Our Chance to Dance3/9/2016
This week, fresh on the heels of a slew of high school state championship events, Wells Fargo Arena will once again be packed with visitors, as the Iowa Events Center welcomes in a big first for the city: the regional round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
March Madness is the biggest event in the college sports world, featuring 68 teams playing their way through a series of knockout brackets in the effort to crown college basketball’s national champion. This year’s championship game will be held almost a month from now in Houston, Texas. But opening rounds kicked off this week with eight hopefuls making their way to downtown Des Moines.
Making the cut to be a host city is not an easy nut to crack. For the folks at the Iowa Events Center, the process has taken years, and plenty of rejection.
“In my five years here, we had two previous failed attempts,” said Iowa Events Center General Manager Chris Connolly. “It’s been quite a process. A lot of things needed to line up. As part of the three-year bid cycle, the NCAA named sites for 2016, ’17 and ’18, and of all those sites, us and Brooklyn, New York, were the only first-time sites awarded. So it’s a big deal just getting over that hump.”
Getting there was about more than just persistence. Getting the “yes” from the NCAA took years of site improvements, relationship building, auditioning through the hosting of other NCAA events and, yes, a little bit of luck.
Building the foundation
The NCAA looks at a number of things when considering potential host cities for its flagship championship event. Not only does an applying site need to show it has a venue capable of catering to the teams and their fans, but the city also needs to have the proper infrastructure in place. Transportation, hotels and dining options all have to be considered just as seriously as the number of seats in the venue. For Des Moines, none of the improvements to the city in the past five years has necessarily taken place with the NCAA tournament specifically in mind, but all were heavily touted in the most recent application.
“We feel like we got very creative with our bid,” Connolly said. “We put some enhancements in our bid that we think went a long way with the NCAA. Some of those are things like our new HD (high-defintion) scoreboard, our higher quality of lighting within the arena, a new control room. We spent about $2.3 million in capital projects. The marquee outside the building is new. We put all of that into our bid, and we think that went a long way. We failed a couple of times, and we really looked at everything from A to Z that we could improve.”
During that same time period, Des Moines International Airport was adding flights, as well as bringing Southwest Airlines in as an additional carrier to the city, making travel to and from the city easier. The downtown corridor continued to improve, as new construction added more business to Court Avenue and the East Village, and downtown hotels like the Hotel Fort Des Moines and Des Lux were sold and renovated. Everything came together to make Des Moines a more attractive market for large-scale events than it was just a few years ago.
Internally, the Iowa Events Center also made its own infrastructure more attractive by bringing Principal Financial Group’s President of Retirement, Insurance and Financial Services, Dan Houston, on board as the honorary chair of the local organizing committee, and partnering with Iowa State University as the event’s co-host. Both additions were important because of what their respective reputations brought to the table. Having ISU serve as co-host brought in a school with a strong recent track record with the tournament. The Cyclones have been in the last three tournaments, winning at least one game each year. Houston, meanwhile, has a solid reputation within Des Moines’ business community, and Connolly cites him as an invaluable resource for bringing other locally based corporations in line with the application process.
Another valuable asset came in the form of Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the Des Moines Convention and Visitors Group. As Connolly and his team were looking for ways to improve the bid, it was Edwards who reached out to the NCAA directly and got the two groups together in the flesh.
“Greg Edwards got us a meeting with the NCAA at their headquarters in Indianapolis,” Connolly explained. “We flew as a group out to Indy, and we had some really good meetings. We went out there and asked them, ‘Hey, are we even close?’ One of the comments we got back was, ‘Not every group gets to make a house call to the NCAA.’ They gave us some feedback on what they needed to see, and that really helped us. We feel like that trip really encouraged us. Greg made that happen.”
Meanwhile, Connolly and the rest of his bid group spent the past few years doing its homework.
Bearing the load
Representatives from the Iowa Events Center attended NCAA Wrestling Championships in St. Louis and Philadelphia, as well as events in Omaha, which has hosted an NCAA Tournament round in the past. They saw firsthand the challenges each city faced with the influx of fans and media and were able to steer Des Moines clear from many of them in advance.
“We saw places unprepared and running out of beer,” Connolly said. “We didn’t want to do that. So we were able to come back and meet with our hospitality folks in Court Avenue and the East Village and just go over with them about how many people they can expect, or when their businesses should get hit. Centro, for example, usually has set hours, but they changed their hours to accommodate what we’ve got coming into town.”
The Arena was then given the opportunity to test itself in a couple of live-fire exercises, as The Well played host to both the NCAA Wrestling Championship and the regional round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. In each case, the Des Moines contingent proved its worth.
