The Tip-off: GWCCA campus embraces fourth Final Four

It won’t be the first time the GWCCA campus has gone dancing.

Hosting the culmination of The Big Dance for the fourth time, GWCCA’s 220-plus acre downtown Atlanta campus and surrounding area are poised to transform into a hotbed of hoops for the 2020 NCAA Final Four the first weekend in April.

While the GWCCA campus is familiar ground for the NCAA and much has stayed the same, plenty has also changed since the last go-round in 2013, so there are many new wrinkles to unfold.

First off, the Final Four, April 4 and 6, represents the first basketball games staged at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (MBS) since it opened on the GWCCA campus in 2017. It is also the first time the Final Four has been played in a venue that has never hosted a basketball game before. If you want to get real technical about it, the Reese’s College Allstar Game, which is part of the free Reese’s Final Four Friday event on April 3, will be the first public basketball game at MBS, but it’s considered an exhibition.

And gone is MBS’s predecessor, the Georgia Dome, which was imploded in 2017, and where Final Four memories were made in 2002, 2007 and 2013.

The program cover from 1977’s Final Four in Atlanta, picturing the participants from the 1976 championship game, Indiana and Michigan.

Overall, it will be the fifth Final Four to be played in Atlanta. The first time, 1977, happened during the Georgia World Congress Center’s infancy, directly across the street at The Omni Coliseum, where State Farm Arena is now.

Interestingly enough, in those days, the Final Four included a consolation game to determine the third-place finisher. Marquette pulled off an upset for the ages defeating North Carolina in the title game, and UNLV topped UNC-Charlotte to claim third. The average ticket price was $14.

In 2002, the Final Four finally landed on the GWCCA campus for the first time with games played at the then-decade-old Georgia Dome. “In 2002, the only stage was made of hardwood and framed by basketball goals,” states a Savannah Morning News story dated March 30, 2007. “The only fireworks displays involved acrobatic dunks, glitzy passes on the fast break or a barrage of 3-point shots.”

Fans gather outside the Georgia Dome during the 2007 Final Four.

By the time college basketball’s marquee event returned to the Georgia Dome in 2007, Atlanta’s surrounding hospitality and entertainment district had begun to grow, including additional hotel rooms and new attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium. Meanwhile, the event had become more than a weekend of basketball games with the interactive fan festival Hoops City at the Georgia World Congress Center and The Big Dance multi-day free music festival featuring performances by LL Cool J, Maroon 5 and Sugarland at Centennial Olympic Park.

“Our return to Atlanta marks a great reference point to the growth of the NCAA Final Four and the ever-growing variety of opportunities for fans of every age – with or without game tickets – to be part of the culmination of NCAA March Madness,” said then-NCAA Sr. Vice President of Basketball and Business Strategies Greg Shaheen in a press release dated March 14, 2007.

When the GWCCA campus hosted the Final Four in 2002, organizers already knew that it was coming back five years later. But after the 2007 event, there were no such guaruntees.

For the 2013 Final Four, the GWCC was site of Bracket Town.
Bracket Town included a regulation size basketball court with seating for 2,400, and appearances were made by the Harlem Globetrotters, musician Cody Simpson and basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Photo by Robb Cohen Photography.

Wooing the 2013 Final Four included a basketball-themed presentation “Atlanta: Legacy of Championships” that served as a sales pitch for Atlanta and the GWCCA campus, again touting that downtown had continued to evolve since 2007. “In fact, in the year since Atlanta had the honor of hosting the NCAA 2007 Final Four for the third time, downtown has added world-class attractions like The New World of Coca-Cola, numerous hotel accommodations such as Twelve Centennial Olympic Park, more than 30 new restaurants and over $45 million in renovations to the Georgia Dome,” according to an excerpt from that presentation.

Since that last dance, the evolution of the GWCCA campus has continued with the addition of the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame, the Omni GWCC corridor connector, Jr. Achievement Discovery Center, a $27 million renovation of Centennial Olympic Park, new terrazzo flooring and carpeting throughout the Congress Center, additional parking facilities, The Home Depot Backyard, a new $55 million exhibit hall expansion, Social Table, a modern bar and grill inside the convention center, and of course, state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

In addition to the games and fan-centric events that are on tap, such as the Final Four Fan Fest at GWCC, the NCAA March Madness Music Festival at Centennial Olympic Park, Final Four Dribble presented by Buick at International Plaza and Reese’s Final Four Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the GWCCA campus serves as the local hub for 2020 Final Four operations. Planning meetings have taken place at the GWCC and MBS since early 2018, Atlanta Basketball Host Committee offices are located in GWCC’s Building A, and the Host Committee’s volunteer office will be activated in Building C. A series of all-day, intensive planning meetings are scheduled throughout the Congress Center next week.

Also running concurrently with the Final Four festivities, the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) will host its convention April 2-6 mostly at GWCC’s Building A.

There’s not much doubt that our championship campus will be the epicenter of college basketball come April.

The Tip-off is a bi-monthly series tracking the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA) campus’ march to the 2020 NCAA Final Four.