Arlington, AT&T Stadium deliver big in the college basketball spotlight

For the players and fans alike, Final Four weekend wasn’t about watching basketball in an intimate setting. Rather, it was a chance to be part of a record-setting crowd, and a witness to an unforgettable moment in sports history.

And on that level, Arlington and AT&T Stadium delivered — big time.

A crowd of 79,238 watched the University of Connecticut Huskies defeat the University of Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 Monday night. The attendance set a new record for the NCAA championship game. Saturday’s attendance at the semifinals was slightly higher at 79,444. The two days combined to reach 158,682, the highest Final Four weekend attendance ever.

Monday night’s game capped a crazy, elongated sports weekend in North Texas, which was hosting its first Final Four since 1986. In addition to hoops, the region hosted two NASCAR races at Texas Motor Speedway — the O’Reilly 300 on Friday and the Duck Commander 500, belatedly, on Monday.

The Duck Commander 500 was supposed to be run on Sunday but was postponed when the drought-parched region received a half-inch of rain.

Monday’s NASCAR race in far north Fort Worth and the basketball game in Arlington created the conditions for major traffic headaches. Commuters endured long delays, especially around Interstate 35W between Texas 114 and Loop 820. But no major gridlock was reported.

It was AT&T Stadium — normally the pro football home of the Dallas Cowboys — that shined brightest in the spotlight. A special basketball court was laid atop the football field, but the court was dwarfed by the famous video board hanging from the roof.

“It’s impressive, I’ll tell you that. Damn impressive,” said former Georgetown University coach John Thompson, who called Monday night’s game as a radio analyst for Westwood One Sports. “Especially the first time you come in here. You look around and you start thinking about the little places where you started playing. Then you see this. This is just unbelievable.”

Organizers said they couldn’t have asked for a much better Final Four outcome. Even a rainy Sunday didn’t put a damper on the March Madness Music Festival, which was headlined by Bruce Springsteen in the shadow of Dallas’ Reunion Tower. Thousands attended the three-day music festival, which also featured the pop band fun., as well as LL Cool J and The Killers.

Thousands flocked to downtown Dallas for the fan festival known as Bracket Town, and still others swarmed downtown Fort Worth’s Sundance Square, where ESPN set up its live, outdoor broadcast.

“We feel like it’s been an unqualified success,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s baskeball championships. “We certainly feel like it’s gone quite smoothly. First of all, it’s just a fantastic venue that has every amenity a fan can dream of. And the North Texas area has been an attraction in itself. People have really enjoyed being here and getting to see the area.”

North Texas is one of eight finalists for another Final Four between 2017-20, which will be announced in November.

One criticism from basketball purists is that AT&T Stadium is too big to experience the game.

“We’ve had the Final Four in larger venues for years, so this is not a huge departure,” Gavitt said. “The fans, even those way up, have felt this was a great way to watch the game. It’s just an iconic facility. The decision to place the Final Four in a large facility was not done by happenstance. There are just that many fans who want to attend. To go to a smaller facility you would have to take away too many opportunities.”

‘Just the usual traffic’

Some fans also complained about the distance they had to travel between regional hotels and Arlington.

But Gavitt said there were no major concerns about traffic. “None. And I get updates on my phone regularly,” he said. “If something was going on, I’d know about it.”

No major traffic problems were reported along the Interstate 30 and Texas 360 corridors in Arlington, surrounding the city’s entertainment district.

Traffic was more of an issue in far north Fort Worth when the Duck Commander 500 was over. Interstate 35W was choked from about 2 p.m. until after evening rush hour began to subside about 6:30 p.m., and numerous wrecks were reported.

But police from Fort Worth, Northlake and Roanoke took steps to minimize problems, especially around the Northwest school district main campus, where classes let out not long after the checkered flag was waved at the Speedway.

“No problems reported,” said officer Daniel Segura, a police spokesman. “Just the usual heavy traffic flow.”

Also helping manage speedway traffic were officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Department of Transportation and Denton County Sheriff’s Department.

‘I was there’

The Final Four weekend was about having a good time for fans of not only Kentucky and Connecticut, but also Florida and Wisconsin. The latter two were eliminated in the semifinals Saturday.

Hundreds of undergraduates traveled to North Texas, taking advantage of $40 tickets offered through their respective campuses to all three Final Four games.

“It’s the future. It’s an event,” said Bill Walton, the legendary center who played basketball for UCLA before embarking upon a long career in the NBA. He is now a television and radio analyst.

“There is so much going on everywhere here,” Walton said. “It’s a party, but that’s what sports and entertainment is all about.”

AT&T Stadium, which was built after Arlington voters agreed to dedicate a sales tax to the project in partnership with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is “incredible,” Walton said

“The size, the vastness. the screen, and all the things focused on the game. Jerry built it and we’re all here. And I see no reason why we can’t keep coming back on a regular basis,” Walton said. “Everywhere you look, people are having a good time. Almost inevitably, people will say for the rest of their lives, ‘I was there.’ People will say forever more, ‘I was there in Jerry’s house when they played that Final Four. I was there and I had fun.’ ”

Staff writers Jimmy Burch, Terry Evans and Bill Miller contributed to this report, which includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

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