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Operation Cleveland! Team Tampa Bay Prepares for 2025 Women's Final Four

Updated: Apr 11

By Joey Johnston


We Got Next.


If you’ve ever played basketball at a busy park or gymnasium, you know the term. Sometimes, the wait can be maddening. But when you finally get that court — when you can run, jump and prove yourself worthy — the buzz of anticipation is like a jet stream of joy.


We Got Next.


Team Tampa Bay is officially on the clock to host the NCAA Women’s Final Four at Amalie Arena with events through April 3-6, 2025. It’s like scoring a first-class seat on a rocket ship. No sport is hotter than women’s college basketball. Now all of Tampa Bay — and legions of fans nationwide — can prepare for the ride of a lifetime.


Fresh from a scouting trip to Cleveland, where top-ranked and unbeaten South Carolina defeated Iowa and the phenomenal Caitlin Clark to cap an epic Women’s Final Four, Team Tampa Bay has returned home to continue preparations for what’s expected to be a crown jewel event.


How can you get involved? Stay tuned to WFFTampaBay.com for volunteer opportunities and the latest news as the Women’s Final Four draws closer.


“We could not be more excited to be officially on the clock for hosting our record fourth NCAA Women’s Final Four next April,’’ Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said. “We want to congratulate and thank both Cleveland and the NCAA on a job well done and for the access they provided throughout this year’s event as we studied every detail possible.



“We’re focused on continuing to work collaboratively with all of our Team Tampa Bay partners to make sure the 2025 NCAA Women’s Final Four is the best we’ve ever hosted."


The Tampa Bay Sports Commission is the primary liaison with the NCAA and the catalyst for Tampa Bay’s Local Organizing Committee, which includes, among others, Amalie Arena and the University of South Florida, the event’s host institution.


“The Bulls are excited to be part of Team Tampa Bay, and to help bring one of the most exciting championships to the Bay,’’ USF deputy athletic director/chief operating officer Kris Pierce said. “Being in Cleveland has allowed us to connect with this year’s organizers and see first-hand what each event means to the overall experience. We can’t wait to set the stage in Tampa that this championship, these student-athletes, and these fans deserve.’’


In addition to working hand-in-hand with USF, the TBSC has connected with community and business leaders throughout the region. TBSC board of directors member Bemetra Simmons, chair of the local organizing committee’s All Women’s Advisory Committee, is accustomed to collaborative work. She’s president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which represents the area’s top employers, plus a diverse group of government and nonprofit partners.

“It was an honor to join the delegation on the trip to Cleveland,’’ Simmons said. “I am looking forward to our team building on the momentum of this year’s tournament and I am excited to help showcase Tampa Bay’s swagger as a four-time host.


“It is important that we as community and business leaders help support this premier women’s championship that will once again generate significant economic and social impact in our region. Tampa Bay is excited and ready to embrace the growing fan base and welcome back the women’s basketball community in a big way.’’


Claire Lessinger, the TBSC’s vice president of events, said the Cleveland traveling party got a detailed sampling of each and every event held around the city and outside the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.


Fun fan activities were everywhere, but an obvious place to be was Tourney Town, the NCAA’s Fan Fest venue outside the arena. On “Super Saturday’’ — the off-day between games — there were light-hearted and fan-friendly afternoon open practices that included the championship-game teams and a public concert at night. On the final day, there was “Bounce,’’ which featured nearly 2,000 kids and family members who received a T-shirt and a branded basketball. The kids then bounced their balls along a secured route through downtown Cleveland, all the way to Tourney Town.


Tourney Town was also the site of one of the event’s top social initiatives, the Beyond the Baseline women’s empowerment program. And this one hits close to home.


The “Beyond Series’’ — usually defined by a series of talks, panels and guest speakers who seek to mentor women for success in sports and business — was originated by the TBSC and it debuted when Tampa hosted its first Women’s Final Four in 2008. The NCAA was so impressed that it made the “Beyond Series’’ part of its regular event programming.


