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Russ Bookbinder has had a front-row seat on sports in San Antonio and beyond for a couple of decades now. He was an executive with the San Antonio Spurs for more than 20 of those years. After a hiatus of several years in Lubbock as the vice chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, he assumed his role as the president and CEO for San Antonio Sports. We asked him to give the city a picture of March Madness in San Antonio, next month and in the years ahead.
Robert Rivard: When are we likely to know the teams coming to San Antonio for second round games? Is there enough advance notice for students, alumni and others to make the trip here?
Russ Bookbinder: The bracket will be announced on Selection Sunday, March 16, which will give students, alumni and fans about four days to make travel arrangements. All preliminary rounds leading into the Final Four weekend are just a week or less until advancing to the next, with the exception of the First Four that is now played Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday.
It’s definitely a scramble for fans and teams as they “survive and advance,” but that’s one of the things that makes this tournament so exciting.
RR: San Antonio last played host to the Men’s Final Four in 2008, our third time. Now the city has been named a finalist by the NCAA in the competition to host the Final Four some time between 2017-2020. What does it mean to be named a finalist? Who are we up against?
RB: We are always honored to be included in the Final Four bid process. It’s an incredible event that has had a huge impact on our community.
Our team is very excited to be in the mix as a finalist. We are one of eight cities that advanced to the final round, including Atlanta, Glendale/Phoenix, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, North Texas, New Orleans, and St. Louis.
RR: If past experience is any guide, won’t the NCAA likely schedule a Regional round here prior to a Finals year?
RB: Yes. If San Antonio is awarded a Final Four, it’s required to host a second/third round or a regional tournament the year prior to hosting a Final Four, as determined by the NCAA.
RR: How will the selection process unfold, and how do you asses our chances?
RB: Our formal presentation is due to the NCAA May 9. Site visits will be conducted in late summer or early fall and a final presentation in Indianapolis will take place next November. Selections will be made in November. San Antonio has a great shot. Our first opportunity to host is in 2018, which will be 10 years since we last hosted. We are a fan-favorite host city and destination. We have heard from fans, coaches, administrators, NCAA staff and committee members that they would love to see the event back in San Antonio.
RR: The Alamodome’s size, location and San Antonio’s attractive downtown experience enabled us to win the Final Four tourney in 1998, 2004, and 2008, and the Women’s Final Four in 2002 and 2010. Then it seemed like NCAA officials found the Alamodome lacking in terms of size and amenities. What have we done to make our venue competitive again, or what changed with the NCAA?
RB: After we hosted in 2008, the NCAA changed the configuration of the Men’s Final Four and moved the court to the center of Ford Field in Detroit. From that point on, that setup became a requirement for all facilities and all future bids to “host in the round.”
That new setup put the Alamodome at a slight disadvantage in terms of seating & suite capacity and “back of house” space. While we can’t hold what Cowboy Stadium will seat this April for the Final Four, we still meet the minimum seating capacity for the event, which is 60,000.
The NCAA has developed a temporary seating system that travels from Final Four site to site and it’s a perfect fit in our rectangular-shaped Alamodome, giving us around 70,000 in capacity and great sight lines even from the upper level. For previous Final Four events in the arena configuration at the Alamodome, media and broadcast services were located behind the curtain. In the new full stadium setup, it will be necessary to create new meeting spaces to meet the bid specifications for these service areas.
RR: The Alamodome turned 20 last May, as we chronicled in a series of remembrances by some of the major actors in its building and operation. Looking forward, what kinds of improvements and investment need to be made in the Alamodome to keep its competitive with domed facilities in other cities?
RB: The city has invested over $30 million of improvements and maintenance into the Alamodome over the past 10 years. The building is constantly busy and being used for more than 150 event days a year, including their permanent tenant, UTSA Division One Football. With that said, the Alamodome is the only non-NFL stadium on the list of finalists. The city understands certain improvements need to be made to the building to continue to make the Alamodome competitive in attracting future events like a Final Four or the College Football Championship.
More importantly, the Alamodome is a tremendous asset for our community and, with the necessary updates and enhancements, it will continue to attract high-quality events that are good for our community and the local economy. A facility assessment study was conducted a few years ago and the list of what those improvements are is being evaluated now.
RR: San Antonio Sports does a lot of other things besides men’s basketball. What role does the non-profit organization play in San Antonio? How is the organization attracting marquee sports event, and what’s out there that we are competing to host?
