San Antonio Sports is asking you to keep a secret for a few days. On Wednesday, six NCAA Men’s Final Four delegates will be in the city for the second day of a site visit here. San Antonio is one of eight prospective host cities for the Men’s Final Four in the 2017-2020 cycle. They’re in for a little surprise.
The delegation will attend a breakfast presentation, tour the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and then hop on a river barge that will take them to the Rivercenter Mall Lagoon where they will be greeted by an amped up chorus of hundreds of fans at the “BRING IT! River Rally” chanting an appeal to bring the Final Four back to the city.
If only cheerleading and pep rallies could seal the deal.
Local sports and economic development officials hope the delegation will be pleasantly surprised by the outpouring. Five of the six delegates have never made an NCAA site visit to the city, so a strong hometown rally is part of the sales package.
San Antonio Sports Vice President Jenny Carnes, who oversees events and bids, said the rally is intended to replicate the atmosphere of the floating pep rallies given for the four participating universities in past Final Four years here.
“There’s just no other place that can hold a floating pep rally,” said Carnes.
The event is free and open to the public, and is scheduled for 9-9:45 a.m. The first 1,000 fans to arrive will receive a free T-shirt and poster. Mike Taylor, host of the eponymous morning sports show on Ticket 760-AM, will broadcast live on-site leading up to 9 a.m.
In January the NCAA named San Antonio as one of eight finalist cities vying to host the Men’s Final Four in the 2017-2020 cycle. That’s eight cities divided by four tourneys. Half the cities will be chosen as hosts, and half won’t be chosen. The San Antonio Local Organizing Committee has requested to be considered for the latter three years of that cycle to allow for scheduled renovations to the Alamodome to be completed.
Each of the seven other prospective hosts — Atlanta, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New Orleans, North Texas, Phoenix/Glendale, and St. Louis — are playing host to visiting delegations this month and next. Each of the cities will send representatives to the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis for final presentations in early November. The selections will be announced later in the month.
There is plenty at stake on the San Antonio Local Organizing Committee’s bid for the Men’s Final Four, which last came here in 2008. Mike Sawaya, director of the City’s Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities, puts the economic impact at $85 million. The primary beneficiaries are the city’s hospitality and lodging industry and downtown restaurants and bars. UTSA Football and the annual Valero Alamo Bowl also will benefit from Alamodome upgrades.
For sports fans, the Men’s Final Four is one of the biggest events on the calendar. A renovated sports facility and attention gained from hosting its first Men’s Final Four in a decade would position the city to compete for other premier events, including the new NCAA College Football Championship. San Antonio lost out to Tampa last year in its bid for the 2017 event.
The Final Four is more than just four basketball games. The March Madness Music Festival, formerly known as The Big Dance, draws huge crowds. The free, three-day music festival organized by the host city during Final Four week has grown proportionally in stature alongside the games.
When San Antonio last hosted the event in 2008, The Big Dance was headlined by Taylor Swift along with b-listers Kid Rock and 3 Doors Down. In downtown Dallas last year, part of the North Texas region to host the 2014 Men’s Final Four, the festival drew huge crowds with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Killers, L.L. Cool J and Tim McGraw.
How does San Antonio stack up against the competition? The NCAA passed up the city for years as it sought larger venues to host the tourney, and the Alamodome came to be seen as a B List facility. That mindset seems to have changed with the planned upgrades, and local organizers believe San Antonio presents a compelling bid.
All of the city’s past host years have been unqualified successes, and San Antonio offers far more to the visitor now than it did a decade ago. For starters, the San Antonio International Airport makeover will be completed by then. Urban core development from the Pearl and Broadway corridor through downtown and into Southtown has put a lot of new attractions and distractions within easy walking distance or a short rideshare hop away.
The transformation of the San Antonio River is another major element in the city’s improved profile. The Tobin Center for Performing Arts also could come into play as host to music events appealing to big-spending Final Four alumni and fans. An expanded convention center and Hemisfair Park improvements will add to the downtown mix, as will plans for the city’s 300th birthday celebrations in 2018.
The city hosted the Men’s Final Four three times (1998, 2004, 2008) and the Women’s Final Four twice (2002, 2010). As Carnes said of the city’s bid, “San Antonio has almost the complete package” — except for one significant blemish – the outdated Alamodome.
Built in 1993 on a tight budget that included no frills, the Alamodome will be 25 years old by 2018. In recent years San Antonio has lost bids to regions and cities like North Texas, Houston, Indianapolis and Tampa, all of which have NFL stadiums, some newly built and all outfitted with the latest video technology. The Alamodome currently falls short of the NCAA’s venue requirements.
Planned renovations include significantly improved interior technology, and a renovated and expanded concourse on the plaza and mezzanine levels, expected to cost $20-25 million, according to San Antonio Sports CEO Ross Bookbinder.
“The No. 1 factor is our facility,” Bookbinder told The Business Journal’s W. Scott Bailey. “We are competing against major NFL facilities across the country — and in our own state. The fact that we are not an NFL stadium is going to continue to be a challenge for us. But it’s not insurmountable.”
In San Antonio’s favor is the fact that not many other cities meet the NCAA’s current facility seating and amenities demands. As ESPN reporter Andy Katz recently noted, the NCAA has held its Men’s Final Fours exclusively in domes with a minimum capacity of 60,000 seats since 1996, which puts San Antonio in the company of 10 eligible cities. One of them, Phoenix, has never played host to the Men’s Final Four, and another, Tampa-St. Petersburg, hasn’t been considered since it played host in 1999.
Scott Bailey notes that when North Texas hosted the men’s Final Four, working media had to stay in Dallas hotels, while ESPN set up its mobile headquarters in Fort Worth, leading fans and media to voice displeasure like Sports Illustrated senior writer Pete Thamel, who tweeted: “The Final Four should never be held in a city where you can’t walk to the arena from downtown. Ever.”
Carnes hopes San Antonio hosts the event on the city’s 300th birthday in 2018. She also points to one of the city’s other selling points beyond its easy walkability:
“You just can’t be on the River Walk with your shorts in 80-degree weather anywhere else.”
*Featured/top image: The Alamodome, decorated for the 2008 NCAA Men’s Division Basketball Tournament. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Sports.