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‘That arena is going to sell out’: Commission projects multimillion tourism impact for Spokane out of women’s NCAA Tournament regionals

A basketball court is laid out inside the Spokane Arena on March 21, 2018, ahead of the women’s NCAA Tournament regional round.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A basketball court is laid out inside the Spokane Arena on March 21, 2018, ahead of the women’s NCAA Tournament regional round. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

With the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena set to host a series of Elite Eight and Sweet 16 matchups in the women’s NCAA Tournament this March, the resulting tourism spending to the Spokane region could bring in an estimated $4.4 million.

That’s according to Eric Sawyer, CEO of the Spokane Sports Commission, who said the figure is based not only on studies of current tourist spending habits, but also historical data from when Spokane has hosted past tournament games.

“We’re confident of that, but COVID could impact that,” he said. “It’s based on how much will COVID impact travel for the tournament for the fans that want to come to see their teams play in the NCAA regional tournament.”

The Spokane Arena is hosting two Sweet 16 games and an Elite Eight matchup March 25 and 27.

Between the visiting fans, team personnel and officials, the Spokane Sports Commission is expecting visitors to spend around $260 per day on average over the course of the three-game series. Much of that is on hotels, he said, with other spending through restaurants, retail and rental vehicles.

“Everything collapsed during COVID. The fastest segment that’s rebounding during COVID is sports,” he said, drawing comparisons to other tourism travel categories, such as leisure and convention-related. “As a group, sports travel is really come back with a vengeance.

“We know that that arena is going to sell out. I’d put money on it,” he added, “as long as we’re not impacted by COVID.”

And while it’s not as easily quantifiable, the national exposure given to Spokane through the tournament is of equal or greater importance, he added.

“It’ll probably generate somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10 to 15 hours of cable network coverage,” Sawyer said. “There’s a public relations value that the media brings when we host an NCAA Tournament that we, as a community, could never afford to purchase.”

The Spokane Arena has hosted NCAA Tournament rounds in the past for both men’s and women’s squads.

That would have included first- and second-round games for the men’s 2020 tournament, while Gonzaga University was likely to host games for the women’s tournament. Those tournaments were canceled due to coronavirus, however, resulting in an estimated $20 million hit to the Spokane economy, according to the Spokane Sports Commission.

The Spokane Arena is set to do so again on the men’s side for the first and second rounds of the 2024 tournament as well as another series of women’s regional games in 2025.

Representatives for the Spokane Public Facilities District, which manages the Spokane Arena, did not immediately return a request for comment.

The University of Idaho will serve as the host school for the upcoming games at the Spokane Arena. The nonprofit Spokane Sports Commission, whose mission is to foster and facilitate regional sports events, represents the Public Facilities District in marketing and bidding for sports events.

“The sports market, as a travel component, is really taking off,” Sawyer said. “We just want to keep that momentum and hope that this current COVID spike isn’t going to send us back to 2020.”

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