May 5, 2013

Bigger bang theory: Smooth fan experience sought for Texas-sized Final Four

High-profile concerts could be held in Arlington or Dallas.

It is ironic, yet telling, that one of the biggest unanswered questions surrounding the 2014 Final Four in North Texas involves where to locate a free concert series to accompany the money-making basketball games expected to draw NCAA-record crowds to Cowboys Stadium.

Without question, the NCAA and local organizers are comfortable with the venue’s track record for handling huge crowds and the accompanying traffic at high-profile sporting events.

“For us, from a traffic standpoint, we’re accustomed to holding 80,000 or 85,000 people all the time,” said Charlotte Jones Anderson, chairman of the North Texas Local Organizing Committee responsible for hosting the Final Four in Arlington, April 5-7, 2014. “I don’t see that being a big deal.”

But the interesting wild card to next year’s Final Four equation, in terms of traffic flow and other considerations, is the NCAA’s Big Dance concert series. The three-night collection of free concerts with headliner acts in an outdoor setting drew up to 35,000 fans per day in Atlanta for Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows during last month’s 2013 Final Four weekend. Musicians performed in a park near the Georgia Dome.

Anderson said organizers expect “a similar turnout to Atlanta, if not bigger,” when the musical event hits North Texas. In recent years, performers at the free concerts have included Kenny Chesney, Kid Rock, Taylor Swift, KISS and Jimmy Buffett. The 2013 lineup in Atlanta included the Zac Brown Band, Ludacris, Flo Rida, Muse, Sting, the Dave Matthews Band and others.

“If the NCAA decided not to play basketball and just brought the Big Dance to our area, it would still be one of the biggest events coming to our area next year,” said Tony Fay, spokesman for the organizing committee. “The size and scope of that event is enormous.”

But its location in North Texas is yet to be determined.

If the musical stages are set up in parking lots near Cowboys Stadium and Rangers Ballpark in Arlington — a possibility because of the space required for such an upsized outdoor concert — that could create roughly 120,000 revelers in and around the stadium for Saturday night’s semifinals games at the 2014 Final Four.

This begs the question: In a state that prides itself on doing things bigger and better, does a gathering of 120,000 fans represent a Texas-sized basketball party for the ages? Or a potential late-night traffic snarl best avoided?

Anderson and Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, are adamant that the Arlington area could handle a double dose of basketball and music with aplomb.

In fact, Morris pointed out that bigger potential traffic hurdles were cleared in 2011 when Texas Rangers playoff games fell on the same dates as football games or other sold-out events at nearby Cowboys Stadium.

“I don’t anticipate any gridlock in regard to getting people to and from the games,” Morris said. “We’ve handled 40,000 in and out for a baseball game and 80,000 at Cowboys Stadium on the same day and... we got great reviews in those situations. We have the capability. I’m confident we can meet the challenge.”

For the record, officials have handled dual attractions on the same day at the nearby stadiums on seven occasions. The list includes a World Series Game 4/Cowboys home game with staggered start times (Oct. 23, 2011) and a Taylor Swift concert in Cowboys Stadium that started within five minutes of the first pitch of a Rangers playoff game (Oct. 8, 2011).

Because the Big Dance concert series attracts a come-and-go crowd, Morris said the buildup and exodus of fans from the two-stadium corridor would be spread over several hours if bands played near the basketball venue, as they did in Atlanta. That would be less stressful, in many ways, than simultaneous games at the nearby stadiums.

But that may not happen.

NCAA officials, who make the final call on where to place Final Four attractions, could take the music festival to another venue, including locations in Dallas near American Airlines Center, the West End and the footprint that once housed Reunion Arena. NCAA officials have scheduled site visits to North Texas later this month to finalize locations for the concert series and Bracket Town, a fan-friendly games area similar to the NFL Experience at the Super Bowl.

Anderson, executive vice president/vice president of brand management for the Dallas Cowboys, said a final decision on locations for all venues is expected by the end of May.

All signs point to Bracket Town winding up at the Dallas Convention Center, which hosted comparable events held in conjunction with Super Bowl XLV (NFL Experience) and the NBA All-Star Game (NBA Jam Session) when those events were held at Cowboys Stadium in 2011 and 2010. In addition, hotels for media members and competing teams at the 2014 Final Four will be in Dallas.

In Atlanta, the primary hotels, concert series and Bracket Town were all within walking distances of the games at the Georgia Dome. That created a positive experience for pedestrians but significant downtown gridlock for drivers headed to the events.

But a pedestrian-heavy Final Four — often the case at this event when games are played at downtown arenas — will not unfold in North Texas, with games in Arlington and other key venues in Dallas.

“Clearly, that’s not going to happen. That’s not a surprise to anybody planning this,” Anderson said.