RB: Our mission at San Antonio Sports is to transform the community through the power of sport by having healthy kids, places to play and events that impact.
When you are just talking about events that impact, we work closely with many community partners, including school districts, universities, venues, sport clubs and the city and county.
Our staff constantly evaluates the marketplace for opportunities that would be a good fit in our community and make a positive economic impact for San Antonio and that includes a wide range of sports, ages and events.
In December, we hosted over 3,500 athletes and coaches for the 2013 USATF Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships. Our hotel partners were thrilled with the December business as thousands of room nights were accumulated and in addition to a lot of holiday spending around town. Youth events like the cross country meet are fantastic in terms of participation, but we are also selective when we look at high profile events like the Final Four or Olympic trials. Economic impact is important, but media value can be just as valuable.
We are beginning our second year of partnering with the County to host the Bexar County Games, utilizing the new county venues, which were a result of the 2008 bond election. In 2013, the intent was to give our local youth a chance to play and compete in these new venues in a very affordable way and this year, we will also focus on attracting regional and international participants to the games.
We also engage more than 150,000 elementary school students during Corner Store’s Go!Kids Challenge that encourages 60 minutes of daily exercise and drinking water. We also provide 750 3rd-5th graders in SAISD and Harlandale ISD the opportunity for early stage development in soccer, volleyball, track & field, golf and tennis in our San Antonio Sports “i play! afterschool” program. Most recently we teamed up with H-E-B to host the San Antonio Sports All-Star Football Game in the Alamodome that showcased 84 of our best football players representing 51 high schools.
RR: What are the city’s strong and weak points in terms of facilities when you look beyond the Alamodome?
RB: San Antonio has come a long way in the past five years with the addition of the 13 new county facilities made possible by the 2008 County bond election, in addition to the river extension and the trail system. These new facilities have certainly made San Antonio more competitive and attractive in terms of attracting events to San Antonio and motivating our community to get out and get moving. However, I think we still have some ground to make up compared to other cities if you compare parks to parks and fields to fields.
RR: Does the restoration of the historic Alamo Stadium by the San Antonio Independent School District add anything to the mix in terms of attracting amateur sports events?
RB: Absolutely, no question about it. It’s our largest outdoor track facility in San Antonio and in a renovated state, it will definitely open up some new opportunities for our community in addition to hosting local sporting events again.
RR: SA Sports just hosted the annual Sports Hall of fame dinner. The event was moved from the Alamodome to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center? Why did it move, and what were the highlights on this year’s event?
RB: We surveyed past attendees to get recommendations on how we might take the event to the next level and three things stood out. The event would be better on a Saturday night instead of Friday night; shorten the event time frame and raise the entertainment level, and move to a more intimate setting. This year’s event in the Convention Center was a great success as over 900 people helped to honor inductees Stan Albeck, Artis Gilmore, Joe Straus Sr. and the 2009 McAllister Little League team. The hit of the evening was a performance by the Grammy Award-winning Commodores, and we raised $250,000 to support our kids programs!
RR: You returned to San Antonio last year to succeed Susan Blackwood. What’s it like working in amateur sports after all your years leading the business operations for the San Antonio Spurs?
RB: Fortunately, I participated as a board member for San Antonio Sports (Foundation) for many years and had great familiarity with the programs and staff that made the transition very smooth. Both jobs have afforded me the opportunity to work with great people in the area of sports and help to use those platforms to make a difference in our community.
RR: In 2009 you joined the Texas Tech University System as a Vice Chancellor and returned a little over a year ago. Do you find San Antonio to be a changed city since you last lived here? If so, in what ways?
RB: The greatest change I have seen is the effort to get more of our community engaged in healthy activities and transform our image to being a fit city. A lot of credit goes to our City Manager, Sheryl Sculley and Mayor Julián Castro for making this a priority.
RR: Do you think San Antonio will become a host city for a Major League Soccer team? What would the city have to do in terms of ownership and facilities to make that happen?
RB: I think that Gordon Hartman has done an incredible job of creating a model professional soccer organization with the Scorpions and the recent soccer event in the Alamodome featuring Mexico vs. Korea shows that there is an audience and appetite for soccer. San Antonio continues to grow in size and stature and Toyota Field can be expanded to meet the MLS requirements. There is a huge difference between drawing 50,000 for a one-time marquee event and sustaining 20,000 fans per game over a long soccer season, but I believe that San Antonio is approaching the day where that will be possible.