BOSTON — The 350 University of North Carolina students offered tickets to this year's Final Four couldn't be happier that the event will be held in a 47,000-seat stadium.
They know that if it were held in a regular-sized basketball arena, most of them would be watching their team from a couch in their dorms, not from row 26F. But to many, the decision to play college basketball's premier event in the cavernous RCA Dome in Indianapolis is not an opportunity, but the end of an era.
From now until 2002, every Final Four will be played in a dome, completely forsaking the smaller, more intimate basketball arenas that once hosted the event exclusively . But the dome trend has been building: Eight of the past 15 Final Fours have been held in domes.
According to Dave Cawood, assistant executive director of the tournament, the NCAA has not made a specific decision to only use domes for future Final Fours. Sites are chosen on the basis of several factors (including adequate hotels and a suitable airport), and the scheduling for the next six years "just works out that way."
The dilemma is an enviable one. Most sports would cherish playing in front of 40,000 fans instead of 20,000, but college basketball is a bit different. Even more than its professional counterpart, college basketball is built on an interaction between fans and the players.
In many cases, thousands of wildly excited college students are wedged into shoebox-sized arenas, creating a frenzied atmosphere that has now become a hallmark of the college game. Duke University, for example, one of the nation's top basketball programs, plays in an arena that seats only about 6,000. The energy generated by the close quarters, however, makes it one of the most intimidating arenas to play in.
By playing Final Fours in domes, many argue, the sheer size of the stadium tempers the atmosphere, and much of the vital intimacy is lost.
"It does suffer," says John Ciszewski, a key player in bringing the first round of this year's NCAA tournament to Detroit, and executive vice president for the NBA's Detroit Pistons. But while his Pistons moved from the 35,000-seat Silverdome to the 21,000-seat Palace in 1988, he notes that the Final Four's needs are different.
"The NCAA is one event, not a 41-game season," he says. "You want to share this with as many people as you possibly can."
This point, Cawood says, is the key. "It's not about ticket income, it's about giving more people a chance to see it," he adds. "For the four teams playing, if we're not in a dome, then their fans can't go see it."
Cawood also refuses to concede that today's domes are less friendly than smaller stadia. "The different architecture used in planning domes [now] allows them to accommodate different types of events," he says. "With tall, portable bleachers and a curtain to enclose the arena, I don't think we lose any of the intimacy."
Widely considered the dome best-suited for basketball, Syracuse University's Carrier Dome has succeeded where others have failed.
"They've done a good job of keeping it as intimate as possible for a stadium of 33,000," says Scott Sandler, an administrative assistant for Syracuse basketball. "I used to be at Michigan, and when we played at the Kingdome [in Seattle], you get overwhelmed."
Yet he adds that just because a stadium is big, doesn't mean it doesn't have character. "Every school and every arena has something unique about it. Both kinds can do well and succeed."