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A year removed from cancellation, State B Basketball Tournament projected to have strong economic impact, experts say

Girls teams, on the left, and boys teams play on the second day of the State 2B and 1B basketball tournaments inside the Spokane Arena on Friday. The annual tournaments are being played indoors for the first time in two years.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Girls teams, on the left, and boys teams play on the second day of the State 2B and 1B basketball tournaments inside the Spokane Arena on Friday. The annual tournaments are being played indoors for the first time in two years. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

State 2B and 1B basketball tournaments returned to Spokane this week after last year’s competition was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And if hotel occupancy levels and tourism projections are any indication, it may be back in force.

Occupancy rates for hotels in Spokane County returned to pre-pandemic levels in January, according to the nonprofit tourism group Visit Spokane.

Countywide hotels in January collectively reported a 44.3% occupancy rate, which finished near the 44.9% posted in January 2019. Similarly, the number of people seeking rooms at Spokane County hotels that month was 111,499, exceeding January 2019’s mark of 108,962, according to a Smith Travel Research Rate report prepared by Visit Spokane.

Visit Spokane spokeswoman Kate Hudson said her guess is the rates will stay consistent for February and into early March.

“It’s been a long two years,” Hudson said. “To see (the State B tournaments) back and back in full the way it has always been feels like we’re on a good trajectory. It’s invaluable having these tournaments here in Spokane because they bring in families that are shopping in our stores, eating in our restaurants and staying in our hotels.”

Likewise, Spokane Sports Commission Chief Executive Officer Eric Sawyer estimated the tournament will have a $4.2 million economic impact on the Spokane area.

The Spokane Sports Commission, whose mission is to foster and facilitate regional sports events and represents the Public Facilities District in marketing and bidding for sports events, has based that expectation on the projected daily spending habits of approximately 960 players and coaches, as well as 2,000 visiting fans.

The number puts the State B basketball tournaments in a similar range as to what’s projected for the upcoming Elite Eight and Sweet 16 matchups in the women’s NCAA Tournament that the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena will host later this month – albeit with fewer teams and games than the State Bs.

“The thing about State B is it’s a tradition,” Sawyer said. “It’s a unique tournament in that it’s not just high schools. It’s towns who are competing against each other in small-town America.”

Sawyer has said sports-related travel is one tourism sector that has come back “with a vengeance” as restrictions loosen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Area sports enthusiasts might have seen an example of this rebound last month with the USATF Track and Field Indoor Championships at the Podium. Sawyer and Hudson said the event was sold out over the two days.

“I think it’s partly a reflection of who we’re becoming as a community,” Sawyer said. “Every town says, ‘We’re a sports town.’ But how do you prove that? I think Spokane is becoming a sports town on so many levels, (between) the participation, the fans and the diversity of sports.”

The state’s indoor mask mandate will lift next week. With the loosening restrictions, Hudson said Visit Spokane has seen more inquiries from meeting planners in hosting large-scale conventions and events in the area.

“People can still wear their masks if they are uncomfortable,” she said, “but I think, in the long run, it’s going to be a positive thing to have the mask mandate lifted. I think the perception is that it’s easier to visit when there’s no mask mandate.”

The March 2020 iteration of the State B basketball tournaments was one of the last, if not the last, big events in Spokane before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, Hudson said. Signs calling on fans to wear their masks have populated the Spokane Arena throughout the tournament.

This year marked a return to the tournament scene for Spokane resident Jerry Bussard, a 61-year-old native of Metaline, Washington, who has attended plenty of State Bs since he was a child.

His father, Joe Bussard, had attended all of the State Bs from the tournament’s beginnings in the 1950s up until his death in 2013.

“I would skip school to come to the State B,” Bussard said. “It’s just a small-town feel. Everyone takes care of everyone.”

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