While It May be Time for the Final Four to Return to NBA Arenas, No Change is ImminentPosted by Bennet Hayes on January 29th, 2014
It’s getting hard to remember the days when Final Fours weren’t confined to cavernous NFL stadiums. It’s been almost 20 years since the last non-dome Final Four (Continental Airlines Arena and East Rutherford, New Jersey, played host back in 1996), and the streak has also served to rob the two coasts of any national semifinal hosting duties. There had been recent discussion of bringing college basketball’s biggest stage back to NBA arenas, but Monday’s announcement of the finalists for the 2017-20 Final Fours revealed that shift won’t be occurring for at least another seven years, if at all. In theory, the practice of getting as many fans as possible to the event is a noble one – more eyeballs is better, after all – but the continued avoidance of the two coasts (you know, where there are like, a few kind of important cities) is a puzzling oversight by the NCAA. Even forgetting for a moment that nobody wants to visit Indianapolis in April, or that part of what makes college basketball unique is its geographic comprehensiveness, the NCAA’s shunning of east and west coast host sites puzzles on a purely financial level. The brightest spotlight – and relatedly, most money – is to be found in America’s signature cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, DC, etc.), most of which can’t currently accommodate the NCAA’s 60,000 minimum seat requirement for a hosting facility. No worries if the host city rotation retains a heavy dose of domes, but NCAA, it makes too much sense (and cents) not to bring the Final Four back to the biggest population centers from time to time.
Forgetting practical reasons for a moment, the NCAA’s reluctance to bring the Final Four back to NBA arenas takes away from the ubiquity of the sport’s reach. Professional sports are confined to 40 or so major American cities; college football covers a little more ground, but there are still nine states without an FBS program. In college basketball, only Alaska lacks a D-I college basketball program, and every one of the 351 programs has a “neighbor” within a few hours of them. Hoops covers America unlike any other sport; the game is almost everywhere. Equally spreading Final Four sites around the entire nation is a quixotic notion, but the sizable gap in current coverage doesn’t jive with one of the sport’s most defining elements.
Taking the Final Four back to NBA arenas from time to time would have a number of economic consequences. First and foremost, ticket prices would skyrocket. The event has proven capable of selling out 80,000 seat facilities, so squeezing the game into an arena roughly a quarter of that size would surely induce a spike in average ticket price. Said increase would help the NCAA offset the cost of losing 60,000 patrons, but it also would make attending the event financially untenable for many fans. Having spent time in the back rows of some domes myself, I would argue that eliminating the swath of “binoculars-necessary” seats from the market is doing everyone a favor, but there is understandably sentimental value in “just being there” even if your best views are on the Jumbotron.
But the more impactful financial implication travels well beyond Final Four weekend. If the NCAA were to bring the Final Four to Madison Square Garden, Staples Center, or the Verizon Center, for example, the increased exposure could only attract more fans to the sport. Media attention would be noticeably exaggerated, the game atmosphere more electric than ever, and one of America’s most populous, influential cities would feel the passion and energy of college basketball for a weekend. No offense to Minneapolis, San Antonio, or any of the other finalists for those future Final Fours, but save for Chicago, no inland American city can possibly match those coastal hubs when it comes to the ability to generate buzz and excitement. The future financial impact would be harder to quantify than the gain/loss associated with ticket sales, but throwing a bone to those American cities most responsible for setting agendas and popularizing trends sounds fiscally savvy to me.
The host site selection process is clearly not a simple exercise. Plenty of smaller elements surely demand analysis, as do dozens of logistical requirements that need to be checked off before a city is deemed fit to host college basketball’s flagship event. With this in mind, there are definite drawbacks to bringing the Final Four back to NBA arenas. And really, come early April, we’ll all be happy when four college basketball teams, all on at least four-game winning streaks, congregate in any city in America. But with each passing year and every soulless host facility (too much?), the clamor for the Final Four’s return to real, true basketball arenas will grow louder. At some point the noise should grow too loud for the NCAA to drown out, but stay patient coastal residents, take a deep breath dome antagonists. 2021 is a long ways away.