By DAVE CAMPBELL AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For the teams that have made it to Minneapolis in the NCAA tournament – the guys from Michigan State, Texas Tech, Auburn and Virginia – they’ll soon be competing in a stadium that might have been built for professional football but can be made to seem much smaller by hanging giant drapes over seating sections.
The conversion work on U.S. Bank Stadium, home to the Minnesota Vikings, has proved once again something that contractors have long known to be true: The bigger the building or site, the more complicated the job. To make U.S. Bank Stadium a suitable setting for NCAA basketball, crews had to install not only temporary blinds but also additional speakers and a special center-hung scoreboard.
All the work is warranted, of course, because the Final Four tournament has become quite the event.
“People have said, ‘It’s a game for an arena,’ but trying to go back at this point on the opportunities?” said L.J. Wright, the NCAA’s director of men’s basketball championships. “Instead of giving approximately 5,000 tickets to each school, they’d be receiving far less than that, and then you’ve got all of the membership, the other schools that want access and the general public. The demand is still here, and so we want to expose and help grow the game through that exposure.”
When the NCAA began using a so-called in-the-round seating configuration at Ford Field in Detroit in 2009, the minimum-capacity requirement for a Final Four was raised to 60,000 seats. That particular design has the court placed in the middle of the turf instead of in one of the corners and that allows for the entire bowl to be used.
The change whittled the pool of possible venues to the 10 climate-controlled arenas used by the NFL. Those arenas had been brought into the rotation throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The last NBA-sized host was used in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1996. Now there are only 10 covered stadiums in the country that are big enough to bid for the tournament.
Nestled into Minneapolis’ compact downtown, filled with state-of-the-art features and fresh from holding the Super Bowl 14 months ago, U.S. Bank Stadium fits the bill. The not-quite-3-year-old stadium’s defining feature, though, didn’t necessarily make the conversion easy. The building’s skyline-facing front is essentially one big picture window, being made of five of the world’s largest pivoting glass doors, each of which is from 75 to 95 feet high. Then there is the roof, about 60% of which is composed of a lightweight translucent plastic called ETFE .
Even on some of the coldest afternoons, enough sunlight can stream in through the windows to make a television viewer do a double-take and wonder for a second if the game is actually being played in Arizona or Florida.
“That’s what makes this building unique. That’s what makes it beautiful. That’s what really makes it the gold standard in the NFL. Unfortunately, that is also what makes it very complex for us,” said Patrick Talty, the general manager for the stadium operator SMG. “Because of that competitive nature, needing the light to be the same for all teams in all situations, we then have to take our biggest asset away.”
To keep the glare off the TV cameras and out of the eyes of the free-throw shooters, any venue that bids for the tournament is required to have a darkening plan. At U.S. Bank Stadium, that has meant finding a way to cover 460,000 square feet of space.
The $4.6 million project, covered by the building’s capital-improvement fund, was so big the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority had to enlist two separate manufacturers. They provided theater-style curtains for the building’s front and sailboat-like textiles for the roof. Just one of the project’s custom-made darkening panels is 10 feet wide and up to 370 feet long. Installing them took between 20 and 25 workers from five to seven days. Removing them will require a similar amount of time.
The cost of the conversion has resulted in some public complaints. But the blinds will be reused for concerts and conventions and are expected to last as long as the stadium does, said Michael Vekich, chairman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority.
For now, the conversion will make the colossal structure seem a bit more like the sort of arena you might expect to find on campus, if that’s even possible with an event that has had 72,800 people attend it on average over the past 10 years. The NCAA has sought various ways to ensure fans lose none of their energy and enthusiasm when they watch a game in an unusually large venue.
Students, for instance, have been offered $40 floor seats behind each basket. And noises from swishes, clangs and squeaks have been subtly amplified to ensure they can be heard in the seats that are farthest from the court.
“Final Fours in the past used to be a little stagnant because you’d get people who sit on their hands who aren’t as energetic,” Wright said. “When you think of college basketball, you think of students on their feet and jumping. They’re involved. They’re a part of the event, so that’s been a special thing.”