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Wallflowers No More 

byHowie Stalwick

It's standard policy in college basketball for the host team of a tournament to set up a schedule that virtually guarantees victory for the host. So what does it say about the morbid state of Washington State basketball that the Cougars aren't even entered in the tournament that they're hosting?

Actually, the Cougars deserve credit for finding a way to crash the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament after yet another nightmarish season. The NCAA requires that an area school serve an active role as host of any national championship event, and the WSU athletic department has been integrally involved in bringing this week's first- and second-round games to the Spokane Arena.

The first NCAA men's tournament games ever held in Spokane will pump an estimated $4.2 million into local cash registers. That sum will likely be dwarfed by the long-range benefits resulting from so many tournament guests returning to the Inland Northwest in the future, and from future visits by a portion of the millions of television viewers who are expected to watch the games all across the nation.

"What a great opportunity for Spokane to shine in front of the national media," says Amy Brown, assistant general manager of the Spokane Arena.

"This is about the highest-profile event we've ever done -- certainly in terms of national television coverage," adds Kevin Twohig, general manager of the eight-year-old Arena.

Spokane landed the NCAA men's tournament after two earlier failures during the Arena's infancy.

"We made our first bid before the building even opened," Twohig says. "[NCAA officials said], 'Look, we don't give bids to any building that's not open.' Then we bid right after the building opened. They looked at us and said, 'We don't feel you're ready yet.'"

The Arena, WSU and the Spokane Regional Sports Commission won over the NCAA by setting attendance records with sellout crowds at the women's volleyball Final Four in 1997. The NCAA awarded the men's tournament games to Spokane in December 1998, and Spokane warmed to the task -- and prepared for this week's event -- by selling out the NCAA women's basketball regional games in 2001.

Now comes the Official, Really, Truly Big Event. All 12,000 tickets, priced at a lofty $165 (good for all games both days), are long gone. It is an exciting and frightening time for all those involved in putting on such a major spectacle on the national sports scene.

"It's getting closer and closer, and I'm getting a little more nervous," says John David Wicker, director of event and facility operations for WSU.

Part of the reason for ragged nerves is the NCAA's demand for perfection.

"They have some interesting rules and regulations," Brown says with a laugh. "Everything they do is based on a reason."

"This is the crown jewel for the NCAA," Wicker points out. "And they treat it as such."

Twohig says the NCAA Host Operations Manual "is about three inches thick." Interestingly, it has no page numbers, just hundreds and hundreds of rules with lots of numbers, periods and whatnot.

"I'd say it's 400 pages," Brown adds.

The manual covers everything from ticket prices to rim testing to souvenir shops to video boards to concessions to logos (the WSU cougar will be prominently displayed on the floor and the officials' table).

"It's very regulated -- very well laid out," Brown says. "I appreciate working with people with high expectations."

Wicker knows about all high expectations, having worked at the 1996 Olympics soccer venue in Athens, Ga.

"That one makes this one look easy," Wicker says.

Still, the arrival of the NCAA men's basketball games in Spokane, almost a decade in the making, has required yet two years of more detailed work. The Arena and WSU will both profit directly and indirectly -- Wicker estimates WSU's net revenue may total $200,000. Twowig is already making plans to bid next fall for more NCAA men's basketball, women's basketball or women's volleyball.

"It's good for the Spokane economy. It's good for the Spokane Arena," Wicker says. "And if we do a good job, hopefully we'll host again."

Publication date: 03/20/03

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