There’s a reason you’re seeing a lot of current development projects that have estimated completion dates of January 2018: Wichita won a competitive bid process in 2014 to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship on March 15 and 17, 2018.
For event and sports industry professionals, hosting an NCAA men’s basketball regional is a career highlight. It also will be an important achievement on the resume of the 7-year-old Intrust Bank Arena, which was built with the support of Sedgwick County taxpayers, many of whom lent their support with the hope it would help Wichita land this prized event.
Visit Wichita estimates $10 million in direct spending will occur that weekend, from hotel rooms to restaurant and bar tabs to entrance fees at area attractions. The convention and visitors bureau was one of seven entities that collaborated on the bid to compete against the other communities in the region that regularly host this tournament: Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Tulsa and Omaha. The others are Wichita State University and the Missouri Valley Conference, which are considered the hosts of the tournament; Intrust Bank Arena; the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission; Sedgwick County; and the City of Wichita.
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They are part of an organizing committee that will begin meeting more frequently now that the event is about one year away. Each entity has already been working on specific facets of the tournament. WSU is the main liaison communicating with the NCAA and coordinating site visits, including the most recent walk-through that took place in December when the arena was set up to host a college basketball game. Intrust Bank Arena is making several building improvements that will benefit all events but are being timed to finish for 2018’s March Madness. Visit Wichita and the sports commission are focused on ensuring a positive fan experience for locals and out-of-town visitors.
“We’re about as ready as we can be at this stage. It’s going to be a long year but a fun year ahead,” said Brad Pittman, WSU’s associate athletic director of facilities and operations. “As the summer hits, we’ll be going full steam ahead and getting more into the nuts and bolts of it. It’s an event we’ve all waited for and we’re all excited about, so we’re going to do everything we can to make it the best it possibly can be. If you’re in my position, it’s a bucket-list item that you want to do, because it’s one of the pinnacles in your career. Hopefully 2018 is the first of many that come here.”
Pittman was in high school in Wisconsin in 1994 when Wichita last hosted the men’s NCAA basketball tournament at the Kansas Coliseum. The city lured the NCAA with a downtown arena that opened in 2010, a new airport terminal that opened in 2015 and a basketball-centric community fired up by a 2013 Final Four appearance and continued success by the Shocker men’s program.
An important element of the bid was a proposed three-day fan fest to create a fun and supportive atmosphere around the event. Organizers are not yet ready to reveal the location or other details of the fan fest, but the plan is to foster a tailgate atmosphere that creates a seamless transition from Old Town to the arena. The NCAA will not allow beer sales inside the arena, so there will likely be a beer garden at the fan fest along with televisions, music, food and games. Fans will be encouraged to stop by for pre-game and post-game fun or to watch the games from the fan fest if they don’t have game tickets.
The first phase of ticket sales will start March 1 with selected groups given the opportunity to purchase all-session tickets. Pittman said these groups are still being identified but typically include season ticket holders, donors and patrons of the host school and host venue. Tickets for the public will go on sale in early November, and a portion of the tickets will be reserved for fans of the teams that are selected the Sunday before the tournament begins.
Last year, Sedgwick County approved nearly $3 million in upgrades to Intrust Bank Arena. The most significant project is an upgrade of the north entrance, which is closest to Old Town, that will double the size of the lobby, add stairs, more doorways and an outdoor plaza area. A.J. Boleski, general manager of the arena, expects construction April to December.
Boleski said his team will apply logistics lessons learned from big events over the past few years to handle sell-out crowds of 15,000 that have to be cleared between two sessions on the first day of the NCAA tournament. During the December 2015 Garth Brooks tour, when he played back-to-back concerts on several nights at the arena, for example, they experimented with turning stairway exits into extra entrances and making restrooms available outside the arena to fans in line for the second show.
One of the biggest projects the arena must complete this year is something the public won’t see: clearing out its only storage area so the media can use the 7,000-square-foot room during the tournament.
There are no hotels that have to be completed to fulfill the city’s bid; however, construction of a new Hilton Garden Inn that recently started to transform the Commerce Plaza building at the corner of Douglas and Topeka would make it the closest hotel to the arena if it makes its opening-date goal.
In the next 12 months, there will be more visible examples of how businesses and organizations are preparing for the tournament, and the behind-the-scenes work will continue on transportation, volunteers, tickets and other facets.
“We feel like we’re in a good position, but we know we need to keep our foot to the pedal to make sure we are ready to roll come March 2018,” Boleski said. “It’s going to be such a great opportunity for the community as a whole. It’s not just about what happens inside the arena but what happens everywhere. There are so many new amenities in the community that will come into play – the airport, hotel renovations, infrastructure and improvements downtown. I love seeing all the articles that list ‘completion date by January 2018,’ because it shows people are focused and excited about hosting the tournament here.”