So the key will be managing crowd sizes in relation to traffic flow at the various attractions. Morris, who also oversaw traffic-related issues for Super Bowl XLV, said lots of shuttle buses will be added into the Final Four mix. He cited plans for other “innovative ways” to move basketball fans through DFW, including enhanced schedules for DART and TRE trains.

NCAA officials have several remaining options as venues for the concert series, but Anderson said the size of the crowds in Atlanta caused officials to shrink their list of suggestions.

“As the numbers grew in Atlanta, we were thinking of what spaces could hold that volume of people in our area and that took away some options. We need to make sure we can offer that,” said Anderson, adding that lots near the stadiums remain viable venues for the Big Dance, which requires roughly a 10- or 12-acre stretch of open land.

In terms of traffic flow, Morris said he feels “very comfortable” with having the Big Dance in Arlington or Dallas. Although pedestrian traffic will be diminished for Final Four visitors to North Texas, Morris said the same should be true for gridlock as fans drive to the various attractions.

“Wherever they put the venues, we have a lot of flexibility to meet those needs,” Morris said. “Our greatest challenge is to make sure we don’t get in our own way” with ongoing construction projects on Interstate 30 and at a DART stop near the Dallas Convention Center.

Once venues for ancillary events are finalized, Anderson said local organizers are “ready to go” with execution of plans to put a North Texas touch on the NCAA’s premier basketball event. That includes an emphasis on hospitality, with spots for up to 5,000 volunteers available during Final Four week at venues other than Cowboys Stadium. Big 12 officials, who will help host the event, will coordinate volunteer efforts.

“We need lots of smiling faces,” Anderson said. “Our region is known for its hospitality, and we all like to do things big.”

That includes a desire to break the attendance record for an NCAA championship game (74,326) and a two-day Final Four session (149,676). Both figures were set last month at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Since 2008, when North Texas officials were awarded the 2014 Final Four, there has been no secret about the goal to establish an all-time attendance record in Arlington. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Anderson’s father, raised the possibility when the site was selected. Mike Bobinski, chairman of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee, reiterated the goal last fall when officials unveiled the logo for the 2014 Final Four.

“If all goes well, we’ll establish a Final Four attendance record,” Bobinski said at the time. “I have no doubt that will happen.”

Despite the flexible configuration options at Cowboys Stadium, which held 108,713 for the 2010 NBA All-Star Game, NCAA officials have shown no desire to reach six figures.

“We want to set the record for the highest attendance and for the highest fan satisfaction as well,” said Tim Allen, Big 12 senior associate commissioner who served as tournament manager of the 2013 South Regional at Cowboys Stadium and will serve in a similar capacity at next year’s Final Four. “The NBA All-Star game was a different arena setup. We’re not using that same [configuration]. We want to set the attendance record, but we’re not going to do that at the expense of the fan experience.”

Instead, the plan is to replicate the same configuration used at the 2013 South Regional, when a set of NCAA-owned risers bridged the gap from the playing floor to the start of the stadium’s permanent seats. The risers blended well with the permanent seats, creating the look of a giant basketball arena rather than a modified football facility. The risers’ cushioned seats drew positive feedback from fans in regard to comfort.

Unlike at the regional, when some sections were curtained off, NCAA officials will sell all available permanent seats at the Final Four. Capacity will be roughly 80,000 without selling any standing-room-only seats that the Cowboys offer as party passes during home games.

“Right now, they have said it will be the exact same as it was at the regional,” Anderson said. “They liked the way it fit in and flowed. I’m sure they could always change that, if they wanted. I don’t think we actually need to add any more seats. But we won’t know until we’re further into it.”

Allen said a final decision on capacity is not likely until February and could vary, depending upon advance ticket orders.

“The NCAA may make the decision to use the platforms [in the end zones] as standing-room-only,” Allen said. “If they allow that, it will enable us to increase the attendance even more.”

But the primary focus, said Anderson, is doing it big and doing it right. With a greater emphasis on doing it right.

Fay said local organizers plan to remind area restaurants and hotel kitchens to stay open later during Final Four weekend — the Saturday night semifinals session in Atlanta ended well after midnight — to make sure they maximize business opportunities. The primary fan complaint from last month’s Final Four was lack of available late-night dining and entertainment options in downtown Atlanta after the games ended.

L.J. Wright, the NCAA’s director of championships, alliances and operations, took part in last month’s site visit to North Texas and has been complimentary about plans for the 2014 Final Four and the Big 12’s track record as host of NCAA Tournament sites. Allen said local officials are excited about being “on the clock” for the next 11 months after years of long-term planning.

“The reality has set in. It’s no longer long-term planning. We’re in the planning stages now and it’s just time to do the job,” Allen said. “Once we know where the venues are for the Big Dance and Bracket Town, that’s like finding the corner pieces of the puzzle. After that, everything else falls into place.”

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