Experts: The Transformation of Final Four Stadiums

By Aaron Gordon of

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.

The view from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the home of the Indianapolis Colts and the 2010 Final Four. (Property of Crazie-Talk)

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.


Courtesy of

The friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Friendly to Duke, that is. (Photo courtesy of

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, 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.

If you like this kind of material, check Crazie-Talk frequently. There are so many talented college basketball writers (many that follow our Twitter) and we’re excited to start publishing a greater variety of articles. If you have a story idea, pitch it to us: Thanks!

Answering The Call

Jon and Nolan combined for 42 points in Duke's vengeful romp over West Virginia Saturday night. (courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Just some morning-after thoughts from Duke’s 21-point blowout win over West Virginia last night:

  • Can you believe where we are right now? I mean, really. This has to be one of K’s most masterful coaching jobs. This team was shrouded in doubt coming into the season, with the transfer of Elliot Williams to his hometown school, the departure of Gerald Henderson, and the fact that our big men were big, but unproven. Incredible that what the national media (including ourselves) called ‘not a great, vintage Duke team’ just dragged the Big East’s best up and down the floor. This victory wasn’t really in question at any point in the second half, either: the lead fluctuated between 6-10 before Duke broke it open with around 8 minutes left. I was pulling my hair out at halftime in anticipation of a WVU run—but it never came. And that was thanks to our…
  • DEFENSE. The Mountaineers shot the ball very well in the first half—I got tired of watching us not defend Flowers and Wellington Smith on the perimeter. The eight point halftime margin was nice—and more than I expected. But our defense, which forced 10 Mountaineer turnovers while we gave up the rock just five times, was our driving force tonight. West Virginia has a bunch of great athletes, which is why they had four blocks to our one. But our pressure man-to-man came through again, holding WVU to just 57 points and absolutely deflating a huge yellow-clad audience.
  • Kyle Singler absolutely lit it up. We escaped Baylor without the ACC Tourney MVP scoring a single field goal. But he erupted in the first half, scoring 14 points on some amazing takes to the hole and jumpers. Kyle looked liked an All-American one game after disappearing completely. If Gordon Hayward played his way into the first round against Michigan State, you have to say that Kyle’s 21 on 50% shooting is probably pushing his stock up like the Dow in the 90s.
  • The beard still horrifies Duke opponents. Brian Zoubek had another ‘vintage Z’ performance (is it too early to say that?), scoring six points on three layups, and pulling down 10 boards. Of our stunning 20 assists, Zoubek had three, all on offensive rebounds and kick outs to the perimeter. The nation’s number one offensive rebounder is playing himself into late second round consideration. I mean really, Zoubek could be a 12th man on an NBA roster. With some work, maybe he could be like Todd Macculoch. Wow.
  • Haters where? Most of the national media predicted Duke to lose this one: Parrish, Forde, Katz, O’Neil? Thanks for the newfound respect, we’ll take it. Did anyone predict Duke to blow out the Mountaineers, or for Jordan Davidson to hit the game’s final three pointer? By the way—congrats Jordie for going 100% in the Final Four so far! And a career high! I bet Davidson is glad he came back for the new Masters in Markets & Management Studies program
  • We hope Da’Sean Butler recovers quickly. The young man has been a warrior all season, hitting an astouding six game winning shots, including this miraculous one against Georgetown in the Big East Tourney Final (thanks for beating the Hoyas! You too, Ohio!). Butler is WVU’s best player, and Bob Huggins considers him the best player he’s ever coached. High praise, considering Huggins has mentored guys like Kenyon Martin at Cincy. Butler’s gruesome fall after colliding with Zoubek is apparently a sprained knee, thankfully not an ACL injury. We wish him a quick convalescence because he should be a first round pick.
  • Who the heck is Deniz Kilicli? OK, we found him. Yikes.
  • Also, it should be noted that Cam Thoroughman, who after our 2008 loss to WVU famously said “Oh my god. Are you kidding me?” after being informed that Paulus was a McDonald’s All-American, has no game and couldn’t elicit enough respect from Huggins to play more than one garbage minute yesterday. I can take the barbs from real players like Joe Alexander or Mazzulla (sort of). But Thoroughman should keep his mouth shut.
  • We saw Mr. Jim Scheyer outside Lucas Oil Stadium a few hours before the Butler-Mich. State tip off. I bet he enjoyed his son carve up the Mountaineer defense for 23 points. Wish we’d seen his wife too, though.
  • I’m really glad Miles Plumlee hung on the rim, although the technical call was still questionable. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Andrew Bogut dislocated his elbow last night in a similar play, and we all remember Evan Turner’s back injury earlier in the year. Even if the call was outrageous, Plumlee was smart to hang on the rim and not crash his 6’10” frame to the ground. That’s a Christ School education for you!
  • Does it have to be Butler? I was cheering for the Bulldogs from the upper decks yesterday, and there is so much to like about this team. The national media is begging for a miraculous upset on Monday night. This matchup feels like a literary binary: city/country, David/Goliath, agriculture/industry…any others I’m missing? The fact is, however, we match up very well with America’s Sweetheart: Matt Howard is a 6’8” starting center for anyone under a rock this Final Four. Before our game, I asked a Butler fan exiting the stadium who he’d rather play. He said West Virginia, because Duke has such great size. Good point. Sorry, pal!

