Carlson: Why OKC landing the NCAA men's basketball tournament sparked a huge celebration
Sue Hollenbeck nearly wore out the refresh button on her computer.
When the clock struck noon Wednesday, she knew the NCAA was going to announce sites for most of its 2023-26 championships and regionals. The list was set to post on the NCAA’s website.
As the director of sports business at the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, she led the city’s bid for events, so she wasn’t about to miss the announcement.
“Where is it? Where is it?” she asked as she hit the refresh button.
Finally, the list appeared, and a mad scramble for “Oklahoma City” began.
Eventually, Hollenbeck and the coworkers gathered in her office saw that, too — the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is coming back to OKC in 2026. First and second rounds. Chesapeake Energy Arena.
That caused a celebration in Hollenbeck’s office, jumping and screaming included.
“One is a win no matter what,” she said, echoing a sentiment expressed after she submitted OKC’s bid earlier this year. “There are so many more cities involved in this process now than four years ago and certainly eight years ago.
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“Just being … a city that got an event, it’s a big deal.”
On a day we learned eight NCAA regionals and championships will come to our state from 2023-26 — in addition to the Women’s College World Series, which OKC has locked in for the long term — there was jubilation in many locales. OSU landed three events in Stillwater. Ditto for OU in Norman. Tulsa even scored a big event, the wrestling championships in 2023.
But nothing was bigger than OKC getting that basketball regional.
Even though March Madness is the granddaddy of all NCAA events, the significance for Oklahoma City goes well beyond that. The last time the NCAA handed out sites for events in its 2019-2022 bid cycle, OKC got shut out.
No basketball. No wrestling. No volleyball. No nothing.
There was a time OKC got NCAA events like trick-or-treaters get candy at Halloween. Just looking at men's basketball alone, the city had four regionals during a 14-year span. The sweet stuff abounded.
But after OKC got nothing last time, leaders around the city worried what another shutout would mean.
“Your name needs to be out there,” Hollenbeck said. “Your brand needs to be out there all the time to remind people that you’re there and you can do more than just one thing and that you do it really well.”
Hollenbeck and others in OKC believe the city has a great rapport with the NCAA because of the Women’s College World Series. But had the city not gotten an event in this bid cycle, it would’ve have been out of the rotation for any other championship or regional for at least a decade.
Out of sight, out of mind?
OKC didn’t want that to happen.
That’s why leaders from all sectors came together and forged a new strategy. They bid only on Division-I events, focusing on sports they had the most experience hosting and events they had the best chance of selling to fans in the city and the state. Basketball. Wrestling. Women’s gymnastics. Women’s volleyball.
They knew they were putting less eggs in the basket, but they felt the eggs were golden.
Wednesday brought the confirmation.
And to make landing the men’s basketball regional even sweeter, the NCAA gave first- and second-round games to every city that would’ve hosted those games this past spring. They lost that chance when the pandemic hit and the NCAA canceled the tournament.
So, instead of 32 spots being available for early-round games this bid cycle, there were only 24.
Still, OKC got one.
“I’m just thrilled to death that we got basketball,” Hollenbeck said. “I’m pumped.”
A bunch of folks in Oklahoma City feel the same way.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
On Wednesday, the NCAA announced sites for most of its 2023-26 championships and regionals. In addition to the Women's College World Series, a permanent championship held in Oklahoma City, the state received eight events.
Here's a look at what will be coming to Oklahoma in the coming years:
2022 Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championship, Stillwater/OSU Cross Country Course
2023 Wrestling Championship, Tulsa/BOK Center
2023 Women’s Gymnastics Regional, Norman/Lloyd Noble Center
2023 Men’s Golf Regional, Norman/Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club
2024 Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships, Stillwater/Greenwood Tennis Center
2025 Women’s Golf Regional, Norman/Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club
2025 Men’s Golf Regional, Stillwater/Karsten Creek
2026 Men’s Basketball First and Second Rounds, Oklahoma City/Chesapeake Energy Arena