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A weekend in Texas-the Final Four is more than just basketball

By Steve Willits

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High school sports are what I normally write about in my weekly Hawkeye article however this week my focus was on college athletics and the business side of things. I spent last weekend in the Dallas area working at one of the most famous sporting events in the world and thought I write about the experience. My weekend consisted of work, play and interesting conversations with people from all over the country. Sports is big business and not all of it takes place on the court. I had a chance to be involved behind the scenes at this year’s Final Four and wanted to share a bit of that experience.

For the 3rd straight year I was fortunate enough to work at the NCAA Final Four, the men’s college basketball semi finals and Championship game. The semi final games were played last Saturday night and the National Championship game was played on Monday. The Final Four is always held at a neutral site which is selected a year in advance. In 2012 the games were in New Orleans, last year’s location was Atlanta and this year we were down in Arlington, Texas at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

The Final Four is a sporting event that many people put on their “bucket list” of things to do before they die and I was reminded of just how special it is when I struck up a conversation with a family on my plane ride from Seattle to Dallas. I was talking to a man that was traveling with his wife and their high school age grandson. The man told me of how he had a life threatening blood disease four years ago and was given a five percent chance to live. He survived and decided that he would allow each of his grandkids a chance to choose a trip that they would like to take when they were old enough. The grandson that he was traveling with is a huge basketball fan and his choice was to go to the Final Four and to see his favorite NBA basketball team, the Miami Heat play. They were going to fulfill both of his desires with one trip as they were on their way to Dallas for a few days before continuing on to Florida.

The company that I work for when at the Final Four is 3 Point Productions, a Seattle based company that consists of three of my good friends/former Sonics co-workers. Pat Walker is the President, Todd Albright is the Operations Director and Matt Heuer is the Creative Director. These three individuals are very talented and have created a company that is highly respected in the sports entertainment industry. All three worked in the Sonics Events and Entertainment Department back when we still had a basketball team in Seattle. They were in the department that was responsible for all of the entertainment elements that took place in the Key Arena on Sonics game nights. Some of the things that they were in charge of included: on court activities that took place on a game night (halftime shows, mascots, dance teams, promotional contests, etc), video board content, public address music and announcements as well as all activities in the concourses and in the plaza of the arena.

The three of them decided to start their own company a few years ago and have done very well. They get hired to produce and direct entertainment at some of the most prestigious sporting events in the country. Besides working at NCAA college sporting events, they have been hired by the NBA to direct and run events during their All Star Weekend (3 point contest, Slam Dunk Contest, the Celebrity Game and the actual All Star Game) as well as many others. The list of clients and projects is impressive and I invite anyone interested in the sports industry to visit their web-site. Check them out at www.3ptproductions.com.

Pat, Todd and Matt are often able to manage events themselves and if they need extra help when on location, they will sometimes hire people locally to assist (more often than not they contract individuals who already work in the sports industry in the local market). If the event is big enough and when it makes sense, they will contract me to work with them too. That is what has happened over the past three Final Fours.

In addition to the four of us, our Final Four staff this year consisted of other talented individuals with experience working for teams in the National Basketball Association: three Dallas Mavericks employees, one Oklahoma City Thunder employee, one New Orleans Pelicans employee and a former Orlando Magic employee.

Our responsibilities at this year’s Final Four were to produce and manage the entertainment that was going on at a couple of locations outside of the stadium, both of which were part of the NCAA Final Four weekend festivities. Stages were set up at two different sites, one stage was located in the parking lot at the stadium and was known as the “Tip Off Tailgate” (sponsored by Infiniti and by Capital One). The other stage was set up at Reunion Park in downtown Dallas (about 20 miles from the stadium) and the events going on there were all part of the “March Madness Music Festival” http://www.ncaa.com/marchmadness/musicfest At times there were activities going on at both locations simultaneously and therefore we split into two groups.

Friday was a rather slow day for me which meant I got to be a fan for a while. Some of my counterparts were working at Reunion Park where Jason Aldean, Eli Young Band, The Wild Feathers and Jack Ingram were performing throughout the day. I was working at the stadium stage and we didn’t have any live music that day. We did have a couple of well known DJ’s playing music and giving away prizes as people would stop by on their way to the stadium to watch open practices.

Each of the teams that qualify for the Final Four gets one hour of practice time on Friday inside the arena and the practice is open to the public. It was our slowest workday and therefore we decided give each other breaks so that we could all take turns going into the stadium to check out the team practices. The practices were free to everyone and therefore it gives people the chance to see the teams even if they aren’t able to get a ticket for the games. The NCAA opens up the building for free however they still do a nice job of making money. Concession stands and souvenir booths were open throughout the arena and there was heavy foot traffic at both. I went inside for a while when the Florida Gators were practicing and watching Billy Donavan’s team shoot around and run thorough some of their drills. In some ways it is a typical practice only the hype is unlike anything that these players normally see on a non game day. Not only were their thousands of fans in the stands watching but there were also hundreds of media members walking around on the floor with cameras, notepads and computers. Every major sports media outlet was in attendance and some were even broadcasting live from the court.

