Take a look back at the 2016 NCAA Tournament in Des Moines, the city's first time hosting first- and second-round NCAA games. The Des Moines Register
Mike Green had spent months and months preparing for Selection Sunday in 2016.
And then the names came.
One by one, the eight qualifiers for the first set of men's NCAA Tournament games to be played in Des Moines were revealed that March 13. A mix of national title contenders and plucky underdogs would converge on Wells Fargo Arena and were to be wrapped in the warm embrace of Iowa Nice.
And then the names came.
Kansas, Connecticut. Recent championships and star power.
Kentucky, Indiana. All-time excellence.
Green is the assistant athletic director for communications at Iowa State University, which was the host institution for the 2016 tournament's stay in Des Moines. Among his plethora of duties for the week was to handle media requests for the visiting teams and travel itineraries and practice schedules and news conference assignments and on and on.
A typical tournament host gets dozens of requests to cover the games as it is. And then the names came.
Three important words escaped Green's lips that night:
"Oh, my God."
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Wonderment is the appropriate response to March Madness' maiden voyage to central Iowa three years ago. Des Moines' unofficial attitude that week: We're ready for this.
But it's unfair to ask anyone to be ready for that.
"No one's telling you (who is coming), you have no clue," Green said. "So you're finding out with everyone else, obviously.
"And I'm not gonna lie. I was, like, 'Oh, my God.' Four blue bloods, you can't be prepared for that."
Well, more than 200 media requests for those salivating matchups came in — "We ran out of hotel rooms just like that," Green remembers — believed to be a record for the NCAA's opening rounds.
The fan bases flocked here, too. Des Moines largely sparkled on a grand stage, with the NCAA, visitors, and even ballyhooed broadcaster Jim Nantz praising a “wonderful host city.”
And now, the names are coming back. The good news comes Sunday, when the next set of eight schools to grace the Hawkeye State and the Well are unveiled. Drake University will host this time around.
The better news: Just like last time, if the city, the hosts and the fans thrived during that, then they’ll be more than ready for this.
‘A crown jewel’
The official roster that year was Kansas, Austin Peay, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Chattanooga, Kentucky and Stony Brook. But everyone remembers the Big Four, and not our Big Four Iowa schools.
That’s the way Catch Des Moines CEO Greg Edwards remembers 2016, and that’s a big positive the NCAA remembered when it began working with the city for this year’s games.
“They opened their meetings with us saying we did a great job in 2016, not a lot of concerns about Des Moines,” he said. “… We felt very, very good about 2016, really. All the things that we did kind of fell into place.”
Messages seeking comment from the NCAA for this article were not returned.
Even moving the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade to March 18 to keep from conflicting with the first-round games went off with only minimal hitches.
The city isn’t exactly new to collegiate and international sports showcases — the Drake Relays, U.S. Track & Field Championships, women’s basketball and volleyball regionals, the NCAA wrestling championships have all made stops here.
The men’s tournament, though, is on another level. Chris Connolly, the general manager of Wells Fargo Arena, knows that firsthand. For starters, the peak capacity of more than 17,000 for NCAA hoops stretches the arena’s limits. From entrances and setup to concessions and vendors, he says this week “far surpasses anything else we do,” he says.
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The $6 million economic injection into the Des Moines metro in 2016 was proof enough.
That’s no surprise, considering this event was top-of-mind when the $117 million facility was being constructed a decade and a half ago.
“The NCAA men’s basketball tournament was always the dream once Wells Fargo Arena was in the works. ‘If we build this arena, we’ve gotta get the NCAAs,’” Edwards recalls. “As you know, it took us three times to finally land it (in 2016). I think it really brings the community pride together, really brings our corporate community together with us.
“We’ve got tremendous support in all walks of life around the community supporting this thing because it is the crown jewel to a community the size of Des Moines.”
So you’ll see a lot of the same gusto as businesses attempt to “paint the town blue” again, with the color splashed across public places that aren’t still engulfed by snow. Downtown bars and restaurants will vie to become the unofficial headquarters for visiting schools.
The Hoops and Hops gathering on Cowles Commons will be returning, and so will the heaters to keep the tents warm during this brutally cold winter. The shuttles from the arena to an auxiliary parking lot at Principal Park will again be in operation.
Once through the ringer already feels old-hat, in a way.
“Regardless of who is going to be sent to Des Moines this time, there’s an interest of a casual fan. Iowans love sports, it’s a perfect fit,” Green said. “I don’t think you’re ever going to have a time of poor crowds here.”