In Cleveland last week, the NCAA also began a new event, its Women’s VIP Summit, which attracted some of the most powerful women in sports (and the business of sports). Lessinger and Higgins attended a pregame reception with the group of women’s leaders and discussed ways the event could grow in Tampa.






The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) holds its annual convention in conjunction with the Women’s Final Four, so practically every coach, administrator, vendor, and stakeholder was in town. Also, there’s the Sports ETA Women’s Summit, which hosts women from the sports event and tourism industry for a three-day event.


Lessinger said Team Tampa Bay will have a special events team dedicated to working with and servicing each of the event organizers. Additionally, the TBSC will revive its Venue Allocation Program that was created for Super Bowl LV. It allows the TBSC to play matchmaker for event leads and local venue owners, making for a smooth process to ensure equitable participation.


“The Women’s Final Four has grown to the point where there are activities and events almost everywhere, all the time,’’ Lessinger said.


But amid the celebratory backdrop, though, no one forgets the true purpose of a Women’s Final Four.

It’s the basketball.


The Growth Of Women’s Basketball


If you want to chart the growth of women’s basketball, you can connect the dots between each of Tampa’s three previous hosting efforts with the Women’s Final Four.


Heading into the 2008 Women’s Final Four, either Tennessee or UConn had won the championship in eight of the 12 previous seasons. Stanford spoiled the expected Tennessee-UConn title game by upsetting the Huskies in the semifinals, then Coach Pat Summitt captured her eighth (and final) national championship with a 64-48 rout of the Cardinal.


Amalie Arena, which had hosted the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament early rounds just two weeks prior before a hairpin-turn transition to the women’s event, received widespread praise.


“There are certain places where you know you want to come back, and Tampa is one of those places,’’ said then-NCAA president Myles Brand before tipoff at the Tennessee-Stanford title game in 2008. “The amenities, the arena, the local organizing committee … everything is first class.


“But people are the most important part of all. People make the difference between a good event and a great event. The people of Tampa have really embraced it, so I would expect we will be back here in the near future.’’

The Women’s Final Four returned to Tampa in 2015 — right in the heart of UConn’s dominance.


Coach Geno Auriemma’s Huskies won their third consecutive national title — in a streak that would stretch to four straight titles and an overall 111-game winning streak — by subduing Notre Dame 63-53.


“We’re not defending anything,’’ Auriemma said. “We’re attacking the rest of the country.’’


Considering UConn’s dominant efficiency, then-NCAA vice president of women’s basketball championships Anucha Browne described Tampa’s performance with appropriate terms.


“There was a personal touch and a can-do attitude,’’ Browne said. “It’s such a professional, well-oiled machine here.’’

Auriemma used his powerful pulpit to stump for Tampa, saying he would be a “happy guy’’ if the Women’s Final Four alternated between Tampa and San Antonio, Texas every other year.


“The people embraced us and there was so much going on downtown, along the river, around the hotels,’’ Auriemma said. “I saw people out and about, happy, doing things. The whole thing couldn’t have been more organized. It wouldn’t bother me one iota if we came back to Tampa soon — and often.’’


Tampa’s next Women’s Final Four was 2019. By then, UConn’s dominance had faded. Tennessee had practically vanished from its familiar perch. New faces were prevalent and maybe a dozen teams had realistic designs at lifting the trophy.


The 2019 title game was a rousing show. Coach Kim Mulkey’s Baylor Bears beat defending national champion Notre Dame 82-81 in the final. There was a record crowd of 20,127 — making for a total Women’s Final Four attendance of 123,039 (nine total games) in Tampa, the most of any three-time host.




“Tampa Bay did a phenomenal job,’’ NCAA vice president of women’s basketball Lynn Holzman said. “There’s history here.’’


Indeed there is.


What about current history? The NCAA is coming off a Women’s Final Four that, according to Lessinger, “wasn’t just a moment … it was a movement for women’s sports.’’


