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Go West, young lady 

by Tony C. Duarte


Round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows. Well, nobody except the NCAA, anyway.


Two years ago, when Kevin Twohig, general manager of the Spokane Arena, helped to submit the Arena's bid to host the 2001 NCAA Women's Basketball West Regional, he truly didn't know what to expect. An earlier bid had already been rejected, and if he was to go by how the NCAA awarded the men's sites -- where some locations have been selected time and time again despite the NCAA's supposed desire to spread the wealth -- well, that wasn't going to help either. The only ace he was packing up his sleeve was how the Arena performed in its previous role as hostest with the mostest in entertaining the 1997 NCAA Division I Volleyball Championships -- they sold out that event and set a new attendance record.


"I don't think there's any question that if we hadn't been successful with the volleyball event, we wouldn't be doing this right now," says Twohig. "Even though volleyball and women's basketball are handled completely separately by different staffs of people at the NCAA, it is very much a relationship-driven environment. They knew we put forth a good effort for them in the volleyball event."


Still, there was something missing -- a relationship with a large university. The first time around with women's hoop, the Arena attempted the trick with the logical geographical choice -- Gonzaga -- as the host university and was rejected. The second time around, the Arena tried it with WSU as the host and -- voila! -- start printing up the tickets!


"It's an amazing amount of work and details for an NCAA event, and you have to have a certain size athletic department staff to pull that kind of thing off," explains Twohig. "This is not a criticism of Gonzaga, but they're a much smaller institution with a much smaller athletic department staff."


Twohig is happy with the Arena's relationship with WSU, and so far it has paid dividends past the $1.3 million of economic impact on Spokane projected for this weekend's event.


"We need a good, strong relationship with a university, and that is our relationship with WSU," says Twohig. "[WSU Associate Athletic Director] Marcia Saneholtz, in particular, has been a very, very strong supporter of doing events at the Arena -- and a strong voice at the NCAA that has helped us get both the volleyball and women's basketball events."


Still, even with a successful, record-setting volleyball tourney and a close association with a major university in its pocket, there remains a hefty amount of pressure for the 11,500-capacity Arena to succeed. Not just succeed, but succeed on a level that allows Twohig, Saneholtz and WSU to pursue future NCAA events for Spokane. Everybody involved would be plenty happy if the name "Spokane" became a word association answer with "major NCAA event site." But Spokane has to put up or shut up for that to happen, and so far, it has been putting up some nice numbers for Twohig to take out and flaunt around.


After the Washington Huskies won their way into the tournament on Sunday, the nervousness evaporated as tickets began to sell quickly. While Twohig had been hoping to sell 8,000 ticket packages -- enough to set a new national attendance record for the event -- by press time Tuesday, nearly 9,000 packages had been sold.


"We always go into events hoping to sell them out," says Twohig, "but I don't think anybody realistically thought that was the expectation for this event, so we built the budget to where everybody would be successful at the 8,000 ticket packages sold-mark and submitted it that way." Twohig adds that setting a new attendance record can only enhance Spokane and the Arena in the eyes of the NCAA.


Spokane's desire to pursue and produce NCAA events is similar to what cities bidding for the Olympics go through -- presumably without the bribes to foreign dignitaries. But, says Twohig, it's a different ball of wax when it's the women's event, as opposed to the men's event the Arena will be hosting in 2003.


"The men's event -- it's not a slam dunk, but your effort to sell tickets is minimized drastically," says Twohig. "We expect to sell it out the day we put it on sale."

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