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VOL. 38 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 21, 2014

Lady Vols, Nashville share Final Four dream

By Tom Wood

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Head Coach Holly Warlick and junior center Isabelle Harrison of Nashville enjoy senior day earlier this year. Harrison says she would feel “totally blessed” if the Lady Vols were to make it to Nashville and play for a national title in front of friends and family.

-- Matthew S. Demaria/Tennessee Athletics

Isabelle Harrison hopes The Road to Nashville – site of next month’s NCAA Women’s Final Four – is paved with gold for her and her University of Tennessee basketball team.

For Harrison, a Hillsboro High graduate, Nashville native and UT junior, it would be a sweet homecoming.

For Music City, it should be a golden moment in terms of national prestige and a financial windfall for the city and its businesses.

The three-day tournament, which has been six years in the planning, is expected to bring some 30,000 visitors to Nashville and $20 million in direct spending, NCAA officials say. Gary Alexander, executive director of the Nashville Local Organizing Committee, says the final dollar total could be much higher.

“The NCAA always says the Final Four brings between $20 million and $25 million dollars to a [host] city in direct spending,” Alexander explains. “The local organizing committee thinks that because of Nashville’s central location and other factors, that the final numbers will be closer to $25 million and $30 million.”

A key factor in just how much money will flow into Nashville’s coffers depends on how well the Lady Vols fare in their quest to reach the Final Four and secure their ninth national championship. Optimism is high: UT (27-5) has won 13 of its last 14 games, including the SEC Tournament championship.

“I think there’s such a big fan base that loves women’s basketball nationally that we’re going to have good attendance regardless of the matchups,” says Beth DeBauche, commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference, which is partnered with the local organizing committee as host institution for the Final Four.

Junior center Isabelle Harrison, who played her high school basketball at Hillsboro, says the opportunity to win a national championship in her hometown has been a source of inspiratuion this season.

-- Matthew S. Demaria/Tennessee Athletics

“Having said that, if Tennessee or another local team would be involved, it would just heighten the level of enthusiasm for the event locally. You’re still going to have people travel, you’re still going to have hotels booked, people just wanting to be part of the experience. … I think the enthusiasm we get from a level of local interest will be the icing on the cake for an event of this level that is terrific already.”

Unlike the projected payoff for Music City, the Lady Vols’ road to Nashville is not assured. They must navigate their way through the elite 64-team field to the April 6-8 Final Four at Bridgestone Arena.

Playing for a national title in her hometown would be a dream come true for Harrison, who starred at Hillsboro High School before signing with Tennessee. The 6-foot-3 junior center averaged 13.9 points per game and 9.4 rebounds this season and was named the SEC Tournament MVP.

“I don’t want to overlook any of our opponents, but I feel like, honestly, if we make it to Nashville, then I would feel totally blessed. It will definitely be something I can cross off my list,” says Harrison, an All-America candidate who is the daughter of former Vanderbilt All-SEC and Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro defensive lineman Dennis Harrison. Her brother, David, played in the NBA.

“I never imagined the Women’s Final Four would ever be in Nashville. I’m very proud of our play, and we’re just focused on our goal – to make it to Nashville. That’s been our goal every year, honestly, and we embrace that. But this year it’s always in the back of my mind, to be in Nashville.”

Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick, a former UT player, knows from experience that it’s a long haul to end up in the final four teams in the nation.

“We’ve been talking about the Final Four being in Nashville for several years now. It’s twofold: There’s a bit of pressure to get there, but it’s exciting to have the Final Four in our state,” Warlick says. “We call it the Grind for Nine [national titles]. We have a logo with the state of Tennessee and Grind for Nine across it.

“But the bottom line is it’s in our state; women’s basketball is huge in our state, from beginning basketball to Tennessee and Vanderbilt to all the other schools around the state, to having the high school No. 1 team. I think it’ll be great representation and we’d love to be there.”

If the Lady Vols do indeed make it to Nashville, it would certainly change the dynamics for the tourism and downtown business communities.

“It would be killer,” says Missy Sweany, assistant general manager at Rippy’s on Broadway, directly across from Bridgestone Arena. “We’ve gotta show true Tennessee pride, but that being said, we want (fans from all teams) and will welcome them.

“We anticipate we’ll be absolutely slammed before and after the games. Having these tournaments is great for downtown. There are people coming and going, either to celebrate their team’s victory or to drown their sorrows.”

Jeff Eslick, one of the managers at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, freely admits to a long passion for all Vols teams.

“When the Lady Vols win, it’ll be great. I’m a big Pat Summitt fan, and now I’m for Coach Warlick,” he says.

Eslick explains visitors old and new will be getting a first look at the third-floor addition to the legendary honky-tonk.

And how big will the crowds be?

“Wall to wall,” he adds, with a grin. “It’s always a huge night when the Chicago Bears or Blackhawks are in town. Their fans always turn out. This is going to be bigger than that.”