What about the television viewership? In less than one week, it advanced from a record 12.3 million average viewers for the Iowa-LSU region final to a record 14.2 million viewers for Friday night’s Iowa-UConn national semifinal to a bonkers 18.7 million for Sunday afternoon’s South Carolina-Iowa championship game. That’s the most for any basketball game (women’s, men’s, collegiate or pro) in five years.


Late Monday afternoon, Clark sent a simple message over social media, accompanied by a fire emoji:

18.7 MILLION!


Note: The 2022 Women’s Final Four championship game between South Carolina and UConn drew an average 4.85 million viewers.


What about all those random people — the guy in your office, the neighbor walking their dog, your grandmother — asking if you watched the women’s basketball games last night? What about all those little girls … and entertainers … and grown men … wearing the Caitlin Clark No. 22 Iowa jerseys?


What about the rabid mainstream sports fans taking sides and passionately debating who’s going to win the women’s hoop title?


Everyone is welcome, but as Clark herself pointed out, “It’s not like women’s basketball just suddenly got good overnight.’’


True, but something happened, something that provided a turbo boost of attention and popularity.


“I remember being a kid and there were never any women’s basketball games on TV,’’ said Hailey Van Lith, who played for LSU this season. “You didn’t really hear about the WNBA. I looked up to men’s players. I wanted to be Kyrie (Irving). I wanted to be Steph (Curry). It wasn’t like, ‘I want to be Sue Bird.’ There just wasn’t any coverage.


“I think today young girls can see themselves in other female athletes. We’re there on TV. We’re in their face. They can relate to us.’’


No one was more relatable than Clark, who has announced that she will now jump to the WNBA, skipping her final year of Iowa eligibility.


“The entire sport of has benefitted from what I call, ‘Clark-o-nomics’ and everything Caitlin has done to bring unprecedented attention to the game,’’ women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said. “She has helped to raise the level of everyone. People ask, ‘Why isn’t UConn winning like they used to win?’ UConn isn’t a bad program. Everybody else raised their level and got a lot better. So the whole sport is better.’’


“There’s a whole new wave of Caitlin Clark-type players that are coming in to create more attention,’’ women’s basketball analyst Krista Blunk said. “I am blown away by the freshman talent out there.’’


Two members of the five-player Associated Press All-American first team were freshmen — USC’s JuJu Watkins and Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo. Another star, UConn’s Paige Bueckers, is returning for another season. And Texas freshman Madison Booker made the second team.


Meanwhile, South Carolina has six underclassmen who started in a postseason game.


“Our sport is growing and very, very healthy,’’ South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.


Speaking of growing and very, very healthy …


The Growth Of Tampa Bay


Do you live in the Tampa Bay area? While the Women’s Final Four was being contested in Cleveland last weekend, when the Tampa Bay area weather was glorious, did you go outside for anything? A sporting event? A neighborhood walk? A trip to the pool or beach?


Do you think basketball fans might enjoy that setting?


No need to respond. The answers are obvious. It’s part of the reason why Tampa has settled into a regular rotation as a Women’s Final Four participant and why it will become the event’s first four-time host next April.


The games are the thing. That’s why people come. But there’s plenty of time when the ball isn’t bouncing when the trip to follow your team can seem like a vacation.


Tampa Bay always has been that type of destination. But now there are added benefits. Think back to 2008, when it first hosted the NCAA Women’s Final Four.


There was no Riverwalk.


There was no Armature Works.


There was no Sparkman Wharf.


There was no Curtis Hixon Riverfront Park.


Now there is all of that … plus a flurry of new hotel properties, including the 26-story, 519-room downtown JW Marriott … plus the development of downtown Water Street … plus a new business and retail Midtown area.


The Riverwalk has connected downtown Tampa in ways that once seemed unimaginable, making accessible a series of outdoor parks and providing an active backdrop for the more than 10,000 residents of downtown Tampa. And that doesn’t mention the $40-million of improvements to Amalie Arena since the NCAA Women’s Final Four first visited Tampa Bay.


