HARRIS COUNTY-HOUSTON SPORTS AUTHORITY INSIDER
Houston hoping to land NCAA women's Final Four
The Harris County – Houston Sports Authority Insider will take you inside Houston Sports each Friday because #WeAreHoustonSports!
Will the third time be the charm?
Houston certainly hopes so.
The city has hosted Final Fours, Super Bowls, two World Series, World Cup events and just about every other event you can name. And the 2023 Final Four and 2024 College Football Championship – among other big events – are headed this way.
But what our championship city hasn’t hosted is a Women’s Final Four.
Not yet, anyway.
Tuesday, the Harris County – Houston Sports Authority pulled out all the stops as the NCAA Division I Women’s Final Four selection committee made one final swing through the Bayou City.
We’re talking breakfast with a view followed by two marching bands and 2,000 Houston students – from elementary through high school – dribbling down Avenida de las Americas from the George R. Brown Convention Center to Toyota Center.
Dribbling all the way, the students filed into Toyota Center for a pep rally for the committee that included former Olympian and NCAA and WNBA champion Sheryl Swoopes and former Olympian and Wimbledon doubles champion Zina Garrison, to name a few.
"I think Houston is a phenomenal city that understands how to put on great events, how to make those events successful,’’ said Swoopes, a four-time WNBA champion and six-time WNBA All-Star with the Houston Comets and three-time Olympic gold medalist.
“History kind of speaks for itself with the tradition of the Comets being here and to me, it's a no-brainer.’’
Janis Burke, CEO of the Harris County – Houston Sports Authority, hopes Swoopes, who led Texas Tech to the 1993 NCAA title her senior season, is right.
“I’ll tell you what, our community never ceases to amaze me,’’ Burke said. “They step up to the plate and they came out in a big way.
“We had 2,000 kids come out today doing the dribble parade. That’s what I love about selling Houston. Between our volunteers, our venues and just the people. It makes a difference.’’
And, yes, the committee was wowed by the day’s events.
“Amazing,’’ said Rhonda Bennett, the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee Chairman. “Such a warm welcome. Definitely a big surprise to see that many kids.
“I think Houston has done a great job of showcasing the city. It seems like a great city with a lot of diversity and a lot of support for women, women in leadership positions and women throughout the community who are really excited to be in a place like that.’’
The committee is down to eight finalists for the four-year period from 2021-2024 and Houston’s right there at the top of a list that includes its Texas sister cities Dallas and San Antonio, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Missouri; Minneapolis and Nashville. Houston has bid twice before and fell just short in the last bid process.
Since then, the downtown footprint has expanded with new hotels and new restaurants creating a vibrant event scene that was the epicenter for Super Bowl LI.
“Even though we're the fourth largest city we have a footprint that feels very intimate that's very walk-able and the fans can come out and enjoy it,’’ Burke said. “We’ve seen that with Super Bowl, and the Men's Final Four and All-Star game, so we just want like to show the women for the first time -- we’re the only (finalist) city that’s never hosted a Women’s Final Four -- and we’d love to show them what we can do with their event.’’
Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s Vice President of Women’s Basketball, was here as the West Coast Commissioner for the 2016 Final Four and was surprised at the changes in two years.
“Seeing how the city has grown and developed in this short time, it’s amazing,’’ Holzman said. “It’s a very competitive process, but cities like Houston obviously want to have our championship and provide a platform for us to have our female student athletes on the worldwide stage.
“It’s a place for us to celebrate NCAA women’s basketball, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity for a city to show all it has to offer to the world.’’
The NCAA is coming off a strong 2018 Women’s Final Four that saw eventual champion Notre Dame beat Connecticut on a last-second basket in overtime in the semifinals, then rally from 15 points down in the final to beat Mississippi State.
“We just had one of the most exciting women’s championships we’ve ever had, and I think just getting more people watching the game and seeing that we have a lot of great teams and there is a tremendous amount of parity in women’s college basketball,’’ Bennett said. “That’s very exciting for us.”
Houston was just selected to host the 2023 Men’s Final Four and will be hosting the 2024 College Football Championship, so the city is hoping to land the 2021 Women’s Final Four. Texas A&M would be the host school, but Rice, Houston, Prairie View and Texas Southern would all be involved as well.
The committee is finishing up its final visits this month and plans to make a decision on the 2021-2024 events in early fall.
During the all-day visit, which ended with a reception, talk kept coming back to the downtown campus and its great location and feel.
“There was a lot of money put into the footprint,’’ Burke said. “It’s a place you can go and hang out. We want all the people to see it, feel it and touch it.
“ . . . And we think three’s the charm. Hopefully, this time we win.”
“I think Houston has anything and everything the committee would be looking for and I feel confident they would get the support they want, the people will come out,’’ she said.
Which brings us back to those 2,000 students dribbling downtown.
“They were excited about basketball. They brought a lot of energy and the committee was obviously blown away,’’ Swoopes said.
“If Houston’s able to host the Final Four and these kids can see that happen, I think they‘ll feel like they had a little part in bringing it here.’’