Bars and restaurants across the city will be packed. Hotel rooms downtown, throughout Davidson County and in outlying areas will be needed to accommodate the horde of visitors.

The Omni Nashville Hotel serves as tournament headquarters for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, and a series of fan-friendly events will held at the sparkling new Music City Center.

The Renaissance is reserved for NCAA Tournament headquarters, while participating teams will be housed at the Loews Vanderbilt, Marriott Vanderbilt, Hilton Suites Downtown and the DoubleTree by Hilton.

“It’s fabulous for the city, honestly,” says Tod Roadarmel, director of sales and marketing at the Omni Nashville Hotel. “An event like this, it makes you pretty proud to be a Nashvillian.”

Civic pride – and cash registers – will ring across the city.

“Whenever we have a big event downtown at the Bridgestone Arena, it injects a whole new level of energy into our already vibrant downtown,” Mayor Karl Dean says.

“The economic impact of $20 million and 30,000 visitors is great for our city, and that’s on top of the kind of national attention you can’t buy or measure.”

Building the Music City Center – and attracting major hotel chains like the Omni –were crucial to securing the NCAA bid in 2008, when this process began, explains Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Without the Center, they would not have had a place to do the coach’s convention or the fan expo. So we wouldn’t have gotten it without that building. The increase in hotels made it easier to make the bid,” Spyridon adds.

“Bringing in these large-scale events is critical to our future. It is a good showcase of what we can do and why we support those kinds of buildings. It drives economic development. It’s a great investment.”

ESPN’s non-stop tournament coverage will boost Music City in the same way that the “Nashville” television series increases the city’s visibility.

“On every game, on every broadcast, they will talking about what’s happening on the road to Nashville. That will go on and on and on,” Alexander says. “For one weekend, the basketball world will focus on two cities – Dallas for the men and Nashville for the women’s tournament.”

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And fans likely won’t just be watching basketball or staying downtown. Look for shopping excursions to Opry Mills, Rivergate Mall and CoolSprings Galleria and possibly trips to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Parthenon, the Hermitage and other historic sites or perhaps the Adventure Science Museum or the Nashville Zoo.

“Certainly, tourism in Nashville is up astronomically. Our attendance reflects that. We went from 120,000 to 162,000 visitors to over 200,000 last year,” explains Wesley Paine, curator at The Parthenon. “Huge sporting events have a major impact on our city. We hope people continue to come and will be ambassadors for Nashville when they go home.”

Tennessee is one of five in-state teams to qualify for the NCAA tournament, either through automatic or at-large bids.

Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb’s team would be a longshot to make a hometown Final Four.

-- Joe Howell | Submitted

Vanderbilt (18-12) is in the NCAA field for the 15th consecutive season, while Conference-USA Tournament champion Middle Tennessee State (29-4), OVC Tournament champion UT Martin (24-7) and UT Chattanooga (29-3, Southern Conference tourney champ) got automatic bids. Also in the field is Western Kentucky (24-8, Sun Belt tourney champ).

This will mark MTSU’s sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament trip, and coach Rick Insell is happy for both his team and Nashville. So is Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb, who’s led the Commodores to 11 consecutive NCAA fields during her tenure.

“It’s something that should have happened before; I can’t believe it hasn’t happened before. But it’s obvious what girl’s and women’s basketball has meant in the state of Tennessee to bring it to Nashville,” Balcomb adds.

“For us to get that exposure in women’s basketball, I just think it’s going to be tremendous for us, the city, for the tourism, I think it’s going to be a great event. I’m extremely excited to have it here.”

Insell agrees.

“It’s big for women’s basketball and what we are trying to do in building the game. There is no better place than to have this than in Nashville, Tennessee. This is probably the biggest thing to happen in Middle Tennessee,” Insell adds.

“There is an emphasis on women’s basketball in Tennessee and in particular Middle Tennessee. It’s one of the hot spots in America – high school, college and right on down the line. Now, we’ve got the Final Four in Nashville. That’s a big plus for us.”

Spyridon reeled off his own version of a Final Four for Nashville, a combination of local flavor and teams with a rabid fan base.

“If you told me UConn, Notre Dame, UT and Vandy were going to be in, that would be about as sweet as it could be for us,” Spyridon notes.

“We’d welcome any of them, and we hope the appeal of the destination enhances the tournament and the draw. It should.”

Anucha Browne, the NCAA vice president of women’s championships.

-- Marcia Stubbeman/Ncaa

And the payoff could be even greater, with Nashville in the running for another Final Four as early as the 2017-2020 bid cycle, says Anucha Browne, the NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Championships.

“The city of Nashville, Nashville Local Organizing Committee, Nashville Sports Council, Ohio Valley Conference and Bridgestone Arena have done a great job preparing for a tremendous Women’s Final Four and celebration of the great game of women’s basketball,” Browne explains.

“Nashville is again being considered for future Women’s Final Fours and is a finalist to host again in the years 2017-20.”

That kind of talk strikes a chord in Music City.

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