And then there’s one of the biggest factors for anyone who travels to a major sporting event — a world-class airport. Tampa International Airport was ranked as the No. 1 large airport by the J.D. Power 2022 North American Airport Satisfaction Study.



“We have a shiny, new, dynamic, convenient, accessible, walkable and vibrant championship campus to show off,’’ Lessinger said.


“Our championship campus has totally transformed in the last four years, let alone what has taken place (beyond that),’’ Higgins said. “If you haven’t been to Tampa (in several years), you truly won’t recognize us. We have a compact and walkable footprint that’s ideal for this championship.’’


Pulling it all together?


The people.


Since 2008, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and all of Team Tampa Bay has hosted 21 major events — everything from the Women’s Volleyball Final Four to the NCAA Men’s Basketball early round games to the NCAA Frozen Four to the College Football Playoff Championship Game to WrestleaMania and Super Bowl 55, a wildly successful and unprecedented undertaking that included massive pivots to account for the COVID pandemic.


“We have a group of community partners that have created many successful major event playbooks,’’ Lessinger said. “With every major event hosting opportunity, Team Tampa Bay finds unique ways to raise the bar and reinvent the fan, visitor and student-athlete experience. The warmth of our weather and the warmth of our people are a winning combination.


“Aside from planning and coordinating event logistics and marketing the event, the student-athlete experience is a top priority of ours. We promise to leave no stone unturned when it comes to our grassroots marketing effort.’’


As usual, Tampa Bay’s best marketing effort involves its people. If you want to get involved and follow the progress, log onto WFFTampaBay.com.


It might seem like an eternity until April 3-6, 2025.


Not really.


We Got Next.


Next can’t get here soon enough.


 

AFTER THE CONFETTI, TAMPA BAY IS ON THE CLOCK! - APRIL 7


Sunday was a time for dreams at the NCAA Women’s Final Four in Cleveland.


It was a dream matchup — the top-ranked and unbeaten South Carolina Gamecocks against the Iowa Hawkeyes, featuring otherworldly Caitlin Clark in her final college game.


But from start to finish — from the dawn of game day to South Carolina’s 87-75 victory — it was also a day for Team Tampa Bay daydreams.

When the confetti fell at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse for Coach Dawn Staley’s deserving champions, when Clark’s unparalleled career had concluded, when college women’s basketball enjoyed its apex of attention and exposure, it seemed like the finish.


It was actually the beginning.


Team Tampa Bay — hosts of the 2025 Women’s Final Four — was officially on the clock.


“We are grateful to have experienced and witnessed a historic championship,’’ said Claire Lessinger, vice president of events for the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which led a traveling contingent that learned from all the events in Cleveland.


“Now we’re ready to get back to Tampa and get to work.’’


Tampa’s record fourth shot at hosting the Women’s Final Four is a mere 361 days away.


Sunday’s events began with “Bounce,’’ a free public spectacle geared toward local youth. There were nearly 2,000 kids and family members who gathered at Cleveland Public Square to receive a T-shirt and a branded basketball. With NCAA president Charlie Baker serving as grand marshal, the kids bounced their balls along a secured route through downtown Cleveland, all the way to Tourney Town, the NCAA’s Fan Fest venue.



Team Tampa Bay couldn’t help but reminisce about the 2019 version of “Bounce’’ with the unique route along the Tampa Riverwalk, from Curtis Hixon Park to the Tampa Convention Center … and what that scene will be like in 2025.


When the Party on the Plaza had overflow crowds and red-carpet arrivals for both teams outside Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, it was difficult not to imagine how the championship-day atmosphere will unfold next year at Amalie Arena.


“It was a scene in the best way possible and it was awesome to witness such fandom for these deserving teams and student-athletes,’’ Lessinger said.


