The athletes playing in next month’s NCAA Final Four tournament have been working for years to get to these games. They’ve dribbled, they’ve sprinted, they’ve taken countless shots, run through motion offenses — and they’ve practiced, practiced and practiced a little bit more. They’ve kept on going when things got tough and a chance at victory seemed far away.
In early April, when those same superstars take to the ultimate national stage at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, it will be the fulfillment of many of their lifelong dreams.
It will also be the culmination of a major journey for a woman who was instrumental in bidding for — and the organizing of — the entire event, starting back in 2014: Kate Mortenson, a 52-year-old southwest Minneapolis resident, has been the face, voice and heart of an event expected to bring 94,000 people to the region, along with an estimated $142 million in tournament-related revenue.
In many ways, Mortenson — as President and CEO of the 2019 Final Four Minneapolis Local Organizing Committee — has been gathering the skills and experience needed for a flawlessly executed national event just like this one. She studied broadcast journalism at Boston University, became a Peace Corps volunteer in the Comoros Islands off the southeast coast of Africa, and then worked as a managing editor for Hubbard Broadcasting. Next she spent two decades raising her family and working as a community organizer and independent consultant focused on nonprofit organizations.
To some, Mortenson might seem an unlikely ambassador for an event like the Final Four, even if the organizing committee is officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
“Usually, it’s someone from the world of athletics or someone with a background in travel and tourism. Going with me was a third path — choosing someone whose roots are in community development,” she said. “We are designing this great event around the impact we want to see in our communities.”
Mortenson has a proven history of building strong relationships in philanthropy circles and change at the community level, especially in the Twin Cities.
In 2012, Mortensen received the Engaged Philanthropist Award from Social Venture Partners Minnesota and Minnesota Community Foundation for her work for the Northside Achievement Zone / Friends of the Future program in Minneapolis. The honor “recognizes individual philanthropists who invest not only their money, but also their time and talents in the nonprofit organizations they support.”
“My heart is in community engagement,” Mortenson said.
So why the Final Four?
And then there’s basketball.
While Mortenson’s didn’t grow up as an athlete, she says she “married into” basketball fandom when she and her husband, David—chairman of the Minneapolis-based construction empire M.A. Mortenson Co.—were married 23 years ago.
“I’m surrounded by ardent college hoops fans, and one of my favorite memories is spending spring break afternoons indoors, watching games during March Madness,” she said. “The idea of student and amateur athletics is very dear to me.”
Now Mortenson is determined to make this NCAA event as community-focused as possible: “The Final Four is a signature sporting event that has something for everyone in our community.” Indeed, events for the public will include Reese’s Final Four Friday festivities at the stadium on April 5 — a free event in which fans can watch players practice — and the Final Four Fan Fest at the Minneapolis Convention Center (free for ages 12 and younger) April 5–8. And that’s in addition to oodles of free indoor and outdoor concerts, activities and events like the Final Four Dribble, an April 7 parade of 3,000 kids, who will get free basketballs and T-shirts.
Meanwhile, one of the most lasting impacts of the Final Four on the Twin Cities will be from a renovation of the North Commons Rec Center in Minneapolis, which will involve upgrades to the park’s indoor basketball facilities, including a refurbished court, new backboards and rims, safety straps and wall padding, a new wireless sound system and LED lighting, new paint and a youth-inspired mural.
Dubbed the Men’s Final Four Legacy Project — made possible with a sponsorship from Dove Men+Care — the refurbished center will be unveiled during the first week of April just prior to the Final Four.
Better than ever
Minneapolis has hosted the Final Four three times before — at Williams Arena in 1951 and at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in 1992 and 2001. This is the first time the tournament will be held in U.S. Bank Stadium, the site of Super Bowl LII in February 2018.
This year’s event will involve the community in unprecedented and inclusive ways, with a focus on youth and a celebration of the state’s growing diversity. Communities all over the state have already participated in Fan Jam events that included opportunities to take practice shots, snap selfies with the National Championship trophy (pictured below), win giveaways, enter ticket sweepstakes and learn more about special Final Four programs.
In another initiative that’s dear to Mortenson’s heart, the Minneapolis Final Four organizing committee and the NCAA have teamed up to promote and inspire reading through a year-long, statewide initiative, Read to the Final Four, focused on third-graders. More than 250 schools statewide have joined the program and so far kids have read nearly 4 million minutes with the program.
Modeled in name after the expression “Road to the Final Four,” the program also includes a tournament-style reading competition — complete with brackets — for Minnesota elementary school children. The “Final Four” third-grade classes with the most average minutes read will be crowned reading champions and celebrated at Fan Fest during Final Four weekend.
‘The Minnesota Way’
The Final Four tournament build-up hasn’t escaped scrutiny, of course.
The publicly funded Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority will spend an estimated $10 million on the event, quite a bit more than the $627,000 it spent to host the Super Bowl in 2018, due in large part to the blackout curtains and panels required by the NCAA at an estimated cost of more than $5 million.
But, as proponents have pointed out, the light-blocking systems will allow the stadium to host other events in the years to come. In a recent Star Tribune editorial, meanwhile, the paper argued there’s “no doubt” the Final Four will be “worth the cost,” due to the major off-season tourism boost and reputation-building effects of the event for the city.
Mortenson pointed out that there are only about 10 places in the U.S. that meet the requirements for a Final Four event. She believes creating a successful event now could pay dividends in future years.
“We could be on the list for hosting a Final Four every seven to nine years, and we could become a trusted host city partner for the NCAA,” she said. (Already the NCAA Women’s Final Four is set for the Target Center in Minneapolis in 2022.)
