DFW has issues to prove before becoming Final Four regular

03/31/2014 4:53 PM

11/12/2014 4:28 PM

For organizers of the 2014 Final Four, a tournament-record attendance is assured for games that will be played Saturday and Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

What is not assured, despite the ticket demand and financial success of the event, is a return to North Texas by NCAA administrators after the winning team cuts down the nets in Monday’s championship game.

Although local organizers remain optimistic that future Final Fours will be held in Arlington, the venue is merely one of eight finalists under consideration to host another men’s event between 2017 and 2020. Most competing sites offer something DFW cannot: walkable access between the games and ancillary events such as Bracket Town and the March Madness Music Festival, two Final Four staples that also draw huge crowds.

That means fans hoping to avoid another 28-year gap until the next Final Four weekend in DFW should root for good weather, timely trains and minimal traffic snarls this week to appease NCAA administrators and entice them to bring the event back by 2020. Warm smiles from residents who cross paths with NCAA decision-makers would not hurt, either.

Bottom line: Even with the best sports venue on the planet in AT&T Stadium, there is no way to predict how NCAA officials will react when they gauge fans’ reaction to a minimum 30-minute commute from ancillary events in downtown Dallas to the arena in Arlington.

Historically, NCAA administrators have considered such commutes a negative when awarding Final Four sites. Their track record shows a preference for venues where fans can easily walk between games and ancillary events, a big reason why college basketball’s biggest event has not been held in DFW since 1986.

Among metropolitan areas vying to host men’s Final Fours from 2017-2020, six meet the walkability criterion: Atlanta, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New Orleans, San Antonio and St. Louis. DFW, which has other advantages, does not.

Despite some bold rhetoric from Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who recently predicted JerryWorld will get “a lot of chances” to host Final Fours in the foreseeable future, DFW is not an insider in the current rotation of Final Four sites. Whatever happens this week could change that status.

That makes this a huge week for members of the local organizing committee, who recall the last-minute hiccups involved with hosting Super Bowl XLV. Lingering images of that event include a nightmarish ice storm and a fiasco with temporary seats at the stadium. That is why Tony Fay, committee spokesman, believes DFW must prove something to the NCAA this week.

“Until we have one, I don’t think you can say it’s a slam dunk yet,” Fay said, reflecting on Arlington’s chance for another Final Four within the next bid cycle. “The games haven’t been here for 28 years. The college basketball landscape is kind of relearning our region, which has changed dramatically in the last 28 years in so many ways.

“Our planning has been very buttoned down. But we can’t make the drives any shorter. And weather is something that you can’t control. So we’ll roll the dice. Hopefully, we get lucky and we’ll have clear skies and it’ll be wonderful.”

Fay said organizers plan to lean on the hospitality of DFW residents and tournament volunteers, along with the varied cultural enticements of Fort Worth, Dallas and Arlington, to sell NCAA executives and 100,000 weekend visitors that a short commute down Interstate 30 from games to ancillary events — by car or TRE train — is not a deal-breaker. As Fay said, “Traditionally, how they set up their event, they want everything to be within walking distance. The NCAA prefers … a very tight footprint.”

But that is impossible for this Final Four, where all 77,000 available seats to both sessions in AT&T Stadium were sold long ago. Crowds in excess of 80,000 for each session are probable, depending on sales of standing-room-only tickets, with the NCAA expected to reap a significant financial windfall.

Will more money trump additional travel time, when push comes to shove and NCAA executives weigh their 2014 experience in Arlington against the merits of other venues? Unless there are mitigating circumstances this week, that sounds likely.

During a site visit in January, the chairman of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee predicted AT&T Stadium would be “used an awful lot in the future by the NCAA for these types of events.” But the words of Ron Wellman, the tournament chair, could apply equally to a future NCAA regional or a future Final Four.

In terms of prestige and local economic impact, there is a huge difference in the two. Bowlsby, a former basketball committee member whose league will host this event, predicted that the walkability factor will not be held against Arlington in future Final Four bids.

“I don’t think that will be an issue for us,” Bowlsby said. “We have too many other advantages. I fully expect that we will get another Final Four before very long. We like hosting. We like being at the center of the college athletics worlds. We’re going to get a lot of chances.”

Hopefully, Bowlsby is right. But it could come down to how many fans miss tipoffs this week while commuting in rush-hour traffic between events in Dallas and games in Arlington.

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