Team Tampa Bay was part of it all, right through to South Carolina’s championship celebration and the postgame interviews. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley made it a point to praise Clark’s impact on the game. Clark, though disappointed in her second consecutive title-game defeat, said the Gamecocks were worthy champions.


“A tremendous amount of class and respect was shown by all,’’ Lessinger said. “We listened, learned, took copious notes, attended all the events, met with lots of people, witnessed greatness and tremendous growth.’’


As Lessinger said, it’s time for a return to Tampa, time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.


Team Tampa Bay is on the clock.


(Check back Tuesday for a full report on what Team Tampa Bay learned in Cleveland, how women’s basketball can grow to even higher heights in 2025 and why Tampa Bay continues to hit its stride as one of America’s premier destinations for major sporting events, such as the NCAA Women’s Final Four).

 

IT'S SUPER SATURDAY AT THE #WFINALFOUR! - APRIL 6, 2024

Technically, it was an “off-day’’ at the NCAA Women’s Final Four, a chance to perhaps take a deep breath and prepare for what’s bound to be a historic NCAA championship game.


In reality, it was “Super Saturday,’’ a day jam-packed with a flurry of free public events that continued Cleveland’s festive atmosphere. If anything, the pace accelerated.


But for Team Tampa Bay, preparing for the 2025 Women’s Final Four at Amalie Arena, much of Saturday was spent behind the scenes. The Tampa Bay Sports Commission and the local organizing committee got an inside look at Cleveland’s operation.


Claire Lessinger, the TBSC’s vice president of events, said Team Tampa Bay got an early morning back-of-house tour at Tourney Town, the NCAA Fan Fest epicenter. They learned about the load-in timeline, the volunteer operation, the community programming and the footprint needs for corporate partners, such as power and internet capacity.


There was also a tour of the Cleveland Local Organizing Committee’s command center and a meeting with its leadership team.

“They provided great feedback and insight and have been incredible hosts,’’ Lessinger said.


Later in the afternoon, Team Tampa Bay and other Future Host cities convened at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse for a back-of-house venue tour and meeting.


“These tours are always extremely beneficial to provide a glimpse behind the green curtain and an overview of what to expect,’’ Lessinger said.


Among the topics covered:Game operations, space needs, broadcast set-up, media workroom demands, hospitality, branding and decor package, credentialing and security, plus what is needed to transport the teams.


It’s not a complete surprise for Team Tampa Bay, which has hosted three previous Women’s Final Fours (2008, 2015, 2019). But the event has grown exponentially, so nothing stays the same.


One obvious area of growth was Saturday’s open practices involving the championship-game teams, the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Iowa Hawkeyes. The open practices were free, but ticketed. Registration closed down on Friday because capacity had been reached — a first.



“The majority of that audience was young girls, youth basketball teams, and lots of dads and daughters,’’ Lessinger said. “The next generation of female student-athletes and women leaders were loud and proud, cheering for both teams and watching their idols prepare for a national championship.’’


As Lessinger put it, “Open practices are a whole vibe.’’


The music was pumping. Players were loose and having fun. The head coaches were working the crowd, taking pictures and signing autographs. The emcee was hyping up the audience. Meanwhile, thousands of youth and families were having the time of their lives, dancing, cheering and getting some face time on the JumboTron.


The most memorable highlight? Probably when South Carolina coach Dawn Staley grabbed the microphone and began impromptu singing and dancing with ESPN’s Holly Rowe.


At night, Team Tampa Bay closed the evening at the Super Saturday Concert — an event that began in 2019 at Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Park — as American rapper Latto drew a large crowd to the Public Hall in downtown Cleveland.


“It was a busy day to say the least, but also a productive one,’’ Lessinger said Saturday night. “Now we are one sleep away from witnessing a historic showdown and the crowning of a national champion.’’


For women’s basketball in general, it’s a mammoth moment.


It’s unbeaten and top-ranked South Carolina with a chance to become one of the sport’s most dominant teams. It’s the final collegiate game for Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, a generational talent whose high-scoring exploits and sought-after No. 22 jersey have revolutionized interest in the game.


