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How College Basketball Courts Went Crazy

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A second-generation Georgetown fan, Kevin Rieffel has been watching Hoyas basketball for his entire life even though he grew up in Philadelphia.

In the days before ESPN2 was in every house, he and his father would drive to sports bars as far away as Maryland to watch John Thompson coach against Syracuse or St. John’s. At least once a year, they’d see a game in person, either in D.C. or near their home at Villanova.

Rieffel, naturally, went to Georgetown as an undergrad, and after he finished law school in Philadelphia, he became a season ticket holder.

Now, on his first trip to a Georgetown home game this season, Rieffel will ask a favor: He wants to step onto the floor — re-sanded and re-painted for this season — and take a free throw.

“If I get one request, it’s going to be that I can take a shot on it,” Rieffel says.

Georgetown would be foolish not to grant his request, considering Rieffel, a patent attorney in Philadelphia, is the person who designed the program’s new court on his lunch breaks.

When Georgetown opened a contest to submit designs for its new floor, fans flooded the Hoyas’ athletic department with radical ideas — all-grey courts, stripes, an oversized bulldog logo at midcourt, a dog collar for the center court circle, and coach John Thompson III sitting on Game of Thrones’ Iron Throne (really).

The fan-submitted designs were garish in part because the contest was all in good fun and in part because fans surely were following the lead of new wild court designs that have been popping up in recent years across the country.

Oregon plays “deep in the woods” on a pattern that looks more like the view from a sleeping bag than a court for a major program. Xavier and Memphis run the floor across their respective city skylines. Notre Dame plays on an oversized shamrock. UCF and Oakland have brought the blacktop indoors. Cal State Bakersfield went blue. Manhattan has gone green.

Rieffel, though, had a feeling Georgetown wouldn’t go with an all-grey court with a silhouette of the National Mall (George Washington, which shares the District of Columbia with Georgetown, already has the latter on its home court).

Instead, Rieffel remembered a pattern from his youth watching Georgetown as the Hoyas entered the Allen Iverson era — the kente cloth pattern than ran down the sides of the jersey and shorts in the mid-’90s. Back then, Nike introduced the kente cloth, a pattern with origins in West Africa, to the Hoyas’ uniforms as a homage to Georgetown basketball’s place in the African-American community in the ’80s and ’90s.

Rieffel, who had been bouncing floor concepts off other Georgetown fans online, remembered the kente cloth. One of the designs he submitted featured a slightly larger block G at midcourt and the kente cloth pattern in the free throw lane.

Georgetown’s athletic leadership, including Thompson, was immediately attracted to Rieffel’s design.

“It’s a little throwback to those days, and that design is unique to Georgetown,” says Brian McGuire, Georgetown’s associate athletics director for facilities and operations. “I don’t think anyone else has used that look in college basketball. It’s a little bit of throwback, and it’s a little bit new. It was subtle enough and classic that it wasn’t off the deep end.”

Though Georgetown stayed with a traditional look, some basketball programs have embraced more radical approaches with their court designs. Georgetown went with history and subtlety. Some schools have gone for eyeballs.

Either way, the wave of creative court designs is another indication of just how important branding and marketing are in today’s collegiate athletics environment.

“A basketball floor is a billboard,” San Jose State athletic director Gene Bleymaier says. “It’s a mural. It’s an opportunity to have some fun and make something relevant to your university.”

Bleymaier would know. He was the athletic director who turned Boise State’s football field blue in 1986. As the AD at San Jose State 27 years later, Bleymaier had five oversized Spartan warriors painted on the San Jose State basketball court. The redesign was so radical that the Spartans’ athletics logo — the kind of logo that’s normally at center court — has been pushed from the center circle to near the sideline.

Not all the new court designs in recent years are as gaudy as San Jose State’s, but they are becoming more and more common, from the smallest of Division I basketball programs to conference tournaments all the way to the Final Four.

The court for SEC Tournament last season featured a sideline-to-sideline logo bleached into the wood. The Missouri Valley Tournament in St. Louis featured a rendition of the Gateway Arch painted across the entire floor. Even the Final Four in Indianapolis featured a two-tone look.

Connor Sports, an Illinois-based manufacturer of sports floors for colleges, pro teams and events, estimates that it works on 26 Division I floors a year, not including courts for the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, conference tournaments or early-season events.

In the last few years, requests from colleges have gone from simple shading and logos to more ambitious designs.

