NCAA tournament opening rounds: Worth the investment?

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It was the biggest sporting event Tulsa's BOK Center is ever likely to host: Three sessions of two games each of the early rounds of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, the Little Lead-In to the Regional Prologue to the Big Dance. With luck, Tulsa may get another such opportunity in three years.

We got a good draw. Three teams of the eight -- Kansas, Texas, and Memphis -- had big fan bases within driving distance of Tulsa, near enough to make short notice plans in the few days between the announcement of the bracket on Sunday and the opening games on Friday. Getting a Friday/Sunday bracket instead of Thursday/Saturday was a good thing, too -- easier for people to take one day off than two. (We also got Boston University, which averaged only 979 fans per home game.)

It surely didn't hurt that the evening before the tourney was St. Patrick's Day, with traditional celebrations attracting Tulsa non-basketball fans to the Blue Dome District and Cherry Street. Tulsa seems to have made a good impression on some of the thousands who came to support their teams.

I had hoped to see the impact of the tournament first hand at various shopping and dining hotspots around town, but work prevented it. I'd love to read your firsthand stories of traffic or lack thereof, crowded or uncrowded restaurants, and encounters with visitors -- please leave a comment below.

A search of blogs and tweets turned up mostly incidental references to Tulsa as tournament host -- the biggest Tulsa-related NCAA basketball news this week involved TU alum Mike Anderson being hired as Razorbacks head coach -- but there were a few blog responses to Tulsa:

This staffer in Oakland U.'s marketing department seemed to enjoy her time here.

KU Athletics photographer Jeff Jacobsen was impressed with downtown's historic buildings and dinner at Smoke on Cherry Street.

Topeka Capital-Journal sportswriter Tully Corcoran encountered a couple of young women in his hotel who offered "company" for a fee. ("These women had business cards and everything.") But Corcoran wondered if they might provide a more urgent service:

If you're showing up at the media hotel at 2 a.m., you darn well better be carrying pizza or sandwiches. We really have no interest in your other wares.

Which made me wonder: Can you pay a prostitute to run errands for you? Like, if we had said, "No thanks, don't need any of your sexual services, but would you mind running to Taco Bell real quick?" would they do that for a fee?

Read the whole thing. Elsewhere in town, Corcoran reports that there was a lady bartender with no pants.

While we can be proud that visitors came to Tulsa and had a good time, we do need a clear-eyed look at the financial benefit of such an event to Tulsans in comparison to what it cost us to bring it to town -- $178 million for the venue alone, not including debt service on the bonds that built it.

Even if you believe the estimate of $15 million in "economic impact" and assume that it's all taxable and that it all represents money that wouldn't otherwise be spent here, that amounts to $602,500 in city and county sales taxes. It would take the equivalent of 295 NCAA men's basketball opening rounds to give as much local revenue back for the benefit of Tulsa County residents -- in the form of street improvements, police protection, park maintenance, etc. -- as they paid to build the arena. Our next opportunity at an NCAA opening round is in 2014.

(Does anyone know if Tulsa received sales tax dollars on all the tickets sold, or only on the tickets returned by the participating colleges to the NCAA and sold locally? Did the NCAA pay anything for the use of the BOK Center? Did they pay for street closings and police overtime? Or did Tulsa give all that away in the competition to be an opening round tournament site?)

One news story mentioned that BOK Center management had zip code stats on ticket buyers. Zip code stats would be a useful planning tool for future events and a source of hard data for evaluating the economic impact of such an event. The City Council ought to ask SMG to release that information.

Here's the announced attendance, as reported on ESPN.com:

1st session Friday: 12,631
2nd session Friday: 14,353
Sunday session: 15,839

None of them sellouts, but respectable. Compare those numbers to this story on tickets available as of Thursday night, after colleges returned unsold tickets.

Predictions of a massive windfall for local businesses gave way to reports of the disappointing reality. My guess is that threats of big crowds scared local patrons away, and basketball fans took parking spots that drinkers and diners might have used, while the basketball fans themselves were locked into the arena, not allowed even to leave between games and return.

The big tent sports bar at the BOK Center seems like a cruel thing to do to local publicans and restaurateurs -- a temporary competitor with a huge location advantage for what was supposed to be their biggest weekend of the year, drawing business away from the guys who have to pay rent and make payroll all year round.

I have to wonder: If you've spent $79 to $237 to watch basketball and are keeping yourself fed and hydrated at arena prices while you're locked in for the four-hour session, how much are you likely to spend with local merchants outside the arena? Do you double-down on your big splurge, or do you compensate for the high ticket and concession prices by scrimping the rest of the visit?

Your thoughts and observations (particularly your first-hand observations of last week's events) are welcome in the comments below.

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2 Comments

route66news said:

A few more observations to throw into the hopper:

-- Because Oklahoma's basketball teams stunk it up this season, that depressed attendance at a local level. Had either Tulsa, OU or OSU made the tournament, you would have seen average attendance increase by 500 per session, minimum.

-- Ticket prices are set by the NCAA, not the venue. And it find it pretty stupid you're not free to roam outside the venue once you're in (not sure whether that's an NCAA edict, also). No excuse for the latter, especially when we now have the technology to prevent gate-crashing.

-- Restaurants and clubs that whine about not getting a big bump in NCAA business were the ones that sat on their hands, waiting for customers to come to them. The pro-active ones that reached out did much, much better. That seems like Business 101, but it's surprising how many don't take that obvious approach.

Bob said:

Wonder what genius with the Bank of Kaiser Arena management let our next opportunity at an NCAA opening round venue slip to 2014?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 24, 2011 10:20 PM.

Shadowy 527 jumps into Oklahoma City election was the previous entry in this blog.

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