By Greg Johnson
HOUSTON – One of the most intriguing parts about the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship is its ability to surprise.
But when it comes to hosting the Final Four, surprises are a downer.
That’s why about 100 people, including members of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball staff, the Houston Local Organizing Committee, Reliant Park administrators, security personnel, members of the Houston Police Department, and representatives from broadcast partners CBS and Turner Sports prepared in detail last week for the marquee event that will be played April 2 and 4.
The goal is to make sure the thousands of fans who travel to Houston have a rewarding and, perhaps even more importantly, uncomplicated time.
The sessions included a five-hour operations meeting that went over the details – hour-by-hour, and often minute-by-minute – of everything that will be occurring over Final Four weekend in Houston.
That included related events such as The Big Dance, Bracket Town, the National Association of Basketball Coaches Convention (2,500 attendees) and the numerous community-service events and staging areas that will take place over the Final Four weekend.
Several of the events will occur in Reliant Park, which houses Reliant Stadium where the national semifinals and finals will be played. Also there are the Reliant Center (706,000 square feet of exhibition space) and the Reliant Arena (25,000 square feet). Other events will be held in downtown Houston and other parts of the city. The Astrodome is also part of Reliant Park, but that facility is currently not being used.
Many aspects are new for the men’s basketball staff this year. First, the event has never had this much space to host the games and the other events associated with them. For example, the area has more than 20,000 parking spaces.
Also, Reliant Stadium will be hosting the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo March 1-20. As soon as that event ends, equipment for the Men’s Final Four, such as the court and special seating, will begin to be installed. It takes the Reliant Stadium staff about 80 hours to clear all the dirt used for the rodeo.
Jerry Anderson, a senior principal architect and leader of the event group Populous (a sports-staging group), facilitated the operations seminar. Populous has helped with the last 26 Super Bowls, nine Olympic Games, nine Major League Baseball All-Star Games, four soccer World Cups and the NHL Winter Classic. The firm also assisted with the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
NCAA’s interim vice president of championships and alliances Greg Shaheen.
“We have carefully gone about implementing a steady growth plan for the Final Four that now allows so many more fans to be part of the events,” said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA’s interim vice president of championships and alliances who oversees the championships strategic progress and brought Populous on board for assistance. “For some time, we have needed to grow the infrastructure of the Final Four to match the growing fan interest. We’re there now, and preparation and simulations such as this make us all more prepared for issues – big or small.”
With so many moving parts to the Final Four, it’s easy to see why the operations seminar is needed. About 80 of the 100 people taking part in the meeting were there in person, while the rest watched via video conference.
“It was right on target,” Anderson said of the session. “We accomplished what needed. The participation was excellent. People wanted to communicate with each other, and they did that. They gave good information to each other. The dialogue is so important.”
Many participants stayed for more than an hour afterward to discuss more details, such as when shuttle buses will arrive and what type of credential or wrist band a person must have to enter a certain building or event.
The seminar chronicled when the teams will arrive for practice and when student-athletes would be available for the media, what time the gates would open to the public and when deliveries for the Barbecue Tipoff would be made.
No detail was left out. Often Anderson would ask a question such as, “When are the Girl Scouts arriving to put the seat cushions in the stadium?” Or, “Are people allowed back into a certain area of the stadium after it is cleared by the security personnel?”
This was a meeting to fill in all the gaps and for people to ask questions they may not have had an opportunity to ask previously.
Populous senior architect Jerry Anderson.
“You have to see the whole picture and see how you are connected to it,” Anderson said. “That is the key. Everyone heard what somebody else is going to be doing. Now, they know about it, and they know how they can support someone. They also know who to turn to if they need help.”
Overall, Anderson is pleased with the preparation. He should know, considering all the experience he has working with the largest sporting events in the world.
But he also knows things don’t always go as planned. Now, at least, everyone has a sense of who to talk to should a surprise occur.
“We were able to work with this group and help try to raise the bar for an event that was already set high,” Anderson said. “A meeting like this shows that everybody is approachable, and they realize they may know some information that someone else may not know. It was a stellar session.”