We’re here solely for the Final Four effort, so there may or may not be an opportunity after the women’s Final Four (2010), it’s hard to say,” she said.
as published in Sports Travel Magazine