Friday night’s national semifinal between Iowa and UConn drew an average of 14.2-million viewers to ESPN, representing the largest audience ever to watch a women’s college basketball game. It was also the most-watched basketball game on ESPN’s platforms at any level — men’s or women’s, pro or collegiate.


What sort of atmosphere will Sunday afternoon bring?


And what lies ahead for Team Tampa Bay as it inherits the event in 2025 and women’s basketball takes its next steps?


“We are also one sleep away from going on the clock and getting to work … that is if we can sleep,’’ Lessinger said. “The excitement is real and our time is next!’’

 

THE WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR IS MORE THAN THREE GAMES - APRIL 5, 2024


The NCAA Women’s Final Four took center stage in Friday night’s sporting universe — and what a dramatic stage it became for the sellout crowd at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse and a worldwide ESPN audience.


The Iowa Hawkeyes rallied furiously, then held off UConn 71-69 in the final seconds. The South Carolina Gamecocks flexed their top-ranked reputation and dispatched NC State 78-59.


Even though the women’s basketball showcase event nearly played to the stroke of midnight, Cinderella was nowhere to be found. This was a night for juggernauts.


It was another reminder that Tampa Bay has something special in store when it hosts the Women’s Final Four in 2025. Beyond the court, it carries a flurry of social impact events that will create a lasting legacy. It also provides an obvious economic boost that’s now driven by the growth of women’s basketball and the global reach of women’s sports in general.


The Women’s Final Four is way more than three games … and that was very apparent again today,’’ said Tampa Bay Sports Commission vice president of events Claire Lessinger, part of the Team Tampa Bay contingent that had a full business/social schedule from breakfast gatherings to the midnight snack.


“There were a lot of NCAA corporate partner fan activations and an elevated sense of excitement. Then again, it’s Game Day and that just hits different!’’



Now it’s South Carolina vs. Iowa in Sunday afternoon’s national championship game on ABC-TV in what could draw the largest audience ever for a women’s basketball game. The sport is now officially a runaway locomotive. For those who want to jump aboard, the time … is … now!


So Tampa Bay’s timing couldn’t be better. When the 2025 Women’s Final Four hits Amalie Arena and the women’s basketball world pours into downtown Tampa, it should be another highly anticipated event with world-class competition.


And, as usual, the weekend will offer a whole lot more.


One of Friday’s most special moments occurred at Tourney Town, the public Fan Fest venue, where the NCAA’s Beyond the Baseline programming was staged. The “Beyond Series,’’ a women’s empowerment program, was originated by the TBSC and it debuted when Tampa hosted its first Women’s Final Four in 2008.


The NCAA was so impressed that it adopted the “Beyond Series’’ as a sanctioned event. Now it’s a cherished tradition that serves as a catalyst for innovation and inspiration in each Women’s Final Four host city.


“It always brings a smile to our face — and sometimes a tear to my eye — to see this program that started in Tampa Bay continuing as an NCAA sanctioned event,’’ Lessinger said.


Beyond the Baseline features a series of talks, panels and guest speakers who seek to mentor women for success in sports and business.

The NCAA also hosted the inaugural Women’s VIP Summit, which attracted some of the most powerful women in sports (and the business of sports). There were discussions and brainstorming sessions on how to leverage the current momentum in women’s sports. Lessinger and Rob Higgins, the TBSC executive director, attended a pregame reception with the group of women leaders and began discussing ways the Summit could grow during next year’s event in Tampa.



Team Tampa Bay officials also attended the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Breakfast (where the Class of 2024 inductees were recognized), the Read to the Final Four celebration in Tourney Town (where Cleveland third-graders were honored after taking part in a literacy challenge) and the Kay Yow Cancer Fund Reception (especially meaningful this year since NC State has reached its first Final Four since the tenure of Kay Yow, the legendary Wolfpack coach).


