Coke or Pepsi?
Believe it or not, that eternal question is a big deal when it comes to hosting the NCAA basketball tournament.
You see, the NCAA has a multimillion-dollar contract with Coca-Cola to be an official sponsor of the college basketball championship. If your local sports arena serves Pepsi and hosts tournament games, that’s a problem.
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And that’s why the Pepsi signs at Tulsa’s BOK Center are draped in black and the drink machines are stocked with Coke, Sprite and Powerade instead of Pepsi, Sierra Mist and Gatorade.
It’s one of thousands of details that have to be gotten right for a successful tournament – everything from the placement of buffet tables to running the stopwatch on the coach’s cooling-off period before he has to face the media. (For the record, it’s exactly five minutes from entering the locker room for the winning coach; 15 for the loser.)
This year, those details are Tulsa’s problem.
But as they say in basketball, we got next.
This time next year, Wichita will be hosting the opening weekend of the Big Dance.
And a cadre of representatives from Wichita State University, Intrust Bank Arena and the Wichita Sports Commission are here to see how Tulsa does it and gather intelligence on how to do it as well – or maybe better.
“My main focus down here is to kind of wrap my brain around what this animal really is – a lot of moving parts, a lot of people – and just try to get a visual so that I can go back and as I read through next year’s materials, be able to equate that to what I’ve seen,” said Brad Pittman, associate athletics director at WSU who’s serving as tournament director for Wichita.
“We’re taking a ton of notes and pictures,” said Chris Kibler, assistant general manager and director of finance for Intrust Bank Arena.
It has been 23 years since Wichita hosted a weekend of the NCAA men’s tournament. The arena is expected to sell out for each tournament session. That’s 45,000 fans in and out the doors in three days.
And that’s just for starters.
Behind the scenes
From the comfort of your living room, the first weekend of the tournament doesn’t seem all that complicated – six basketball games: four on Friday and two on Sunday.
But what you don’t see on TV are the hundreds of paid workers and volunteers behind the scenes putting in thousands of hours to make things run smoothly.
“They don’t call it March Madness for nothing,” said Tulsa’s tournament director Nick Salis, whose regular job is associate athletics director for internal affairs and operations at the University of Tulsa.
First off, you have eight teams playing on Friday, all of whom need locker rooms to prepare for the game and clean themselves up after it.
The BOK Center has four locker rooms, so you need people to coordinate the schedule to clear one team out so the next can take its place.
Intrust has five locker rooms, so there’s a little more wiggle space there. But overall, the BOK Center has a larger building footprint – and hence more overall space to work with.
Another difference between Tulsa’s tournament weekend and Wichita’s is that Wichita committed – as part of its bid to land the tournament – to put on a basketball-themed street festival at tournament time.
Tulsa’s relying on its annual St. Patrick’s Day festival to entertain the crowds when they’re away from the arena.
“That’s one thing we noticed, was it just didn’t feel like there was a lot of (basketball) excitement here, at the hotels and outside,” Kibler said. “So that’s something that (Wichita’s) local organizing committee is really focused on, making sure that Wichita puts its best foot forward.
“Visit Wichita, the Sports Commission and Downtown Development and the arena and Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita, they’re all coming together to plan the fanfest outside, to plan the overall atmosphere.
“I’m not worried about any particular piece,” Kibler added. “It seems like it’s an all-hands-on-deck call for the city, and that’s definitely what’s happening in Wichita.”
The coming year will bring changes at Intrust, some of which you’ll see and some of which will be behind the curtains.
Arena management will double the size of the north entrance to improve foot traffic flow in and out.
An important but probably less visible improvement will be a more robust data presence.
In Tulsa, “We have definitely seen the need for power and data – Wi-Fi and data drops,” Kibler said. “That seems to be the biggest thing we’ve noticed that we will need to make sure we have enough of.”
Taking care of the media
The primary fuel that powers the tournament is television and media coverage, so care and feeding of the media is one of the biggest tasks involved.
There are 330-plus reporters from around the country in Tulsa this weekend – not counting the network team that actually broadcasts the game.
They all need a place to work, meals brought in, shuttles to and from the arena, and reliable phone and internet service to research and file their stories.
“We had to turn our storage room into a giant media room,” said Kevin Jones, operations manager for the BOK Center. That meant moving tons of equipment outside and setting up a sound stage for news conferences and a couple of hundred work stations with power to charge equipment.
And that’s just the work room.
There are about 100 more seats for reporters courtside and in the upper deck.
But even with the best of preparations, there will still be glitches.
For example, Tulsa organizers ran high-speed ethernet cables to each spot at the media tables in the arena bowl.
But some of the newest computers don’t have a plug for hardwire and can only connect to the internet by Wi-Fi.
Kansas City Star sportswriter Blair Kerkhoff, a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Hall of Fame, was working on a story Friday from a table in the media room while watching the game on a video monitor.
It’s not like it was 30 years ago when he covered the tournament with a typewriter and a telecopier – a rotating-drum machine – to send his stories back to the paper over the phone line, he said.
Now, he said, “The connection is the lifeblood.”
