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Blanchette: Perfect storm draws big Arena crowds

I was ready to concede that the very concept of attending women’s basketball games was hatched right here in our city until I peeked into the Spokane Arena during the Stanford-North Carolina game the other night.


Somebody tilted the upper deck on its end and all the people from the earlier Gonzaga game spilled out. We have to order a cork for that place or something.

Only kidding. It’s perfectly understandable that the attraction priorities for NCAA tournament patrons at the Spokane Regional are:

1) Gonzaga

2) Courtney Vandersloot

3) Gonzaga and Courtney Vandersloot

4) Screaming bloody murder at any defending player who so much as breathes on Courtney Vandersloot

5) The other teams, maybe

Nonetheless, this is quite the little civic dust devil spinning through this long weekend, which concludes tonight when the Bulldogs take their biggest bite yet, tackling top-seeded Stanford for the opportunity to play in the women’s Final Four in Indianapolis.

By late Sunday afternoon, fewer than 100 of the 11,691 saleable seats remained for the game, and those were mostly “obstructed view,” meaning you pay $22.50 to look through tubas, cheerleaders, the Stanford Tree and the backboard stanchion from a 10-degree angle off the floor. That’s like watching a drive-in movie from the back seat of a Karmann Ghia.

On Saturday evening, 10,717 paid their way in to see Gonzaga’s leap through the Sweet 16 looking glass. Compare this to other regionals in Philadelphia (5,734) and Dayton (8,867), the two of them together less than two-thirds full.

We have been this way before.

This is the 10th anniversary of the NCAA women’s first visit to Spokane, and Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves has admitted to invoking the legend of Jackie Stiles – a spectacular player on an underdog Missouri State team – to plant the seed of possibility in the Vandersloot-led Zags. But there was another watershed aspect of that weekend.

Spokane put more than 22,000 people in the seats over two nights while other regional venues were at as little as 35 percent of capacity.

Back then, no one knew if an audience even existed for women’s basketball here. The Zags themselves – and all the other Division I teams nearby – were terrible, and 600 was a good gate at the old Kennel. But organizers hedged their bets by tying ticket sales to the priority seating for the men’s tournament’s first and second rounds that were coming two years later, and then caught a break when the Washington Huskies battled their way to Spokane.

Without those elements of creative thinking and luck, the attendance total slipped to 14,447 when the women’s regional returned in 2008. Without the Zags, maybe that’s the number this weekend, too.

But now the Zags have done the missionary work well enough to get the NCAA to make them first-round hosts, as they were this year and will be again next – even if they should not make the tournament. And not for nothing did the announcement come out Friday that season tickets for the 2012 season are now on sale.

Speaking of watersheds.

“We’re not above taking advantage of the timing,” athletic director Mike Roth acknowledged with a smile.

A big-time women’s basketball crowd remains a relative thing. Gonzaga averaged a record 3,824 this season – 24th in the nation and third in the West behind only New Mexico (7,671) and Stanford (4,656).

The demographic is different – more young families and retirees – but Roth has noticed something else of late.

“Historically, I haven’t seen the people I saw at the (UCLA) game Monday night in our building,” he said. “And when Courtney throws a three-quarter-court bounce pass through traffic on a dime and Katelan Redmon lays it in, I saw people standing up and cheering that don’t always stand up and cheer at the men’s game.”

Of course, next year, the Courtney Factor disappears. Will she take some eyeballs with her?

“We can’t always make comparisons to the men’s teams, but sometimes we can,” Roth said, “and when we’ve had great players with great appeal over the years, it’s the program and team people are coming to see. I think we’ve reached that point with our women, too.

“I don’t think we have ‘friendship buys’ anymore. I had another athletic director tell me once, ‘We’re selling lots of season tickets.’ Yeah, but nobody was coming to the games. That’s not what we have.”

And in that respect, progress.

When the tournament came here in 2001, Calli Sanders was the NCAA representative on site, and she had a telling take on the state of the game.

“I worry about the fans,” she said then. “I think women’s basketball fans are wonderful fans of their teams, but I sometimes wonder if they’re fans of the game.”

Guess that’s a worthy question for the post-Courtney world here, too.

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