There was also a pregame party staged by the Cleveland Local Organizing Committee before everyone hit the Party on the Plaza on the way to the arena.


“It was high energy!’’ Lessinger said.


Saturday, Team Tampa Bay will get a close-up look at how Cleveland officials treat the event’s “off-day.’’ South Carolina and Iowa will be hard at work, practicing for the title game, but fans and stakeholders will have a full day to enjoy various events and the city’s offerings.


It’s an opportunity for everyone to catch their breath. But as Team Tampa Bay officials have learned during the city’s three previous Women’s Final Four events, it’s the chance to find new and exciting ways to showcase your community.


Big-time basketball is a given.


The difference-maker is creating an experience that takes everyone’s breath away.

 

SPECIAL GUEST, FAN FESTIVITIES TIP-OFF! - APRIL 4, 2024


Team Tampa Bay’s first full day at the NCAA Women’s Final Four in Cleveland sounded like a weather forecast.


Temperatures — Chilly and cool (at least for the Floridians).


The Overall Reception — Warm and friendly.


The Event Itself — Scorching HOT!


Fans from around the nation — and the world — will quickly catch the fever on Friday night during ESPN’s telecast of the national semifinals at Rocket Mortgage Arena, when South Carolina challenges NC State, then Iowa tangles with UConn.


As for the buildup on Thursday — when the teams held public practices, when thousands descended upon the city for fan-friendly celebrations when coaches and stakeholders gathered for events and meetings — it became clear that this would be the largest, most anticipated Women’s Final Four in history.


And that’s based on the palpable buzz around Cleveland.

“This is not just a moment … it is a movement for women’s sports,’’ said Claire Lessinger, vice president of events for the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “The Women’s Final Four is at the forefront of this evolution.’’


Cleveland has this season’s magic moment.


But the baton will soon be passed to Tampa, which hosts the 2025 Women’s Final Four at Amalie Arena. It’s a challenge and a privilege all wrapped up in a year’s worth of preparation. It’s the opportunity to continue this unprecedented momentum for women’s basketball.

That’s why Lessinger and TBSC executive director Rob Higgins are leading a contingent from Tampa Bay to begin preparations for 2025.


Tampa Bay is an old hand at hosting the Women’s Final Four. Next season will represent the event’s fourth visit to Amalie Arena (no other city has held more). But as the event grows, as more sponsors and stakeholders come aboard, and as more fans make the Women’s Final Four into a must-see destination, the TBSC will tap into its trademark imagination and innovation.


Team Tampa Bay will enjoy its stay in Cleveland, but it’s carefully watching every detail to see what works well, what can be improved, and what can provide a unique imprint.


It’s mostly about the little things. Lessinger said the Cleveland airport was well-branded with reminders that the Women’s Final Four has taken center stage. Volunteers are crucial. It’s important for visitors to be treated well and for questions to be answered.

It’s also about managing the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in the way the Women’s Final Four now operates.


Since 2019, when Tampa last hosted the Women’s Final Four, Lessinger said the number of sanctioned, non-sanctioned, and stakeholder events “has grown exponentially.’’



“It's a true testament to the growth of the game and the increasing investment from partners, stakeholders, and the overall women’s basketball community,’’ Lessinger said. “Everyone wants to be here and be a part of it.’’


Team Tampa Bay officials visited the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) convention, which includes nearly 2,000 basketball coaches this year, and the Sports ETA Women’s Summit, which hosts women from the sports events and tourism industry for a three-day event.


At mid-afternoon on Thursday, it was the opening of Tourney Town, the NCAA Women’s Final Four Fan-Fest that attracts large crowds each day through the weekend. As usual, the NCAA’s corporate champion partners staged a variety of programming and diverse experiences that appealed to fans of all ages.


TBSC events and marketing manager Mercedes Jorge, a former college player and USF assistant coach, showed off her skills at some of the basketball shooting challenges. Whether it’s an experienced player such as Jorge, a young child or a parent, the appeal of shooting a basketball at an open hoop never gets old.


