Volleyball has spiked into Spokane - and this week, it’s bigger than baseball, badder than basketball, hotter than hockey.
The NCAA volleyball championship starts tonight at the Spokane Arena, and as of Wednesday, ticket sales were just short of shattering the sport’s Final Four attendance record of 21,000.
About 850 coaches are in town, too, for the American Volleyball Coaches convention.
According to the Spokane Convention and Visitors Bureau, this all adds up to a $1.3 million score for Spokane.
“Collegiate championship events are just electric,” said Eric Sawyer, executive director of the Greater Spokane Sports Association.
Volleyball fever doesn’t surprise those involved with the sport here. True, fans from the competing universities and the coaching convention scarfed up a lot of tickets. But Inland Northwest fans are set on volleyball, too.
Dig this: Greater Spokane League teams have won nine of the last 14 state volleyball tourneys; this year, the champ was Ferris. Washington State University was among the final 16 teams in the national tournament. Eastern Washington University was co-champion of its conference this year. Gonzaga University made its own NCAA Tournament showing in 1990.
And former Ferris player Jaimie Lee - now a senior at Notre Dame - was twice named Big East Volleyball Player of the Year.
How’d it all happen? Blame local volleyball clubs and a growing number of young girls and women playing sports in general.
“It’s exploding,” Sawyer said.
In 1990, there were 10 club-sponsored teams here, with 15 to 20 girls per team. As of last year, there were 102 teams. About 20 more were added this year, Sawyer said.
Another reason the sport, and the tourney, are so successful is that many of those kids who have played here for years are growing up.
“Once you start with youth, you build that base,” said EWU coach Pamela Parks. “Success breeds success.”
That’s how Fighting Irish star Lee got her big break. “Definitely, clubs are what got me a scholarship at Notre Dame,” she said. “You play in big, national tournaments. My team played in Las Vegas, and that’s where Notre Dame saw me.”
Unlike some sports where men’s teams hog the spotlight, women rule collegiate volleyball.
“I think there’s like 300 women’s teams and like 24 men’s teams in the NCAA,” said Kevin Twohig, manager of the Spokane Arena and the tournament’s director.
Women’s basketball is big, too. But to compete in that often rough-and-tumble sport, players can’t fear feeding others an occasional elbow. And to be a top-level college player, women need to block like a wall, dribble like a glass, shoot like a cannon - the whole package.
Volleyball thrives on specialty. Players who excel at one position find that “there’s a place for them to play,” said Linda Keck, spokeswoman for WSU volleyball. “And that’s not true in a lot of other team sports.”
Though the Cougs aren’t in the Final Four, WSU is the host university.
Jonathan Lee - Jaimie Lee’s father - is also the local commissioner for USA Volleyball. He said another plus for indoor volleyball is that it isn’t dependent on the weather. Games are never rained out.
Lee will talk volleyball for hours. A Spokane attorney, he has tried to evangelize everyone in his office building to go see the Final Four.
“These matchups are gonna be wars,” he told them. “And they took my word for it.”
Fans like the game because it’s quick and intense.
“It’s kind of built for the American mentality of sports,” Sawyer said. “It’s fast. It’s played in the Arena. You can see the outcome. You can see the ball.”
The Final Four isn’t just a big deal for players and fans. It’s a plus for Spokane’s hospitality industry during a season that’s usually sleepy. Sawyer said that there will be about 4,500 out-of-towners staying in hotels.
Most of the 379 rooms at the DoubleTree hotel downtown are booked. “There are cities that would die to have a tournament like this during this time of year,” said general manager Lynn Erickson. “It’s fantastic, that’s all I can say.”
Those 850 coaches held their convention at the DoubleTree, too. Though it’s called the American Volleyball Coaches Association convention, members of the nylon-Nike-suited legion also hail from Canada and Mexico. Even Belgium, said executive director Sandy Vivas (“V,” she spells it, “as in volleyball”).
The success of this tournament could mean more to come.
Spokane hosted the 1973 and 1977 NCAA cross-country championships, but it’s been 20 years.
And Spokane has had its share of Olympic action, too - the 1996 Olympic Wrestling Trials and the Olympic Cycling Trials in 1984 and 1988.
But sports boosters here have much more in the works. Starting in April 1999, Spokane will be the annual host of the Pacific Northwest Regional Junior National Qualifier. That mouthful of a match will bring 400 volleyball teams made up of girls age 12 through high school.
Sawyer said it will generate about $3 million each year.
There’s talk of bidding for the NCAA women’s golf regionals and finals. And tourneys for basketball, hockey and skiing. And the NCAA Division III baseball World Series.
And yes, there’s chatter of bringing college volleyball back. Which, Sawyer said, could even be a bigger prize than it is today.
“There are a lot of people in sports who predict that volleyball can take over baseball as a sport, just because it’s so fast-scoring.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Don’t miss it Semifinals: Today, 6 p.m., Penn State vs. Florida, Long Beach State vs. Stanford. Championship: Saturday noon, semifinal winners. On television: Cable channel ESPN 2: Taped semifinals, tonight at 9:30. The final matchup will be shown live, Saturday noon. Spokane Arena management is trying to break the NCAA Tournament attendance record for volleyball, and is about 2,000 tickets away. For ticket information, call 325-SEAT or the Arena.