There’s only one “perfect” weekend for Hoopfest, and it’s not in August.
But like other event organizers, the men and women behind Hoopfest are learning to plan for the unpredictable.
And come Aug. 22, there’s hope that the city’s streets will again be lined with 3-point arcs and echoing with the sound of dribbling basketballs for the world’s largest 3-on-3 hoops tournament.
Locally and across the world, event organizers are rapidly shifting their plans amid a changing landscape of social distancing measures, pandemic projections and a stalled economy.
“Our foot’s on the gas pedal as we plan for it, but so many things that are typically known now become unknowns,” said Matt Santangelo, executive director of Hoopfest.
With a new date, it’s uncertain how many teams will sign up to participate, how many volunteers will still step forward or what sponsors still will be available and offer support for the event.
“It feels like you’re re-creating the wheel,” Santangelo said.
The organizers of Bloomsday have faced similar challenges. In the event’s 44-year history, nobody has prepared to change the date of the 12-kilometer road race, which is held on the first Sunday of every May, Bloomsday President Mark Starr said.
Moving the annual event, which draws about 40,000 runners, to Sept. 20 affects volunteers, nearby neighborhoods, businesses and more.
“It’s like dominoes. You can’t touch any one thing without it affecting so many others,” Starr said. “I don’t know if we can just move that dance to September without having some hiccups along the way.”
Event planners are faced with racing to meet new deadlines, potentially only to have their events pushed back again if social distancing orders are extended or a second wave of the virus hits.
Hoopfest is just one of several events, large and small, delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the strict social distancing measures enacted to stymie it. If all of these events go on as planned – which is far from a certainty – it makes for a tremendously busy late summer and fall in Spokane.
Imagine an August Hoopfest. The same weekend, native tribes will gather in Riverfront Park for the Gathering at the Falls Powwow.
Pig Out in the Park, which draws thousands of hungry visitors into Riverfront Park, is slated for Sept. 2 through Sept. 7. On Sept. 12, Washington State University is scheduled to have its first home football game, and Spokefest is planned for the following day. The following weekend, WSU holds another game on Saturday, with Bloomsday scheduled for Sunday.
Planning for the unknown
When thousands of Bloomsday runners descend on Spokane, it reverberates through the city, including in neighborhoods like Browne’s Addition and West Central and facilities like the Spokane Convention Center. Organizers have to work with first responders, who staff the event.
“When we postpone an event, we have to make sure that works for these people, too,” Starr said.
Negative Split, which hosts multiple running events every year, had to reschedule three of its competitive races in the Spokane area – the Negative Split Half Marathon, the Coeur d’Alene Marathon and the Windermere Marathon.
The Coeur d’Alene Marathon, now slated for Aug. 23, was projected to be its largest event of the year, with about 2,500 racers and throngs of spectators. There are myriad factors Negative Split had to consider in rescheduling its races – all the way down to ensuring its photographer can shoot pictures on the new dates.
For its Negative Split Half Marathon in Spokane, the company had eyed Sept. 20 as a backup, but Bloomsday settled on that date.
“All events are trying to work with each other and work with the city to try to figure out the best solution,” Negative Split owner Ryan Hite said. “Nobody is in a perfect-world situation. We’re all just trying to play nice.”
Hoopfest, not taking anything for granted amid a pandemic, is planning for every variable. Organizers are preparing for a dip in participation this year, but what if confidence in public health rebounds and 10,000 teams sign up, desperate for an excuse to get outside?
“We’re simultaneously planning A, B, C and D – on through the alphabet – so we can be as nimble and flexible as we need to be to survive,” Santangelo said.
Of those who already were registered for Hoopfest before the event was rescheduled, 90% have opted to maintain that registration for August. The remaining 10%, Santangelo said, have mostly cited scheduling conflicts.
“We haven’t got a big backlash,” Santangelo said.
More than 400 teams are registered. With two additional months to plan, Santangelo is hoping it will see robust participation.
“In some ways, we’re kind of ahead of the curve,” he said.
If Hoopfest can’t hold its 2020 event at all, it would need help, that much is certain. It likely would lean on corporations and sponsors, whose support is usually returned in the form of banners and brand visibility throughout the event, for direct support. It would also would likely have to ask the public at large for help.
“We’re going to need those resources now more than ever,” Santangelo said.
It also would be a financial challenge for Bloomsday to cancel, which already charges a deeply discounted registration fee compared to similar races elsewhere in the country and operates on a shoestring budget, Starr said.
In addition to hosting its races, Negative Split also times other races. That side of its business has lost about $100,000 in contracts already. If it were to cancel the three events it has rescheduled, the company would lose about $300,000 more.
Organizers are hopeful that their events won’t have to be canceled, but nothing is guaranteed. In Germany, the annual Oktoberfest celebration, which runs from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4, already has been canceled.
For now, Washington is under a stay-at-home order until at least May 4. But it’s unclear what the future holds. This week, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans the next wave of the virus could be deadlier than the first and hit next flu season.
Social distancing would be nearly impossible for Bloomsday, with its thousands of runners pouring through Spokane. Starting its participants 6 feet apart might stretch them across the Idaho border. But Starr remains optimistic, and said, “We can always find a way to make something work.”
Adapting to social distancing guidelines would be difficult among basketball players, just due to the nature of the game. But Hoopfest already is looking at ways it could space courts farther apart and create more open spaces within the event.
It does have the innate advantage of being outdoors, however.
“Those are things that we’re exploring as guidelines become clearer,” Santangelo said.
Negative Split says the game plan for its events could change from what it was in the spring.
Anticipating potential drastic changes in social distancing requirements, it’s considering equipping runners with masks and launching races at staggered times to avoid the bunch-up at the starting line.
“All of that is just conversation, because we don’t know,” Hite said. “We’re trying to have a lot of contingency plans.”
Hite has found positives in the precarious situation. Negative Split is considering new options and services for its runners, like livestreaming the finish line to help reduce crowd sizes.
“It’s forced us to maybe pivot and scramble in ways we maybe didn’t think about before,” Hite said.
With other major events canceled, Santangelo sees opportunity. Sponsors like Pepsi and Nike could place more focus on Hoopfest, he said. With the NBA schedule unclear, Hoopfest is hopeful it can find ways to bring athletes and celebrities into Spokane.
Ice Cube recently rescheduled his concert at Northern Quest Resort & Casino to the same weekend as Hoopfest.
“He’s Ice Cube,” Santangelo said. “Is there an opportunity there? We’ve reached out to his camp. There’s a ton of variables and uncertainty, but there’s some positives to all of this.”
Starr, who owns David’s Pizza, noted that the combined economic impact of Bloomsday and Hoopfest is in the millions of dollars. The city relies on them for tax revenue, and restaurants like his rely on them for business.
Even successful restaurants operate on a razor-thin profit margin, Starr said. David’s Pizza relies on events to drum up business; Hoopfest is his busiest time of year. Having both later this year could be a boon to local business that have struggled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aside from the dollars and cents, the events have immeasurable cultural significance that the pandemic has highlighted more than before.
Bloomsday is “one of the things that brings Spokane together,” Starr said.
“This is good for the community and we look forward to being able to to do that, especially given what we’re going through right now,” he added.
Hoopfest drew participants from 44 states last year, many of whom have a deep connection to the city and treat it like a reunion weekend.
“If you can make it back home to Spokane and you have a choice between Christmas and Hoopfest, you choose Hoopfest, because that’s when you see everybody,” Santangelo said.
That feeling of community might be more important this year than at any point in the event’s 30-plus year history.
“What are we all missing the most? Human connection,” Santangelo said.