Arena designer Populous also manages events inside

A basketball court has been installed at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to get the stadium, usually used for football, ready for the NCAA Final Four.
A basketball court has been installed at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to get the stadium, usually used for football, ready for the NCAA Final Four. The Associated Press

Populous, the Kansas City sports architecture giant, is known worldwide for designing stadiums and arenas. Less known is that the firm also manages some of the biggest events at such venues — including college basketball’s Final Four.

“We’re working on becoming more well known for that outside the industry,” Populous associate principal Marc Klein said Thursday from Indianapolis, where his team is getting Lucas Oil Stadium ready for Saturday’s semifinal games and Monday’s championship.

Populous’ event management group, based at the firm’s Denver office, also has orchestrated 10 Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, the Super Bowl and other big sports contests.

This is the fifth Final Four that Klein and Populous have managed, and he said the 2015 event involved tracking 3,000 separate tasks and more than 270 vendors. Part of that is getting a football stadium — which, incidentally, Populous didn’t design — converted to a basketball arena.

Juggling everything, with a team of just 18 people, requires a strong project management system, and Populous relies on one called Smartsheet. The software, the brainchild of the Bellevue, Wash., company of the same name, uses a spreadsheet type of interface but also integrates functions for planning, scheduling, communicating and almost anything else a big event requires.

Smartsheet also works in the cloud, so its information can be accessed any time and on almost any device that can be linked to the Internet. Populous can give varying degrees of access to a large number of people — from a full view of event schedules and tasks for executives such as Klein to a narrow view of a specific task for, say, a soft drink delivery vendor.

“So much of what we do (for a big event) is lists and charts and documents,” he said, “and this makes it easy to share that information, internally and externally, whether it’s with a contractor in Indianapolis or the head of venue operations at the NCAA.”

He said the program’s familiar spreadsheet look made it easy to use, and its inclusion of so many other functions made it flexible and powerful. The flexibility and ease of use also are critical, Klein said, because Populous, say from one Super Bowl to the next, usually has to change out half of its vendors.

“And we have to be able to do that fast,” he said. “But we can get someone up and running Smartsheet in an hour, feeding us the information we need. And as an event approaches, it becomes the information library for everyone involved, so everyone sees the same schedules, maps, everything.”

Smartsheet also came along at the right time, Klein said, in 2010 when the Final Four had grown to the point that the NCAA decided “it needed someone to manage the overall planning and operations” and approached Populous.

“They asked us to bring some tools to the table,” said Klein. His group had been investigating project management tools and was impressed with Smartsheet.

Brent Frei, Smartsheet’s chairman and one of its founders, said 2010 also was a watershed year for his company. That was the year the software was revamped and “really came together.” The idea for Smartsheet was hatched in 2005, but Frei said it took almost five years “to bake in all of the other automation” it wanted to provide for project management.

Smartsheet’s client list grew quickly after that, Frei said, and the company has attracted $70 million in venture capital and now has about 200 employees.

Frei also said the software, by being easy to access and to use, made it ideal for any size customer, from a college student organizing a senior project to, well, the Final Four.

“We’re affordable for individuals or small businesses — $16 a month,” he said. “But it’s also very cool to have our product in the middle of something everyone’s familiar with, coordinating all the moving parts.”

Klein said no one product does everything, and Populous hasn’t used Smartsheet — yet — to run an Olympics. But it has helped manage Super Bowls and other big events.

And it’s plenty busy in Indianapolis right now.

To reach Greg Hack, call 816-234-4439 or send email to