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It took more than a building to create a success

To further corrupt an old joke, the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena tried to open its doors with a country music concert, only to have a hockey game break out.

This was Sept. 17, 1995. The country act, John Michael Montgomery, had begged off with a sore throat.

The next morning, more than 10,000 first-nighters woke up with one.

They had been treated to a relatively routine National Hockey League exhibition game between Vancouver and San Jose – except that the whole thing had started with two of the Sharks, former Spokane Chiefs players Pat Falloon and Ray Whitney, skating around the rink tossing hats into the crowd. They had been the Butch and Sundance of Spokane’s 1991 Memorial Cup champions, the last true marquee act in the old Coliseum, which had been bulldozed for parking spaces. So they were greeted with the appropriate roars.

As was the new building – even if the beer lines sometimes ran 30 deep. To the sports fans of the Inland Northwest, the Spokane Arena was a hit from the moment the puck dropped. They walked through the glass doors and into a whole new world.

And in the 10 years since, oh, the places they’ve been – and what they’ve seen.

March Madness. Teenage girls doing triple axels. The two-court circus of the State B. Wrestlers on their way to Olympic gold. Zagmania. Grave Digger, the Hulk Hogan of monster trucks. Groovy shoes and rubber chickens. Shawn Kemp butt-to-belly against Karl Malone. Volleyball energized by a full house.

And 400 nights of hockey – which, alas, can’t always be Spokane vs. Tri-City on a Saturday.

In the process, almost 4.5 million people have made their way to the Arena for competitive sports events – not including thousands more who have packed the joint for barnstorming skaters and gymnasts, the Harlem Globetrotters and pro rasslin’.

“I don’t think any of us really knew – whether it was sports events or concerts – we could be this successful,” said Kevin Twohig, who has been in charge of the Arena’s operation since groundbreaking.

“Certainly we hoped it would be. But this is, what, the 75th or 79th biggest market (in the United States)? To be able to bring in so many quality events, sure it’s a surprise – but a pleasant one.”

And the Arena’s biggest sporting year is yet to come. In 2007, it will be the site of both the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January and another installment of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament first and second rounds two months later – the flagship events of Olympic and collegiate competition in this country.

Yes, those are exactly the kind of events that were sold to voters as a reason to pass the sales-tax increase in 1991 that provided the final funding for the $62.2 million facility – after three other ballot measures failed in 1985 and ‘86. But saying the building is open for such business and actually getting the events are two different things.

In that regard, Twohig acknowledged that realizing the Arena’s potential is very much a team effort, requiring both creative and cooperative partners. This is true even for events that were staples in the old Coliseum – the annual NBA exhibition game, rodeo, high school basketball – but especially so in the three areas which have made the Arena the success it is:

• Collegiate championships. Washington State has served as the host for all three of the Arena’s NCAA productions, the 1997 volleyball championships, the women’s basketball regional in 2001 and the men’s first and second rounds two years later.

• Olympic sports. Steward and Barb Beddor of Star USA staged the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials in 1996, launching Kendall Cross and Tom Brands toward their gold medals. It sent an attendance record for the event in the process, a feat duplicated in 2002 when Skate America had a four-day run at the Arena – an important factor in Spokane landing the 2007 nationals.

“People who aren’t in the business of staging events,” said Steward, “it’s hard for them to understand what it takes to No. 1 attract events like NCAA basketball or the figure skating to a market like Spokane and No. 2 to pull them off successfully.”

• The primary tenant.

More than 65 dates a year in the Arena are booked for competitive athletic events, and almost two-thirds of those are Spokane Chiefs games. Counting the Memorial Cup in 1998, the Western Hockey League All-Star game the year before and 50 playoff games, more than 2.9 million fans have attended Chiefs events in the Arena. Though they haven’t always been successful on the ice – they failed to make the playoffs last year – the Chiefs are the definition of dependable at the gate, averaging 6,892 spectators a game over the past 10 years

And the year the Chiefs failed to make the playoffs the only other time in their history – in 1999, after hosting the Memorial Cup – was also the only year the Arena failed to turn an operating profit, Twohig said.

