Championship night in College Basketball from 1996 stands as a historic place in the history of the sport. On that night, Kentucky defeated Syracuse to give Coach Rick Pitino his first National Championship as a head coach (he’d win one with Louisville in 2013) and Kentucky, one of College Basketball’s bluebloods it’s first championship since 1978.
But, the game stands out not so much for who won, but where it was played. The game was played at the Continental Airlines Arena (home of the New Jersey Nets) in East Rutherford, New Jersey in front of 19,229 people. Continental Airlines is now gone and so to are the New Jersey Nets having moved to a brand new arena in Brooklyn and been renamed the Brooklyn Nets. Also, gone are the days of playing a Final 4 in a “basketball arena”. The 1996 Final 4 was the last such venue and barring something unforeseen, you’ll never see it in such a venue again.
The Final 4 is now the exclusive province of a large Dome or Football Stadium. In the same way that it makes no sense playing football in a basketball arena (with all due respect to those of you who enjoy arena football), it likewise makes no sense to play basketball in the middle of a football field. But, that’s reality and since the NCAA, which loves to tell you that they are all about the student athlete, is really about cash, it’s not changing until at least 2021 and probably not even then. The NCAA actually has the audacity to bill itself a non-profit organization. A non-profit organization doesn’t take $10.8 billion from CBS/Turner for a 14-year deal to televise the NCAA basketball tournament and then price the tickets in these cavernous stadiums such that the worst seat in the house on Final 4 Saturday in Houston went for $180 and from its vantage point, you couldn’t see the court.
The concept of playing in Domes was launched with the 1982 Final 4 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans where North Carolina won coach Dean Smith’s first national title when a fair little player – a freshman named Michael Jordan – hit the game winning shot against Georgetown. But, the NCAA didn’t participate in “dome exclusivity” at that time. The 1983 Final 4 went back to a true basketball arena at “The Pit” in New Mexico before going back to a dome at the Kingdome in Seattle in 1984. 1985 (Rupp Arena in Lexington), 1988 (Kemper Arena in Kansas City), 1990 (McNichols Sports Arena in Denver) and 1994 (Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina) were also played in “basketball arenas”. But beginning in 1997, when the Final 4 went to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, the days of the Final 4 in a basketball arena were over.
At first, that wasn’t such a big deal. The Court was set up in an end zone or corner of the Football Stadium allowing for crowds of over 50,000 but also keeping the feel of a basketball game. In 2009, however, the NCAA decided to move the Court to the 50-yard line of the football stadium and elevate the court in the middle of the field. This allowed for crowds in excess of 70,000 people (that’s 20,000 more paying customers for our non-profit friends at the NCAA) and a seating disaster. The best seats in the house belong to corporate sponsors, the Vice President apparently (who obviously knowing that this time next year he has no power to go anywhere he wants), television partners and the NCAA coaches who host their annual “bad suit convention” at the Final 4 every year. The average person can’t get near the court and pay dearly to sit so far away from the court you are not sure you are even at a basketball game. Maybe it’s better to watch on television.
Or is it? On Saturday the CBS/Turner camera angle was so bad and the glare on the floor so powerful from the video boards at the stadium that it looked like paper dolls were on the court playing basketball. Then there is the issue of the sight lines for the players. Granted Villanova shot that theory to hell by shooting 74.1 percent for the game on Saturday, but don’t tell me that Oklahoma was comfortable. The Sooners couldn’t buy a basket and case-in-point was early in the second half when they had 6 shots on one possession, and didn’t make a single one of them. The last time the Championship game was held in Houston’s monstrosity of a football stadium, Butler lost to U-Conn in frankly the worst championship game ever by hitting just 18 percent of their shots going 12 for 64. That’s 12 whole baskets in 40 minutes of game time. Obviously, our non-profit friends don’t care about good basketball or they wouldn’t play basketball in football stadiums.
The elevated court is also stupid. The players are below the court and the only two (2) people in the entire arena with a good seat are the two head coaches who get stools to sit on the side of the court, if they choose to do so. One former Duke assistant has said that seats on the bench aren’t great either as he spent the entire game looking at Coach K’s ass. I’ve had more pleasant thoughts. The press is also pissed off about the setup. There are fewer courtside seats for members of the “fourth estate” and many – if not most- are sent to the football press box where they cannot see the court.
The bottom line is this tournament is the NCAA’s premier money maker as they have absolutely no control over Division 1 football, and so they are going to put as many people into the arena as they can whether the logistics suck or anyone can actually watch the game. Next year, the Final 4 goes to the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. In 2017, it’s back to an old familiar place for the NCAA at the Alamodome in San Antonio although this will be the first time for the 50-yard line set up at that facility. 2018 sees the tournament move north to the brand new U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and 2019 sees another new venue in Arthur Blank’s ultra modern Mercedez Benz Stadium in Atlanta. 2020 finishes up the current round back at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. 2021 is the first chance the Final 4 could move back to a true “basketball arena” and there’s no real chance that’s going to happen.
Granted, you can expect North Carolina and Villanova to play a high quality championship game tonight as Roy Williams tries to move beyond his mentor Dean Smith and become just the 6th coach to win at least three NCAA Titles, but as long as the NCAA insists on attendance rather than quality basketball, the organization is going to make sure that the end of “March Madness” is maddening for the fans who love the game and believe basketball was made to be played in a basketball arena.