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The Wells Fargo Center before the Purdue vs. Saint Peter’s March Madness game in Philadelphia on March 25. Credit: Matthew Frank

While Penn didn’t make it to March Madness this year, the Red and Blue will still be involved when the Big Dance comes to Philadelphia this weekend.

The University will be hosting Friday’s Purdue vs. Saint Peter’s and UNC vs. UCLA games, as well as the Elite Eight contest between the winners of those two matchups. Each of the games will take place in Philadelphia at Wells Fargo Center.

In 2017, Penn, the Wells Fargo Center, and PHL Sports jointly put together a bid to host March Madness in Philadelphia this year, and was accepted. After not “doing much for four or five years,” Scott Ward, Penn Athletics’ senior associate athletics director, chief operations officer, and current tournament manager, says that things have been all systems go on Penn’s end as of late.

“We started initial planning meetings with the NCAA last summer [with] our first call, where you start talking about tickets and marketing plans," Ward said. "Tickets go on sale in the fall, and then throughout the year increasing [the] frequency of meetings as you get closer to the event. Once we [turned] this week and we found out who exactly was coming to our venue, we've been non-stop since. Anybody who's involved in this, they're pretty much involved in it the entire week and weekend. We're gonna have staff members basically living at Wells Fargo Center starting all day tomorrow through Sunday night.”

Ward and his team of roughly 25 staff members have been tasked with much of the grunt work for the event, which includes anything involving accommodating the different teams’ needs.

“We work with the venue, we had guys down there today setting up locker rooms, so our primary staff jobs are everything behind the scenes to support the teams,” Ward said. “So between getting the teams in and through security, making sure their locker rooms are set and then turned over, getting them anything they need for a practice or for pregame warmups, managing their benches, those types of things.”

Penn’s Director of Athletic Communications Mike Mahoney and his team of roughly 40 external volunteers will be managing media for the event, which includes press conferences, media credentials, and working with TV stations Turner and CBS.

In terms of the workload for the staffers, Ward explained that while things were slightly easier with fewer games being played, the pressure was arguably much greater and there was still a lot more to be done.

“You definitely don't want to be the one to screw up,” he said. “Our games, our Friday night games at least, are on CBS. So, they're not on truTV, or they're not on TBS, or there's not other games to look through. Everybody's going to be watching this game around the world, so you do not want to fail catastrophically.”

Although that pressure (in addition to the pressure of doing right by the student-athletes participating) would rightfully cause worry, Ward sees it as an opportunity for Penn to succeed behind the scenes.

“It's not a nervous situation, it's more of a pride thing,” he said. “And putting on a good show, representing the city, representing our school and institution. You're going to see 'Hosted by the University of Pennsylvania' on the scorer's table. They're very small, but you're going to see two Penn shield logos on the court floor.”

Additionally, Penn is included in the banner signage in Center City, where the advertisements note the University’s involvement in the event. For those attending the games at Wells Fargo Center, Penn will also have an ad in the game program.

While Ward has managed the Ivy League Basketball Tournament twice when it was at the Palestra, this event, he says, is “probably Ivy League on steroids,” though it still bears similarities to the Ivy Tournament and Penn Relays.

“This week is very reminiscent of Penn Relays week, where today [Tuesday] felt like the Monday of Penn Relays where we were doing a little bit of setup, we're finishing some of the administrative work, we're kind of getting organized and ready to go,” he said. “And then starting tomorrow, it's going to be a hands-on two days of setup. And then once we get into the games and the competition and the practices, we're going to eclipse 80 hours this week, much like we do Penn Relays week.”

The University will receive an honorarium from the NCAA for hosting and staffing the event, which can reach up to $200,000 depending on if the games sell out, as well as budgeting and expenses.

Penn hosting March Madness is also a valuable opportunity to build experience in hosting large sporting events, which would benefit the athletics department as it looks to host more events in the Palestra.

“We'd love to be the permanent home of the Ivy League Tournament,” Ward said. “We've looked into hosting other conference tournaments … I think there are some conferences that the Palestra would work well with. We considered hosting or putting [in] a bid last time for the women's NCAA regional to host that at the Palestra, but at the time, we didn't feel like we were equipped to do that based on that bid process. There might be [an] opportunity for us to bid on the NIT at some point in the future. 

“It's definitely a goal of mine to do as many events as we can. I think gaining this experience from hosting March Madness is going to be a huge kick to that, and it's just going to drive that desire to host many more basketball events that we can do in the Palestra.”