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If you love NCAA tourney action in Spokane, thank the University of Idaho

Kevin Johnson (No. 34 in blue) of Tulsa goes up for the opening tip against Dayton’s Sean Finn during their game in the Spokane Arena in March 2003, when Spokane was the site for a sub-regional opening round of the NCAA Tournament. (FILE/The Spokesman-Review)
Kevin Johnson (No. 34 in blue) of Tulsa goes up for the opening tip against Dayton’s Sean Finn during their game in the Spokane Arena in March 2003, when Spokane was the site for a sub-regional opening round of the NCAA Tournament. (FILE/The Spokesman-Review)

Like Bloomsday and Hoopfest, March Madness is becoming a staple of the Spokane sports calendar.

And for that, Spokanites can thank the area’s only out-of-state Division 1 university.

The University of Idaho hosted the second and third rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at the Spokane Arena last year, and will host the women’s regional next year. The NCAA assigns tournament sites in three-year cycles, and Idaho has made bids to host in Spokane in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

“I think there’s somewhat of a responsibility to the region to make sure the region has the opportunity to bring a large event like the NCAA Tournament to Spokane,” UI athletic director Rob Spear said. “If we’re able to be the school that helps solidify that, I think there’s a little bit of a responsibility to do so.”

The NCAA requires a member institution or conference to host the events, which generally involves assuming the logistical duties of putting on the games and staffing them.

Gonzaga’s staffers are busy following the Bulldogs every time the NCAA Tournament rolls around, and Eastern Washington cannot commit the bodies needed to host a tournament in case the Eagles men’s or women’s teams qualify for the postseason.

Washington State hosted the men’s second- and third-round games in 2014, and the women’s regional in 2015. But athletic director Bill Moos said the Cougars will not bid on second and third rounds in the future.

This is in part because Moos wants to keep his staff available should the Cougars qualify for a postseason tournament in men’s or women’s basketball. It is also because the honorarium provided to the host school of a couple hundred thousand dollars is not much of a financial incentive to a school with a budget the size of WSU, and the marketing opportunities provided to the host school have been diminished.

“Here is a postseason NCAA Tournament and people just took for granted that it was occurring and figured that Gonzaga was hosting it, and they weren’t,” Moos said. “I’ve been around a long time and back in the early days of my tenure as an athletic director, the school logo was on the court in a prominent position and also on the scorer’s bench. And the words ‘Hosted by Washington State University.’ That was probably moved because of some marketing agreements, and so forth. But that was a piece of it.”

Moos said the Cougars will only bid to host the regional rounds (the Sweet 16) for both the men and women in Spokane. But Spokane Arena would be a small venue for a regional by the NCAA’s current standards for men.

When Gonzaga played in the 2015 South Regional, for example, it was played in NRG Stadium, an NFL venue that last year served as the site of the Final Four.

The 2016 tournament games played in Spokane drew a little more than 11,000 fans per day, which was on the low end of the second- and third-round sites. Des Moines, Iowa, and Raleigh, North Carolina, each drew about 16,000 fans per day, while Denver drew more than 19,000.

Of the regional sites, Anaheim had the smallest attendance at about 16,000 fans, while both Chicago and Philadelphia topped 20,000.

While the Big Sky, Pac-12 or West Coast Conference could theoretically host games in Spokane, none are headquartered close enough to make this feasible. So it is incumbent on UI to host if the men’s tournament is going to come to Spokane.

The Vandals hosted for the first time in 2016, and it was a challenge.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s a very labor-intensive tournament,” said Eric Sawyer, the CEO of the Spokane Sports Commission. “It’s tough on a university to host because of the staffing. The trend lines are we’re seeing more and more event management come out of the communities and arenas because it’s so hard to staff these events.”

To compensate, the regional rivals have become allies during tourney time. When UI hosted in 2016, staffers and student volunteers from the other regional schools came to Spokane to help out.

For their trouble, they got hotel rooms and a chance to experience March Madness up close.

“It’s really a team effort, and it’s nice to know other schools are willing to help out and support,” Spear said. “Being part of an NCAA Tournament experience is a rewarding thing for your employees. And for a lot of the student help that we took up there, that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to get exposure to working for and being part of an NCAA Tournament.”

Having all those experienced hands available gives Spokane an advantage as well. The women’s regional tournament (the Sweet 16) came to Spokane two years ago because Sacramento, California, dropped the ball after winning the bid to be a host city. The tournament came here because of the NCAA’s confidence that Spokane and Washington State could be ready with less than a year to prep.

“There is a formal process,” Sawyer said. “But in some ways, we kind of have a standing bid.”

The Spokane Sports Commission estimates that hosting the tournament brings about 15,000 visitors to Spokane and has a positive economic impact of roughly $4.5 million on the city. And who doesn’t like seeing all those picturesque shots of Spokane Falls and downtown when the TV broadcast cuts to and returns from commercial breaks?

“It has a great tourism impact,” Sawyer said. “But I think we can never underestimate or undervalue the national exposure that it brings to Spokane. You’re seeing about 15 hours of national broadcast from Spokane, and that’s pretty significant public relations for our city.”

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