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By the way, these seats are taken

The college basketball arms race is no place for fables from Iowa cornfields.

If you build it, they will come? Don’t kid yourself.

A couple years ago, the University of Miami built the new 7,000-seat Convocation Center on its Coral Gables campus, with a price tag of $48 million. In its second season of operation as the Hurricanes’ basketball arena, it was filled to an average of just 39 percent of capacity on game nights.

Two years earlier, the Holmes Center went up at Appalachian State with seating for 8,325; average attendance was 2,580 its first year. The 5,100-seat Jenny Craig Pavilion at the University of San Diego opened the same year; average attendance was just 49 percent of capacity.

They built ‘em. Few came.

And now there’s the McCarthey Athletic Center on Cincinnati Street, erected on the site of Gonzaga University’s old baseball field at a cost of $25 million and due for its grand opening Friday night when the Bulldogs host Portland State. There is seating for 6,000 – and at the moment, not a single ticket remains available for sale.

Gonzaga built it – because they had already come.

The happiest problem in all of college basketball belongs to GU athletic director Mike Roth, who must continually and patiently explain to the casual followers of Zags basketball why there is no room at the inn for them, even now that the school has virtually doubled the capacity of its hoops hotel. The decision was made, even as ground was being broken, to sell out the new arena in advance – with the opportunity to buy tied to contributions to the building fund – and not hold back even a small block of tickets for game-night sale to the general public.

It is a problem, of course, only in the sense that you risk eroding some of the fuzzy emotional attachment to the team and the program if you choke off the opportunities for greater numbers of fans to get close enough to truly get caught up in that emotion and have their attachment renewed or enhanced.

The flip side – and it was the trump card – is that the place had to be paid for.

If the building of the MAC ushers in a new era of Bulldogs basketball, it was also a reminder to the school of the passion for the program already coursing through the community – and the limitations in being able to feed that passion.

But sometimes limits are good.

They never say that exactly at GU because it’s not a growth kind of phrase, but the Bulldogs are not unaware of the many brand new facilities that have recently risen on campuses around the country – and that still haven’t seen a sellout.

“A lot of those facilities are multi-purpose,” noted associate athletic director Chris Standiford. “Basketball might be one of the reasons they’re built, but not the only reason. And the fact is, you get one opportunity to build a building like that, and if you build it too small, you have a huge potential for criticism.”

Gonzaga has endured some of that itself, especially since the seats available to the non-student public were sold out in the middle of last basketball season.

“We felt confident we could have sold 8,000 seats in a new arena,” Standiford admitted. “The reality is, we didn’t have the money to build the extra building. For whatever reason – the size of the structure more than anything – to go from 6,000 to 8,000 made for a huge cost difference. The amount of revenue that could be derived from those seats wasn’t equivalent to what it would cost to go that big.”

Of the 32 on-campus basketball arenas that have opened in the past seven years, 10 are in the vicinity of 8,000 seats. Materials, location, labor, design, timing – both how recently it was built and the construction schedule – all have an impact on costs, but the average price tag on those 10 buildings was $37.4 million.

If that doesn’t sound much more than the $25 million it took to build the MAC, try knocking on a few doors yourself to raise the difference. Chances are, Gonzaga has already been there knocking.

Money wasn’t the only mitigating factor. Maybe a mile away from the MAC stands the Spokane Arena, which has its 10th birthday next year and can seat more than 12,000 for basketball. The Zags already play their annual game with Eastern Washington there and should a name opponent from some far-off galaxy be willing to swap not-quite-neutral court dates – as Georgia did last year – the Bulldogs would be happy to move the game downtown.

But in the end, what really mattered to Gonzaga was atmosphere.

“We recognize that intimacy has value, as well,” is how Standiford put it.

“The hostility the crowd brings – well, hostility is too strong a word, but the energy and vibrancy is what our coaches and players identified about The Kennel as being unique. That, specifically, is what we didn’t want to lose. It was a challenge. The architects kept looking at us like we had two heads.”

In their travels with the basketball team and elsewhere – the Zags have played in 42 different cities since 1997 – Roth, Standiford and associate AD Mike Hogan took note of their likes and dislikes of the arenas they visited. Because of the multiuse considerations Standiford noted before, most had too gradual a pitch from the playing floor to the upper concourses, leaving spectators in the 30th row “a million miles away,” he said. So “steep” and “close” went to the top of their shopping list.

The other notable design considerations – keeping spectator access separate from the working level of the arena, and 360-degree circulation in the bowl and concourses – are pretty much consistent with most modern arenas. But the school, the architects and builders also took considerable pains to add character touches, whether it was the jumbo photographs that accent the concourses or the mostly glass south and east sides.

But again, intimacy was priority one.

“We challenged the designers in ways they probably hadn’t been challenged,” Standiford acknowledged. ” ‘What do you mean you want the students five feet from the floor?’ Well, no, that’s not crazy – that’s important to us. That’s what makes our players connected with the fans.”

That community connection has become the one identifiable constant of Gonzaga basketball. The Zags are no longer lovable underdogs or NCAA Cinderellas. The recruiting profile has expanded from Northwest kids who were overlooked by other schools to exotic talents from other hemispheres. The prominent signage in the MAC reveals a level of commercial involvement unprecedented in GU’s athletic history, and more than a few of the old schoolers are lamenting that – especially if their seats got pushed back a few rows to accommodate the corporate donors.

Such is the reality of the contemporary collegiate athletic enterprise. Just as real – and just as instructive – has been Gonzaga’s insistence in accommodating its student crazies, and keeping even the 6,000th fan as close to the action as possible.

And, of course, that a waiting list for tickets continues to grow.

“I think we have to feel good about the ‘sustainability’ of the program, especially in regards to the new building,” Standiford said. “I’ve seen these beautiful new arenas on some campuses and see schools struggle to fill them to 80 percent of capacity, and I can tell you that on game night those places just don’t have the same feel.”

Which seems to be the mantra at Gonzaga: If they feel it, they will come.

 

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