The main concourse at Ball Arena Friday afternoon looked like I-25 without the road rage. Strangers clad in bright blue (Creighton), navy blue (Gonzaga), green (Baylor) or purple (TCU, Grand Canyon) sweatshirts found themselves crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, creeping toward a pricey beverage or restroom stall at a snail’s pace.
“The hotels (here) are good. The infrastructure is good. (There’s) a little bit of traffic, for sure,” Baylor guard and Georgia native Adam Flagler told The Post Saturday.
“I think they were fixing a little bit of the roads and everything. (Isn’t there) a riverwalk?”
“Yeah, I would love to see that. You know, Denver would be a nice place for this tournament to finish out.”
Sure would. The metro was one of only two NCAA tourney sites over the first weekend of the Big Dance to feature a single-session crowd of at least 19,000. And Ball Arena pulled it off twice.
Whether it was Grand Canyon fans going bonkers or TCU’s JaKobe Coles capping the night with a game-winning buzzer-beater, March Madness fit Chopper Circle like one of Cinderella’s slippers.
So who’s up for hosting a Final Four?
“While we have had nothing but good experiences with Denver, the venue and the Mountain West Conference office personnel as hosts of past and present preliminary rounds of the tournament,” David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination and statistics, told The Post via email, “we have not previously given any consideration to the city as a potential (men’s basketball) Final Four host because the city doesn’t currently have an adequate venue to host the event.”
The NCAA’s cover charge for hosting the organization’s showcase event is simple but massive: A climate-controlled facility with a minimum seating capacity of 60,000.
Which means …
“A new venue or a roof being built at Empower Field would be necessary,” Worlock said.
And there’s the sticking point.
NCAA “really likes coming to Denver”
If you build it, will they come? Sure. Probably. We think. The NCAA’s bureaucratic strike zone is like Denver weather. The only consistency is inconsistency.
But you can’t argue that the metro hurt its case last week. Publicly-available tickets to the Ball Arena site were pretty much gone by late January, according to the Mountain West, making Denver one of the first opening-weekend sites to sell out.
And the Front Range showed up — Friday’s two sessions drew 38,301, or 99% of capacity (19,338 per session). The building saw 19,149 for the afternoon twin bill with Baylor-UC Santa Barbara and Creighton-NC State and another 19,152 for the evening one that featured Gonzaga-Grand Canyon and TCU-Arizona State.
During the NCAA’s last bid cycle, Ball Arena was the only indoor venue in the running to receive two first- and second-round hosting duties more than once over what’s roughly a four-year cycle. Downtown Denver will host men’s first- and second-round games again in 2025.
“So (the NCAA), they really like coming to Denver,” Matthew Payne, executive director at the Denver Sports Commission, told The Post. “They already love the market of Denver. So I think (an indoor Broncos stadium) would help our chances, for sure.”
Downtown Denver hosted one of the last Final Fours played at a basketball-specific venue, all the way back in the spring of 1990, when UNLV smacked Duke in the title game, 103-73. It’s been so long since an NCAA men’s hoops championship wasn’t played inside a stadium built for football — 1996 — that the last hoops arena to host one, the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., was shut down in 2015.
Payne ballparked the economic impact on this weekend’s games at roughly $4 million to $8 million to the metro area. The Final Four brings fewer teams over a four-day-weekend, but more coaches, celebrities, media and corporate interests.
An analytics firm in 2019 reported that the Final Four in Minneapolis brought in 91,000 visitors to the Twin Cities and created an economic impact of approximately $143 million, including $23 million in tax revenue. As a point of comparison, hosting a Super Bowl brought in a reported 125,000 people to the area and created an impact of reportedly $400 million.
Et tu, Broncos?
The team had no comment when reached by The Post last week. Sources indicated there have been no talks between the franchise’s new ownership, the Walton-Penner Group, and the city, or with the sports commission, regarding a covering for any stadium, current or future.
The new stewards of the Front Range’s most beloved sports franchise, whose purchase of the team was approved last August, are still in fact-gathering and temperature-taking mode. The Broncos are currently conducting a fan survey that runs through April regarding the entire gameday experience.
As for an indoor experience for the Orange and Blue, well …
“Even if we did all that (stadium) stuff, there’s no guarantee that (bid) would happen,” Steve Huffman, president-elect of the Broncos Quarterback Club, told The Post. “It takes away from traditionally, the reason Colorado has been such a tough place to play — the elevation and being outdoors. So (an indoor home) would just be homogenizing the product to where it takes away all the special feeling and atmosphere out of the stadium.”
So that’s a … “no.”
Privately and publicly, the Broncos have balked in the past at covering what became Empower Field, citing costs and efficiency. Denver architect Curtis Fentress told The Post in 2012 that one of his original designs for what became Empower included a retractable roof that would’ve cost “$150 million more” than an open-air stadium.
Among current NFL buildings, 10 are covered, but only half of those feature retractable roofs. The Chicago Bears have said they aren’t planning to add a retractable top on their proposed new stadium, and the Tennessee Titans have pitched a new indoor home with side walls that could open instead of one with a sliding roof.
That’s not dissimilar to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, home of the Los Angeles Rams, which features a fixed, translucent roof and open sides.
As a part of the College Football Playoffs rotation, the configuration at SoFi, one of the crown jewels of Denver-based Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE)’s stable of sports franchises, allows for rare natural elements to be felt within the stands and even on the playing field. But that’s also why sources say it’s not under serious consideration by the NCAA to host a Final Four. Given that fans were reportedly injured on concourses slickened by rain during the CFP national championship, the last thing the NCAA wants is moisture permeating the playing floor at its national showcase.
“A different kind of vibe”
If you’ve got Final Four dreams, what happens next probably depends on the Broncos. The NCAA has commitments for men’s basketball championship sites through 2030, and Worlock said the organization hasn’t had conversations with prospective hosts.
The timeline for the next bid cycle is still up in the air, although Payne expects an update on before August, and would like to bid for regionals as well first-/second-round hosting for the next men’s hoops cycle, which has non-Final Four dates to fill starting with 2027.
“In 1990, I remember coming here and thinking as a young coach that it was a cool place to visit,” recalled longtime ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who was an assistant at Providence 33 years earlier, a Brooklyn guy who fell in love with the Front Range. “It was such a cool place to visit, I decided to move nearby.
“San Antonio’s great. Indianapolis is great. New Orleans is great. Denver just gives you a different kind of vibe for people from the East Coast, from the Midwest and from the South. If (a Final Four) venue was built, nobody would complain about coming to Denver.”
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