March Madness: NCAA tournament courts built in the U.P.

In Iron County, the buzz around college basketball’s annual March Madness starts long before hoops season begins.

Well before America becomes consumed by the Final Four, workers in the tiny mill community of Amasa are busy building the intricate arena floors for the championship games. It’s something the skilled workers at Connor Sports have been doing every year for nearly two decades.

“This is a nine-month process, getting the court ready for the tournament and everything else we have going on outside of that,” says Zach Riberdy, marketing director for Connor Sports. “Our team at the mill is amazing, I can't speak highly enough about them. They're so talented at what they do." 

Connor SportsNo matter which city hosts the National College Athletic Association’s college basketball national tournament, the final games will be played on new, portable, oversized floors, sporting the NCAA logo. 

Connor®Sports has been the official court of the men's and women's NCAA March Madness in the Final Four since 2006. This year’s floor will be trucked from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to State Farm Arena in Glendale, Arizona— 1,900 miles away.

The new floor protocol is as much about uniformity and player safety as it is about sports hype. The state-of-the art floor design factors in vibration control, ball response, player comfort and extra size in addition to that center court NCAA logo.  

Each year, more than 100 employees in Amasa work on the portable floor, which is composed of panels, assembled like a Lego project, with each piece numbered and locked into adjoining pieces by a special anchoring system that does not require hardware. 

When the assembly crew is done, the floor will look and feel like a permanent hardwood floor, though slightly larger than the typical 60-foot by 120-foot size. After the tournament, the floor can be taken apart in just a few hours and the host arena returned to its normal use.

It’s all about the wood

Founded in 1872, Connor®Sports installed its first basketball court in 1914, 23 years after the game was invented in Springfield, Mass. 

Since then, the company has become a market leader in both portable and permanent hardwood sports and dance flooring systems for schools, fitness facilities, studios, stages, and institutions.

The company originally was founded in northern Wisconsin, and then moved to the western Upper Peninsula as one of the founding members of the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association, Riberdy says. Member mills are required to harvest and source all of their wood from above the 35th parallel in the United States, he notes.

“We specialize in northern maple … and we have to pass several audits through the course of the year to make sure our mills are running up to a certain standard; all the wood that does get shipped out has to meet a certain grading level” as well, he says.

“So, the courts that you're seeing built for the NCAA right now are made using first grade maple, which is the best maple that's on the market.”

Because different activities require different surface properties, Connor® Sports offers multiple options for practice gyms or competition floors, from those intended to be used for many different sports to the one-of-a- kind floors used for the NCAA tournament.

A whole new floor by game day?

A company YouTube video shows how the portable tournament courts are transported and installed on site, a method called a zipper install, Riberdy says.
First, the floor’s panels are loaded onto trucks, with each panel tagged.
Protective plastic sheets separate the panels during transit.

Upon arrival, the arena floor is measured, and a centerline is marked. The panels then are laid from the center out, lined up carefully and locked into place.

Although the court’s boundaries are regulation size, tournament floors are generally larger than typical basketball courts to allow players a little extra space to run out of bounds.

When the floor is in place, baskets are set at each end of the court, with every position carefully measured to meet game requirements.

Once installation is completed, the court is cleaned, score tables and players’ benches are set up and surrounding spectator seating is placed.

The crews work quickly. At the American Airlines Center where the Dallas Mavericks play, “their install team currently holds the record for installing the entire game floor for last year's women's Final Four and women's national championship and they did it in under 45 minutes,” Riberdy says.

When the court is broken down after the tournament, the winning team is offered the right of first refusal to buy the entire floor, for installation at one of the team’s facilities, or a portion, such as center court, for promotional use or memorabilia, Riberdy says.

Just a slice of the big picture

As important— and fun— as the national basketball tournament is, Connor Sports means much more to its hometown and its employees than basketball.

“I would say the tournament itself only represents less than 5 percent of the total business that we do,” Riberdy says. The company makes 30 different types of subfloor and permanent floor designs. “Over the course of any given year,” he says, “we're around about a million square feet of hardwood.”

Zach Hautala, director of the Iron County Economic Chamber Alliance, says the company is one of the area’s largest employers, and puts Iron County and its logging industry on the map each year. The county is home to about 11,000 people. 

“Connor Sports flooring is very important to Iron County, for a couple of different reasons,” Hautala says. “It supplies well over 100 jobs in that area,” and with so many workers and families connected to the company, there’s great pride every year to see the company spotlighted.

“I think the residents of Iron County have actually kind of gotten used to the fame of Connor Sports as they supply the March Madness floors every year,” Hautala says.
“But again, the company is very important to the area for supplying jobs and they've been very generous to the community as well,” he says, with everything from sponsoring events to working with several local municipalities on getting new cost-effective flooring into their buildings.

Still, a claim to fame

Even so, it’s the NCAA basketball courts that, for a brief moment, shine a light on the work being done day in and day out in this remote area.

“Last year's attendance (at the Final Four tournaments in Texas) was just shy of about 80,000 people, maybe a little bit more than that. The actual population of Amasa itself is about 300 people,” Riberdy says. “So, the whole town wouldn't even fill one of the sections of the stands at the men's Final Four. 

“But that town is responsible for putting together some of the best basketball courts in the country and in the world,” Riberdy says. “So, it's just pretty crazy when you think of the size and scope of everything.”

To learn more

A CBS documentary follows court floor creation from forest to basketball game.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword and other Issue Media Group publications.
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