While acknowledging that the stakes for the men’s event this year are high, Mortenson said she’s committed to setting new expectations for the social and civic good that can come from such a major athletic event.
“I predict we will see a powerful outcome for our region, and that other regions will begin to model their events after ‘The Minnesota Way,’” she said.
How will Mortenson know if this year’s big event is a success?
“First, we have to deliver an excellent experience for the athletes, guests, visitors and fans. That’s table stakes for anything else,” she said, citing secondary goals of “legacy projects, such as sustainability, anti-trafficking, small business participation and a commitment to youth and education.”
“The third goal, of equal importance,” she said, “is developing inclusion strategies with intention, ensuring that diverse groups feel welcome as part of the event.”
Grounded and relatable
In the five years since the bid and awarding of the Final Four to Minneapolis, many leaders in the community have had an opportunity to see Mortenson in action.
That includes Jonathan Weinhagen, President and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber.
“Kate is such an impressive and grounded individual,” he said. “Not only is she so relatable, but she’s one of the most energetic, vibrant community leaders I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. When I think about some of the big issues we’re tackling as a region — like early childhood education, community development and philanthropy — Kate seems to be a part of all of them. What she’s doing will accelerate this region.”
“Everyone who works with her sees she’s extremely passionate about the impact she wants to have on the community,” he said.
Tennant said he’s impressed with the way Mortenson has achieved her goals through tangible actions, including her idea to create a Future Stars Interns program to hire paid youth interns from diverse backgrounds to work for the organizing committee.
“They seem empowered to do their work,” Tennant said of the interns. “And it’s clear they enjoy working for her.”
When the interview for this story was conducted, Mortenson reported that her team was comprised of 60 percent diverse employees and 60 percent female employees.
And, Mortenson added, “More than half our vendor service contracts have been awarded to diverse businesses.”
Despite those achievements — and incredibly long hours with the Final Four committee — Mortenson has remained active on several boards, including the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Business Journal’s Women’s Leadership Council, Minnesota Women’s Economic Roundtable, Greater Twin Cities United Way, Minnesota Public Radio and the Mortenson Family Foundation.
A secret sauce
Mortenson’s days are always full, and occasionally hectic, and they’re getting more so with each day that moves closer to the first Final Four tournament games, set for April 6 and 8.
Depending on the schedule, her first meeting of the day can begin as early as 7 a.m.
“Every day is different, which is something that I absolutely love,” she said. “I toggle between short-term immediate work and long-term, strategic vision. I tell my team my role is to be responsible for the conditions that will create success.”
While this may seem like a monumental effort, Mortenson remains undaunted.
“I think there are artificial limitations that we can put on ourselves in almost any situation, so I try not to do that,” she said. “Just because something hasn’t been done in a particular way before, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be.”
Describing the secret sauce behind her success, she broke it down this way: “I guess I have some idealism mixed with stubbornness — and, ambition, too; throw a little of that in there — and those combine to keep me saying ‘We can do better.’ We can achieve more and do more. I always want to be pushing the boundary of what’s possible.”
Family and private life
Mortenson is a mother of three — Jack, 22, a senior at Colgate University, his father’s alma mater; Norah, 21, an art and design student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; and Charles, 17, a senior at The Blake School in Minneapolis.
This year will be a pivotal one for the family, she said: “Our oldest is graduating from college, our youngest is graduating from high school, and I’ll be graduating from the Final Four.”
Ever the efficient planner, she’s even got a game plan for what will happen once the event is over: “David and I are planning to take a sabbatical vacation for four to six weeks,” she said. They plan to start with a trip to Greece and Turkey. “I visited Turkey at the end of my years in the Peace Corps, and I’ve always thought I’d love to go back someday,” Mortenson said.
Mortenson said she and her husband have curtailed vacation time to keep her focus tightly on the basketball tournament’s finale in Minneapolis.
“It’s been quite a while since we’ve been completely unplugged,” she said. “The Final Four has been with me all the time, the way a turtle carries its shell.”
NCAA 2019 Final Four
Though tickets to the Final Four games at U.S. Bank Stadium start at about $200, there are tons of free and affordable events for locals who want to be near the action — and even see the players — April 5–8. Learn more about all these events at ncaa.com/final-four.
April 5: Reese’s Final Four Friday
U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
See the Final Four players up close for free in their final open practices before the semifinals, followed by the Reese’s College All-Star Game in the afternoon.
April 5–8: Final Four Fan Fest
Minneapolis Convention Center
Celebrate a variety of sports with interactive games, special celebrity and athlete appearances, autograph signings, a home run derby, free cheer clinics, a climbing wall and a chance to snap a selfie with the Final Four championship trophy. Admission will be $4–$10 for ages 13 and up, free for ages 12 and younger.
April 5–7: March Madness Music Fest
The Armory, Minneapolis
Attend a free music series with multiples stages, including national acts such as Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons and Jason Aldean. Though the event is free, tickets will be required for admission.
April 5–8: Tip-Off Tailgate
Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
This four-day tailgating party will feature free interactive activities and live entertainment in the heart of the city.
April 7: Final Four Dribble
Minneapolis Convention Center
Three thousand children — who will get a free shirt and a special new basketball — will dribble, parade style, through the streets of downtown Minneapolis. Participation is free, but advanced registration is required and is limited to ages 18 and younger.
2019 NCAA Final Four
U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Two semifinal games will be played April 6, followed by the championship on Monday, April 8.
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.