Officials Hope Final Four Will Provide a Lasting Boost to Detroit

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

DETROIT -- A throng of 100,000 people is expected to stream into Detroit for this weekend's NCAA Final Four, the most lavish celebration in college sports, which pits Michigan State against Connecticut and North Carolina against Villanova for the right to advance to Monday's game to determine the men's basketball national champion. Their revelry will make for some sharp contrasts in the nation's most troubled city.

Basketball fans will dine at the Wolfgang Puck Grille, play blackjack at the Greektown Casino, swig beer at Cheli's Chili Bar and, if the weather cooperates, join the mass pep rally along the refurbished riverfront.

Not far from Detroit's spruced-up downtown, thoroughfares are riddled with potholes, treetops are festooned with windblown trash and aging factories, warehouses and office buildings stand empty. In the residential area near 8 Mile Road, which marks the city's northern edge, only every third or fourth house is occupied. The rest have been burned or vandalized and can be bought for a $500 down payment -- less than a pair of Final Four tickets -- and $250 per month.

With the U.S. auto industry on life support, Detroit is once again turning to sports for a sorely needed economic -- and psychological -- boost. But this time organizers hope the Final Four serves as a prototype for hosting such lucrative, mega-sporting events.

In a tacit acknowledgment that staging such a lavish spectacle against a backdrop of such profound need would invite charges of insensitivity, the NCAA is making a financial contribution to a charity in a host city for the first time in tournament history. In this case, the $250,000 gift is going to a community-based program launched by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan that is focused on early childhood education.

In addition, the NCAA has teamed with a Detroit-based food-rescue group, Forgotten Harvest, to deliver any unused prepared food from the myriad parties and conventions associated with the tournament to the city's most needy.

They are modest gestures considering that the NCAA receives $6 billion over 11 years from CBS for the tournament's broadcast rights. But local organizers hope the initiatives will leave Detroit with a Final Four legacy that is more lasting than empty beer cans and will be replicated in Indianapolis, host of the 2010 basketball championship, and the cities that follow.

Others, such as retired auto worker Larry Christensen, question the NCAA's motives and largesse.

"If they really see a need, is that all they can come up with?" asks Christensen, 64, who worked for 30 years on Chrysler's chassis-assembly line. "The United Way is here year-round. Forgotten Harvest is here year-round. The problems are so immense. Do they think that dumping a couple hundred thousand dollars is going to make much of a difference?"

Neither initiative was envisioned in 2003 when the NCAA awarded Detroit this year's Final Four. But the current recession has crippled the Motor City, idling auto plants and leaving more than one in five Detroiters jobless.

According to the NCAA and Detroit officials, the Final Four will pump $30 million to $50 million into the city, with basketball fans filling hotels, partying at downtown casinos and celebrating at restaurants that are starved for customers.

With all 72,000 tickets sold even before Michigan State secured its berth with an upset victory over Louisville on Sunday, Detroit will set a Final Four attendance record because of the seating configuration at Ford Field, the domed home of the National Football League's Detroit Lions.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company