“The better we do, the better the Arena does,” said Chiefs managing partner Bobby Brett, “and by the same token, what’s good for the Arena is good for the hockey team. We’re pulling from the same side of the rope.”

According to Brett, the Arena receives 13 percent of every dollar in Chiefs ticket sales, on top of parking and concession revenue that increase with bigger crowds. But the partnership extends beyond that nightly bottom line. Advertising, sponsorships, suite marketing, the Arena Club – all are shared endeavors between the Arena and their anchor tenant. Likewise, Brett Sports – which owns Gonzaga’s radio rights – brought the Bulldogs’ annual game against Eastern Washington to neutral ground. Thanks to GU’s wild popularity, three of those games have drawn nearly 35,000 fans.

And there have been times when the Chiefs have surrendered a prime weekend in their scheduling process to allow the Arena to be available for another event.

“I don’t have a firsthand comparison,” Twohig said, “but traditionally, the relationship between a prime tenant and a publicly owned building is stressful. This one is not. Bobby is a strong personality, but it’s an entrepreneurial relationship. We’re always on the lookout for something else to do together.

“But that’s true with all of our partners. It’s all relationship driven.”

At least in the beginning. Then it becomes performance driven.

The Arena’s entry into NCAA events was expedited by a relationship – WSU associate athletic director Marcia Saneholtz happened to chair the organization’s volleyball committee when the school and Spokane bid for the 1997 championshps. That didn’t make it an easy kill, “but I’d have to say it was significant,” Saneholtz conceded.

But upon getting it, the two partners had to make it work. Twohig recalled being at the 1996 championships in Cleveland, standing next to the NCAA’s Donna Noonan who looked up into the stands and said, “It should be full.”

So Arena management and the Cougars worked feverishly to try and sell out the building – and came within a few hundred seats of doing so.

“Undoubtedly, if we hadn’t been as successful, the NCAA wouldn’t have looked at us again when it came to the basketball events,” Saneholtz said.

Which were every bit as successful. The good fortune of getting Washington through the early rounds and to Spokane helped the women’s regionals become another near-sellout, and the city’s basketball appetite – whetted by Gonzaga’s tournament success – packed the house for the 2003 men’s events. In turn, that’s led to WSU and Spokane landing the 2007 men’s games and another women’s regional in 2008.

The same scenario has played out in the Star USA-promoted events – though Steward said the credit for both attracting those events and seeing them thrive is a community-wide phenomenon.

“It’s a great building,” Steward said, “but it’s more than that. Look at the past and where they’ve placed an event like the U.S. Figure Skating Championships – in cities five times as big as Spokane and arenas that are twice as big. The same is true in a lot of cases of the NCAA events. You cannot make this happen without a broad-based effort.

“One reason we were able to win the bid was that we had seven different organizations that contributed to the bid process. Other cities might come in with just one, but we had enthusiasm from a wide spectrum of people and sponsors and it was the total package.”

Twohig put it another way.

“We don’t have a major professional franchise that puts us on the map,” he said, “so people respond to these events that do bring us national attention. And in a lot of cases, the people running these events like it that it’s a major thing here – on the front page of the paper, on TV, sold out – when their event might get overshadowed in a large city with professional sports.”

With major events still on the horizon and the Chiefs on solid footing, the Arena’s sports profile wouldn’t seem to need another boost – but it got one recently when arenafootball2 approved an application for a Spokane franchise to field a team in 2006, playing an eight-game home schedule in the Arena. Luring an indoor football team “is something we’ve been working on for five years,” said Twohig.

But perhaps just as encouraging is that after 10 years, the Arena doesn’t look like it’s 20.

“We see a lot of arenas that are about the same age,” said Steward. “If you look at some of those – the Rose Garden in Portland, the World Arena in Colorado Springs – Spokane’s looks brand new. That’s vital in attracting events, but also in keeping people coming in.”

Noted Brett, “It doesn’t look 10 years old and it doesn’t play 10 years old.

“You know what’s amazing? We still call it ‘the new Arena.’ “