It’s one of the premier sports events in the country – the 2016 NCAA Men’s Final Four, the men’s collegiate basketball championship series. The high-voltage event rolls into Houston April 2-4, bringing with it the excitement and energy of three-minute shots at the buzzer, the swoosh-swoosh-swoosh of nothing but net and that unmistakable sound of sneakers on polished parquet floors.
But before any of that, before the teams are announced, before the fans rush into town, before the opening tip-off, there’s a small army behind the scenes working to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. Because the Final Four in Houston isn’t just a basketball story; it’s the story of a city that shows, over and over again, how well it performs when it’s in the national spotlight.
And this spring, a lot of that spotlight is shining on Downtown.
“We first hosted this event in 2011, so we knew that we were getting it again in 2016,” explains Doug Hall, president of the Houston Local Organizing Committee for the Final Four.
The LOC began in 2003, Hall says, first as a dedicated board of community stakeholders working to encourage the NCAA to allow Houston to host the Final Four. Think of it as a ninja squad, dedicated to helping the city gear up for, host and tear down the multiple events that make up the week leading to the marquee match-ups.
“When we’re not the host city, we obviously don’t do a lot of meetings or planning,” says Hall. “But, about two years out from the event, that’s when we start bringing in staff and getting organized.”
About a dozen full-time staff members work on the local organizing committee. They’re supported by nearly two dozen committees, made up of business leaders, city and county infrastructure representatives, and community volunteers. That’s a cast of thousands, all of them with defined roles that include everything from marketing to event planning to guest logistics to street closures to transit tasks.
“It’s a lot of legwork,” says Hall of the planning. “We last hosted this event in 2011, so we have a good snapshot of what we want to do. But before that, the last time we hosted this was in 1971. The city has changed since then – the sports landscape has changed since then.”
Hall began his work for this Final Four series in 2014. For the first three months, he was alone in his office. In 2015, he brought two vice presidents for event and external operations, as well as an administrative assistant. Last May, managers for volunteers, PR and marketing and community relations came on board. That staggered staffing hiring allows for flexibility and lets the local organizing committee set resources where they’re needed.
“About nine to 12 months out, we’re naming committee chairs and they’re hosting their first meetings,” says Todd Holloman, vice president for event operations, who worked on the event for the city in 2011. “We work with partners across the region, with METRO, the City of Houston, Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation, all the venues.”
“When it comes to hosting large events, Houston does it all the time,” says Rachel Quan, vice president for external operations. “Think of the shows that come into the [George R. Brown] Convention Center, the Super Bowl. An event like this is something Houston knows how to do.”
“The epicenter of the Final Four is Downtown,” says Bob Eury, executive director of the Downtown District. “And this is exciting because [something like this] doesn’t happen every year. There’s an energy to it that adds to what’s happening in Downtown. There’s a lot of spirit.”
“Any time you have a big stage, it’s a chance to show what Houston is,” says Luther Villagomez, chief operating officer for the George R. Brown Convention Center, which plays host to the Final Four Fan Fest presented by Capital One. “More than 500 workers bring that to life.”
The massive four-day, family-fun celebration sprawls across 300,000 square feet, with interactive experiences, basketball clinics, giveaways, special appearances and autograph signings. It opens to the public on April 1, but Villagomez and his team are loading in equipment, hanging lights, configuring space, cleaning halls and working to ensure the 70,000-plus expected guests have a great time.
“The new elevation of the convention center provides the backdrop for this,” he explains, referring to the refurbishment of the structure. “The pavers and the glass are complete, which looks great, and the newly redone lobby will be ready. So will entrances A and E, and people will notice the new look out front.”
“We expect to use 1,200 volunteers for this event alone,” says Alexandria Price, manager of volunteers for the Houston LOC. “They’ll be doing everything from greeting people as they come into the venue to giving directions to helping coordinate activities.”
Price anticipates needing 3,500 volunteers across the March 31 – April 4 timeframe.
“It’s going to be busy,” she says. “And great.”
Virtually across the street, Discovery Green will play host to the March Madness Music Festival, three days that offer a combined block party and outdoor concerts. The events are free, and past acts have included the Zac Brown Band, Rihanna and Bruce Springsteen.
“We’ll be building out the stage the week before the event, doing coordinated street closures,” says Holloman. “The big thing is this: the Final Four will attract thousands of visitors from around the world, but we want Houston – and Downtown residents to know – these events, the March Madness Music Festival, Fan Fest, the Four-Mile Fun Run, are for them. This is a chance for our community to be part of the excitement.”
Holloman is looking forward to the energy the events will bring to the city core. A Downtown resident for the last decade, he’s seen the area grow explosively, adding restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. As the city center has grown, it’s added infrastructure and residential spaces.
“In addition to the Main Street line, we’ve got the new green and purple METRORail lines,” he says. “And Downtown’s free circulator, Greenlink, will be running its new evening and weekend route just in time for the Final Four. Downtown is going to be the place to be, and it’s easier than ever to navigate.”
The concept of navigation is important to the LOC, which has been coordinating with businesses and city entities to be sure that the Final Four provides an incredible experience for everyone. The committee generated a “Welcome Team Checklist,” embracing businesses for their role as ambassadors for the area. Business owners and property managers were offered tips on landscaping, sprucing up window displays, extending hours, offering dining specials and helping to ensure staff knows about Final Four logistics to be able to answer questions.
