One year and counting

Mark Heller

At an entrance to the Metrodome near the corner of 11th Avenue and Fifth Street is a ramp. It leads to a revolving door, which in turn, leads to a 500-foot tunnel that is the gateway between the cold outside and the playing field Astroturf.
There were a half-dozen security guards in that tunnel at the first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. A few were there to sign in media for the tournament, but most eventually escorted players onto the Dome floor.
Many inside the tunnel were University security hired to patrol the dungeon underneath the Dome. Some were working such a large event for the first time, others have been around since the Final Four came to the Twin Cities in 1992.
“It was like a frenzy around here,” said one security guard who didn’t wish to be identified. He, too worked security in ’92. “Inside was wild, outside was wild. It was a great time. I see no letdown. It’s getting bigger every year. It’s the biggest thing in sports in my estimation.”
“It,” of course, is the Final Four, the euphoric climax of men’s college basketball and perhaps all of sports. The traveling bonanza stopped here in ’92 loaded with names like Krzyzewski, Hill, Laettner, Webber, Cheaney, and some guy named Knight.
That March weekend in ’92 concluded one of the most successful sports runs in one city over the course of a year. The Twins won one of the best World Series ever played, Hazeltine National Golf Club hosted the 1991 U.S. Open, the Dome hosted the Super Bowl in January of ’92 and was followed by March Madness.
Eight years later some of the madness will return, but to make sure madness doesn’t become chaos, the Dome hosted the first two rounds of the Midwest Regional last weekend. Almost 70,000 fans packed in beneath the Teflon tarp, watching the likes of Iowa State and UCLA.
All the while, NCAA officials were watching, making sure nothing fell, blew up or ran afoul.
“It’s a dress rehearsal,” said Bill Hancock, director of NCAA men’s basketball championship operations. “We set up everything we could to match the setup of the Final Four.”
As it turns out, most went according to plan, but there was little time to bask in the achievement. The entire operation: Bringing in seats, electronic wiring, the scoreboard, the turf and court have to be out by today in time for a motorcycle race this weekend.
They’ll all be back inside the Dome next spring, and so will the fans; only next year it will be more than double the amount that were inside for the regional.
“It’s very, very expensive to put up,” said Bill Lester, executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. “We’ll make about $400,000 and spend $350,000. It’s virtually a wash for us and not a big money-maker.
“It’s a huge event for the community, city and state of Minnesota. It brings in a lot of people like all the Iowa State fans, who live out of state, earn their money out of state, and come here and spend it.”
Dome sweet home?
Last weekend and next year’s festivities raise even more questions to those who want a new outdoor stadium for the Twins and for the Vikings, who both want a stadium of their own.
What would you do with the Dome?
It’s generally regarded as an eyesore in downtown Minneapolis. It’s not conducive to baseball and lacks the revenue tools the Twins and Vikings want. It is also a reason the NCAA looks to the Twin Cities to host things like the men’s Final Four.
This is the sixth time the Dome has hosted an NCAA basketball event and the third regional. The NCAA exclusively looks for venues that hold at least 30,000 people.
“Of the domes, this is the most intimate basketball setup you have,” said Lester. “Look at the RCA Dome (Indianapolis), or the dome in New Orleans, which is the worst. They plunked the court down right in the middle, so everyone has a rotten seat. A court is only 94 feet long, so you’re always trying to get as many quality seats as you can. We’ll have 25,000 good-to-excellent seats and another 25,000 that’ll be distant viewing, and cheaper to buy.”
The Metrodome is not especially conducive to basketball games either. The Timberwolves played its first two seasons in the Dome before Target Center opened in 1990. It worked out for the Wolves because they drew much more than a normal basketball game crowd of 15-16,000. They set NBA all-time attendance records by fitting 30-odd thousand fans inside.
“It’s not a disadvantage, but it takes more work,” said Jim Livengood, Arizona athletics director and NCAA representative for the Minneapolis regional. “It’s a different type of configuration in a dome than a normal basketball arena in terms of where you’re going to move around and where things are located. It’s all a different kind of atmosphere.
“I don’t think it’s typical. It has happened and will happen. They did a great job here in ’92, and not everyone gets to do this again this quick.”
365 … 364 … 363 …
With about 55,000 expected inside next March, plus a thousand media and worker credentials to accommodate, the Dome will be a mirror of the city around it. Lester expects about $350,000 will be spent on the Final Four, with Dome revenues expected at about $400,000.
Those figures aren’t too drastic from the ’92 affair, but the rest of college basketball is. More players are leaving early for the NBA and CBS locked itself into a multibillion-dollar TV contract for several years.
But if you strip away the blows college basketball’s image has taken recently and the mega-bucks engulfed in by the NCAA because of the athletes, all that’s left is an event to remember.
“The event itself has grown significantly,” said Lester. “This was a great major event in 1992 but it was a much smaller scale. The advent of mega-TV contracts and the interest and incredible excitement of the event — in contrast to some Super Bowls — make it a crown jewel.”
That means a lot of people from a lot of different places will be here at this time next year, and the eyes of the nation will be watching and hoping for a stirring conclusion to all the madness of March.

Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]