The Women’s Final Four comes to downtown Minneapolis this weekend for the first time since 1995

March Madness is coming to downtown Minneapolis this week for a historic NCAA women’s basketball Final Four.

On Sunday evening, one of the four remaining teams will lift the championship trophy under a cascade of confetti. But the significance of this year’s tournament goes beyond the outcome of the action on the hard court.

For fans, it’s a return to a multi-day in-person event after two years of COVID-19 cancellations and spectator bans.

For the league, this is the first time they have extended the ‘March Madness’ moniker long associated with the hugely popular men’s tournament to the women’s side. The rebrand was born out of a reinvigorated push for gender parity after an embarrassing viral video of the women’s “weight room” at the 2021 bubble tournament in San Antonio consisting of a barbell rack, contrasting with the vast men’s weight room.

For Minnesota, this is a time to showcase the Twin Cities as a hospitable host and focus on the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and the violent unrest that followed.

“We’re going to be on ESPN on Sunday night in prime time,” said Minnesota Sports and Events (MNSE) CEO and President Wendy Blackshaw. “I think it’s a really good time to change the narrative and show what a great place it is to live, work and play.”

The tournament is the first major event for MNSE, the private non-profit organization that formed in late 2020 to attract major sporting events to the Twin Cities. Blackshaw is also co-executive director of the Final Four Local Organizing Committee.

Throughout the week there will be events in Minneapolis and the Mall of America in Bloomington where fans can participate and possibly catch a glimpse of NCAA stars, coaches and local celebrities.

Teams arrive Tuesday and stay at four downtown hotels where fans are welcome. Game 1 of the semifinals begins at 6 p.m. Friday at Target Center, followed by Game 2. The championship tilt begins at 7 p.m. Sunday.

At 9 a.m. Friday at the Minneapolis Convention Center, Tourney Town opens to the public and continues through Sunday afternoon with games, guest appearances, giveaways, pep rallies, music live and photo shoots. The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association annual meeting begins Thursday at the same building.

At the Mall of America, MNSE is organizing a week-long series of events which began Sunday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX with prizes, games, live music, photo ops and guest appearances from “The Bachelorette” star Michelle Young.

Blackshaw pointed out that with the exception of the three basketball games, all events are free.

“We want families from across the state to come, go to the Mall of America for an afternoon, go to Tournament city and go to open practice,” Blackshaw said. “They’re the best female basketball players in the country.”

Spectators can enter Target Center without a ticket on Saturday, when the final two teams hold open practices starting at 1 p.m.

On Championship Sunday, the red carpet will be rolled out for players outside the arena. Fans can line up at the intersection of 7th Street and 1st Ave S. to see the athletes enter the building around 5 p.m.

Led by Jessie Stomski Seim, General Counsel for the Prairie Island Indian Community, and the Aboriginal Council for the Advancement of Athletics, organizers created special events for Native American youth. Seim is an enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma who was a star player at Tartan High School in Oakdale and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She brings 200 native youth from across the state to the games.

“Basketball is huge in Indian country, and there’s all kinds of talent that doesn’t translate” for a variety of reasons, from socio-economics to geography, she said.

During Friday’s games, there will be a dedication to the territory, with native dancers and music. On Saturday at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, youngsters will play basketball and enjoy an Aboriginal feast.

It’s been a long journey since the last Women’s Final Four at Target Center in 1995, when the University of Connecticut won its first national championship with Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo-Rushin. She will return to Target Center as one of ESPN’s top analysts.

ESPN’s coverage will be different as the network will use 40 cameras at Target Center – the same number the men get. ESPN previously only used a few for women’s games.

For MNSE planners, they hope the expected 30,000 visitors will find enjoyment in the tournament after a difficult few years.

The Twin Cities were scheduled to host the NCAA Men’s Wrestling Final Four at US Bank Stadium in March 2020, but that was canceled due to COVID-19. Last year, the planned Midwest men’s basketball region was moved from Target Center to the Indiana bubble.

Recalling how the last in-person sellout for the 2019 NCAA March Madness Final Four unfolded at US Bank Stadium with some 70,000 fans, organizers hope this weekend will serve as a marker of the new era.

“It’s almost like Minneapolis is the last before the pandemic and the first since we reopened,” said Matt Meunier, senior vice president of development for MNSE.

Blackshaw and Meunier declined to discuss the cost of the event, but said the money was collected privately and returned to the community to cover security and convention center rent. They will calculate the numbers later, but expect an economic boost of around $25 million.

“I hope we put on a great event and show the NCAA and the country what we can do, and hopefully we don’t have to wait another 30 years for him to come back,” Meunier said. .

David H. Henry