There’s something about walking out of the tunnel and onto a playing surface in a sports arena. I try to do it every time I arrive at a new arena to cover a game.
The stands are usually empty when I make my entrance – although an early-arriving kid leaned over the railing to give me five last year in Greensboro, adding an extra dose of verisimilitude to my athlete fantasy—but the experience is still a moving one.
I did it on Thursday, shortly after picking up my credential at the Wells-Fargo Center in Philadelphia. I stepped out and gaped up at the scoreboard, high above the court, feeling my breath catch a bit as I did. I tried to find my old seat, a few rows from the top of the arena in section 207—in what used to be six-dollar seats for the Sixers.
I took another step out, so the tunnel fell away and the seating bowl opened into my field of vision, dwarfing me.
I took one more step out, intending to at last turn my attention to the court, where in a few short hours, eight teams with dreams of cutting down the nets would soon …
A gruff arena employee (there are no other kinds in Philly) stepped in front of me, eclipsing my first view of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Instinctively, I reached to my chest and flipped my credential around, assuming he needed to check to make sure I belonged there. I was wrong.
“Sir, I can’t let you bring that out here,” he said. “Not in that cup.”
A man has to have his priorities straight, and before stepping out to take in my first view of the court, I’d stopped off at the media workroom and taken a cup of coffee. I used the cups that were available next to the coffee machine, about 20 yards from the tunnel, but those cups were provided by the arena, not the NCAA.
The Wells Fargo Center is a Pepsi building. If you order a Coke at the concession stands, referring to the generic term many Northeasterners use for soda, the employees will as you, “Is Pepsi okay?” If you’re into root beer, you can get Mug, not Barqs, and Sierra Mist, not Sprite, if you would be caught dead drinking either of those.
The NCAA, in case you haven’t seen the signage, is on Team Coke. When the Florida Gators take the court next weekend against Florida Gulf Coast, they won’t be able to have the sport drink named after their mascot—or at least they’ll have to hide the fact that they’re drinking it—because Powerade is the official sport drink of the NCAA.
And if you wanted to bring any liquids into the seating bowl, they needed to be housed in a cup bearing the logos of the NCAA and Powerade.
Even the non-denominational polka-dot pattern on the coffee cup I was holding didn’t pass muster.
Going with the Trojan Cup scheme to beat the NCAA’s cup ban twitter.com/KrestDukeTBA/s…
— Shawn Krest (@KrestDukeTBA) March 22, 2013
Coke pays an estimated $50 million a year for the opportunity to evict their chief competitor from arenas across the country during March Madness, and it’s a right that the NCAA and their corporate partner take seriously.
The Greensboro Coliseum spent an estimated $15,000 cleansing the arena of all traces of Pepsico last year before the second and third rounds began, an effort that included placing NCAA stickers over all 11,000 drink holders in the arena, to cover the tiny Pepsi logo each one bore. The stickers were then removed when the NCAA left town before the next event the building hosted.
In Philadelphia, black curtains were the concealment method of choice, housing any Pepsi signage under a burqa that would satisfy even the most orthodox follower of the religion of corporate synergy.
Here then, are some of the highlights of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament – One Shining Moment of brand protection.
Here’s a Pepsi machine whose internal glow was too strong to be contained by the NCAA’s black fabric of oppression.
A soda machine in the media room. Just like in the seating bowl, it’s okay to see the competing product, just not the name.
In addition to Gatorade, Pepsico also owns Frito Lay. So any vending machines containing Pepsi-affiliated snack chips had to be covered as well.
In a clear violation of NCAA-Coca Cola mandate, the curtain draping the Pepsi taps in the main media room was folded under, so we could see which product we were dispensing into our approved drinkware.
Upstairs, in the media overflow box, we were not as fortunate and had to go YOLO when getting soda.
* * *
By the way, I eventually got to take my first look at the Wells Fargo Center court. I stood under one basket and took in the entire arena, looking at the black curtains, artfully draped over many of the advertising signs in the arena.
And over the next four days, six of the eight teams on site would have their championship dreams pop, like a bubble in a non-denominational carbonated beverage, in a Powerade cup.