Workers lay down the basketball court for this weekend's U.S. Bank Stadium Basketball Classic. (Courtesy SMG / U.S. Bank Stadium)
U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis will play host to its first basketball event this week as it prepares for the Final Four of next year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The inaugural U.S. Bank Stadium Basketball Classic, scheduled Friday and Saturday, features four college games, most between schools from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Host school Minnesota plays Oklahoma State on Friday.
For SMG, the stadium’s management firm, the event provides a soft opening of sorts to help staff gain experience for operating the venue, home to the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, in basketball mode.
As part of bidding for the Final Four, stadiums are required to have a basketball event in advance to test all aspects of game operations, including the horn, shot clock and scoring system, said Patrick Talty, U.S. Bank Stadium’s general manager.
In years past, some stadiums that had the Final Four were awarded an NCAA regional the year before to prepare for the national championship. Last year, however, all four men’s regionals were held at arenas. The NCAA has stepped away from holding regionals at stadiums because of the cost and to keep the energy intact at regionals, rather than put 20,000 fans inside a 70,000-seat stadium, said L.J. Wright, the NCAA’s director of men’s basketball championships.
The NCAA does conduct a mock setup at Final Four stadiums, which it did at U.S. Bank Stadium in May 2017, Wright said.
SMG, in conjunction with the Vikings, worked closely with event promoter Russ Potts to organize the basketball classic and secure the schools, Talty said.
On Friday, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls plays the University of St. Thomas, followed by Oklahoma State-Minnesota. Saturday’s schedule is North Dakota State-Drake and South Dakota State-Northern Iowa.
For the basketball classic, the stadium is set up in a half-house configuration with the court placed in the east end. Capacity is 25,000 for the event. Talty expects crowds of 15,000 to 18,000 for Friday and 10,000 to 12,000 on Saturday.
“Our focus all along was to have a regional draw,” Talty said. “It’s not a made-for-TV match, but South Dakota State is a giant-killer” with three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. “We felt like we have some strong local teams.” The Oklahoma State-Minnesota game will be shown on the Big Ten Network.
For the Final Four, scheduled April 6 and 8, the court will be placed at midfield surrounded by a few thousand floor seats. U.S. Bank Stadium will accommodate 70,000 for that event, which would top the 67,612 who attended the Super Bowl in February.
At this week’s event, officials are marketing a small portion of premium seats. Forty courtside seats sell for $195 a seat each day. In addition, some field-level suites are available, priced at $100 a person each day. The Vikings sell suites for all stadium events. In this case, suite holders are required to buy only 50 percent of the seats to reserve their suite, leaving additional inventory to be sold, SMG spokesperson Lisa Niess said.
“We expect some of them will be in use,” Niess said. “They’re available to be reserved up until the day of the event.”
Reserved seats start at $15 a day for midlevel seats and increase to $70 closer to the floor.
The court itself was borrowed from the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., an SMG-managed arena. It has been branded for the basketball classic. A local high school practiced on the floor Wednesday to test the surface for potential dead spots, Talty said.
Before the games, officials are throwing a tailgate party in the Delta Sky360 Club at field level that’s open to all patrons. Tickets cost $35, and SMG will open the gates three hours before the first tipoff.
Saturday’s Football Championship Subdivision playoff games will be shown on televisions inside the club at that function. Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and North Dakota State are all playing football that day after advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
Aramark, the stadium’s concessionaire, teamed with local vendors that have stands in the building to serve specialty items at the tailgate party, such as Kramarczuk’s cheddar bratwurst, Ike’s carved sirloin sandwich and the Full Court Press cocktail, made with whiskey, club soda and ginger ale.
Beer and wine will be sold in public spaces at the basketball classic, which is another step toward preparing for the Final Four, according to Talty.
“The NCAA told us they are selling alcohol at their championships,” he said. “We haven’t signed a contract with the NCAA on that piece, but we’re way down the road on operational details and have been in discussions on it. We’re headed that way.”
To generate excitement for the NCAA men’s championship, the Final Four Fan Jam will set up Friday inside the main entrance on the stadium’s west side, featuring games and sponsor activations to give fans a taste of what’s to come.
On his own, Talty knows ahead of time what to expect for the Final Four. Over the course of his 25-year career, Talty has worked two Final Fours at the old RCA Dome in Indianapolis and multiple rounds of the NCAA Tournament, including the 2009 regional at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., which is now State Farm Stadium.
Getting to know crowd flow for basketball and placing the court in the right location with optimal viewing angles was a key lesson for Talty at past NCAA basketball events in a stadium setting.
“Having a history with the NCAA folks is a big win during the planning process,” Talty said. “The Final Four has grown and changed since I did my first one, but the core of the student-athletes and the games being the heart of the event has not.”