City gets role as host of NCAA championships
The name that appeared more frequently than any other, though, was Pittsburgh, a city few would have thought to be in that position as recently as 10 years ago.
In a four-year stretch from 2019-22, Pittsburgh will be host to the 2021 Frozen Four (with Robert Morris as host school), first- and second-round games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2022 (Duquesne), the Division I wrestling championships in 2019 (Pitt) and the women’s volleyball championship in 2019 (Duquesne). In all, between the Division I, II and III levels, Pittsburgh was awarded 22 preliminary and final rounds of NCAA competitions, the most of any city.
That designation has reinforced what has increasingly become more of a known and accepted fact — Pittsburgh has, rather improbably, become a more sought-after destination for major events, both in athletics and beyond.
“It was really easy to get in the conversation,” said Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of sports development for SportsPittsburgh, the sports division of VisitPittsburgh. “Pittsburgh has a history of being a true iconic sports town. The real challenge is showing and proving that we can execute the promises we make. I don’t think there’s any place comparable when we’re talking to somebody and say, ‘You want to bring your sports event to a city that’s about sports.’ We’re not selling vacations; we’re selling a true sports experience.”
The number of championships Pittsburgh was awarded is a product of a more concerted effort to attract large events to a city not necessarily known for them.
Over the past decade, VisitPittsburgh — and, by extension, SportsPittsburgh — put together a list of events it would target while doing the necessary research on what it takes to secure the coveted bids. The qualities it saw in other cities that are magnets for tournaments and conventions were ones it saw in itself — a compact and walkable Downtown, hotels within walking distance and support from local government and the community.
Then, with the opening of Consol Energy Center (now PPG Paints Arena) in 2010, came an all-important and necessary addition to the city’s overall profile. It now had a sleek and modern venue it lacked for so long, the centerpiece to any bid. Each of the four Division I events will be at the arena. Without it, as Pitt senior associate athletic director Marcus Bowman said, landing such large-scale competitions wouldn’t be possible.
“I think the NCAA just has a real high level of confidence in that venue’s ability to host those championships and the partnerships that are involved with everything, from the university to the city on down the line,” said Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper. “The more opportunities you can present to host events and help them out with things, the higher likelihood you’re going to have success in terms of getting multiple events.”
In the years before PPG Paints Arena’s construction, Pittsburgh had been host to nine Division I championships in sports currently sanctioned by the NCAA, utilizing Mellon Arena, Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House and the Petersen Events Center. Since it opened, the arena has already be host to the Frozen Four in 2013 and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament twice, in 2012 and 2015. Additionally, it will be host to men’s basketball tournament games in 2018.
Robert Morris athletic director Craig Coleman received positive feedback from NCAA officials during the Frozen Four four years ago, something that gave him and others confidence there was a chance it could return in the not-toodistant future.
“I think maybe the biggest thing is the increased recognition by the NCAA and folks around the country that Pittsburgh is a hidden treasure,” Coleman said. “Having gotten the Frozen Four here and a couple of the preliminary NCAA men’s and women’s basketball rounds, it has exposed the city to the folks at the NCAA who might still be laboring under the thoughts that Pittsburgh is the cloudy, polluted city of decades long past. The more exposure we’ve been able to help the NCAA get to the city through those events, the more they’ve recognized this is a spectacular place.”
For Hawkins and others tasked with luring events to Pittsburgh, the benefits to being a host city are tangible. Not only do the events bring in real dollars — from fans coming in days early, staying in hotels and eating in restaurants — but it also showcases the city to national and sometimes even worldwide audiences. They keep Pittsburgh relevant and engaged in a way few other things can.
As Pittsburgh continues to prove itself as a host, and as more people get exposed to what’s widely viewed as a revitalized city, the hope is that the momentum of recent years will be sustainable.
“I think every time there’s a new development within the city, every time there’s a new hotel that goes up or there’s something going on, it adds to that,” Harper said. “The fact we’re hosting these tournaments is a bigger testament to how wonderful the city has been in developing these types of opportunities, whether it’s hosting championships, getting businesses to come into the area, a number of things. Its overall vibrancy is just in our favor right now.”