NCAA TOURNAMENT HOSTING: Hidden Hurdles and Helpful Hints (WBCA April, 2009)

As college basketball moves into its season of review and reflection, doubtless there will be many discussions about the 2009  Division I tournament and the logistics of seeding, the needs of hosting, the restrictions of television and the current economic reality.

But as the women’s game seeks to strike the balance between a competitively balanced tournament and a well-attended one, we would be remiss to not examine the successes and challenges faced by the host institutions themselves. What lessons were learned and how might they be applied to games and tournaments across the Divisions?

THE DEVIL IS IN THE (NCAA MANUAL) DETAILS

While it’s all well and good to have hosting guidelines and requirements laid out in a manual, it’s important to take steps to ensure it’ll be as a road map, not a doorstop. “We actually had a meeting in Indianapolis in August, where everyone was given the manual and they literally walked you through it over about a day and a half of meetings,” recalled Todd Stewart, Associate Athletic Director-Communications at Western Kentucky. From that point on there were periodic conference calls, emails and site visits by NCAA personnel. “There is a lot of communication and they do a tremendous job of making it very clear what you need to do, so nobody could really say, ‘Oh I really didn’t know we needed to do that,’ or, ‘I hadn’t heard that before.’”

It’s not just about “rules and specs,” but intent and purpose, commented Brandon Yopp, Assistant Media Relations Director at North Carolina State. “The big difference in an NCAA championship, from a hosting standpoint, is you have to understand how strongly the NCAA places the focus on the student athlete’s arrival at the arena. From the second they step on the property everything has to be to the letter of the way the NCAA would like it. And they want it equitable.”

“When you first host and you read through the manual you might say, ‘Well we don’t really need four locker room attendants, we can probably get away with two.’ Or, ‘We don’t need a greeter to escort them from the loading dock to the locker room, it’s 100 feet, what do they need that for?’ When you have it in place and you see how smoothly it works, you really find the value in that when you see the reaction of the student athletes.”

THIS IS NOT A SOLO ACT

The reality of hosting a tournament game is that the rest of the athletic programs don’t shut down nor does one’s staff suddenly increase exponentially. “It’s very challenging because again, to the NCAA’s credit, they run it as though you have the top two ranked men’s teams in the country at your place,” said Stewart. “It’s not based on who you have, or who you might have. We could have had North Carolina’s men playing the Connecticut men, and we could have done that here. That’s how sophisticated of a set up they require.”

For that reason, explained Stewart, “you really have to have a huge buy in of volunteers. You don’t have the money to pay 100 people to work for you. It’s just people who either take pride in the University or your community or both. They want to be involved, help out, and have it be a good impression for everybody.”

In Raleigh, said Yopp, “we’ve been fortunate in that we have a really active Convention and Visitors Bureau and they have been absolutely unbelievable. Their management has helped us form a Local Organizing Committee (LOC) that is actually separate of the Tournament Management Committee.” Members of the LOC include people with the Raleigh-Durham airport, Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, N.C. State, as well as representatives from the Centennial Authority (which runs the RBC Center.) “It makes sense for all of these collective groups to commit resources to try make the championships a success. So, when sales don’t dictate that our budget will allow us to buy street banners downtown, the LOC finds a way to buy the banners. When we may not necessarily have the money to do a face painter or the exterior things — those outreach events in between sessions — the LOC will cover the band and the face painting and the things that we do to try and make it a more appealing event. That has just been a huge, huge factor in our success.”

He points to the Saturday games as an example. The BaylorLouisville game was first, followed by Maryland-Vanderbilt. “We had a pretty good crowd considering it was all out of market teams. Baylor had a good contingent there and then for the second game a lot of those fans stayed. It ended up being one of the best games that I’ve seen all year (Maryland’s furious comeback). The crowd obviously benefited from doing the things outside that kept them on site — the things that the LOC helped us to do helped to make that second crowd even better than the first.”

WHO’S COVERING THIS?

In the past, the number of credentialed media attending an event has often been used as a measure of its success. These days, slashed travel budgets that limit even those willing to travel cross-country have made that an invalid measurement. It’s also posed challenged for host-site media directors looking to encourage local coverage, especially if the host team hasn’t made the tournament. Yopp noted that one of the directors of the large local paper — the News and Observer — served on the local organizing committee. “We had no one local [playing, yet] we had two News and Observer writers cover the entire championship. While it is local news, there were a lot of other things going on in town, too. I have to believe that their involvement on the front end had something to do with that.”

