By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports
Just in case you thought the Final Four is nothing more than three college basketball games, Jay Cicero would like to have a word with you.
The native Shreveporter is the CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, the organization that is charged with the day-to-day staffing of the committee that runs the Final Four to be played this weekend at Caesar’s Superdome.
“It’s everything BUT three basketball games for us,” Cicero said. “The games are actually a time for us to relax and enjoy the event. The rest of the time is putting out fires and dealing with the issues that come up.”
During an interview, Cicero got a text from the New Orleans police chief. “See?” he laughed. “I’m sure he’s not asking for tickets.”
If the chief wants tickets to the March Madness Music Festival – or any of the multitude of Final Four-related events – Cicero might be able to help. The NCAA is in charge of the actual games (two Saturday and one Monday) but Cicero and the organizing committee (also made up of Tulane and the University of New Orleans) have everything else.
And when you say “everything else,” that’s a lot more literal than you think.
The March Madness Music Festival will be held April 1-3 at Woldenberg Park, which is 16 acres of greenspace located on the riverfront just north of the Aquarium of the Americas.
There’s also one less tree at Woldenberg Park than there used to be. For now.
“A tree had to be removed because the stage is so large and it would have blocked the stage,” Cicero said.
He worked with the park managers to find a solution. Yes, it was removed; no, Cicero does not own a chainsaw. (Actually, the tree has been “temporarily removed.”)
“Stuff comes up that you wouldn’t believe,” Cicero said. “Check back at the end of the week and I’m sure there will be plenty more.”
Actually, it’s been a wild few months in preparation for the Final Four. “It’s been crazy,” Cicero said. “Dealing with the COVID restrictions that were in place that have now been lifted has been tough. It’s been up and down. Now that they have been lifted, it allows a lot more people to attend the special events.”
Finding and recruiting 3,000 volunteers has been a big part of the challenge.
“There’s a shortage of personnel for almost every facility in town,” Cicero said. “We’ve been able to arrange – and pay for – the expense of bringing in security personnel from all over the country. These facilities have to be staffed to host these everts properly. That has been one of the challenges. And the cost of getting those people is dramatically higher for transportation and housing.”
There have been community youth programs, an initiative called “Read to the Final Four,” a legacy project to renovate an historic gymnasium in Algiers, and numerous fan events to coordinate.
“Just trying to get as many locals involved as we possibly can and get them to attend these events outside of the games,” said Cicero, who will receive the Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award and be inducted June 25 into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
This isn’t Cicero’s first Final Four rodeo. Since moving to New Orleans after being the Shreveport Captains assistant general manager, this will be the fourth time he has been involved with the Sports Foundation. In 1993, his organization handled all the volunteers; in 2003, it managed everything (similar to this year), and in 2012, the organization was involved, but not to this degree.
“The event has grown in 10 years and it’s more difficult (to manage) and more cumbersome,” Cicero said. “The amount of media attending has grown (about 2,000) and the NCAA has a lot more sponsors than in the past. The activations and the hospitality needs have grown significantly. That’s put an extra level of detail on the event.”
Including “temporary” tree removal.