The open practice was also my first chance to experience the stadium and I was in awe when I walked into the building. I’ve been fortunate to visit many large stadiums throughout the country but I’ve never seen anything comparable to AT&T Stadium. The stadium opened in 2011 and it cost $1.15 billion

to build. Hanging from the ceiling are two large video screens that are back to back so that fans on both sides of the stadium can view them. The screens are 160 feet long and 72 feet tall and each costs $40 million. I’ve seen these video screens when watching Dallas Cowboys games on TV and have marveled at their size however seeing them on TV really doesn’t do any justice to how incredibly large they are in person. They definitely didn’t spare any costs when putting this building together. There are stadiums in the country that can boost of having greater traditions and history but none are quite as immaculate and majestic as AT&T.

Saturday was the day of the semi final games which meant that I was working outside the stadium at the parking lot stage before the stadium doors opened to the public. The NCAA did a nice job of creating a festival type of atmosphere outside the arena and rightfully so. It is one of the premiere sporting events in the world and it is important to create an experience for the fans that goes above and beyond what they would get at an ordinary event. Our stage had a couple of large screens that were showing basketball highlights throughout the day and we also had a couple of DJs that were playing music and hosting contests. One of my jobs was to pick contestants out of the crowd and bring them up onto the stage where they were asked trivia questions for a chance to win prizes.

Another responsibility that I had during the afternoon was to be the stage manager at an event a couple hundred yards away from the main stage. Infiniti was the primary advertiser of the Tailgate celebrations and they sponsored an interview segment called “Coaches Corner” in a designated area where they had parked some of their cars for people to check out. The Final Four is big business and Infiniti did a great job of making sure their brand was visible at the stadium. We had three well known college basketball coaches participate in “Coaches Corner”: Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth, Travis Ford of Oklahoma State and Tad Boyle of Colorado. The three coaches were interviewed by a host who took turns asking each of them various basketball questions that were then broadcasted onto large video boards nearby. My responsibilities included making sure the coaches, cameramen and interviewer had adequate space amongst the fans that gathered to listen in and to coordinate with a production Director as to when our live camera shots should and should not be on the video screen. The event lasted 45 minutes and went off very smoothly. The coaches had a good time, the fans enjoyed listening to their conversations and most importantly for me, the representatives from Infiniti were pleased.

The final event on the Tip Off Tailgate stage on Saturday was a one hour Dierks Bentley concert. My job assignments had already been completed by the time the concert started so I was able to watch part of the show from the stage, off to the side. The most memorable moment for me was watching Bentley as he exited the stage and was out of sight of the fans. I’m always curious to see how certain celebrities conduct themselves when no one is around to watch them and Bentley won my admiration. He made it a point to shake the hands of a few police officers that were placed on the back side of the stage for security. A couple of the police officers pulled out their cell phones to get pictures and Bentley was very cordial and accommodating. I didn’t know much about Dierks Bentley prior to the concert but I am now a fan. Great guy!!

The conclusion of the Dierks Bentley concert meant that I had completed my job for the day and that I

was free to head into the stadium to watch the Final Four. My work credential enabled me to get into the stadium however I did not have an assigned seat. I would need to find a standing room only location to watch the game. Fortunately AT&T probably has more standing room locations than any other stadium in the country and I was able to watch the first game of the night from a concourse end zone.

The first game of the night was the Connecticut Huskies vs the Florida Gators which was followed by the Wisconsin Badgers vs the Kentucky Wildcats. The thing that was interesting to me during the Florida-Connecticut game was the number of Kentucky and Wisconsin students that were standing way back in the concourse. Most of the assigned tickets enable people to sit in their same seats for both of the semi final games however there are two designated student sections in which they are only allowed to sit in their seats while their college team is playing. That meant that many of the Kentucky and Wisconsin fans had to wander around on the concourses while they waited for the Florida-Connecticut game to end. Many of them, especially the Kentucky students seemed to stand around huddled together and occasionally would start chanting “C-A-T-S, CATS, CATS, CATS”. The Wisconsin fans were more inclined to walk over to where many of us were watching the game and strike up conversations. A few of the Wisconsin fans were telling me that they had driven 15 hours overnight to get to Texas and they kept taking driving shifts while other people in the car would sleep.

