The traditions of March Madness are unlike any other: Selection Sunday, One Shining Moment, and … graphic design?
Yes! Each year, the Final Four receives its own customized design for the host site. The tradition began in 1979 in Salt Lake City, and from there it took off. Here’s a look at the way logos have been used for more than half a century.
What we saw in the earliest years of the tournament, instead of individualized logos, was the NCAA embracing its own brand.
The first logo, which ran for 14 years, embraced a very Greek-themed Olympic sentiment. The second logo, which ran for nine years, is also very Olympic-adjacent, except this time it incorporates the interlocked rings rather than the Greek imagery. They’re both very solid logos, and both obviously influenced by their eras.
And then the third logo here was used for the 50th anniversary of the NCAA tournament in 1988, when Kansas won its second national title.
Indianapolis (where the NCAA is headquartered!) has hosted the most Final Fours of any city in the country, including the second of the “individual logo for each tournament” era in 1980.
I think the 1980 is probably my favorite of the Indianapolis batch: its clean layout is easy on the eye, and the offset basketball is an unexpected but pleasing touch of design flair. The 1991 logo gets points for the hand-drawn look, and the 1997 logo’s font is just cartoonish enough to be fun: the elongated “L” in Final Four is excellent.
It’s no surprise that New Orleans inspired some of the best Final Four logos ever. The glorious 1982 design in the upper lefthand corner is a classic-looking logo: the brass of the trumpet leading into a basketball hoop, the stacked “NCAA” letters lend it an exta level of sophistication, and you can’t beat the almost purplish-navy backdrop.
But this is a really well-rounded group of logos: the 1987 steamboat is inspired, a step out of the box in a big way, while the musical notes in 1993 and the sweeping cartoonish look of 2003 are both fun and colorful. And you can’t beat a French Quarter-inspired look, complete with Bourbon Street signage, in 2012.
For my tastes, Seattle has the best logo set of any multiple-time Final Four host. In all three, there’s an emphasis on classically northwest colors: before the deep, muted evergreen became modern touchstones, emerald and blue (like the Seattle Seahawks’ 1990s uniforms) were the region’s guiding tones.
The first two play on the Seattle Space Needle, but the second logo (two in six years!) avoided repitition by playing on the Emerald City motif with the actual gemstone, and a lovely of-its-time font underneath. And, of course, the northwest is nothing without its natural beauty, which is what makes the 1995 logo so iconic: the font conjures rushing waters, and the evergreen trees and mountain peaks do the rest.
San Antonio has hosted four Final Fours, including the most recent, which was its first in a decade after hosting thrice in 11 years. I really liked the 2018 logo for the same reason I liked the 2018 women’s logo: the sweeping trim along the top and bottom of the banner is a pleasant design, and the inclusion of the Riverwalk was an impressive innovation with three previous logos already on the board.
And the Alamo logos are both solid, but 2008 is probably my favorite. Putting a hat on the entire logo, and then putting the city name on a belt, is too much fun to pass up.
Y’all like peaches? Atlanta, it seems, likes peaches. Considering Georgia is known as the Peach State, it makes sense that all three of Atlanta’s logos have included the ubiquitous fruit, and if we’re being honest, it bearing a passing resemblance to a basketball makes it too obvious to overlook.
It’s tempting to call the wild swirling peach from 2007 my favorite of the trio, but sometimes you nail it on the first try, and that’s what happened in 2002: the soft peach color of the font and the peach-as-basketball illustration are just perfect.
Okay, so Charlotte isn’t technically Durham, but it’s close enough: with Duke, UNC, Kentucky, and Louisville effectively residing in these two locations, I’ve called this the Blueblood Country duo. The Charlotte logo design is a great play on the city’s nickname, the Queen City, and the words Final Four orbiting a basketball are a very mid-1990s design choice.
But the 1985 logo is clearly the star, possibly the best Final Four logo the NCAA has ever produced. Combining the baby blue (Carolina blue?) with the dijon mustard state outline and font gives the whole design a distinguished look, and using a horse as the visual centerpiece is a no-brain victory. It’s Kentucky to a tee, and it’s a perfect logo.
