A quarter century of commitment to women’s basketball by Arizona State and the Phoenix Mercury and investment into downtown Phoenix as a destination site paid off handsomely Wednesday.
The NCAA Division I women’s basketball committee chose Phoenix to host the 2026 Women’s Final Four at renovated Talking Stick Resort Arena, adding yet another mega sports event to an upcoming list that includes the 2023 Super Bowl and 2024 Men’s Final Four.
The 44th Final Four will be held Easter weekend, April 3-5, 2026, and largely all staged in downtown Phoenix unlike other major events that utilize downtown Phoenix for ancillary activities before shifting to State Farm Stadium in Glendale for game day.
“Phoenix is an experienced city in hosting mega events,” said Nina King, Duke senior deputy athletics director and women’s basketball committee chair. “While they haven’t hosted the Women’s Final Four before, there are a lot of great events that have come to Phoenix, and they’ve done a really good job hosting those.”
King also praised Phoenix for its “culturally diverse population” and commitment to “support women in sport and business and philanthropy” in a bid put forth by ASU as the host institution, the Phoenix Suns/Mercury, city of Phoenix and tourism organizations.
Phoenix was one of four finalists named in January. The coronavirus pandemic transformed the selection process into virtual site visits and final presentations, both in September. The 10-member committee eventually decided on Tampa to host a fourth Final Four in 2025 and for Phoenix to be just the third western Final Four site in what by 2026 will be 28 years (San Jose in 1999, Denver 2012).
Columbus, Ohio, which hosted in 2018, and Portland were the other finalists. Portland, like Phoenix trying for its first Final Four, was one of four western cities awarded an eight-team women’s basketball regional under a new postseason format starting in 2023.
“Wanting to grow the game and bring it to new communities was a huge factor for us,” King said. “We kept talking about west coast sites and had to take out the coast. We haven’t been there in a really long time so this is a great opportunity to bring the championship that way. And we made a concerted effort to hold the regional rounds on a western part of the U.S. site as well.”
Selection day jitters
Selection day brought the requisite anxiety for those directly involved in the Phoenix bid including co-chair Brooke Todare, a former ASU golfer.
She didn’t get the news until 9:45 a.m., relayed to her 15 minutes before the public announcement.
“The waiting was extremely hard,” she said. “When we got the call, it was a multitude of emotions. Complete happiness and relief and excitement for what this means for all our stakeholders and the state of Arizona.”
ASU women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne was “prepared for it to go either way. Our administration did everything they could to make sure the NCAA people knew what an amazing job we do. We have such a tremendous history of hosting (mega events) and great weather. But you can’t just take that for granted.”
Mercury general manager Jim Pitman, heavily involved in the $230-million renovation of Talking Stick Resort Arena that certainly was among the key factors in Phoenix’s favor, also maintained a cautious optimism because of the caliber of competing cities.
“I really didn’t know,” he said. “Brooke was exactly right we left it all on the court so to speak (in the bid) and gave our best effort. We thought we had provided a great presentation to the NCAA, and it feels fantastic that it actually paid off.”
Recent Women’s Final Fours in Columbus and Tampa have reported roughly $20 million in direct economic impact from the event. The event will run through San Antonio (2021), Minneapolis (2022) Dallas (2023) and Cleveland (2024) before returning to Tampa and finally arriving in Phoenix
ASU, Mercury laid foundation
When Turner Thorne was finally convinced to leave Northern Arizona for ASU in summer 1996, it was not an easy sell. One then athletic department administrator described women’s basketball, 20-60 in the three preceding seasons, as a JV program.
That same year, the WNBA and Phoenix Mercury were still a concept coming out of the U.S. women’s basketball success at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Games didn’t begin until June 1997.
Now, Turner Thorne is the second winningest coach in Pac-12 history with 14 NCAA Tournament appearances and two Elite Eight teams. The Sun Devils have hosted outdoor games at Chase Field and taken a national TV game to the Navajo reservation to promote her program and the game.
The Mercury are three-time WNBA champions, among the best attended teams in the league and the career-long home of WNBA career scoring leader Diana Taurasi, among those participating via video in the site visit presentation to the NCAA.
At Arizona, fifth-year coach Adia Barnes already has won 68 games, elevated the Wildcats into the top 25 and has perhaps a top-10 teams going into this season.
The Women’s Final Four selection comes at close to a pinnacle for women’s basketball in the state of Arizona. Certainly in a much stronger position than in 2001 when Phoenix was a Final Four finalist but lost out to Cleveland in bidding for the 2007 tournament primarily due to a not fully formed downtown.
“I’ve been here since the beginning,” Pitman said. “I’m really proud and excited that we are finally getting a Women’s Final Four in our building. Certainly the (arena) transformation we’re undergoing has been a huge factor, but it’s all the work that’s gone into developing women’s basketball fans over the last 25 years.”
Turner Thorne said the ASU and Mercury success “had to factor in” to the Final Four decision. “Not just winning but putting on first ever games. I like to think all that got looked at. Then also we’re the fifth largest city in the country so even the growth potential with girls basketball is great.
“Now we’ve just got to get our team there,” for what as of now would be ASU’s first Final Four appearance.
Grayhawk awarded 2023 golf nationals
The NCAA also awarded the 2023 NCAA men’s and women’s golf championships Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, replacing the 2020 nationals scheduled there that were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Grayhawk is back to hosting golf nationals for both genders for three consecutive years starting in 2021.
Additionally, the NCAA awarded three regional championships to metro Phoenix.
A 2025 women’s golf regional will be held at Superstition Mountain Golf Club in Gold Canyon; 2026 men’s golf regional at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa; and 2026 women’s gymnastics regional at ASU’s Desert Financial Arena.
Upcoming mega sports events
Dec. 31 2022: College Football Playoff semifinal, State Farm Stadium (Fiesta Bowl)
Feb. 5, 2023: 57th Super Bowl, State Farm Stadium
April 6-8, 2024: NCAA Men’s Final Four, State Farm Stadium
Dec. 27, 2025: College Football Playoff semifinal, State Farm Stadium (Fiesta Bowl)
April 3-5, 2026: NCAA Women’s Final Four, Talking Stick Resort Arena
More: Women’s Final Four: Could Phoenix and Portland emerge as winners?
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8053. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.
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