Basketball fans exit the Final Four Fan Fest area in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
Basketball fans leave the Final Four Fan Fest area at the Henry B. González Convention Center during the 2018 Men's Final Four. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The NCAA is eyeing the San Antonio region as a potential host for the entirety of the 2021 women’s basketball championship, positioning local hotels and restaurants to receive an enormous injection of tourism money at a much-needed time.

Jenny Carnes, vice president of San Antonio Sports, who is leading the talks with the NCAA, says that a “best case scenario” is one in which the 63-game tournament takes place entirely within city limits during March and early April.

Carnes said she has a “great deal of confidence” the entire tournament will occur in the San Antonio area, but it is an open question whether the games leading up to the women’s Final Four will stay confined to the city or spill out into the broader area.

In normal years, first-round and second-round games are hosted by 16 teams across the country, whose winners then feed into regional matches.

Before Monday’s announcement by the NCAA’s Division I women’s basketball committee that it wanted to consolidate the tournament into one location, San Antonio was already set to host the Final Four at the Alamodome April 2-4, with cities like Albany and Austin hosting preliminary games. The NCAA’s decision is meant to limit travel and simplify logistics under the pandemic.

“We were already preparing to host a tremendous Women’s Final Four; the opportunity to develop a plan for hosting all 64 teams is both exciting and a great opportunity for our local economy,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a news release Monday.

Carnes said talks with the NCAA have gone over transportation logistics, coronavirus testing capabilities, city facilities, hotel rates, practice facilities, flights, and more. She said she expects these talks, which are also underway in surrounding municipalities, to continue over the next month or so before a final determination is made.

The impact on hotel occupancies alone could be enormous.

In a preliminary estimate, Carnes said as many as 21,000 hotel rooms could be filled if the tournament stays within San Antonio. The event would require accommodations for players and team staff, media members, NCAA staff, corporate partners, university administrators, and potentially spectators.

Even under the severe limitations of the pandemic, Carnes said the impact on hotels would be greater than if San Antonio had hosted the Final Four in a normal year.

The economic effects would go far beyond hotels, however.

Nearly $21 million was spent directly by visitors when the city hosted the women’s Final Four in 2010, according to a study San Antonio Sports commissioned afterwards. Even more – $33 million – was injected the first time the city hosted the women’s Final Four in 2002.

The 2002 event also broke records for the highest attendance for an NCAA women’s basketball game, with nearly 30,000 in the Alamodome crowd. The record still stands today.

“There wasn’t an empty seat,” said Susan Blackwood, then San Antonio Sports’ executive director. “I cried.”

Originally, San Antonio Sports hoped to break that record for the 2021 Final Four. Plans included bringing roughly 5,000 Girl Scouts to the event’s three games.

Now with the limitations brought about by the pandemic, Carnes joked they were on pace to break a different sort of record – the lowest attendance for a Final Four game.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.