Starting bright and early Sunday morning, a group of 15 workers labored furiously on the Williams Arena and Sports Pavilion court, getting it ready for the Big Ten Wrestling Championships this weekend. In the course of six hours, the crew completely removed several rows of courtside seats, making the surface 20 feet wider in both the north and south directions. They also raised the floor 13 inches above the already-raised Williams Arena court.
"I just went and checked it out and it looks incredible," Gophers head coach J Robinson said. "The way those guys worked, I might want to sign them up for my team."
The quick project cost around $70,000 and was contracted to Skyway Event Services, who did extensive work at the 2000 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. It was paid for in full by the Big Ten and didn't come out of the $50,000 operating budget allotted for the event, according to associate athletics director Marc Ryan.
"Our main focus is putting on an unforgettable event, and the Big Ten has given us the resources to do that," Ryan said. "For a lot of kids, this tournament is going to be the pinnacle of their careers. We don't take that lightly."
The purpose of the renovation was to fit four mats on the floor at the same time, which is necessary for a tournament that will see 200 matches.
The Gophers last hosted the championship in 1997 and held the event at Williams without a hitch, but new rules regarding when a wrestler is considered out-of-bounds have made wrestling mats bigger, and the regular Williams Arena floor would now barely be able to fit two mats.
When Minnesota was notified it would be hosting the championships, officials hoped to hold the event at Mariucci Arena, where the Gophers men's hockey team plays, but they are hosting a home series this weekend. They then attempted to secure the Target Center downtown, but it is reserved for "Disney on Ice presents Disney/Pixar's 'Finding Nemo.' "
With the high school boys' state hockey tournament at the Xcel Energy Center and college baseball at the Metrodome, Minnesota had to turn to Williams Arena.
"Ideally it would've been held at an arena that can hold four mats," Williams Arena facilities manager Leon Frasee said. "But we found out in September that it'd have to be at Williams, so we made it happen."
Big Ten wrestling liaison Brad Traviolia said because Minnesota sells more tickets than most schools, the conference wasn't hesitant about paying for the project, nor did they consider moving the site and coming back to Minnesota another year.
"Minnesota is one of the places we look forward to hosting this tournament," Traviolia said. "Because it has such a strong wrestling fan base and it's a short drive from Iowa, we know the atmosphere is going to be electric. And, from a business standpoint, we know that they are going to generate a lot of revenue."
Senior ticket office specialist Mike Chandler said that the arena will lose around 500 seats because of the renovation, but it won't impact revenue because the arena isn't sold out, and all lower level tickets are the same price.
Chandler said the ticket office has sold around 5,200 tickets, well short of the 12,500 or so people the arena could hold for a wrestling event.
All of the chairs with backs are sold out, but there is still a lot of room in the upper level, he said.
"I don't expect us to sell out the arena, but that doesn't mean ticket sales have been disappointing," Chandler said. "With a good walk-up, and now that we're selling single-session tickets, I think it's going to be a pretty big crowd on hand for a pretty fun event."
The Gophers have just one competition mat, which they will keep in the warm-up area in the Sports Pavilion during the tournament. The four mats in Williams will be borrowed, for a fee, from Hopkins High School.