Bill Self calls local restaurant one of the better he’s ever been to
Thursday was a test for Intrust Bank Arena.
Thrust into the national spotlight, the arena hosted first-round NCAA men's basketball tournament games for the first time in 24 years.
Despite Thursday being the first time Intrust Bank Arena has ever hosted March Madness, things went off largely without a hitch.
But with all tests, there eventually comes a report card.
Here's how Eagle staffers, who attended the tournament all day Thursday, rated the arena's performance as a first-time NCAA host. Some of these things aren't possible for the arena to control, but are worth mentioning as the city prepares to host the tournament again in 2021:
For the most part, traffic near Intrust Bank Arena was heavy but navigable through mid-afternoon. Westbound Waterman on the south side of the arena had the heaviest delays, as the right-hand lane is closed for television satellite trucks.
Helping matters is the fact that Wichita Police officers are stationed at most corners, directing motorists and pedestrians across busy intersections. That’s a good thing, since hoards of basketball fans seem to be treating the four block area around the arena as one large pedestrian mall.
We checked on the parking situation over the hour immediately prior to the Kansas game, assuming that would be the busiest time of day for fans coming to the arena.
Lots closest to the arena - which were generally $20 per parking spot, were more than 75 percent full, according to the arena’s estimation. The steep parking cost was especially evident at a lot at 319 S. Broadway, where parking spots ran for $15 Thursday. The problem: No one had covered up the lot’s normal parking sign, advertising “$2.00 all day” parking. Not exactly a good look.
Even 30 minutes prior to tipoff, there were still plenty of free parking spots available at the Old Town Square Garage, 250 N. Rock Island; Gander Mountain Garage, 600 S. Water; and the WaterWalk Garage, 515 S. Main. A little further in the downtown area, there were three whole floors available at the Market Centre Garage, 1st and Main. Spots at that garage, while a little further walk away, were only $5.
Free public shuttles ran from Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and lots at 899 N. Seneca and 151 N. Waco throughout the day. Those shuttles really hit the mark. From the time I parked at Lawrence-Dumont (15 minutes before tipoff), it took exactly 10 minutes to ride the shuttle to the doors of Intrust Bank Arena. Impressive.
Overall, there was a surplus of parking downtown at peak time Thursday - if you knew where to look and where to avoid. Don’t pay $20 for parking when there are just as many free spots a few blocks away.
Bathrooms : A
The first busy time for arena bathrooms was, not surprisingly, during halftime of the KU-Penn game, when lines for both men’s and women’s restrooms were about 15-20 people long.
Fans were getting through quickly, though. In some areas, the line for the men’s room was two to three times longer than the line for the women’s room, breaking an old stereotype.
The average wait was about 20 minutes. Worth noting, however: As with major concerts at Intrust Bank Arena, if you encounter a huge line and just keep walking, you’ll likely find a shorter one.
Lines moved swiftly at Intrust Bank Arena’s more than two dozen concession stands, all of which serve something a little different. Lines seemed to be moving swiftly, and at most, they were no more than 10 people deep. The most popular spot seemed to be the Rub My Belly barbecue concession stand on the main concourse, which was selling smoked barbecue sandwiches with chips for $10.
Prices on meals seemed not to vary too much, and most people were paying between $9 and $12 for an entree. Other options included a grilled chicken sandwich for $9 at Coops Chicken Kitchen and a burrito bowl at Qdoba for $10. Various other concession kiosks also served, pizza slices, hot dogs and burgers. At Wild Leaf on the main concourse, diners also could get a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich for $10.
WiFi and cell service : A-
After watching Tulsa suffer a wifi meltdown at last year’s tournament, Sedgwick County and Intrust Bank Arena management invested $385,000 in a new wifi system.
Users were reporting that it worked pretty well, even with a near-capacity crowd for Kansas-Penn. Good thing too, because some cell phone customers - looking at you, T-Mobile - either got no signal or only a weak one.
People who tried to stream other games on their phones reported some buffering issues and dropouts, but the house wifi seemed fine for ordinary use - surfing for scores, Facebooking, tweeting and posting selfies. “
It was running slow for a few minutes,” said Blade Tatro of Wichita, who was using it to send video from his phone.
The reason some fans experienced slowdowns was that the arena IT staff capped the bandwidth for users on the public WiFi system, so data-intensive uses such as streaming and uploading large files wouldn't impact professional media coverage of the events.
Cleaning arena between sessions : A
Before the day started, one of the big stories from the arena's perspective was how efficiently the arena could clean up between the first and second session of games.
From the moment the Seton Hall-N.C. State game ended to the tipoff of the San Diego State-Houston game, the arena had 45 minutes. In that time, it had to clear everyone out and quickly clean up any spills or messes before the second session could be let in.
All in all, it took arena staff — and dozens of volunteers — just under 30 minutes to flip the space.
A few minutes before the Seton Hall-N.C. State game ended, cleanup crews armed with brooms, dustpans and trash bags began taking their stations at the top of every aisle. They were aided by the fact that the crowd by that point looked more like a Wichita Thunder crowd than a March Madness audience.
No issues were reported as fans filed out of the building, though workers at a merchandise table — apparently stressed about the quick turnaround — were complaining loudly that security officers weren't escorting people out of the building. By tipoff time for the second-session games, most fans were inside and in their seats. That's a big improvement from 2014, when Shocker fans in St. Louis missed part of a Wichita State game because the arena was delayed in its cleanup.
Overall fan experience: A
Throughout the first session Thursday, fans reached out to Intrust Bank Arena officials via Twitter with various complaints or glitches, ranging from uncomfortably cold temperatures to a glitch with the sound system.
“Hey, @INTRUSTarena do you have something against turning on the upstairs speakers?” one fan tweeted shortly before tipoff of the KU-Penn game. “Need some love for the cheap seats. #What?”
Intrust replied via Twitter quickly “Thanks for letting us know, working on it!” -- and got most problems corrected within minutes.
“Hey @INTRUSTarena it’s freezing in here!” Natalie Olmsted tweeted at halftime of Game 2. “The people around us have left due to the temp. #brrrr #teethchattering”
Intrust officials responded that they were checking with engineers. About 15 minutes later, reporters on press row noticed a drop in the chill. In any case, consider wearing layers if you’re attending games Thursday evening or Saturday.
Another fan request: scrolling scores of other games on the light-up banner around the arena. Officials said they were looking into that for the second session of games Thursday evening.
Fans filled the building during the KU game, but the arena was noticeably emptier for the game immediately following, as some fans bailed after the Jayhawks won Thursday. It was a boon for fans sitting higher up, as many moved down to take lower-bowl seats that had been vacated for the Seton Hall-N.C. State game.
The arena announced 14,390 people attended the first session.
Among those attending Thursday's games was former assistant Sedgwick County manager Ron Holt, who was a driving force in building the Intrust Bank Arena and was in charge of it for its first five years.
Now he’s retired and was, as he put it, “just part of the ticket-buying public” at Thursday’s tournament session.
“It’s wonderful, having KU here and getting this kind of turnout, it’s exciting,” he said.
Holt said it was a hard road getting the community to fund the new arena and hosting the NCAA was one of the selling points when organizers campaigned for the countywide tax to build it. Now, that’s a campaign promise finally accomplished.
“It’s a good feeling of fulfillment,” Holt said. “Everything’s going on here just about the way we planned.”