No sunglasses will be necessary inside U.S. Bank Stadium for NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament events taking off Friday and peaking next Monday night with the national championship game.
The $5 million blackout curtains were installed and drawn late last week, as media got a sneak preview of the shiny, custom-made hard court locking into place for college basketball’s biggest weekend. Come Saturday, 72,000 fans will arrive in Minneapolis to watch the four teams play in two semifinal games. The two winners will vie for the championship April 8 and the one-in-a-million experience of playing beneath the NCAA’s 100-foot high, 80-foot wide octagonal scoreboard.
“It will be loud. It will be electric,” SMG general manager Patrick Talty said. SMG operates the building and is in charge of the extensive, carefully timed maneuverings in the building for the event. “The student-athlete has worked their entire life to play on this court and play for a championship.”
The NCAA’s Final Four weekend is the culmination of the cultural phenomenon that March Madness has become. The single-elimination tournament began with 68 teams that earned spots through their play during the regular season. Games played during the past two weekends determined who earned a place in the Final Four in Minneapolis. Whether Duke’s exceptional 18-year-old forward, Zion Williamson, will be a part of it could affect fan fervor. His play has driven up ticket prices all season when the Blue Devils played road games.
Accounting for a share of the growth in popularity of March Madness are the low-stake brackets that can be filled out by anyone with a pen or a computer. The large field and one-and-done nature of the tournament can almost give a random guesser a shot against the superfans.
As for the logistics in Minneapolis, those leave little to chance. Plans have been shaping up since 2014 when the $1.1 billion stadium was a muddy hole in the ground.
The stadium — which opened in August 2016 and has hosted three Minnesota Vikings seasons, a Super Bowl, the high-flying X Games and mega concerts by Metallica, Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan — will be tested this week as never before.
The transformation of the building from a football temple to college basketball’s biggest stage is the public side of a carefully choreographed behind-the-scenes operation that begins when the doors open Friday at 10 a.m. That’s when fans can enter for free — no ticket necessary — to watch the four remaining teams loosen up in relaxed, playful shootarounds with the music pumping. Practices start at 11 a.m. and each team will have an hour.
The more serious team practices occur behind locked doors when no one — not even cleaners — is allowed inside with them.
Tyus Jones knows the Final Four thrill well. Before he was playing point guard in the NBA for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Apple Valley native lived the hoop dream of every kid who’s ever slipped on sneakers. In 2015, he was named the tournament’s outstanding player after he led Duke to the national title. It was a “once-in-a lifetime type of thing and something I’ll never forget,” Jones said last week.
Basketball heroes present and past will be in town starting Thursday when the coaches’ convention begins. School banners and player photos will go up on the four downtown Minneapolis hotels where the teams stay.
Unlike the Super Bowl, all the Final Four action will be in Minneapolis, mostly between U.S. Bank Stadium, the Final Four Fan Fest at the Convention Center and Tip-Off Tailgate party on Nicollet Mall. Three free concerts are scheduled at the Armory — on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, featuring the Chainsmokers, Jonas Brothers and Katy Perry.
“The puzzle pieces are coming together,” said Cydni Bickerstaff, operations vice president for the Minneapolis Final Four Local Organizing Committee. “All these months of work, it’s all falling into place.”
The Final Four vibe is lower key and less glitzy than the Super Bowl. Organizers talk about a family friendly, relaxed atmosphere in contrast to the swank of millionaire athletes, billionaire owners and sponsors who swoop in for the Super Bowl and dash after the game.
The local organizing committee estimates 94,000 visitors will come to town and spend an estimated $386 a day over an average stay of 3.4 days. The estimated economic impact is $142 million. At $338 million, the estimated impact of the Super Bowl was nearly double.
At a City Hall news conference last week, political and public safety leaders said they’re ready. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the city has proved itself. “We do these events and we do them with style,” he said.
But the Final Four is going to cost the public millions more than the Super Bowl. After reimbursements, the cost of the Final Four to the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) — the public body that oversees the stadium budget on behalf of taxpayers — is estimated at $10 million. But the MSFA notes that half that cost — $5.2 million — is for the custom blackout curtains that they say will be used for many events for years to come.
In contrast, the MSFA paid $627,000 for the Super Bowl in 2018, with the NFL covering most costs related to the building.
The incremental public safety cost to the city is estimated at $1.3 million and that will be covered by the local organizing committee.
The biggest challenges will be inside the stadium, as the building must be cleaned top to bottom from one packed day to another. The stadium will seat more fans than ever — 72,000 — compared to 67,612 for the Super Bowl.
Talty, a veteran of Final Fours at other arenas, said fans of college basketball will crank up the energy and volume to the level of that 2018 Stefon Diggs last-second touchdown catch against the New Orleans Saints.
“Just take the Minneapolis Miracle,” Talty said, as he stood near the 2019 Final Four logo at center court on Friday. “It will feel like that the entire time. It will be that electric.”