Upgrading the experience
That’s not to say that everything will be the same in a couple of weeks.
Most of the changes you’ll notice will be around the arena area itself. Perhaps the biggest positive, especially considering the weather, is that the downtown skywalk system will be connected from Court Avenue all the way to the Well, which wasn’t the case in 2016 with the Convention Center Hilton still under construction at the time. The lack of construction also increases the viability of parking ramps near the Iowa Events Center in addition to the main arena lots, Connolly said.
The alternate skywalk entrances to the arena will now accommodate ticket-holders waiting in line at greater distances, Connolly said, which should encourage fans to go indoors should the weather remain less than ideal. He still recommends fans arrive at the arena an hour before their game or session.
The Thursday fanfest party in Hy-Vee Hall will also be lengthened after a relaxation of NCAA rules, Connolly said. The event is open to the public and is designed to run after the completion of the first two opening-round games and before tip-off of the evening session. In 2016, that sliver of time was approximately an hour. This year, Connolly expects it will be significantly longer.
Once inside, arena staff will be better prepared to enter food and beverage needs. The arena scrambled in 2016 to improve wait times for the customer concessions experience for the Saturday second-round games after flurries of first-round complaints.
In addition to beefed-up staffing, Hy-Vee will have stations on both the upper and lower concourses for grab-and-go, pre-wrapped sandwiches, Connolly said. Six vending machines that will accept cash or cards will be sprinkled throughout the concourses, and beer and wine will be for sale inside the arena for the first time at a men’s NCAA Tournament.
WiFi capabilities are racing against the exponential demand for data but have significantly improved in recent years, Connolly said. Multiple charging stations for phones are inside the arena, too.
“I certainly feel comfortable the second time around,” he said. “There’s a lot less feeling antsy.”
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Changing more minds
From there, it’s up to the proverbial stage crew to make sure the curtain rises without a hitch.
With Drake as the host university this spring, much of the “stage manager” work falls on Ty Patton, the school’s assistant athletic director for communications, and Brady Randall, assistant AD for operations.
Patton takes care of a lot of Green’s responsibilities on the media end. Randall takes care of itineraries for teams getting to and from their hotels to the arenas, and then all the official scorers and operators who manage each game.
They’ll have a lot of help. Green said Iowa State enlisted close to 40 volunteers to assist with making the tournament go in 2016, and the metro mercifully boasts enough willing spirits. Even still, he couldn’t imagine how much he had to delegate just to keep the trains running on time, or how much he’d be on his feet.
“I’m a runner, but my phone told me I was logging 9 or 10 miles a day (in and around the arena),” Green said. “I lost five or six pounds. I was exhausted. I got back home for that Sunday to finally watch some games, and I couldn’t stay up past 7 p.m.”
The NCAA has been in touch, too, of course. Meetings began in earnest almost a year ago, Patton said. Randall said he and Patton both observed last year’s tournament in action at separate sites to understand what the process this spring would be like.
This past summer, they were in Indianapolis poring over the NCAA’s tournament operations manual, which regulates the week down to the most minute details.
“It’s 300-plus pages, and we went through it page by page,” Randall said, adding a considerable pause. “It’s a hefty document.”
Edwards said there will be designated greeters at the Des Moines airport when each team arrives, and that there will be care packages for players and coaches on their transport buses to their hotels and also in the lobbies themselves, along with specified police escorts.
“We’re welcoming thousands of visitors, and for a lot of them, this is their first impression of Des Moines. Use your turn signals, be courteous at the grocery store,” Edwards said. “Put on a happy face, which is what we do here, anyway. People are our No. 1 attribute.”
The workload is significant for Patton, in particular, with the Drake men and women vying for postseason trips of their own. But the Bulldogs aren’t grumbling about the exposure the university or city will receive.
“It’s a tremendous showcase, a chance to shine a light on everything fantastic that goes on here,” he said. “As someone who is part of Drake and part of this community, there’s a tremendous amount of pride. And we aspire to be Des Moines’ hometown team, so this is a part of opening those eyes. There is no shortage of positives here, and we want to accentuate them.”
At this point, the waiting game is over until the name game begins. And Randall knows what he’s wishing for.
“I hope it’s eight new teams who weren’t here last time because Des Moines is an incredible city,” he said. “It changed the minds of those who were here last time, and I hope it can change a lot more.”