South Carolina had both its men’s and women’s basketball teams playing in their respective 2017 NCAA Final Four. While it was incredible to have head coach Dawn Staley’s women’s team making its second appearance in the NCAA Final Four in the last three years, and also having head coach Frank Martin’s team make the program’s first ever appearance in the men’s Final Four, the off the court logistics are pretty impressive as well.
“This was a huge team effort,” explains Jeff Crane, Executive Associate Athletics Director for Development. “It was people inside the athletics department and a lot of people at the University pulling together to make this all work. We had a lot of people doing a lot of things that they’re not accustomed to doing, but it worked.”
“One thing that really helped was the relationships that people on our staff had with people from other schools who had done this before,” reveals Chief Operating Officer Kevin O’Connell. “We talked to people from places like Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio State. Our colleagues from schools around the country really helped us in getting a plan together.”
That teamwork meant a lot of quick, but thorough, coordination with staff from compliance, ticketing, development, media relations, the Gamecock Club as well as senior administration and individual sport’s directors of operations, among others.
“You don’t have a lot of time to deal with it,” says Deputy Athletics Director Charles Waddell. “I normally have at least two good weeks to get ready for a bowl game with football. With this, you have two days. The key to making it all work is by working together, working hard, and working fast. Everybody has to have a buy-in to what you’re doing.”
“To give some perspective, just on the men’s side we had 4,300 tickets we had to sell; we had 17 buses for moving teams, staff, families, and fans; we had 400 hotel rooms; and we had three donor events at the men’s Final Four,” Crane said. “So you have to pull all of that together in about 48 hours. That’s the biggest challenge. You have to have some sort of plan already in place for when you win (the regional) on Sunday.”
Staff and plans also had to be in place for similar duties on the women’s side, with some other logistical concerns as well. After the women’s team won the NCAA Regional in Stockton, Calif., the team, staff, cheerleaders and band flew to Dallas. The team exited there, while the band and cheerleaders were able to stay on the charter flight home and get back to classes for a few days before returning.
“When they (NCAA) gave us that option, it opened up the chance for us to have that charter fly the families of staff with the band back to Dallas, rather than trying to get commercial flights out,” Waddell explains.
With athletics staff being spread out while accommodating the women’s team playing in Stockton and then Dallas, and the men’s team playing the NCAA Regional in New York City before advancing to Phoenix, there were a lot of teleconferences to make sure all the bases were covered.
The Compliance staff had to cover a lot of ground, which included constant communication with the parents of student-athletes.
“The NCAA started a pilot program a couple of years ago where they would give money to the institutions to be able to cover the expenses for parents to go to the men’s and women’s Final Four and to the football playoff,” said Chance Miller, Associate Athletics Director for Compliance Services. “We had this two years ago with our women’s basketball team going to the Final Four, so we did have a little bit of experience with it. Having both teams’ parents this time around with a short window, was a lot to deal with.”
“We needed to have the hotel rooms booked within 48 hours after winning the Elite Eight,” Crane added. “We only had about 24 hours to cut 20 percent of the rooms allocated if we needed to, and the rooming list for the hotels had to be completed within two days of winning the regional. That’s for everybody. It’s an incredibly tight timeline.”
The funds provided by the NCAA had to be divided evenly for each student-athlete and that could be given to up to two family members. Getting in touch with the appropriate contact for each family can be one of the biggest challenges.
“The parents were very responsive, but each one still needed a day or two to determine their own travel plans,” Miller explains. “Because the parents like to stay close to the team, we chose to work with our people who are putting together the hotel rooming list and reserved rooms for the parents ahead of time. We take the amount of money that each hotel room costs and deduct that money from the stipend that we would give to the parents when they sign for their tickets.”
That meant working with the business office to get that money into University accounts, getting checks cut, and getting the right amounts to everybody. Because the women made it to the national championship game, it meant that an additional $15,000 was allocated from the NCAA and distributed evenly for each student-athlete to provide to their families.
“For the men and the women, you have to prepare as if they are going to play in both games of the Final Four. So you’re cutting two different checks, and you’re taking out two different amounts based on the length of each hotel stay. You get all that ready with the business office before you get on the flight.”
The compliance office does everything possible to make sure the NCAA allotment for the parents is used appropriately.
