In the Zone

Minneapolis is ready for next year’s Final Four. But is the Final Four ready for Minneapolis?

Past double glass doors, a swath of polished parquet floor greets visitors to a compact fourth-floor suite in U.S. Bank Plaza’s north tower, in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. The floorboards are NCAA regulation, the same type traveled up and down by America’s top collegiate basketball players in arenas across the country.

Their addition to the office interiors offers a tantalizing preview of what’s to come next year when Minneapolis hosts the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship — popularly known as the Final Four. On April 6 and 8, 2019, the four best men’s collegiate teams will duke it out on a custom-built court between U.S. Bank Stadium’s 35-yard lines.

It will be the city’s first Final Four since 2001 when the tournament and downtown Minneapolis were lower-key.

“The tournament and the city have both changed so much in 18 years,” says Kate Mortenson, president and CEO of the 2019 Minneapolis Final Four Local Organizing Committee (MLOC).

Four days of impact
In 2001, the tourney filled about half the Metrodome. Next year, with some 20,000 extra seats surrounding the court, U.S. Bank Stadium will feel packed. MLOC expects at least 400,000 attendees across all events, 130,000 of whom will come from at least an hour away — approximately 70,000 through Minneapolis International Airport. Recent Final Fours generated $80 million to $200 million in economic impact; Mortenson expects 2019 tournament’s take to fall within that range. 

That’s not as much as the estimated impact of this year’s Super Bowl — which is estimated at $400 million according to the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee — but “it’s not bad for a four-day weekend in April,” says Mortenson.

The weekend’s tentpole events are the games themselves: two semifinals on Saturday, then the championship bout on Monday. But the fun lasts all weekend, and it’s not limited to the confines of U.S. Bank Stadium.

Things kick off with Final Four Friday, a chance for the public to cruise through the stadium and sit in ticketed fans’ seats — literally — a day early for free to watch an all-star game and see the Final Four teams practice. MLOC expects at least 20,000 to pass through. Friday to Monday, individuals can head over to the Minneapolis Convention Center for Final Four Fan Fest, a low-cost, family-friendly ticketed event — price TBD — featuring autograph-signing and fitness exhibits. As many as 50,000 people are expected over four days, says Mortenson. 

On Saturday and Monday, on-court action takes center stage. Sunday is a transitional day, says Mortenson, with the fans of Saturday’s losing team hightailing it out of town and a new crop arriving in time for Monday’s finale. In Minneapolis, Sunday’s highlights include Final Four Dribble, a free and family-friendly “basketball parade,” that will possibly transit Nicollet Mall and is expected to draw more than 3,000 pre-registered attendees, concluding with free entrance into the Final Four Fan Fest.

Finally, for locals and visitors who couldn’t care less about basketball, a Friday–Sunday March Madness Music Festival brings six total hours each day of A-list evening entertainment. Next year’s acts aren’t booked yet; past performers have included Rihanna and the Zac Brown Band. 

Life goes on in downtown Minneapolis
Downtown will be crowded on Final Four weekend, but, rest assured, it’s nothing the city can’t handle. 

“We don’t want people to be afraid to come downtown during the Final Four,” says Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis. Absorbing hundreds of thousands of extra locals and visitors in a district that already boasts 40,000 residents and 150,000-weekday workers “shows the world that we have a really vibrant core,” he adds.

Key to that impact is downtown Minneapolis itself. Mortenson’s team has visited or huddled remotely with other cities that hosted the Super Bowl and Final Four in quick succession: Phoenix and Houston, among others. But downtown Minneapolis’s compact footprint, with U.S. Bank Stadium just two LRT stops from Nicollet Mall — “Main Street Minnesota,” says Mortenson ­— and within walking distance of the increasingly vibrant Mill District, is nearly unique. In contrast, the University of Phoenix Stadium sits in a vast sea of suburban parking lots, 16 miles from downtown Phoenix.

“Our assets” — restaurants, entertainment venues and transit nearby — “create an engaging experience that fans have not had in other cities,” says Tennant. “Minneapolis’s best Final Four is not Phoenix’s best Final Four.”

Thousands of tourney-goers are staying in Bloomington, St. Paul, and elsewhere in the metro. Organizers are taking notes from the Super Bowl committee on parking and traffic management, and collaborating with Metro Transit to ferry those without cars to and from Minneapolis using extra LRT vehicles and buses, as it does annually for the Minnesota State Fair. The Great Minnesota Get Together, which drew 2 million people over 12 days last year to a far less transit-friendly site, is the paragon of event transportation in Minnesota.


A team effort
None of this would be possible without a first-rate team. MLOC itself has five paid staff; Mortenson plans to hire more team members in the coming months. It’s lean but strong: One, the lead for event operations, Cydni Bickerstaff, has 15-plus years of experience managing large-scale sporting events. Mortenson convinced her to temporarily set aside her thriving Washington, D.C. event-production company to run point here in Minneapolis.

Until last year, MLOC was “basically me working half- and then full-time,” says Mortenson. Today, MLOC coordinates a broad, cross-organizational effort with stakeholders, such as the University of Minnesota (the event’s official host), the City of Minneapolis, Meet Minneapolis, Sports Minneapolis (liaison to hotels and venues) and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which oversees operations at U.S. Bank Stadium. 
These permanent entities supply staff, expertise and other resources as needed. They’re helped along by MLOC’s Impact Advisory Council, a diverse group of local business and civic leaders. 

The 25-person council has a dual mandate. First, it empowers metro and outstate Minnesota youths and twentysomethings through job-shadowing opportunities with council members and paid internships with MLOC itself. Second, it “shows the future face of Minnesota,” says Mortenson, by intentionally recruiting staffers, vendors and volunteers who look like the folks they represent. MLOC vendors are currently 79% women- and minority-owned (where there are vendor options).

The whole effort has three aims, says Mortenson: meet or exceed the NCAA’s expectations in 2019, earn a future opportunity as early as 2024 and produce a lasting impact across the city and region. Along with this year’s Super Bowl, which produced a massive volunteer list that Mortenson expects to result in some 3,000 tournament helpers, Final Four prep is creating new wells of expertise across the region. That’s expanding Minnesota’s capacity to put on world-class events, and strengthening its case for future bids. 

“This effort really sets the table for us to pursue other major events,” says Tennant. “Having the Super Bowl and Final Four in consecutive years puts us back on the national stage in a big way.” 



A look at the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s
Basketball Championship,
by the numbers (projected):

total attendees
across all events
total visitors to
Minneapolis-St. Paul
arriving through
MSP International
23 million
TV viewers (2017)
176 countries
broadcasted in


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