Hall says the NCAA is committed to ensuring the community that hosts the Final Four feels it’s an integral part of the event’s success.
“The NCAA is a great partner,” he says. “Obviously, these events belong to the NCAA, but they understand the need to give them the flavor and feel of Houston. An event like this touches so many people.”
“The economic development impact on the city is upwards of $150 million,” says Quan. “So, the benefit for Houston is huge.”
Everyone involved with the event realizes it’s a chance for the city to show its best self to the world. Downtown, NRG Park and Uptown all have a stake in the success of the Final Four; the games will be played in NRG stadium, multiple hotels in Uptown are reserved for fans and teams. But Downtown is uniquely positioned as a place where the work of thousands comes together to highlight all the city has to offer.
“Houston has a legacy of doing things like this,” says Eury. “And our Downtown businesses and partners are really rolling out the red carpet. Wells Fargo Plaza has an enormous net and inflatable basketball out front. I love that. We have a host of new bars and restaurants in the Historic District around Market Square Park, and Buffalo Bayou Park is complete now. So, we have new places for people to go and explore. We’ve redone Main Street Square, with a signature temporary arts project call Art Blocks, that brings a new vibrancy to the city core. This is just an exciting time for us.”
“Houston’s always been a can-do city, ready to take on challenges and think outside the box,” says Hall. “And the events we have happening with this demonstrate we are not only capable of being a major player on the national stage, we can provide great entertainment for our residents.”
“We want the city to know that they can be part of these events – they can go to them, volunteer for them,” says Holloman.
“Especially in Downtown, we have so much happening,” says Villagomez. “It’s a new scene there from the last time we hosted this. I think the whole community will really notice the changes to our city core, and see it a great destination.”
Final Four Stats
Four college basketball teams
Four days of Final Four Fan Fest
Three days of March Madness Music Festival
12 full-time staff on the Local Organizing Committee
70,000+ out-of-towners expected
$150 million economic development impact from hotels, food and transit
Get Your Game On
“We need 3,500 volunteers,” says Alexandria Price, manager of volunteers for the Houston Local Organizing Committee. “We want people who are excited about Houston, who are friendly, who can be great ambassadors for our city.”
Volunteers are asked to cover two shifts over the six days of festivities. Shifts run anywhere from three to five hours, and Price says volunteers are given a great deal of flexibility to pick the events and times that work best for them.
Some might work at the airports, greeting guests, helping them find ground transportation options, sharing information about hotels and happenings. They’ll work in the baggage claim areas at both Hobby and Bush Intercontinental airports. Others might lend a hand at the Final Four Fan Fest, where an army of more than a thousand is needed to ensure a terrific experience for guests. Volunteers there will greet visitors, offer directions to attractions, help with set up and coordinate activities. Still more will work the March Madness Music Festival, serving as greeters and ushers. And there will be shifts for the Four-mile Fun Run and the Dribble.
All volunteers must be older than 18 and must pass a routine screening. Volunteers will receive two free tickets to the Final Four Fan Fest, a Nike polo shirt, a hat and an invitation to the volunteer appreciation party.
To sign up, visit NCAA.com/FinalFour
Downtown Houston Final Four Event Schedule Highlights
NCAA Final Four Fan Fest, presented by Capital One April 1-44
Be part of the high-octane action with interactive exhibits, clinics, meet-and-greets, and a host of family-friendly activities.
Adults: $8 advance / $10 at the door
Students, seniors, military (with valid ID): $4 advance / $5 at the door
Free admission for all children 12 and under (accompanied by a ticketed adult)
March Madness Music Festival April 1- 3
Free concerts, open to all ages. Check ncaa.com/finalfour for acts.
NCAA Final Four 4 Miler April 2
This timed fun run takes participants on a route through Downtown, and participation benefits the Lone Star Veterans Association. Racers receive a Final Four 4 Miler shirt and finisher’s medal, as well as a free ticket to the Final Four Fan Fest. Other prizes will be awarded throughout the event. ncaa.com/final-four/4-miler
NCAA Final Four Dribble Fueled by Powerade April 3
Beginning at City Hall and ending at the Final Four Fan Fest, thousands of participants will dribble their way through Downtown. All participants receive a Final Four Dribble Fueled by Powerade shirt and a Wilson basketball. Registration details: ncaa.com/final-four/final-four-dribble
Thursday, March 31
6:30-10 pm NCAA Basket Ball (George R. Brown)
Friday, April 1
Noon-8 pm Final Four Fan Fest presented by Capital One (George R. Brown)
4-10 pm March Madness Music Festival (Discovery Green)
Saturday, April 2
8 am Final Four 4 Miler (Downtown Houston)
8 am Final Four Youth Clinics fueled by Powerade (Various locations)
10 am-7 pm Final Four Fan Fest presented by Capital One (George R. Brown)
Noon-9:30 pm March Madness Music Festival (Discovery Green)
Sunday, April 3
Noon-8 pm Final Four Fan Fest presented by Capital One (George R. Brown)
1 pm Final Four Dribble fueled by Powerade (Downtown Houston)
3-10 pm March Madness Music Festival (Discovery Green)
Monday, April 4
Noon-7 pm Final Four Fan Fest presented by Capital One (George R. Brown)