Originally posted by SportsBusiness Journal Marketing Department
Managing the logistics of a massive, moving event such as the NCAA® Men’s Final Four® takes years of planning and hard work to wrangle all of the disparate parts into a single, successful culmination. One of the conductors of the Final Four orchestra is L.J. Wright, NCAA director of the men’s basketball championships, who oversees the operations side to bring the action to NRG Stadium in Houston in 2016.
“There are so many different dominoes and all of them have to fall at the precise time and in the precise way so that when the student-athletes step onto the court and the fans arrive at the site, they have an unbelievable, positive NCAA championship experience,” said Wright.
The challenges of the Men’s Final Four are many, starting with the difficult task of creating an intimate basketball atmosphere in a cavernous, domed football stadium. Wright and the NCAA partnered with ticketing company, AXS, in 2009, and utilized its advanced ID-based digital ticketing technology for the Final Four. That technology, Flash Seats®, creates a system of nontransferable tickets that ensures students from participating teams are seated just behind the goals to build and keep the energy amplified in the stadium and surrounding the court. Additionally, any tickets purchased on the NCAA Ticket Exchange are distributed as Flash Seats digital tickets. Throughout the process, buyers don’t have to pick up, print or present a paper ticket, providing a hassle-free and convenient environment for fans.
“In Houston, we’re expecting approximately 75,000 college basketball fans for the semifinals and again for the national championship game,” said Wright. “Those aren’t typical basketball attendance numbers; however, we work to host those 75,000 in a safe, secure environment, while creating the best championship atmosphere possible for the student-athletes, their families and the fans.”
Due to playing in large venues, the NCAA and the local organizing committees in each city must enhance the sound, the wireless systems and video boards within the stadiums. Each yeara, the host venue gets a hardwood portable court, specially designed for that Final Four, and extra risers and seating to bring fans closer to the action. Signage and ticketing must also be addressed.
“Not only are we creating basketball games in a football stadium, but each year, we’re moving the event to a different site,” said Wright.
The NCAA has a facility coordination group comprised of stadium event managers from cities scheduled to host in future years to ensure the event maintains a level of consistency from year to year, even as the Final Four continues to grow and evolve. Currently, the group includes Phoenix (hosting in 2017), San Antonio (2018), Minneapolis (2019), Atlanta (2020) and Indianapolis (2021).
“That helps us because the facility coordination group becomes the eyes and ears when the Final Four reaches each city,” said Wright. “And having members involved for multiple years helps them answer questions for their own venues: How do we handle student entry, what do we do for the media work room, how do we better approach wireless technologies? Every stadium is different with varying ways of operating but the facility group helps with the transition of the event from year to year. It smooths any rough edges.”
The NCAA also relies heavily on the local Division I universities and/or conferences to make the event possible, such as the “tri-hosts” for Houston: the University of Houston, Rice University and Texas Southern University.
One of Wright’s biggest goals is to make the logistical work invisible to fans.
“Like a good official, we know we’ve done out job well if no one notices we’re there,” he said, laughing.
In March, Wright and the NCAA operations team will take over NRG Stadium for two weeks, executing an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, tightly coordinated timeline.
“We come in to NRG on the heels of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo,” Wright said. “When the rodeo drives its last truck out, our trucks will be lined up outside, engines running, ready to work nonstop to make sure the Final Four is the pinnacle of a great experience in the lives of our student-athletes.”