“It’s always interesting to see, especially in these economic times, what we have to do to be able to take care of the folks that can’t make it,” said Judy Willson, Assistant Director of Media Relations at the University of New Mexico. Hosting Kansas State, Drexel (PA), Vanderbilt and Western Carolina meant that most team’s media outlets hired local writers to string for them. The time difference, combined with being scheduled as the late game by ESPN, meant a high-pressure push to meet deadlines. “We just roll and we do the best we can to accommodate no matter where the teams are from, whether its Eastern Time zone or Central Time zone.”

While Willson also had to deal with both Lobo teams being in the NIT, not to mention spring baseball and a ski team that had finished third in the Nationals, she took a pro-active approach to supporting coverage and attendance by identifying engaging NCAA storylines and getting that information out to local outlets. “When I saw we were getting Drexel I thought, ‘How cool is that — to get a team that has never been before. I don’t think it would have mattered where they got sent, it would be a great story. That was something that we could push. [With] Western Carolina coming in, having Kellie Jolly Harper as their coach was a storyline that people could get into and understand: here’s a three-time All-American under Pat Summitt and now she’s continuing the legacy bringing her team to the NCAA tournament.”

“I did two quick paragraphs on each of the four schools coming saying here is how they got here, here is who their coach is, here’s who their top players are and if you want more, here’s the link their website. I sent that out to our media and I put it on our website.”

California took it a step further. Though they served as a host, the Bears ended up traveling to play in Los Angeles and Trenton. So, they decided to create some self-generated coverage: “We did a blog,” said Herb Benenson, Assistant Athletic Director/Media Relations. “We weren’t blogging during the game, but it was about everything else that you couldn’t read in the newspaper — putting up pictures of the team on the bus, pictures from practice, or talking about where the team went for a team meal. In less than two weeks it had over 4500 hits. Obviously there were people that were following it, and it was a great way to get some news out.”

BALANCING RISK AND REWARD

The reality for any hosting institution is that there is an inherent financial risk. “We knew that,” said Jay Blackman, Director of Communications and Media Relations at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, “but because of two years of actually making a small profit on each [previous hosting], I guess we really didn’t fully understand the risk. We really thought we’d get Tennessee or the Lady Mocs (who didn’t make the tournament) or at least Vanderbilt. When we didn’t, it kind of set in that ‘Oh, oh, we could be in trouble here.’” That being said, he feels Chattanooga is definitely interested in putting in future hosting bids. “The experience was good. It’s a fun event. It’s an exciting event to see what teams you are getting. Those are the positives–just the excitement around it.”

The feelings are similar at Texas Tech, one of several sites whose host team wasn’t in the tournament. “I think we enjoyed it,” said Chris Cook, Assistant Athletic Director/Media Relations. “When I say, ‘I think’ I know I enjoyed it. And Texas Tech gets a lot of benefit out of it. We’re showcasing our arena and parts of the campus and our name is out there every time a game is shown.”

Also, noted Willson, hosting next year can be used as a source motivation: “It gives our fans and our team one more opportunity to battle and fight. I’m sure Coach Flannigan is putting that up on the board saying, ‘We’re not doing the N IT thing again!’”

AT THE HEART OF HOSTING

Come tournament time, there is much talk of the “championship atmosphere” as a direct correlation to attendance, but Texas Tech’s Cook is convinced there’s more to it than sold out arenas. “Your crowd can dictate that,” he acknowledged, “but I think when those kids are out on the court they hear their fans and they block out that there are empty sections in the stands. They get that there is that championship atmosphere, that they are in the NCAA tournament. Just the fact that they sit in front of a banner at a press conference or they step out onto a court that has the NCAA logos, they know what they are in a ‘championship atmosphere,’ regardless of or how many people may or may not be there. If you asked them today, ‘Are you disappointed?’ I don’t think you’d find one that said they were. I think they’re all very excited to be in the tournament and each round and each step you take I imagine it’s better and better.”

“The people that we have here that put this together,” he added, “I think they make that atmosphere. They give you that feeling by the way they treat [the student-athletes]. We didn’t take the attitude, ‘Well we’re not in it so were going to just go through the motions.’ We did it as if we had four Texas Tech’s in the event. We treated Baylor, a nemesis in the Big 12, like rock stars. And we did the same with South Dakota State, the ‘newbies.’”

“When a student-athlete can say, ‘Hey this season has culminated with this. These people are treating us great. They respect us,’ I think that’s where that feeling comes from — more than looking in the stands and seeing a lot of people. That’s where your championship atmosphere, your sense of belonging and your sense of accomplishment comes from.”

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One Response to “NCAA TOURNAMENT HOSTING: Hidden Hurdles and Helpful Hints (WBCA April, 2009)”

  1. […] says you have to give a site at least a year to prep (’cause it’s a complicated process). But perhaps you say, for instance, the top 16 of the 2012 end of the year polls get first dibs to […]

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