As dress rehearsals go, North Texas sure got a bill primed for Broadway.
The NCAA South Regional at Cowboys Stadium has something for everyone — long-standing basketball divas in Kansas and Michigan, which tip at 6:37 Friday night, and a Cinderella story in Florida Gulf Coast, which became the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16. Added to the intrigue is the Eagles’ in-state battle with Florida in the other semifinal matchup, scheduled to begin 30 minutes after the Jayhawks and Wolverines.
All of the storylines, all of the angles amount to something much more than a preview, but for Cowboys Stadium, Arlington and North Texas in general, this weekend’s hoops extravaganza signals a year before the big show comes to town.
The NCAA Final Four at Cowboys Stadium is scheduled for April 5-7, 2014, a first for North Texas since Dallas’ Reunion Arena hosted the 1986 championship.
“The word that just jumps out at you is magnificent,” said Tim Allen, senior associate commissioner of the Big 12 who is working as the tournament manager for the weekend’s regional.
He was standing in the middle of the field at Cowboys Stadium on Monday as crews laid down a new $100,000 basketball court.
“I think when you call it a ‘dress rehearsal’ you’re minimizing it a little bit, but there’s no question this is our opportunity to shine, for the NCAA to take a good, long hard look at the facility and what it can do. But for us, it’s a dress rehearsal for the facility, it’s a dress rehearsal for the North Texas local organizing committee and the Big 12.”
A system of about 16,000 seats, owned by the NCAA, sits snuggly on top of the stadium’s stationary field-level seats and runs to the court.
The NCAA began using the riser system for stadiums after a trial run in 2008 during regional tournaments in Detroit and Houston.
L.J. Wright, the NCAA’s director of the men’s basketball championship, said the riser system paid for itself the first time it was used at Ford Field in Detroit. The system provides a venue more optimal views of the court.
“In prior years we put the court in one end zone,” Wright said. “The worst seats in this configuration are far better than they were.”
This won’t be the first basketball played at Cowboys Stadium. The NBA All-Star game was here in February 2010, drawing a record 108,713 fans.
A couple months earlier Texas and North Carolina had played a nonconference game before 38,052 in attendance.
The weekend’s configuration has a capacity of 42,614, but a curtain closing off the top level could be removed if ticket demand exceeds expectations.
For next year’s Final Four, which has been in the works since 2008, before the stadium was even completed, there will be no need for a curtain. Attendance could top 80,000, said Cowboys Stadium spokesman Brett Daniels.
“This will be a special weekend for these teams and their fans,” Daniels said. “We want to put on a great event and learn from it for next year to make next year’s event even bigger and better. I think it’s going to benefit everybody and that was the idea behind the stadium in the events we’ve tried to go after, to try to be an economic engine for the region here.”
For this week, however, the focus is on the four leads taking center stage Friday. Not only do the Big 12 and Cowboys Stadium want to impress the stars, they want to impress fans attending the show so much that they return when the curtain comes down a year from now.
“We’re thrilled with the teams we’re going to have here, I think they’ll bring a good, strong fanbase,” Allen said. “But I think the local community is going to really step up and support the event. We’re thrilled, we’re excited. This is a great practice run for next year when we really bring the big event to Dallas.”
He quickly corrected himself and called it North Texas. That’s OK. This is just the dress rehearsal.