Hundreds of college basketball fans gathered at the Rivercenter Mall Lagoon Wednesday morning to show the visiting NCAA Committee delegates why San should host the Men’s Final Four sometime between 2017-2020. The turnout was vintage San Antonio spirit rally with fans wearing white NCAA T-shirts, shouting "Bring it" to the tunes and energy of the UTSA marching band and cheerleaders.
San Antonio hopes to host the games in 2018, the city's 300th birthday.
The city might lack an NFL-caliber stadium, but the planned Alamodome upgrades coupled with the River Walk and downtown walkability are assets few of the other competing cities can match. City staff made those points clear as they hosted the visiting delegation.
"I got chills down my spine. One of the first questions I asked was, 'Who are these folks?' – and they're community members," said Scott Barnes, chair of this year's NCAA Committee and director of Athletics at Utah State University. "It really speaks to the spirit of the city and how important having an event like this in the city would be ... it's been a very impressive day."
Committee member Mark Hollis, director of athletics at Michigan State University, has joined basketball and baseball teams that previously played in the Alamo City.
"I believe we lost all four times, but went home having a great experience and I think that speaks volumes to the location and to the people in this area," Hollis said. "We're looking at this venue from the aspects of the student athlete, first and foremost, the fans that come in, and then those operationally – media and others – that would have to be part of the event. Very high marks in most regards of everything here in San Antonio ... I think having the (urban) footprint first and foremost is an extreme asset to San Antonio."
That footprint includes close proximity of the Alamodome to the River Walk, downtown hotels, restaurants, other event venues. New development, both in Southtown and along Broadway, are minutes away.
"It's not just (about) the Final Four, but a connection to the city," Hollis said.
Hollis and Barnes confirmed that the scheduled upgrades to the Alamodome are essential to San Antonio's bid for the 2018 games. Other cities have newer, higher-end stadiums, but $43 million worth of renovations and upgrades – including new interior technology and a renovated and expanded concourse on the plaza and mezzanine levels – puts the Alamodome square in the running, said San Antonio Sports CEO Ross Bookbinder.
"It's amazing the competition that is out there as it relates to venues, but I think what San Antonio offers in terms of the fan and student athlete experience, even outside the venue, is incredible," Barnes said. "It's even become more important to our committee that (the overall city experience) plays a role ... The things that we've asked to be addressed (at the Alamodome) have certainly been addressed."
Members of the delegation, including two committee members, staff, and one consultant, arrived Tuesday night for a tour of the Alamodome with City staff. The "Bring It" River Rally took delegates from their tour of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center to the Briscoe Western Art Museum. After a tour of the recently opened Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, they'll be on their way back home.
Delegates meet with former San Antonio Spur and NBA All-Star Sean Elliott at the Briscoe. Elliott was in the company of a troop of San Antonio students participating in the San Antonio Sports I Play! Afterschool program, which will be adding basketball to its long list of activities that include soccer, volleyball, track, tennis, and golf.
Elliott remembered his own 1988 Final Four experience in Kansas City. He and his teammates still had to balance school work around the competition and it was a 15-20 minute drive to the stadium.
"You gotta consider the athlete and the convenience of the city. We have the best footprint," Elliott said. "We've done it. We've been there, done that."
San Antonio hosted three Men's Final Fours in 1998, 2004, and 2008, and two Women's Final Fours in 2002 and 2010. There are eight cities currently vying for Final Four consideration, including three cities that have not previously hosted.
"You can walk from your hotel to the convention center (several conventions are held in tandem with the Final Four), and then the music festival will be in Hemisfair Park and then of course the competition. You can get out of the Alamodome and be on the River Walk in no time with your margarita in your hand. That's not true in all of the cities," said San Antonio Sports spokesperson Marry Ullmann Japhet, one of the organizers of the "Bring It" River Rally event.
"The facility (Alamodome) is their primary focus ... everything else is ancillary – while very important – it's all about the games," Japhet said, confident that the 'Dome is up to snuff.
As the band and cheerleaders warmed up the crowd on the river, they were eager to show their spirit – not just as fans, but as citizens of San Antonio. Mike Sawaya, director of the City’s Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities, puts the economic impact at $85 million.
"The whole world talking about the 'Road to San Antonio' ... that is advertising you can't buy, the economic impact is tremendous," Japhet said. "What you can't really measure is what it does for the locals. There are so many things that are available for the locals to do whether they have a ticket to the game or not ... It will bring San Antonians downtown and people will look around and say (with surprise), 'We live in a really cool city, we love this city.'
"We're more than happy to let other people in on our secret," she said.
With all the facility and site tours and press conferences, the delegates have received a whirlwind of information about the Alamo City – packed into less than 48 hours. Beyond the non-stop events and meetings, every interaction seemed like a commentary on our city.
"From the point of arrival from the airport and the work that has been done out there, its fabulous and you can just feel a different sense about the city then when we most recently visited for the Alamobowl," Hollis said. "It's a city that comes to life everyday, 365 days.
"There's extreme value to be able to walk to the competition and to the events that lead up to (and surround) it," Hollis said. "San Antonio has nothing to apologize for, you've done an amazing job."