Greg Edwards spent the past eight years waiting for the NCAA to roll out its mats inside Wells Fargo Arena, and he intends to do everything possible to bring college wrestling’s biggest tournament back again in the future.
The president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, one of the key figures in bringing the NCAA Championships to the metro area for the first time since the tournament started 85 years ago, said he’s certain the work of the host city will impress tournament officials and fans.
“I know we’ll show them a great time,” Edwards said. “I know we’ll show them great hospitality. I have a good feeling they’re going to walk away from Des Moines, saying, ‘Wow, this was better than we thought.’”
One issue lingers in Edwards’ mind, though: Will the warmth of a wrestling hotbed and an arena crammed to the top with spectators be enough to lure the tournament back to town, or will the increasing popularity of the three-day event drive the NCAA Championships to a level Wells Fargo Arena can’t handle?
Will off-the-chart ticket demands help Des Moines in its quest this summer when it submits a new bid to host the tournament, or will the NCAA seek venues that can decrease the growing line at the box office?
Des Moines won the rights to host this year’s tournament with a bid in 2010 that guaranteed enough seats for a six-session attendance of more than 97,760 — a record at the time — and a virtual promise that the state’s fanatical fan base would scoop up every available ticket if the meet returned to Iowa for the first time since 2001.
“When we got this thing, our arena was ample size,” Edwards said of Wells Fargo Arena, which will hold a shade more than 16,000 for the first five sessions and approximately 16,600 for Saturday night’s finals.
Attendance, however, has soared, with record-setting crowds of 104,260 in 2011 in Philadelphia and 109,450 last year in St. Louis, where 18,204 fans filled the Scottrade Center for a new championship-round mark.
“Anytime you have a sellout situation, there’s always good and bad,” said Algona native Dave Martin, who is the chair of the NCAA wrestling committee and deputy athletic director at Oklahoma State. “It’s unbelievable to think we have that kind of interest. It’s tough because, sure, there’s some people who can’t get in. It’s a good problem to have that we have that kind of interest.”
The general public ticket allotment for this year’s tournament sold out in a matter of minutes last March, and tickets for Saturday night’s finals are selling on websites such as StubHub.com for as much as $580 a seat.
“The (NCAA wrestling) committee and our staff has not set any numbers that would eliminate Des Moines at this point, but certainly we want to continue to have the momentum we’ve had with our championships in terms of attendance and fan availability to the venue,” said Anthony Holman, the NCAA associate director of championships and alliances. “Certainly, (venue size) will be something that will be considered. I wouldn’t say it will deter us or go against Des Moines, because there are other things in the Des Moines area that are good for us.”
The silence is golden
Edwards sat by the phone on a June morning in 2010 praying it wouldn’t ring.
After five years of planning and polishing Des Moines’ second bid to land the tournament, the last, stressful moments of anticipation teetered on the timing of a call from the NCAA.
Cities that come up short in their effort to host the NCAA Championships receive a courtesy call before the winners are notified. The delegates from Des Moines answered one of those rejection notices in 2005 when Wells Fargo Arena was still under construction.
The NCAA thanked the Des Moines group for its interest and encouraged it to apply again before it announced St. Louis, Omaha and Philadelphia would host the tournaments from 2008 through 2011.
Five years later, the Des Moines application had one major change. It listed 16,078 as the arena’s seating capacity for the first five sessions, an increase of more than 1,000 from its 2005 bid.
But even with enough available seating to set a new tournament attendance record at the time, the leaders of the effort to bring the tournament to Des Moines were on pins and needles.
“It was like, ‘Oh God, don’t let the phone ring (again),’” Edwards said. “We were really disappointed when we didn’t get it the previous time, even though the arena wasn’t built, and we understood all that. We really felt we had a strong bid that time, too.”
The tension transformed to euphoria when Edwards and his group learned St. Louis, Des Moines and Oklahoma City had been selected, respectively, as the championship sites from 2012 through 2014.
Edwards stood later that afternoon at a podium inside Wells Fargo Arena with a quivering voice and watery eyes as he delivered the news and what it might mean for the city.
City officials in Philadelphia and St. Louis estimated the tournament pumped more than $15 million into their local economies.
The early signs are positive for Des Moines. The Convention and Visitors Bureau expects 20,000 to 25,000 visitors in the metro area this week, and an online search shows nearly 90 metro-area hotels are completely booked for Thursday and Friday nights.
A growing footprint
The NCAA checklist of requirements for host cities is almost as long as the catalog of communities that have been home to the tournament during its 85 years.
The basic arena requirements: Floor space for eight mats, a big enough warm-up area for 330 wrestlers, satellite truck space for television, new-age arena amenities like video and ribbon boards and adequate parking.
Beyond the arena, the NCAA searches for a city with enough hotels to house all of the competitors, coaches and fans, an airport that offers sufficient flight options, a local organizing committee with a track record of running similar events and a location within driving distance for passionate wrestling fans.
St. Louis, the host city for five of the last nine years, has all of those elements plus an arena that holds more than 19,000. Those characteristics fueled discussion in recent years about making it the tournament’s permanent home.
The NCAA, though, is opting to explore other territories. Next year, Oklahoma City will become just the second repeat host since the tournament moved off college campuses after its 2001 visit to Iowa City.
Past host cities such as Cleveland and Kansas City have expressed interest in bringing the event back to their turf for the first time in more than a decade. New York and Atlanta have made preliminary inquiries into landing the tournament.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s in Wyoming or North Dakota,” said Oklahoma State’s Chris Perry, the No. 1 seed at 174 pounds. “It’s the NCAA tournament. People are going to come.”
Edwards said Des Moines plans to submit another bid this summer when the NCAA begins the process of determining championship sites through at least 2017.
“In this case, you probably can’t find a better city that has that kind of potential fan base, because you have Iowa State, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, the Oklahoma schools, the Illinois schools all within driving distance,” Martin said. “It’s a great, great location.”
Not everyone is thrilled with it, though. Northern Iowa coach Doug Schwab said many of his peers grumbled last fall at a college coaches summit about the venue size and crunch for tickets.
“If we can put 20,000 fans in (the stands), I think we should put 20,000 fans in (the stands),” Schwab said. “But that being said, I love events in the state of Iowa.”
But is this Iowa’s last chance to host college wrestling’s showcase event? If Des Moines can win over the NCAA’s affection this week as it hopes, maybe not.
RECENT NCAA WRESTLING CHAMPIONSHIPS ATTENDANCE
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VIDEOS THIS WEEK: BRACKET BREAKDOWNS
Andy Hamilton breaks down each weight class in videos all week unfurled at DesMoinesRegister.com/sports. Catch them day by day in the following order (the first previews are published below):
Sunday: 125 and 133 pounds
Monday: 141 and 149 pounds
Tuesday: 157 and 165 pounds
Wednesday: 174 and 184 pounds
Thursday: 197 and 285 pounds
When the tournament opens Thursday, follow constantly updated brackets on your smartphone via m.desmoinesregister.com
Hours: 6-9 p.m. Wednesday; 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday; 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday.
There are many volunteer slots are still available to Iowans who want to help the city host the NCAA wrestling championships. Those opportunities range from acting as a city ambassador to helping within Fan Fest.
To learn more, click on the volunteering link on the left hand side of this web page: www.wrestlingdm.com. All volunteers will receive a free shirt.