When the NCAA Women's Final Four comes to Nationwide Arena, the Ohio State University women's basketball team will not be playing, to the disappointment of many local fans. An upset loss to Central Michigan last Monday ended its season.
But the party will go on: 80,000 people are expected to descend on the Arena District during the four days of games and activities, including the national semifinals at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and the final at 6 p.m. April 1.
"We're always trying to get high-profile sporting events in Columbus," said Brian Ellis, president and chief operating officer of Nationwide Realty Investors, the developer of the Arena District.
"We get to really showcase Columbus."
Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, said she believes Columbus' run as host city will open the door for the city to be in a regular rotation for hosting the women's Final Four. The men's Final Four has gone to cities with domed stadiums, which have far more seats.
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Logan also hopes this event helps Columbus land other large events, such as the NCAA Division I wrestling championships, which were held in Cleveland this month, and the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
"We can't stand still because our competition is not," Logan said.
But first comes this weekend, which features more than the games. Tourney Town, a fan festival at the Greater Columbus Convention Center that runs Thursday through Sunday, includes basketball contests, a youth clinic and interactive games. The Women's Final Four Bounce starts at 1 p.m. Saturday at McFerson Commons Park across from the arena. Kids 18 or younger will dribble in a parade through the Arena District to Tourney Town.
And there will be a Women's Final Four three-on-three tournament from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the convention center.
Four Arena District bars and restaurants — the R Bar, Boston Restaurant & Sports Bar, Gordon Biersch and the Three-Legged Mare — each will serve as the host bar for fans of one of the four teams.
Mike Darr, owner of the R Bar and Three-Legged Mare, said he works with booster clubs and alumni groups to prepare.
"We just bring in a lot of beer," said Darr, who said the R Bar will project the games on a 30-foot screen on its patio.
Stewart Miller, general manager at Gordon Biersch for 14 years, said if fans want his staff to hang signs or flags or play the fight song, he'll do that. "If they want to put stuff up, we'll be more than happy to celebrate the university," he said.
Miller remembers when the city hosted NCAA games on the first weekend of the 2012 men's tournament. "It was electric, good for the city," he said.
Hotels also have been assigned teams — or for now, the winner of each region — to act as tournament central for that team's fan base. They are:
• The Albany regional winner: the Renaissance Columbus Downtown Hotel.
• The Spokane regional winner: the Downtown Sheraton.
• Louisville: the Westin Great Southern.
• The Kansas City regional: the OSU Marriott.
The Columbus City Council amended the city code to create "clean zones" around Nationwide Arena from Tuesday through Sunday. In that 4.5-square-mile area, vendors selling NCAA-related T-shirts, food and souvenirs must obtain city permits. Existing businesses will be required to obtain a permit if they are marketing their business as part of the tournament. Violators will face a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Columbus first bid for the Women's Final Four in 2008, for the 2012-2016 cycle. One reason it lost out: a lack of Downtown hotel rooms.
"You almost win by losing," Nationwide's Ellis said. "We learned a lot about ourselves ... in 2008.
"Community leaders don't like to lose," he said.
The opening of the Hilton Columbus Downtown in 2012 was a game-changer, Logan said. The city hosted the NHL All-Star Game in 2015 and helped host the Presidents Cup golf tournament in 2013 in Dublin. Columbus also hosted the NCAA Division I men's volleyball national championship in 2017, and the women's volleyball championship in 2016.
Community leaders learned in November 2014 that Columbus was awarded the Women's Final Four for this year.
When evaluating potential host cities, the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee reviews cities' venues, convention centers, hotels, financial commitment and transportation plans. Arenas must hold at least 17,500 people.
Nationwide Arena's capacity for basketball is 19,804. As of Friday, all three games are basically sold out, with the exception of fewer than 50 premium seats at terrace tables on the club level that cost $1,400 per four-seat table.
Of the 80,000 people the four-day event is expected to attract, 30,000 will come from outside central Ohio.
The Women's Basketball Coaches Association is expected to bring in more than 2,000 coaches for its annual convention, which will be held at the convention center and Hyatt Regency Columbus.
The Final Four is expected to generate about $20 million in visitor spending for central Ohio, officials estimate.
Lynn Holzman, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball, said the NCAA likes to rotate the Final Four among regions of the country. But she said cities such as Columbus also can bid for earlier rounds of the tournaments.
Bruce Wimbish, a spokesman for the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, said Holzman felt Columbus was a "hidden jewel."
The Columbus Local Organizing Committee — Ohio State, the sports commission and Nationwide Arena — is hosting the Final Four.
Columbus police will close streets for events. Police Lt. Marc Dopp of the special events bureau said Nationwide Boulevard between High and West streets, and northbound High Street between Nationwide and Swan Street, will be closed from 12:45 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday for the Bounce event.
Nationwide Boulevard also will be closed between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday between West and Front streets for sign-ups.
Dopp said police don't discuss security measures they're taking in the Arena District. "The participants, out-of-town folks, will be safe," he said.