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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Why did Utah women’s basketball have to stay in Idaho for the Spokane NCAA games? Questions swirl after team’s racial harassment in Coeur d’Alene

The Grand Hotel, near the Spokane Convention Center, along with the Millennium Hotel across the river, are major housing locations for the sporting events in the Spokane Arena, the Podium and other sports venues.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

There are 7,058 hotel rooms in 49 hotels in Spokane County, according to Cherie Gwinn, senior director of events for Spokane Sports.

But because of a crush of events in the area last weekend, three college women’s basketball teams stayed at hotels in Kootenai County, including two at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

The University of Utah players staying there endured racial harassment as they were walking to dinner over the weekend, spurring questions about why the team had to stay across the Idaho border in the first place.

Spokane Sports, the economic development organization responsible for booking and managing the many events in town, said Tuesday that Spokane had already reached its limit – before the women’s teams were chosen to play in Spokane.

From Friday to Monday, the Lilac City hosted the first and second rounds of both the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, a Spokane Velocity soccer game and the Pacific Northwest Qualifier volleyball tournament with some 800 teams competing.

Ashley Blake, CEO of Spokane Sports, said she was not permitted to share the hotels where the women’s teams stayed, but said they stayed in Idaho due to the limited hotel vacancy and the short notice to find rooms.

Spokane was awarded the opportunity to host the men’s NCAA Tournament games some four years ago as part of a bidding process, she said.

But the women’s tournament is different.

Instead, the first and second rounds of the women’s tournament are awarded to the highest-seeded team, announced less than a week before the competition. And because the Gonzaga University women’s team earned the No. 4 seed, it was given the opportunity to host the game at the McCarthey Athletic Center over the fifth-seed University of Utah.

Spokane Sports, along with other organizations, was given just days to book dozens of rooms that each team typically requires, Blake said.

“We simply didn’t have the lead time as we did for the men’s games,” she said.

The women’s teams were able to be relocated to Spokane Friday after two men’s teams had left for home following a loss in the first round that day.

“We were the only host city for both men’s and women’s games, I believe,” she said. “So we were able to find room for the women’s teams in Spokane where the men’s teams had stayed.”

Next year, Spokane will host the third and fourth round of the women’s tournament. Blake said because the later rounds are awarded years in advance like the entirety of the men’s tournament, rooms are already secured for the teams and their associated personnel to stay in Spokane.

But whether the beginning rounds will be hosted in Spokane is determined by the seed the Gonzaga team earns. As the Pacific Northwest Qualifier volleyball tournament continues to grow, there is still potential that teams would be assigned hotel rooms in Coeur d’Alene.

The hotel crunch has led Paul Christiansen, director of sports for the Public Facilities District, which owns and operates the host sporting venues, to question how much longer Spokane can host NCAA games, according to previous Spokesman-Review reports.

This is in part because the girls volleyball tournament generates much more revenue than the NCAA games, he said.

Visit Spokane estimated earlier this month that the men’s NCAA Tournament games generated around $2.5 million of revenue.

But the Pacific Northwest Qualifier, also referred to as the “PNQ,” generated an estimated $44 million. Restricted by hotel rooms, Christiansen said the city may not be big enough for both tournaments.

“It’s proven that PNQ is the largest room-night contributor in Spokane all year … It’s incredible,” he said. “We’re limited by hotel rooms, and we’re going to favor (the Pacific Northwest Qualifier) because it’s been here forever.”

Blake noted the importance of the volleyball qualifier but also acknowledged the power of the NCAA Tournament.

“The PNQ is a staple, and its popularity is certainly continuing to grow,” she said. “But for Gonzaga, it is an incredible achievement to host. To turn away that opportunity would be challenging.”

Blake remains optimistic Gonzaga and Spokane can continue to host NCAA games if they earn the opportunity. But for now, she and the groups that work together to put on the events, like the municipalities of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, Greater Spokane Incorporated, Visit Spokane and the Downtown Spokane Partnership, are thinking about the University of Utah’s women’s basketball team.

“We’re hyperfocused on the current situation and to have justice brought so the team is felt at peace,” she said. “So many entities come together for these events, and we all see the value of this megaweekend in sports. Some incidents were outside of our scope of influence, and we are saddened by them.”

As for the future, the racist harassment of this weekend could bring about a positive change, she said.

“We take full responsibility in providing a safe and secure experience for everyone who comes to our city for these events,” she said. “We condemn all forms of hatred, but the incidents this weekend can be a guiding light to help our region put our best foot forward.”