Hospitality madness: City wants to grow reputation as Final Four’s ideal site

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Bill Evans’ phone rang at 11 p.m. It was a basketball team. The players wanted milkshakes. He popped up like he was bouncing on one of those mini-trampolines mascots use to dunk basketballs at halftime.

He tapped his partner on the shoulder. They rolled two coolers to the downtown Steak n Shake. He ordered milkshakes. Large ones. Two for each player. They put the shakes in the coolers and rolled them through the downtown night to the team hotel. The athletes and coaches said thanks. Evans went back to his post.

Situations like that played out repeatedly when Evans served as a team host during the opening rounds of the 2003 NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis. Something similar will undoubtedly happen this year when the Final Four comes to town March 30 through April 3 for the first time since 2000.

Evans, 34, who serves as an account manager for New York-based Volt Life Sciences during the day, will be ready once again, manning his position as a 24-hour concierge to one of the four teams that make it to the RCA Dome.

He won’t be the only volunteer ready to bend over backward for the 80,000 fans, players, coaches and VIPs who come to town. The event’s local organizing committee has managed the Herculean task of mobilizing 1,500 volunteers to do everything from shuttling VIPs to picking up trash on city streets.

With a slim budget of $1.3 million, organizers and volunteers plan to make sure things go smoother than an uncontested lay-up. The massive effort is necessary for the city to stay in the good graces of the NCAA and ensure the Final Four-and its near-$30 million in direct visitor spending-remains a semi-permanent event here.

In 2004, the NCAA and Indiana Sports Corp. entered a Memorandum of Understanding that commits the NCAA to bringing the Men’s and Women’s Final Four here once every five years through at least 2039-and maybe 2069 if the NCAA keeps renewing the lease on its national headquarters-as long as the city hits certain “milestones.”

The most important benchmarks include making land available for future expansion of the organization’s headquarters and finding it more parking spaces. But it’s also important for the city to stay in the good graces of the NCAA by putting on a great show each time it hosts the tourney.

So far, so good.

“[Indianapolis organizers] have been really extraordinary,” said Greg Shaheen, vice president of Division I Men’s Basketball, who oversaw Indianapolis’ Local Organizing Committee in 2000 before taking his current position with the NCAA. “They’ve been extraordinary to the legacy of this event, not only in the past, but they will do very special things this year that will testify to how Indianapolis is a special host for this event.”

Local organizers, however, aren’t resting on their laurels. They know the stakes get higher every year as the event mushrooms into one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

“It’s a very, very competitive environment,” said Jon LeCrone, commissioner of the Horizon League, the official tournament co-host, along with Butler University. “The venues constantly get better. Hotel packages constantly get better.”

Recent highlights in other host cities: Last year, St. Louis’ Final Four organizers put together a “March to the Arch” that featured 3,000 schoolkids dribbling basketballs through downtown streets to the Arch. San Antonio, which hosted the event in 2004, has been known to put cheerleaders and bands on barges in the city’s downtown canal.

“The event is bigger, but the tournament is the same,” said Maribeth Smith, executive director of the Local Organizing Committee and CEO of Indianapolisbased event planning firm Maribeth Smith & Associates.

Smith should know. This is her fourth Final Four. She’s been meeting for almost two years with volunteers on the 17 subcommittees that oversee everything from planting nearly 10,000 tournament-colored flowers downtown to shuttling VIPs throughout Final Four weekend.

Seven major sponsors-Chase, Clarian Health Partners, Eli Lilly and Co., The Indy Partnership, RCA, St. Vincent Sports Medicine and WellPoint Inc.-kicked in at least $75,000 to make up the majority of the Local Organizing Committees’ $1.3 million budget. Organizers declined to break down how the money is being spent.

“The NCAA has stepped up its efforts to do more than simply have a basketball championship,” said Bob Schultz, spokesman for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association. “They are looking to broaden the event to more of a Super Bowl-level experience.”

The result is an event that will “look and feel much different than when it was last here in 2000,” Shaheen said.

The NCAA Hall of Champions will stay open 100 consecutive hours. Thousands of schoolchildren will dribble basketballs through the streets of downtown. Free shuttle buses will take fans to area museums. A team of college allstars will take on the Harlem Globetrotters at Conseco Fieldhouse. Hoop City, the four-day fan-fest at the convention center, will be bigger. (Visit www.indianasportscorp.orgfor the complete list of events.)

It’s all good news for local businesses. The ancillary activities will attract visitors who don’t have tickets and might otherwise stay home and watch it on television.

“Cynically speaking, everybody thinks the off day [Sunday] is for the athletes,” said Richard Irwin, a professor at the University of Memphis who studied the Final Four’s economic impact in San Antonio in 2004. “That’s a huge joke. It’s the high commerce day. It’s the dollar day.”

And a big dollar day, too. The San Antonio Final Four pumped more than $2 million in tax dollars alone into city coffers, more than justifying the investment in the various events surrounding the big game. Irwin estimated the event’s final economic impact at $55 million.

By comparison, most studies estimate a Super Bowl’s economic impact is around $300 million, although a study by East Lansing, Mich.-based Anderson Economic Group LLC says the Motor City’s big event this year netted less than $50 million for Detroit’s economy.

The Final Four’s beefed-up event schedule is also a bonus for convention organizers.

“We use the Final Four to host decision-makers for future conventions,” Schultz said. “We bring them in at a time when our city is flexing its muscle.”

As for Evans, he probably won’t have to worry about toting those coolers through downtown this year. The teams that make it to the Final Four usually have more money than teams that make a quick exit in the first round. They’re more likely to ask their hotels to set up a sundae bar in the lobby. But if they need a snack run, he’ll be ready.

“Not all of the cities have host programs that are as renown as Indianapolis’,” he said.

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