“The trend is that it’s not a playing surface,” says Lauren Gillian, brand manager at Connor Sports. “It’s a work of art, and (colleges) want to incorporate that into their programming.”

As usual, the mainstreaming of an outlandish design finds its origin in Eugene, Ore.

When Oregon opened its Matthew Knight Arena in 2011, the most striking part of the facility was the floor.

Nearly the entire court was taken up by some kind of design element, chiefly a perimeter of pine trees meant to honor Oregon’s Tall Firs team that won the first NCAA championship in 1939.

The concept was ambitious enough on a blueprint. The execution — which fell into the hands of Connor Sports — was another thing. Painting a floor like Oregon’s, and the others that followed, requires giant stencils, layered paint schemes and an assurance the colors will be suitable for television.

“It was challenging in a sense that it was something you’d never seen before,” Gillian says of Oregon. “We’re talking overlays upon overlays upon overlays to get that forestry effect that they wanted.”

Before Oregon, courts on and off college campuses had some subtle design elements painted onto the floor, comparatively speaking. The Ducks, though, opened the door for schools to ask places like Praters Athletic Flooring to push the boundaries.

“Oregon hits and either people hated it or loved it,” says John Praters, president of the athletic flooring firm based in Chattanooga, Tenn. “With us, we didn’t care either way. As long as the attention is on the floor, it’s a good thing because people are saying, ‘Maybe we can do that.’ Oregon has brought more attention than any other one.”

Other designs aren’t as intricate as Oregon’s, but they are — um — eye-catching.

Eight years ago, former Cal State Bakersfield athletic director Jeff Konya was searching for a way to differentiate his program from the slew of California-based mid-majors. Bakersfield’s program dated back to 1971 and had won three Division II national titles, but the Roadrunners didn’t join Division I until the 2006-07 season.

Bakersfield went the same route as Boise State football — and then some. The entire court was painted blue, save for the free throw lane. At center court, an oversized Roadrunners logo stretched from 3-point line to 3-point line in the foreground, with the outline of the state of California in the background and a ‘B’ where Bakersfield is located. If that wasn’t enough, Bakersfield used the court for an advertiser, adding McDonald’s golden arches near the sideline. The current iteration of the court, dyed by Praters Flooring, is only slightly less busy; Bakersfield removed the outline of the state of California and changed the full-bodied Roadrunner logo to an angry-eyed Roadrunner head.

Bakersfield hasn’t won much on that court, but the look has made an impression.

“I knew we hit a home run with the look when opposing teams would start taking selfies with the court in the background and we started to get an increase in terms of camp participation,” Konya says. “People just wanted to be around the court.”

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Konya moved across the country last year to accept a job as the athletic director at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. His new school’s basketball program was more established — the Grizzlies have been to the NCAA Tournament three times since 2005 — but Konya wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to market the school.

But unlike a power program like Oregon, Oakland can’t exactly pay Nike, Under Armour or an outside firm for design concepts for its floor, so the Golden Grizzlies asked the same person who had been designing game brochures, event invitations and social media graphics.

She also happened to be a graduate assistant.

Konya enlisted Sarah Merritt, a former soccer player at Division III Alma College in Michigan, to pitch designs for a new floor at the O’rena. The best three would come up for a fan vote.

Merritt came up with one design with an oversized Grizzlies head bracketed by the outline of the state of Michigan on a traditional court and another with the name Oakland and the Grizzlies head stained into a conventional court look.

The winner, though, was an all-black court with the Grizzlies logo at center court. The rec center blacktop look, Merritt says, was aimed directly at recruits.

“I was recruited, so I know how geeky we are about what we wear and what we play on,” Merritt says. “If you want to try and get recruits, you have to do something crazy and different.”

Oakland’s is a different look, but it’s not even the only blacktop-inspired court in the game. When Central Florida rebranded from the Knight logo to a stacked U-C-F, the athletic program looked to its in-house art director to take a swing at a new look for the court in 2013.

Carlos Phillips had worked on design elements around stadiums and practice fields, the athletics website and on tickets and promotional materials. No project would be as visible as the UCF basketball floor.

He studied the Brooklyn Nets’ court and floors in Europe for inspiration before coming up with a blacktop. The stained wood outside the 3-point lines, though, is more gray than black. The reason: TV cameras.

“My first drafts were painted black,” Phillips says. “It’s very shiny and it would have been very hard for TV. That was one thing we wanted to consider. That’s why we didn’t go all black, because of the reflection.”

