Imagine Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a basketball court in the middle of the floor, thousands of temporary seats extending to the court, a center-hung scoreboard above midcourt and a record crowd of 80,000-plus fans in the stands.
That’s how the NCAA envisions the 2020 Final Four.
One week from the start of a college hoops season that will end in Atlanta in early April, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee convened at a downtown hotel Monday for two days of meetings highlighted by updates on Final Four preparations. Committee chairman Kevin White, the director of athletics at Duke, said the 10-member group has a “robust” agenda for the Atlanta meetings, including a tour Tuesday of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The stadium, which opened in 2017, hasn’t hosted a basketball game yet -- and isn’t scheduled to host one until the Final Four arrives. NCAA officials believe this will be the first time the Final Four is played in a building that has never before had a single basketball game.
“Pretty cool distinction, actually,” NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said Monday. “One more first for Atlanta.”
He said the NCAA isn’t concerned about the stadium making its hoops debut on such a high-stakes stage.
“We used to not allow a venue to host the Final Four … without hosting a (NCAA tournament) regional in a similar format,” Gavitt said. “But the process has become so highly evolved in the last few years that we are able to come in during the summer and do a ‘mini-build’ without doing a full-scale event to assure the seating system and all the elements we need for a Final Four can work in a venue.”
That exercise was done in Mercedes-Benz Stadium during the summer of 2018, according to Carl Adkins, executive director of Atlanta’s Final Four host committee.
The NCAA will have a large temporary video board/scoreboard installed above midcourt for the Final Four, rather than relying exclusively on the stadium’s famous halo-shaped video board that is incorporated into the roof structure. A center-hung video board typically is added to NFL stadiums when they host a Final Four, but the NCAA had contemplated whether that would be necessary here.
“It’s an incredible experience,” Gavitt said of the halo board, “and I know that the building and the Falcons were really anxious for that to be the sole board that was used. But we’ve got a responsibility to the players and the coaches as well, and having them have clear access and ready access to the score and times and statistics (was important) without having them being really unfamiliar with where that is located.”
He said the temporary board also may “shrink the feel” of the massive stadium for the event.
“We’ll still be able to do some creative things with the halo,” Gavitt said. “But for that to be the sole board … we thought was a little challenging.”
As usual for Final Fours in football stadiums, the NCAA’s temporary seating system will be installed on top of much of the permanent lower-level seating bowl to improve sight-lines and extend the seating almost to the court. Although the exact capacity hasn’t been determined, the NCAA expects it to top 80,000.
“It looks like we can break the (Final Four attendance) record here,” White said.
The record is 79,444 for the semifinals of the 2014 Final Four at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
Another issue in preparing Mercedes-Benz Stadium for basketball is covering the wall of windows behind the east end zone.
At Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium, site of last season’s Final Four, extensive curtains were installed to maintain uniform lighting for the games and team practices. In Atlanta, organizers say they have found a less expensive solution: Pleased with the look of the Super Bowl LIII graphics that covered the stadium’s wall of windows earlier this year, they plan to do something similar with a thicker material for the Final Four. That will serve the dual purpose of branding the exterior of the building for the event and blocking out light, Adkins said.
The 2020 Final Four dates are April 4 (semifinals) and April 6 (championship game).