SAN ANTONIO – Basketball fans flooded stores throughout downtown to buy the Final Four T-shirts, caps and key rings. They stopped by the Alamo during the day, took city bus tours and boat rides on the river.
By night, they spilled onto the sidewalks outside the bars and restaurants lining the city’s famous pedestrian-friendly River Walk.
A year from now, an estimated 60,000 fans from out of town — and more from the Twin Cities — are expected to flow into Minneapolis when it hosts the Final Four and all of its hoopla.
It’s a smaller event than the Super Bowl, which claimed more than 100,000 visitors, bigger than the last Minnesota Final Four in 2001 and most of all, easier for fans who don’t have big bucks to feel like they’re welcome in on the action.
For the fans, the experience was up close and personal in San Antonio. The four teams’ hotels hoisted their school flags and wrapped the walls with big Vs, Ms, Jayhawks and the maroon-and-gold of Loyola-Chicago. Larger-than-life images of players went up on glass doors and in lobbies. The team hotels became magnets for fans, their lobbies gathering spots for autograph and selfie-seekers as the squads came and went.
Coaches and athletes lingered, accepting hugs, congratulations and words of appreciation. Unlike the Super Bowl, the Final Four doesn’t come with a barrage of corporate activations or ultra-exclusive events. It’s mostly out there for everyone.
“I didn’t see one SUV with black-tinted windows,” Minneapolis Final Four organizing committee CEO Kate Mortenson joked of her weekend in south Texas. A few of them were around town, but not like the squadrons of black behemoths that roll in for the NFL event.
This year’s Final Four concludes Monday night at the Alamodome with the game between Michigan and Villanova, the teams having vanquished, respectively, Loyola-Chicago and Kansas on Saturday. As more than 68,000 college basketball fans watched the games Saturday evening, the NCAA’s free music festival featuring final act Maroon 5 pushed to capacity for a second consecutive night less than a mile down the road.
On Sunday, hundreds of kids dribbled blue and green basketballs with the Final Four logo down a freeway ramp around the Alamodome into the convention center, where they received free admission to Fan Fest, the NCAA’s interactive, basketball-themed fair for families.
“No ticket, no problem,” Mortenson said, meaning that participating in the Final Four weekend doesn’t require spending hundreds of dollars for ducats.
Last time: 2001
In 2001, the men’s Final Four basketball games were played in the Metrodome, and the NCAA wasn’t planning to return to the aged building.
Shortly after the Dome was demolished in 2014, the NCAA agreed to bring its biggest event to Minneapolis. U.S. Bank Stadium is nearly twice the size of the Metrodome, and the Final Four has expanded beyond three games to an energetic, spirited event of several days — depending on how they’re counted.
Mortenson said the new Final Four differs from the old “in every possible way.”
The Final Four will be more concentrated in downtown Minneapolis than the Super Bowl was in January and February. The NCAA hasn’t selected a venue for the outdoor music festival, but University of Minnesota senior associate athletics director Tom McGinnis said it’s expected to be within walking distance of the stadium and the Fan Fest, which may be at the city’s convention center.
Mortenson said fans will find plenty to do in downtown Minneapolis.
“The ideal Final Four experience is one in a connected downtown where everything is right there,” she said.
Visitors found it in Texas. Throughout the week, the teams, coaches and fans injected a celebratory air throughout downtown San Antonio.
During Final Four week, the teams generally arrive Wednesday evening, then have media sessions Thursday. Their arrivals are heralded with private airport receptions.
“On Friday, you started to see all these tall, healthy looking people,” Mortenson said.
The National Basketball Coaches Association gathers annually during the Final Four.
“For this weekend, it’s the center of the men’s basketball community,” McGinnis said.
Because the Final Four is collegiate-sponsored, alcohol is neither a prominent sponsor nor readily available. During the games at the Alamodome, alcohol was limited to the private suites. Retired Michigan Fab Five coach Steve Fisher and former assistant now San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher posed for impromptu photos with anyone who asked.
Packing them in
In one significant way, the Final Four may be bigger than the Super Bowl: attendance. The football game drew just under 68,000 to U.S. Bank Stadium in February. The Alamodome packed in just over that many spectators, who struggled to find their way on the building’s congested, confusing concourses.
Organizers have said U.S. Bank Stadium may accommodate more than 70,000 for the games, a number beyond what it has seen for a single event. Mortenson said the planners, which include the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority and corporate operator SMG, are looking at how to keep the crowds flowing.
And as always, there’s the weather. San Antonio was lovely: sunny, dry and in the 70s and 80s. Minnesota was, you know, unseasonably snowy and cold.
No problem for that outdoor concert, McGinnis said, noting the timing of next year’s event. “It’s a whole week later,” he said, “we’ll be all right.”