Did Des Moines impress enough to get March Madness again?
Some fans complained about long lines. Media said the arena was cramped. But most said Des Moines was a great tournament host. Will it be enough to land March Madness again?
Even after a big win, a good basketball coach can find things to nitpick.
Officials in Des Moines are doing just that. They’ve zeroed in on a few things that could have gone better when March Madness swept through the city for the first time ever last week. Sure, the concession stand lines were long, the media could have used more elbow room.
But if the overall goal was to impress the NCAA enough to bring back the men's basketball tournament in the future, then local organizers say Des Moines won the weekend.
“I think we showed the NCAA, the student athletes and the fans that attended that we know what we’re doing, and I think we deserve another round,” said Greg Edwards, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Des Moines will find out by the end of the year if it showed well enough to earn another March Madness date. Host sites for the 2019 through 2021 tournaments will be announced in December. Des Moines organizers said they plan to apply.
They hope Des Moines can join a list of small cities such as Dayton, Ohio, Spokane, Wash., and Omaha that have built close ties with the NCAA and are regularly picked to host tournament games.
NCAA officials were complimentary of Des Moines and its organizers: the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, Iowa State University and the Iowa Events Center.
But they stopped short of saying the city is poised to host again.
Des Moines was "dealt a tough hand" by landing multiple high-profile teams with large media contingencies during its first time hosting the tournament, JoAn Scott, managing director of NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships, said in an email.
Four of the eight teams selected to play here were powerhouse programs with huge fan bases: Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky.
“Those involved were proactive in finding solutions to problems they anticipated, and the end result were satisfied members of the media, and more importantly, satisfied participants and fans," Scott said. "Everyone did a wonderful job.”
For three days starting Thursday, downtown was a rainbow of team colors. Visiting fans mixed with locals, who also had plenty to celebrate as Iowa State, Iowa and Northern Iowa played in tournament games out of state.
“The arena was phenomenal,” said Scott Stroman, who came from Pennsylvania. “I think everybody had a good time.”
Throughout the weekend, fans explored different parts of the city. Court Avenue was packed. The East Village buzzed.
Organizers estimated 2,500 people attended the Fan Zone, a party Thursday inside Hy-Vee Hall.
“I had nothing but a positive experience, said Dan Albertson, an Alabama resident rooting for Indiana. "Gold star, all the way around.”
The city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was moved back a day to avoid conflicting with Thursday’s basketball crowds, livened up downtown Friday afternoon, when no basketball games were played.
Still, there were complaints.
The most common were about long lines at concession stands and the arena's cramped concourse.
“It was super crowded,” said Indiana resident Hayley Garl. “The outside line getting into the arena wasn’t bad, but it was hard to travel to our seats inside.”
Tom Shatel, a longtime sports columnist at the Omaha World-Herald, compared Des Moines with his home city, which has hosted the tournament three times. His conclusion: Des Moines did a good job, but Omaha set the bar higher.
“From the concourses to the lower levels of the arena, there’s not a lot of room to maneuver,” he wrote. “After games, players and coaches walked through a gantlet of the media work area and a concession area with trays stacked with hamburger buns and bottles of pop.”
On Thursday, lines backed up at concession stands during halftimes and between games. Some stands ran out of food.
Iowa Events Center manager Chris Connolly responds to complaints about long lines Thursday at concession stands at Wells Fargo Arena and says there are plans to fix it for Saturday.
Wells Fargo Arena officials took notice and adjusted. On Saturday, they brought in more workers and set up extra stands to sell cold items like pre-wrapped deli sandwiches. Officials on Saturday also used beer stands (the NCAA doesn’t allow alcohol sales) to sell water and soft drinks, alleviating some pressure on food lines.
“We weren’t as efficient on Thursday as we wanted to be and based on that we made some adjustments,” said Chris Connolly, general manager of the Iowa Events Center.
Some fans also complained about long lines to get into the arena. Security guards checked each fan with a handheld metal detector, even though the NCAA doesn’t require such screening.
Visiting media gave Des Moines a mixed, but mostly positive review.
“I have to say the city exceeded my expectations,” Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde said in an email. “Everyone seemed terribly concerned about us having a good time and enjoying the city, and I think the vast majority of us did. I hope the tournament comes back to Des Moines soon.”
Sports Illustrated staff writer Brian Hamilton tweeted: “Snow flurries in Des Moines. The only misstep in an otherwise perfect NCAA host site experience.”
The arena’s recently upgraded Wi-Fi also worked well, journalists said. But several reporters and photographers said the arena was cramped.
Gregg Doyel, sports columnist for the Indianapolis Star, has covered the tournament for 20 years at dozens of venues. He said Wells Fargo Arena was probably the least “media friendly" in terms of space.
The facility’s dark, narrow hallways and lack of signage made it difficult to navigate. The work spaces were crowded and reporters had to rotate courtside seats. But the crowded conditions could be attributed to the unusually large swarm of media that followed the four big-name teams, Doyel said.
And Doyel was quick to point out that he was otherwise impressed with Des Moines and its downtown.
“If you’re a fan and you didn’t like being in Des Moines, you need to rethink your priorities, because it was a beautiful place,” he said.
Register reporter Chris Cuellar talks about how media and fans have reacted to Des Moines' debut effort to host the NCAA tournament.
Applications for the 2019 through 2021 tournaments are due in August. (Tournament sites have already been selected for 2017 and 2018.)
Des Moines tried for years to land its first March Madness round. Local officials applied four times.
Connolly said the NCAA officials in Des Moines gave “overwhelmingly positive” feedback.
"It went really, really well," he said. "There is nothing we did that would put us out of the running."
They are hopeful the past week's performance will be a foot-in-the-door for future tournaments.
Meanwhile, construction crews continue working on a 330-room convention hotel next door to the Iowa Events Center. Backers say it will make Des Moines an even more attractive host site in the future, providing needed hotel rooms and dining options near the arena.
It’s scheduled to open in 2018. Just in time for the next round of March Madness.
-Morgan Gstalter contributed to this story.