The Pit in Albuquerque. It is one of the most heralded and iconic sports venues in all of college basketball. The University of New Mexico Lobos call this place home, and the site is a regular host facility to the NCAA March Madness tournament. Most famously, The Pit hosted the 1983 Mens Basketball Final Four. Who could ever forget the scene of NC State’s coach Jimmy Valvano running around the court in utter joy, looking for someone to hug after his team’s shocking upset of heavily favored Houston, that team led by future Basketball Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler?
So one would think that, with all this history, all this tradition, all this experience, that Albuquerque would nail it as a NCAA host city. Not even close.
Our Ultimate Sports Road Trip bandwagon has taken us to far flung places – to Boise, to Tulsa, to Charlotte for the NCAA tournament. Of course we were part of the experience from wire to wire when Buffalo got its turns as a host city in 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2010. So we have gotten the opportunity to get a first hand look as to how these communities handle their throngs of visitors and the eight schools that make the trek.
Here in ABQ, the first problem lies with the location of the arena. The Pit is located about three miles south of the downtown core and the college campus. It sits amidst office parks, adjacent to their football stadium and to Isotopes Park, the home of their AAA baseball team. Not a single restaurant, shop, convenience store anywhere within sight or easy walking distance. Nothing but acres of asphalt, desolate desertscape and non people friendly office structures. So that means that anyone attending this event at the Pit, or for that matter, any other event, is pretty much reliant on driving to pre or post game food and libations far away, or partaking in the arena’s concessions.
Keep in mind now, that fans attending are here for the entire day – a marathon of four basketball games taking place over about a 12 hour period. Ticketed guests are hungry and thirsty, they are looking for things to do and ancillary events to make the experience complete. What a tremendous opportunity to set up a “Fan Fest” outside in the parking lots. Summon every food truck, vending cart and mobile restauranteur to the complex to sell their wares. Do a mini “Taste of Albuquerque”, with samplings of the region’s diverse Southwestern cuisine. Put up games, hoops, exhibits, stuff to do. There was none of that. Not even one guy with an ice chest selling bottled water and soda pop, for which there would have been more than a few willing customers.
It gets worse. Fans were encouraged to bring their iPads and other mobile devices to follow the action around the tournament. Yet inside the internet access was overwhelmed by too little bandwidth. 3G followers fared no better as smartphones were slow or out of service. This happens often at large stadiums with 80,000 in the house, but in a building with 10,000 in attendance, this collapse of online access was inexcusable. Then there were the TV sets… The Pit underwent a $60MM upgrade a couple of years ago. Although bench seating is still the norm in much of the building, the new and modern touches show throughout. Plasma TV sets are scattered throughout the concourses. Yet inexplicably, the sets weren’t tuned in to other action going on around the country. Instead, the sets were flashing still shots of infomercials. Locals were desperately searching for a feed of their home town UNM Lobos, who were playing in Portland that afternoon. One adventurous fan actually went behind a set and manually changed the set to that channel. The game immediately attracted a huge crowd of fans who wanted to watch their home team. A security guard then showed up and tried to flick the TV back to the infomercials. He melted away quietly after a near riot ensued.
Even with new ribbon boards and video boards in each end zone, good luck seeing team stats or out of town scores. They were non existent. Total FAIL!
It was sunny and 75 degrees outdoors, yet the large and expansive plazas just outside the doors were completely shuttered and unaccesible to fans wanting to catch a smoke or just enjoy the fresh air between the sessions or during the halves. Leave the building, even for a minute? Tough! You’re out of the venue and not allowed back in. Again, what an opportunity for food stands, tables and chairs, live music and a chance to enjoy the weather and the breathtaking scenery of ABQ. An opportunity lost.
As it turns out, they scheduled the two sessions back to back, meaning no 2 1/2 hour window to catch dinner. Not that it would matter because there was no place to go, unless you had a car to drive someplace and that would mean forfeiting your $20 parking space. So basically, they herded everyone outside, cleared the arena, then 45 minutes later reopened the doors to allow everyone back inside. Meantime, not a single vendor, nothing to eat or drink, nothing to do, no bathroom facilities. Just thousands of fans standing around waiting for the doors to reopen.
Going around town, there was little visible presence of the tournament. A welcome banner at the airport, but no restaurants or tourist attractions seemed particularly interested in welcoming the NCAA traveler.
So why are we harping on ABQ? Actually we’re not. The people here are beyond friendly, the basketball did not disappoint, and we got to enjoy the first day of action in all its splendor and pageantry.
But now we get to Buffalo. We have hosted this event four times, the most notorious one being in 2004. There was little hospitality planning that year. Restaurants were overwhelmed downtown, transportation systems were non existent, and there was more than a bit of grumblng from our visitors.
So they fixed things. In 2007 and 2010, Buffalo stepped things up to offer our visitors a superb NCAA experience. The NFTA added Metrorail trains, the Chamber distributed maps of restaurants and attractions, there were entertainment options and things for people to see and do. High marks all around. Not to mention that Buffalo has had FULL HOUSES for each of its NCAA’s. Here in ABQ, The Pit played its games to about 70% of capacity – this, happening in what is considered a college hoops hot bed.
Sometime later this year the NCAA will announce its schedule of March Madness locations for 2014 through 2016. If Buffalo is not awarded a tournament site host in this cycle it will be more than an outrage. Take it from the Ultimate Sports Road Trip… Charlotte created a buzz, Tulsa ran shuttles and did the hospitality thing, but when it comes to the total package, NCAA/Buffalo can’t be beat!
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