“Seeing the NCAA Wrestling Championships three years in a row, I’ve got to say that the atmosphere here in Des Moines was better than any place I saw,” Connolly said. “The NCAA walked out of here with very good feelings. They had some concerns about the hotels, and those were proven unfounded. The downtown was full, but no matter where you’re staying around here, you’re never more than 10 or 15 minutes away. Travel in and out of the airport has gotten better, with Southwest being added and more flights going in and out.”
With two failed bids already on record, Des Moines’ interest in hosting the men’s tourney was no secret to the NCAA. So when it came time to host the women’s regional and the wrestling championships, the Iowa Events Center staff felt the added pressure of knowing they were being closely scrutinized throughout the events.
“Wrestling was the true audition,” Connolly said. “We were a first-year host and being looked at hard. We were on the hook, and we did all the little stuff right. It was a great feeling when that first session started on Thursday and everyone was in their seats.
“Seeing the NCAA Wrestling Championships three years in a row, I’ve got to say that the atmosphere here in Des Moines was better than any place I saw. The NCAA walked out of here with very good feelings.”
— Chris Connolly, Iowa Events Center general manager
“For some of the fans coming into town for these events, this is almost a yearly vacation for them. We want to make sure they’re having a good time. We get direct feedback from people after the events, and we look at every detail for ways to improve. Hotels, transportation, parking and signage. In every aspect, the city did a great job. So yes, hosting some of these events and doing a great job got Des Moines on the map.”
And whether you are a college basketball fan or not, getting Des Moines on the NCAA’s radar is potentially a very good thing for the city. When the NCAA Women’s Tourney came through town in 2012, it pumped an estimated $2 million into the local economy. The 2013 wrestling tournament did even better with an estimated economic impact of nearly $15 million. The NCAA requires host sites to have at least 10,000 seats available for the men’s tourney, but the Iowa Events Center plans to have The Well opened to its full capacity of nearly 17,000. Assuming capacity crowds — something that is well within the realm or reason, even with the Iowa Hawkeyes blowing its chance at a top seed in its home state as of late — that would mean a potential 70,000 people spending their way through local businesses.
But for all of the preparation that has been done, and all the civic improvements the city has seen, Connolly admits the work is far from over just because the event has been booked. And that’s where the experience with NCAA events in the past can come in handy.
“For us, the NCAA tournament events are unique,” Connolly said. “It’s a very branded event for the NCAA, so a lot of our signage and advertising is covered for the duration of the event. For that, our partners at Coke and our other advertisers have been very accommodating. They’ve all just said, ‘Do what you need to’ when it comes to covering their ads for that weekend.
“I think as you go through these events, you really gain experience on being more efficient,” he continued, talking about the Events Center staff’s ability to handle the crush of fans. “When you have a break in the action, your concessions really get a rush like no other. So really, just for our people to have gotten the chance to go through that before and know what to expect, that’s helpful.”
The men’s tournament will be bigger than any event Wells Fargo Arena has hosted before. But Des Moines has proven itself as a healthy host for the NCAA, and Midwest sports fans are hungry for any championship action they get the chance to see.
“Men’s basketball, that’s the king in terms of dollars,” Connolly said. “With wrestling, they were still pushing that sport and trying to grow it. At the championships in St. Louis, they were still selling tickets at the door, day of. Even with women’s basketball here, we were still marketing for it up to the day of, because we still had tickets to sell. But with the men, we’re basically sold out except for tickets on the secondary market.”
But even with all of the preparation and planning, there is no guarantee of everything going smoothly.
“We have some challenges,” Connolly admitted. “There’s a lot of construction in town right now. We’ve got our hotel going up, and that effects us a little bit. So we’ve sat down with the city. I know more about streets and traffic flows now than I ever wanted to. We met with the city of Des Moines, along with the police who will be out there directing traffic. We met for weeks and weeks about how to handle the traffic flow.”
As anyone who has been past Wells Fargo Arena on a concert night or during one of the state tournaments can attest, the Iowa Events Center staff and Des Moines Police Department are well versed in how to keep people and cars flowing through the area smoothly. But with so much unfinished construction downtown, the potential for hangups is still on the table. In that regard, Connolly knows that all his team can do is communicate with the city, make sure everyone is on the same page and hope for the best.
There are a few things that are almost completely out of everyone’s control. Weather, which teams get picked to come into town or unforeseen transportation issues could conspire to drive attendance down or make the event frustrating for those who come to town. But Connolly is supremely confident that, once those fans cross through Wells Fargo Arena’s doors, everything is going to be fine.
“The least of my worries is how the event will run on game day,” he said. “We’ve got a great team here in the city.” CV