A True Neutral Site for NCAA Womens’ Gymnastics
When Site Selection Scores a Perfect 10
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) administers 90 championships in 24 sports each year for its member institutions across Divisions I,II, and III. While the most iconic NCAA Championships have experienced success through the popularity of the championships, several of the NCAA’s championships have built their brand and legacy through establishing a consistent home for the event. However, the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics National Championship, like many other NCAA championships, does not have a permanent home. This championship is included in the NCAA championships bid process every two to four years to select future sites.
Like many other championships, the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics National Championship has been primarily hosted at campus sites (8 of 39), with occasional neutral sites like Duluth, Georgia (2012) and Birmingham, Alabama (2014). While not on-campus, the neutral-site championships were conveniently located near power programs to ensure a strong showing at the gates. However, with the growth of the sport and the incredible talent of their student-athletes, the coaches recognized an opportunity to take the championship to the next level. Together, they had a vision of creating an enhanced experience if the championship could build its home at an off-campus location permanently.
A Winning Game Plan
When the 2015-2018-bid cycle opened for the National Collegiate Women’s Gymnastics Championships, Knight Eady knew there were key indicators the committee and coaches would be searching for in the proposal. The schools were searching for a location central to all schools, from UCLA to Florida, with a major airport to provide flexible travel schedules and a location that would serve as a true neutral site so one school’s fan base would not dominate the stands.
Knight Eady quickly identified the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex as the best neutral-site location. The state of Texas does not have any Division I women’s gymnastics programs and the metroplex was centrally located with two major airports. Though the area lacks in Division I women’s gymnastics programs, the area is rich with youth gymnastics talent and almost every major program would feature at least one, if not multiple, student-athletes from the area on their roster.
Following the identification of DFW as the best neutral-site location, Knight Eady began to identify the ideal venue for the championship. Knight Eady not only considered the venue seating capacity and floor space (a necessity in the sport of gymnastics), but also convenient hotels, nearby dining options, and other student-athlete experience elements. Knight Eady forged a partnership with Visit Fort Worth and pitched the Fort Worth Convention Center Arena as a site for 2015-2018. Knight Eady successfully won the bid to host the championship in Fort Worth in 2015 and 2016.
Getting the Win
Knight Eady, along with its partners at Texas Woman’s University and Visit Fort Worth, conceptualized, developed and executed all aspects of the championship including marketing, public relations, ticketing, event management, media relations, budgeting, and all other host responsibilities for the championship. April 17-19, 2015 marked the first NCAA championship event hosted in the City of Fort Worth and fans were treated to the closest team final in the history of the event with Florida edging out Utah by only 0.050 for the National Championship title. The 2015 event brought 13,944 fans to Fort Worth and provided a solid foundation for the potential home of the championship, but the 2016 event cemented Fort Worth as the ideal host city for this championship on a permanent basis. Despite adjustments to the event’s format to eliminate a fourth session of competition, 15,560 fans, including 8,338 for Saturday night’s Super Six team finals, packed the Fort Worth Convention Center Arena to see Oklahoma raise the trophy. The incredible 2016 crowd created the environment the coaches had dreamed about for their sport’s national championship. This stamp of approval was made clear when Knight Eady was awarded the opportunity to host four more national championships, and all years awarded, during the 2019-2022 bid cycle.
Following a two-year hiatus when the event traveled to St. Louis, Missouri as a part of the 2015-2018 bid cycle, the championship returned to Fort Worth in 2019. The return to Fort Worth would not be simply picking up where the event left off in 2016, as all of the partners had a vision to continue to taking the championship to new heights. Despite another format change bringing four less participating teams (cutting from twelve qualifying teams to eight) and the event falling on Easter weekend, the 2019 event set records for final session attendance (8,595) and distanced itself from all other neutral sites in the history of the championship with its 22,107 in total attendance over three sessions. Moving to a brand-new facility in 2020 will eliminate the event’s single weakness of competing in the antiquated Fort Worth Convention Center and the event will only continue to grow in Fort Worth.
Seeing this project through from the earliest brainstorming phase to execution across multiple years has been a rewarding and exciting experience for everyone involved on the project at Knight Eady. The NCAA and the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics committee should be commended for stepping out and trusting a new idea, as opposed to maintaining the status quo. The selection of a strategic neutral site, increased coverage from its broadcast partner ESPN, and the growth of the student-athletes’ brands through social media have all contributed to the tremendous growth of the sport in a relatively short time. The combination of creativity during site selection and effective event management by Knight Eady created the perfect situation for the NCAA and its Women’s Gymnastics member institutions to host the championship they all deserve.