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Blanchette: Arena won’t have to take backseat

John Blanchette (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
John Blanchette (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Fact: The audience which took in the first session of the women’s NCAA basketball regional the other night at the Spokane Arena was barely half as big as it was the last time the city hosted just two short years ago.

Exempt any other context, that would be a rather sobering verdict on the appeal of the game, or even NCAA events in general, here.

Except it’s really nothing of the sort.

Just as much of a fact is that the NCAA itself seeks out Spokane for these missions as it looks for ways to grow the market for women’s basketball, and the handhold it’s found here is not inconsequential.

That a gate of 6,146 from Saturday’s doubleheader might be viewed as modest suggests as much.

Two other Sweet 16 sessions – at Oklahoma City (9,162) and Bridgeport, Conn. (8,594) – outdrew Spokane with the benefit of home-state teams, and Baylor in the case of the former. Norfolk, with two of its four entries geographically closer than any of Spokane’s four, managed 5,687.

We’ve seen what happens when Spokane’s given a rooting interest. In 2011, Gonzaga’s Elite Eight game here drew 11,646 – the largest single-game crowd at any regional since 2004.

This on the heels of the Zags hosting the NCAA’s first and second rounds for a third straight year, and putting 4,976 in the seats for the last night even when the home team had been eliminated.

So, the city isn’t going to be off the women’s tournament radar anytime soon.

Now, what about the men?

Well, we’ll get to that.

They have always been something of a package deal here, because the Arena and co-host Washington State have specifically marketed them as such. Going back to 2001 when Spokane got its first women’s regional, the organizers have added an incentive to buying tickets: priority dibs for any men’s subregional close on the calendar. That’s the situation with this weekend’s event and the men’s second- and third-round games here in 2014.

That creativity hasn’t always been popular with ticket buyers, but it’s certainly impressed the NCAA, which keeps signing off on it.

“The more we can market ourselves and events to help the NCAA come back here,” said Matt Gibson, the Arena’s general manager, “we’re going to go ahead and do it.

“And as we’re one of the less expensive tickets in the country for a men’s event, we don’t feel too badly about marketing the women’s event with the men.”

Some men’s all-session tickets will approach $300 next year. Spokane’s will run $210.

If you’re a voter, you’ll remember the Spokane Public Facilities District last April asking for a $65 million upgrade package, with a portion earmarked for roughly 750 new seats at the Arena, specifically in the empty west end of the upper deck.

There was some urgency. The NCAA had told Spokane that it wouldn’t be considered for further men’s basketball events until the capacity was boosted to 12,000 seats.

The tax measure passed. Then a funny thing happened.

The NCAA scaled down its requirement to 10,000 seats.

“And I went, ‘O-K,’” Gibson recalled. “But it was a new committee and a new staff, and the thought is to engage more communities and make the process more competitive. Now a place like San Diego State, which only has 10,000, is in the game.”

There’s a bonus: 10,000 is enough to bid for men’s regionals, too. Whether the Arena will be seriously considered is in question, but maybe it should be.

Randy Ruhr, WSU’s senior associate athletic director and this weekend’s tournament manager, channel-surfed a couple of men’s games this weekend and hit on the West Regional at L.A.’s Staples Center, which we know as the place where the Pac-12 tournament went to die.

“You see the empty seats there,” he said, “and, sure, it’s La Salle and Wichita State and those aren’t marquee programs. But is that a great student-athlete experience? Maybe it’s better to take it to a smaller place that appreciates the event and sell it out and generate some atmosphere.”

So, about those new seats…

They aren’t going in.

Instead, arena officials are replacing every chair in the house – installing padded ones in the lower bowl and space-saving ergonomic ones upstairs. New equipment will allow additional and better floor seating in the west end zone. In addition, the NCAA’s own site specifications will open up pockets of better seats around the court once set aside for media.

“This will benefit more people for more events,” Gibson said. “End-stage concerts can’t use those upper-deck seats we were going to put in. Family shows mostly won’t use them. We’ll have an added experience for everyone at every event, and better vantage points in the bowl than there used to be.”

In the end, the Arena will still have more than 12,000 basketball seats. Just in case the NCAA changes its mind.

Fact is, that’s been known to happen.