Hot and Cold
Denver and Tampa Bay were sort of one-offs as far as Final Four host cities go, but rather than leave them on their own, I’ve paired them together to see how the NCAA has embraced obviously climate-centric destinations: Tampa Bay the hot, and Denver the cold.
In both instances, the clear paths were taken and executed perfectly: the ribbon-over-the-Rockies ruggedness of Denver’s 1990 logo is a stately logo a mountaineer could be proud of, while Tampa’s logo incorporates palm trees, ocean waters, a very turn of the century Florida font, and of course a basketball as the sun. They’re both perfect for their locations. Bravo.
The Midwest duo hosted tournaments in the 00s, and both of their designs are reflective of the era: patterned flames coming from the burning rubber of Detroit (the Motor City), combined with the skeumorphism of the tire itself, makes for a peak late-00s logo.
And in 2005, the designers took the obvious (and smart) route by making the St. Louis Arch the focal point of the logo, along with adding a ribboned touch to the bottom to represent the Mississippi River. It’s essentially the ideal St. Louis Final Four logo, encapsulated in the style of its era.
Minnesota nearly challenged Seattle for the best set of logos solely on the strength of its first, a beautiful work of art from 1992. The use of the baby blue (a mainstay on the state’s license plates since the late 1970s) is easy on the eye, while the bold red block font is a very collegiate touch for this very collegiate event.
The 2001 logo, a nice play on “Twin” Cities with twin basketballs, is very of its time. And next year’s logo is a marvel, a sharp and flat illustration of the great northern state featuring the huge evergreen trees that the Minnesota Wild have used in their logo and jerseys since their inception.
It shouldn’t be a shock that the northwest and Minnesota, two nature-first regions of the country, yield some of the prettiest logos.
The northeast duo, Philadelphia and New York/New Jersey, have each only hosted the Final Four, which is somewhat surprising. Philadelphia’s Big 5 is one of the most storied collections of college basketball in the country, and the Palestra is one of the sport’s finest venues. New York City, meanwhile, promises Madison Square Garden and the liveliest city in the world. But, alas, the love has been spread elsewhere.
Still, in their lone primetime spots, the cities’ logos focused on their most distinctive iconography: in Philadelphia, just as in the Big 5 logo, the Liberty Bell is front and center. It’s a very simple and impressionistic logo, reminiscent of the Sixers’ more recent designs, and it’s one of the cleanest the Final Four’s ever sen. The NY/NJ creation, meanwhile, puts the Statue of Liberty front and center, even in front of the basketball.
It’s clear where you’re playing these basketball games. Very, very clear.
Remember when San Antonio hosted the Final Four four times? Well, Texas is pretty big. The state has hosted the even three other times (which, yes, ties Indianapolis). In these three other Texas logos, the designers opted to eschew the typical cowboy tropes in lieu of some fresher designs.
The 1986, my favorite of the three, puts an emphasis on the city nicknamed Big D: the letter is literally the logo’s border. The Skyline is pretty, and the yellow is striking. In 2014, the choice was to emphasize the venue (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas), and in 2016 the stars are a nod to NASA and the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. All three are fresh ideas, which are always welcome.
We end here with the southwest, a region that is often colored with a variety of red clay-and-turquoise color palettes. And yet in the first logo of this trio, the first customized logo in Final Four history, Salt Lake City gets a … red, white, and blue look! To be fair, Salt Lake City isn’t your prototypical southwest location, but still, this logo looks nothing like what would come next. It’s very reminiscent of the soft, rounded edges Montreal used for the 1976 Olympics.
But once the site shifted to New Mexico, the classic southwest palette was ready for its close-up. The 1983 design patterned itself after the New Mexico state flag, a no-brainer since New Mexico has one of the prettiest state flag (and license plate) designs in the country. In 2017, the conventional wisdom — more red and orange — yielded yet another gorgeous, desert-minded logo in Phoenix, and the rest was history.