ST. LOUIS, April 3 -- It takes an escalator ride, an elevator ride and a hike up a steep flight of concrete steps to reach the top row of section 405 at the Edward Jones Dome, where you can gaze down on what normally is one end zone of the St. Louis Rams' home field.
Now cast your eyes toward the opposite end zone, look past the dozens of CBS production trucks parked below and peer over the bleachers that have been erected at midfield, their seatbacks facing you. There, on the far end of the field, is a recently installed basketball court, looking not much bigger than a cafeteria tray from this vantage point, where five baby-blue specks (otherwise known as the North Carolina Tar Heels) will race back and forth Monday night against five orange specks (adoringly referred to as Illinois, or the Illini, in these parts).
The Edward Jones Dome was packed for the Illinois-Louisville semifinal. Final Four sites must seat 40,000.
(Paul Sancya -- AP)
Sit closer, of course, and the specks of color morph into full-blown basketball players. You can even make out the numbers on their jerseys. Yet more than 47,000 college basketball fans will consider themselves fortunate beyond words to have scored a seat anywhere in this cavernous domed stadium to watch top-ranked Illinois (37-1) and No. 2 North Carolina (32-4) battle for college basketball's national championship Monday. And in sports bars and living rooms nationwide, countless more -- whether sporting Illini orange jerseys or Carolina blue -- will be green with envy over the fact that they're not seeing the game live, too.
Such is the wild popularity of the NCAA's Final Four, three days in April in which college basketball's national champion is crowned. The event outgrew traditional basketball arenas nearly a decade ago. Venues big enough for the NBA Finals simply couldn't hold the throngs of alumni, boosters and college-sports devotees who clamored for tickets to watch some of the game's best amateurs battle for a trophy. So in 1997, NCAA officials instituted a minimum seating capacity of 40,000.
With demand still outstripping supply, it's possible Final Four venues could grow bigger still -- particularly after a record 78,129 packed Ford Field, home of the NFL's Detroit Lions, for a regular season Michigan State-Kentucky basketball game in December 2003.
"The committee has always looked at ways to grow the championship and improve it," said L.J. Wright, director of the NCAA's Division I men's basketball championship. "And that, in some people's eyes, would be an improvement."
Wright concedes there's a point at which a venue becomes so big that it diminishes the experience of watching a game. "I don't know what the line is. Where does it stop?" he asked rhetorically. "Is there a way to increase the availability of seats without damaging the quality of the seat? That's something we always struggle with."
These days, college basketball's Final Four is hardly about one game or even one day. It has become a full-blown civic and corporate festival, with all the hoopla and pageantry of a Super Bowl -- save for an overblown halftime show.
The madness swung into action Friday, when teams held 50-minute practice sessions that were open to the public. A crowd estimated at 31,500 showed up, filling all available seats in the dome's lower bowl and bleachers and spilling into the upper decks.
At the convention center next door, thousands of paying customers ($3 for children; $5 for ages 12 and older) flocked to the NCAA's Hoop City fan festival to meet the team mascots, play basketball-themed games and collect autographs.
Just west of the city's signature arch, Kiener Plaza hosted the Taste of St. Louis festival all weekend long, where basketball fans sucked down $3 Budweisers, snacked on toasted ravioli and catfish fingers, grooved to zydeco bands and gawked at the players, coaches and TV commentators who occasionally strolled past.
On Sunday more than 3,000 children dribbled basketballs along Market Street, from Union Station Kiener Plaza (nine blocks in all), to celebrate the sport. Each child was given a T-shirt and a basketball to keep, so the city reverberated all afternoon with the "thump, thump, thump" of budding ball-handlers.
And at nearly every street corner, on every park bench and in every hotel lobby, the subject of the conversation was tickets. "Who's sellin' tickets?" "Sellin' tickets?" repeated like a tape loop.
Travis Schaftenaar, 35, of Chicago, paced the sidewalk with a seating chart of the dome in his pocket and a hand-lettered sign hung around his neck: "Need 1 Ticket." He was prepared to pay $500 for a terrible seat but was holding out hope of scoring a decent seat for $800 or so.
His buddy, Jim Thurston, 32, was already in, having gotten a ticket from a well-placed friend. Over the course of six previous Final Fours, Thurston had sat in every seat imaginable -- from the fourth row behind the pep band to the last row in the dome.
"People have this kind of prima-donna thought process that they have to be between the sidelines to enjoy a basketball game, and that's just not the case," Thurston said. "The atmosphere of college basketball is unlike anything else. It's the passion. It's micro-nationalism for the United States. People in the U.S. are passionate about their universities, whereas overseas, they're passionate about their countries."
To Illinois Coach Bruce Weber, who is making his first Final Four appearance, college basketball's season finale has become a fairy tale. And the more fantastic the tale, the better.
"This is what you dream of: To play in front of this number of people, whether it's the 47,000 here or the national TV audience," Weber said. "You couldn't ask for a better scenario. This is what college basketball is all about."