March Madness Comes to Houston
The months of March and April represent the start of many things: warmer weather, the official beginning of spring—and March Madness. Since 1939, when the University of Oregon was declared champion of the first-ever NCAA men’s basketball tournament, college basketball fans around the country have anticipated those weeks in spring that are inevitably filled with rivalry showdowns, buzzer-beater wins and shocking upsets. This year, the city of Houston will play a vital role in the madness as host of the Final Four festivities April 1 through 4.
In just one month, the seats of NRG Stadium will be filled with tens of thousands of screaming fans, eager to learn which teams will face off in the championship game. All of the planning for that tipoff moment was set into motion years ago, when Houston was selected to host its second Final Four in a short five-year timespan.
“Houston was awarded the 2011 Final Four in 2003 and the 2016 Final Four in 2008,” said Doug Hall, president and CEO of the Houston Final Four Local Organizing Committee. “We were put into a unique situation where we’d been awarded two Final Fours without hosting one in the modern era.”
That meant the pressure was on in 2011 to show NCAA officials and fans what kind of host Houston could be. The Bayou City was up to the challenge and the community turned out in large numbers to solidify Houston’s position as a great sports town.
“Houston loves major events,” Hall said. “Whether it’s Final Four, or the Super Bowl, or the Shell Houston Open, the city gets behind big events—particularly those that don’t come here every year. It’s a unique opportunity for it to be held in your hometown.”
Hall, who also served on the 2011 Local Organizing Committee, was brought back to the committee in October 2014. He and his team have been hard at work to make this the best Houston Final Four yet.
“I want everybody on Tuesday morning to say, ‘Wow, that was an awesome event,’” Hall said. “With a multitude of activities for people to get involved in there’s something for everyone, and we want everybody to say, ‘I can’t wait for it to come back.’”
The Final Four festivities include much more than the tournament games. Following the format of previous Final Four events, there is the Fan Fest, presented by Capital One, which will feature interactive games, giveaways, autograph sessions and more; the March Madness Music Festival, free concerts featuring national and local headliners; Reese’s Final Four Friday, open team practices followed by a must-see All-Star game; and the Final Four 4 Miler, which benefits the Lone Star Veterans Association. Keeping in line with the NCAA’s commitment to youth programs, there are a number of events geared toward children, including Youth Clinics, during which kids will learn from NCAA coaches and athletes, and the Final Four Dribble, which will have kids dribbling a brand new basketball through the heart of downtown Houston.
“Not everyone can get tickets to the game—there are only 75,000 tickets—but everybody can participate in one or multiple of the activities around Final Four,” Hall said. “Even if you don’t have a ticket, there’s plenty to do.”
Beyond the support of the Local Organizing Committee and the NCAA, the success of the Final Four also depends on community participation. This includes a number of local organizations, like Houston First, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Houston Downtown Management District, the City of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.
“We are proud to support the Final Four in Houston,” said Robert C. Robbins, M.D., president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center. “We look forward to showing visitors the incredible diversity of this city and what a great host we can be to such an exciting event.”
In addition to organizational support, the Final Four depends on the participation of individuals in the community. There are still many of opportunities for members of the Houston community to volunteer at or participate in the various events surrounding the Final Four.
“How we get judged as a city is, do people really turn out to the ancillary events?” said Hall. “Do they come to the extracurricular activities? Do the out of town visitors and the NCAA staff feel like this city really supports their event? That’s what they want to see.”