U.S. Bank Stadium is going big, bigger and maybe biggest for college wrestling’s grandest event next month.
The home of the Minnesota Vikings will be the first NFL stadium ever to play host to the NCAA Division I college wrestling championship, which according to the NCAA’s hype video will be “broadened to a scale unlike any before it.”
The three-day, six-session tournament has sold out in each of the past 10 years from Madison Square Garden in New York to Omaha and Philadelphia. The Minneapolis event could shatter the attendance record of 113,743 set two years ago in Cleveland. About 45,000 tickets will be available for each of the six sessions on March 19-21.
For U.S. Bank Stadium, the NCAA wrestling tournament is yet another showcase moment. Instead of a playing surface of turf or hardwood, eight wrestling mats will be unrolled at field level. Mats will be removed as the tournament progresses until only one is left for the final matches on Saturday, March 21.
Even better, wrestling will cost the stadium’s operators, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), nothing. “We made sure of that,” said MSFA Chairman Michael Vekich. The NCAA Final Four in 2019 ended up costing the MSFA $3.5 million in operating costs.
The stadium’s operators have become adept at the changeovers. Just last weekend, the building’s bowl was covered in dirt for monster trucks to roll on. By Monday, the dirt was replaced by a Division I baseball diamond.
The wrestling tournament won’t require much reconfiguration of the stadium, unlike the men’s basketball Final Four. That involved installing a new level of seating at court level, a massive center-hung scoreboard and blackout curtains for the stadium’s massive glass surfaces. Vekich said it will take only a couple of days to convert the stadium from a ballpark for the Gophers into a mammoth wrestling arena.
While the Vikings pay rent at U.S. Bank, their games actually are a fraction of what happens at the stadium. Since the building opened in August 2016, there have been 1,156 events — only 31 of which were Vikings games. The stadium has drawn a total of 4.6 million guests; of those, about 1.9 million came to watch the Vikings.
Vekich said the wrestling meet is “another testament” to the original vision of a home for the Vikings that could also serve as a multifaceted facility. When the bill to build U.S. Bank Stadium passed the Legislature in 2012, it was described as “the People’s Stadium,” a place for events big and small, fancy and free.
Tickets for wrestling will start at $40 for a single session, significantly cheaper than those to watch the Vikings.
Packed house expected
Tom McGinnis, the University of Minnesota’s senior associate athletic director, said it’s incredible for the state to be the first to host the wrestling championship in a stadium. The last time Minnesota hosted to the wrestling tournament was in 1996 at Target Center. Iowa won that year and is ranked No. 1 again this season.
“One of the reasons we thought we could be so successful in this venue is the popularity of the sport in this part of the country,” McGinnis said.
The Gophers won’t be contending for the team title, but they’ve got highly ranked competitors on the roster, including heavyweight Gable Steveson of Apple Valley, named for the state of Iowa’s legendary wrestler and coach, Dan Gable.
Steveson, a sophomore, is ranked No. 1 nationally in his weight class after finishing a disappointing third at nationals last year. He’s one of three Apple Valley High School graduates who will be seeking a national championship; Seth Gross, of the University of Wisconsin, and Mark Hall, of Penn State, are top-ranked at 133 pounds and 174 pounds, respectively. Both are looking for their second national titles.
Win or lose, Gross and Hall will end their collegiate careers in Minneapolis. Gross won the title two years ago but took a medical redshirt last year to recover from back surgery. Hall won the national title as a freshman but lost the title match the past two years.
Gross said he’s got “tons and tons” of relatives and friends from all over Minnesota who plan to see him wrestle at U.S. Bank. He’s a lifelong Vikings fan who will be seeing the inside of the stadium for the first time. “I’ve driven past it plenty of times,” he said.
Apple Valley High wrestling coach Josh Barlage will be part of a large contingent attending the tournament from the south metro suburb. “I don’t know how it could get much better,” he said.
Barlage said most of his kids currently wrestling will be going to the tournament. The wrestling community in Apple Valley is expecting such a robust turnout for the championship that it’s arranged a reunion and social hour at a downtown restaurant between sessions Saturday.
Brandon Paulson, an Olympic silver medalist and co-owner of Pinnacle Wrestling School, an elite program based in Roseville, predicted a packed house of 45,000 for the final session Saturday night. He said that about 10 of his alumni will be wrestling for various colleges.
“It’s great for the sport,” he said, adding that he’s concerned about some of the sightlines and the need for binoculars.
And Paulson suggested U.S. Bank should prepare for a Hawkeye invasion from south of the border, where Iowa’s fabled wrestling program hasn’t won a team title since 2010.
“I bet they bring 10,000 people,” he said.
Those who want to experience the event and get paid for it might consider attending the U.S. Bank Stadium job fair from 3 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Landing the right gig would also mean being on hand for marquee events like upcoming Rolling Stones and Kenny Chesney concerts, as well as the Vikings.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson