MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When a NCAA championship is on the line, it’s a big deal.

Almost as big as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship trophy along the Nicollet Mall, one of the many photo opportunities for people visiting the popular stretch of downtown Minneapolis for the Tip-Off Tailgate.

The event is similar to what visitors experienced during the Super Bowl, only a touch smaller, fewer people and several degrees warmer.

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Fans of the Final Four teams donned hoodies, hats and other decorations to showcase who they’re cheering for over the weekend. Thomas Gibson, a University of Virginia graduate, had never visited Minnesota before. Coming to Minneapolis for the Final Four seemed like a perfect combination.

“So it’s not only an opportunity to support my team, it’s an opportunity to see another part of the country I’ve never seen and it’s been fantastic,” Gibson said. “It’s a really great set up. Easy flow, everyone’s having a great time. Lots of things to do. Restaurants are great. We’ve been trying the different drinks available here.”

The event is free, with the only expected expense being your time as you wait in line. It took at least 15 minutes to get a free burger from the Wendy’s truck. There were several spots to try the new Vanilla Orange Coca-Cola.

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But the longest line was likely for the Ferris wheel, a unique and colorful addition directly in the middle of the street fest. Katie Brunette said it was her first time ever on the famous carnival ride.

“They took most of the pictures, I was holding on,” Brunette said of her friends.

Outside of challenging her fear of heights, the tailgate was up to her expectations.

“I think it’s been a blast. We enjoyed the Super Bowl, too, but this will be a really unique experience,” she said.

There’s plenty of fun to be had at street level, where kids can impersonate their favorite NCAA star at the Fan Jam area. It’s not far from the main stage, where music acts will perform the night away along with interviews with college coaches, NCAA trivia and other interactive crowd participation events.

“As we walked down, no buses, just like that feel, like it would be great if they could continue with that going forward,” said Theresa Alewine, who was fully enjoying the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere.

Her friend Laurie Mount of Ham Lake added that it’s fun to feel a new type of energy downtown outside of just the work environment. The temperature was a bonus.

“It’s warmer than the Super Bowl was, way warmer,” Mount said.

The Tip-Off Tailgate starts at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, then at 4 p.m. Monday. Fans can watch the semi-final games at the main stage Saturday evening and the national title game Monday night.

The headline musical act is the Fitz and the Tantrums, who are performing Monday at 6 p.m.

Jeff Wagner

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