My friend Tyler (an Oklahoma City Thunder employee who was working with us over the weekend)and I stood and watched Connecticut defeat Florida to advance to the Championship but at that point we were both tired of standing and wanting to sit for the Wisconsin-Kentucky game that would start 30 minutes later. We had been working all day and wanted to get off our feet so I had an idea. I knew that many of the Florida fans were dejected that their team had just lost and would therefore not want to stick around for the next game. I went over to one of the exits and decided that I would try to purchase a couple of ticket stubs from Florida fans that were leaving. The first few people that I asked turned down my offer as they wanted to keep their ticket stubs as souvenirs but I did finally find two people willing to accept my offer. Tyler and I each paid $20 to have a seat for the Wisconsin-Kentucky game. It was the best $20 I spent on the entire trip as we were able to sit back and watch a classic game that Kentucky won 74-73. A handful of us met up after the games ended and walked back to our hotel which was about a mile away. It was interesting to see basketball fans from all four schools hanging around outside the stadium afterwards. The Kentucky and Connecticut fans were celebrating and having a great time and the fans of the losing teams of Florida and Wisconsin was were much more subdued and quiet.

One other interesting side note that we found to be strange. On the way back to our hotel we walked past Rangers Ballpark, the baseball stadium where the Texas Rangers play. Apparently part of the baseball stadium that night was being used for a formal high school dance which also was ending just as thousands of us were exiting the basketball games. The students were exiting onto the sidewalks wearing fancy dresses and suits and had to dodge a bunch of rowdy basketball fans as they tried to make their way home. Arlington is not a transportation friendly place when over 80,000 people are leaving at the same time. I’m sure that many of high school students had a great time at the dance but I’m guessing that their commute home was extremely slow. I don’t know that I would have scheduled a school dance a few blocks away from the Final Four.

Sunday was my final workday in Texas and it was a non basketball day. The National Championship game was a day away and therefore there wasn’t anything going on at the stadium. There was however a full day of entertainment over at the March Madness Festival at the music stage in downtown Dallas’ Reunion Park.

We had to be at the park by 11am for a full day of music that included a line-up of local acts The Wind and the Wave followed by Pat Green before our two headline acts of the night: the band “fun” followed by Bruce Springsteen. These were free concerts so we were expecting huge crowds, what we weren’t expecting was pouring rain that made for a wet day. It definitely kept the attendance numbers down a little but there were still thousands of people that weren’t going to pass up an awesome lineup just because it was raining out. It was a long day but it was alsoexciting. My responsibilities included getting camera crews set up at various park locations for live shots that would be played on the big screen in between bands which meant I spent a lot of the day trekking around in the soggy park field where thousands of people were standing around. I was muddy and tired by the time Bruce Springsteen took the stage at 7:15 but I was still enthusiastic. I had never seen Bruce Springsteen perform and there I was getting paid to watch him in Dallas. By the way, he put on an incredible show. He ended up playing for over three hours and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Monday morning I went down into my hotel lobby where they had designated a space for vendors to sell officially licensed Final Four clothing and other souvenirs. I was surprised that they were already selling “Kentucky vs Connecticut” t-shirts since nobody knew who was going to be in the Championship game less than 36 hours earlier. The guys that were selling the merchandise noticed that I was wearing a Seahawks hat which started a Super Bowl conversation. One of the guy lives in Maine and his job is to fly all over the country to major sporting events to sell merchandise. His company set up temporary shops in Seattle after the Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl. They sold Super Bowl merchandise in Seattle starting right after the Seahawks won the NFC Championship game and continued to do so until about a week after the Super Bowl. He said he has been doing this for many years and that there were two interesting trends in Seattle. He said that they sold more merchandise in Seattle before the Super Bowl than just about any other city that he has ever worked in but that our Super Bowl Champions merchandise didn’t sell very well after the Hawks won the Super Bowl. I’m not sure what surprised me more, the fact that Seattle fans weren’t buying as much Super Bowl Champions merchandise as other cities or that a guy who lives in Maine travels the country selling sports merchandise. I do know that I saw thousands of people all over town wearing “Final Four” gear for four straight days (myself included) so I’m sure he is making more than enough money to justify his traveling merchandise stand.

My 3 Point Production pals didn’t need me on Monday so I caught a plane and headed home while they stuck around to work the Kid Rock concert in the stadium parking lot before they headed back into the stadium to watch Connecticut defeat Kentucky to win the 2014 NCAA basketball Championship. 3 Point Productions did an excellent job all week and I have a feeling that they will continue to get hired to work at the Final Four. The Final Four will be in Indianapolis in 2015 and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will get a chance to work again because I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend in April.

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The student news site of Mountlake Terrace High School in Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
A weekend in Texas-the Final Four is more than just basketball