Tulsa’s media coordinator Don Tomkalski, whose day job is senior associate athletic director for communications for the University of Tulsa, said tournament organizers had followed the letter of the NCAA media manual – Wi-Fi in the media room, hardwire connections in the seating area.
He said they were working to extend Wi-Fi coverage for the courtside reporters between the first and second tournament sessions Friday – with full coverage for the upper-deck reporters to come as soon as possible.
Kerkhoff said that’s the kind of quick response he would expect from the Tulsa organizers.
“They bend over backward to try to accommodate everybody,” he said.
Mike Ross, a WSU professor of sports management who will be Wichita’s media coordinator, noticed the problem and said he will make sure there’s Wi-Fi to the media areas in the seats next year.
They will come
There is one certainty in all this: If you host the tournament, fans will flock to it.
Fans like Steve Carvajal, an Emporia native and onetime Wichitan, who was cheering for the University of Kansas with his 12-year-old daughter, Brooklyn.
“It’s been pretty great,” said Carvajal, who now lives near Springfield, Mo. “I’ve always wanted to come to a regional and when I found out Tulsa was going to host three hours away, I jumped to come.”
And he said he’s already looking forward to Wichita’s tournament stop next year.
“I can definitely travel now that I’ve got a kid to come with me,” he said.
Brooklyn agreed. Enthusiastically so.
“That’s a lot of really good teams that are here, and they’re all famous,” she said.
Bob and Elaine Heisler drove down from Wichita. They first started going to the NCAA Tournament as a 25th anniversary present to themselves.
They just passed their 50th anniversary.
They said Kansas City, Mo., and Greensboro, N.C., have been their favorite tournament spots.
Greensboro was supposed to host a site this weekend, but the NCAA pulled it after the state passed a “bathroom bill” that requires transgender individuals to use public restrooms corresponding to their sex at birth.
Elaine Heisler said she’s worried Kansas may head down that same path and ace itself out of the NCAA Tournament.
This weekend in Tulsa, they rooted for KU, although their tie to the school is tenuous.
“Our grandson goes there,” Elaine Heisler said. “We send a little money there every once in a while.”
And they’re really looking forward to next year in Wichita, not only to attend, but maybe to volunteer as well.
Pittman, of WSU, said he’s learned the key to a successful tournament weekend is to delegate responsibility to competent people and then let them do their jobs.
In Wichita, the university will take the lead in managing the athletics and the media; Intrust will take care of most of the building issues; and the city and county are in line to take care of security and traffic control.
Visit Wichita and the Wichita Sports Commission will head up the street festival and tourism aspects, he said.
As the director, “You can’t control all of that so you have to rely on people around you,” he said.
“One of the things I’ve seen that I’m going to stress when we get back is attention to detail, preparation. Early is better than late. … If you’re behind, you’re always going to be behind.”
The NCAA Tournament is one of the biggest tests you’ll ever see of civic cooperation across agencies, said Salis, the Tulsa tournament director.
Tulsa landed this tournament weekend 2 1/2 years ago. And it has been actively putting it together for the past year and a half, Salis said.
In addition to the university and the arena, the Tulsa Sports Commission, the city government, the airport authority and many other agencies and businesses have played key roles.
And the workload ramped up dramatically the closer the event came, he said.
Something as seemingly simple as a news conference by a coach and a couple of players requires about a dozen people – a moderator, escorts to make sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time, sound and lighting folks and timekeepers to make sure it starts on time and doesn’t run long.
And, while the coach and a couple of star players are fielding questions in the media room, the rest of the players are doing the same thing in the locker room, so there have to be more folks there to keep things orderly and on time.
And here’s a detail you probably never thought of: frequency coordination.
Dozens of TV crews are running around the building with wireless microphones, each one of which generates a radio signal and harmonics that can interfere with other people’s sound pickups.
Seeing that that doesn’t happen is the job of Brian Keller, an arena sound man who spent about the last month studying the problem and this weekend resetting mics to make sure they don’t step on each other.
With a few mics for a regular stage show, it’s no big deal, but with this many journalists and this many mics, “It gets a little intense, a little cluttered,” he said.
Just about everybody involved has put in a lot of long days and nights to prepare.
But you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who says it’s not worth the effort.
“With the planning and all, it’s time; it’s a lot of time,” said Tomkalski, the University of Tulsa official. “It’s fun, though. Tournaments are a lot of fun.”
They’re also lucrative for a community and its business community.
Overall, visitors to Tulsa’s tournament weekend are expected to pay for about 7,500 room nights in local hotels.
They will be eating in local restaurants, drinking in local bars and shopping at local stores.
Overall, the expectation is they’ll leave behind about $8 million to $10 million in the local economy, said Salis, the tournament director.
Similar numbers are expected when the tournament makes its stop in Wichita next year.
And if playing in the NCAA Tournament can be the highlight of an athlete’s career, hosting one is definitely the highlight of a sports manager’s.
“It’s a bucket list item for some people,” said WSU’s Pittman. “I’m looking forward to it.
“I think we can take what has being done here, we can make it better, and we can pull off a great event.”