Team Tampa Bay officials also expertly mixed business with pleasure. They met with members of Cleveland’s Local Organizing Committee — there’s always cooperation between the current and future event hosts — and NCAA officials who have built a couple of decades’ worth of relationships with the TBSC.


They attended the NCAA’s Legends and Legacy reception, the USA Basketball and WISE Cleveland Reception and the WBCA Welcome Party, just to name a few. Even at the relaxed environment of a social event, Lessinger said every event organizer was eager to begin conversations about the planning for next season in Tampa.


Team Tampa Bay will have a special events team dedicated to working with and servicing each of the event organizers. Additionally, the TBSC will revive its Venue Allocation Program that was created for Super Bowl LV. It allows the TBSC to play matchmaker for event leads and local venue owners, making for a smooth process to ensure equitable participation.


“It is always a fun and rewarding puzzle to help piece together,’’ Lessinger said.


When that puzzle is fully assembled, it makes for Showtime. But you can’t have Showtime without the Show itself.


Next up Friday night: The national semifinals. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. UConn’s Paige Bueckers. South Carolina’s unbeaten Gamecocks. The resolute NC State Wolfpack.


Team Tampa Bay will be taking note of the day-long buildup and the arena action itself. There’s no need to gauge the temperature. It’s HOT.

“All the fans, visitors, partners and agencies that are gathering in Cleveland this week are noticeably passionate about supporting these phenomenal student-athletes and being a part of something bigger than them,’’ Lessinger said.

 

The collective boots of Team Tampa Bay began hitting the ground on Wednesday in Cleveland. It’s time for the showcase of women’s college basketball, the NCAA Women’s Final Four.


With the event headed to Tampa for a fourth time in 2025, key members of the Tampa Bay Local Organizing Committee have landed in Cleveland to observe, take notes, ask questions and immerse themselves in the proceedings.


Appropriately, Team Tampa Bay will soon inherit an event that has also arrived — in the biggest way possible.


Monday night’s region final between Iowa and LSU drew 12.3-million viewers to ESPN, the largest television audience in history for a women’s college basketball game. It surpassed the viewers for all but one game of last season’s NBA Finals and each game of the World Series, along with the college football championship games in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.


Friday night’s national semifinals will be staged before a hard sellout at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. Top-ranked and unbeaten South Carolina faces NC State, then it’s a duel between marquee players as Iowa (and all-time scoring leader Caitlin Clark) takes on UConn (and Paige Bueckers).


There’s more than just basketball in store.



The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) holds its annual convention, which attracts nearly every stakeholder in the sport. There are parties and social gatherings galore, along with fan-friendly events designed for hard-core supporters and curiosity-seekers who haven’t scored tickets to the games.


Ironically, Tampa (2008) followed Cleveland (2007) when it hosted its first Women’s Final Four. It produced the eighth and final national championship for Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee coach and Tampa drew rave reviews as a first-time host.


Tampa hosted again in 2015, when Coach Geno Auriemma earned his 10th national title with the UConn Huskies. The charm of Tampa’s third Women’s Final Four in 2019 was a tie-breaking layup by Baylor’s Chloe Jackson with 3.9 seconds remaining, producing a riveting 82-81 win against Notre Dame.


Six years later, due to the sport’s explosive growth and exposure, Tampa will experience a very different-looking Women’s Final Four next season


By the same token, the women’s basketball world will experience a very different-looking Tampa, which can boast of its own explosive growth and maturation as a premier destination.


Next season, Tampa will host its fourth Women’s Final Four (quickly becoming a favorite site, earning four host designations within an 18-season span). No other city will have held more (although Indianapolis in 2028 and San Antonio in 2029 can tie that mark of four).


Check back here each day for a report on Team Tampa Bay’s activities and impressions as it experiences a monumental Women’s Final Four while plotting the path to another history-making opportunity in 2025.

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