By Aaron Gordon of 15min2exit.com
The Final Four has always struck me as an odd event. It is the only time where a sport completely transforms its game day environment for its biggest event. College basketball is largely played in intimate and intense environments in front it’s most passionate fans. But, when it comes time for the Final Four, the game moves to a football stadium and the size of the crowd is quadrupled.
As far as I’m concerned, there are two considerations in the transformation of the Final Four from a basketball arena to a football stadium: the quality of the stadium, and the location of the court. We can see two distinct stages in the NCAA’s quest to make the Final Four a premier event in American sports.
The first stage was the move from basketball arenas to larger stadiums. This move began in 1997 with the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. By my estimation, the NCAA didn’t really understand what type of venues needed to be used. They experimented with all types of larger venues: decent stadiums (RCA Dome in 1997 and 2000, Alamodome in 1998 and 2004, Georgia Dome in 2002, and Super Dome in 2003), less than decent stadiums (Edward Jones Dome in 2005) and atrocities (Tropicana Field in 1999 and the Metrodome in 2001). This stage of experimentation was highlighted by the Tropicana Field Final Four of 1999. Tropicana Field was one of the worst stadiums in baseball the day it opened, and has only cemented its status thereafter. How it was awarded the Final Four is beyond me. (Ed. note: Maybe that’s why Duke lost to UConn in 1999…aha!)
At some point, likely soon after the Tropicana Field fiasco, the NCAA decided to start awarding Final Fours to actually good stadiums. The decent stadiums held their ground through the mid 2000’s (RCA Dome, Georgia Dome and Alamodome in 2006-2008), and then Ford Field was given the event in 2009. This was a groundbreaking year for the Final Four for two reasons. First, a premier facility was given the event (it was the first stadium in the large venue era of the Final Four that was state-of-the-art). Second, and more importantly, this was the first year the court was placed in the middle of the arena.
Prior to Ford Field, the court had been placed towards one endzone, and only half of the large venue was open to seating. Of course, this still offered twice the capacity of a basketball arena. The Georgia Dome and Alamodome saw attendances of 51,458 and 43,257 in 2007 and 2008, respectively. The next year, when Ford Field placed the court on the 50 yard line, the attendance increased to 72,922 because they opened the entire stadium to fans.
One might think this worked out much worse for all 73,000 in attendance, but this was not the case.Under the previous endzone format, fans sitting in the temporary seats had the experience of watchingthe back of the person’s head in front of them. By putting the court in the center, more of the seatingaround the court could be specifically designed for the basketball game, and the pitch of the seats couldbe altered.
This 50 yard line format has been used in every subsequent Final Four, including this year’s in Reliant Stadium. The transformation is complete for the NCAA. They have successfully brought the biggest event they have in front of as many people as possible. There’s just one problem: everything that makes basketball great is nullified when placed on the 50 yard line of a football stadium. The Crazies should know this best. Cameron Indoor is a tiny, tiny venue by today’s standards, and yet it is often lauded as one of the best venues in college sports. This is no coincidence. Basketball is a game designed for anintimate environment. The extreme athleticism of the players is best appreciated when fans are actually close enough to marvel at them. The further away you are, the slower they look and the less impressive it all seems.
Likewise, Cameron Indoor is one of the best venues because every single fan is into the game, screaming like asylum patients and shaking like them, too. 8,000 fans in a tiny gym are exponentially more intimidating and chill-inducing than 70,000 screaming fans in a football stadium. It is depersonalizing and estranged. You’re spectators, not participants.
Of course, that is even assuming all 70,000 attendees are screaming fans, which of course they are not. A majority of the fans at the Final Four these days are indifferent. They are exactly who the NCAA is marketing to now: casual spectators coming to an event, not passionate fans who would attend regardless of the cost.
But, as Cormac McCarthy wrote in No Country For Old Men, this is the dismal tide. The NCAA wants basketball in on the riches the Super Bowl or the BCS Championship offers, and they see the nature of the game as irrelevant in their quest for further prosperity. You know, because the NCAA doesn’t make enough money already. And it’s not just money from the extra seats; they can charge more for advertising since more eyes will see it, and they can ask more for TV deals.
I suppose this is just the state of modern sports. Personally, I think it affects college basketball the most, since it is the sport most ill-suited for profit-seeking maximization. It is best enjoyed on a small, intimate scale. It has the smallest playing surface, the densest concentration of athletes, and the most subtle movements have the biggest impact. It is a beautiful game to watch, but not from 500 feet away.
Aaron Gordon, a senior at the University of Maryland, is the founder of 15min2exit.com, a blog about the stadium experience for fans of all sports. Check the site out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks to Aaron for this excellent article in the wake of this year’s Final Four. And for being the most balanced University of Maryland basketball fan of all time.
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