Nashville set for Women’s Final Four, possible clash of unbeatens

Regional winners and current unbeatens Notre Dame (far left) and Connecticut are on a collision course to meet in Tuesday night's NCAA final in downtown Nashville (middle).

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Six years of planning and building come to fruition on Friday when the NCAA Women’s Final Four converges on the Music City.

The doubleheader offers a pair of undefeated teams — Notre Dame (36-0) vs. Maryland (28-6) in the opener and defending national champion UConn (38-0) against Stanford (33-3) in the nightcap.

The championship game takes place on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. CST).

The semifinals are obviously a focal point, but it wasn’t always a certainty that Nashville would host this event and its bevy of festivities — even while city leaders were in the process of submitting the bid back in 2008.

As things progressed, Nashville became one of five cities (among eight candidates) to be awarded Final Four sites from 2012-16. But it also came with one mammoth caveat: The $638 million renovation of the Music City Center convention complex, adjacent to Bridgestone Arena, had to be completed.

But Karl Dean, Nashville’s new mayor at the time, guaranteed the NCAA the Music City Center would be completed in time for this weekend’s five-day festival, including the Women’s Basketball Coaches Convention and its 2,000 members and 3,000 attendees (Saturday through Tuesday).

"During the initial bid process, the Music City Center was in the final stages of being approved by the Metro Council for construction," said Nashville Sports Council executive director Scott Ramsey, who led the city’s bid. "Mayor Dean was very active on the bid with the NCAA by saying that it would be done on time.

"Having the Music City Center was a mandatory element for us to be able to even make a bid."

There’s more to hosting than just the Music City Center and its 16 acres that cover four square blocks of downtown Nashville.

Then again, having a facility with 2.1 million overall square footage, 1.2 million public square footage and 350,000 square feet of meeting space allows for "Tourney Town" – a free fan festival that runs Saturday (9 a.m. to 7 p.m.), Sunday (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and Tuesday (3-7 p.m.)

Along with the three games, Tourney Town is the highlight of the five-day confab. Other featured events include a Salute on Tour Parade of Teams, featuring the Final Four squads at historic Ryman Auditorium Friday night, a 4KAY run Saturday morning honoring the late North Carolina State basketball coach Kay Yow, an NCAA Battle of the Bands Saturday night, and concerts by various artists at different downtown venues, to highlight a few of many planned events.

"It’s an enormous college sports event," Dean said. "And it’s probably the largest women’s sports event we could host here in Nashville, so we’re really honored that it is going to be here. On top of that, you have the national exposure for the city as a destination and a tourist location. You can’t buy that.

"One of the things Nashville does well is large events."

Nashville, one of the country’s hottest tourist cities, is a natural mecca for entertainment, especially country music. But sporting-wise, Nashville annually hosts the Country Music Marathon, the second-largest marathon event in the country, and the Music City Bowl college football game.

It is also home to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and NHL’s Nashville Predators.

Nashville was recently tabbed as the SEC’s primary locale for conference basketball tournaments. From 2015-26, the men’s hoops tournament will be here nine times and the women’s tournament three times.

"Nashville has long been a valued partner of the Southeastern Conference," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said at the time of the announcement, "and we are pleased to establish this long-term agreement that will benefit our men’s and women’s basketball tournament. Nashville, as a proven host, provides SEC teams and fans with a wonderful experience."

The Nashville-based Ohio Valley Conference is the host league for the tournament and has been involved with the Nashville Sports Council and the city in planning and managing Final Four events from its early stages.

More than 2,000 volunteers have been enlisted.

"The Final Four means so very much," said OVC commissioner Beth DeBauche, one of seven female commissioners among 32 NCAA Division I conferences. "It is a privilege and an honor for our conference. It is a great opportunity to enhance our brand image and to show nationally what we can do as a league."

DeBauche has been involved in various events surrounding the Final Four that involves interactivity within the community. That includes legacy programs designed to educate youths on the benefits of academics and athletics, a women in media conference and a project highlighting value of the arts.

"We’ve really tried to leave a lasting legacy once the Final Four is over and has made its mark in this community," DeBauche said. "The level of commitment from the city, civic leadership, volunteers, our conference and so many people has been quite remarkable."

Mainly, downtown Nashville and its historic honky tonks, restaurants, hotels and multiple tourist options are primary selling points for such an event. For those who stay downtown, visitors can arrive, take in all the festivities and depart without ever needing a vehicle.

"Our problem is not selling out the hotel rooms," Dean said. "It’s how many hotel rooms we’ve got. We need more. People want to be here. This is a top destination."

For those watching the Final Four on television, Ramsey feels the full magnitude of the five-day gathering cannot be fully appreciated.

"We have had some big events in Nashville," Ramsey said, noting the annual Country Music Association Music Festival each June that attracts 80,000 visitors among other events. "But the Women’s Final Four is a little different.

"When you crown a national champion in your city, that is really special."