Long before attorney John Yates was chosen to lead this year’s Final Four in Atlanta, he dreamed of March Madness from a desk in the back of his fourth-grade classroom.
Yates was listening to a Duke University game on a transistor radio when his teacher caught him and sent him to the principal’s office. Luckily for him, the principal was also a Duke fan.
Today, the college hoops fan and Morris, Manning & Martin partner is readying Atlanta to host the culmination of the college basketball season: the two semifinal games on April 6, the national championship on April 8 and other festivities.
“It’s the greatest job in the world for a basketball fan who’s also a lawyer,” Yates said.
As chairman of the Atlanta Basketball Host Committee, Yates is responsible for oversight of organization, compliance with the NCAA’s contract and city regulations, and energizing the community around the event. He sees his role as being similar to the chairman of the board of a corporation.
Since he took the unpaid job about 2½ years ago, Yates has dedicated between five and 10 hours a week to planning, in addition to his work as the partner in charge of Morris Manning’s technology practice.
He’s also had to fend off an increasing number of fans who think he can get them tickets to the Georgia Dome.
“My phone has continued to ring more aggressively, and I suspect that the number of friends and would-be clients that I have will probably increase precipitously over the next couple of months too,” Yates said.
His colleagues who are Duke fans tend to be particularly enthusiastic. Yates earned both his law and undergraduate degrees from Duke.
“They’re hoping somehow they can be involved, and somehow tickets will fall out of my pocket,” Yates said. “We’ll do our best to help everybody we can find tickets and make them available.”
Yates said the organization and decision-making skills he uses in his legal work also help him coordinate the Final Four.
He has interpreted the NCAA’s contract for the event to explain what types of advertising are allowed, what uses of the Final Four logo are permitted, and what trademark restrictions are in place. Only sponsors, licensed retailers and select organizations may use the logo, which celebrates the tournament’s 75th anniversary.
“As a lawyer, a lot of what I do, particularly as chair of our technology group, is I’m thinking very analytically and along the lines of decision trees and decision analysis. I’m always thinking about what decision has to be made and what are the outcomes of that,” Yates said.
Yates has chaired other organizations and been active on boards, but he’s never been in charge of an event on this scale. Last year’s Final Four Saturday games in New Orleans generated the event’s highest ratings since 2005, with 17 percent of in-use TVs tuned in, according to The Associated Press.
“John is obviously incredibly attentive to detail, and there’s no other skill that could be more important,” said William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are a lot of moving parts to this event and a lot of activities that go on. You have to have an understanding of how to manage a lot of things and pay attention to every little detail.”
Yates is a member of the board of directors of the Atlanta Sports Council and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. After being named chairman of the Atlanta Basketball Host Committee, Yates tapped Sharon Goldmacher, of the marketing and public relations firm Communications 21, to be the committee’s executive director.
“His love of basketball shines through at every meeting we have,” said Goldmacher, who handled public relations for the Final Four when it was last held in Atlanta in 2007. “It’s challenging in part because people are interested in tickets, and they potentially use his position to elicit information on tickets.”
When Pate approached Yates about the job, Yates thought he was going to ask for corporate sponsorship money to support Atlanta’s hosting of the Final Four. Instead, Pate said he wanted someone to lead the event.
“I thought about it for a split second, but only a split second, before I said, ‘Absolutely. Put me on board,’” Yates said.
Atlanta has hosted the Final Four in 1977, 2002 and 2007. Organizers hope to fill the Georgia Dome with 74,000 fans at each of this year’s games.
Besides the main events, fans may attend the Division II and Division III championship games at Philips Arena on April 7. Admission to those games will be free of charge in an attempt to fill 9,500 seats in the arena’s lower bowl.
Yates will receive some tickets to attend the Final Four, but he doesn’t know how many.
At least one ticket will go to his nephew, 11-year-old James Yates, the leading 3-point shooter on his wheelchair basketball team in North Carolina. His right arm is immobilized, and he’s legally blind. But he’s still been able to develop a talent for accurate long-distance shooting.
“Basketball has brought him back. Otherwise, he’d be very introverted,” John Yates said. “But getting him on the court (at the Final Four) may require some real legal analysis.”