College and professional leagues generate substantial economic and community impact.
College basketball players and coaches have one goal – playing in the NCAA tournament that culminates in the Final Four championship tournament. This year, that long and winding road leads to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, where the Men’s Final Four Tournament will be played on April 6. It’s the fifth time the city has hosted the premier sporting event and surrounding hoopla, but that’s not all.
As in 2013, the city will also host the men’s Division II and Division III championships; those games will be played at State Farm Arena April 5. Thus, for an entire weekend, the eyes of the college basketball world will be fixed on Atlanta. Dan Corso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council, thinks folks will love what they see. Some of it wasn’t even built at the time the Final Four was awarded.
“Shortly after the successful 2013 Final Four held at the Georgia Dome,” Corso says, “we went into the bid process with the NCAA for the ’18, ’19 and ’20 events. [The 2020 tournament] was awarded in November 2014. You have to give a lot of credit to the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Atlanta Falcons and AMB Sports and Entertainment. We were showing the NCAA the CADs [computer-aided designs] and digital and artistic renderings of what the [Mercedes-Benz Stadium] would be. Actually, you have to give credit on both sides, the NCAA having confidence in Atlanta and those organizations that it would be a magnificent building, and credit on being able to show the vision of what the building would be.”
Of course, the world has seen “The Benz” in action both as the backdrop to the 2018 BCS College Football Playoff Championship game between the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia and Super Bowl LIII in 2019, pitting the New England Patriots against the Los Angeles Rams. The wildly popular Major League Soccer (MLS) Atlanta United Football Club has also played in a championship on its home pitch, but the NCAA Final Four will mark the first time the stadium has transformed for a major basketball tournament.
Corso says the Final Four and D-II and -III championship games are a natural fit for the city’s sports infrastructure, what he calls the “Championship Campus.” “Mercedes-Benz Stadium is at the core of it, with the [Georgia] World Congress Center next to that, State Farm Arena next to it and Centennial Olympic Park next to that,” he says. “It’s all walkable, which makes it fan friendly, media friendly and sponsor friendly, and that makes the NCAA happy.”
It also helps that there are 12,000-plus hotel rooms within walking distance to the sporting and public fan event venues, and that all are accessible by MARTA. “It’s a nice combination you don’t see anywhere else in the country, and it’s part of the reason we keep doing this business with the NCAA,” he adds.
“There’s no package like it in the country,” says Carl Adkins, executive director of the Atlanta Basketball Host Committee, the group tasked with coordinating with the NCAA and planning the events in Atlanta. Adkins confirms that stadium capacity will be 80,000, making this the largest Final Four ever, and every ticket will be sold. “Plus, there’s the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention going on at the same time, another 5,000. Then add another 5,000 to 10,000 people who just want to be part of the atmosphere.” Adkins expects that over the course of the weekend, there could be an influx of 100,000 to 150,000 fans as teams lose and win and their fans come and go.
There will be plenty for those fans to do – and much of it free of charge. On Friday, April 3, the public is invited to watch the Final Four teams practice in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, for free, as part of Reese’s Final Four Friday. The D-II and D-III finals, held in State Farm Arena April 5, are also free and open to the public.
The March Madness Music Festival in Centennial Olympic Park is free and takes place each day of Final Four weekend. It culminates with the Capital One JamFest featuring Taylor Swift. Tickets are required for the Final Four Fan Fest presented by Capital One, which begins Friday, April 3, and runs through Monday, April 6, at the Georgia World Congress Center.
Whether fans come from out of state or just outside I-285, whether they attend the game or go to a free concert, they’ll all spend money. Fans spend on food, transportation, lodging and other entertainment. Ticket prices are typically in the hundreds of dollars (in 2019, the average price of a single game ticket was $258), though the NCAA gets all the ticket revenue. Bruce Seaman, associate professor of economics at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, projects that the tournament’s total economic direct and indirect impact in Metro Atlanta would be just over $106 million.
But Corso and Adkins say the tournament has advantages that are tough to quantify. “We view it as a quality of life benefit for those who live here,” says Corso. “This is a competitive state when it comes to relocating or growing companies. A lot of that has to do with the quality of life people have here.
“When it comes to recreational opportunities and opportunities for citizens to get involved and engaged, the Final Four provides that platform by way of over 2,000 volunteers that we’ll have putting on the event. Economically there are benefits and quality of life there are benefits.”
Adkins also points out the tournament’s lasting social impacts left through the NCAA Legacy Projects. “One is a restoration project where we’re providing renovations to the Joseph B. Whitehead Boys and Girls Club in Southeast Atlanta,” says Adkins. “They’ll get a new basketball court and upgrades to their learning center. We’ll cut the ribbon on the newly renovated facility the week of Final Four.”
The NCAA promotes literacy through a nationwide Read to the Final Four competition pitting about 39,000 third grade students against each other in the amount of time spent reading. The reading teams from the competition’s Final Four schools in the 20-county metro area will be celebrated as guests at Fan Fest. “If kids haven’t learned to read by third grade, their chances of succeeding in life have dramatically decreased,” Adkins says. “So it’s a great competitive event, and the kids are really fired up about it.”