Although the Bulldogs are the sentimental favorite and the entire stadium (lingering Spartans and Mountaineers as well) will be cheering against Duke, we feel confident about Monday night. But not overly confident. I’m not sure this kind of situation is precedented—a team in the title game miles away from its home court. We need to take care of business Monday night: I want to see Zoubek hoist the championship plank and roar like the head of the pride. Let’s get this in, Duke!

Indiana Bound

For the first time in six years, Duke is back where it belongs: in the Final Four. After gritty wins against Purdue and Baylor this past weekend, the Devils will be heading to Indianapolis next weekend to face West Virginia in the national semifinals.

While it seems like familiar territory for Coach K, it is just the opposite for each one of the players on this Duke team. None had ever gone past the Sweet Sixteen until this year. Despite being the most maligned number one seed in the tournament, Duke was the only top seed to earn a trip to Indianapolis.

Let’s be honest here. Who would have thought at the beginning of this season that we would be going to the Final Four? We had two scholarship guards on the roster. Our big men were unproven. We had too short of a bench. The Olympics had jaded Coach K, and the game had passed him by. Hell, Pat Forde wrote that Duke was the only top ten team in the country that could not win it all.

But all of that makes this team and this tournament that much more incredible. While this team is not devoid of stars, it excels at playing team basketball. On a night when Kyle Singler failed to make a field goal – for the first time in his three years at Duke – the rest of the team more than made up for him. The King of Jersey, Lance Thomas had an absurd eight offensive rebounds and a tip dunk and-one that was the best play of his four year career. Dre’ Dawk joined the party with two beautiful three-pointers at a crucial juncture in the first half, including a deep shot that cut the halftime deficit to three. Jon Scheyer, who had not shot well at all thus far in the tournament, came up huge with five three pointers and 20 points.

But most impressive was the performance of a Nolan Derek Smith, who had the most phenomenal game of his college career when Duke needed him the most. At around 2:30 pm yesterday, Nolan posted an update to his Twitter account that brought tears to my eyes.

After watching a screening of the Outside The Lines feature on Nolan and his father, former NBA star Derek Smith, on Saturday morning, Nolan dedicated what was arguably the biggest game of his life to his greatest inspiration. And boy, did he deliver. With a game and career high 29 points, all of which came at critical moments throughout the game, Nolan earned South Regional MVP honors and certainly made his father more than proud.

We all know that this journey is not yet over. Duke will face a very tough West Virginia squad on Saturday night. But for now, Crazies, enjoy this moment. This has been the most enjoyable and incredible season I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never been prouder to be a Duke Blue Devil.

As the team returned from Houston at approximately 1:30am last night, hundreds of Crazies welcomed the Final Four bound Devils back home. Check it out.

Crazie Talk will be headed to Indianapolis on Friday! If you’ll be there, let us know on Facebook, or Twitter!