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Crain's Detroit Business

 

When it came to bidding for the Final Four, Detroit had room at the inn, but not enough inns.

The chief reason the city's bid for any of the men's basketball Finals Fours for 2023-26 failed was because the city doesn't have the capacity to book 400 rooms for each team in separate hotels, the NCAA told Detroit Sports Commission Director Kris Smith, he said. That's despite an additional 2,000 local hotel rooms under construction or planned.

Failing to land the college basketball championship is the latest in a series of sports event defeats for the city: Detroit didn't get the Major League Soccer expansion team it's been seeking for two years, and the NFL rejected its bid to host its annual draft for 2019 and 2020. The NBA also has signaled that the city's hotel room inventory isn't up to snuff for hosting an all-star game, Detroit Pistons executives have said.

As for the NCAA, it prefers that each participating team - players, coaches, staff, etc. - be housed in its own hotel, Smith said. However, Detroit's bid included splitting each team over two or three hotels. He said Detroit has the hotel rooms available, just not in four hotels.

"Unfortunately, in Detroit we're not able to do that for all for (four) teams," Smith said. The winning cities were, he added.

The NCAA also was cautious about banking on future hotels.

"The (site selection) committee has been burned in the past in other communities in what would be finished," Smith said. "It's still a risk they didn't want to take."

There are about 5,000 hotel rooms in the greater downtown, ranging from the Marriott at the Renaissance Center to the little motels on Jefferson Avenue. In the last couple years, about 350 new rooms have been added to the downtown core, between The Foundation Hotel, The Siren Hotel and the Aloft hotel at the David Whitney Building.

Another NCAA concern was the auxiliary spaces inside 64,500-seat Ford Field, the proposed Final Four venue. Final Fours since the mid-1990s have been staged in large enclosed stadiums rather than basketball arenas.

Ford Field hosted the event in 2009. The Detroit Lions, the stadium's operator and tenant, spent $100 million in 2016-17 to upgrade Ford Field's suites, scoreboards, lighting and sound system and to create new clubs and other premium spaces. However, Smith said the NCAA wasn't satisfied with those stadium spaces for games and related events.

The hotels and stadium were not issues in 2003, when the NCAA awarded Detroit and Ford Field the 2009 Final Four. But, Smith said, the event and requirements have grown since then.

"It really came down to splitting hairs. The competition came down so close that they had to be extra picky about each individual community. We had the number of rooms they needed. It was a wish-list item of keeping them in fewer hotels," he said. "We were at the table until the very end."

A message was left for NCAA officials.

On Tuesday, the NCAA announced the winning cities - Houston (2023), Phoenix (2024), San Antonio (2025) and Indianapolis (2026). Dallas and Los Angeles were among the finalists failing to land Final Fours.

When the NCAA awarded Detroit the 2009 Final Four, the other winning cities for that multi-year bid included Houston, San Antonio and Indianapolis - the same cities granted the championship games this time, with Phoenix replacing Detroit. Each has held multiple Final Fours except for Phoenix, which hosted one other.

Pitching the officials

Organizers filed their bids a year ago, and the NCAA visited Detroit for a formal site visit in early June. Officials toured Ford Field; the West Riverfront grounds, for a potential music festival; various hotels; Hart Plaza, Comerica Park, for a proposed tipoff tailgate; and Little Caesars Arena, the home of the Detroit Pistons.

Among those participating in the visit were Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, University of Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel, representatives from other universities and representatives from the business community, including Quicken Loans, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.

MSU and the Big Ten would have been hosts for the proposed Ford Field Final Four.

Quarterbacking the pitch effort was the Detroit Sports Commission's Detroit Sports Organizing Corp., formed in October to act as ambassadors with NCAA decision makers and others who award sporting events. The 16-member committee is made up of political, civic and business leaders and executives from Detroit's four pro-sports teams.

The Detroit Sports Commission, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau launched in 2001 as the Detroit Metro Sports Commission, markets the city for amateur and college sporting events, acts as a go-between for media and corporate relations and provides organizational services.

During the pitch, one potential negative loomed over Detroit's bid: Michigan State University as the host school. MSU has gotten intense criticism nationally for its handling of the Larry Nassar gymnastics sex abuse scandal, and the city's Final Four bid effort included lobbying by Izzo along with interim MSU President John Engler and former Athletic Director Mark Hollis.

However, the sports commission said Thursday that MSU's problems were not among the reasons the NCAA gave for not awarding Detroit a Final Four.

Hosting big games

The loss of this NCAA Final Four bid isn't the end for Detroit.

Smith said, hotel rooms and the stadium interior spaces are obstacles that can be overcome for future bids. And in April, the NCAA awarded the 2020 Frozen Four men's ice hockey tournament to Little Caesars Arena along with seven NCAA championship events in golf, wrestling, fencing and bowling. Those stem from the sports commission's August 2016 submission of 54 applications to bring 15 college championships in nine sports.

Detroit also has major events, such as the Belle Isle Grand Prix and golf majors at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township.

A PGA Tour event is coming to Detroit in 2019.

Detroit also has a long history of hosting major sporting events, including two Super Bowls and two WrestleMania events, four baseball all-star games and other rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. Little Caesars hosted the first two rounds earlier this year and will again in 2021.

The Palace of Auburn Hills hosted the NCAA men's regional games in 2000, and Ford Field hosted the regionals in 2008. Regionals also took place at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1988 and 1991 and at the Jenison Fieldhouse, former home of Michigan State's basketball teams, in 1963.

Detroit also hosts a college football bowl game and the MAC's football championship.

For the future, the city is seeking an expansion Major League Soccer team, and Lions officials told the NFL they want to host the league's college draft, which has jumped cities in recent years.

The Detroit Pistons also filed a bid to host an NBA all-star game at LCA, an event that also would hinge on more downtown hotel rooms coming online.

Not giving up

There are no college championship bids in the pipeline right now because the NCAA has completed its latest cycle of picking sites, Smith said. However, the commission intends to bid on future NCAA tournament rounds, men's and women's Finals Fours and any other event they feel benefits the community, he added.

In the meantime, the commission plans to analyze the failed Final Four bid to glean lessons for future applications.

Of course, Detroit's post-recession comeback narrative will remain part of the bid process.

"The NCAA was here when Detroit had its downturn (in 2009). That's fresh in their minds," Smith said. "One of the narratives that we tried to convey to the NCAA is that when they bring their Final Four and championships to Detroit, they're making a forever impact on our community, our youth and on everything we do in our community."

Twitter: @Bill_Shea19

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