“To make sure that they are using it all properly for their travel expenses, we deduct the hotel expenses from the stipend. We would ask for flight information to track the transportation expense and to know when they would arrive at the competition site. We also would make them sign an affidavit when they picked up their tickets and stipend checks at the game. The affidavit stated that the expenses were only used for family member transportation expenses.”
Once the teams arrive on site, each player gets six complimentary admissions to the game. The NCAA provides each institution a tool box filled with transportation wrist bands, credentials, and tickets to be given to the families for all of the events put on by the NCAA during the Final Four.
“For the men, you had the Salute Dinner on Thursday night. For the men and women, there was a family brunch the day of the first semifinal game. We had to make sure they had directions for each event, their passes, their Fan-Fest credentials and wrist bands so they could get on the family bus that went back and forth to the game. Whenever a parent checked in at the hotel, one of us would go down and walk the parents through everything and deliver all of the credentials,” elaborates Miller.
Staff members from all departments on site were assigned to fan, team, cheerleader, band and staff buses to make sure everyone was on the right bus at the right time, while development staff also worked through PrimeSport, which handles charter travel services, to organize buses and charter planes for donors attending.
For the South Carolina ticket office staff, their job isn’t as simple as giving mom and dad a ticket while selling available tickets to eager fans. The ticket office takes requests for tickets on Monday before the Final Four, and on Tuesday, the staff informs everybody who will be getting those tickets while also managing any cancellations. Tickets for fans to purchase were made available on a priority basis.
“We were able to go all the way through our request list and made sure that everyone who requested, received at least two tickets on the men’s side,” said Lance Grantham, Associate Athletics Director for Ticket Operations and Customer Relations. “That’s pretty good. That’s unlike the earlier rounds where we were only given 450 tickets for Greenville (site of first two rounds of the tournament). We could have used 4,000 just for Greenville. Our fans did a great job, though, of going through other channels for those earlier rounds. We had the same thing in New York, where we only had 1,000 tickets.”
“Fortunately we didn’t have to turn away many people that didn’t get any tickets,” Crane said. “The harder part was that the limit was two tickets. We had a number of people who wanted four or six. I think everybody that wanted tickets got at least two.”
Obtaining tickets to the Women’s Final Four was a little bit trickier, not due to sheer volume, but because of the laws of supply and demand. Each school on the women’s side was awarded only 500 tickets for the Final Four, and with South Carolina leading the nation in attendance in each of the last three years, those tickets went fast.
“The last time our women went to the Final Four (in 2015), our ticket allotment was 800,” said Kamryn Dunnigan, Director of Ticket Operations. “This time it was 500, so we had to whittle down our numbers in regards to how many we could sell. The players were obviously getting the same amount for families. We had to use priority limits on that due to the lower number. Sunday’s championship game was sold out, so when the University’s administration wanted to travel from Phoenix to Dallas, we had to try to find about 100 more tickets to accommodate their party.”
In addition to the allocation process, there is the challenge of distributing the tickets.
“One of the challenges is that you don’t actually get your tickets until you arrive on site, in-person,” Grantham reveals. “Everything is a hard ticket. It’s not an electronic ticket like most of the bowl games are now with football. On the men’s side, 4,300 tickets is a lot of tickets to organize and distribute in three days. The NCAA manual wants you to distribute 90 percent of your tickets before you get to the stadium. That’s not always practical because of travel for all of your fans.”
That meant that many staff members from different areas had to put in long hours just to make that happen.
“We went to our temporary ticket office at the hotel, and we spent about eight and a half hours pulling tickets, stuffing envelopes and getting everything ready for game day,” Miller said.
“We had the compliance staff and their wives helping us,” Grantham added. “It was all hands on deck. We had senior staff members doing it, along with all of the development staff. We had three or four days in a row of staying up until one or two in the morning trying to work through everything. It’s arduous, but rewarding when you see everyone in their seats on game day and there are no problems.”
Ready for Next Time
South Carolina staff and fans hope they have the opportunity to be this busy again in the future, and the goal will be to start this planning even before each team begins play in their respective regionals.
“Now that we’ve done it once, we know what to expect,” Crane said. “At the end of the day, our goal was to make sure our coaches, student-athletes and fans had a great experience at the Final Four. I’ve received numerous emails from fans, donors and staff members that all talked about what an incredible experience it was.”
“It’s always a good problem when you have both teams in the Final Four,” Miller added.