Strengthening Community Partnerships
The NCAA Final Four is not the only way basketball is influencing the social and economic fabric of the city. The Atlanta Hawks, valued at $1.3 billion according to Forbes’ 2019 valuation, have an enthusiastic fan base and have strengthened their outreach to the community in a number of ways.
In December 2017, the Hawks and Emory Healthcare opened a dazzling practice facility and sports medicine center. Officially dubbed the Emory Sports Medicine Complex, the $50-million, 90,000-square-foot facility on five acres in Brookhaven is the first of its kind in the NBA and has attracted attention from other teams in the league.
“What Emory and the Hawks have created together sets a new benchmark for partnerships between sports and medicine,” says Thad Sheely, chief operating officer of the Hawks and State Farm Arena. “We wanted the best care for our players, and [Emory] wanted to provide that care, not just to our players but to the entire community.”
Sheely says because the practice courts are on the same campus as the medical facilities, they are mere steps away from the highest quality care, imaging, consultations and physicians. “It’s a good partnership, and the long-term nature of it [it’s a 25-year deal] made us both willing to commit the resources to make it successful,” he adds.
The Hawks further invested in player development – and community development – by moving their NBA G League affiliate to play at the new $40-million, multipurpose Gateway Center Arena in College Park. The team, now known as the College Park Skyhawks, played its first home game on Nov. 21.
“The G League is all about basketball development, and to that extent it is pretty similar to baseball,” says Sheely. “It’s where your younger players are able to get extra minutes to play. Players can move back and forth [between teams] and play in the same system. It builds long-term, sustainable success.”
In terms of community building, Sheely says, “We’re bringing basketball to the community that might not make it up to State Farm Arena.” Eleven miles, the distance from College Park to State Farm Arena, might not seem like a long way, but the first time College Park native Shareef Abdur-Rahim ever set foot in the Omni Coliseum (the original home of the Hawks) was when the former NBA All-Star played against the Hawks. “The Atlanta Hawks were always the team he cheered for, he just never saw them play live,” says Sheely.
Today, Abdur-Rahim is the president of the NBA G League. The Hawks wanted local representation in the Skyhawks ownership group, and in May 2019, Grammy Award-winning recording artist Tauheed “2 Chainz” Epps joined the Skyhawks ownership group. “He’s from College Park, played high school basketball there – against Abdur-Rahim – and he’s been to a bunch of [Hawks] games,” says Sheely. “That illustrates that to us local is important. Local in location, in ownership and in values.”
Growing the Game
Also making the move to College Park is the Atlanta Dream. The Women’s NBA team, co-owned by Georgia’s newest U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, was ready for a refresh. The team underwent a 2019 rebrand incorporating elements from Atlanta’s history – notably the phoenix rising – and will begin playing their games in Gateway Center Arena when the season starts in May.
“We’re excited about that,” says Chris Sienko, president and general manager of the Atlanta Dream. “State Farm Arena was very cavernous, and our brand is still growing. We’re not at the point where we can sustain 8,000 to 10,000 or 15,000 fans per game. Taking the step into a smaller arena is not a negative. We can control advertising, sponsors, visibility and branding. We have control of game dates.”
Community building is even more crucial in women’s sports, where support is still developing. In conjunction with Nike, the Dream is working on an initiative – Game Growers – that will not only expand their presence in the community but will also help cultivate women’s sports. Research demonstrates that girls who stay involved in sports aren’t just healthier and more active, they have more confidence and have more successful careers. Game Growers targets 8th grade girls, a time when many of them stop playing sports, to re-engage and start playing again.
Kelsey Bibik, public relations manager for the Dream, serves as the team’s liaison for the program. “Game Growers is great because we’re not reaching out to girls saying ‘Hey keep playing basketball so that we can draft you one day.’ It’s all about keeping girls in sports and engaged,” Bibik says. “The reason girls drop out is pressure from other girls in their grade or teammates. We’re just trying to get them to stick with it.”
Two 8th grade girls will work with participating WNBA and NBA teams on ideas to inspire more girls from their community to get involved and play sports. Bibik selected two girls from the Atlanta area to represent the Dream. “The girls we selected have amazing ideas,” she says. “We [went] to Oregon [to Nike] in January to build out the program. One of our girls is 14. Her parents said she can’t even watch men’s sports without talking about the inequality for women. I’m excited to work with her.”
As for the Final Four tournament, according to Adkins, the NCAA watched the planning with satisfaction. Monthly meetings ramped up to a final full production meeting in February with all the key players, about 300 people representing literally thousands.
“We’re in a very good place with planning,” he says, “and a lot of that is testament to relationships, everything we’ve created locally and the continuity of the staff. The NCAA is excited to be back in Atlanta. We find a way to say ‘yes.’”