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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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NCAA likes to play numbers game

This falls in the category of Things to Worry About Later, certainly.

The NCAA basketball tournament games coming our way Friday are version 3.0 of March Madness at the Spokane Arena, and soon enough the din from the bleachers will drown out the inevitable bleating that the committee never sends us a top seed (because those No. 1 vs. No. 16 games are always such good theater) and that the hockey team has to start the playoffs out of town.

It’s a stretch to suggest these visits from a Tom Izzo or a Greivis Vasquez are what got the Arena built 15 years ago, but we weren’t going to be on any NCAA itineraries without it. And surely there’s some civic ego food every three or four years in being part of one of those special sporting events that preempts common sense.

Spokane won’t ever get a BCS bowl game, an Olympics or a major league franchise. But we can get this.

At least for the time being.

When the Arena and its collegiate partner, Washington State University, offered its services to host the first and second rounds again in the 2011-13 cycle, the NCAA said thanks, but no – and gently advised that a few more seats would have to be added to the Arena configuration to make it happen in the future.

At the moment, it’s nothing drastic.

“It’s always been that 12,000 is the minimum number,” said WSU associate athletics director John David Wicker. “What changed, basically, is one word. It went from 12,000 capacity to 12,000 sellable capacity.”

The Arena is a 12,000-seat joint, but after accommodations are made for the CBS cameras, bands, cheerleaders, the press and other non-playing participants, only 11,500 or so seats can be sold.

So for the next go-round – when bidding opens for games in 2014 and 2015 – the Arena will squeeze in some portable seating in a couple of the main floor vomitories, and likely add some to the Spotlight Landing beneath the scoreboard.

“We can get the extra without having to go through major construction,” noted Arena general manager Kevin Twohig.

If it seems odd the NCAA would press the point in the current climate, it is. For the 2008 tournament, percentage of capacity attendance in the first two rounds dropped from 97 to 92.2 percent, and then last year plummeted to 81.6 – the lowest since 2001. Blame was assigned to the state of the economy, naturally; it could never be a matter of too much supply.

In both its previous trips to Spokane, the tournament games have sold out or virtually. Surely this makes for a preferable atmosphere to the expanse of empty seats that could be seen last year in Miami at American Airlines Arena.

And the NCAA does recognize as much.

“What they’ve always said to me,” revealed Wicker, “is that they want to stay in some of these midmajor sized buildings for the first and second rounds. They know they can go to Spokane and have great hotel partners and sell out and have a great atmosphere for the kids.”

But things change, too.

There is more competition in the West than ever. Spokane is one of a dozen regional cities in a loose rotation capable of hosting, given that the NCAA has refused to take any games to Nevada. Next year a new building in Eugene comes on line. The Arena is the smallest building in that group.

And when Spokane made its first bid back in 1995, NCAA representatives cast hungry eyes at the undeveloped west end of the upper deck of what was built as a 14,000-seat barn.

Spokane has never installed those last 2,000 seats – mostly because it hasn’t really needed them.

“For things like Tim McGraw or Nickelback, we could probably sell them,” said Twohig. “But they’ll be behind the stage and will be our least expensive seats. For a Gonzaga-Memphis game, sure. But for most of our events, it’s just added expense for infrastructure, maintenance and staff.”

Twohig estimated adding those seats would cost in the $6 million range – not including a new center-hung scoreboard.

“If we needed to do it, we could find the money,” he said. “But the killer is, contractors tell me they’d need six months to put in those seats and I can’t imagine closing the Arena for six months. Which months? What businesses go under because we don’t have an arena? The impact on clients and business would be brutal.

“I would hate to think the NCAA minimum goes to 14,000 and we have to face that dilemma head on. What we’ve heard is they’re going to stick with the current number, but I know the NCAA has pressures like everyone else.”

Better to enjoy the games now, and worry later.

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