March 22, 2019

Capacity crowds create headaches in March Madness' Hartford return

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
The NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament returned to Hartford's XL Center on Thursday for the first time since 1998.
HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
Crowds filled Pratt Street on Thursday during a pop-up pub event that coincided with the nearby NCAA tournament at XL Center.
HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
No. 13 Vermont failed to mount a comeback in the final minutes Thursday vs. No. 4 Florida State. The Seminoles held on for a 76-69 win.

Full parking lots, long lines, traffic and crowded restaurants were just some of the welcomed annoyances in Hartford Thursday as the NCAA men's basketball tournament generated new energy downtown.

Two crowds of about 14,700 fans crammed into XL Center during four games Thursday that began in the early afternoon hours and lasted just past midnight.

Accessing the 44-year-old arena was seamless for most fans on Thursday who attended the first two games.

However, logistical issues began arising after game two ended around 6:30 p.m. when No. 12 Murray State upset No. 5 Marquette. Thousands of guests began departing the facility and thousands of ticket holders began lining up to enter for the upcoming matchup between No. 6 Villanova and No. 11 St. Mary's.

As a result, some fans weren't able to take their seats for game three until halftime at about 8 p.m., but the issue was unavoidable, according to XL operators.

XL Center General Manager Christopher Lawrence said his management team increased its staff across the building, opening the maximum amount of entry points allowed under building codes. Additional temporary staff was even brought in to curb fan traffic.

"It's not like this is something that caught us off guard," said Lawrence. "We completely changed our process to get people in and out as quickly as possible."

The problems were exacerbated by session one ending almost 45 minutes later than expected, which gave XL staff a late start on shuffling fans in and out of the arena.

"It was the perfect storm of the game times," said Lawrence, who traveled to Pittsburgh in 2018 to study how operators of PPG Paints Arena managed last year's NCAA men's hoops tournament.

"At the end of the day, given the hand we were dealt with, I don't think there was much more we could have done to turn it around quicker," he said. "From the building's perspective, we did the best we could do to spin that around."

Despite the logistical headaches, Lawrence views the basketball tournament's return to XL -- its first appearance downtown in 21 years -- as a major success for the city and arena.

"It was fun to see the building with that many people," he said.

Three of the four games at XL came down to the final minutes, with Florida State, Murray State, Villanova and Purdue all winning and advancing to second-round matchups on Saturday night.

Play begins Saturday at 6:10 p.m. with No. 4 Florida State facing off against No. 12 Murray State. The primetime matchup, beginning 30 minutes after game one, will feature No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 6 Villanova.

The "Party on Pratt" pop-up pub featuring music, food and hometown brews will again be held Friday on Pratt Street from 4 to 7 p.m. and on Saturday from noon to 8 p.m.

It's not yet clear how many people attended the Pratt Street event on Thursday, but Chip McCabe, director of marketing for event organizer the Hartford Business Improvement District, said his organization views day one as a "huge success" in terms of attendance and vendor sales.

"We are very pleased with how things turned out and look forward to doing it all again on Saturday," said McCabe.

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Vaunted NCAA basketball tournament returns to unlikely home in Hartford's XL Center

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