The confetti is swept. The fans are home. But the question remains: After hosting tens of thousands for the NCAA Men’s Final Four last weekend, what’s next for the 25-year-old Alamodome?
Many visitors gave the city high marks, but as Wall Street Journal reporters Rachel Bachman and Jared Diamond wrote Tuesday, “Despite basketball’s lovefest for the city and its status as a four-time host of the Final Four, San Antonio will have a hard time getting another one.”
The NCAA has selected sites for the event through 2022. Minneapolis will host in 2019, at its new $1.1-billion US Bank Stadium, site of the most recent NFL Super Bowl. Atlanta will host in 2020 at its $1.6-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, completed last year to replace the Georgia Dome, a stadium that was one year older than the Alamodome.
For San Antonio, with its hat in the ring for the Final Four’s 2023-2026 events that will be announced in July and the coming NCAA Women’s Final Four events, there was a lot riding on the 2018 games.
Alamodome General Manager Nicholas Langella said 68,257 people filled the Alamodome for Saturday’s games, and 67,813 on Monday for the championship match. It was the largest sporting event the Alamodome had ever hosted. (A George Strait concert in 2013 holds the record for biggest crowd.)
Built in 1993 to attract a football franchise that never came, the Alamodome can seat 70,000 for a basketball game, 65,000 for football. It has 52 luxury suites, with capacity to add more as needed. The Final Four offered a total of 66.
In 2017, a $60 million renovation of the Alamodome expanded the concourses and concession areas, added video walls, upgraded the sound system, enhanced the WiFi (used by 20,000 Final Four fans) and more – an investment meant to attract events like the Final Four that bring millions of dollars into the city.
“These enhancements are vital to maintaining and growing San Antonio’s ability to host major marquee sporting events such as the Valero Alamo Bowl, UTSA Football, and of course the NCAA Men’s Final Four Championship next year,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said at its unveiling last fall.
Mike Guiffre, senior vice president of SuiteHop, a platform that sells suites and premium seating, said fan experience is important, but to organizations like the NCAA, “It all comes down to money.”
Luxury suites bring in the dollars, most of which – unlike individual seat tickets – go to the organizers. Suites for NCAA matchups can go from anywhere between $7,000 and $25,000, Guiffre said, but there were some reports of this weekend’s suites being listed for more than $50,000.
The economic impact for a host city is in the millions as well. The estimate for this round came in at $185 million for San Antonio.
“It’s a pretty big deal to get these events to come to town,” Guiffre said. “The issue is how many of these can you actually draw? If you can do better than the Final Four once every five years, then I think, yes absolutely [it’s worth it to build a new stadium]. But an arena has to be able to handle that and you have to be able to draw a couple of events that are big enough to supplement the All-Star and Final Four games you’re going to get every couple of years.”
NCAA officials were satisfied with how the event played out in San Antonio, according to Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras, who also leads the City’s Tricentennial Commission. “The response was extremely positive in our briefings each day,” he said.
Though game attendance numbers are slightly lower than last year’s in Phoenix, over the four days of the Final Four and its Fan Fest, the Henry B. González Convention Center hosted 52,000 people with a peak of 18,000 on Saturday. The four-day March Madness Music Festival drew 145,000 people to Hemisfair, with the concerts on Saturday and Sunday hitting maximum capacity during the headliners. These numbers exceed last year’s.
Debbie Bornstein, an NCAA fan from Florida who travels with her husband to most Final Four events, felt the location and size of the arena overall were good. “It was nice that it was close to downtown and the River Walk. Seats were pretty comfortable,” she said, though she wished for drink holders and felt the concession areas were too narrow for the big crowds. “The Glendale Stadium [Phoenix] was nicer, for sure.”
Yet where the Alamodome didn’t seem to live up to all expectations, San Antonio did – with its Chamber weather, downtown walkability and scenic River Walk. That’s leading some to predict snowy and cold Minneapolis, even with its super-sized stadium, won’t measure up.
On March 31, ESPN Anchor Peter Burns tweeted: “There are a few things that need to be written into law when it comes to sports championship locations. The Super Bowl should never go 4 years without being in New Orleans The Final Four should never go 4 years without being in San Antonio.”
The NCAA should take opinions like that into account when considering San Antonio again, said Rafi Kohan, author of The Arena, a book about the modern American sport stadium.
“San Antonio is a real crowd pleaser,” Kohan said. “Maybe San Antonio can get away with having a slightly less modern, updated stadium. And if I was a taxpayer, I would be wary of anyone talking of building a new stadium.”
Putting what Kohan called “Band-aids” on the Alamodome, and offering enhancements, like parades, parties and even financial kickbacks, might be enough to compete, given all the city has to offer as a tourist destination.
After all, fancy new stadiums, like the game-changing AT&T Center in Dallas are a relatively new phenomenon, Kohan said. Sports venue architecture had not changed much since the Colosseum (built 70-80 AD) until stadiums like the Astrodome (built in 1965 and the first to have luxury boxes) came along and incorporated restaurants and other entertainment.
But even cities like New Orleans, host of the 2022 Final Four – which had already put $350 million into its SuperDome after Hurricane Katrina – are looking to invest in further upgrades.
“It will be tough for San Antonio to get another Final Four, I would think, but maybe that’s not a bad thing,” Kohan said. “In the fight to get another one and the amount the city might have to put into it – those impact statements can be misleading with all the assumptions baked in – you have to wonder if that is displacing other tourists, other conventions. It’s muddier waters than some folks would have us believe.”
San Antonio’s competitive advantage in winning major sporting events might not be the Alamodome itself, but its location within the city. Its proximity to hotels, shops, restaurants and the River Walk, Contreras said, is something not every city can offer.
“The Alamodome is just one component of the total experience,” he said. An event like the Final Four takes place across the city, including the airport, where last weekend’s travelers were assisted by welcoming volunteers and DJ entertainment.
“It’s the entire package.”