Valley makeover: Downtown Phoenix undergoes massive Final Four transformation

Junior forward Mohamed Wague, left, high-fives a fan waiting outside Alabama’s team hotel Thursday. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Team stores feature Men’s Final Four merchandise can be found in various hotels in downtown Phoenix. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Outside the front doors of the reigning national champion UConn Huskies’ team hotel is a Marriott Bonvoy display honoring fans. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Alabama’s star guard Mark Sears favorite thing about the Valley is simple.

“The city,” he told Cronkite News Thursday as he boarded the team bus headed for practice in Glendale at State Farm Stadium, where the Crimson Tide will make their first Final Four appearance in school history Saturday.

And “the city” is embracing the Sears-led Tide, the UConn Huskies, the Purdue Boilermakers and N.C. State Wolfpack as the Valley hosts college basketball’s crown jewel for the second time.

Take a quick walk around downtown Phoenix right now, and Final Four fever has invaded the city. It’s bustling with an increased police presence, the roads are closed for special events, and sidewalks are packed tight with fans repping their beloved college teams. The team hotels, all located within a couple blocks of each other, are decked out with team-specific signage and merchandise, while loud groups of people protesting on behalf of affordable health care have set up camp outside the hotels to make their voices heard in front of the attention-drawing venues.

“It’s definitely gotten busier with more people coming in,” said Wally Rose, a state trooper for the Arizona Department of Public Safety. “We’ve been working a lot with Phoenix PD to kind of alleviate the traffic so that people can get around and do what they need to do.”

Rose, seated on a police motorcycle, is tasked with escorting the Alabama team bus to Glendale, along with six other troopers.

Arizona State Troopers line up outside the the Westin Phoenix downtown hotel in preparation to escort the Alabama Crimson Tide to their first practice at State Farm Stadium. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Arizona State Troopers line up outside the the Westin Phoenix downtown hotel in preparation to escort the Alabama Crimson Tide to their first practice at State Farm Stadium. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

“We just help the team get to where they’re going … and control that traffic so that we don’t have buses getting stuck with there being several buses going out there in a row,” he said.

With over 100,000 expected fans spending time in the Valley to enjoy the Final Four and all it offers, several pop-up events are scheduled to entertain and accommodate the crowds. Having hosted the Final Four in 2017, and the Super Bowl in 2024, Phoenix is ready.

Hance Park is hosting the free NCAA March Madness Music Festival, which will include appearances from the Jonas Brothers, Zedd, Mumford & Sons and more. Inside the Phoenix Convention Center, the Final Four Fan Fest, opening Friday, is preparing a four-day ultimate fan experience that includes several games, signing booths and more.

Directly outside the Convention Center, the Sheraton has set up a watch-party scene called “Game Day Gathering.”

“We’re setting up a viewing area to watch the Final Four games,” a Game Day Gathering worker named Matthew said. “We’re setting up some big LED walls and big speakers so that everybody can see what’s happening. There’s going to be some games, an espresso bar, and we’re just trying to make a fun hangout spot.”

Fans from everywhere are taking the time to enjoy the numerous March Madness-themed activities and events, including Paul Bracker, a college basketball fan from Atlanta who sported an Arizona Wildcats hat and an NAU Lumberjacks T-shirt Thursday.

“We’ve been to all four hotels where the teams are staying,” he said. “We’ve also gone to some of the vendors and bought some merchandise. We’re enjoying Arizona.”

The excitement and anticipation will move from Phoenix to Glendale starting Saturday as No. 11 seed N.C. State takes on top-seeded Purdue at 3:09 p.m., followed by No. 4 Alabama dueling No. 1 seed UCONN. The winners compete Monday night for the championship.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Asher Hyre expects to graduate in August 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hyre has interned at Position Sports in Phoenix as a marketing coordinator.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Spencer Barnes expects to graduate in May 2026 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Barnes has been a sports beat writer for AZPreps365 and the Gunnison Country Times. He also has done Blaze Radio Sports and the Walter Cronkite Sports Network, clubs that have allowed him to take photos of ASU basketball, football and others. Barnes does freelance photography for Phoenix area high school football and basketball teams and hopes to end up as a traveling or team photographer for the NBA.