The circus is coming to town.
Actually, The Greatest Show on Earth doesn't come to Baltimore until next week, but the Arena is bracing for an equally colorful display of acrobats, musicians, pretty girls and ringleaders in fancy suits in the form of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Blue Unit will bring 41 dogs, 23 elephants, 13 lions, 11 horses, two buffaloes, one long-horned steer and 150 human performers to town for an 11-day run that begins March 22.
This week, it is up to regional organizers from UMBC to help the fTC Arena play host to mythical beasts such as Dragons and Billikens.
Three years ago, the Retrievers' brass was excited to earn the right to serve as host for the East subregional and bring the tournament to Baltimore for the first time. They then sat down with the Arena staff and began pondering the logistics of placing eight teams, 96 cheerleaders, 240 band members and 400 media types in a building that was constructed in 1962.
"We're using every bit of floor space we've got," said Gary Hale, the Arena's director of operations. "We have to go back to figure skating and gymnastics [the U.S. Olympic trials in 1988 and '92, respectively] to recall something that tested us like this. The circus can be demanding, but to a lesser extent. Besides, that comes through every year."
The NCAA strives for uniformity from site to site, and the Arena's transformation into a venue similar to newer ones in Albany, N.Y., Memphis, Tenn., or Boise, Idaho, began last week, before the Washington Bullets played Friday and the Spirit on Saturday.
To begin with, there was the matter of cleaning up after the U.S. Hot Rod Show, which dumped 450 tons of dirt on the Arena floor two weeks ago. The background required by the NCAA called for the removal of the Spirit and Blast championship banners that hang from the ceiling and the riser boards that provide the playing border for indoor soccer.
The single most demanding aspect of the subregional is accommodating the media, which ranges from the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn's student newspaper, to CBS, which is footing the travel and accommodations for the teams and officials.
Storage rooms have been turned into interview areas and walkways to the court. The street-level corridor on the west side, a few feet from Howard Street, will become a combination work space and dining area. The parking lot at the Arena's southeast corner will be taken over by dishes of a different kind, the satellite relays used by television trucks.
UMBC sports information director Steve Levy, who is the media coordinator, was braced for a crush that would have accompanied Maryland, but instead got a break from the selection committee.
"The Philadelphia schools [Drexel and Penn] share some media," Levy said, "and Wake Forest and North Carolina A&T; are only 15 miles away. We're going to get hit pretty hard, anyway. We had 200 credential requests before the field was announced, and we expect to get another 200."
The east corridor on the street level will be used by CBS and as a staging area for cheerleaders and pep bands. Each of the eight schools is allowed to bring 12 cheerleaders or dance team members, a mascot and 30 band members. If their teams win Thursday and advance to Saturday's second round, they're all expected for a pep rally at the Inner Harbor on Friday.
The teams themselves will use locker rooms at the southwest corner of the Arena and be housed at downtown hotels. The volunteer force of 150 mobilized by tournament manager Marty Schwartz includes every one from stat runners to drivers, but the teams don't have much of a need for the latter. It's not as if Alabama needs transportation from the Omni, its assigned hotel, to the Arena a few hundred yards away.
The Arena has been sold out since April -- one ticket broker yesterday asked from $150 to $300 for one ticket to Saturday's second round -- but tomorrow's practice sessions are open to the public, and there is no charge.
The Arena got a shakedown Dec. 10, when it was the site of the nationally televised game between Maryland and Massachusetts, but the NCAA tournament is another matter.
These might be the biggest basketball games played at the Arena since 1971, when the Baltimore Bullets beat the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals, then were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals.