If a stranger stops you for directions to a Twin Cities sports venue in coming days, weeks, months ... be kind. He or she might be an athlete, hurrying to compete for an NCAA championship.
Starting Friday, with the Women’s Frozen Four at Ridder Arena, the University of Minnesota will host four NCAA postseason events in 23 days.
Next week, the men’s Swimming and Diving Championships return to the Freeman Aquatic Center. Two weeks later, the Men’s Frozen Four is back at Xcel Energy Center.
On the same day the NCAA crowns a new men’s hockey champion, April 7, the University also will host an NCAA women’s gymnastics regional.
“It is a lot,” Gophers senior associate athletic director Tom McGinnis said. “Moving forward, we’ve been a little bit more strategic about how we bid with the NCAA to make sure we don’t have so many clustered together like we have right now.”
This is just a warm-up. The volleyball Final Four will pack Target Center in December, followed by the 2019 men’s basketball Final Four and 2020 Wrestling Championships — both in larger than life settings, at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Kate Mortenson, president of the men’s basketball Final Four local organizing committee, said the Twin Cities’ appeal to the NCAA goes beyond the stadiums, arenas, airport and light rail system.
“The University of Minnesota has a significant track record of delivering championship events with excellence,” she said. “I don’t know that we would have the opportunity to host a Final Four if the NCAA didn’t have the confidence they do in the University.”
McGinnis, who oversees the University’s role as NCAA host — specifically event management, marketing and media logistics — said the school isn’t doing all this for the money. The profits either go back to the NCAA for nationwide distribution or get reinvested into the events.
McGinnis said hosting “is an opportunity for us to give back to our fans,” bringing, for example, “the best wrestlers, swimmers and hockey players in all of college sports right to our own backyard.”
He also noted the Twin Cities’ economic impact, “obviously in different scales and scopes, depending on which event it is.”
The Men’s Frozen Four is nearly sold out, even though the 16-team NCAA field won’t be set until Sunday.
The NCAA sold out 3,400-seat Ridder Arena months in advance of the 2013 and 2015 Women’s Frozen Fours, with Minnesota winning both titles. This year’s event took a hit when Wisconsin eliminated the Gophers last weekend in the quarterfinals.
So far, 2,677 tickets have been sold for Friday’s semifinals and 1,933 for Sunday’s championship game.
This will be the fourth time in nine years Minnesota has hosted the Women’s Frozen Four, but the next four are slated for eastern U.S. sites.
“This should be a wonderful weekend with four quality teams playing at a real high level,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. “Ticket sales are strong. I think the atmosphere for women’s hockey is going to be excellent.”
Kristin Fasbender oversees the Men’s Frozen Four and volleyball Final Four as the NCAA’s director of championships. This will be her 19th Men’s Frozen Four, so she was at the X in 2002 and 2011, the last two times Minnesota hosted. In 2002, the Gophers ended a 23-year NCAA title drought with a 4-3, overtime victory over Maine, delighting a partisan crowd.
“I always say one of the most exciting buildings I’ve ever been in — and I’ve seen lots of sporting events — was the 2002 Frozen Four,” Fasbender said. “The excitement in that building — it was kind of a perfect storm.”
The last time Minnesota hosted the volleyball Final Four was 1988, when Texas upset Hawaii for the title before a then-record crowd of 9,107 at Williams Arena. Now, double it. The past two volleyball finals have drawn record crowds of 17,561 (in Omaha) and 18,351 (in Kansas City, Mo.).
With volleyball’s popularity in Minnesota soaring, and Target Center newly renovated, Fasbender said the atmosphere for the next Final Four “is going to be amazing.” McGinnis said ticket sales are already ahead of the Omaha and Kansas City pace. No wonder the NCAA likes it here.
“If we hosted a [Men’s] Frozen Four, and ended up with 5,000 people at Xcel, or hosted volleyball and ended up with 2,500 people at Target Center, they’d never come back,” McGinnis said.
The NCAA Wrestling Championships packed 19,657 into Scottrade Center in St. Louis for last year’s finals. Organizers plan to have 30,000 seats ready at U.S. Bank Stadium for that event in 2020.
“I’ve had the opportunity to go, and it is a phenomenal championship,” Gophers AD Mark Coyle said. “I think our fans will be blown away by the excitement of it.”
Then what? The NCAA men’s basketball tournament returns in 2021, for a regional at Target Center, and the men’s Gymnastics Championships also return that year.
Minnesota lost out when it bid for the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship. The sites for that event are set through 2024, but Coyle says Minnesota will land it eventually.
“Oh, no doubt,” he said. “You host the Super Bowl, which is the premier worldwide event, and I think the success we had with that here in the Twin Cities, I think there’s no doubt we could host college football.”
First, local organizers might want to catch a breath.