Many schools have used their floor to convey a sense of location for their universities — both for the eyes of basketball recruits but also for prospective students.

Xavier doesn’t have the luxury of having the name of its city in its school name. That belongs to rival Cincinnati. So how does Xavier hope to educate people who wouldn’t otherwise know that the Musketeers play in the heart of a metropolitan area?

The school painted the city skyline on its basketball court.

Xavier searched for a Cincinnati skyline that was just right and stumbled upon one from a designer in Spain. The Musketeers tracked down the designer, paid for the rights to the design and turned it into a stencil for the floor at the Cintas Center.

“What it does for us, you can look at it and know Xavier University is in an urban center, a metropolitan area,” says Brian Hicks, Xavier’s associate athletic director for external relations. “That was something we felt strongly about.”

Basketball fans and recruits could be forgiven for not knowing much about Florida International University. The Panthers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1995, and they’ve been a non-factor for the most part while playing in three different conferences.

Yet if anyone happens to watch an FIU basketball game, they should know the campus is a quick trip from the ocean.

“I said, ‘Listen, I want water. I want sand. And I want palm trees,’” FIU athletic director Pete Garcia says he told his staff in 2013. “I want those three things.”

He got all of it and more with a basketball court that looks more like a postcard than a playing surface. Miami-based FIU has run with the theme. Seating sections are named after streets on South Beach. One half of the arena is painted to look like the ocean and the horizon line. The other half looks like the hotel-laden Miami Beach backdrop.

Manhattan briefly considered the New York skyline for its new court at Draddy Gymnasium, but the Bronx-based college decided to go another direction. When the Jaspers sanded their court down this offseason, they painted the floor Kelly green from 3-point line to 3-point line.

“We wanted to own the color green,” Manhattan athletic director Noah LeFevre says. “The color is a large part of our identity. From our perspective, the more green we could involve, the better.”

And here’s the thing about new court designs — many times they’re not new courts at all.

A basketball floor has a lifespan of about 15 to 20 years, but it will usually require some kind of repair and maintenance after each season. Floor designs — including 3-point lines or conference or sponsor marks — can be sanded down and re-painted.

Many courts are portable — they are disassembled in the arena, packed up on a truck, and sent to a warehouse where they are re-assembled and sanded, painted, stained and sealed over the course of 1-3 weeks.

The total cost to refurbish a court can range from a $25,000 for basic repairs up to $80,000 for a complete repaint. The entire process can range from a week to three weeks.

Figures like that make court designs an expensive change. Northwestern, for example, abandoned its purple-stained arc at Welsh-Ryan Arena after three seasons.

When Long Beach State was down to its final year of its old court in 2012, the 49ers took their branding to another level. The school’s marketing already leveraged its status as the only Division I program with the word “beach” in its name.

Not content just to say “The Beach” in signage, Dedan Brozino, Long Beach State’s former senior associate athletic director for external relations, wanted to show it. Though he’s not a graphic designer by trade, he sketched a new design for the court at Walter Pyramid with four palm trees — two facing the crowd on each side of the court.

“At the time we thought it would be negatively received, and if it is, it will be a one-year and done deal and we’ll go back for the traditional look,” says Brozino, who left Long Beach State to work for the Rose Bowl Operating Company.

On the contrary, when Long Beach State bought a new court before last season, the 49ers stained the palm trees onto the new floor with all four on the side of the court facing TV cameras.

What started as an experiment for Long Beach State and other schools is now standard operating procedure for dozens of programs. If one program can turn its court into a beach and others can turn their floors into blacktops, what’s next?

Praters believes the next step is in decals, once the scourge of the NCAA Tournament and other events. Praters says his firm has been able to build decals that won’t cause players to slip.

That means colleges can mix and match for sponsors. Or they can change a center logo for special events — for example, schools could change their logo to pink for breast cancer awareness or change it to camouflage to honor the military.

For a peek further into the future, take a look at the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers project 3D graphics onto their floor for pregame hype and lineups, and there’s no doubt at least one college or two has started to think about adding such a feature to their own arenas.

That might be a few years down the line. An NBA-level pregame graphics show is as much a lighting and projection issue as it is a flooring issue. But once a college is ready, don’t be shocked to see a court act as a canvas.

“These questions come about very often for us,” Gillian says. “We’re always thinking about what can we do to make the court the star.”