It’s one thing for the Costante Group of Kansas City to produce a successful NBA All-Star Game slam-dunk contest or a home-run hitting contest at the major-league All-Star Game.
Open the doors, and the people will come.
That’s not necessarily true for Costante’s upcoming sales job: how to make the NAIA Tournament a hot ticket again in Kansas City.
The 77th annual NAIA Division I Men’s Championship — college basketball’s oldest national tournament, which tips off on Wednesday — has yet to recover from its ill-fated decision to move to Tulsa from 1994 to 2001 and recapture the grip it once had in Kansas City.
The explosion of NCAA March Madness left the NAIA as an anachronism at Municipal Auditorium, which was its cozy home from its inception in 1937 before moving to oversized Kemper Arena in 1975 (another move the organization would later regret).
Since returning to 10,000-seat Municipal in 2002, attendance at the NAIA Tournament has leveled off after hitting its high, 41,131 for nine sessions, in 2010. The tournament drew a low of 34,080, or 3,787 per session, in 2012.
Enter Don Costante, whose global marketing company consults with English soccer teams and promotes college all-star football games among its services.
Costante, who is also senior director/event presentation and production for the Royals, is in the second year of a three-year contract to breathe life into the NAIA’s 32-team, seven-day marathon of basketball. He’s hoping that imported emcees, energized music and wall-to-wall entertainment during player introductions, timeouts, halftimes and between games will rekindle excitement at the arena.
“What we do for the NAIA championship is no less than what I did in New Orleans for the past NBA All-Star weekend,” Costante said. “I bring in some of the staff that worked the All-Star Game for the NAIA event. They’re getting high-end talent, and some of these individuals come in from other NBA teams and help bring that flavor we’re looking for.
“We don’t do anything less for the NAIA. If anything, we try to go a step further, because they allow us to, because they want to push that envelope of being innovative and creative and really engaging to the fans.”
In short, the NAIA is going Showtime and leaving behind the halcyon days of the 1960s and ’70s.
“We’ve been fighting the argument, ‘Well, my grandfather used to take me to the NAIA Tournament,’ or, ‘My dad used to go there and spend all day and do brown-bag lunch on Friday,’ ” NAIA director of championships Eric Olson said. “Well, why aren’t you doing it now?
“Historically, there weren’t that many things going on at that time. We had a captive audience to drive that attendance.”
Costante’s efforts will be aided by Kansas City’s $5 million in renovations at Municipal. The upgrades include large video boards at each end of the building, plus improved lighting and sound for the emcee and musical productions.
“I love the college atmosphere, but unfortunately the NAIA (teams) don’t bring bands,” said Costante, 44. “They don’t have the budgets at their schools. They don’t bring a lot of cheerleaders. We created a college atmosphere but call it an NBA-infused, high-energy championship tournament atmosphere.”
The ramped-up show begins with elaborate player introductions.
“Player intros should be a climactic point,” Costante said. “With the video boards, we’ll take it to a whole new level. We have the ability to put the players up there on camera as they come through the tunnel to the court, high-fiving each other. We’re able to bring the guys to the fans even closer.
“Having the proper music behind the player’s introduction is huge ... and switching the music to when the five starters from each team walk out there, to have a tipoff piece of music that is going to drive the energy.”
The interludes during the games will be a little more problematic than an NBA game, because in the NAIA, timeouts last but a minute, and there are no TV timeouts until the championship game.
So the three-point shootouts, half-court shots, beat-the-buzzer games, blindfold layups, dance contests and trivia quizzes will have to be done expediently.
“It rivals anything the NBA teams do,” Costante said. “I’m not trying to make the NAIA an NBA atmosphere. It has its college flair to it, but it has the infused aspect of what makes the NBA entertainment level so special with the emcee, and the elements that are presented at a high professional level.”
The NAIA is also trying to add even more value to its $3 to $12 all-day tickets by adding a Slam Dunk Contest, a Three-Point Shooting Contest and NAIA all-star game to Saturday’s schedule of quarterfinals.
Bringing in these ancillary events, punctuated by Costante’s showbiz approach, makes the next two years a pivotal time for the NAIA.
“We can talk about what a great value it is, $12 for four games, and basketball is basketball, and we know that product is never going to change,” Olson said. “But it’s all about how you bookend that experience with what Don does.
“We have the latitude from our management team at the NAIA to experiment how we connect with our fan base and connect with the residents of Kansas City in bringing this Kansas City tradition back to life.”